Submitted by Melinda Mathay
From Chapter 9: Social Cognition
When the forefathers Washington, Jefferson, and Webster advocated for public education, they presupposed the necessity to educate the spirit as well as the mind, asserting, in Webster’s words, that “an acquaintance with ethics and with general principles of law . . . is necessary for the yeomanry of a republic state”, and, according to Washington, the “basis of public happiness” was achieved, in part, by educating the citizenry not only in the value of its own rights, but also in “self-control and forbearance” (Klee, 2003). Thus were established the dual principles of “diffusion of knowledge” and “cultivation of virtue” forming the cornerstones of American education, which remained intact until after the industrial revolution. The latter twentieth century found political theorists and moral philosophers urging a return to the concept of “civic virtue”, leading to laws mandating or encouraging moral and character education in our public schools again (Klee, 2003; Hirsch, 1999).
Two basic schools of thought regarding the development of civic virtue exist. The first, generally regarded as “moral education” (“constructing morality”), aligning with Kohlberg’s views, asserts that the purpose is to stimulate and encourage the development of autonomous moral judgment, not indoctrination of values (Bergin & Bergin, 2012; Kohlberg, 1981). The second, referred to as “character education” (“handed-down morality”), advocates the inculcation of extrinsic virtues such as honesty, kindness, courage, obedience, and politeness as “habit” (Bergin & Bergin, 2012; Klee, 2003). Both approaches have detractors and supporters.
Critics of constructivist morality argue that the successful development of the child as an autonomous moral agent requires that teachers remain neutral, necessitating atypically refraining from indicating ‘acceptable’ responses, whereas critics of the character development approach argue that behavior without principled reflection is nothing more than rote obedience, not self-determined, sustainable moral principle (Bergin & Bergin, 2012; University of Kentucky, 2013). Justifying their position, moral constructivists such as Kohlberg maintain that discussion of moral issues and joint decision-making, despite teacher influence (and only absent of authority assertion) create the foundation for justice, the end-goal of moral education (Bergin & Bergin, 2012; Kohlberg, 1981). However, advocates of character building believe that children must develop a collection of virtues through practice, modeling, and explicit goal-setting, asserting that ‘self-determination’ based on moral principles is meaningless if not accompanied by prior well-established habits of moral behavior (Bergin & Bergin, 2012; Hirsch, 1999; & Klee, 2003).
Understanding either approach necessitates clarifying some terminology, specifically morals, values, ethics, and virtues. As defined by Merriam-Webster, “morals” are principles of, teaching the conceptions of, or conforming to standards of right and wrong behavior. These are abstract, subjective, and often personal or religion-based, whereas “ethics” are principles of right conduct and are more practical, conceived as a shared set of moral values or principles of conduct governing and promoting fairness in a group or society (Grammarist, 2009-2013; Miriam-Webster, 1963). “Values” are the basic or fundamental beliefs that an individual holds to be true (Navran Associates, 2010), which include morals and ethics, but can vary according to cultural norms (Bergin & Bergin, 2012). Overlapping in definition, these three terms are often used erroneously interchangeably. The last, “virtues”, refers to standards of “right” or the observable behaviors/characteristics of moral excellence, such as respect, honesty, responsibility, courage, generosity, etc., which also vary culturally (Klee, 2003; Mirriam-Webster, 1963). Whereas morals, such as “it is wrong to kill” are reasonably universal, individual values influence the nuances of implementing that moral standard (hence capital punishment controversies). Likewise, both morals and virtues dictate honesty, but varying ethical standards within communities or businesses might allow for or even encourage “white lies” for the benefit of an individual or an organization, as in the political arena (Bergin & Bergin, 2012; Klee, 2003; & Kohlberg, 1981).
Regardless of the terminology or the approach, however, teachers have a responsibility to act as moral educators. According to modern educator-philosopher Nel Noddings, “It is a human responsibility – one that belongs to all of us” (Bergin & Bergin, 2012), the ultimate goal of which is student awareness of morality in situations, the ability to judge right and wrong, the desire to do the “morally right”, and the strength of character to act accordingly (Bergin & Bergin, 2012; Klee, 2003; Kohlberg, 1981).
- Bergin, C.C., & Bergin, D. A. (2012). Child and adolescent development in your classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.
- Grammarist. (2009). Ethics vs. morals. Retrieved from grammarist.com http://grammarist.com/usage/ethics-morals
- Hirsch, E. C., Jr. (1999). The schools we need and why we don’t have them. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
- Klee, Mary Beth. (2003). Core virtues: a literature-based program in character education. Liberyville, IL: The Link Institute.
- Kohlberg, Lawerence. (1981). The philosophy of moral development: moral stages and the idea of justice (essays on moral development). New York City, NY: Harper and Row.
- Navran, Frank J. (2010). Defining values, morals, and ethics. 2010 Navran Associates. Retrieved from http://www.navran.com/article-values-morals-ethics.html
- Merriam-Webster seventh new collegiate dictionary. (1963).
- University of Kentucky Leadership Development. (2013). Values and ethics. Retrieved from University of Kentucky website http://getinvolved.uky.edu/Leadership/pdf/ValuesandEthics
- If, in your practice, you adhere to the moral education (constructing morality) model, what measures do you take to maintain your neutrality while encouraging students to learn to act as autonomous agents of moral judgment in their discussions or activities?
- If you apply the principles of character education (handing down morality) in your practice, what measures do you employ to encourage the assimilation of consistent habits of moral behavior beyond the structure of your classroom?
- If your practice includes principles of both constructivist and handed-down morality, which morals, ethics, values, and/or virtues do you feel require inculcation, and which do you feel are better developed through principled, autonomous reflection, and why?
- What materials or programs are provided and/or required by your district or school, and do you feel they encourage rote obedience to rules, autonomous moral judgment, or both, and in what ways?