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Moral Navigation: From Puzzle to Purpose

by John Hoffman - 1974

When we discuss the issue of moral education the major consideration is not whether we should have it, for as we have indicated, the value dimension of education is ever present. The central focus of the discussion must deal with the degree, manner, and kind of moral education.

Dr. John F. Hoffman, a recent recipient of a Ph.D. in social foundations of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is counselor and philosophy instructor at Niagara County Community College, Sanborn, New York.

The subject of moral education today resembles an intellectual rumpus room where all theories can be created and tolerated. When the subject is broached, some parents and teachers conjure up everything from religious formation to sexual codes, legal sanctions, rules of etiquette, yoga, "do your own thing," or the last vestiges of the Puritan ethic. When we turn to the professional philosophers for enlightenment, we find that most of their discourse for the past three quarters of a century has been a verbal exercise over esoteric minutiae in sesquipedalian terms. This state of affairs is due in no small measure, I believe, to the current reigning philosophical school known as linguistic analysis. The analytic school, whose proper discipline is metaethics, has divorced itself from the problems of practical living by analyzing technical ambiguities found in ordinary language. As one of their prominent theoreticians states:

In ethics any direct participation of this sort (in practical living) might have its dangers. It might deprive the analysis of detachment and distort a neutral study into a plea for some special code of morals. So although normative questions constitute by far the most important branch of ethics, pervading all of common sense life ... these questions must be left unanswered.1

Indeed, it comes as no surprise when we find a recent book on the subject beginning with "moral education is a name for nothing clear."2

Coupled with these confusions is the notion that education has been concerned with the moral development of students throughout history. All educational systerns employ variegated normative social aims, appraisals of practice, and distinct conceptions of a desirable way of life, however that might be conceived. Education is not an impartial enterprise. It is pregnant with convictions about what it is important to know and to become. From the pledge of allegiance to the flag, through the selection and instruction of what is to be taught, to the line formation for the bus ride home, major judgments of value are involved. The use of moral normative discourse in the daily affairs of schooling is a frequent occurrence. Administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors often use such words as "right," "wrong," "responsibility," "duty," "ought," and "justice" in specific situations that are intended to mold character and shape personalities according to a specific moral ideal. Schools, then, as moral institutions, offer a constellation of normative experiences to be learned. For example, when a student is being punished for tardiness to class, graded for a correct answer, or chided for wearing a bikini in the swimming pool, the student is learning certain principles which prescribe conduct. Indeed, the transmission of both moral, as well as nonmoral, value judgments are implicit in virtually every aspect of education.3

When we discuss the issue of moral education, therefore, the major consideration is not whether we should have it, for as we have indicated, the value dimension of education is ever present. The central focus of the discussion must deal with the degree, manner, and kind of moral education.4


Granting the above dimensions of the problem of moral education, several proposals to alleviate these difficulties can now be delineated.

First, we must tackle the difficult issue of just what is meant when We say that someone is a morally educated person. How is morality similar to but different from rules of etiquette, religious formation, and citizenship training? As with Augustine in regard to time, people seem to know what morality means until asked to define it. It is apparent to me that these philosophical points must be clarified before we plunge into the pedagogical questions of how morality is to be acquired in moral educational programs, teacher education preparation, curriculum design, and other interrelated issues.

One tenable route out of this morass is to adopt John Wilson's position,5 which views moral education in terms of a method, second order methodology (use of reason, intention, motive, and choice), rather than focusing on the substantive content, first order moral statements. This procedure, reminiscent of the works of John Dewey6 and Louis Raths,7 emphasizes the principles and the processes which would enable one to assess a specific moral code or a particular moral action without concentrating on the actual content of one's moral code.

A major advantage of such a second order approach is that it offers solid grounds in which common agreement might be reached, whereas seeking common agreement on first order moral statements, such as, "abortion is wrong," "the death penalty is right," "euthanesia is wrong," etc., may be an impossible dream. Abraham Melden affirmed the value of a methodological orientation regarding moral education when he stated:

If we are going to talk reasonably about moral education, instead of waving signals about the common good, we must address ourselves to the character of the rational procedures employed.... We need to study the kinds of procedures for making appraisals that are such that, even though on a particular occasion we may go wrong, they still enable us to correct our mistakes in a way similar to that in science.8

Another positive feature of this methodological approach is that it focuses attention on the intentional states of the moral agent, rather than on the external, observable actions of the agent, a point often ignored in moral education as apotheosized by the long history of the character education movement in America.9 All too often one hears that "morality is getting the kids to behave." Moral education is thus misconstrued as a long list of specific behavioral objectives ("do this and don't do that"). To illustrate that internal processes are central in morality, consider the following examples. Practically every night pedestrians are said to be killed accidentally (i.e., without intention, deliberation, or motive) as they walk along highways. In most cases the motorist is not held accountable for the act unless evidence can be established that the driver was intoxicated, reckless, driving a malfunctioning vehicle, and so on. The moral person is concerned not only with performing what is thought to be a good action, but also with how the action is performed. Also if someone intends to save a helpless child who is playing in the street, we would praise him more so than if he accidentally bumped the child out of the way from the onrushing truck. When questions of moral attribution are under consideration, an investigation of the internal states of the agent is often in order. The man who gives alms to the poor out of fear of public opprobrium is not actually performing a moral act, for moral judgments of praise and blame are conditioned by the various ways in which motives, Intentions, and deliberations relate to actions. This is not to deny the significance of behavioral objectives in moral activity, but it is to underscore a needed redressing of the issues in moral education.

