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Objections (and Responses) To Moral Education

By Joan F. Goodman — May 30, 2001 10 min read
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Given the strong public endorsement of moral education, one might expect it to dominate the educational agenda. Why doesn’t it?

Given the strong public endorsement of moral education, one might expect it to dominate the educational agenda. Why doesn’t it? That which is approved in principle apparently meets resistance in practice. The following six objections to moral education may explain the pervasive wariness. Each of them seems to me unwarranted.

Tell a neighbor, for example, that your school wants to start a moral-education program and chances are he will ask, worriedly, “Whose values will get taught?”

Here is the basic argument: We live in a complex society of vast moral diversity, with no agreement on a moral canon. Some believe morality is nothing more than a set of cultural/political conventions. That’s inevitable because “shoulds” are not observable, agreed-upon things-in- the-world, like daisies and chairs. Moral norms are opinions and attitudes, not facts. So they get politicized. For instance, the virtues of restraint—thrift, hard work, self-discipline, delayed gratification, promptness, persistence, and excellence—fit well within a conservative, individualistic social orientation. They tend to be promulgated by the political right. The virtues of generosity— tolerance, sharing, caring, forgiving, compassion, and humility—are more egalitarian values. They tend to be promulgated by the left. We cannot prove the superiority of either, as we prove the relationship of earth to sun.

Another version of the “whose values” argument is that virtues are vacuous until applied and, once applied, can be used to rubber-stamp any policy. A child, for example, asserts it is not fair for him to take a test when he has been sick for a week. The teacher says it is fair; everyone must take the test on a particular day. The child complains to her parents that the teacher doesn’t respect her. The teacher says the child is not respectful of her rules and position. So “fair” and “respectful” add nothing to the argument; they are just rhetorical flourishes, a reassertion but not a clarification of a position. As such, they add power but no legitimacy to authority.

Here is the response: The disagreement on the diversity of values is exaggerated. There is broad consensus on what is fair and decent, what is exploitative and mean. In the above child-teacher confrontation, for example, both are upholding the principle of equality. For the teacher, equality means treating everyone the same; for the child, it is a belief in equity, compensating for special circumstances to equalize positions before the test. The principle of equality holds that, as Kant put it: Every rational creature is a member and legislator of the kingdom of ends. I understand this to mean, you can’t lie to or cheat someone because he, as a member of the kingdom of ends, presumably would not chose to be cheated or lied to. But that still leaves at large the sort of dispute that is going on between the child and teacher.

Along with equality, we believe that all people have rights, of which the most precious probably is liberty. It is important to educators that students develop and express independent tastes and views. An equality of enslavement is not acceptable.

Based on these principles, most of us see Haiti’s “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Uganda’s Idi Amin as villains, Mohandas Gandhi as a hero. We generally don’t like bullies. We generally do want to protect the weak. How much protection of the weak, how much curbing of individual assertion, on that we disagree.

However, assuming the critics are right, then the need for moral education becomes even more imperative. If, as John Dewey has said, morality is equivalent to a “mode of social life” and school is “the formation of the proper social life,” then we need at least to agree on fundamentals; we need to work out as a community of family, classroom, school, town, or nation what we believe is a fair “mode of social living.”


But your neighbor, not so easily reassured, now asserts, “My morality is not your business. It’s private.” The argument: Like religion, sex, and politics, morality is a belief system, which need not be publicly shared, indeed should not be, especially for those in minority positions. Morality, like sex, is best taught at home by one’s nearest and dearest.

The response: I would argue otherwise. It’s odd to think of morality as private. Morality is about how we deal with one another and how we regulate those dealings. Acts without social consequences are usually not of moral concern. Who would pass judgment on Tom Hanks’ behavior in the movie “Castaway,” unless you object to a man’s forming a powerful emotional attachment to a soccer ball?

Plato may have been the first, but was hardly the last, to assert that it’s a bad idea to leave to the family so important a matter as virtue training.

Plato may have been the first, but was hardly the last, to assert that it’s a bad idea to leave to the family so important a matter as virtue training. Parents are too partial, too affectionate, too forgiving. Schools, set up as an arm of the state, are the only institution that can overcome family partialities.

Next, your neighbor complains, “Teaching morality is like teaching religion, a school no-no.”

The argument: Preaching such doctrines as turn the other cheek, treat others as you would have others treat you, have faith in me (the teacher) is just a subtle form of religious indoctrination. The sociologist Emile Durkheim even described the teacher as “priest” and moral education as his ministry.

The response: It is true, religion is centrally concerned with morality, and much of our morality, such as the Golden Rule, has a religious derivation. But what makes for a religious morality is less the content than the source of the doctrines. If you believe that God is the sole source of our moral injunctions, and that the obligation to act in accordance with these injunctions comes from the fealty one owes to God, then that’s a religious belief. But if, like Kant, you take God out, you still have the principles. They can be justified by human reason, the human social condition, human nature, and other claims.

