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Philosophising About Moral Education

Graham Haydon thinks about what it is to think about moral education.

If we could categorise and quantify all the thinking devoted to education, we would find that the great majority takes for granted certain assumptions about the goals of educational policy and the means by which they are to be achieved. But it is part of the role of the academic study of education, and of the philosophy of education above all, to reflect critically on a society’s understanding of the nature of education, its aims, and its underlying values. In doing this, philosophers looking at education necessarily draw on other fields of philosophy. Is education to be seen as shaping the future citizens of a democracy? Then we need political philosophy if we are to understand what we are doing. Do we assume that education is about transmitting knowledge? Epistemology will help clarify this aim, while philosophy of mind will call into question the idea that, once we have fixed our aim, achieving it is merely a matter of devising efficient means. Or, borrowing from ancient traditions, suppose we think education is fundamentally about promoting human goodness. Then we certainly need ethics and moral philosophy.

But if thinking about moral education has to draw on moral philosophy, it is also true, though perhaps less obvious, that moral philosophy needs to think about moral education.

The Rationalistic Turn

I first encountered philosophy of education at the time when philosophers from the analytic tradition were establishing a distinctive approach to it, under the influence of Israel Scheffler in the USA and Richard Peters in the UK, among others. Moral philosophy was also then dominated by an analytic approach, focusing on the question ‘How can reason show us what we should do?’ The answers divided largely into Utilitarian or Kantian strands, seen as the major competing theories. It only gradually became clear that these rival strands shared an important common thread: the idea that a moral life has a certain kind of rational basis, namely, that there is one fundamental principle of morality (the Utilitarian principle, or the categorical imperative), and that this principle properly understood will enable people to work out for themselves what they ought to do in any of the moral situations life will throw at them from time to time.

That is of course something of an oversimplification – just the kind of oversimplification that was taken up and applied in some of the early analytic work on moral education. If Kantianism was the right theory, then we should be bringing children up as Kantians; if Utilitarianism, then we should bring them up as Utilitarians; and so on for contractarian or any other theories. It only gradually emerged that there were many weaknesses in such a broad-brush approach, some more readily apparent than others. But before we get to the deeper issues, we can itemise some particular problems and errors – still with a degree of artificial separation, and not exhaustively.

First, then, the analytic approach assumed – at times without much argument – that morality was fundamentally a rational matter. The insight of Hume (and indeed Aristotle before him) that reason by itself is inert was neglected. As a result there was a neglect too of the possibility that any feelings and desires might actually be supportive of moral agency rather than getting in the way of it, as Kant tended to think.

Second, the analytic approach assumed moral appraisal was fundamentally about the rights and wrongs of particular actions.

Third, a particular model of moral thinking was assumed: that once the underlying principle of morality was in place, all the moral thinker had to do was apply this principle consistently to the particular circumstances.

Fourth, with the assumption that morality was a matter of thinking about the rights and wrongs of actions went the assumption that such thinking was for particular occasions only. If people could think their way to doing the right thing when the occasion demanded, then the rest of the time they didn’t need to engage in moral thinking. Since morality on this view was essentially a matter of moral thinking, the question of whether the thinkers were moral persons in any more holistic sense did not arise. Therefore this approach to moral education took almost no interest in the development of moral character.

The Turn Towards Virtues

This list has not yet brought us to the deepest problems with the rationalistic approach to moral education. But taking stock, we can see how some of these weaknesses were offset by ongoing developments within mainstream moral philosophy. Most significant was the rise of virtue ethics. Moral philosophers began – again – to look at the role of feeling and motivation. While an analytic ethics might incorporate a principle of beneficence – doing good to others, whatever your feelings – the virtue of benevolence involved much more. The benevolent person is distinguished by certain underlying capacities and dispositions. She is aware of the distress of others; she is pained by it; she is motivated to help; and in all these respects she is consistent over time.

Influenced by virtue ethics, many philosophers of education began to look not at how the capacities for reasoning were to be developed, but at how virtues were to be developed. This was a move in the right direction in taking a more holistic view of the person. But latent in this turn towards virtue ethics was another factor that had the potential to correct a fifth weakness of the rationalistic approach: its concentration on the individual as the locus of moral thinking and the object of moral appraisal.

This focus is of course consistent with the four weaknesses already mentioned; for if morality is a matter of holding to principles and knowing how to apply them, it is naturally assumed that it is individuals who have to do the relevant thinking. To look instead at the development of virtues is not in itself to move away from this focus on the individual; it is only to broaden the scope of the capacities and dispositions that are to be developed.

