Philosophical Ethics

What ought one to do?      Socrates

I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.      Albert Einstein

A quiet conscience makes one strong!      Anne Frank

Do you believe Australia has great need of more systematic teaching of philosophy, particularly philosophical ethics, to all children in our schools?

At every level of Australian society there seems to be an urgent need for more ethical behaviour, especially from leaders in government, business, organisations and religious institutions. In a democracy it is crucial that citizens hold leaders to account for unethical behaviour and individuals need these, highly analytical skills, to be explicitly taught.

The good news is that children and young people love the opportunity to explore philosophical ideas and do so already in many areas of the school curriculum. The bad news is that this not taught systematically, or named, as ‘philosophy’ or ‘ethics’ very often.

Why do we need ethics education?

An informed, well-educated citizenry is key to any functioning democracy. In a climate of ambiguity and spin, it is essential that individuals are able to think rationally about the issues of the day and not blindly accept the moral authority of any ideology, leader or the media, without independent thought. A democracy cannot function ethically without citizens who are able to wrestle with the contradictions and challenges of contemporary life.

Many believe that religion provides moral and ethical certainty for children and the not so young. I am sure that is often true but it is not right to leave this instruction, in a school context, to organisations that have supernatural beliefs and systems that will not change in light of scientific understanding or changed social mores. It is especially difficult for any religious organisation, that will not permit females to hold positions of authority, to dispense advice to our children, especially our young women, that seems ethical in a contemporary society. I say this as the father of two young daughters and someone concerned at the ongoing societal disadvantages women have that are enshrined in our community structures.

The recent revelations about the failures to address the horrors of institutionalised child sexual abuse, particularly in religious organisations where often unquestioning obedience is valued more than other trait, suggests that all our children need to have the skills to think more formally about what is right or wrong. Assisting students to be able to look objectively at the moral authority wielded by any individual, group or institution and think – about what is right? what is ethical? what is moral behaviour? – is needed desperately.  These same children will go on to take their place in our society able to make better decisions, more ethical decisions, than others who have been complicit in the abuse or corruption (too often these individuals are in secular positions of authority as well).

The Opportunity of Primary Ethics Classes

There is a difference between moral instruction and ethical enquiry. In moral instruction it is a simply a matter of telling people what to do…there is a place for that but what we aim to do is to allow children to explore the reasons for why something might be right or wrong, good or bad by directing them to issues which relate to their lives.      Dr Simon Longstaff

The St James Ethics Centre (follow on twitter herehas assisted in developing the curriculum for ethics classes in NSW state schools since 2011. In this short period of time the numbers have “grown to over 1,000 volunteers with almost 700 teachers delivering ethics classes to around 11,000 students in more than 230 schools”.

Ethics education

As a parent and an educator, I believe that differentiating between moral instruction and ethical enquiry is essential and that students should have the opportunity to do this in formal lessons. I am certain that many parents who happily send their children weekly to Special Religious Education would love them to also attend ethics classes. Why does it have to be one or the other? Surely our community would benefit from a more explicit teaching of ethics in the curriculum that did not just have to rely on a volunteer group.

Community members interested in participating, as a teacher or co-ordinator, can access information from the FAQs  or at the Primary Ethics site. There is also a twitter account to follow and a great introductory video to view:

Concluding Thoughts

Travelling and living in Europe, especially Paris, it was evident from even the most glossy, popular magazine, that philosophy was a more mainstream pursuit than it is here in Australia. I have often blogged about my admiration for Danish society and noted last year that Denmark was ranked as the least corrupt country in the world. It seems obvious that a more concerted, structured approach to exploring philosophical ideas at school would be beneficial to individuals and society. It is great to see that Australia does have a new (and its only) philosophy magazine, New Philosopher, that just commenced publication last year (you can follow on twitter here).

Understanding religious tradition is essential to understanding many aspects of history, art, literature and culture. Indeed, it is an important part in the development of ethical philosophy. For many students, and I was one of them over thirty years ago, trying to understand the world while being forced to blindly accept an unchanging viewpoint, is just too difficult to intellectually process as fair or true. The opportunities afforded by questioning beliefs and challenging ideas leads one to a more complete understanding of many topics. Ethics classes provide a perfect opportunity for students to explore their worlds. What else makes sense in our multi-faith, ethnically diverse, post-modern Australian culture where the young are going to be charged with the considerable population, social, technological, scientific and environmental challenges of the 21st century?

definition: supernatural

I know that for the last 5 years my own children have had no instruction at school while weekly Special Religious Education was held. They happily read their books, wrote stories and drew. I’d prefer if families who do not have supernatural belief systems and send their children to state schools had ethics classes to attend.

