Can you teach people to be heroic – or at least to have courage? This story is so very, very interesting, and all the more so because the guy who wants to teach heroism is the same guy who did “those experiments” at Stanford, replicating prison abuse.

One of the big tenets of Catholic moral theology, in fact, is that people can change, for the worse as well as for the better. I don’t think most people in North America actually believe that, in part because the dominant narratives in psychology and genetics suggest that people are hard wired to be who they are. Rather depressing picture of humanity, really. So it’s nice to see a psychology professor take on a different kind of challenge – to see if people can learn to be heroes.

The one question I have is whether heroism – or let’s use the virtue form of the word, courage – can be taught in classrooms in the way Zimbardo suggests. Maybe partly. But then I think back to my Sunday School classes (to say nothing of ethics courses) and remember all the talk about what to do, when to do it. The answers seemed obvious then, but way less obvious on the ground. So there’s also got to be a lot of practical reasoning involved.

Part of Zimbardo’s method is to get students to reflect on a recent (and horrific) gang rape example, when numerous students stood by and just watched, just conformed to the culture. The students clearly regret what happened. Is remorse, or maybe the kind of terrifying grace of the sort Flannery O’Connor writes about – one way to get people to think practically about what they wish they’d done?

I think there’s a place for that, but ultimately that’s a pretty depressing account of humanity, too – and a fairly deterministic one. Are there ways of helping all of us be better people without necessarily having to go through the school of hard knocks? And can a person really teach ethics? Still questions I ponder as a Catholic moral theologian….