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Moral Education and Development


A Lifetime Commitment

Edited by

Doret J. de Ruyter

Siebren Miedema
A C.I.P. record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.

ISBN: 978-94-6091-714-1 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-94-6091-715-8 (hardback)
ISBN: 978-94-6091-716-5 (e-book)

Published by: Sense Publishers,

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All Rights Reserved © 2011 Sense Publishers

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Preface and Acknowledgements vii

Introduction: A commitment to clarity in philosophy of moral education 1

Doret J. de Ruyter and Siebren Miedema

Part 1 11

1. On embodied and situational morality: Neurobiological, parental

and situational determinants of altruism and donating to charity 13
Marinus H. van IJzendoorn and Marian J. Bakermans- Kranenburg

2. Neurobiology, moral education and moral self-authorship 31

Darcia Narvaez

3. The unfortunate seclusion of moral education of moral education in an

age of virtue ethics: Why has psychology not delivered the goods? 45
Kristján Kristjánsson

Part 2 57

4. The role of reasons in moral education 59

Harvey Siegel

5. The relevance of conscious moral reasoning 71

Bert Musschenga

6. Virtue ethics and the contribution of the arts to the emotional

cultivation of moral character 85
David Carr

7. Cultivating sentimental dispositions through Aristotelian habituation 97

Jan Steutel and Ben Spiecker

8. Empathy, empathizing and empathic development: A qualitative

analysis of internet content for educators 115
Bruce Maxwell and Roxanne Desforges

9. Conscience and moral education 133

Anders Schinkel

10. Moral education, moral responsibility, and deontic morality 147

Stefaan E. Cuypers


Part 3 161

11. The underlying ethics in sex education: What are the needs of
vulnerable groups? 163
Sharon Lamb and Aleksandra Plocha

12. Towards a sexual ethics for adolescence 179

Jan Steutel

13. Civic education in a liberal-democratic society 193

Jan Steutel and Ben Spiecker

14. Religious education, citizenship education, liberal education 209

Wilna A.J. Meijer

15. Civic competence, older children and the right to vote 223
Michael S. Merry

Part 4 237

16. Teaching Moral Competence to Pre-Professionals 239

J. Jos Kole


This liber amicorum for Jan Steutel would not have been written if it were not for
the many high-quality academic contributions and collegiality of Jan. It could not
have been finished within a tight time-schedule without the dedication of the
contributing authors. They have all worked hard to meet the deadlines we set.
Moreover, their chapters are of high quality, which could not be a greater honour
for us to edit and present to Jan Steutel. Finally, we are grateful that they have done
their best to stick to the topic for which we had invited them to contribute a chapter
and to write it at a level accessible to a wide academic audience.
We are grateful to John Wiley & Sons Ltd and Taylor & Francis Ltd who have
given us permission to reprint two articles of Jan Steutel in this book free of
charge. This was a highly generous offer.
We also thank Anna van der Meulen Msc who has assisted with the translation
of Steutel and Spiecker’s originally Dutch chapter ‘Staatsburgerlijke opvoeding in
een liberaal-democratische samenleving’ into English.
Finally, we want to express our gratitude to Regina van Groningen, whose
meticulous work on the finalisation of the lay-out of the book has ensured that all
full-stops, comma’s and semi-columns are on the right place.

Doret de Ruyter and Siebren Miedema

June 2011




When we decided to invite colleagues to contribute to a liber amicorum to

celebrate the academic career and profound works of Jan Steutel at the time of his
retirement, we did not have to search for the topic of the book. In the past thirty
years, Jan Steutel has dedicated most of his academic efforts to moral education.
Not only his research, but also most of his teaching at VU University Amsterdam
and later also at the University of Amsterdam has been concerned with philosophical
questions about moral education.
In his research on moral education, three topics have been particularly prevalent,
namely virtue ethics, civic education and sex education. We only give a very
concise description of the main characteristics and qualities of Jan Steutel’s
contributions to these fields, because this book includes a selection of three of his
articles covering these topics as exemplary specimens of his work. These illustrate
his views and the excellence of his philosophical writings. His publications are not
only very precise and sometimes even highly meticulous, but also lucid because
every argument he makes is explained and justified. Clarity has become a work of
As an analytic philosopher of education, Steutel has focused on the meaning of
concepts that are central to moral education. However, while clarification of the
meaning of concepts has never ceased to be an important part of his work,
normative-ethical questions in relation to (moral) education also became a significant
theme of his work.
When Steutel began to work on moral education, after ten years of academic
research on the theory and methodology of conceptual analysis as such (for
instance Steutel 1982, 1988, 1991), he was interested in explicating the meaning,
role and position of virtues and virtuousness in education. In a book Morele
Opvoeding [Moral Education], which he edited in 1984, the focus of his analysis
was on virtuousness as an aim of education. He does not, at least not explicitly,
defend this aim of moral education, but explains what virtue and virtuousness mean
and which responsibilities of the moral educator follow from these analyses. It is
both typical and remarkable for his contributions in the 1980’s that Steutel does not
intend to justify virtuousness as an aim of moral education, but that he explicates
different meanings of virtuousness and the virtuous person. Equally, the description
of the tasks of the educator are presented as an elucidation of the aspects of an
education towards virtuousness if a moral educator were to believe that virtuousness
is the appropriate aim of moral education. In 1992 he wrote a Dutch book with the
title Deugden en morele opvoeding [Virtues and moral education]. In this book we

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 1–10.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

again find a thorough analysis of virtue and virtuousness, but Steutel also relates
his philosophical analysis to the results of empirical research. Moreover, he also
defends a theory of virtuousness as the most plausible theory of moral behaviour
and moral education. He argues that a virtue ethical approach can be regarded as an
umbrella for other perspectives on moral education – the value clarification, value
transmission and cognitive developmental approaches. He believes that internalised
moral norms (the aim of value transmission) are components of moral virtues and
that the capacity to reason at a post conventional level (Kohlberg) can be perceived
as a central aspect of what may be called the virtue of duty. ‘In this sense, virtue
ethics is not a particular perspective that has to be complemented with the other
approaches, but it is in fact the Alfa and Omega of moral education’ (1992, p. 10,
transl. by DJR & SM).
In contrast to what many might think, it should be noted that Steutel has never
committed himself to a strict virtue-ethical position. In his book he elucidates
virtues as follows. Virtues are: 1) a kind of dispositions: intrinsic desires and
aversions that are relatively stable and permanent (and that have a minimum level
of intensity); and 2) a kind of capacity: empathic capacity and judicial capacity.
Furthermore, he distinguishes four types of virtues, namely teleological virtues,
like compassion, generosity, care; non-teleological virtues such as justice, honesty,
loyalty; volitional virtues, like courage, integrity, determination, and the virtue of
duty. It is particularly the last type of virtue that distinguishes him from what he
calls the radical virtue ethicists. In the article ‘The virtue approach to moral
education’ that was published in the Journal of Philosophy of Education in 1997,
Steutel explains that his theory of virtues is not a virtue approach for two reasons.
Firstly, it is argued that a virtue approach takes aretaic concepts and judgements as
basic or fundamental (it is an aretaic ethics: 1997, p. 403) while his own theory of
virtues is based on principles. Secondly, virtue ethics explains moral action in
terms of moral character (it is an aretaic agent ethics: 1997, p. 403), while for
Steutel the aims of moral education are founded in an ethics of principle, for which
he, moreover, provides a utilitarian justification.
In his work on civic education, Steutel explicitly defends a political liberal
ethical position. The fact that we are living in a liberal democracy is not merely
assumed as a given from which questions around civic education have to be
addressed, the principles and values of a liberal democracy are believed to be the
best for a society in which people with diverse conceptions of the good life have to
cohabit. It should be noted that not the diversity or pluralism itself is of prime
importance from a political liberal ethical perspective but the valuing of equal
freedom or liberty. In the chapter Steutel wrote together with Spiecker on civic
education that is included in this book – theirs was a very fruitful and productive
cooperation – his justification for this position is given.
In his work on sexual ethics and sex education, which has covered many
different subjects (among others sexual ethics for adolescents (Steutel, 2009a,
2009b), incest (Steutel & Spiecker, 2000a, 2006a), paedophilia (Spiecker & Steutel,
2000; Steutel & Spiecker, 2000a), people with disabilities (Spiecker & Steutel, 1997,
2002; Steutel & Spiecker, 2002, 2006b), liberal ethics forms the starting point.


Liberal ethics encompasses the values to allow people to live a sexual life as they
want to. This is not an unlimited liberty; the articles referred to (also) clearly set
out to defend the moral boundaries of this freedom. Moreover, in the chapter on
sexual ethics for adolescence we can read that Steutel discovers a rather illiberal
implication of liberal sexual ethics for adolescence that inspires him to develop and
defend an alternative moral principle for evaluating sexual contacts of adolescents.
Together with the choice of the topic, we also decided that the book had to be
written for a wide academic audience including bachelor students. In this way the
other side of Steutel’s work, teaching bachelor and master students, will be
continued in a certain sense as well: the most important reading for the bachelor
course in Moral Education at VU University Amsterdam will be this book. This
was another reason for including chapters of Jan Steutel, who is, unjustifiably,
reluctant to put his own work on the reading list for students. Thus, the contributing
authors have borne in mind that their chapters should be pitched at a level
accessible to bachelor students. This does not mean that this is an introductory
book into moral education for students only. The collection of chapters covers a
diversity of topics which makes it interesting to both newcomers and experts in the

Content of the Book

Many questions can be raised with regard to moral education and philosophers,
psychologists and pedagogues or educationalists have contributed to an extensive
body of knowledge. The questions what moral education should comprise and how
adults can assist children and youngsters in their moral development are obviously
informed by its aim: what it means to be moral or a moral person.
Morality can be distinguished into two concepts. In the normative or evaluative
concept of morality, being moral is contrasted with being immoral. There are different
ways in which this concept can be used, but when authors defend a particular moral
view as being the appropriate aim of moral education, they use a normative
concept. This aim could for instance be that persons respect the dignity of other
persons, that they care about other persons (and or animals and the environment),
that they do not harm the interests of others or that they serve the interests of others
well, or that they are persons of good character. In the descriptive concept,
morality is contrasted with non-morality. One can for instance raise the question
what is characteristic for moral behaviour in comparison to social or religious
behaviour or what distinguishes moral judgement or reasons from economic or
aesthetic judgements. Or one gives a description of a certain type of morality, for
instance an Islamic morality, an Inuit morality or a liberal morality. In this volume
the second concept of morality is prominent. Authors describe aspects they believe
to be characteristic for being moral, for instance the cognitive qualities of persons
(their rationality and ability to reason well), the emotional or sentimental capacities
of persons, or the will of people to act morally. However, by doing so they also
(implicitly) defend a normative morality. Steutel has explained this in an internal
note that was discussed in the department in 1998. He writes: ‘Normally moral


philosophers present their own inquiry into the concept of morality in the same
way: analysing this concept (…) is regarded as elucidating the criteria for the
descriptive use of the term ‘moral’. However, it is important to notice that these
criteria are in some way parasitic on the criteria that govern the normative use of
‘moral’. To put it more boldly: without the normative meaning of ‘moral’ there
would be no descriptive meaning of ‘moral’. (….) To put it differently, precisely
the fact that the criteria for using the word ‘morally’ in the normative sense are
fulfilled, functions as the criterion for describing or classifying the judgement as a
moral one, that is, for using the word ‘moral’ in the descriptive sense’ (Steutel,
1998, p.2)

The first part of the book contains two chapters that provide us with empirical
insights into why people act morally. This empirical knowledge is obviously
important for moral educators. While empirical data cannot prescribe what moral
educators should do, they have to be aware of empirical data concerning (moral)
development in order to be able to provide a moral education that actually furthers
the moral development of children.
Marinus van IJzendoorn and Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg present an empirical
research in which they studied a specific type of prosocial behaviour, namely
donating money to a charity. The aim of their study was to investigate the (relative)
influence of genetic and dispositional factors, (shared and unique) environmental
factors and situational characteristics on the moral behaviour of persons.
Interestingly, their research shows that moral behaviour is influenced or triggered
primarily by the situation in which people are placed. Situations can make people
behave immorally and they can increase the moral behaviour of people who would
otherwise be more reluctant to do so. Given the importance of situations for moral
behaviour, Van IJzendoorn and Bakermans-Kranenburg suggest that educators
have to ensure that the environment in which children develop is laden with high
moral standards.
Darcia Narvaez explains on the basis of an extensive literature review the
importance and impact of the brain or neurological processes for moral behaviour.
She describes how the development of the brain from conception onwards is
affected by the influence of care-takers and educators. Their influence can
stimulate but also stultify children’s moral development. For instance, she shows
that early influence on the brain may be beneficial or adversarial to development of
three ethics: security ethic, engagement ethic and imagination ethics. Later, when
children go to school this environment has an important role to play. Narvaez has
developed an Integrative Ethical Education model that describes how the school
can sustain the engagement and situation ethics, while at the same time can prevent
that the security ethic that is focused on survival and self-protection does not
become dominant.
The third chapter of part 1 of Kristján Kristjánsson forms the bridge to the
second, primarily philosophical part. He critically evaluates the role of moral
psychologists to the theory building of moral education, more particular the virtue
ethical approach of moral education. He explores the idea that virtue ethicists,


psychologists and moral educators interested in the cultivation of character should

pool their resources. He argues that the reason why the desired cooperation has not
yet come about lies primarily in psychology’s failure to deliver the required
empirical evidence about the ingredients of a morally good life. He believes that
psychologists have failed to do so, because of a fear of normativity. He does,
however, offer alternatives to the psychologists that may assist them in moving
beyond this impasse.

