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A Moral Education

Making Children Moral

In the first part of our mini-series on moral education, Michael Hand considers whether schools should be involved in trying to make children moral.

Should schools be in the business of making children moral? I don’t mean: should they help children to think well about morality? It’s obvious they should do that. I mean: should they try to shape children’s intentions, feelings and habits in a way that disposes them to comply with moral standards?

To mark the distinction just drawn, I’ll use the terms ‘moral inquiry’ and ‘moral formation’. Moral inquiry is the rational investigation of the nature, content and justification of morality. Not nearly enough room is made for moral inquiry in most school curricula, but few would deny that it ought to be there. Moral formation, by contrast, is the cultivation in children of moral intentions, feelings and habits – the shaping of moral character. Resistance to the idea that moral formation falls within the remit of schools is familiar enough. But is it justified?

What Schools Are For

One thought sometimes canvassed is that a role for schools in moral formation is ruled out on conceptual grounds. The job of schools is to educate, and education aims at knowledge and understanding. On this view, the outcomes of educational processes are intellectual, not emotional or behavioural. To charge educators with making children moral is to confuse education with socialisation.

This objection carries little weight. For one thing, restricting the content of education to knowledge and understanding is arbitrary. To educate someone is to engage them in a comprehensive programme of learning, and it’s plain that not all learning is intellectual. People learn, and are enabled by others to learn, not just how and what to think, but how and what to want, feel, do and be. For another thing, even if you are wedded to a narrowly intellectual view of education, you can hardly deny that schools do more for children than educate them. Teachers act in loco parentis in all manner of ways. So there is no oddity in the suggestion that they might share responsibility for the socialisation of children.

A related but distinct source of resistance is the thought that schools are unfavourable environments for moral formation. However broadly we construe the concept of education or the scope of schooling in theory, we must recognise that there are in practice significant constraints on the kinds of learning that go on in classrooms. It is one thing to nurture intentions and feelings in the context of family relationships, quite another to do it in the context of educational institutions. Schools and classrooms, it may seem, are too public, too formal and too regulated to be appropriate sites for the baring and shaping of souls. Graham Haydon thinks there is a case “for concentrating on what schools can do best, which is I suspect… to teach things of a broadly cognitive nature” (Teaching About Values: A New Approach, 1997, p.131).

This objection is also unpersuasive. Schools are certainly places of formal instruction, but they are also communities in which friendships are made and unmade, conflicts generated and resolved, achievements celebrated and failures commiserated. They are theatres of cooperation and conflict, coercion and rebellion, kindness and cruelty. Children’s souls are routinely bared and unavoidably shaped by their dealings with each other and with those in authority – in the classroom, the playground, the dining hall and the bike sheds. Far from occupying roles inimical to moral formation, teachers regularly make pastoral and disciplinary interventions of precisely the kind needed to cultivate moral intentions, feelings and habits.

Disagreement About Morality

If there’s a problem with schools trying to make children moral, then, it doesn’t lie in theoretical or practical constraints on the kinds of learning they can facilitate. But perhaps these are not the worries that really animate resistance to the idea of moral formation in schools. The most obvious and most forceful objection is that morality is controversial – not just in the sense that there is deep disagreement about it, but in the sense that the disagreement is perfectly reasonable. Sensible and sincere people armed with similar life experience and acquainted with roughly the same facts come to notably different conclusions about the content and justification of morality.

Reasonable disagreement about morality is no barrier to moral inquiry. Just as most schools teach about religion in an open-ended way, with the aim of equipping children to form their own considered views, so they can teach about morality in that way and with that aim. But it is a formidable barrier to moral formation. If we do not know which moral standards, if any, are justified, how can we decide which standards children should be taught to comply with? And if teachers cannot give children good reasons for subscribing to these standards rather than others, how are they to avoid the charge of indoctrination?

While this is certainly the most serious of the objections to moral formation in schools, I think that it too can be satisfactorily answered. Although it’s true that the moral domain is rife with reasonable disagreement, it’s not true that no moral standards are robustly justified. Reasonable disagreement about morality does not go all the way down. Some basic moral standards to which almost everyone currently subscribes can be argued for decisively. Schools can properly aim to bring it about that children subscribe to these standards, and understand the reasons for doing so, without resorting to anything resembling indoctrination.

The justificatory argument rests on two claims. The first is that all human beings, or at least all human beings living alongside others, are unavoidably confronted with a serious practical problem – what David Copp calls ‘the problem of sociality’ (Philosophical Issues 19, 2009, p.22). The second is that human beings can solve this problem by holding themselves and each other to some basic standards of conduct.

The problem of sociality arises because of three permanent features of the human condition. These features, sometimes described as the ‘circumstances of justice’, are (i) rough equality, (ii) limited sympathy and (iii) moderate scarcity of resources. Many philosophers have discussed these circumstances, including Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, H.L.A. Hart, G.J. Warnock, John Rawls and J.L. Mackie. It is not difficult to see why the combination of these features is a recipe for trouble. Because we are roughly equal in strength and intelligence, we each know that we have a reasonable chance of coming out on top in any physical or strategic conflict, and we are each aware that those around us know the same thing about their chances. Because our sympathy for strangers is limited, in the sense of being notably weaker than self-love and familial love, we are inclined to prioritise the safety and satisfaction of ourselves and our loved ones over the safety and satisfaction of others. And because resources are not abundant enough to satisfy everyone’s needs and wants, we are forced into competition with each other for access to goods in short supply. The clear implication of these circumstances taken together, is that there is a standing propensity to outbreaks of conflict and breakdowns in cooperation in human social groups.

So although we are often motivated directly by sympathy and self-interest to cooperate with and refrain from harming each other, these motives are not sufficient to sustain cooperation and avert conflict. They don’t reliably yield peace and productivity. We need a supplementary kind of motivation for keeping to cooperative agreements and treating each other in non-harmful ways – the kind of motivation that subscription to moral standards can provide. The basic moral standards justified by this argument include prohibitions on killing and causing harm, stealing and extorting, lying and cheating, and requirements to treat others fairly, keep one’s promises, and help those in need. To deal with the danger posed by competition for resources and vulnerability to attack, there must be standards that afford protection to people and their property. And to overcome the distrust that threatens to frustrate our cooperative endeavours, there must be standards that oblige us to be fair, honest, and reliable in our dealings with each other, and to extend each other a helping hand in times of need.

None of this is to deny that a great many moral standards and justificatory arguments are matters of reasonable disagreement. There is much in the moral sphere that should only be tackled in schools through open-ended moral inquiry. But it is to affirm that schools can and should be in the business of making children moral. Cultivating the dispositions to comply with basic moral standards, along with an understanding of what justifies them, is a proper part of any education adequate to the task of preparing children for life.

© Michael Hand 2018

Michael Hand is Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Birmingham. His latest book is A Theory of Moral Education, published by Routledge in 2018.

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