1: Moral Education

1. Education in a Democratic Society and the Public Morality Principle

In the earlier section on Democracy and Politics, I noted that commitment to the ideal of treating all persons as ends, as the Ends Principle (EP) requires, implies a commitment to “doing what one can do to maintain [and hence to sustain and preserve] a moral sphere in which all persons can be treated with openness respect by all others.” And I argued that this commitment has important implications for politics in free and democratic societies because it implies a further principle of social ethics that I called the

Public Morality Principle: Society has a legitimate interest in protecting and encouraging attitudes, practices, institutions and social conditions that tend to sustain the moral sphere, and in discouraging attitudes, practices, institutions and conditions that would lead to its breakdown.

Such a principle, which follows directly from the requirement of the Ends Principle to maintain the moral sphere to the degree possible, has numerous implications for social policy in free and democratic societies.

Maintaining a moral sphere to the degree possible entails according per­sons basic human rights and liberties that are a central concern in free societies. But such soci­eties must also pay atten­tion to the maintenance of social institutions that make it possible for human rights to be res­pected and for individual liberties to flourish.[1] If such suppor­ting social institu­tions as families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, community organizations, and the like that are involved in morally educa­ting the young and maintaining societal bonds are dysfunc­tional, or ineffective, one can scarce­ly maintain a moral sphere in which indi­vidual freedoms can be exercised and everyone is treated as an end and not used as a mere means.[2]

In making this point it was also noted that the most impor­tant application of the Public Mo­ra­lity Principle to the maintenance of a moral sphere concerns the moral and values educa­tion of the young. And this is the topic to which we turn in this final sec­tion.

Values and moral education in free and democratic societies is an important topic in itself for social and poli­tical philosophy. But it is also important because it returns us full circle to issues about plu­ralism of values with which our earlier discussions of ethics and values began.

2. Values Clarification

Issues about pluralism and values arise in a striking way in a method of moral edu­cation that was promoted by many education theorists in the latter part of the 20th century, called the “values clarification” method [3] This method was based on the premise that in modern pluralist and democratic societies, no one can claim to have the right set of values to pass on to other peo­ple’s children. Teachers in publically supported schools must therefore focus on the means by which people come to have and accept values. Through group discussion, in which the teacher remains non-judgmental, young people are supposed to express and discuss their dif­fering va­lues in order to come to a better understanding of their own values, to self-acceptance, and to respect for the differing values of others.

It’s not surprising that this method of teaching values had many critics as well as advo­cates. The critics argued that this method of teaching values was a road to relativism and indif­fe­rence.[4] What, they asked, will students take away from a method in which they are allowed to express their differing values and beliefs and in which no one, including the teacher, is allowed to be judgmental about the beliefs expressed? Such a method is likely to lead to the belief that no view of right or wrong is objectively better than any other, and each is to be respected so long as it feels good to the one who “accepts” it.

It is instructive to look at this controversy through the lens of the ethical arguments of earlier sections and the Public Morality Principle based upon those arguments. Viewed through this lens, the values clarification method is a reaction to conditions of pluralism and uncertainty in modern societies. Its advocates share the natural reaction of ordinary persons reared in free and democratic societies mentioned in the section on Ethics, who believe that openness, or initial respect for differing points of view and ways of life, is the only proper response to pluralism in a free and democratic societies.

What advocates of values clarification fail to note, however, is that consistently maintaining such an attitude of openness to all persons and points of view, if one does it for the educational purpose of finding out which views and ways of life are ultimately worthy of being treated with openness respect by others, would not lead to relativism or indifference. Rather one would be led to ethical principles that are judgmental and tell us that some ways of acting are right and others wrong and some ways of life are more worthy of being treated with openness respect than others.

In sum, if one starts with openness respect, as the values clarification method does, but does so as part of a search for what should be regarded as objectively good from all points of view, one would not end by asserting that every view is as good as every other. Some views would be more worthy of respect in this sense of openness by all persons and some less worthy. Those who would engage in moral sphere-breaking plans of action and ways of life would make it impossible for others to respect them and all other persons as well.

