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Defining Moral Education

Defining Moral Education
February 1, 2010

What might a moral education worthy of the name actually look like? While we cannot answer all of the questions, nor confront the full dimensions of the moral education debate, we can outline some key features of moral education in our own time and place. What follows reflects our own conversations and disagreements and reveals both the common ground we have come to occupy and the divergent commitments we continue to bring to the moral education debate.

The question is not whether colleges and universities should pursue moral education, but how. Moral (or perhaps immoral) education goes on constantly, if not always self-consciously. Aristotle captured this insight when he argued that every association has a moral end, a hierarchy of values, which is cultivated through its everyday norms and practices. Colleges and universities, too, have such moral ends and purposes, expressed not only through institutional mission statements and curriculums but also, and often more powerfully, through the hidden curriculum of everyday campus life. The more these commitments remain unarticulated the less they can be subject to scrutiny and the more ignorant we remain of the ends that animate our actions and lives.

One task for moral education in the modern college or university, then, is to articulate and scrutinize the moral ends of our shared enterprise. Truth seeking, a willingness to think deeply about alternative positions and arguments, to be swayed by evidence and argument, to acknowledge our intellectual debts to others, and to judge others on the quality of their work and not their family background, skin color, or political affiliation: these are a few of the moral commitments central to academic life that we need to articulate and explore. Other moral ends and commitments may be specific to particular institutions. But the task of critical self-reflection and appreciation remains the same, as does the importance that students experience higher education as an enterprise committed to high ideals, thoughtfully pursued.

This suggests a deeper point about moral judgment. It is a commonplace today for students (and faculty) to exclaim ‘‘Who am I to judge?’’ But of course that, too, is a moral judgment. We make normative judgments all the time, so the question again is not whether to make them but on what basis or grounds we do so. If we cannot offer such grounds, then we may be making judgments, or acting, in ways that contradict our most basic moral commitments and ends. A second task for moral education, then, is to challenge moral evasions, whether in the classroom or the streets, and to teach the practical wisdom that enables us to discern and explore the grounds of the judgments we are making.

It is important to recognize that argument and debate play a key role in pursuing both tasks we have outlined so far. Critics of moral education contend that ethics cannot be central to the university’s mission because this would require a substantive moral consensus that is contrary to critical inquiry and academic freedom. Yet these same critics acknowledge that universities pursue intellectual excellence not by deciding in advance which of the competing views of such excellence is right but by continuous argument over what’s true, right, and persuasive, including argument over what the standards should be for good intellectual work. Similarly, argument about and over ethics, and about the ethical ideals and norms we should teach and promote, is not inimical to, but actually helps constitute, the pursuit of moral education.

Indeed, arguing over what’s right, fair, and just is one of the central ways in which human beings “do ethics.” This reaches across cultures and religions, from traditions of ethical argument expressed in Talmud, in the Islamic ulama, or in the common law, as well as in fundamental moral confrontations such as those between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. We enact new forms of this tradition when we invite students to engage debates and controversies, asking them, for instance, to argue for or against human rights, stem cell research, or the International Criminal Court, or to assess different interpretations of Antigone, or weigh alternative approaches to educational policy.

But rigor and argument are not enough. Ethics cannot be reduced to analytical argument but needs to be attentive to the broader variety and complexity of moral life. Argument alone does not capture the moral insights of great literature, nor does it yield the lessons present in a work like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt argues that Eichmann was thoughtless; that he was unable to put himself in another person’s shoes. What Eichmann lacked was moral imagination, which in Arendt’s terms requires the ability and willingness to go visiting another. You do not move in with them, or stand in their place, but next to them. The prominence of the Golden Rule in so many moral and religious traditions points to the centrality of moral reciprocity and the qualities of curiosity, compassion, and imagination it requires. The cultivation of a capacious moral imagination is a third task for moral education.

But ethics is more than a set of questions to debate or even of imaginative perspectives to adopt. To take ethics seriously requires us not only to engage in ethical critique and debate but to come to moral judgments, to take a stand. If cultivation of the capacity for ethical commitment is a fourth task of moral education, then we need to focus on the interplay of principles and actions, both for our students and ourselves. But what constitutes a moral commitment? The great moral teachers have generally insisted on certain truths of moral life. Socrates, for instance, professed that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it, that virtue is knowledge, and that what you do to others you do to yourself. But justice, knowledge, and truth did not function as ‘‘shut up words’’ because he was also willing to acknowledge that the truths for which he was willing to die might be shown to be faulty in the next dialogic encounter; that he might have missed something in the world or the argument that would force him to modify what he had come to believe with such conviction. Socrates is a valuable exemplar because he showed what it means to combine a capacity to be self-critical with a willingness to affirm moral commitments and stand up for them. It is by navigating that tension ourselves that we can do our best as teachers of ethics.