While a second order methodology has much to recommend it, the theory at this time requires further philosophical refinement before it receives our full endorsement and before we possess a more determinate conception of what is involved in being moral. Presumably moral education a la Wilson should consist in advocating the criteria of rationality, intentionality, motivation, etc. But these remain as vague terms until precise meanings are hammered out by the philosopher's chisel. Did not Hitler use reason, intention, and motivation when he murdered millions of Jews? Similar examples lead us to the Achilles' heel of this second order methodology, namely, a failure to examine the normative presuppositions which undergird and buttress the methodology itself. In other words, the use of such terms as reason, motive, and intention are relational in meaning and have as their referents prior commitments regarding the "good life." As Brian Hill correctly informs us, "the very determination of what reasons are regarded by the agent as relevant to a particular moral question rests upon the value loadings or priorities he has placed on the data available to him."10 Despite these shortcomings, the methodological approach suggests a defensible concept of moral education that contains enough initial plausibility to be taken up for further discussion.


Yet a glaring paradox emerges which threatens to negate the argument unless it is resolved. Moral education is in a state of confusion, and as we mentioned earlier, represents a name for nothing clear. At the same time teachers constantly act as moral guides within the parameters of a large moral institution, the school, which in turn exists within an even larger complex moral cocoon that we call social life. Thus teachers daily engage in moral prescriptions about which they have no training and little knowledge. And so the time honored question arises: Who will teach the teachers?

As a partial solution to this question I propose that teacher education programs develop strategies designed to clarify moral issues for their students.11 What values do they esteem? Why? How are their values formed, modified, and changed? In this way it is hoped that teachers will possess a personal awareness of the complex protean character of moral behavior. Not to be overlooked in this matter are the psychological insights of Lawrence Kohlberg's empirical studies on moral development.12 His investigations suggest that moral principles emerge from rational problematic stimulation when controversial issues are proportionately matched to various stages of maturation. One important outcome of his research is that moral development is not enhanced by rote learning, didactic moralizing, or behavioral conditioning.

Student teachers should also be aware of the sociological implications that bear on moral education. Morality cannot be taught in abstracto, for it does not exist in abstracto, but in, through, and often despite the actual conditions of social activity. One cannot discern nor discuss the idea of moral education without some understanding of the purpose, content, and structure of the institution within which it is to be taught, since all institutions contain, or are informed by, many implicit assumptions and premises which can enhance or detract from a program in moral education. In other words, no matter how well meaning a teacher may be, many values are transmitted covertly, or indirectly, as a result of the institutional norms within which one works. For example, a great deal has been written in recent years on the values of competition, achievement, independence, and the class-biased tracking systems that are ingrained in the schools.13 Therefore, what is going to be as well as what is not going to be a moral issue will in part be determined by the social, historical, and economic forces at work at any given time in the society. While atmospheric pollution was evident a century ago, it was not seen then, as it is now, as hazardous and highly objectionable. Thus there is a reciprocal relation between moral consciousness in a society and the perceived existence of its problems. The result of such sociological inquiry will be a consciousness of the unavoidably normative character of the schools and the limits this places on rational discourse.

In an age of culture shock change, there appears an urgent need for a fresh look at moral education. When confusion reigns, the teacher is still enlisted as a moral guide within a morally-laden school system. It was proposed that one useful starting point to the problem of moral education is to treat it with less emphasis on substantive content and more on its methodology of inquiry and student discovery. We also mentioned that teacher education programs must deal with value clarification, psychological studies, and sociological implications of morality and moral education. While the present proposals for moral education can be considered modest in outlook, they require no small effort, for teachers must be able to present contemporary moral issues in a provocative manner devoid of evangelism, on the one hand, and of eliciting conforming behavior, on the other. Here, as elsewhere, the critical feat is to develop teachers who are neither rebels without a cause nor mindless robots. Not such a modest proposal after all.


1 Charles L. Stevenson. Ethics and Language. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1944, p. 1.

2 John Wilson, Norman Williams, and Barry Sugarman. Introduction to Moral Education. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1967, p. 11

3 Paul H. Hirst, "Public and Private Values and Religious Educational Content," in Theodore R. Sizer, ed. Religion and Public Education. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1967, p. 330.

4 Norman K. Denzin, "Children and Their Caretakers," in Ray C. Rist, ed. Restructuring American Education. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1972, pp. 23-37.

5 Wilson, Williams, and Sugarman, op. cit.

6 John Dewey. Atoral Principles in Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.

7 Louis Raths, Harmin Merrill, and Sidney Simon. Values and Teaching. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1966.

8 Comments during a conference on moral education held in June 1968 in Toronto under the sponsorship of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, cited in C.M. Beck, B.S. Crittenden, and E.V. Sullivan. Moral Education. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971, p. 297.

9 The character education movement was proven to be an incorrect method for acquiring moral principles as related in the studies of Hugh Hartshorne and Mark A. May. Studies in the Nature of Character. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

10 Brian Hill, "Education for Rational Morality or Moral Rationality," Educational Theory, Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer 1972, p. 289.

11 An interesting example of open-ended question techniques is found in Sidney B. Simon, Leland W. Howe, and Howard Kirschenbaum. Values Clarification. New York: Hart, 1972.

12 Lawrence Kohlberg, "Moral Education in the Schools," The School Review, Vol. 74, Spring 1966, pp. 1-30.

13 These matters have been treated by a number of authors such as: Robert Dreeben. On What is Learned in School. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1968; Eleanor Burke Leacock. Teaching and Learning in City Schools. New York: Basic Books, 1969; and Ivan Dlich, "The Alternative to Schooling," Saturday Review, June 19,1971, pp. 45-67.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 75 Number 4, 1974, p. 501-505
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1475, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 4:26:08 PM

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