This theme would be applicable to moral education at all levels, including the home. As chil­dren in modern societies are confronted through media and in daily life with different points of view from all over the global city, teachers and parents may say the following:

Be open if you wish to other points of view. This may be a correct attitude to start with if you want to learn what is objectively good. But remember that this attitude of openness does not mean anything goes, ethically speaking. To the contrary, trying to sustain an attitude of openness respect toward all persons leads to the conclusion that some ways of acting and living are less unqualifiedly worthy of such respect than others.

And note that some of the ways of acting and living that are less worthy are ones that violate those tired old commandments you have heard from your parents and in your churches: Don’t kill or lie. Don’t steal or cheat. Don’t be unkind or inconsiderate or cause harm unne­cessarily or be unfair. Don’t treat others as means to your own ends unless you are forced into it by their actions. And when you must, when the moral sphere breaks down, do what you can to restore and preserve conditions in this world where such respect for others can flourish once again: Use minimum force and be as fair or just as imperfect conditions may allow.

To love rightly is to recognize that you cannot love everything equally—except perhaps in a perfect world—and the world is usually imperfect. But even when you cannot love equal­ly in an imperfect world, you can love well by striving to restore and preserve condi­tions in which mutual respect and concern can flourish once again.

3. Virtues and Character Education

Another related controversy about the moral education of the young mentioned in the section on Democracy and Politics concerned the teaching of the virtues, or more generally “cha­racter edu­cation,” in publically supported school curricula. The teaching of virtues it was noted pre­sents a problem similar to the teaching of values—the problem of pluralism.

Which virtues should be singled out, if virtues are to be a part of state supported education in pluralist socie­ties? This question can be addressed, I suggested, in a way that is similar to the way in which con­cerns about values clarification were just addressed. It was noted that public interest groups in the US promoting the teaching of virtues and character education in the schools, have struggled to come up with a list of virtues that could gain general consensus and avoid dissent.

While their lists of virtues differed in details, it is interesting that a core set of virtues appeared frequently on their lists, including most commonly, the fol­lowing six: honesty, respect, respon­sibility, fairness, trustworthiness and caring.[5] The proposals usually called for encouraging these virtues by simple examples and activities from the earliest grades onward.

And what is noteworthy, as mentioned the section on Democracy, is that these are just the traits of cha­racter one would wish to instill in young people in order to maintain and promote insti­tutions and behavior that would sustain and preserve the moral sphere, as the Ends Principle and the Public Morality Principle require. To be dishonest and deceptive in dealing with others is to break the moral sphere. To respect others, in the sense of treating them to the degree possible as ends and not mere means, is the essence of what it means to maintain a moral sphere. To be responsible in keeping one’s commitments and promises, is also part of what it means to treat others as ends and merely as means. To be as fair in resol­ving conflicts of interest in a manner that respects the interests of all involved, and to be trustworthy in one’s dealings with others in work, business and private life—all are traits that would promote and sustain the moral sphere as required by the Ends Principle and the Public Morality Principle.

Regarding the final virtue of care, it was noted that many ethical and political theorists argue that society includes persons in various degrees of dependency, including those who are de­prived or vulne­rable, children, the elderly, those with various disabilities, the sick and infirm; and caring is the glue that holds such a society together. A “good society” intent on maintai­ning a moral sphere as the Ends Principle and the Public Morality Principle require would also make prominent the promotion of such a virtue in its young people.

4. Education and Moral Development

I now want to take this discussion of virtues and character education a step further by consi­dering the work of developmental and educational psychologists, who have had much of inte­rest to say about how these “moral sphere-sustaining” virtues might be taught to children and young people.

In their book, Bringing Up the Moral Child, for example, Michael Schulman and Eva Mehler sensibly remark that the main aim of early moral education is to teach children to be kind and just or fair.[6] They argue that this gene­rally takes place in three steps, first, an internalization on the part of the child of the parents’ moral values, second, the development of empathy, or sym­pathetic con­cern for the fee­lings of others, and finally, the development of personal moral standards of right and wrong that are held because they are right and not merely because they are socially acceptable.

These steps of moral development are reasonably close to those described by influential deve­lop­­men­tal psychologists, such as Jean Piaget.[7] In the earliest years, the child accepts parental rules out of desire to please the parents and avoid punishment. At the same time (from the age of two onward), a sense of empathy is developing, and later (from about ages three to five), a concern with fairness or equal treatment. Together these two senses—of empathy and fairness —provide the basis for a second, “socially” oriented, stage of moral development which lasts into the teen years.