It would just seem ethical!

NB You can train to be an ethics teacher or organiser. If you wish to support ethics education  (and see who is already significantly assisting with funding) consider making a donation here.

Featured Image: Screenshot from the Primary Ethics Website.



    • Ian

    • 10 years ago

    As a teacher of Philosophy to students in the middle years of high school it is abundantly clear to me not just how much students tend to enjoy the wide-ranging discussions that take place; the subject feedback also indicates the great depth of thinking and understanding that students realise that they develop over the course of even a single semester.

    We are always pushing for deep-thinking, connected thinking, logical thinking, critical thinking etc. and yet the idea of offering a Philosophy course is often an afterthought unless driven by a committed faculty member.

    My interactions with students from Germany also indicate that both studies of ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ philosophy form a much more natural and embedded part of their curriculum too.

      • Darcy Moore

      • 10 years ago

      Thanks Ian! Yes, the freedom to discuss issues widely, within the framework of ‘philosophy’, must be a joy to teach in those middle years. I imagine that European countries have philosophy much more explicitly in their curriculum. I wonder about countries in Asia, like Japan, and what focus they have on philosophy. Anyone know?

    • carlaleeb

    • 10 years ago

    Agree whole heartedly that one does not preclude the other Darcy.
    Our High Schools are in need of such a course IMHO. Unless we program in such discussions , which I often do in some way e.g start an English or History unit , creating immersion or empathy activities , inquiry questions or Think Tanks , there is a hole waiting and needing to be filled. What a great curriculum the K-6 one looks !

      • Darcy Moore

      • 10 years ago

      Hi Carla,

      My understanding is that high schools are not able to have students study ethics while SRE is on. I also know the policy is that the kids not doing SRE are not to continue with new work in class. Ethics classes would make a great deal of sense in our high schools as an option at this time but I’d refer all students to have the opportunity to formally play with philosophical ideas!

  1. “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” C.S.Lewis

      • Darcy Moore

      • 10 years ago

      LOL David, you are having some fun taunting me – especially in choosing a line from ‘The Abolition of Man’, considering its theme – and quoting, of all people, CS Lewis. Sheesh, I almost want to start talking about the angel Lucifer’s poor treatment by God, in casting him out of heaven after a power-struggle. 😉

      I am sure you’ve read the much-loved Narnia books (and Tolkien was a little unfair in finding them annoyingly simplistic allegories) but am uncertain how well-versed you are in Lewis’ non-fiction writings after his conversion (from atheism to christianity) but quoting him on values or ethics is a tad problematic in a modern democracy, like Australia. Just for fun (and don’t take it too seriously) a few of his other pearls:

      ““An angel is, of course, always He (not She) in human language, because whether the male is, or is not, the superior sex, the masculine is certainly the superior gender.” 1943

      “I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen…patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government.” 1949

      And what can I say about his treatment of Poor Susan in Narnia. Just antediluvian! 😉

      As an aside, have you read Philip Pullman’s, ‘His Dark Material’ trilogy? Absolutely brilliant books. The other recommendations are ‘The Magicians’ and ‘The Magician King’ by Lev Grossman (must reads if you like the Narnia series).

  2. You might like to look at ‘Values Education’ in the Behaviour Focus Website.

  3. Thanks for the post Darcy.
    There was some fairly passionate discussion at a P&C meeting about the potential introduction of ethics classes at my daughters’ school in 2009. Because ethics classes were being introduced during “scripture” time it was seen as a threat to scripture classes. I think some of the opponents were concerned that because it had not moral (or really Christian) foundation it would lead to anything goes. (I wrote a bit about the discussion but didn’t really go into details of the arguments because I didn’t feel it was appropriate to quote the opponents without their permission.)
    Both my girls have now attended ethics classes, and they are well worth doing. It is a shame that they do clash with scripture classes as I agree that many people who send their kids to scripture would like their children to take part. (But there are also some who would not want them to attend!) At the same time, I’m really glad there is a decent alternative for kids who elect not to do scripture – mine often used to do colouring in for many classes.

      • Darcy Moore

      • 10 years ago

      Thanks Graeme.

      I think it is pretty clearly the case that ‘ethics’ has both a Christian and moral lineage.

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