The second part of the book focuses on what it means to be a moral person and
particularly on the question which capacities, dispositions or abilities have to be
developed in order to be able to say that someone is a moral person. In the
literature on moral education and morality in general, we find four aspects of the
moral person: rationality (thinking or cognition), emotions (sentiments), volition
(the will) and action or behaviour. The debate focuses on whether or not these
aspects are all necessary for being able to say that someone is a moral person and if
there might be a certain order of importance of rationality, emotions or volition for
moral behaviour. Harvey Siegel’s chapter offers a helpful concise overview of the
positions defended, while most chapters make reference to such theories. For
instance, Kohlberg’s cognitive developmental theory, which stipulates that moral
judgement is the most important factor in moral behaviour and Aristotle’s virtue
ethics in which rationality and emotions are argued to be in balance (see Carr) are
mentioned and briefly explored by almost all authors.
The contributions of Harvey Siegel and Bert Musschenga provide arguments for
the importance of rationality for moral behaviour.
Siegel makes a case for the role of reasons in moral education. Having identified
six possible aspects or dimensions that moral educators may want to influence,
namely action, beliefs, thinking/reasoning, habits, virtues/character and or sentiments,
Siegel continues to identify the way in which reasons play a role in (the education
of) these aspects. He shows that reasons can but do not necessarily play a role in
the aspects – obviously with the exception of thinking/reasoning – and therefore
reasons can but do not necessarily play a role in moral education. However, he
offers four considerations for claiming that reasons have a necessary and even a
substantial role. The one with the most weight seems to be that reasons must play a
role, because we have an obligation to treating children and students with respect
as persons.
Musschenga describes the relevance of conscious moral reasoning for moral
behaviour. While intuitions are important, there are situations in which they fall
short, for instance when dealing with unfamiliar problems. Moreover, empirical
psychological research shows there are influences on a person’s moral intuitions
that are not relevant to morality and actually lead to biases while one is not aware
of this effect. Musschenga provides several suggestions for educators on how to
assist students to become aware of these biasing effects with which students can
diminish their influence.
The chapters of David Carr and Jan Steutel and Ben Spiecker address the
education of the emotions that play a role in moral behaviour. We should


emphasize that these authors do not give primacy to the role of emotions for moral
behaviour nor to the development and education of emotions for becoming a moral
Carr suggests that both reason and feeling are important and thus sets out to
explicate the theory he believes promises to provide the best ethical balance,
namely virtue ethics. Carr focuses on the importance of emotions within the
framework of virtue ethics, but immediately explains that for Aristotle emotions
are not non-rational, in other words that emotions have a cognitive component.
Emotional education is to be situated in the cultivation of practical wisdom, which
is the mode of deliberation concerned with understanding one’s feelings, motives
and actions. An important source for cultivating practical wisdom is the narrative.
Through narratives (stories and poems) students learn about moral character; it
provides them with the opportunity of experiential reflection of practical wisdom.
Thus, art education can have an important contribution to moral development.
Steutel and Spiecker explore how and why habituation may be an effective way
of cultivating the sentimental dispositions that are constitutive of the moral virtues.
We have deleted the abstract they provided for the Journal of Philosophy of
Education, but copy and rephrase the most important sentences here. They clarify
habituation as involving (i) acting as virtue requires, (ii) both frequently and
consistently, and (iii) under the supervision of a virtuous tutor. If the focus is on the
first two characteristics, habituation seems to be a proper method for acquiring
skills or inculcating habits, rather than an effective way of cultivating virtuous
sentimental dispositions. They argue, however, that in this case habituation may be
an efficacious means of moderating, reducing or restricting the child’s affective
dispositions where these are somehow excessive. In contrast, if the child’s
sentimental dispositions are somehow deficient, the third aspect is required.
A third chapter with regard to emotional, but also cognitive, aspects is the
contribution of Bruce Maxwell and Roxanne Desforges. They present a critical
investigation of internet sites that provide information about empathy, empathizing
and empathic development for educators. They have selected six websites and
analysed the definition of empathy, the process of empathizing, the reasons
provided for why educators should be concerned with empathic development, and
the way in which skills of empathizing can be taught and exercised. They conclude
that the websites predominantly use a cognitive conception of empathy and fail to
clearly distinguish this conception from affective empathy – the websites actually
conflate the two – which means that suggestions for educators on how to teach
empathy should be critically assessed.
The final two chapters of part 2 also deal with what it means to be a moral person,
but address this question with different concepts. Anders Schinkel investigates what
it means to say that a person has a conscience and how the education of children
into persons of conscience may take shape and Stefaan Cuypers raises the question
what education for morally responsible agency involves.
Schinkel’s chapter addresses a concept that has been out of fashion for a long time,
being associated with petty-bourgeois mentality. However, conscience is receiving
increasingly positive attention. As may be expected, there are different meanings of


‘conscience’. Schinkel defends an interpretation of ‘conscience’ as being a mode of

consciousness and defines it as ‘concerned awareness of the moral quality of our
own contribution to the world’. In this interpretation, the person of conscience has
emotional and cognitive qualities that should both be addressed in moral education.
Cuypers’ answer to the question what education for morally responsible agency
involves is given against an analysis of what he believes to be two necessary
conditions for moral responsibility: the agency condition and the moral knowledge
condition. Cuypers first specifies the content of the necessary agential and moral
profile that children should acquire during their moral education. He then looks in
detail at the way in which youngsters can possibly acquire – and, as a counterpart,
how parents can possibly instil – such a profile during the process of moral
upbringing. The guiding idea of his analysis is that acquiring this agential and
moral profile through moral education is required to be able to fulfil the two
selected necessary conditions of moral responsibility later in life. For the elaboration
of this idea he draws, among other things, on recent work about concept formation
and moral competence.
Moral education is not necessarily taught as a separate topic in schools, although
it is possible to have lessons in character education, but can be part of other
curricular subjects as well. It is also true that the moral development of students is
not only furthered in lessons, the ethos of the school as well as rules and
regulations in the school with regard to the way in which students have to interact
all have an influence on the moral development of students. Likewise, while
parents may quite explicitly be morally educating their children, for instance when
they discipline their child for hitting their sibling, the rules of the family as well as
the climate of the family and the way in which parents act themselves, influence
the moral development of their children. The third part of the book contains five
chapters that deal with moral aspects of sex education and civic education.
Sharon Lamb and Aleksandra Plocha develop an ethics-based sex education that
is based on care and personal rights. They draw particular attention to the care that
should be given to and concern for students who are vulnerable sexually. In exploring
the way in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students,
students with developmental disabilities and students who have experienced rape
or sexual abuse, are vulnerable and how their vulnerabilities may be met in sex
education, Lamb and Plocha in the end provide the outlines of a comprehensive
ethics-based sex education that is not only beneficial to the vulnerable students, but
might be of benefit to all students.
The chapter of Jan Steutel that we have included is strictly spoken not a chapter
on moral sex education, but about sexual ethics. However, we wanted to include
this in this book, because it is an abbreviated version of his inaugural lecture with
which he accepted his special chair in philosophy of education at the University of
Amsterdam in 2007. Moreover, the ethical position he defends also gives insight
into his views on what the content of the moral sex education should be; in fact he
offers three guidelines for parental interaction with adolescents that are an important
way of promoting the growth of adolescents into competent actors in the field of
sexual relations. As already mentioned, Steutel refutes an illiberal implication of a


liberal sexual ethics for adolescence. According to a liberal sexual ethics, sexual
contacts in which adolescents are involved are morally impermissible. The core
principle of the liberal ethical view, the principle of valid consent, takes competence
as a necessary condition of morally permissible sex. Because adolescents are not
yet sufficiently capable of judging and acting prudently in the sexual sphere of life,
their consent to sexual relations cannot meet the criterion of competence. This
implication Steutel rejects. Steutel defends an alternative moral principle for
evaluating sexual contacts of adolescents. He argues that adolescents are still
placed under parental authority, precisely because they are not yet sufficiently
capable of looking after their own interests. What is thus required for making
sexual contacts permissible is the considerate consent of their parents.
The chapter of Jan Steutel and Ben Spiecker is a translation of a Dutch chapter
that appeared in 2007, which again was a translation and revision of an English
chapter that appeared in 2000 (Steutel & Spiecker, 2000b). In this chapter, Steutel
and Spiecker explain that the state is involved in civic education in two ways: civic
education is education by and for the state. It is the education that the state requires
schools to teach and that aims for citizenship. The typical virtues that civic
education should aim for are those that correspond with the principle of greatest
equal liberty (Rawls). Steutel and Spiecker then make a distinction between two
types of virtues, namely moral virtues that are incorporated by the cardinal virtue
of justice and intellectual virtues that are unified by the cardinal virtue of concern
and respect for truth. In discussion with Tamir and Gutmann, they elucidate their
conception of these two types of civic virtues and their justification of these virtues
as aims of civic education.
In the second part of her chapter Wilna Meijer discusses the political liberal
view on civic education of Steutel and Spiecker as outlined in the former chapter. It
is her contention, referring to Terence McLaughlin’s concept of a maximal
interpretation of citizenship education, that the classical concept of liberal
education (Peters, O’Hear) provides as such the citizenship education for a liberal
democracy. This classical concept focuses on general liberal education while
aiming at breadth of knowledge and understanding and at the cultivation of
intellectual virtues (virtues that are of great importance for Steutel and Spiecker as
well). In Meijer’s view Steutel and Spiecker’s conception of civic education is
unnecessarily too restricted. In the first part of the chapter she explores Robert
Jackson’s views with regard to the maximal interpretation of citizenship education
in relation to religious education in a plea for ‘learning about religions’ in the
school setting across Europe.
Michael Merry explicates the notion of civic competence related to the right to
vote of older children. His focus is on the competences relevant to exercise
citizenship, especially the competences within the reach of older children, that is
adolescents between fourteen and seventeen. He outlines the competences that
most older children already have or are able to acquire provided the right kind of
background conditions are in place so that they can demonstrate the competences
relevant for understanding the major issues on which most persons base their
political decisions and which make it possible to participate meaningful in the


political process. His plea is for lowering the voting age by three years to fifteen.
Merry is aware of the fact that the act of voting is just one aspect of civic
participation. However, on the basis of his observation that older children under
eighteen already take part in other forms of political activity, but are flatly denied
the privilege of voting, he believes that a defence of the right to vote is of eminent
importance and should be dealt with as a distinct topic.

The book ends with part four consisting of a chapter about the moral education of
students who will work in a pedagogical or educational environment. Jos Kole
explores the pros and cons of using the concept of competences in the moral
formation of pre-professionals. Competences currently seem to be the predominant
way of conceptualising the qualities of professionals and thereby also of defining
the aims of education of students. Does this mean that moral qualities and aims of
moral education should also be phrased in terms of (moral) competences? He
shows that the arguments that defend the use of moral competences – the
curriculum integration argument and the personal component integration argument
– correspond with a wide and singular conception of a person’s (moral)
competence. In contrast, the arguments that oppose to the idea of moral
competences – the dwindling effect and the disintegration effect – correspond with
a narrow view of competences. This insight also allows him to critically and
normatively evaluate these four arguments.


Spiecker, B. & Steutel, J. (1997). Paedophilia, sexual desire, and perversity. Journal of Moral
Education, 26(3), 331–342.
Spiecker, B. & Steutel, J. (2000). A moral-philosophical perspective on paedophilia and incest.
Educational Philosophy and Theory, 32 (3), 283–291.
Spiecker, B. & Steutel, J. (2002). Sex between persons with ‘mental retardation’: An ethical evaluation.
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Steutel, J. & Spiecker, B. (2006a). Incest. In A. Soble (Ed.) Sex From Plato To Paglia: A Philosophical
Encyclopedia (2 Vols.) (pp. 487–493). Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press.
Steutel, J. & Spiecker, B. (2006b). Disability. In A. Soble (Ed.) Sex From Plato To Paglia:
A Philosophical Encyclopedia (2 Vols.) (pp. 229–234). Westport , Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Doret J. de Ruyter and Siebren Miedema

VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands





Most parents like to believe that infants and young children are innocent human
beings, and that morality develops in a cumulative fashion so that with increasing
age children would act more empathically and pro-socially. In the science of
morality we have for a long time been attached to the idea that individuals steadily
progress through a series of stages toward an ever more sophisticated moral stance,
and that stable differences exist in the degree to which individuals commit themselves
to empathic or prosocial acts (Kohlberg, 1984; Piaget, 1932).
It requires a major acrobatic feat, however, to combine this optimistic model of
morality with the indifferent, immoral and antisocial behaviour that most adults
seem capable of when the situation triggers or even only leaves room for such
behaviour. From Auschwitz (Sagi-Schwartz et al., 2003) to Abu Ghraib (Zimbardo,
2007) recent history is filled with disturbing examples of the banality of evil
(Arendt, 1963/2006). But history also shows almost universal empathic concern
with victims of man-made or natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean
earthquake or tsunami, stimulating millions of people around the globe to donate
an estimated 7 billion dollars for repairs and help for the survivors. Situational
canalisation (to use the famous concept of the biologist C.H. Waddington, 1942) of
moral behaviour might also create ‘the banality of altruism’.
A moral ‘character’ or set of dispositions that would lead to predictable moral
choices in all or most moral dilemmas seems an irrelevant or even refutable
assumption derived from an Aristotelian tradition (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics)
that not managed to incorporate the lessons to be learned from the cruelest of all
centuries. Many advances in the social psychology of human behaviour also seem
to undermine the Aristotelian idea of moral character (Doris et al., 2010).
Nevertheless, human beings might come into this world endowed with some of the
most important Aristotelian character traits such as empathy for the suffering of
others and indignation about injustice done to others when character is defined as
disposition instead of action tendency.

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 13–30.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

Noble Newborns
Human infants seem to be endowed with an inborn capacity to be empathic to
distress, and to favour morally good individuals over morally bad persons. The
empathic baby is an appealing idea. In a pioneering study on empathic distress,
Sagi and Hoffman (1976) exposed 58 one-day-old infants to a newborn cry, a
synthetic cry, or silence. Infants exposed to a real cry cried significantly more often
than those exposed to a synthetic cry of the same intensity, or to silence. Although
mimicry may be a viable alternative explanation, the authors suggest that this
selective cry response in newborns may provide some evidence for an inborn
empathic distress reaction.
In a groundbreaking study Hamlin, Wynn, and Bloom (2007) showed that 6-
and 10-month-old infants are already able to evaluate an individual on basis of
their hostile or helpful actions in computer-animated events. Astonishingly, most
preverbal infants prefer an individual who helps another to one who hinders
another, prefer a helping individual to a neutral individual, and prefer a neutral
individual to a hindering individual – even if that ‘individual’ is not more than a
geometric figure in a computer animation. The authors argue that the capacity of
very young children to derive moral evaluations from simple actions may serve as
the foundation for moral thought and action, and they suggest that its early
emergence supports the view that morality is inborn.