The Next Turn: Towards The Ethical Environment

But an equally significant change emerges when we ask how virtues are to be developed. There is no easy answer to this question; but one thing that all plausible answers have in common from Aristotle onwards, is that a person is unlikely to develop virtues unless she is brought up in an environment in which the virtues are recognised and practised. While moral reasoning, like mathematical reasoning, might conceivably be developed in one individual even though most of the people around her aren’t very good at it, there is little chance of virtues being developed in an individual if she isn’t exposed to others who display those virtues to a significant degree; and not just to others individually, but to a cultural environment in which the virtues are recognised and valued.

In recent years many philosophers writing on moral education have acknowledged this to the extent that they emphasise the importance of the ethos of schools. But I would argue that there are two points to which philosophers have not yet given enough attention. The first is that the influence of the surrounding ethical environment on the individual does not stop at some cut-off point where we can say that their moral education is complete. It is a rare person whose path through life is not influenced by the surrounding culture, by what other people do and say, by what is conventional and what is fashionable, not just in overt conduct, but in feelings, desires, aspirations. If the aim of moral education is to develop in individuals virtues that will make them proof against such influences, then the aim will be not just unrealistic but paradoxical (because it will be aiming, through the influence of the surrounding environment, to develop an immunity to the surrounding environment).

The second point which philosophers have largely neglected is that schools are only one part, and by no means the dominant part, of the ethical environment in which young people grow up. For almost all infants, their initial environment is their home and family, whatever form that takes. Later they will go to school as well, but both of these environments will be penetrated to a lesser or greater extent by the surrounding culture of modern life, with all the familiar and cross-cutting currents we label with so many ‘isms’ – materialism, commercialism, secularism, fundamentalism, nationalism, internationalism, and the like. Schools may try to find some balance between preparing children to live in that heterogenous culture and encouraging them to be critical of it, but they cannot isolate them from it.

So the development of the capacity to think rationally about moral questions is just one strand within a much richer fabric that we could in a broader sense call ‘moral education’. The question of whether we can find an underlying rational basis for our moral thinking needs to be kept alive, and there is nothing wrong with some philosophers continuing to focus on that. But if philosophy of education recognises the influence of the surrounding culture on the kinds of people that children become, then it needs to bring the resources of moral philosophy to bear on the evaluation of contemporary culture.

Multiple Interactions

Philosophical thinking about moral education, then, can fruitfully interact with its intellectual neighbours in several ways.

First, there can and should be interaction between philosophy of education and other disciplines, including sociology and psychology, which study the surrounding culture and the influence of that culture on growing individuals.

Second, there is the interaction already mentioned between philosophical thinking about moral education and moral philosophy in general. We can see now that this interaction should not be in one direction only. Though some modern strands of moral philosophy seem to utterly disregard education and the development of the individual, they were not ignored by Plato or Aristotle, or by Kant and Mill. It was a welcome development towards the end of the Twentieth Century when philosophers as diverse as Annette Baier,Richard Hare, Alasdair MacIntyre, the educational philosopher Nel Noddings and the political philosopher John Rawls recognised that a complete moral philosophy must incorporate a plausible account of how humans develop as ethical beings.

Third, there is the interaction between different but overlapping areas within philosophy itself. I said at the beginning that in considering a range of possible aims of education we need to draw on a variety of strands of philosophy. In following up just one subset of such aims – those that can be brought under the umbrella of ‘moral education’ – I have focused on interaction with moral philosophy. But philosophical thinking about moral education needs other areas of philosophy too. If we are to look at how contemporary societies impinge on the values to which individuals commit themselves or which they take for granted, then we need political philosophy’s examination of values such as freedom and justice in a context of democracy, pluralism and multiculturalism. If we are to critique the assumptions built into contemporary culture, and if we are to get beyond the cruder versions of a fact/value distinction which can go with cruder versions of value relativism, and recognise how an evaluative stance can enter not just into the decisions made by rational agents, but into people’s understanding and interpretation of the world, we need insights from epistemology and philosophy of mind.

Like philosophy itself, the philosophy of education is multifaceted. No one person can cover everything, and even if they could, a diversity of voices is better. At this point, then, I make way for my colleagues.

© Graham Haydon 2007

Graham Haydon is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His book Education, Philosophy and the Ethical Environment was published in 2006.

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