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Moral Education

Graham Haydon on this year’s hot topic.

It was good to see the publication in Philosophy Now (Issue 6) of an interview with David Pascall, then Chair of the National Curriculum Council, on moral education. The issue is one that needs to be opened up to philosophical reflection, and that reflection should not be confined to specialists. The interviewer for Philosophy Now was obviously aware of some of the issues which could have been pressed further (as Geoff Wade pointed out in a letter in Issue 7): David Pascall did not satisfactorily defend the idea that telling the truth and keeping promises are moral absolutes (does this mean, as few philosophers other than Kant would have held, that no exceptions to them are ever justified?); and he could have been more positive about the need for an input of moral philosophy into the training of teachers (but it would have made little difference, since he was leaving office anyway). But in this article I want to raise a more fundamental issue. Do the parties to current debates about moral education have any clear understanding of what morality is? (Do any of us?) Are we even right to be so confident that morality is a good thing?

Some of the politicians and churchmen who have been calling most loudly for a revivification of morality in our schools might be surprised that the current Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University has suggested that we would be better off without morality. In the mid-eighties, in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Bernard Williams described what he called the morality system. Morality, on this conception, is essentially a system of law-like obligations. To do right is to recognise what morality requires and to do it, simply because it is what morality requires. Such a conception, to a moral philosopher, inevitably rings a bell labelled ‘Kant, and it calls up too a series of contrasts which are live issues in contemporary academic ethics and in the psychology of moral development.

The Kantian way of thinking about ethics, having to do with will and principles, is often now contrasted with an Aristotelian way, having to do with dispositions of character. A broadly Kantian conception of moral judgment underpinned the research of the American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg on moral development. His colleague Carol Gilligan, investigating the moral thinking of people whose responses to dilemmas did not seem to fit Kohlberg’s preferred pattern, suggested that while Kohlberg’s research was predisposed to uncover a way of thinking concerned with justice and rights, there was another important approach to ethical concerns, focusing more on caring and the recognition of responsibilities within concrete relationships. Thus the contrast between a justice orientation and a care orientation has also entered into the literature. It is perhaps most vividly illustrated in the story of the moles and the porcupine:

A lazy, improvident porcupine who has not prepared any shelter for the winter, asks if he can move in with a group of moles who, prudently, have worked hard to prepare their burrow. The kindly moles agree to let the porcupine in, only to find that they are constantly being stabbed by his quills. What should the moles do?

Faced with this dilemma by researchers, some respondents, taking the justice perspective, said that the moles should stand on their rights; they are quite entitled to insist that the porcupine leaves, throwing him out by force if necessary. Others, taking the care perspective, suggest that the moles and the porcupine should try to find a compromise which will defuse conflict and secure everyone’s interests: covering the porcupine with a blanket, for instance.

There is some empirical evidence, starting with Gilligan’s own findings, that girls are more likely to show the care orientation than are boys; some writers have seen themselves as making a feminist case in arguing for the care orientation. And the contrast in ethical conceptions can be linked too with the contrast in social and political thought between individualist and communitarian approaches. Roughly, the Kantian approach and the justice orientation look to universal, rationallygrounded principles and rights, valid across cultures, which any individual moral agent should be capable of realising and following regardless of the ‘moral climate’ of his or her society. The neo-Aristotelian approach developed by a number of communitarian writers holds that the ethical life has a lot to do with the realisation and practice of virtues, that the realisation of virtues is partly a property of a community, and that there is at least some room, quite validly, for variation between cultures in the virtues which are favoured and in the solutions to particular issues which are arrived at within a structure of virtues.

This contrast between principles and virtues, between standing up for rights and being a caring person, has entered into reflection on moral education, where we find on the one hand the idea that moral education is primarily to do with enabling people to follow reason and come to principled decisions about moral questions, on the other hand the idea that it is or should be a matter of developing the important virtues.

My colleague John White has argued (in Education and the Good Life ) that morality brings with it rigidity, an unwillingness to compromise, and the pervasive tendency to blame oneself and others for moral defects. But the ethical life, he says, does not have to be as unlovely as this; we should replace an education in morality by an education in altruism, developing the dispositions of benevolence and fellow-feeling.

Painting the contrast in such colours, it is not difficult to make the promotion of morality seem thoroughly unattractive. But there is a case for the defence of Kantian morality too.

A psychological experiment of Stanley Milgram’s has gained a certain fame or notoriety. Volunteers were asked to assist with what they were told was a learning experiment. The subject was asked to repeat a series of words he was supposed to have learnt. The volunteers (who couldn’t be seen by the subject) were told to flick a switch giving the subject a mild electric shock whenever he gave a wrong answer. They were also supposed to increase the voltage each time. In fact the real aim of the experiment was quite different. The subjects were actors, in collusion with the experimenter, and received no shocks at all. The point was to see whether the volunteers would be prepared to inflict pain if they were acting under the authority of another person, ie the experimenter. The results were frightening – on the experimenter’s instructions most of the volunteers continued to apply ever-higher voltages even when the subject showed signs of extreme pain and distress. Relatively few refused to go along with the experiment.