Generous Genes?
Altruism and prosocial behaviour have been speculated to be evolutionary-based
universal competences of human beings and of a large variety of avian and
mammalian species as well. From these competences the actual altruistic performance
might follow, as well as individual and situational differences in altruistic behaviour.
Evolutionary roots of altruism and prosocial behaviour have been discussed ever
since Darwin’s observation (1871/1982) that human beings might have become
unusually prosocial because in-group solidarity created elevated chances of
survival in deadly struggles with out-groups and predators (see also Krebs, 2008).
Conflict would be ‘altruism’s midwife’ and ‘parochial altruism’ the rule (Bowles,
2008). On the level of individual organisms and genes, the inclusive fitness theory
(Hamilton, 1964a, 1964b) also explains altruistic behaviour to relatives if it
facilitates the reproduction of one’s (shared) genes into the next generations. For
example, inclusive fitness nicely explains parental altruism (though not unlimited)
to offspring (Trivers, 1974).
De Waal (2008) argued that the basic ability for empathic concern may have
developed in the context of parental care long before the human species evolved.
He refers to the evolutionary-based attachment behaviour of offspring (see Van
IJzendoorn et al., 2009, for infant chimpanzees’ human-like attachments), and the
probability that avian or mammalian parents who were sensitive to their offspring’s
needs likely out-reproduced those who remained indifferent. Hrdy (2009) extended


the attachment model and proposed a new hypothesis, based on ‘cooperative

breeding’. She notes that it takes around 13 million calories to rear a human from
birth to nutritional independence. This is far more than a foraging mother could
provide on her own, and help from her mate and group members other than the
parents, so-called alloparents, appeared essential. Cooperative breeding was necessary
for survival in an environment with high parent and child mortality, and selection
would favour those individuals best equipped to monitor the mental states of others
and to contribute to cooperative breeding. Prosocial behaviour, empathic concern,
and sharing of scarce resources would be rooted in the basic need for cooperative
child rearing.

Twin Studies
Even if we assume an evolutionary basis for altruism and empathic concern, the
question remains whether individual differences in actual moral performance are
associated with differences in genetic make-up, or with specific dispositional or
personality characteristics. To address the role of genetic factors in the explanation
of individual differences in altruistic and prosocial behaviour studies with
monozygotic and dizygotic twins have been conducted (e.g., Zahn-Waxler et al.,
1992). Simply put, if correlations of moral behaviour for monozygotic twins (100%
genetically similar) are substantially higher than the correlations for dizygotic
twins (on average 50% genetically similar) there is some evidence for a genetic
basis. One of the first twin studies on altruism included 573 adult twin pairs who
were asked to complete the Self-Report Altruism Scale requiring respondents to
report the frequency with which they had engaged in 20 specific moral behaviours
such as ‘I have donated blood’ (Rushton et al., 1986). More than 50% of the
variance in altruism was found to be genetically based, whereas an almost equal
percentage was explained by the unique environment component including
measurement error. A tiny 2% appeared to be due to common environmental
factors that make individuals within a family similar to each other.
Only two twin studies have been published on children’s prosocial behaviour, in
particular empathic helping behaviour and concern for another person’s pain and
distress. Volbrecht et al., (2007) observed more than 200 twin pairs in the second
year of life reacting to their primary caregiver who pretended to have pinched her
finger in a clipboard and feigned pain for a brief period. Helping behaviour and
empathic concern to distress did not show any genetic influence, and both shared
and unique environment explained the variation in these prosocial behaviours.
In the second study, Knafo et al., (2008) observed more than 400 twin pairs
longitudinally from 14 to 36 months of age in a similar empathic distress procedure,
but also including a stranger simulating pain. At 14 months, no genetic effect was
found on a composite measure of empathy, based on mother and experimenter
simulations. By 24 months, a genetic effect accounting for about a quarter of the
variance emerged and this effect remained stable toward 36 months. With age,
genetic effects on prosocial behaviour and empathic concern appeared to increase,
and shared environmental effects to decrease.


Donating to Charity (UNICEF)

In our own studies the focus was on donating behaviour as an example of altruistic,
prosocial behaviour. We have addressed the question what is most important in
predicting children’s donation of hard-won money to the cause of a well-known
charity (UNICEF): genetic differences, differences in disposition (attachment and
temperament), or situational differences. We also examined what influence the
‘love’ hormone oxytocin may have on donating behaviour.
For the purpose of this series of studies we define altruism in a somewhat loose
way as the individual’s inclination to spend resources without the expectation of
personal gain. Donating behaviour is, of course, just one example of moral
behaviour and various types of moral behaviour should be observed, in a range of
situations. Here we only aimed at testing whether donating is primarily determined
by disposition, genes, hormones, or situation. If it turns out to be largely situationally
determined it may be considered falsifying evidence (in the Popperian sense) for
the dispositional or genetic viewpoint. It would also show that it is problematic to
consider moral behaviour as stable across situations since minor changes in settings
might canalise behaviour in different directions (see Hartshorne & May, 1928/1932).
One might argue that donating behaviour does not take into account the reasons
or motivations to donate money. These reasons might be amoral or even immoral
(‘I donate to keep children in the developing countries dependent on our aid’) and
the motivations may be selfish instead of altruistic. That is why most schools of
ethics emphasize the intentions of an act or the feelings accompanying the act
instead of the act itself, and define morality as acting in line with morally good
character traits (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics) or morally elevated levels of
reasoning (Kohlberg, 1984). As Steutel and Spiecker (2004) defined the Aristotelian
viewpoint: ‘…a virtuous person is someone who will have and exhibit particular
feelings on the right occasions, for the right reasons, towards the right people, with
the right strength and in the right manner. Virtuousness implies having proper
feelings…’ (p. 532).
However, having the right feelings, the right character traits or correct moral
reasons disconnected from actual behaviour is irrelevant for those situations in
which moral choices really matter, e.g. helping victims of genocidal regimes to flee
or to hide or discontinuing torturous treatment of prisoners even though individuals
in command insist on continuation (Zimbardo, 2007). Ethics and theories of moral
development should focus on moral behaviour and its prerequisites, not (only or
mainly) on morally adequate but abstract reasoning capacities, feelings, or personality
In our studies high-cost donating behaviour without the expectation of any
return of the favour was measured by the amount of money (the number of € 0.20
coins) a child donated in response to a videotaped call for donation to UNICEF.
After an hour of performing various tasks, the children received 10 coins of € 0.20
for their cooperation, in the absence of their mother. Their reactions showed that
this was quite an amount of money for our young participants. They were then left
alone and shown a two-minute UNICEF promotional film of a child in a ‘resource-
limited’, developing country. During the last fragments of the promotion the voice-


over asked to donate money; a money box had been positioned next to the video
screen. The money box was filled with several coins in order to enhance
credibility. After one minute the experimenter came back into the room, and asked
in a standardised way if the child would want to donate any money.
In defense of donating as an index for moral behaviour two validation studies
might be mentioned. Rushton and Wheelwright (1980) validated an assessment of
donating behaviour of 6–10 year olds who in a lab setting were asked to donate
tokens to a charity. They found significant associations of donating to a charity
with teacher-assessed altruism, and with children’s willingness to share scarce
resources with their friends. Eisenberg and her colleagues (1987; 1999) found that
donating was moderately stable across time, and tended to be positively related to
spontaneous sharing of scarce resources with peers as observed in the preschool

Is Donating Heritable?
We used the donating paradigm in a study of 91 7-year-old same-sex twin children
(30 monozygotic, 61 dizygotic; 43 male, 48 female pairs) to examine whether
individual differences in donating after being probed by the experimenter are
genetically based, or whether at this age the (shared and unique) environment also
affects donating behaviour. The percentage of children that donated without being
probed was too small to allow genetic modelling.
As apparent from behavioural genetic analysis 45% of the variance in donating
was explained by shared environmental influences, e.g. similar parenting styles to
both children in the family, and 55% of the variance by unique environment (e.g.,
uniquely different parental treatment of the twins) and measurement error (see Van
IJzendoorn et al., 2010 for statistical details). Our results are in line with Volbrecht
et al., (2007) finding of no genetic component in explaining differences in
empathic concern. It should be noted that the genetic component in the Knafo
et al., (2008) study amounted to only about 25% of explained variance, which
might go undetected in our sample because of lack of statistical power. Most
importantly, the absence of a main genetic effect is not incompatible with gene by
environment interaction effects.

Gene by Environment Interaction: Differential Susceptibility Theory

We turned to molecular genetics to test whether genes might make a difference in
children’s donating behaviour, depending on their environment and in particular on
their experiences with their parents (for a detailed report, see Bakermans-Kranenburg
& Van IJzendoorn, 2011). Main effects within subgroups may be hidden in
interactions (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Wachs & Plomin, 1991), as children may be
differentially susceptible to their environment (Belsky, Bakermans-Kranenburg &
Van IJzendoorn, 2007).
Differential susceptibility theory has emerged as an alternative to traditional
cumulative risk or diathesis-stress models of human vulnerabilities (Ellis et al.,


2011). Central to the diathesis-stress model is the postulate that some individuals
are at heightened risk for psychiatric or behavioural disturbance when they
encounter adversity, whereas others, lacking such (genetic) vulnerability, are not so
affected when exposed to the same adversity. Seemingly ‘vulnerable’ individuals
may actually be more susceptible to the environment, for-better-and-for-worse.
Dopamine-related genes (e.g., DRD4) that through their influence on attention and
reward mechanisms have been shown to make children more vulnerable to
negative parenting turned out to be also susceptibility genes that in supportive
family environments promote optimal development (Bakermans-Kranenburg &
Van IJzendoorn, 2011).
In our study on donating we expected to find children with a secure attachment
to be more willing to donate money to a charity, since they may have experienced
more often examples of sensitive empathic concern and thus better moral exemplars
from their parents. Children’s attachment representations can be considered mental
crystallizations of the degree to which their parents interacted with them in a
sensitive way. From ethological, developmental and ethical perspectives parental
sensitivity may be seen as one of the first and most salient models of altruistic
behaviour and empathic concern in the children’s early lives (Spiecker, 1991), and
children’s attachment representations mirror those experiences. In line with the
differential susceptibility model, however, the association between attachment and
donating behaviour might be moderated by DRD4 genotype. The strongest
association between attachment security and donating behaviour might be observed
for those children who have the DRD4 7-repeat allele.
We found indeed more donating behaviour in secure children with a specific
DRD4 variant. For children without the DRD4 7-repeat allele attachment security
did not make a difference for their donations. For the donating behaviour of
children with the DRD4 7-repeat allele, however, attachment security was
important: Secure children were inclined to donate more money, and insecure
children showed less donating. This two-sided effect of DRD4 7-repeat, for better
and for worse, supports the differential susceptibility theory (Bakermans-
Kranenburg & Van IJzendoorn, 2006; 2007; Belsky et al., 2007). Both genetic and
environmental determinants of prosocial donating behaviour appear important but
only when they are considered in interaction (see also Knafo, Israel, and Ebstein,
2011, for a replication of our finding).
A limitation of the current study is the restriction to one laboratory measure of
prosocial behaviour, donating to a charity. Bachner-Melman, Gritsenko, Nemanov,
Zohar, Dina, and Ebstein (2005) found a main effect of the dopamine receptor gene
in that DRD4 was associated with self-reported human altruism, which may
suggest that our GxE findings are restricted to observed altruism. Furthermore, our
study included only 7-year old children, and we should be careful making
generalizations to other age cohorts. Grunberg et al., (1985) found that donating to
a charity is not linearly related to age. In their study on 3–16 year old children
donating reaches a dip around 7 years of age, as children have become more aware
of the importance of individual ownership, which might be over-generalized in a
way analogous to young children who over-apply rules of grammar.


Oxytocin a ‘Donagenic’ Hormone?

Morality might not only be embodied in genetics but also in hormonal functioning.
The first hint in the direction of oxytocin as a potentially important hormone came
from a study on the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) that we found to be related
to sensitive parenting (Bakermans-Kranenburg & Van IJzendoorn, 2008). The
neuropeptide oxytocin has been called ‘love hormone’ and is increasingly used to
study the influence of hormonal functioning on feelings, attitudes, behaviour, and
neural responses. In particular its positive role in parenting (Naber et al., 2010) and
interpersonal trust and empathic concern (Baumgartner et al., 2008) has been
documented in experiments using intranasal oxytocin administration (Van
IJzendoorn & Bakermans-Kranenburg, in press), and these experiments seem to
support the important role of oxytocin in embodied morality.
Nevertheless, oxytocin might not be the panacea to promote love and to
suppress aggression for all people in all circumstances (Bartz et al., 2010a,b). In a
competitive game that triggered decisions with financial consequences to the
subjects themselves, their in-group, and a competing out-group (De Dreu et al.,
2010) oxytocin administration appeared to drive a ‘tend and defend’ response in
that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, but at the same time enhanced
defensive aggression toward competing out-groups. In a similar vein, only in the
non-ostracism condition of the Cyberball computer game individuals were more
desirous to play the social-interactive game again after the oxytocin administration,
but not in the ostracism condition where they felt they belonged to the rejected out-
group (Alvares et al., 2010). In making pro- or antisocial decisions oxytocin may
trigger a biased search for information that is congruent with people’s current
interpersonal beliefs and expectations of feeling trusted or rejected (Bartz et al.,
In a donation study on 57 female undergraduate students aged 18–30 years we
examined in a double blind experiment whether intranasal administration of oxytocin
promoted donating money to UNICEF, and how this related to experienced
parental caregiving (Van IJzendoorn et al., in press). Prosocial tendencies may be
affected by experienced parental caregiving, in particular by parental sensitive
responsiveness (Van IJzendoorn, 1997) and dimensions of parental discipline (Van
der Mark, Van IJzendoorn & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2002). Love withdrawal is a
parental disciplinary strategy that involves withholding love and affection when a
child misbehaves or fails at a task. By using love withdrawal the parent
communicates to the child that his or her love is conditional upon the child’s
performance. The threat of love withdrawal is a very effective means to force the
child to comply with parental wishes. The emotional costs may however be high.
Parental use of love withdrawal has been associated with high concern over
mistakes, low emotional well-being, and feelings of rejection and resentment
towards the parents (e.g., Assor et al., 2004). These feelings may hinder empathic
concern for others in distress, and thus lead to lower levels of altruistic behaviour
(Koenig, Cicchetti & Rogosch, 2004).


In our experiment oxytocin appeared to increase the participants’ donations, but

only in the group who experienced low parental love withdrawal. In contrast to this
group, individuals with high love withdrawal experiences tended to donate even
less in the oxytocin condition. Thus, oxytocin stimulates empathic, prosocial
behaviour, but not in every individual or across all contexts. Oxytocin makes some
individuals more generous but the donagenic effect seems limited to those who feel
accepted by their parents because of who they are instead of what they do.