What are the implications of these four tasks for how we should teach ethics in colleges and universities today? We applaud the pedagogical pluralism that characterizes the return to ethics and see a valuable role for a variety of curricular and co-curricular approaches, from the interpretation of canonical texts and popular culture to case studies to service-learning to student-run honor codes. An appreciation for the role of ethical reflection, deliberation, imagination, and practice is both a key contemporary insight and a welcome revival of cultures and traditions of ethical argument such as those expressed in the Talmud.

A plurality of approaches does not, however, imply that any pedagogical technique is as good as any other in achieving each of the aims of moral education. Different pedagogies have particular strengths and characteristic weaknesses. Take, for example, the conventional ‘‘Introduction to Moral Philosophy’’ course. It has the great advantage of providing students with systematic frameworks for assessing moral judgments. But its focus on critique can leave students with a dizzying and potentially demoralizing sense that there are no defensible moral positions, or that ethics has to do with canonical debates but not with their own lives. Conversely, the case study method, or a conventional service-learning course, will expose students to a variety of powerful practical moral issues and dilemmas, from questions of personal motivation and virtue to issues of organizational ethics, politics, and policy. All too often, however, such courses can leave students floundering in aimless exchanges of personal opinion without providing them with ways to organize and assess their judgments. What’s needed are integrated approaches that combine theory and practice, imagination and justification.

We also believe that moral education — whether in a philosophy classroom, a judicial affairs hearing room, or a sociology service-learning class — should be dialogical, by which we mean that there should be a degree of reciprocity between students and teachers, a sense of shared vulnerability in the pursuit of an ethical life. This does not mean that every view is entitled to an equal hearing: students have to make arguments, offer evidence, show they are listening to others and reading the texts with care. But without such reciprocity the enterprise of moral education lacks vigor and seriousness. The centrality of dialogue to moral education in democracies acknowledges the degree to which ethical life is necessarily collective and enhances moral imagination by enabling student and teacher alike to see the world from one another’s point of view.

This emphasis on taking a dialogical, rather than didactic, approach to moral education does not mean that universities, or individual faculty, cannot profess moral commitments. The vexed issue of whether teachers of ethics should reveal their own moral commitments to students or adopt a neutral stance to moral questions seems to us wrongly posed. For one thing, genuine moral neutrality is both devilishly difficult to achieve and counterproductive for moral education: what, after all, are students likely to learn about moral stances from someone who claims that, for the purposes of the classroom, he or she has none? At the same time, a general expectation that one will confess one’s moral commitments is hardly more attractive (for one thing, it is likely to leave out those deepest convictions that cannot be easily articulated, since most of us remain to some degree mysteries to ourselves). The issue seems to us to be primarily pedagogic: what creates a classroom atmosphere in which students are encouraged to think deeply, to pose tough questions, and to vigorously disagree with the teacher and with their fellow students? We suspect that respect and humility, humor and friendship, curiosity and collaboration play key roles in creating such a classroom.

This brings us, finally, to the question of what makes someone a good teacher of ethics. Here, we are inclined to believe that there is an important relationship between who we are, what we teach, and how we teach it. In other words, both the character of the teacher and the performative dimensions of his or her teaching are central rather than marginal aspects of moral education. We all have colleagues who teach in a way that undermines the arguments they make, as when a teacher of democratic education teaches in a thoroughly authoritarian way. But unlike Tolstoy’s quip about happy families all being alike, we suspect there is no single model of excellence among teachers of ethics but rather a cluster of traits that good teachers of ethics exhibit to varying degrees. We are unsure, however, if these traits can be taught as a pedagogic practice, or if they are fundamentally idiosyncratic. But these questions, however difficult, must remain central to any debate about moral education.

In the end, the value of today’s return to ethics will rest on whether it serves to reveal important questions and possibilities that have otherwise been ignored or have gone unrecognized. On this score, it appears to have had some success, for it has made us more aware of how moral teaching and learning occur and has revived the perennial question of what the aims of moral education, and indeed of all education, should be.

Bio

Elizabeth Kiss is president of Agnes Scott College. J. Peter Euben is professor of political science and research professor of classical studies at Duke University. They are the co-editors of Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University (Duke University Press), from which this essay is adapted.

 

 

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