Ethics Without Virtue

Ethics Without VirtueWhat do students in our nation’s schools do all day? Most of them are clearly not spending their time reading the classics, learning math, or studying the physical sciences. It is likely that, along with photography workshops, keeping journals, and perhaps learning about computers, students spend part of their day in moral education classes. But these classes are not, as one might expect, designed to acquaint students with the Western moral tradition. Professional theorists in schools of education have found that tradition wanting and have devised an alternative, one they have marketed in public schools with notable success.

The leaders of reform are convinced that traditional middle-class morality is at best useless and at worst pernicious, and they have confidence in the new morality that is to replace the old and in the novel techniques to be applied to this end.

One gains some idea of the new moral educators from the terminology they use. Courses in ethics are called Values Clarification or Cognitive Moral Development; teachers are “values processors,” “values facilitators,” or “reflective-active listeners”; lessons in moral reasoning are “sensitivity modules”; volunteer work in the community is an “action module”; and teachers “dialogue” with students to help them discover their own systems of values. In these dialogues the teacher avoids discussing “old bags of virtues,” such as wisdom, courage, compassion, and “proper” behavior, because any attempt to instill these would be to indoctrinate the student.

Some leaders of the new reform movement advise teachers that effective moral education cannot take place in the “authoritarian” atmosphere of the average American high school. The teacher ought to democratize the classroom, turning it into a “just community” where the student and teacher have an equal say. Furthermore, the student who takes a normative ethics course in college will likely encounter a professor who also has a principled aversion to the inculcation of moral precepts and who will confine classroom discussion to such issues of social concern as the Karen Ann Quinlan case, recombinant DNA research, or the moral responsibilities of corporations. The result is a system of moral education that is silent about virtue.

The teaching of virtue is not viewed as a legitimate aim of a moral curriculum, but there is no dearth of alternative approaches. From the time the values education movement began in the late 1960s, its theorists have produced an enormous number of articles, books, films, manuals, and doctoral dissertations; there are now journals, advanced degree programs, and entire institutes dedicated exclusively to moral pedagogy; and for the past several years, teachers, counselors, and education specialists have been attending conferences, seminars, workshops, and retreats to improve their skills in values processing. At present, two opposing ideologies dominate moral education: the values clarification movement, whose best-known proponent is Sidney Simon of the University of Massachusetts School of Education, and the cognitive moral development movement, whose chief spokesman is Lawrence Kohlberg, a professor of psychology and education, and director of the Center for Moral Education at Harvard.

Values clarification, according to Sidney Simon, is “based on the premise that none of us has the ‘right’ set of values to pass on to other people’s children.” Its methods are meant to help students to get at “their own feelings, their own ideas, their own beliefs, so that the choices and decisions they make are conscious and deliberate, based on their own value system.” To help students discover what it is that they genuinely value, they are asked to respond to questionnaires called “strategies.” Some typical questions are: Which animal would you rather be: an ant, a beaver, or a donkey? Which season do you like best? Do you prefer hiking, swimming, or watching television? In one strategy called “Values Geography,” the student is helped to discover his geographical preferences; other lessons solicit his reaction to seat belts, messy handwriting, hiking, wall-to-wall carpeting, cheating, abortion, hit-and-run drivers, and a mother who severely beats a two-year-old child.

Western literature and history are two traditional alienating influences that the values clarification movement is on guard against. Simon has written that he has ceased to find meaning “in the history of war or the structure of a sonnet, and more meaning in the search to find value in life.” He and his colleagues believe that exposure to one’s cultural heritage is not likely to be morally beneficial to the “average student.”

The values clarification theorist does not believe that moral sensibility and social conscience are, in significant measure, learned by reading and discussing the classics. Instead Simon speaks of the precious legacy we can leave to “generations of young people if we teach them to set their priorities and rank order the marvelous items in life’s cafeteria.”

As a college teacher coping with the motley ideologies of high school graduates, I find this alarming. Young people today, many of whom are in a complete moral stupor, need to be shown that there is an important distinction between moral and nonmoral decisions. Values clarification blurs the distinction. Children are queried about their views on homemade Christmas gifts, people who wear wigs, and whether or not they approve of abortion or would turn in a hit-and-run driver as if no significant differences existed among these issues. It is not surprising that teachers trained in neutrality and the principled avoidance of “moralizing” sometimes find themselves in bizarre classroom situations. In a junior high school in Newton, Massachusetts, a teacher put on the blackboard a poster of a Hell’s Angel wearing a swastika. The students were asked to react. “He’s honest, anyway. He’s living out his own feelings,” answered one. “He’s not fooling,” said another. When the students seemed to react favorably to the Hell’s Angel, the teacher ventured to suggest that “an alienated person might not be happy.”

