Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Monday, July 9, 2018

Learning from moral failure

Matthew Cashman & Fiery Cushman
In press: Becoming Someone New: Essays on Transformative Experience, Choice, and Change


Pedagogical environments are often designed to minimize the chance of people acting wrongly; surely this is a sensible approach. But could it ever be useful to design pedagogical environments to permit, or even encourage, moral failure? If so, what are the circumstances where moral failure can be beneficial?  What types of moral failure are helpful for learning, and by what mechanisms? We consider the possibility that moral failure can be an especially effective tool in fostering learning. We also consider the obvious costs and potential risks of allowing or fostering moral failure. We conclude by suggesting research directions that would help to establish whether, when and how moral pedagogy might be facilitated by letting students learn from moral failure.



Errors are an important source of learning, and educators often exploit this fact.  Failing helps to tune our sense of balance; Newtonian mechanics sticks better when we witness the failure of our folk physics. We consider the possibility that moral failure may also prompt especially strong or distinctive forms of learning.  First, and with greatest certainty, humans are designed to learn from moral failure through the feeling of guilt.  Second, and more speculatively, humans may be designed to experience moral failures by “testing limits” in a way that ultimately fosters an adaptive moral character.  Third—and highly speculatively—there may be ways to harness learning by moral failure in pedagogical contexts. Minimally, this might occur by imagination, observational learning, or the exploitation of spontaneous wrongful acts as “teachable moments”.

The book chapter is here.