Ethics instruction at school – Moving from the “is” to the “ought”
This is a guest post by Dr. Matthew Etherington (Ph.D. at OISE, Toronto). Dr. Etherington is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Trinity Western University, Langley, BC, Canada.
I recently finished reading a book called, Godless morality: keeping religion out of ethics by the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway (2004). As an educational philosopher, I chose to read this particular book because of my research into ethics instruction programs in public schools in North America. Holloway claims that the use of God in any moral discussion at school or anywhere else is so problematic it is almost worthless. Holloway believes that because human beings, including religious and secular people, disagree about what is right and wrong; he then draws the conclusion that there can be no absolute right and wrong. Second, because there are structures of authority that have upheld certain rights and punished wrongs, this must be understood as blind obedience to authority and therefore must be “wrong”. These are interesting assertions but are not well argued. They are however good examples of failing to make the is-ought distinction and committing the genetic fallacy. What is does not imply what “ought” to be. And trying to explain something away because of its origin has little bearing on a claim being veridical. But worse still is that Holloway still speaks in the language of morality, the ontology of morality still remains.
These types of objections to moral realism and religion reflect the outgrowth of 18th century European Romanticism. Stirner, Nietzsche and Baudelaire all upheld a similar view that truth is invented not discovered— so much the worse for speaking about objective moral values. In the late 1980s, Bloom (1987) found that the language of values had replaced the traditional language of right and wrong. He also traced this back to Nietzsche who “realized that the modern critical principle would make it impossible any more to speak of right and wrong” (see Leslie Newbigin). Regrettably there is nothing enlightened about this line of thinking. The argument is not what is but what “ought” to be. Human beings have a deep sense of right and wrong and we all long for order and justice—it is primarily given as a fact of experience. There is an underlying reality that right and wrong do exist and we often demand that this be recognized. Granted, that we may not always agree with a right course of action, although in many cases we do. As the anthropologist Jack Eller has said, “What precisely humans are supposed to do is less important than the fact that there is something to do and that humans are supposed to do it” (p.159).
In one sense I agree with Holloway— as moral agents, humans can and do exhibit moral progression but it does not therefore follow that morality is invented or not objective. Our moral progression is rooted in discovery not invention. We discover this moral code in the same way that we discover mathematics, and this moral law transcends time and culture. This is an important difference between the Christian worldview and the epistemology (the source of knowledge) of ethics education taught in schools. Being reflective, empathic, refraining from harm may be necessary conditions for being a moral person but they are not sufficient conditions. If there is a God that exists, who has made human beings in His image, we would expect to have a deep consciousness of right and wrong, a reality that transcends cultures and history and this is exactly what we do have.
Therefore, if we are to make any sense of ethics education in schools it must provide some warrant for the explicit teaching of moral values. A sufficient justification would be in a God who is the locus and source of moral values. If our capacity for moral responsibility is given as a fact of experience, “we have an argument from essence to obligatory existence” (see Hans Jonas) but obliged to whom? A benevolent God provides a sufficient anchor for responsible morality. Not only do we have a responsibility for something, it is also a responsibility to something—to an ultimate authority to which an account must be given. This authority, values education says, is the human conscience. But in saying this, we are replacing one question with another: namely, where does conscience get its criteria, or what source authorizes its decisions? To whom or what are we responsible in our conscience.
Without a transcendent God as the locus and source of moral values, the teaching of values education is subjective and arbitrary but surely no school program will admit that bullying, cheating, lying or stealing should be taught as subjective and arbitrary. These acts are offensive and are wrong. One’s right not to be bullied, lied to, cheated or stolen from is grounded in one’s worth (see Nick Wolterstorff). One’s worth is grounded in human beings being made in the image of God. Apart from God as the explanatory source of morality, the question will always remain: on what basis are certain acts really wrong except for the importance that we give to them?
Unless there is a sufficient theistic grounding of morality, values education is a subjective and arbitrary model and therefore has no justification for children to adopt the values of peace, love, respect, tolerance, cooperation and freedom. The teacher finds herself in the situation of one who applies the ‘law’ but cannot give reasons for the law.
Dr. Matthew Etherington (Ph.D. at OISE, Toronto) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Trinity Western University, Langley, BC, Canada.
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