Noble Newborns Revisited

If the idea of the empathic baby were valid somewhere during the early years this
moral capacity must have been pruned quite drastically, or alternatively, kept in
check by the social context. Lamb and Zakhireh (1997), for example, documented
a remarkable lack of empathic behaviour in 45 toddlers (18 months of age) in the
natural setting of a day care centre. These researchers observed 345 distress
incidents during 20 hours of video-recording in the (average quality) centres, and
registered how children in the group responded to this distress. Only unambiguous
instances of prosocial responses to distress were coded, such as offering a toy or
patting a crying child, but not simple approaches or concerned looks. Of the 345
incidents a meagre 11 incidents were followed by a prosocial action from one of
the peers. Prosocial response (whether or not the child had ever responded pro-
socially) was not related to age or gender. Of course, this study does not prove that
young children would not have the disposition to be empathic; it demonstrates that
in the day care setting they display indifferent behaviour. The children may have
the competence to act empathically but their prosocial performance does not
emerge in the specific situation.
In contrast to a trait-like and cumulative stage-wise interpretation of morality,
unselfish or immoral behaviour might better be considered as shaped by the
demand-characteristics of the specific situation (Hartshorne & May, 1928/1932;
Zimbardo, 2007). Prosocial behaviour may be situation-specific rather than a
disposition or personality trait. Exploring the limits of the genetic, dispositional
and socialisation views on moral development, we now turn to the influence of
situational pressures on moral and immoral behaviour.

Situational Immorality
Stanford prison experiment. Moral behaviour may be mainly situation-specific.
Several widely known but little digested social-psychological experiments vividly
demonstrate this possibility. A powerful example of situational preponderance over
dispositional differences was the Zimbardo et al., (2000) Stanford prison experiment
in which psychological healthy Stanford students were induced to play the
randomly divided roles of prisoners or guards. After a few days the students
identified themselves so completely with their roles as torturous guards that the
experiment had to be aborted to avoid real casualties.


Abu Ghraib. How close to reality this experiment is became poignantly evident
from the Abu Ghraib prison’s abuses and tortures of Iraqi prisoners by regular
American (male and female) soldiers. A detailed report by the American Major
General Taguba described numerous instances of ‘sadistic, blatant, and wanton
criminal abuses’ of Iraqis by American soldiers. There was convincing evidence of
systematic abuse (see also Zimbardo, 2007, p. 324 ff, for a detailed psychological
analysis of Abu Ghraib).

Milgram experiments. In the (in-)famous Milgram (1974) experiments most

healthy and balanced adult participants were easily stimulated into the inhumane
act of electrocuting another human being only on the authority of the experimenter
and the demand-characteristics of the scientific setting. Situational pressures seemed
to override any genetic, dispositional or personality differences in determining
moral choices (Blass, 2000), and more recent studies demonstrate that these
findings are not confined to the past (Burger, 2009; Meeus & Raaijmakers, 1995).
It might be argued that in the Milgram experiments subjects are tested for their
empathic responses (to the experimenter or to the victim) instead of a morally
justified reaction. In contrast, we suggest that Milgram examined moral behaviour
in vivo, for which empathic concern as well as moral reasoning might be important
but not decisive. Whatever moral competence the subjects in the Milgram
experiments might have had, most of them performed immorally.
Kohlberg was acutely aware of the importance of these experiments for his
theory and investigated their association with his moral stages. Kohlberg (1984, pp.
546–547) argued that participants’ obedience to the authority of an experimenter in
the original Milgram paradigm was not completely context-dependent but also
predictable by their responses to the Moral Judgment Interview (MJI; Kohlberg,
1984). He reported data on 27 students who completed the Milgram experiment,
either quitting against the will of the experimenter (n = 8) or not (n = 19). At first
glance the data seem to support his hypothesis that more advanced moral reasoning
was associated with quitting the torturing of the victim, as 5 out of 8 quitters were
classified at the highest moral level (level 4) and only 1 student on this level did
not quit. However, half of the students reasoning on the lowest level (level 3) did
quit as well, and elsewhere we demonstrated that Kohlberg’s conclusions do not
survive statistical test in our secondary analysis (Van IJzendoorn et al., 2010).

Milgram experiment with children. To our surprise we discovered that in the

seventies of the last century Milgram's original test of obedience had been
replicated with children. Shanab and Yahya (1977) tested 192 Jordanian children
(6–8, 10–12, and 14–16 years) in two kinds of punishment instructions. Half of the
children received instructions similar to the original Milgram experiment, namely
to administer electric shocks to learners each time the latter made a mistake in a
paired-associate learning task and to increase the shock level with each additional
mistake. The other half of the children were given a free choice of delivering or not
delivering shocks each time the learner made a mistake. Pressed by the experimenter
almost three-quarters of the children continued to deliver shocks to maximum


voltage. Only 16% of the children with a free choice went that far. The situational
pressures were much more important than other factors such as age or gender.
The authors rated the emotional responses of the subjects during the Milgram
experiment, recording tense behaviour like loud nervous laughter, lip biting, and
trembling, and if they showed 11 or more of these emotional behaviours they were
considered to display intense tension. Disturbingly, the number of children in the
intense tension category significantly decreased with age. Of those who expressed
intense tension, 44%, 25%, and 16% were in the age groups 6–8, 10–12, and 14–16,
respectively. Although serious ethical doubts might be raised about the conduct of
the highly intrusive experiment with adults, let alone with children, the virtual
neglect of the findings from this stunning study cannot be legitimised by such
ethical concerns about the experiment itself. They certainly constitute uncomfortable
facts for Kohlbergian theories of moral development as progressive development
toward ever higher levels of morality.

Situational Morality
Situational donating? Examining the number of coins donated after the promotional
film and then after the experimenter’s probe, we analyzed the impact of situational
pressure on donating. In two studies on 7-year-old children a very small minority
of children was inclined to donate any money spontaneously. After being prompted
by an experimenter to donate, the percentage of children who donated some or all
of their money rather steeply increased to about two-third. The findings were
remarkably similar across our two studies. The situational difference between
watching a promotional video clip alone (including a call for donation), and with
the probe of an experimenter afterwards explained around 40% of the variance in
donating, whereas only half as much was explained by background variables
(age, maternal educational level). Dispositional (attachment) and constitutional
(temperament, genetics) differences seemed irrelevant, at least as main effects.
Increasing the situational pressures might affect donating behaviour until the point
is reached that almost all children donate almost all their money to the charity when
social pressures are maximised, mirroring the maltreating behaviour of most
participants in the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments. What type of manipulations
with children would be acceptable from an ethical point of view, even when they are
meant to provoke prosocial behaviour is food for thought. Modelling or encouraging
the child to donate money to a charity may constitute one end of the continuum, with
making starvation of a videotaped undernourished infant the responsibility of the
child being the other end. Depending on the age of the child and debriefing
possibilities experimental manipulations should move along this continuum in order
not to violate the ethical balance between means and ends.

Some further evidence for situational morality. The crucial question is whether
situations can be created to channel participants’ behaviour into a prosocial
direction. Fortunately, some independent experimental studies suggest that this is
possible. Freeman et al., (2009) tested the influence of witnessing or reading about


moral exemplars on donating to a charity. Students watching a video clip that

documented moral excellence or reading a story about an extraordinary moral act
or person donated more money to a charity that promoted goals somewhat
antithetic to their political views. The experiments were based on Haidt’s (2007)
theory of moral elevation leading to more intense moral emotions and moral acts.
Witnessing an act of moral excellence would stimulate thoughts, emotions and a
motivational state that encourages people to show more empathic concern and
caring behaviour.
Small situational changes such as installing a security camera implying the
presence of an audience has been shown to result in similar enhancement of
prosocial behaviour in a student sample (Van Rompay et al., 2009). Students
provided more help in collecting and sorting a pile of questionnaires accidentally
fallen on the floor in the presence of a camera, although the camera did not affect
the participants’ reported donations to charitable organisations. The dispositional
trait of need for social approval also explained some variance in helping behaviour,
on top of the situational characteristics.
A telling example of the power of modelling is provided by Kallgren, Reno and
Cialdini (2000) who tested the influence of the presence of a confederate picking
up a crumpled fast-food bag from the floor of a parking garage. Participants were
visitors to a public urban hospital who were returning to their cars. When
participants reached their cars, they encountered handbills attached to their
windshield. Throwing the handbills on the floor was the observed outcome. The
simple witnessing of the confederate picking up a piece of litter decreased littering
behaviour from 43% to a mere 9.3%. With a simple manipulation of the situation
(setting an example, focusing on the prosocial norm) prosocial behaviour was
strongly stimulated.
In behavioural economics situational canalization of human behaviour has
become a central topic of research. In their book on ‘Nudge’ Thaler and Sunstein
(2009) present a myriad of situational manipulations that effectively change human
behaviour in desirable directions without changing their moral reasoning,
dispositions or motivations. A nudge is defined as any aspect of the choice
architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding
any alternative behavioural option. Some prime examples are the following.
Putting healthy food on eye-level and junk food on lower or higher levels in
restaurants or shops increases significantly the choice for healthy food. Etching the
image of a black house-fly into the urinals of the men’s rooms at airports reduces
spillage by 80%. Emphasizing that the majority of students don’t binge drink
instead of stressing the problem of binge drinking with alarming percentages of
those who do binge drink lowers the alcohol consumption significantly. Many
more examples can be provided. What is needed is a theory of situational ethics
that uses ‘moral nudges’ to canalize human behaviour in ethically desirable
directions. In behavioural economics nudge is explicitly defined as value-neutral,
leaving all options open. In experimental ethics systematic reflection on the ethical
dimension of conditions and consequences of nudges might provide some


counterweight against a quasi-neutral behavioural economics approach (Appiah,

2008; Doris, 2010).



What kind of educational intervention is compatible with situational morality? If

the demand characteristics of the situation have most impact on prosocial and
antisocial behaviour the logical implication is to monitor and change the
environment in which children are growing up and are being educated. In fact, we
argue here for an ethics of situations, that is, of embodying high moral standards in
environments that canalize individual moral behaviour. In fact, if environments are
considered to have both a physical as well as a social dimension embodiment of
high moral standards in moral tutors and their guidelines for proper behavioural
routines may be an extremely powerful force in canalizing moral behaviour in
children. This comes close to the Aristotelian concept of ‘habituation’ through
which virtuous affective dispositions are strengthened by conditioning behaviour
with different reinforcing and punishing stimuli (Steutel & Spiecker, 2004, p. 544).
In an amazing habituation experiment De Waal (1996) mixed easy-going,
tolerant but also physically larger stump-tail macaques with smaller rhesus
monkeys that are known for their high level of aggression. The groups were kept
together day and night for five months. Because of their dominant physical status
the macaques acted as tutors and models of peaceful interactions for the excitable
rhesus monkeys. After some time the rhesus monkeys began to interact in a similar
fashion as the friendly macaques, not only to their dominant co-habitants but also
to their own peers, and the effects remained visible after the co-habiting
experiment was ended. With clever control conditions alternative interpretations
were excluded, such as mere mimicry of any macaque behaviour by rhesus
monkeys. It should be noted that five months of 24/7 co-habitation is equal to more
than two years in a human child’s life, so the intervention may not be easily
transferable to human beings.
The just-community approach to moral education, originated by Kohlberg
(Kohlberg, 1985; Power, 1979; Oser et al., 2008), appears to come close to it. The
project aimed at the immersion of students in an environment imbued with just and
fair role models, rules and interactions, and with concrete behavioural norms of an
almost Aristotelian nature (‘learning by doing’ to be on time, to abstain from
fighting). Most importantly, the peers in the just community embodied and
sanctioned the socio-moral norms that canalised individual students’ behaviour.
Kohlberg (1985) stressed that ‘the good’ as altruism is cultivated by a ‘sense of
community’, by a ‘feeling of group cohesion and solidarity’ (p. 84). Essential
ingredients were: the community meeting for democratic decision-making, the
discipline committee for confronting individuals with their misbehaviour and
punishing and forgiving them, and moral dilemma discussions in the classroom to
enhance the level of moral reasoning (Oser et al., 2008).


The just-community approach was a short-term success elevating the moral

judgement level of the students, but as Kohlberg (1985, p.80) stated: ‘While the
intervention operation was a success, the patient died’. One year after the
conclusion of the experiment not a single teacher continued to do moral discussions.
Practising moral behaviour in the just community teaches children how to be
moral, but generalisation across time and settings has not yet been proved in a
randomised control trial. In fact, it is the just-community setting that incorporates
morality for some time, not the individual’s brain or mind, a premier illustration of
situational morality.
The successful failure of this just-community experiment may have at least two
educational implications. First, implementation of a just community should be
prolonged and sustained across several years to effectively change the participants’
moral behaviour. De Waal’s intervention with macaque and rhesus monkeys,
which appeared to lead to persistently positive changes in the rhesus monkeys’
interactions within their own group after closure of the experiment, lasted about
two years on a human time-scale.
Second, part of moral education may consist of making students aware of the
power of situations in determining their moral choices in experimental and natural
settings. Teaching students the experimental evidence of situational morality, such
as the Stanford prison experiment or the Milgram experiments, may lead to self-
defeating prophecies, and create opportunities to make moral choices that deviate
from the situational pressures to act in a specific (immoral) way. Discussing with
students some real examples of situational immorality, such as Auschwitz or Abu
Ghraib, as well as examples of canalisation of altruistic behaviour, such as donating
after the tsunami, may add to their understanding of the determinants of their own
moral behaviour. In fact, moral reasoning is also subjected to situational influences
(Doris, 2010), and these influences might be used to enhance the level of reasoning
as well as moral behaviour.


