welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Playing Nice and Teaching Good

Carolyn Suchy-Dicey considers the dilemma of teaching moral autonomy.

Last night while working for a wedding, a girl I will call Sarah seemed her normal, bubbly self. She was given a simple task, one we do for every event, but had some difficulties performing it properly. Her response was to yell, blame, shove, and walk off in a huff. Needless to say, the decorum usually required in the hospitality industry was shattered, her coworkers bemused, and she was left embarrassed and bitter.

A week ago on a road trip, a driver I will call Charlie was quiet and subdued for most of the journey. But when the signs on tollway booths began to get complicated, he inexplicably exploded, screaming hurtful things at the navigator, making everyone in the car uncomfortable and anxious. It was hours before the situation was calm enough to resume conversation.

These two examples illustrate the harmful and destructive behavior that can be part of everyday life. Often the focus of moral discussion is on the ‘big issues’, but the overlooked episodes of our day-to-day living are also worthy of attention. In the scenarios given, Sarah and Charlie seem to have neglected their personal moral development. The moral development of a person, however, takes more than just introspection and good will. As a child grows, many influences have the capacity to help them develop virtuously. Parents, friends, peers, teachers, religious and spiritual leaders, politicians and role models, all contribute to the moral education of a child. If one of these key components is lacking, the child’s social and behavioral development is at stake. It is surprising, then, that morality is not even addressed in most schools in the United States.

One reason that school districts may have ignored moral development has to do with the revival and transformation of the social conscience in the 20th century. If I use the word ‘moral’ around certain groups of people, I am sure to hear a negative response about dogmatic and imperialist belief-systems. However, when Aristotle wrote about moral education, his definition included the education of good behavior. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the development of a virtuous person as a progressive learning of both virtues of character and virtues of thought. A virtuous person must first learn the habits of virtue, and then learn to think virtuously. Aristotle’s reasoning is that the rational principles of virtue are beyond the understanding of those who either have not learnt to act virtuously or lack the innate ability to act virtuously (ie sociopaths).

Sarah and Charlie are clearly missing a step. It is not their anger which shows their lack of virtue – Aristotle advocates the use of anger in the right situations – but that their anger is so dangerously uncontrolled. Simple methods may be taken to avoid this catastrophe of behavior in children. In one school I’ve worked in, the director of the after-school program used the ‘star system’. Although any system of reward would work as well, she had an index card for each student which would be affixed with stars for each good, selfless behavior she or another student witnessed. For instance, when a preschooler on the playground fell and hurt his knee, and an older child comforted the boy and offered to get some ice, the older child was awarded a star. At the end of the year, the children were awarded prizes for their stars. The punishment aspect of the star system includes strikes. For bad behavior, such as a child hitting another child, the offender may be given a strike. Only three made a child ineligible to receive stars or prizes altogether. Thus, pleasure and pain (of a sort) refashion the children’s behavior so that they are better able to act virtuously. The morality critics I mentioned would attack this approach as akin to indoctrination. Perhaps, though, it is impossible to raise moral beings without some sort of ‘indoctrination’.

Aristotle’s method brings to mind another area of philosophy covered in Philosophy Now a while back (43). Pragmatism includes an idea of William James’ that one must have the ‘will to believe’ in order to believe. This is the psychological observation that humans are not entirely passive receivers of information, but that we must take a step toward truth to obtain it. An example may be found in perception. If I look around a room, I may not see the red pencil on the dresser unless I am already looking for it. The pencil is not presented to my awareness: I have to direct my eyes to it. Likewise, in his example James argues that one must first open oneself up to the idea that there could be a God before one is able to believe in God.

This fits in with the views of Aristotle if we say that morality is something that requires a certain predisposition for understanding it. Before we can fully accept the logic of moral behavior, perhaps we need to be able to appreciate this type of action on a personal level. We can tell Sarah that she really mustn’t hurt others because she must “do unto others as she would have them do unto her”, but perhaps Sarah needs to see for herself the benefits of her acting fairly towards others before she will act morally of her own free will.

Thus education is put in a difficult place. On the one hand, we must be wary of forcing behavior on children which might lead to inappropriate prejudices and allegiances, but on the other hand, to educate the entire person there must be some level of behavioral conditioning. Critics have been successful in ridding the classroom of methods like the star system in many school districts by maintaining that such matters should be left to parents. By doing this, those districts are effectively leaving moral understanding up to chance for many of their students. After all, many parents are as badly off as their children when it comes to acting virtuously. These same districts would not think of leaving the teaching of mathematics or history up to parents, yet the understanding and imparting of moral behavior is no less difficult. Parental collaboration is key, as are the other influences listed above; but educational institutions should be involved in all the important areas of human development. If Aristotle is right, and we need to act morally before we can understand morality, then our schools are doing a disservice by ignoring this aspect of human growth. After leaving school, the young adult has little chance of being in a situation where their behavior can be checked and modified. Usually it is only in the most extreme cases, where arrest and prosecution are necessary, that adults receive reprimand for bad behavior.

The question is not whether moral understanding and virtuous behavior is important, but how to find agreement on teaching such a sensitive and wide-ranging issue within a school district. Some of the difficult aspects of including moral education in a school include multi-cultural concerns. In many areas which lack a moral education system, the variety of cultures is so great that even deciding a core set of values is difficult. When the administrators, educators, parents and students finally decide on core values, further controversy surrounds the application of those principles. Thinkers influenced by Kohlberg argue that teaching the rational basis of morality is less intrusive, while the ‘Ethics of Care’ camp argue for the inclusion of emotional instruction. Schools that have successfully implemented a moral education program in recent years have found that a comprehensive strategy takes constant supervision and analysis. Oregon schools adopted character education in 1999, and on the Department of Education website there are resources to guide new school districts through the minefield of student interest, parental involvement and public funding. There are success stories however, such as the Alexander Dumas School of Chicago, which has improved considerably since the inception of its character education program in 1985. Sylvia Peters came to the school as a new principal to find guns, drugs, and unwanted pregnancies among children under twelve years old. After implementing a program that includes a daily affirmation of seven core values, the school has been recognized by the United States Department of Education for educational excellence and featured on NBC for its drug-free environment.

A very different sort of problem Kohlberg had early on with his moral education program involves motivation. It is easy to neglect the need for personal involvement when teaching about moral education. I found this out first-hand while volunteering as a teacher’s aide for a Religious and Moral Education class in a small town in Scotland. This particular program discussed several major religions as a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet. The belief systems are presented as lists of gods and myths, helping even the wayward student to draw the conclusion that religions are more like bizarre flavors of ice-cream than important spiritual communities. Similarly, moral education may be taught as a review of various rational principles; but this sort of teaching undermines moral behavior by engendering indifference.

For those involved in education, the idea that schools should incorporate character building programs such as that discussed by Aristotle is not new. However, discussions on the shape and extent of these programs involve difficult questions about the process of learning, value formation, the role of educational institutions, and the components of moral thinking.

© Carolyn Suchy-Dicey 2007

Carolyn Suchy-Dicey is in her second year of a PhD program at Boston University. She completed her MA thesis on Aristotle and Education at the University of St Andrews with Prof John Haldane.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X