One of the skills that I believe is important to teach in schools is the ability to develop and apply moral values to everyday life. In the past, this sort of thing was done by integrating religion into school. Children would be taught Christian moral values and principles, and they learned to apply them. Once schools became more secularized, this religious moral education was removed. And don’t get me wrong—I believe that is a good thing. However, no system of moral values was put in its place. Instead of embracing the moral values of secular society, schools opted toward a “no-values” approach that removed as much value-judgment as possible.1 The emphasis shifted to facts and analysis of facts instead of values and value judgments.
I believe this was a mistake. In order to produce healthy moral citizens, children must be taught to navigate the world of moral values. And this is better done earlier in a child’s education rather than later. They must be taught to analyze everyday situations in terms of morally relevant characteristics and make judgments on what behaviours are appropriate for themselves and others. Otherwise, children will grow into adults who divorce moral considerations from their own lives. Do I need to spell out the problems this may cause?
Of course, the difficulty is that in a multicultural and multifaith society, there are a diversity of values that people hold, some of which may be incompatible with each other. How can a school teach anything about moral values without advocating one set of values as better than another? I believe there is a middle path between supporting one set of values and teaching no values at all. This path both respects cultural diversity and acknowledges (or at least allows for the possibility) that moral values may be relative and not fundamentally grounded as an objective property of the universe. Instead of advocating particular values, it teaches children to weigh and apply values. So I’d like to outline this approach in a little more detail to show you what it might look like.
A Values Approach
Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who studies morality and politics. In his research, he sought to uncover what were the fundamental moral dimensions upon which people (cross-culturally) judge events and actions. He identified six of these dimensions: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. Not all individuals use all of these dimensions, but Haidt argued that judgments people considered “moral” were based on at least one or more of these dimensions. Whether or not you agree with this theorizing, this approach attempts to understand morality from a descriptive values approach: What do people value, and how does that affect their choices and behaviour?
This approach is somewhat in contrast to the philosophical tradition of ethics, which attempted to ground morality in a rational principle or set of principles. Philosophers have traditionally tried to reach back to first principles to establish morality, typically drawing on one principle to do so: Immanuel Kant had the categorical imperative, John Stuart Mill had the greatest-happiness principle, and John Rawls had the “veil of ignorance.” These principles were then extended outward to determine the moral implications that followed.
I believe there is much to be gained by studying morality (and society in general) from the perspective of values. The philosophical tradition, in a sense, can be seen as answering the question, “What should we value?” The values approach, however, asks, “Given that this is what we value, how do we resolve conflicting values and make decisions in line with our values?” And when teaching practical ethics, this is the more relevant question to answer. Taking this descriptive approach to values, I believe, makes it both easier to teach ethics in a multicultural context and allows for the possibility that moral values can be relative without any degradation in the process itself.
Conflicts and Dilemmas
A second aspect to my proposed approach is to clarify the concept of a “moral dilemma”. Commonly, this is used to refer to situations where self-interest conflicts with the needs of others. For example, should I call in sick even though I know my coworker needs help today? But really, this is a trivial case of a moral dilemma, if it is one at all. Such situations might be better classified as “self-control dilemmas”. In these cases, you know what the right choice is, but don’t want to choose it. Much more important to consider are moral dilemmas that pit two conflicting, strongly-held moral values against each other. In these cases, it is not immediately clear which choice is best. Determining this takes a process of deliberation where the relevant values are carefully weighed, and the various choices for actions closely examined for their probable outcomes.
Let’s take an example that is always sure to spark heated debate: abortion. Those who identify as pro-choice may point to values such as bodily autonomy (the right to decide what happens with one’s own body); the need for safe, medical procedures to mitigate harm; and compassion for pregnant women in unfortunate or traumatic circumstances. Those who identify as pro-life may emphasize values such as protecting life; acknowledging the role of God’s will in one’s circumstances; and harm or pain to the fetus. What is important to note here is that these values can be shared by both parties: pro-choice people may acknowledge that valuing life is generally a good thing, and pro-life people might acknowledge that bodily autonomy is generally preferable to a lack of bodily autonomy.2 This means that in some cases, the debate surrounding abortion does not involve completely separate values, but rather the different importance or weight assigned to each value. This is true both on a societal scale (should abortion be legal?) as well as on a personal scale (should I get an abortion?). For a woman considering an abortion, these values must all be considered and weighted to determine what her decision should be.
In one sense, this sounds trivial. Of course we must figure out what is important in order to make moral decisions! But I believe that teaching the skills necessary to analyze and resolve moral dilemmas is crucial to producing mature moral citizens. It is easy for people to overlook or intentionally ignore values that drastically change the outcome of a moral decision. It is only through careful and (as much as possible) unbiased deliberation that such oversights can be corrected. What is tragic is that often such deliberation never happens. When such is the case, people often fall back on their own pre-existing biases, or whatever value is most salient at the moment (typically something self-interested, I should point out), or what others tell them to do, or whatever is most convenient for them. These methods lead to poor results, and can end up causing significant harm to others and, in some cases, to society as a whole.
Outlining the Process
The process of resolving a moral dilemma is fairly straight-forward (though actually going through the process, of course, can be difficult). There are five steps:
- Identify the values that are relevant for the situation.
- Determine whether any of these values are in conflict with each other.
- Weight these values as to their importance.
- Identify the possible actions that could be taken and the outcomes that they are likely to produce.
- Determine which action will produce outcomes that best fulfill the weighted values identified above.
Of course, each of these steps could be broken down in more detail. How should one identify the values that are relevant? How should these values be weighed? Such details are important, but beyond the scope of this article. I’m not developing a curriculum, only outlining a broad theory for teaching moral decision-making. But hopefully these steps will offer enough opportunity for further thought.
In addition to learning the process, a good moral education involves an understanding of how our own biases and psychological limitations can distort the process. For example, people are excellent at rationalizing behaviour that is favourable towards themselves. We also make poor decisions when we are “involved” in the outcome; when we take a step back and view the problem from a distance, often we find new and better solutions. It is also important to stress that moral decisions where two strongly-held values are in conflict often do not lead to emotionally satisfying conclusions. When we are forced to make trade-offs or compromises, expecting to feel entirely comfortable with the result is a mistake. And finally, often decisions must be made under time pressure, which only amplifies the influence that our biases have on our decision. All these things are important to teach children so that they can learn to think rationally about situations with a moral component and make the best choice.
Returning to Value-Based Education
It’s no secret that much of our everyday lives involves values and beliefs. Values affect where we work, who we form relationships with, how we act, how we form our identity, what we purchase, and how we vote. Learning to navigate the world of values is crucial to function properly in a complex society such as our own. And since ethics is applicable in every domain of life, we must learn to incorporate moral values as we make the major and minor decisions our lives. Teaching children this skill helps them to become mature moral agents. And I believe it is possible to teach them moral decision-making without elevating any particular set of values over any other. We can take a descriptive approach that uses the values already on the table to weigh and apply them. Finding this middle path may be difficult, but I believe the investment will yield great dividends in the health of our society.
- Of course, there are still values that are transmitted in school. Dominant cultural values such as the importance of education, the necessity of the state and of the current economic system, etc. are certainly still imparted to children. But these commonly-accepted values tend to fly under the radar. [↩]
- Of course, some values might not be shared—non-religious people probably won’t find the role of God’s will to be a relevant concern. [↩]