Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Limits of Secular Morality

Many public and secular schools are undertaking the difficult task of initiating anti-bullying programs while remaining unabashedly secular. The following is an imaginary conversation between a student and teacher at such a school.

Teacher: Johnny, stop hitting Billy.
Johnny: But it's fun and Billy hasn't given me his lunch money yet.
T: Johnny, bullying is wrong!
J: What makes something wrong teacher?
T: Well, we don't treat people like that.
J: Who's "we"? We do in my culture. Are you suggesting that my culture is inferior to yours. Aren't you being intolerant and judgemental?
T: Look Johnny, people have rights.
J: What rights and where did we get them?
T: Well, do you remember our lessons about our constitution? Our forefathers wrote a remarkable document that protects our rights.
J: So we have rights because of stuff written by a bunch of dead guys?
T: Well those dead guys didn't think it was they who were giving us our rights.
J: Interesting! Where did those dead guys think we got our rights?
T: Umm, uh, look Johnny, would you want to be treated like you are treating Billy?
J: You are not answering my question but I will go along anyway. No, I wouldn't want Billy to beat me up and take my lunch money. That's why I eat well balanced meals and do 100 pushups a day. What's your point?
T: My point is that we should treat people like we would want to be treated.
J: Now that is an interesting concept teacher. Can you tell me the origins of that idea?
T: It is time to go to the principals office Johnny.

I know, this is a silly and entirely unlikely conversation, but I offer it to suggest that a secular only approach to teaching about moral issues has its limits, and that we are doing a disservice, even handicapping, our children if we do not explore moral issues in greater depth.


Caledonication said...

If Johnny is not enrolled in some sort of Ethics course, why should the teacher be responsible for Johnny's moral education? Here, teacher is using a moral explanation to answer a question better associated with policy. Had Johnny questioned school policy, then the discussion might turn to how policy reflects lawfulness, which in turn reflects rights as defined in the constitution. I think in this case, the answer isn’t necessarily a non-secular one. What if the teacher had said, “Billy is protected from your bullying, by the same rules of conduct that protect you, from me putting my foot in your backside”?

I think that probably a lot of moral lessons can be taught in a secular environment, a couple of examples might be:

Reward versus consequences.
Putting someone into another person’s shoes.
The difference between foolish and healthy pride.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe the best moral education is through progressive, non-secular, character refinement.

Denis Navratil said...

Caledon, regarding your first question, it is the schools and teachers who are initiating anti-bullying programs, so they have chosen to take on Johnny's moral education, at least with respect to the issue of bullying. Are secularists educators right to do so? Now that is an interesting question. I would say that if secularist educators are going to take on this responsibility, they should do so more completely. Laws pertaining to these issues are part of the argument- Johnny could go to jail someday if he keeps this up- but aren't there better arguments than that for why we shouldn't beat up Billy? If teachers are going to go down this road, they should keep going. Obviously, some of the more convincing or at least common arguments are of a religious nature. I think a secular education should teach these ideas without neccessarily endorsing them. Private religious schools could obviously endorse the religious ideas that they teach. Got to go. More on this later.

Caledonication said...

"it is the schools and teachers who are initiating anti-bullying programs, so they have chosen to take on Johnny's moral education"

Yes, but is this based on morality or liability?

Denis Navratil said...

Well I suspect perhaps liability now that you ask. But either way, I think that if they are going to go there, they should go there more completely.

Anonymous said...

Like the hypocrisy of 'Separation of Church and State', and then having a Federal Agency called 'Faith Based Initiatives'? As I heard a former Republican official from Ronald Reagan's administration say, "...that is 'government religion', by any other name...".

Power corrupts...and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Denis Navratil said...

anon, which entity has the absolute power in public education today? Government does. And I agree with you that they shouldn't.

smallgovsam said...

The functions of a union are like that of a virus - self perpetuation at the expense of the host.

Actually Denis, the foundering fathers believed that natural liberty (freedom from coercion) was an axiom, a self-evident fact. No further proof is needed in the statement “Murder is wrong.” If anybody carries on the libertine tradition, it is NOT Protestant or Holy Roman Churches but rather the Humanist Enlightment philosophers like Locke, Smith, and Paine.

Churches have a long history of violence and even today churches teach there exists a natural hierarchy of worth from church goer, to ecclesiastic, to bishop, to church leaders. A Catholic believes that a pope has a much closer relationship to God. A Humanist believes that all people are people.

Liberty and nonviolence ARE secular.

Denis Navratil said...

Hey Sam, thanks for your comments. I am afraid I am in no position to argue about the merits of particular humanist philosophers. However, it is my understanding that all or nearly all of our founding fathers were deists. As such, it was perhaps self-evident to them that murder is wrong, because of their beliefs that life was God given. Anyway, while certain behavioral standards may now appear to be self evident to you and I, it has not always been so, nor is it so now among many earthly inhabitants, nor will it be in the future. Religions have certainly contributed to our collective moral failings and so have other modes of thought, including secular philosophies like socialism, atheism, and communism to name a few. But it would be unwise to abandon all modes of thought, including religious thought, because some practitioners behaved badly. Also, it is easy to point out the failings of religions and ignore the contributions. I have an athiest friend who I like to tease by calling her a Christian. My point is that much of what she, and perhaps you, believe to be self evident, relies or borrows heavily from Christian thought.