Ethics Without Virtue

The student has values; the values clarification teacher is merely “facilitating” the student’s access to them. Thus, no values are taught. The emphasis is on learning how, not on learning that. The student does not learn that acts of stealing are wrong; he learns how to respond to such acts.

The values clarification course is, in this sense, contentless. Lawrence Kohlberg, the leader of the second major movement in moral education, shares with values clarification educators a low opinion of traditional morality. In his contribution to Theodore and Nancy Sizer’s anthology, Moral Education, he writes, “Far from knowing whether it can be taught, I have no idea what virtue really is.” Kohlberg’s disclaimer is not a Socratic confession of ignorance; he considers the teaching of traditional virtues to be at best a waste of time and at worst coercive.

Kohlberg’s authority derives from his cognitive developmental approach to moral education. Following John Dewey, Kohlberg distinguishes three main stages of moral development (each of which is partitioned into a higher and lower stage, making six in all). The first stage is called the premoral or preconventional reward/punishment level. In the second stage, morals are conventional but unreflective. In the third stage, moral principles are autonomously chosen on rational grounds. Kohlberg’s research applies Piaget’s idea that the child possesses certain cognitive structures that come successively into play as the child develops.

From the assumption of innateness, it is but a short step to the belief that the appropriate external circumstances will promote the full moral development of the child. It then becomes the job of the educator to provide those circumstances, “facilitating” the child to his moral maturity.
The deprecation of moralizing common to values clarification and cognitive development theory has been effective even in those schools where the reforms have not yet penetrated. Increasingly nowadays, few teachers have the temerity to praise any middle-class virtues. The exception is the virtue of tolerance. But, when tolerance is the sole virtue, students’ capacity for moral indignation, so important for moral development, is severely inhibited. The result is moral passivity and confusion and a shift of moral focus from the individual to society.

The student entering college today shows the effects of an educational system that has kept its distance from the traditional virtues. Unencumbered by the “old bag of virtues,” the student arrives toting a ragbag of another stripe whose contents may be roughly itemized as follows: psychological egoism (the belief that the primary motive for action is selfishness), moral relativism (the doctrine that what is praiseworthy or contemptible is a matter of cultural conditioning), and radical tolerance (the doctrine that to be culturally and socially aware is to understand and excuse the putative wrongdoer). Another item in the bag is the conviction that the seat of moral responsibility is found in society and its institutions, not in individuals.

The half-baked relativism of the college student tends to undermine his common sense. In a term paper that is far from atypical, one of my students wrote that Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal” for solving the problem of hunger in Ireland by harvesting Irish babies for food was “good for Swift’s society, but not for ours.”

In one discussion in my introductory philosophy class, several students were convinced that the death of one person and the death of ten thousand is equally bad. When a sophomore was asked whether she saw Nagasaki as the moral equivalent of a traffic accident, she replied, “From a moral point of view, yes.” Teachers of moral philosophy who are not themselves moral agnostics trade such stories for dark amusement.

It is fair to say that many college students are thoroughly confused about morality. What they sorely need are some straightforward courses in moral philosophy and a sound and unabashed introduction to the Western moral tradition­—something they may never have had before. But few teachers will use that tradition as a source of moral instruction: The fear of indoctrination is even stronger in the colleges than it is at primary and secondary schools.

How, finally, is one to account for the ethics-without-virtue phenomenon? A fully adequate answer is beyond me, but clearly there is a great deal more to the story than the national disenchantment with a system of education that “failed to prevent” moral lapses such as Watergate. A historian of ideas would probably take us back to romantics like Rousseau and to realists like Marx. George Steiner has written of this theme in Rousseau:

In the Rousseauist mythology of conduct, a man could commit a crime either because his education had not taught him how to distinguish good and evil, or because he had been corrupted by society. Responsibility lay with his schooling or environment, for evil cannot be native to the soul. And because the individual is not wholly responsible, he cannot be wholly damned.

The values clarification theorists can find little to disagree with in this description.

For social-minded reformers, justice is the principal virtue, and social policy is where ethics is really “at.” The assumption is that there is an implicit conflict between the just society and the repressive morality of its undemocratic predecessors. The fate of those societies that have actually succeeded in replacing personal morality with social policy is the going price for ignoring the admonition of Max Weber: “He who seeks salvation of the soul—of his own and others—should not seek it along the avenue of politics.”

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