In sum, we have argued that moral behaviour is partly embodied and largely
situation-specific. Neurobiological factors, attachment security and rearing experiences
have only limited influence on individual differences in moral performance when
studied in isolation. Main effects of neurobiology and socialization are hidden in
their interactions. We deliberately focused on observed moral behaviour, as most
self-report measures of moral behaviour, reasoning or intentions are doomed to be
as invalid as they are reliable (Appiah, 2008, p. 44; Van IJzendoorn, 1984). Most
importantly, only moral behaviour makes a difference in the most crucial moral
dilemmas that may confront individuals, for example during war time or in the face
of serious adversities hitting their peers.
Whether cognitive moral judgements play an important or even decisive role in
moral acts, for example donation to a charity, remains to be seen. The association
between cognitive moral judgements and moral actions is complex (Blasi, 1980),
may go both ways, or may not exist at all. With growing age children might gain


more empathic feelings and they also might respond to moral dilemmas in an ever
more morally justified way, but we have argued here that moral behaviour might
still be mainly situationally determined. Again, it is moral behaviour that really
counts as the ancient proverb suggests: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Or,
put somewhat differently: ‘What good is it if someone claims to have faith but has
no deeds? (..). faith without deeds is dead’ (James 2:14, 26). In general, a rather
large gap has been detected between thought and action, attitudes and behaviour, in
various domains of functioning (Deutscher, 1973). It would be gratifying but hard
to believe if the same were not true for moral reasoning and action.
We may have to go beyond Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental view and neo-
Aristotelian conceptions of morality by going back to ‘…Hartshorne and May
(who) found, that adolescents (and by extension adults) are not divided into groups,
the conscientiously honest and the dishonest. They find instead that situational
factors independent of conscience appear to be the determinants of honest
behaviour’ (Kohlberg, 1984, p.3).
As much as moral competence is a universal human characteristic, it takes a
situation with specific demand-characteristics to translate this competence into
actual prosocial performance.


We are grateful to Fieke Pannebakker, Dorothée Out, Renske Gilissen and Mariëlle
Beijersbergen for their contributions to data-collection, coding and analysis. We
also thank the parents and children who generously donated their time to our study,
as well as the students who assisted in various research phases. Marinus H. van
IJzendoorn and Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg were supported by awards from
the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (MHvIJ: SPINOZA prize;
MJBK: VIDI grant no. 452-04-306; VICI grant no 453-09-003).

This chapter is based on the 22 Lawrence Kohlberg Memorial Lecture presented at the 35th Annual

Conference of the Association for Moral Education, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands), 3 July
2009, and on the invited presentation On situational and embodied morality, at the symposium on
The Development of Character: The Aristotelian Tradition and Contemporary Developmental
Psychology, Keble College, Oxford University, 12th–13th February 2011.


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Marinus H. van IJzendoorn

Leiden University & Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg
Leiden University, the Netherlands





The field of moral psychology is in a state of empirical abundance with

handbooks and compendiums galore. On the one hand we know more about
moral functioning than ever before. We understand that humans have competing
moral sentiments (Narvaez, 2008b, 2009b), that moral goals can be influenced by
the situation (Zimbardo, 2007; Van IJzendoorn & Bakermans-Kranenburg, this
book), and that moral personality dispositions drive moral behavior in a person
by context interactions (Lapsley & Narvaez, 2004; Narvaez & Lapsley, 2009).
On the other hand while moral psychology research perhaps has never been more
prolific, individual moral and social functioning may be on the decline. For
example, moral judgment scores appear to be decreasing longitudinally in US
college students (Thoma & Bebeau, 2008), as is empathy (Konrath et al., 2011)
and cheating is widespread (Callahan, 2004). Youth appear to be less capacious
when they reach adulthood (Bauerlein, 2008), with one of four at risk for an
unproductive adulthood (Eccles & Gootman, 2002). Although psychology has
provided more insights into the causes of psychopathology, depression and
anxiety are more prevalent now than 50 years ago, and the USA has more people
in prison than any other nation (Pew Center on the States, 2008).
How did we get to this point? Is there something fundamentally awry that is
causing these poor outcomes? In my view, a critical factor in the decline of US
adult morality and children’s wellbeing in the USA (Heckman, 2008) is the
abandonment of evolved principles of childrearing, established more than 30
million years ago (Konner, 2010). Child rearing has profound effects on brain
functioning that can last a lifetime. The quality of early care shapes the
functioning of multiple systems, from neurotransmitters, to immunity and stress
response, to moral imagination (Narvaez, 2011b). Good early care fosters
optimal (flexible, functioning) systems, but such care is rare in the USA. Poor
care influences not only cognitive and physiological capacities but also expectations
for community and social life. Moreover, current cultures of childrearing in most
if not all Western societies emphasize left brain development, at the expense of
the more holistic, contextualized, emotional intelligence inclusive of the right
brain (McGilchrist, 2009; Schore, 1994).

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 31–43.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.


Ecological contextualism identifies how multiple social systems (e.g., family,

neighborhood, parental work life, school, societal culture) influence children’s
development (Bronfenbrenner, 1981). Most recently, scholars are discovering how
deeply biological these effects are. Co-construction of a child’s capacities begins
from conception, when the developing embryo reacts to the environment provided
by the mother; she in turn is affected by the community support she receives during
pregnancy (and afterwards) (Hrdy, 2009). The mother’s expectations for the child
are conveyed through stress hormones and other neurobiological mechanisms in
the womb affecting how the baby’s body is constructed (Gluckman & Hanson,
2005). If a mother is stressed early in pregnancy, it has detrimental effects on the
child’s health in multiple ways (Davis & Sandman, 2010). Maternal depression and
anxiety during pregnancy are associated with a reactive stress response and with
children’s subsequent rates of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and emotional and
behavioral problems (e.g., Lundy et al., 1999).
Neuromoral education effects also take place at birth. Mammalian babies that
are separated from the mother at birth are less attuned with the mother and more
socially awkward in later life (e.g., Bystrova et al., 2009). If the baby is subjected
to pain, he or she reacts with a stress response that kills neurons and may form a
stressed brain (Henry & Wang, 1998); the baby also may learn to associate social
life with pain and react to others with rage and/or fear, or detachment.
After birth, physiological as well as psychological education continues as early
care shapes the functioning of all physiological systems through epigenetic and
plasticity effects. For example, children who are neglected have more poorly
functioning neurotransmitter, neuroendocrine, immune, and stress response
systems (Lanius, Vermetten & Pain, 2010). When these are poorly functioning, the
individual has less energy for prosociality. Much of who we become is established
during the first years of life, including whether we are more agreeable, open, and
conscientious (Kochanska, 2002). Although the brain is plastic, it becomes less so
with age, so early patterns are foundational to later functioning (Lanius et al.,
2010). Modern Western humans have culturally erased most of the practices of
infant and child care that evolved to fixation, practices that are ‘expected’ by
human brains and bodies and whose lack has detrimental effects on development
(Narvaez, Panksepp et al, in press).
What are the characteristics of good early care? Anthropologists have identified
the human version of this care, only slightly changed from catarrhine mammalian
practices that emerged 30–40 million years ago (Konner, 2010), which reflect part
of our ancestral human mammalian milieu (AHMM) (Narvaez & Gleason, in
press). Along with natural childbirth (no drugs) and no separation of infant from
mother, these characteristics include child-directed breastfeeding 2–5 years
(4 years on average), constant touch in the first years of life, prompt response to
needs, fusses and cries, multiple adult caregivers, free play in nature with multi-
aged mates (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Konner, 2010).


Lack of AHMM-consistent care has detrimental effects on children’s development

and adult outcomes, including on moral outcomes such as empathy, conscience,
and self control (Narvaez, Gleason et al., 2011). Usually the effects of poor early
care are symptomatized by poor attachment. But the consequences of poor care are
much deeper than psychological constructs; they are neurobiological. Good early
care fosters perhaps the highest form of intelligence, ‘the ability of the organism to
engage in a co-regulated affective communication, where this communication
becomes more and more differentiated over time’ (Greenspan & Shanker, 2004, p.
183). Without good care, development is less than optimal.


Triune ethics theory (Narvaez, 2008b, 2009b) describes the formation of moral
mindsets that rely on early experience for their co-construction. Three basic brain
structures emerged from human evolution and generally correspond to three moral
mindsets: security, engagement and imagination. When a person uses a mindset to
propel moral action, trumping other values, it is considered an ethic.
The security ethic is rooted in survival systems that are shared with all animals
and are present from birth. In mammals, the extrapyramidal action nervous system
(Panksepp, 1998) comes into play under perceived threat – physical or psychological.
Threat cues activate the stress-response system, characteristic of all biological
systems to some degree. The security ethic emerges when a person oriented to
dominance, for example takes moral action to protect the ego either with a ‘bunker’,
(aggressive) orientation, or a ‘wallflower’ (withdrawing or freezing) orientation.
When the environment is chronically threatening, such as during poor early care,
self-protection may become the habitual mode of the personality in social
situations (Eisler & Levine, 2002). For example, Caldji, Diorio, & Meaney (2003)
found that the brains of infant rats subjected to stress from poor parental care are
permanently altered in neurotransmitter function. Those with poor attachment or
stressed emotional systems are more likely to exhibit aggression or withdrawal as a
normal mode of self protection, affecting moral behavior (Hart, Shaver &
Goldenberg, 2005).
The engagement ethic is rooted primarily in the mammalian emotion systems
that lead to sociality. The higher limbic system is co-constructed with caregivers in
early life (also with caring others during sensitive periods). These structures can be
easily damaged by poor care or trauma and require for their development extensive
experience in mutual attunement with caregivers (Schore, in press). Patterns of
experience formed in early life become implicit physiological patterns of response
that frame functioning, including moral functioning. Ideally, children develop a
sense of security through intersubjectively-safe and attuned nurturing (Field &
Reite, 1985; Schore, 1994). The wash of oxytocin that accompanies breastfeeding
and the tryptophan in breastmilk (a precursor of serotonin) facilitate bonding and
prosocial feeling (e.g., Young et al., 2001). The engagement ethic represents the
dominant mode of relating found among foraging hunter-gatherer communities (the
type of society in which the human genus spent 99% of its history). In such


communities, the focus is on mutual enjoyment and emotional presence (facilitated

by laughter, singing, dancing, cuddling). In this mode the prosocial emotions and
hormones are most likely to prevail (e.g., oxytocin). This may have a large part to
do with the peaceful nature of these societies (Fry, 2006).
The imagination ethic is rooted primarily in the most recently evolved parts of
the brain, the frontal and prefrontal cortex (PFC). It enables the ability to think
outside the present moment and about future possibilities. The PFC is highly
influenced by early care and experiences during other sensitive periods. When
early care is poor, the orbital frontal cortex, a part of the PFC, may not develop
properly, leading to an underdeveloped prosocial emotionality (leading to the
dominance of the security ethic). When linked with prosocial emotions, communal
imagination orients to moral problem solving. When fueled by security ethic
concerns, vicious imagination aims for ego dominance. When completely detached
from emotion, detached imagination robotically acts towards others without moral
compunction (e.g., Nazi doctors experimenting on prisoners).
As children grow they develop moral understanding through enactive participation
in social life fostering a unique moral grammar for social living (Narvaez, 2010c).
At first they learn sensorimotor sensibilities for justice (Lerner, 2002) from needs
getting met, then from mutually co-regulated reciprocity and social exchange, all
leading to a secure attachment (Kochanska, 2002). Caregivers provide scaffolding
for what to attend to and perceive (e.g., ‘look at the bird,’ ‘how does your sister
feel after you took her toy?’) This enactive learning occurs in real life situations, in
which children are immersed, so moral understanding is built from experience, not
detached discussions or book learning. Through guided direction while immersed,
adults help structure children’s memory for moral events that children later adopt
for their own self-narratives (Stipek, Recchia & McClintick, 1992). In these ways,
children develop a moral identity (Lapsley, 2008; Lapsley & Narvaez, 2006).


When schooling starts, neuromoral education expands to include relationships

beyond the family. Schooling is unnatural from an evolutionary perspective for two
reasons. It involves systematic coercion, which is foreign to the animal kingdom
outside of humans, and it requires extensive interaction with non-kin. When
schooling starts, typically coercion becomes an everyday experience for the child.
In many ways, coercion shuts down imagination, spiritual growth, and self-purposing.
In most schools, children are treated systematically (for institutional purposes) at
odds with their own course of development. Ideally, a school allows the child to
guide his or her own development. At the same time in today’s world, because
children outside of school are immersed, unsupervised, in endless examples of
vicious and egocentric behavior (at least in the USA), it is important for educators
to take on moral character developmental education intentionally (Narvaez &
Lapsley, 2008) with approaches that honor evolutionary principles in keeping the
security ethic from emerging and maintaining a culture where the engagement and
imagination ethics are fostered.


Although moral character education can be controversial (Lapsley & Narvaez,

2006), the Integrative Ethical Education model (IEE; Narvaez, 2006, 2007, 2008a)
takes on many of the challenges that arise when moral character development is
integrated into academic instruction. IEE offers a multifaceted approach to
maintaining a more apprenticeship-styled moral character education. The model
can be used with any age group in any setting as it fosters moral self-authorship in
group members. Here it is described as applied in a classroom setting.
At the outset, the educator should establish a secure, caring relationship with the
child, so as to ensure a socially supportive context for learning and a mutual
commitment to work together (Masten, 2003). Because humans are wired for
emotional signaling and social motivation (Panksepp, 1998), a caring, supportive
teacher more easily fosters students’ empathy and prosocial behavior as well as
motivation to learn (Wentzel, 1997). Education starts with the state of the child and
the mindset of the teacher. Children with poor early care will have brains that are less
flexible, integrated, and attentive, represented by poor attachment, but with patience
and supportiveness, these children can be reached (Watson & Eckert, 2003). Deep
social connections are more easily established through activities that awaken the right
brain emotion centers such as music, dance, art, and joyous laughter.
A student and teacher typically do not work in isolation but in a social context
with others that primes and promotes particular behaviors (Battistich, 2008; Solomon
et al., 2002). Hence, the second proposal is to create a sustaining climate that is
supportive of ethical behavior and excellence (Narvaez, 2010a). A sustaining climate
takes seriously the social and work habits of students and teacher established at the
beginning of the year. Relationships form the center of the classroom along with
thinking and growing. A sustaining climate meets basic needs (e.g., for autonomy,
belonging, competence, Deci & Ryan, 1985) which promotes peaceful coexistence.
Ideally, as the teacher and students get to know one another, they co-shape classroom
activities in ways that delight them. The discourse is rich with prosocial imagination
(how can we help one another?) so that students move beyond thinking about
themselves. The educator makes sure that the classroom is emotionally warm and
engaging. Feelings are acknowledged and accepted. When things go wrong, amends
are made through conflict resolution, forgiveness and restitution. Leadership is shared
with the students, who have a say in important decisions. Student interests drive the
activities of the classroom. With high expectations and high support, a sustaining
climate cultivates mastery learning, prosocial relationships and citizenship skill
development (Zins et al., 2004). A sustaining climate fosters human flourishing
through positive social influences on brain and behavior, resulting in personal and
group empowerment, and cultivating social, emotional and moral skills (Elias et al.,
2008) through novice-to-expert instruction.
In naturalistic circumstances, individuals learn through guided apprenticeship
(Rogoff, 1991) that mimics expertise development (Ericsson & Smith, 1991).
Apprenticeship for moral character development involves instruction for expertise
development (Narvaez, 2005; Narvaez & Lapsley, 2005). What skills do moral
experts have that can be fostered (Narvaez & Rest, 1995)? They are more morally
sensitive – noticing when moral action is needed and empathizing with those in need.