Your neighbor persists, “Why do we need morality at school anyway? It’s all obvious.”

The argument: Everyone knows what it means to be a fair, decent person. The problem isn’t one of ignorance; it is in the failure to do what you know you should do. It’s an issue of disposition and intention. Schools are about imparting knowledge, not changing desires.

The response: The everyone-knows obviousness of morality is true only at an abstract, platitudinous level. Yes, probably everyone agrees that it is good to be fair, respectful, and responsible. Once we get to particular situations, however, it’s not so obvious, as seen in the example of the teacher claiming it was disrespectful for a child to complain to his parents about her test decision. It can’t be obvious because values conflict with each other and involve difficult, complex, contextually sensitive decisions. As Isaiah Berlin famously observed: “Both liberty and equality are among the primary goals pursued by human beings through many centuries; but total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs, total liberty of the powerful, the gifted, is not compatible with the rights to a decent existence of the weak and the less gifted. ... Equality may demand the restraint of the liberty of those who wish to dominate; liberty ... may have to be curtailed in order to make room for social welfare, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to leave room for the liberty of others.” To figure out this complex balancing act does require education, and a lot of it.

Whose values will get taught? Why do we need morality at school anyway?

Furthermore, schools are about changing desires. We want children to care about their learning, to care about one another, to care about beauty, to care about the environment, to care about the wider world, and not just to be the proud possessors of a bundle of indifferent facts.

“OK then,” the frustrated neighbor retorts, “it’s too difficult, it can’t be taught.”

The argument: If morality is not a set of actions one should always perform—be fair, be respectful, tell the truth, don’t steal or cheat, help your neighbor—if it is highly contextualized, if it is centrally about will, motive, and circumstances, then it is not something teachers can take on. Teachers may be able to pass on a prescriptive code from one generation to the next, but they cannot, especially with young children, tell them that sometimes equality is a good thing, sometimes not.

And even if schools could get into the nuances of morality, how can they possibly be expected to teach children the values of consideration, cooperation, and caring, when the wider culture so persistently and insistently nurtures them in the values of consumerism, hedonism, and narrow self-interest?

The response: Morality must be highly instructable; otherwise, why would it vary so from culture to culture? Children don’t start out knowing what is right and wrong, although there may be an innate propensity to learn it. They acquire their morality from formal and informal teachers. If no one’s around to teach morality, it will perish, for increasingly it seems not to be an essential survival skill. One can get by, even thrive, in some sense of that word, without a developed morality.

As to its difficulty, we already teach children the notion of truth-in-context. We tell students they are not to talk in class, they should talk quietly in the cafeteria, but they are free to yell at sports events. We teach them that the perception of an object is relative to the position of the observer. We teach them that our Founding Fathers would have a different view of slavery and women had they lived at the end of the 20th, rather than the 18th, century. Teaching morality is no different. It is context-riddled.

Now, fully exasperated, your neighbor complains, “Schools have no time for the topic.”

Morality must be highly instructable; otherwise, why would it vary so from culture to culture?

The argument: Schools are besieged by demands. The elementary school curriculum includes topics that range from foreign languages to the dangers of smoking and drinking, to good and bad touching; not to mention preparing children for high-stakes tests, and coping with large, diversified classes that increasingly include children with special needs. It’s enough!

The response: Most obviously, moral education is already being done every day. What is good and bad touching but moral education? When a teacher corrects or praises a child, when she reacts to inadequate performance or effort, when she asserts a rule or norm, she is making a moral judgment. The no-time argument is a bit like saying we’re too busy to learn to eat. Since we are already into eating (moralizing), let’s do it wisely.


Beyond defending myself against the naysayers, are there further warrants for moral education?

When we fail to tangle with this topic, we send our children a message of extreme relativism—that moral decisionmaking is entirely discretionary.

Yes. When we fail to tangle with this topic, we send our children a message of extreme relativism—that moral decisionmaking is entirely discretionary, that the realm of values is not amenable to rational examination and to the formation of communitywide norms. We allow children to believe that loyalties and commitments need not go beyond one’s present best buddy, and need be no more lasting. We abandon those families that struggle against the pernicious influences of the wider culture, and we leave many children entirely defenseless. We erode further the notion that morality has any special, overriding, obligatory claim that merits the schools’ investment, and we lend support to the widespread moral indifference that now afflicts us.

Schools are centrally in the business of self-construction. We want children to like themselves; teachers try to build their self-esteem. But if a positive self- image is limited to seeing oneself as cool, popular, and with-it, or even smart, knowledgeable, athletic, and influential; if it doesn’t include some aspiration to a useful, worthy life, to becoming a good as well as a competent and successful person, then surely we have sold our kids short.


Joan F. Goodman is a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She is the co-author, with Howard Lesnick, a professor of law at the university, of The Moral Stake in Education: Contested Premises and Practices (Longman, 2001).

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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Objections (and Responses) To Moral Education

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