Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University

April 1, 2010

One question that does not seem to exercise the minds of many academics in the UK these days - although maybe it should - is whether universities should teach their students morality. In any case, it is not clear whether the aim of such teaching would be to make students more ethical or simply more informed about ethics. The dominant themes of moral education in the past perhaps provide good reasons to be wary of it now: notions of dutiful obedience, righteous punishment and "back to basics" oversimplify the complexities of modern life, and an emphasis on personal virtue may merely distract attention from more pressing issues of human rights and social justice.

Behind these debates, however, lie even more fundamental ones, such as what education is for these days, and whether we should be "rethinking the role of the modern university". A first stab at these might include the following claims: a university education develops our humanity; transforms people and gives them greater control over their own lives; prepares people for leadership; enhances career prospects; generates wealth; and promotes rigorous intellectual inquiry. All of these, arguably, have a moral dimension. Elizabeth Kiss and Peter Euben's Debating Moral Education brings together an impressive group of philosophers, political scientists and, in the case of Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian to discuss these matters.

The starting point is Stanley Fish. He argues that the modern university should be concerned only with academic or intellectual virtues, not moral ones. He sees no problem with academic debate about ethics but claims that academics should not be concerned with the practical implications of their arguments. The aim is the pursuit of truth, not the expression or implementation of political or other opinions, and universities have no right to take a moral stand, to recommend any particular version of the good to students or to enlist them in any moral cause. A university education may produce certain contingent effects (such as challenging students' values or making them more morally aware), but these can never be its aim. Most of the remaining chapters represent a direct or indirect response to Fish, although only one, James Bernard Murphy's "Against civic education in schools", offers broad support.

An initial critique of Fish might focus narrowly on his limited conception of moral education as the shaping of character, his lazy claim not to understand terms such as moral imagination and moral reasoning, his caricature of what it is to hold an opinion, and his failure to discuss the overlap between academic and ethical values seen, for example, in research ethics. But the importance of the book lies not so much in its arguments and counter-arguments as in its insistence on raising to consciousness key debates about moral education in universities that will not go away. What does moral education entail? What would we want it to accomplish? How does it link to citizenship education and civic virtue? Must it involve a degree of relativism? Does it presuppose shared liberal values, or can it legitimately be based on a tradition? In the latter case, is it indoctrination? Is moral education possible in a culturally plural society? Does it go on unintentionally and unconsciously even if it is not brought out into the open? All of these are discussed at some stage in the volume. For example, Lawrence Blum suggests that the multiculturalism of contemporary universities is itself a resource for moral education; Donald Moon argues that although it is hard to identify shared values in a modern university where there are many conceptions of the good, "common bads" may provide a basis for a common communicative culture; and David Hoekema describes how ethics lives on not only in professional codes of conduct but also in the university's hidden curriculum (such as staff example and the conduct of classroom discourse).

The strength of the volume lies in the editors' determination to give voice to a range of different views and leave readers (free) to pick their own way through. Thus in one chapter it is assumed that moral education means coming to understand what it is to think morally, in another it means simply learning to be moral, to follow traditional morality, to develop a personal moral code, or to make good moral judgements. The main weakness is that we're left floundering a bit at the end. There is no summing up, no conclusion, no guidance through the labyrinth. Indeed, the book ends with a chapter on sport and moral training, as if the concept of training were entirely unproblematic in the context of moral values. My hunch is that most readers, in the UK at least, would be happier with a concluding endorsement of the need to develop the skills of critical ethical reasoning.

Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University

Edited by Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben. Duke University Press 368pp, £70.00 and £18.99. ISBN 9780822346203 and 6166. Published 30 March 2010

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