They use reasoning skills to determine what course of action might be best and
reflect on their choices. They are morally motivated to help others. They know the
steps to take for moral action and persevere until it is finished. See Table 1 for
representative skills for each of these components, skills that can be taught in the
classroom during academic instruction (see Narvaez, 2009a; Narvaez & Bock,
2009; Narvaez & Endicott, 2009; Narvaez & Lies, 2009).1

Table 1. Suggested skills for components of moral behavior


Reading and Expressing Emotion
Taking the Perspectives of Others
Caring by Connecting to Others
Responding to diversity
Controlling Social Bias
Interpreting situations
Communicate Well
Reasoning Generally
Developing Ethical Reasoning Skills
Understanding Ethical Problems
Using Codes and Identifying Judgment Criteria
Understand consequences
Reflecting On The Process And Outcome
Respecting Others
Developing Conscience
Acting Responsibly
Be a community member
Finding meaning in life
Valuing Traditions and Institutions
Developing Ethical Identity And Integrity
Resolving Conflicts and Problems
Assert Respectfully
Taking Initiative as a Leader
Planning to implement
Developing Courage
Developing Perseverance
Working Hard

Four levels of instruction can be used to move novices towards expertise. Each
involves cultivating good intuitions and deliberative understanding. First, the
novice must be immersed in multiple examples of the skill and watch exemplars


using the skill so that a vision of the overall goal is formed. Second, the novice’s
attention is tuned to details and practice of subskills in the domain. Third, the
novice practices several skills together as procedures. Fourth, the novice is able to
perform the skill sets in multiple contexts. With guidance from a more-expert
mentor, students build an embodied understanding (intuitions and explicit
understanding) of a skill in context. School-based programs in social and emotional
learning are documented to help students stop the rapid emotional response and
think more carefully about action (e.g. Elias et al., 2008; Narvaez et al., 2004) and
increase cognitive competencies in decision making (see Catalano, Hawkins &
Toumbourou, 2008, for a review). Such education for reflective skills allows the
individual to monitor intuitions, reexamine gut reactions and try to eliminate
Ultimately, moral character development is the responsibility of the individual.
After infancy and parental influence, no one has greater power to build character
than the individual herself. The choices an individual makes form her character. As
a child develops, she determines more and more of her character. The more an
attitude or behavior is practiced, the more automatic it becomes and the more likely
the individual is to use it again. Educators can help students orient themselves to
self-authorship by giving students practice in making choices and figuring out what
talents and gifts to develop towards self-actualization within the community
(Baxter Magolda, 2001). Expertise in any domain requires the individual to self-
regulate through sophisticated metacognition (Anderson, 1989; Zimmerman,
Bonner, & Kovach, 2002). Again, guided and explained practice helps develop the
eventual capacity to self-regulate.
Finally, moral character is nurtured by the community in which it will be lived.
The last critical piece of the Integrative Ethical Education model emphasizes the
restoration of the ecological network of relationships and communities that
support the child’s development. Too often today, adults are distracted from
attending to a child’s unique developmental course. For optimal development,
children need multiple supportive relationships from adults within and outside of
the family. When goals and practices for child development and education are
mutually adopted by families, neighborhoods and schools, optimal results are more
likely (Lerner, Dowling & Anderson, 2003).
In brief summary, the IEE framework offers a collaborative model that can be
flexibly applied in multiple settings and modified for local needs. Even when every
local setting formulates a unique application, positive changes over comparison
groups can be found (Narvaez et al., 2004). Overall the IEE provides a context that
sustains the engagement and imagination ethics and keeps the security ethic under


Once an individual has left secondary school, how does moral development
proceed? Here are three ways that adults can foster their own moral development.


Beware Truthiness in Moral Decision Making

Good thinking is challenging. People may get drawn to the truthiness of their
intuitions or of their flawed reasoning (Narvaez, 2010b). Not only is good thinking
thwarted by fixed mindsets regarding learning, but also by dogmatism, superstition,
and a lack of open-mindedness and counterfactual thinking (Stanovich & West,
1997). Yet people wrestle with moral decisions, commitments, transgressions, and
judgments in a complex fashion and do so on a regular basis. Moral decision making
includes such things as ascertaining which personal goals and plans to set,
determining what one’s responsibilities are, weighing which action choice among
alternatives is best, reconciling multiple considerations, evaluating the quality of
moral decisions made and actions taken, as well as juggling metacognitive skills such
as monitoring progress on a particular moral goal or controlling attention to complete
the goal. In decision making generally, a person monitors and interprets many
signals, such as emotional reactions (e.g., ‘my stomach is tight, I must not like x, so
I won’t do y’), current goals and preferences, mood and energy, environmental
affordances, situational press, contextual cue quality, social influence, empathic
response, logical coherence with self-image and with prior history. Moral deliberation
takes into account all these aspects, involving an interplay between intuition and
conscious reasoning. The agent plays ‘moral musical chairs’ (Kohlberg, 1981), ‘feeling
out’ consequences of different decisions, and these skills develop from extensive,
guided practice in a particular domain (see Narvaez, 2010b for full references).

Select Good Environments for Intuition Development

Virtue is fostered through extensive immersion in good environments (fostering
intuitions) and mentoring (fostering deliberation and assisting in the selection of
environments for intuition development). One learns intuitions from the environments
in which one is immersed (Hogarth, 2001). Individuals can be primed to think and
feel particular ways without awareness (as advertisers are well aware). When
repeated over time, these thoughts and feelings can become automatic responses to
subtle cues and be established as ‘intuitions’ (e.g., Coca-Cola is a good thirst
quencher). Therefore one who desires to be virtuous must select carefully the
environments in which one spends time. However, as Aristotle also pointed out, one
needs a mentor until one can guide one’s own virtue development. Good parenting
and adult mentorship foster a keen sense of what virtue and virtue-supporting
environments look like. One must consider what kinds of skills and attitudes a
particular activity will foster in the self for the longterm. Are they skills and attitudes
that make one a more virtuous human being? If one does not select carefully, then
one’s preferences and intuitions will be formed haphazardly by others. Activities can
foster one type of moral mindset or another. Environments that promote feelings of
fear, anxiety and threat (e.g., violent electronic media) are prone to foster the security
ethic, as the primitive parts of the brain are maintained on alert, grabbing energy from
other parts of the brain (Mathews et al., 2005). Activities that foster positive social
bonds (e.g., musical play) will promote feelings of social and personal wellbeing.


Maintain Emotions and Brain Sets that Lead to Prosocial Instead of Antisocial
Too often modern life encourages a stress response in reaction to the novelty of
encountering strangers on a daily basis. In combination with early experience that
makes one stress reactive to novelty (Meaney, 2001), a chronic stress response can
lead to a self-centered orientation to living: the security ethic, vicious or detached
imagination. To counter this pressure to focus on self-protection or distancing, here
are three suggestions. First, the individual can intentionally cultivate a
compassionate response to others. Mindfulness training can assist with a focus on
sensory and perceptual input under relaxed breathing (Langer, 1989). Paying
attention to the newness of a situation or encounter and savoring it (Bryant &
Veroff, 2007) enlists the right brain holistic response and fosters an engagement
ethic. A second approach is to practice social gratitude (Emmons & McCullough,
2002) in which appreciation of others is acknowledged and expressed. A third
practice that fosters prosocial orientation and an engagement ethic, through a
stimulation of the right brain, is immersion in delightful social activities such as
playing, dancing, art and music making, and/or being in nature (Siegel, 1999).
Playful activity enlivens the positive emotions and promotes emotional presence,
decreasing chances for depression, self-isolation (Brown & Vaughan, 2009), and
moral narcissism.


From the beginning of life, humans are embodied creatures who are shaped by
experience. The trajectory for a unique self is set in early life as the brain is being
molded by relationships with caregivers. Each person’s universe is different from that
of another, setting up a unique personal moral grammar for the social life (Narvaez,
2011a) that shifts among engagement, security, imagination from moment to
moment, situation to situation, relationship to relationship.
Yet individuals have power to change themselves. Although the beginnings of the
self are established by caregivers before a child can select for herself, with autonomy
throughout life, individuals can shift their personalities, capacities and virtue,
‘growing themselves’. Individuals can deliberately foster one ethic or another in
themselves or others by the activities they choose,--activities that enhance the ego,
fear and the security ethic, or activities where they let go of the ego through
interaction with nature and with others in social delight, encouraging an engagement
ethic and communal imagination. The world is overfilled with the former and needs
much more of the latter.

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Darcia Narvaez
University of Notre Dame, USA





‘Education in virtue’ and ‘education for character’ are buzzwords in recent theories
in moral education, broadly construed: theories ranging from (a) character
education (Lickona, 1991), through (b) social and emotional learning as the
educational incarnation of ‘emotional intelligence’ (Goleman, 1995) and (c) social,
emotional, ethical, and academic education as a rapprochement of (a) and (b)
(Cohen, 2006), to (d) positive psychology’s latter-day inroads into virtue education
(Peterson & Seligman, 2004). All those theories make explicit or implicit
references to Aristotle’s (1985) ancient virtue theory or to the recent revival of
virtue ethics. The basic idea motivating many leading proponents of those theories
seems to be that if moral philosophers (namely virtue ethicists), psychologists
(especially moral psychologists) and moral educators (specifically those interested
in the cultivation of virtue) pool their resources, their cooperation could lead to
major advances in the field of moral education.
In this chapter, I set out with two working hypotheses: The desired cooperation
has not yet materialised; and psychologists have been the ‘weakest link’ in the
cooperation. To explain why this state of affairs has come about, I need to follow a
somewhat circuitous route, touching on various philosophical, psychological and
educational issues. I outline my plan in more detail at the end of this introductory
section. The most obvious starting point is, however, in moral theory.
The beginning of the resurgence of interest in Aristotelian or quasi-Aristotelian
virtue ethics, which has had a decisive impact on contemporary moral theory, is
often dated back to the publication of Elizabeth Anscombe’s (1958) article,
‘Modern moral philosophy’. At that time, moral philosophy was undergoing an
existential crisis. Moreover, interest in moral education in the school system had
sunk to an all-time low or, more specifically, had become the subject of widespread
and protracted indifference in the educational community. To understand why, we
need to engage in some intellectual history in tabloid, beginning with the 18th
century Enlightenment, when classic European moral philosophy, with its roots in
Greek and Hebrew culture, was dealt two severe blows (vividly depicted in
MacIntyre, 1983). Growing religious agnosticism, if not full-blown atheism, with
its concomitant disenchantment and secularisation of society undermined one of
the two traditional bases of moral conviction: the belief in morality as a system of
divine commands. Moreover, the other basis of moral conviction, the idea that

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 45–56.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

morality is about the actualisation of our unique, immediately knowable human

essence, also eroded, as causal accounts of nature replaced teleological ones, and
talk of a priori essences was, at best, nominalised and relativised – at worst
ridiculed. Yet moral philosophy did not give up the ghost, and during the 19th
century two new approaches to morality gradually took hold. One was based on
faith in human rationality as an unfaltering touchstone of correct action, the other
on the empirical claim that we all seek happiness via the satisfaction of deep and
fecund pleasures and that a viable morality is one that secures the greatest
happiness of the greatest number. I am talking here, of course, about Kantianism
on the one hand and Millian utilitarianism on the other.
By the time Anscombe wrote her article (1958), however, both Kantianism and
utilitarianism had experienced serious setbacks. After two world wars, it was
difficult to convince people that morality could have a basis in unsullied human
reason. At the same time, utilitarianism had gradually degenerated from a doctrine
about objectively evaluable sources of pleasure – identified by competent,
experienced judges – to one about the maximisation of radically subjectivised
preferences, in which the preferences of the paedophile were, in principle, on a par
with those of Mother Teresa. Within the charmed circle of academic moral
philosophy, the practitioners had all but given up on normative moral theory
altogether, replacing it with somewhat bloodless conceptual analyses of moral
terms. Moral education had lost its mooring as a standard school subject; and
although, as MacIntyre puts it (1983, p. 5), ‘the language and appearances of
morality’ persisted among the general public, its ‘integral substance’ had been
‘fragmented and then in part destroyed’.
Given this bleak and precarious context, it is understandable that Anscombe’s
(1958) article struck a chord with academics and general readers. For although she
rendered a pessimistic message about the inarticulateness of current moral theories in
accounting for the nature of morality, a more hopeful note was struck with her
contention that ordinary moral language was alright as it is – focusing now, just as it
had always done in the past, on human virtues and vices: Person A’s considerateness
or callousness, Person B’s compassion or cruelty. Moral theory simply needed to
abandon the eroded conceptual foundation and reclaim its naturalistic grounding in
everyday talk about human character, whether good or bad. Moral philosophers could
be aided in this task by moral psychology; indeed, they should simply keep silent
until the psychologists had provided them with empirical evidence on which
to build a science of moral character. Taking its leaf from Anscombe’s suggestion,
nothing less than a new moral theory – virtue ethics – was born, retrieving age-old
Aristotelian insights about the primacy of moral character in the ‘good’, ‘flourishing’
life, and about moral virtues as conducive to as well as constitutive of such a life
(Aristotle, 1985). All this could be done, we were now told, without importing
Aristotle’s outdated biology and discredited metaphysics of the human essence.
Contemporary virtue ethics affirms, after all, that the human essence is a mere
empirical construct rather than a metaphysical one.
According to virtue ethics, an action is right not because it can be universalised
in light of a rationalist principle (Kantianism) or because it makes the greatest