At this second stage, instead of thinking simply in terms of pleasing parents and avoiding punishment, children are learning the social dimension of morality—how it con­cerns the needs of others as well as of themselves. Finally, in the transition to adulthood, there should be the development of personal ethical standards which transcend social conventions, so that one acts on the basis of objective principles because they are right and not merely because they are socially acceptable.

There are numerous ways in which this process can go wrong, of course, beginning in the ear­liest years, if parents are abusive, neglectful or absent. Later on, problem neighborhoods, con­flicting messages from outside the home (e.g. television or the web), or the wrong kinds of peer pressure, can thwart or deflect the social stage of moral development. It is interesting, in this connection, that three of the main causes of crime cited by crimin­ol­o­gists are connected to such failings—c­hild abuse, problem neighbor­hoods and sub­stance (or drug) abuse. Hence, the right way to look at these levels of moral devel­opment is the way that books on child raising, like Schulman and Mehler’s, do—not as inevitable stages, but as normal and healthy steps which parents and others can bring about or thwart, depending on how they act.

It helps to know that children have natural tendencies toward moral behavior which can be deve­loped if not thwarted. Among the most interesting results of recent research by child psy­chologists is the recognition that children manifest capacities for moral behavior much earlier in life than was previously supposed. Distinguished child psychologist, Jerome Kagan, has gone so far as to suggest that 19th century psychologists may have been partly right when they said that children have an innate moral sense.[8]

“I did not begin my research with that idea in mind,” Kagan says, “but it was imposed upon me after examining the data. We began, by observing children in differ­ent cultures. My own re­search group worked in Cambridge, Massa­chusetts.” Others worked with Vietna­mese immi­grant children in Sou­thern California and with natives of the Fiji islands in the Paci­fic.

“In all three cultural set­tings,” he says, “the same behavior appeared around the end of the se­cond year. First, chil­dren became aware of actions that might displease an adult… [and they] were bothered by many violations of adult standards after the middle of the second year.” Second, when asked to do things by adults beyond their powers, they feel upset because they feel an obligation they cannot meet. “Finally, at about this time,” he adds, “as every mother can tell you, children begin to show empathy with children who are hurt. And if they hurt another child, they become upset and often give their victims a gift.” [9]

Psychologists who accept Kagan’s data may nonetheless be suspicious of his talk of an “innate moral sense,” because it may suggest that children would grow to be moral naturally, if left alone. This is clearly not what Kagan and his psychological colleagues want to say. They con­cur with the claim made earlier that the propensity for moral behavior present in children must be cultivated and can easily be distorted. “I think the capacity for goodness is there from the start,” says Thomas Lickona, author of Raising Good Children, but it must be nurtured, just as we help children to “become good readers or athletes or musicians.”[10] As with language, the pro­­pensity to speak is there in every child, but it can be developed well or poorly, or in extreme cases, not at all.

5. Empathy and Fairness

Developing senses of empathy and fairness in young people is crucial for the development of the other virtues mentioned that were necessary to the maintenance of a moral sphere (respect, trust­worthiness, responsibility, caring, etc.) To develop senses of empathy and fairness in young people, however, requires more than laying down rules or even explaining or justi­fying rules. Sensitivity is as important at this stage as authority.

There is evidence, as Kagan and others sug­gest, that feelings of empathy and fairness begin very early. Babies imitate parents’ facial ex­pres­sions in an attempt to figure out what they are feeling and respond to the hurt of others from the second year onward. Somewhat later, but well before school age, children develop a sense of justice and will protest when they think a parental order or the distribution of a dessert is “unfair.”

