Dramatic Moral Conversions: Do They Exist?

In this blog posting, I will be asking you for your views and stories on a phenomenon that intrigues me: dramatic and sudden (in other words, ‘epiphanic’) moral conversions.

On the road to Damascus, Saul – the rabid persecutor of early Christians – reportedly went through an experience that had a profound effect on his life. A light from heaven flashed around him and he heard a voice imploring him to change his ways (Acts 9.3–7). Motivated by this ‘Damascus experience’, the sinner Saul turned into the apostle Paul through a religious conversion and a radical self-change of moral reform. What I am interested in is only the second of those phenomena, namely epiphanic moral conversions, a topic conspicuously absent from most current agendas in moral philosophy, moral psychology and moral education. If broached at all by academics, such (alleged) conversions tend to meet with scepticism or outright denial.

The lingering scepticism is perhaps not an unreasonable scholarly response. For example, while Aristotle’s and Kohlberg’s theories of moral development and education are often presented as proverbial anti-theses, both suffer from a similar difficulty in accounting for epiphanic moral conversions. Kohlberg’s trajectory of moral development is a slow one, through well-defined stages; and Aristotle is often depicted as an early-years determinist who does not envisage much hope of moral reform for people ‘brought up in bad habits’. Late in life, Kohlberg suggested an additional ‘Stage 7’, of peak moral experiences; and Aristotle’s virtue of ‘contemplation’ does offer some reprieve for intelligent agents who are blessed with good friends who can gradually help them to reform. Yet we are no closer to explaining what happens when amoral/immoral people undergo sudden conversions towards morality, for example in the wake of near-death experiences or other radical ‘Damascus events’.

What we deal with on a daily basis in the Jubilee Centre is research into gradual/incremental moral progress, for example in the wake of character-education interventions in schools. That is obviously the bread and butter of all character development. It seems, however, that many people have also heard of abrupt moral conversions in others or had ‘Damascus experiences’ themselves. When I ask my students every year about such experiences, only a few – but always a few – say they have had a moral conversion, or at least experienced formative events of intense moral enlightening. The challenge is to make sense of those experiences while responding satisfactorily to the academic misgivings.

In the field of education, the topic of epiphanic moral conversions is sometimes brought up in connection with a popular, if somewhat cliché-ridden, theme of a charismatic teacher who successfully challenges students to reform. Recall, for example, Jaime Escalante in the film Stand and Deliver, John Keating in Dead Poets Society or Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Some ‘charismatic’ teachers may be accused of a degree of superficiality, and the self-change they bring about in students may, similarly, turn out to be short-lived and superficial. Be that as it may, Escalante, Keating and Brodie all seem to turn their students’ self-conceptions upside down in ways that are morally relevant.

The closest I have come myself to a moral conversion is when, as a first-year undergraduate, I got to know a German PhD student in theology who was suffering from terminal cancer. Accepting his predicament with incredible equanimity, he decided to spend his last months engrossing himself in what he liked most, philosophy and theology, and working on the thesis he knew he would not complete – never apparently complaining or despairing. Since this experience, I feel I appreciate life much more and have a markedly reduced tendency to fuss about trifles. This ‘conversion’ shares many of the characteristics of an epiphanic conversion, but it did not originate in a single ‘Damascus event’, and although it happened over days rather than months or years, it may be moot whether to call it ‘gradual’ or ‘abrupt’.

Fascinating questions abound: Do sudden moral conversions exist? How frequent are they? What triggers them? How can they fit into a plausible account of moral development? Is there a difference between conversions in childhood and adulthood? Are conversions reversible? – and so forth.

I want to hear from you whether you have had a moral-conversion experience yourselves. If yes, what triggered it: a charismatic teacher, a perspective-changing life event – or something else? Or are we just kidding ourselves when we feel we have changed morally in a flash?

Prof. Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre

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