number of people happiest (utilitarianism), but because it enhances virtue and

contributes to a flourishing life – as opposed to a languishing or floundering one.
Indeed, the focus is no longer on the ‘deontic’ correctness of individual actions, but
rather on their ‘aretaic’ role in the well-rounded life and their roots in the ‘inner
world’ of the agent: in stable states of character that incorporate motivational and
emotional elements. What matters in the end for moral evaluation are the emotion
with which, the motivation behind and the manner in which an action is performed –
not merely observable behaviour (cf. Kristjánsson, 2010a, chap. 6).
Since the rebirth of contemporary virtue ethics, it has been taken for granted that
this theory would lend itself more easily to educational interventions than either
Kantianism or utilitarianism would. Virtue ethics benefits here from its Aristotelian
inheritance according to which moral questions are inseparable from educational
ones (cf. Kristjánsson, 2007; Curren, 2010). This assumption rests on the claim that a
virtuous agent is made aware of moral concerns in the first place by being inculcated
with the proper states of character through early-age habituation and modelling on
worthy moral exemplars. From Anscombe’s call for a psychologically informed
virtue ethics, the following ideal picture can therefore be gleaned: Consider the
relation between virtue ethical theory, moral psychology and moral education as
analogous to that of three neighbours who plan on shooting ducks. One of them owns
the gun, another owns the ammunition and the third is an expert on shooting. The
virtue ethicist brings the gun (the overarching virtue theory), the psychologist the
ammunition (the empirical evidence on how a flourishing life is best led) and the
moral educator the expertise on execution (the tools and techniques on how to impart
moral competence).
If this picture had emanated from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the cooperation would
have been successful, and many ducks would already be on the table. Reality paints a
more sobering picture, however. On the positive side, some strides have been made
in the educational countenance and accommodation of virtue ethics. The educational
philosopher to whom this volume is dedicated, Jan Steutel (1997; 1998; Steutel &
Spiecker, 2004) has, along with David Carr (1991), become a leader in paving the
conceptual ground for initiatives in virtue ethical education in general and emotion
education in particular. Character education, which for a while became a powerful
movement in advocating virtue-based moral education in schools, especially in the
USA (Lickona, 1991), produced various helpful practical tips on implementing
programmes in character improvement. It remained fairly unsophisticated
philosophically and psychologically, however, and relied largely upon anecdotal
evidence about what makes young people tick. More generally, there has been a
dearth of psychological evidence produced on the morally good life. So although ‘the
gun’ has been polished and there is no shortage of advice on how to hit ‘the mark’,
the negative side of the picture is that little ‘ammunition’ has yet to appear. To put it
bluntly, the promise of a psychologically (as distinct from anecdotally) informed
virtue education has escaped us; virtue education still finds itself in a state of
seclusion from the social scientific considerations that should, ideally, undergird it.
Although it would be wrong to say that such education has remained stationary,


therefore, let alone declined, it has not moved forward with the force and speed
with which one would have hoped.
To return to our analogy, it seems as if the neighbour who was supposed to
bring the ammunition – the psychologist – has failed to deliver the goods. My aim
in this chapter is primarily explanatory (to explain why that is the case) and
exploratory (to outline briefly the remedial options available). More specifically, in
the next section, I explore David Hume’s two ‘laws’ about facts versus values and
‘is’ versus ‘ought’, and lay bare the underlying credo of moral anti-realism. In the
third section, I trace the ramification of these laws as they reverberate in current
positive psychology. The fourth section gives a quick overview of the alternatives
for salvaging our shooting party, and the last section contains some concluding


In order to obtain a grip on the problem at hand, it is convenient to begin with

David Hume, the 18th century philosopher whose austere empiricist epistemology
still exerts a strong hegemony over the scientific (including the psychological)
community. According to Hume’s well-rehearsed epistemology (1978, esp. pp. 1,
275–277), all knowledge is ultimately traceable to perceptions of the human mind,
which divide into forceful perceptions, called impressions, and faint images of
those impressions in thinking and reasoning, called ideas. Impressions can be
simple, such as the colour red, or complex, such as the sensation of a red apple.
Similarly, ideas can be simple, such as our memory of redness, or complex, such as
our memory of a red apple as a whole. Hume then advances various uncompromising
principles, which have subsequently been given catchy names. Hume’s ‘microscope’
is, for instance, the principle that all true knowledge is ultimately reducible either
to simple impressions or to the logical relations between ideas (where the ideas
themselves originate in impressions). Hume’s ‘razor’ is the principle that all
propositions that fail to satisfy the ‘microscope’ are pseudo-scientific claptrap that
must be cut away and dispensed with in any serious inquiry. It is Hume’s third
principle, however – his ‘guillotine’ – that is most salient for present purposes. The
‘guillotine’ actually involves two distinct ‘laws’ – one about the distinction between
facts and values, the other about the is–ought gap – that are commonly conflated in
the literature but should ideally be kept apart.
Hume’s first ‘law’, concerning the distinction between facts and values, states
that propositions involving values, such as ‘It was horrible of John to kill his
mother-in-law’, fall afoul of the ‘microscope’: Whereas the claim that John killed
his mother-in-law has a clear factual basis in impressions, the claim that is was
horrible of him to do so does not. It is worth quoting Hume (1978) at length here,
as this is one of the most influential citations in the whole history of ideas to the
present day:
Take any action allowed to be vicious: wilful murder, for instance. Examine
it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence,
which you call vice. In whichever way you take it, you find only certain


passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in

the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object.
You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and
find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.
Here is a matter of fact; but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in
yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or
character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of
your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation
of it (p. 468).
In other words, when one claims that something is morally good or bad, one is not
actually making a real judgement involving a propositional content that can be
considered true or false, but simply expressing disapprobation or approbation:
saddling the relevant facts with feeling or, more precisely, projecting subjective
feelings onto the facts. If the ‘horribility’ in question had factual content, one could
give an exhaustive description of the given event (here, the mother-in-law’s
murder), so the question ‘Yes, but was it horrible?’ would be as superfluous as the
question ‘Yes, but did she die?’ But that is not the case, Humeans argue; even after
all the facts of the matter have been described with accuracy, the question ‘Yes, but
was it horrible?’ is still a perfectly intelligible one. Persons asking the question
could even, without logical error, base their beliefs about the alleged ‘horribility’
upon premises that no one else would recognise as providing any evidence. This
particular rendering of Hume’s first law is called ‘the open-question argument’.
Furthermore, this law is sometimes said to expose ‘the naturalistic fallacy’ of
trying to infer a value from a fact.
The label ‘naturalistic fallacy’ is, however, more felicitously reserved for
Hume’s second law about the impossibility of deriving an ‘ought-claim’ (such as
‘He ought to help the old woman to stand up’ from an ‘is-statement’ (such as ‘The
old women fell down when trying to cross the street’). Hume’s debunking of the
alleged is–ought fallacy is more elliptical than that of the fact–value fallacy,
probably because, as a motivational internalist (see below in the fourth section), he
did not make a clear distinction between the two. What he says here is simply
that in ‘every system of morality’ he has ‘hitherto met with’, the author moves
mysteriously at some point from ordinary claims about what is or is not in human
affairs to some claims about what ought or ought not be, as if those latter claims
simply revealed some further factual ‘relation or affirmation’ (1978, p. 469). Hume
obviously finds this inference so logically preposterous that he spends little time
dwelling on it.
Hume’s position embodies a metaphysical doctrine about the fabric of the
world. That doctrine is called (moral) anti-realism. It assumes that moral properties
do not have attitude-independent existence or truth values. There are no ‘moral
facts’ – merely expressions of personal moral feelings. Such anti-realism is most
often conjoined with moral relativism, or at least moral pluralism. It is possible,
however, to be a non-relativist anti-realist. Hume, for example, was one himself, as
he complemented and softened his anti-realist stance with an empirical theory
about universal, culturally independent moral emotions. In any case, the antithesis


of all moral anti-realism is moral realism. Realists believe that moral properties
exist independent of human (dis)approbation, be it in a transcendental realm of
ideas (Platonism), woven into the fabric of rationality (Kantianism) or simply in
the nature around us (naturalism) – the same nature that science explores. Virtue
ethics – the philosophical springboard of this chapter – is a form of naturalist moral
realism, holding, as it does, that morality is about the enhancement of human
flourishing via the cultivation of human virtues, and that those links can be
established empirically, just as the link between a balanced diet and physical


The tidings of Hume’s two laws did not flow upon subsequent scientific inquiry
and leave it untouched. Quite the contrary: Bowing to the prohibition on values
became a norm in all ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘sober-minded’ science, adhered to with
extraordinary tenacity to the present day. In social science, being a moral anti-
realist became the default position – so much so that the difference between
Hume’s two laws became obscured as they fused into the single overarching
‘guillotine’ hanging over the head of any social scientist foolhardy enough to
venture into the forbidden field of values. Influential sociologist Max Weber was
the most prominent intermediary from Hume’s radical empiricism into the realm of
social science, as evidenced by Weber’s famous claim that statements of facts are
one thing (linked to the head), statements of value another (linked to the heart), and
that confusing the two in social scientific inquiry is impermissible. The schoolroom
image of modern natural science, as one of unprejudiced reason exploring an
independent, value-neutral realm of nature, was to be the model for social science
as well. ‘Value-freedom’ (Wertfreiheit) became the order of the day (Weber, 1949,
originally published 1904). Textbooks even advise us that Weber’s Humean view
is ‘so splendidly sensible that there is little wonder at its great popularity’ (Ryan,
1970, p. 230). To cut a long story short, this ‘splendidly sensible’ view then filtered
down to the budding new science of psychology, where it still reigns supreme
(mostly untouched by the post-positivism that has taken hold of some other areas
of social science since the 1960s).
Examples of the powerful hold of Hume’s two laws (merged into one) are legion
in modern general psychology, but I shall limit myself to one quick reminder from
current positive psychology. Since the beginning of the 21st century, so-called
positive psychologists have set themselves the task of closing what they consider to
be a serious moral gap in previous psychological theory (such as that of the amoral
‘emotional intelligence’ in Goleman, 1995) with an ambitious virtue project, best
understood as the ‘social science equivalent of virtue ethics’ (Peterson & Seligman,
2004, p. 89). This project is particularly pertinent for my inquiry, as it not only
involves the scientific exploration of the happy life as a life of virtue (in an
Aristotelian or quasi-Aristotelian sense), but is also meant to issue in an extensive
programme of virtue education at school. The positive psychologists describe
themselves as reluctant moralists. They were initially worried that their virtue project


was doomed from the start because of its value-ladenness. They seem to have been
genuinely surprised at the strong empirical correlation that they found between
happiness and virtue. And after doing their research on the link between the two, they
were left, ‘somewhat reluctantly’, with the conclusion that character strengths differ
from talents and abilities exclusively because of their moral nature (Peterson &
Seligman, 2004, p. 20). Yet, even though character turned out to be an evaluative
notion, positive psychologists want to preserve the austere Humean assumption that
science (including psychological science) must be ‘descriptive of what is ubiquitous’
rather than normative (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 51). It is precisely at this point
– because they conflate Hume’s two laws and do not distinguish between the
‘normative’ as ‘evaluative’ and the ‘normative’ as ‘prescriptive’ – that problems
begin to crowd in.
The key concept in positive psychology is happiness. Just as Aristotle argues for
eudaimonia, positive psychologists see in happiness the ungrounded grounder of
all human strivings. Seligman (2002) describes various ‘pathways’ to happiness. It
is difficult to shake the impression, when reading about the different pathways, that
what he calls the ‘engaged life’ is qualitatively superior to the ‘pleasant life’, the
‘meaningful life’ superior to the ‘engaged life’, and so forth – in other words, that
Seligman ranks the pathways to various happy lives in order of primacy. But his
official doctrine is that these pathways do not constitute a qualitative order in
which later stages are better – ‘happier’ – than the earlier ones. Admittedly, it
happens that Seligman finds later stages better (more happiness-inducing) for
himself than earlier stages are – and the same may apply to the majority of people
according to empirical research – but if he took the decisive step of deeming these
stages better per se than the earlier ones, he would (or so he fears) have started to
prescribe rather than describe, and would no longer be a scientist: This ‘limited
nature of our theory is a consequence […] of its descriptive, as opposed to
prescriptive nature’. It is even ‘possible’, if ‘not likely’, for an individual to be
‘happy’ but at the same time ‘wrong-headed, evil, deluded, incorrect, and even
anti-social’ (Jayawickreme, Pawelski & Seligman, 2011).
The positive psychologists find themselves impaled on the horns of a dilemma.
If they prioritise the pathways to happiness, they think they have started to
prescribe and have stepped out of the scientific frame. By refusing to prioritise
those pathways, however, their theory becomes not only ambiguous at times, but
seriously indeterminate, morally and educationally. Similarly, because no clear
consensus allegedly exists in world religions and philosophies about an integrating
‘master virtue’, positive psychologists consider themselves to be exceeding their
remit as scientists should they demand virtuous unity guided by an overarching
principle of priorities in virtuous agents. They stoically refuse, therefore, to pass
overall judgements on what counts as a well-rounded virtuous life. They simply
advise children to cultivate their ‘signature strengths’ – their already best virtues –
as if that were quite an ambitious enough goal for virtue education (Seligman,
2002, p. 245). All in all, their laudable intentions notwithstanding, positive
psychologists stop well short of closing the moral gap in psychological theory.
Their aim of engaging with morality without moralism may well be attainable, but


one cannot hope to say something substantial about happiness, virtue and virtue
education by clinging fiercely to both of Hume’s laws, or, more specifically in this
case, to allow his second law to collapse into the first (see further in Kristjánsson,


