Moral Education: Interdisciplinary Approaches
reviewed by Philip H. Phenix - 1972
This work is based on the proceedings of a conference on moral education held in June 1968 under the auspices of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The participants were drawn in about equal numbers from the disciplines of philosophy and psychology, with a few additions from the social sciences. The first nine chapters contain prepared papers on various aspects of the theme of moral education, and the last four constitute an edited selection of the discussion of those papers. Each section of the book is
preceded by an introduction in which the complex strands of argument and discussion are ably identified and evaluated by the editors.
In the present era of widespread moral uncertainty and desperate searching for solid values and the means to implant such values through education, the problems of moral instruction have taken on particular urgency. It is now commonly understood that the most refined techniques of acquiring and applying knowledge are of little worth—or may be positively harmful—in the absence of a moral framework that puts knowledge to the service of worthy ends. Surfeited by the products of the knowledge industry, many today feel themselves ethically starved, and the sorry disarray of the family of man is the objective counterpart of their unsatisfied hunger.
Yet, unfortunately, most attempts in recent years to come to terms with the need for moral education have proven ineffective. Of handwringing and exhortation there is no lack. Of serious, illuminating inquiry there is a dearth. As Lawrence Kohlberg remarks, "there have been no classical or exciting treatments of moral education in the last two generations to compare with the work of Dewey (1909) and Durkheim (1925)." The present volume gives heartening evidence of sustained and productive efforts to supply a theory of moral education in response to the urgencies of the times, using the resources of both contemporary philosophy and social psychology.
In the opening paper Kohlberg admirably presents a conception of moral education based on empirical studies of the stages of human development. He believes his investigations show that, contrary to the view of cultural relativists, there are universal moral values, and that all persons in all cultures go through the same gross stages of moral development. The more mature stages are defined by greater structural adequacy, characterized by the formal principles of increased differentiation and integration which enable the actor to handle moral problems in a more self-consistent manner. Kohlberg contends that the sequence represents a universal logical order of moral concepts, culminating in the most inclusive principle, that of justice based on the claims of equality and reciprocity. Moral education, in his view, is a nonindoctrinative process of progressive exposure to higher modes of thinking, through consideration of conflict situations that can be resolved only by resorting to the next higher stage of moral judgment.
The themes discussed by Kohlberg are treated in turn by most of the other participants. Not all are convinced that the evidence for an invariant developmental sequence is definitive or that there may not be a cultural bias in Kohlberg's supposed universals—the question is important in order to establish the possibility of moral education in a pluralistic society dedicated to freedom. All are agreed that the schools ought not to inculcate a particular set of moral precepts: the only viable basis for moral instruction is that students be helped to become more intelligent in their choices, and to assume in their deliberations a progressively more moral point of view, such as that analyzed by Kurt Baier in his essay.
Jan Loubser, a sociologist, provides an ingenious and fresh definition of moral action by constructing an "ideal type" containing four elements of preference: affective neutrality over affectivity (i.e., impartiality), quality over performance (i.e., respect for persons as such), universalism over particularism, and diffuseness over specificity of scope. He then applies this construct to show that most schools inhibit moral development, so defined, and to indicate how they might be modified to serve moral growth more effectively.
The strongest statement on behalf of rationality in moral behavior is that of David P. Ausubel who argues that in recent decades the crucial rational components in moral behavior have been undervalued because of an undue emphasis on affective mechanisms, a tendency to overemphasize the arbitrary and subjective aspects of moral values, theories of psychological determinism that deny rational volition, and the kind of cultural relativism that views moral standards as wholly arbitrary. Against these views, Ausubel stands for rational, objective, and verifiable moral standards, for moral accountability, and for cross-cultural, generic moral values.
On the other hand, Justin Aronfreed insists on the priority of affective components. He believes it is these alone that permit values (including whatever rational substance they may have) to exercise control over overt behavior. Aronfreed sums up his skepticism about the central-ity of reason in moral education by remarking, "What impresses me is that the overwhelming evidence from common observation, as well as a certain amount of formal work that psychologists have done over the years, indicates that children's behavior is very insensitive to what we have been talking about as moral education in this conference. I wonder, for example, whether the kind of moral education that has been suggested here would result in any modification of their behavior, or whether it would simply result in their being able to hold conversations in moral philosophy."
The issue is most sharply and poignantly posed by D. W. Oliver and M. J. Bane in their searching self-scrutiny of the Harvard Social Studies Project in which they created a practical approach to moral education through the analysis of public controversy in terms of prescriptive, descriptive, and analytic issues and the development of strategies for justification and clarification of views through discussion processes. They are led to ask, "whether or not most people engage in the kind of moral reasoning advocated by our curriculum, and even if they do, whether this kind of reasoning is but an insignificant part of something we might call the moral personality. One could argue, for example, that we should be more concerned with moral sensitivity than with moral reasoning. Or perhaps a sensitivity to paradox and tragedy in human nature (rather than consistency and universality in moral rules) is a far more powerful force in the expression of man's inherent humanity than the use of reasoning strategies in the development of flexible moral principles."
One does not come away from reading this book with any sense of problems resolved. Conflicts and perplexities over the meaning of morality and the manner of education for it are, if anything, deepened rather than dissipated. Nevertheless, the reader is rewarded by being put in touch with what a group of today's best philosophical and psychological investigators are saying, with fresh insight and ever more ample empirical support, about problems that lie at the heart of the modern educational crisis, and, indeed, that are crucial to the very destiny of mankind.