Moral Judgement: Moral and Character Education in Schools

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
  • 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
  • Merriam-Webster seventh new collegiate dictionary. (1963).
  • University of Kentucky Leadership Development.  (2013).  Values and ethics. Retrieved from University of Kentucky website

 Discussion Questions:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?



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5 Responses to Moral Judgement: Moral and Character Education in Schools

  1. Michelle Peterson says:

    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?

    I use some of both of these in my practices. I find that there is a grey area for these principles. Some things I believe are better understood or learned through independent reflection. I like to think the two schools of thought can be seen as building blocks for the other. An example of this would be teaching sharing dynamics. Although I can teach the social expectations for friendship and sharing, it would be very difficult to say, “This is exactly what needs to happen and why” and have a student understand, process, internalize and replicate that. However, sometimes, guidance and practice seems to be the best starting ground. For example, students need to learn to take turns while sharing the iPad in my classroom. If I left them to do this independently, they may not ever change turns. Through repetition and practice they learn to share, because it is an expectation. I believe that they eventually learn the importance of sharing on a deeper level through reflection, but in the beginning stages, repetition of expectations seems to be most successful in my classroom. My goal is to move them to a level of reflection where they learn this principal not only because they have practiced the skill and know the “HOW TO” but also because they have experiences that help them understand and create their own learning. From there, I expect my students to independent make the right choice to share without my intervention.
    I see both approaches as useful, just dependent on the situation and the child.

  2. Andrea says:

    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?

    My school district follows several different approaches. The elementary schools have incorporated PBS and character education. The junior high is in the process of implementing character education. No formal training for staff has been scheduled as of yet. Love and logic is used by numerous teachers throughout the school district. These approaches do a good job of helping the students take responsibility for their actions (good or bad). They can also allow the students to have some input regarding consequences (positive and negative). The administration tries to work with students when issues arise. Consequences are still handed out, but there is discussion with the student to help equip them with ideas/strategies so that they do not repeat problem behavior or choices. One area where my school district expects rote obedience to rules is when it comes to the safety of the students. The students seem very accepting of the expectation that students follow rules that deal with their safety.

  3. Autumn says:

    These are very interesting, thought-provoking questions and, although I certainly do not consider myself an authority on the subject, I have worked in schools that have subscribed to each of the aforementioned paradigms. While I am not sure that one method was/is more successful than the other, I do think that there are certain circumstances where aspects of morality can be more pragmatically achieved through direct character education, while there are others that warrant a more constructivist approach.
    Character education: In principle it sounds a bit draconian, like the repression of free will and independent thought. However, I have found that this practice does have its merits, particularly in the realm of safety (mentioned in another post), where the long-term benefit may not be manifest to the students. Additionally, this approach often proves instrumental in supporting kids who are struggling with moral and/or ethical boundaries and allows for quick establishment of control. If a student is not yet at a stage in their personal development where the ability to shift perspectives can readily override their immediate emotional impulse, character education can offer them that structure until these areas are more fully developed. Scaffolding can also be incorporated in the form of guided reflection, once the student’s ability to empathize and/or effectively reason can be harnessed.
    Constructivist approach: On the surface, it sounds like the antithesis of handed-down morality. The encouragement of autonomous reflection, while subsuming the principles of right and wrong into an existing schema is logically compelling and certainly has its place. When a child is able to employ rational thinking on a deeper level, this method can yield impressive results in the areas of critical thinking, abstract problem solving, ethics, and global awareness (e.g. human rights, green initiatives, and politics). On a more basic level, I am not entirely convinced, as I have found that most children (exceptions noted above) seem be driven by their own moral compass (presumably with guidance from home) and generally know when their actions are disruptive, unfair, or motivated by self-interest, independent of reflection and/or formal education . (This in no way is meant to suggest that they adhere to this morality all of time, just that they recognize it.) Therefore, attempting to have the students discuss why their actions were wrong in a given situation is often unproductive. I have worked at schools where a large portion of instructional time was devoted to the cultivation of learner attributes through constructivism: caring, balanced, attitude empathy, etc. If you had asked a student to do so, they most certainly would have been able to describe and model each attribute, but this did not imply that it was reflected in their own lives, choices and/or routines. Absent this essential practice, these attributes amounted to little more than empty rhetoric, having virtually no effect on shaping a student’s moral identity. In this sense, it does not even really seem to differ from handed-down morality. To be effective, in my experience, one must be careful to penetrate beneath the surface, and not become complacent. Students can be quite the experts at parroting superficial explanations and platitudes; we must demand more if we expect real internalization.

    • melinda says:

      I completely agree with all of the above and have found much the same in my own practice. Had I responded to my own post, I would have stated much the same, albeit not as well. Thank you.

  4. Katie Williams says:

    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?

    My school district follows several approaches as well. My school implemented character education. A teacher comes in once a week and focuses on one skill at a time. The character coach also provides additional intervention if needed. Rehabilitative Behavior Health Services are also available for qualifying students throughout the district. Other elementary schools in our district are PBS schools. One other school is a Leader in Me school/Leadership Academy. I think these approaches have both pros and cons, but for most students, they are doing a much better job of taking responsibility for their own actions and respecting each other. Because of the amount of support staff available, students aren’t going to the office as much, and social interaction with both peers and authority figures are much better. However, the administration will still work through serious offenses. Students are given consequences both good and bad. They are also able to turn their day around when they make poor choices.

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