Would the people in these experiments have refused to inflict suffering on their fellow creatures if they had been more altruistic? Perhaps, but altruism can be both rather diffuse and rather specific in its direction. These experimental subjects may have been thoroughly benevolent spouses and parents; they may even have felt some benevolence towards the experimenter, not wanting to mess up his experiment. To go against the experimenter’s instructions would have been uncomfortable and embarrassing, and besides, many subjects felt a duty to go along with what the experimenter asked of them.

Critics of morality may say that this is just what is wrong with it: the misdirected sense of conscientiousness. But Kant was not talking about a blind sense of duty, or of a duty towards human authorities; he was talking of a sense of moral obligation informed by reason. A Kantian sense of morality would have led the experimental subjects, not to believe that they must go along with the experimenter’s instructions, but to say, “No. This is immoral, I will not do it’. (Some people, but not many, did respond in that sort of way.)

And Kant believed too that the moral motivation, the sense that here is something one must do, regardless of one’s inclinations, could survive the collapse of fellow-feeling.

“Suppose, then, that the mind of this friend of man [the person who usually enjoys spreading happiness around] were overclouded by sorrows of his own which extinguished all sympathy with the fate of others, but that he still had power to help those in distress, though no longer stirred by the need of others because sufficiently occupied with his own; and suppose that, when no longer moved by any inclination, he tears himself out of this deadly insensibility and does the action without any inclination for the sake of duty alone…”
(Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 1785)

To be sunk in insensibility, to do the right thing out of nothing but respect for morality, may be ‘unlovely’, and far from our ideal. But don’t we still need the possibility of this kind of motive?

There are many young people in our society who are alienated, who feel little real sense of community with their fellows; there are others who identify strongly with a particular peer-group but feel only contempt for those outside it. Of course education should be trying to awaken and broaden their sensibilities. But doesn’t it also need to give them, if it can, a sense that there are moral reasons for things independently of their feelings?

The discussion paper from the National Curriculum Council (referred to in the interview with David Pascall) contains a strikingly Kantian phrase: “the will to behave morally as a point of principle”. “This attitude” (the paper claims) “is fundamental to moral development”. The idea has an old-fashioned ring. Perhaps many teachers would have little idea of how to set about developing such an attitude. The discussion paper itself does nothing to elaborate or defend its claim.

This is symptomatic of the state of public debate in these areas. The very vocabulary we need is hardly available for public discourse. A few overused terms – ‘absolute’, ‘relative’, ‘objective’ – serve only to obscure rather than illuminate the distinctions we need to make. And so it is quite unclear what it is that society is asking teachers to do. Are we asking them to take every opportunity to evoke fellow-feeling and sympathy in children? Are we also asking them to instil a Kantian sense of moral principles which children will feel obliged to follow regardless of their sympathies? Are the two things compatible? It’s not surprising if teachers feel they are ill-prepared to take on a task which is so ill-defined in the first place.

Here is a positive challenge for philosophy. I want, finally, to emphasize the word ‘positive’ because I was disturbed by the negative message of Les Reid’s article in Issue 7 on challenging religion. Certainly it’s right (as David Pascall recognised, though John Patten – still Secretary of State for Education at the time of writing – has been more ambivalent) that moral education in schools shouldn’t be tied to religion. And there are good philosophical arguments for not trying to ground morality in religious belief. But it’s still true that for many people their moral ideas are tied up with their religion, and we should be careful (on utilitarian grounds, among others) before trying to break that link where it does exist.

Students of philosophy learn early on (or they would never survive in philosophy) that to challenge the beliefs someone holds is not to attack the person holding them. But this is not an easy thing to realise. Many religious believers will feel personally attacked by those who hold different beliefs; that is part of the problem which Les Reid identified. Why should philosophy add to the conflicts by trying to undermine people’s beliefs?

There is a much more positive challenge for philosophy to take up, and schools are one of the main places where it can be taken up. This is to help people to live together peaceably despite their differences. This can involve helping people to realise many things, including these: that there can be a basis for human values apart from Godgiven law; that it is possible for such values to hold people together rather than dividing them; that the truth of our beliefs is not the only thing that matters in life; that rejecting people’s beliefs is compatible with respecting them as persons. To liberal-minded philosophers these may be hackneyed ideas; they are, after all, part of the liberal tradition which Western philosophy has done much to nourish. But there seems still to be as much need as ever for helping people to see these things; and helping, not undermining, should be the operative word.

© G. Haydon 1993

Graham Haydon runs an MA course in Values in Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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