These feelings—of empathy and fairness—represent the beginning of what later will be a con­science, and they can be developed or stunted by what parents do in the early years. Psycholo­gists Carolyn Zahn-Waxler and Marian Radke-Yarrow have shown that youngsters whose mothers taught them altruism by example (helping a kitten tangled in a ball of yarn) helped others more often themselves.[11] And parents who attempt to act fairly and to respond to their chil­dren’s charges of unfairness with explanations produce children with a clearer sense of justice.[12]

Among the most exciting recent developments of moral education in the schools involve an application of these principles. In Chicago, Denver, Atlanta and other cities and their suburbs, children are taken on field trips to observe harsh realities like homelessness first hand, and are encouraged to engage in projects of collecting canned food for the local soup kitchens. A News­week article by Pat Wingert and Barbara Kantrowitz has this to say about such deve­lopments:

Good works are part of the curriculum at more and more schools around the country, educators say. For the most part, these are grass-roots efforts, with projects ranging from field trips to fund drives, volunteer work to lessons on how to treat one’s peers. In the past, the teaching of such values as caring and sharing fell squarely on family shoulders with church groups lending support. But nowadays…teachers are [also involved].[13]

It is clear from psychological and other studies of child-rearing that empathy and fairness can only be learned by experience, example and practice. What these schools are doing is an extension of the mother helping the child to free the kitten entangled in a ball of yarn.

6. Ears to Hear

A final thought. Anyone who has tried to teach ethics in schools or universities knows what a precarious enterprise this is. It can be done, but there has to be a foundation to work upon. Ideas can only work their way upon the evils of the world indirectly through people who care. And ethics can only be effectively taught to people who have already learned something about what it is to care and be cared for, to love and be loved, to respect others and be respected by them.

We return, in other words, to the earliest levels of moral development. At these levels, the family is the pivotal institution of moral education and good societies must be con­cerned about the health of families. Attacking such social problems as dys­func­tional families, child abuse, problem neighbor­hoods, and drugs is the ulti­mate frontier of moral education necessary to sustain a moral sphere in society.

Of course, one needs the schools as well, but teaching values in the schools is not enough. Those who have suffered childhoods of deprivation of love cannot profit from such training. Their teachers are like Orpheus in a poem by Jack Gilbert, playing music to sway the beasts in Hades to free his beloved Eurydice, only to find that the beasts have no ears. They cannot hear his music. Every teacher can tell you about such students. The ethical life is a harmony, as Plato called it, with its own subtle attractions.[14] But those who have been deprived of love when young cannot hear it. They have no ears.

Conversely, to teach a child in the early years what it is to love and be loved, to respect and be respected, is to give the child ears to hear whatever divine music the universe has to play. You cannot guarantee they will listen, but without those ears, life will be a terrible jumble of mea­ning­less sounds, or worse, a dreadful silence. They will live in what Herman Melville in his novel Moby Dick called “an ice­pal­ace made out of frozen sighs.” In this respect the family is the pivot of moral education. If it fails, teachers cannot succeed. Confucius, that old wise fel­low from the East, put it this way: “When there is love in the home” he said, “there is peace in the kingdom.”[15]


[1] For example, Bellah et al. 1985; Sandel 1983; Taylor 1989; Etzioni 1995 and communitarian contributors to Rasmussen (ed.) 1990. Kymlicka 2002, chapter 9, develops this theme in persuasive fashion. For feminist theorists see note 18.

[2] Loudon 2000 perceptively argues that such issues are addressed by Kant in what he calls the “impure” part of Kant’s ethics which is “not about deriving duties from the categorical imperative, but about making morality efficacious in human life.” In the MST, this “impure” part of ethics follows from the EP itself insofar as it requires “doing what one can to maintain the moral sphere” in adverse circumstances.

[3] For an overview of the values clarification method and its role in values education, see Maury Smith 1977. Bloom’s critique is in 1987: 61.

[4] Bloom ibid.

[5] Such core virtues also play a prominent role in the work of philosophers who discuss the psychology of moral character, e. g., Thomas 1989.

[6] Schulman and Mehler (1985).

[7] Piaget (1932).

[8] Kagan (1982).

[9] Ibid. p. 55-6.

[10] Lickona (1985).

[11] Their views are described in Begley and Carey (1984).

[12] An interesting recent philosophical work on justice by Robert C. Solomon (1991) shows how important the emotions are in the cultivation of a sense of justice through­out life. Justice, Solomon argues, is not sim­ply a matter of following abstract rules, but a virtue intricately tied to varied aspects of our emotional life.

[13] Wingert and Kantrowitz (1990), p. 41.

[14] The Republic (1987), Book V.

[15] Quoted in Smith (1958), p. 196

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