If it is primarily adherence to Hume’s laws that makes psychology impotent in its

suggested cooperation with virtue ethics, it is worth considering if that adherence
can be abandoned. Of course, making psychology serviceable for virtue education
is not a sufficient reason for abandoning those laws. There is, unfortunately, no
space here to explain in detail the possible objections than can and have been
lodged against each of the laws. What I shall simply do is to outline the three
possible logical alternatives to accepting both of them, and to spell out in more
detail the alternative that I consider to carry most initial promise. The logical
alternatives to the status quo for psychologists are to (a) reject both laws, (b) retain
the first but reject the second and (c) retain the second but reject the first. It does
not require much reflection to realise that (b) is not really a viable option. If there is
an unbridgeable gap between facts and values, there surely exists the same sort of
gap between the non-evaluative ‘is’ and the evaluative ‘ought’. In contrast, (a) is a
serious option, but an uncompromisingly radical one at that. Svend Brinkmann
(2009; 2011) is ready to go down this lane – and so would many pragmatists, post-
Kuhnians and anti-foundationalist social scientists – but I am certain that not many
mainstream psychologists would want to follow them. The reason is simply that by
opting for (a) psychology would have been turned into a prescriptive enterprise,
thus obliterating the distinction between moral psychology and moral philosophy.
Without exploring the details of Brinkmann’s radical thesis here, let me assume
that most psychologists will want – with good reason – to preserve the distinction
between a psychological science of morality, on the one hand, that gauges the
empirical basis of moral notions, and the job of moralists and preachers, on the
other, who tell us what to do.
Let us focus, therefore, on alternative (c). Moral realists reject the fact-value
distinction (see e.g., Foot, 1958–1959). Many of them, however – including
naturalist realists (e.g., Railton, 2003) – want to preserve the is-ought distinction
and hence defend Hume’s second law. To understand why, we need to introduce
two views about the relationship between values and motivation that cut across the
realist-anti-realist divide: motivational internalism and externalism. Motivational
internalists believe that moral judgement is intrinsically motivating. Thus if one
sincerely passes a moral judgement and is not suffering from some general
motivational disorder, then one is (by way of conceptual necessity) motivated to
act on that judgement. The motivation may be overridden by other stronger
motivations, but at least it exists. Motivational externalists claim, on the other
hand, that whereas some moral judgements may be intrinsically motivating (e.g.,
those involving emotional judgements), a fully rational person who is, say, a moral
cynic or amoralist can sincerely pass a detached moral judgement about a state of


affairs without being moved to act on that judgement. Such a person may
understand the suffering of another perfectly well, for instance, and accept with full
frankness the judgement that the morally right thing is to alleviate it, but not care a
damn or stir a finger. As the connection between moral judgement and motivation
is purely contingent, what is needed to convert such a judgement into motivation is
a desire external to the judgement – the desire to be a moral person, for example
(see Svavarsdóttir, 1999).
Anti-realists of the Humean kind are motivational internalists, for an obvious
reason: Anti-realism and motivational internalism are mutually reinforcing, in that
anti-realism reduces moral properties to pro-attitudes (which are, ex hypothesi, as
attitudes, at least weakly motivating). Conversely, motivational internalism assumes
that all moral claims have motivational force, and that is most easily accounted for
if moral claims are nothing but the expressions of attitudes. Historically, most
realists have also been motivational internalists (for instance Plato, Kant and
Kohlberg), albeit for different reasons than anti-realists would be. Motivational
internalism combined with realism lubricates a radical thesis, best known from the
Socratic dialogues, about the nature of the moral wrongdoer. For if moral goodness
has an objective mind-independent existence (realism) and those who know what is
good are thereby motivated to do good (motivational internalism), it seems that,
other things being equal, all moral wrongdoers must be suffering from ignorance or
a mental disease: conditions that stand in need of cure and rehabilitation rather than
blame and punishment.
Realists who do not believe in motivational internalism are not burdened with
this contentious implication. They assume, by contrast, that independent moral
facts give agents reason for acting contingently upon their attitudes, and that an
agent may decide to follow base attitudes without being guilty of an intellectual (as
distinct from a moral) error, let alone being mentally sick. Realists of this ilk will
not deny that ought-statements can be inferred (informally) from is-statements
within the institution of morality (the ‘moral game’ if you like). For instance, they
will happily agree that when we are playing the ‘moral game’, the statement ‘You
ought to help the old woman stand up’ follows – other things being equal – from
the statement ‘It is morally right to help the old woman stand up’. They deny the
motivational internalist assumption that acceptance of the latter statement motivates
one intrinsically (at least weakly), all things considered, simply by virtue of being a
rational agent, even if one does not care a whit for doing what is morally right. It is
moot if the naturalist realist Aristotle, the progenitor of contemporary virtue ethics,
was a motivational internalist or externalist. Even if he was an internalist, the most
cogent stance for a contemporary moral naturalist, as I have suggested elsewhere,
is to be a motivational externalist (Kristjánsson, 2010b). I believe that such a
position – which implies that one sticks to Hume’s second law (by considering the
‘normative’ as ‘prescriptive’ to lie outside the purview of psychology) while
repudiating his first (by bringing the ‘normative’ as ‘evaluative’ into the fold of
psychology) – is in admirable accordance with common intuitions about moral
imperatives requiring more from agents than a detached understanding of morally
relevant facts, and is helpful in ameliorating various awkward shortcomings in


modern-day practical thinking about moral psychology and moral education. I have
argued elsewhere, for instance, that alternative (c) helps us to solve the dilemma,
mentioned in the third section, that burdens current positive psychology (Kristjánsson,
2010c). I shall not add further to those arguments here, but simply suggest to
the reader that carefully exploring the credentials of this alternative makes a
worthwhile project for any dedicated student of moral education.


Psychology in general, and moral psychology in particular, has not provided us

with the ammunition that virtue ethicists and virtue educators, at least, had hoped
for. We have seen little synthetic multidisciplinary working out of the empirical
issues that must be adjudicated as a prolegomena to the implementation of
successful programmes in virtue education. I have argued in this chapter that the
reason lies in psychology’s strict adherence to Hume’s laws. I see no escape from
the conclusion that if psychology is ever to make its desired contribution to our
shooting party, the only plausible alternative is that of abandoning Hume’s first
law. Down that same drain would then go the moral anti-realism in which this law
is embedded, and the complementary thesis of motivational internalism. This
intermediary position yields the benefit of enabling us to synthesise theoretical and
empirical insights into the good life – ‘the gun’ and ‘the ammunition’ – without
turning psychology into a prescriptive enterprise. I leave it to readers to ponder,
however, if independently good reasons can be found for abandoning the first law:
namely if moral realism can be shown to be true. The conclusion that I have
suggested is contingent upon such reasons.
We need – I submit – to see more, not less, academic trespassing from
psychologists. By saying that, I am not denying the contribution that empirical
psychologists have already made to our understanding of morality. It would,
indeed, be an egregious mistake to claim that none of the intelligence and hard
work lavished by them upon their subject has paid dividends. Clear examples are
provided by positive psychology’s exploration of people’s views about happiness
as the ultimate aim of life and about the moral virtues as indispensable facets of
happiness (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Those are enormously useful findings for
a naturalist moral realist, because for such a realist (say, of the Millian or
Aristotelian kind), the best evidence that something is desirable is that it is, in fact,
desired – but, alas, desired by wise and competent judges.
Mutual engagement between disciplines does not mean, however, that we
abandon their natural division of labour. Moral philosophers give us (a) the
overarching view of the good life and reasons for cultivating such a life; moral
psychologists give us, ideally, (b) the facts about its cultivation; moral educators,
after choosing a moral paradigm, such as virtue ethics, to work with, synthesise (a)
and (b) and find the best way to put that synthesis into practice. Nevertheless, one
might ask – given that psychology continues to fail to provide the ammunition
required – if moral educators cannot simply make do without it and underpin the
work of the moral philosophers with their own theoretical and empirical research. I


remain sceptical about that option. Psychology and education have, over the last
century, developed quite different research paradigms and traditions: complementary
rather than competing. By trying to replicate experimental work in psychology
along non-psychological lines, I am afraid educators would be biting off more than
they can chew.
For virtue ethicists, the motivational link between moral judgement and moral
action is provided by moral emotions (cf. Kristjánsson, 2010a, chap. 4). On the
Aristotelian model, being virtuous is not only motivated by emotion, but essentially
involves emotion (see Kristjánsson, 2007; cf. Kristjánsson, 2010a). This is why the
first contemporary virtue educators, such as Steutel, quickly – and rightly – turned
from the realisation that ‘a clear and convincing account of the defining
characteristics of the virtue approach to moral education is still lacking’ (1997, p.
395) to an account of how sentimental dispositions can be cultivated in the young
(Steutel & Spiecker, 2004). To proceed further, however, virtue education needs
more ammunition from social science. It needs, most specifically, to engage in a
fertile joint venture with moral psychology: that is moral psychology released from
some of its Humean heritage. This chapter has sought to prepare the ground for
such a venture – but also to explain why it is such a tall order.


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Aristotle. (1985). Nicomachean ethics. Trans. T. Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Brinkmann, S. (2009). Facts, values, and the naturalistic fallacy in psychology. New Ideas in
Psychology, 27(1), 1–17.
Brinkmann, S. (2011). Psychology as a moral science: Perspectives on normativity. Dordrecht:
Carr, D. (1991). Educating the virtues: Essay on the philosophical psychology of moral development
and education. London: Routledge.
Cohen, J. (2006). Social, emotional, ethical, and academic education: Creating a climate for learning,
participation in democracy, and well-being. Harvard Educational Review, 76(2), 201–242.
Curren, R. (2010). Aristotle’s educational politics and the Aristotelian renaissance in philosophy of
education. Oxford Review of Education, 36(5), 543–559.
Foot, P. (1958–1959). Moral beliefs. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 59(1), 83–104.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
Hume, D. (1978). A treatise of human nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jayawickreme, E., Pawelski, J., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Happiness: Positive psychology and
Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. In R. Auxier (Ed.) Library of living philosophers: The
philosophy of Martha Nussbaum (in press). Chicago: Open Court. Retrieved October 11, 2009, from
Kristjánsson, K. (2007). Aristotle, emotions, and education. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Kristjánsson, K. (2010a). The self and its emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kristjánsson, K. (2010b). Emotion education without ontological commitment? Studies in Philosophy
and Education, 29(3), 259–274.
Kristjánsson, K. (2010c). Positive psychology, happiness, and virtue: The troublesome conceptual
issues. Review of General Psychology, 14(4), 296–310.
Lickona, T. (1991). Educating for character: How our schools can teach respect and responsibility.
New York: Bantam Books.
MacIntyre, A. (1983). After virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.


Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and
classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Railton, P. (2003). Facts, values, and norms: Essays towards a morality of consequence. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Ryan, A. (1970). The philosophy of the social sciences. London: Macmillan.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your
potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Steutel, J. W. (1997). The virtue approach to moral education: Some conceptual clarifications. Journal
of Philosophy of Education, 31(3), 395–407.
Steutel, J. W. (1998). Virtues and human flourishing: A teleological justification. In D. Carr (Ed.)
Education, knowledge and truth: Beyond the postmodern impasse (pp. 129–142). London: Routledge.
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habituation. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 38(4), 531–549.
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York: The Free Press.

Kristján Kristjánsson
University of Iceland, Iceland




Most generally, and in a slogan, reasons are considerations that purport to support
candidate beliefs, judgments, and actions. That is, p is a reason for q if p is a
consideration that, if good, favors or counts in favor of some specific belief,
judgment or action q. Let us call the beliefs, judgments and actions that reasons
purport to support targets. Some examples:

Reasons Targets
The ground is wet It has rained here recently
She is intelligent, thoughtful, and socially She is a strong candidate for the position
Hitting him will hurt him You should not hit him

The items in the left hand column are reasons for the corresponding items in the
right hand column. What is the significance of calling them ‘reasons’? Most
fundamentally, calling them reasons indicates that, if they are any good, they
provide support for their corresponding targets: that is, they are considerations that
count in favor of their targets, and at least to some extent render their targets
worthy of belief, judgment, or action.
The italicized slogan stands in need of qualification. Strictly speaking, reasons
are not the sort of thing that can purport anything, so the slogan should not be taken
literally. The important aspect of the slogan is not ‘purport’ but ‘support’: reasons
– if they are good reasons – stand in supportive relations to the things for which
they are reasons. I use ‘purport’ in the slogan in order to acknowledge that not all
reasons in fact support their intended targets: bad reasons, non-reasons, pseudo-
reasons, etc., may be offered in support of some q but fail to provide the support in
question. It is the support that is key. (For example, someone may offer ‘the ground
is dry’ as a reason for believing that ‘it has rained here recently’ in a modified
version of the first example above, but the offered reason provides no support for
that belief.) In saying that reasons ‘purport to support’, I mean to indicate just that
candidate reasons can fail to support their targets, being either bad reasons or non-
There are many different kinds of reasons. Philosophers distinguish between
theoretical and practical reason. The former involves reasons for belief; the latter,
reasons for action. They distinguish as well between instrumental, means-ends

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 59–69.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

reasons and categorical reasons. The former involves the conduciveness of means
to the efficacious achievement of particular goals or ends (‘If you want to do well
on the exam, study hard (or cheat)’); the latter involves reasons not aimed at or
limited to any particular ends (‘Whatever your practical ends, you owe it to
yourself to do your best on the exam’). There are deep, important philosophical
issues concerning these and related distinctions and types of reasons, but I will pass
over them here. For our purposes, the key feature of reasons is just their tendency
(or failure) to provide the requisite support for their targets.
So understood, reasons are at the heart of the educational ideal of critical
thinking. Many educational philosophers/theorists, me included, regard critical
thinking as a fundamental educational ideal, central to curriculum, policy and
practice. To regard critical thinking as a fundamental educational ideal is to hold
that educational activities ought to be designed and conducted in such a way that
the construction and evaluation of reasons (in accordance with relevant criteria) is
paramount, throughout the curriculum. What is critical thinking? While there are a
range of theoretical accounts of it, with varying emphases and the usual helping of
philosophical controversies, most accounts understand it as involving both (1) a
reason assessment component, encompassing the skills and abilities needed to
create, recognize and evaluate candidate reasons, and (2) a critical spirit component,
usually understood to involve a host of dispositions, habits of mind and character
traits, such as a propensity to seek and evaluate candidate reasons, a willingness
to subject one’s beliefs and values to critical scrutiny, open-mindedness, fair-
mindedness, and intellectual modesty or humility. It is in the context of the critical
spirit that the education of the intellectual virtues finds its natural home (Steutel &
Spiecker, 1997, 1999).
Much more can and should be said about the proper articulation of the ideal of
critical thinking and the place of reasons within it, but saying so would distract us
from the present topic. Here we must be content to note that that topic is
importantly connected to that concerning the identity and character of our most
fundamental educational ideals. (For more on the nature of reasons and their place
in an adequate conception of critical thinking, see Bailin & Siegel, 2003; Siegel,
1988, 1997, 2003).


Moral education is one of the most contentious areas of educational endeavor.

What are we trying to accomplish when we engage in the moral education of our
children and/or students? Are we trying to pass on to them our own moral beliefs?
Are we trying rather to enable them to make their own moral judgments? To make
them particular kinds of people? No doubt the answers to these questions will
depend upon who ‘we’ is. But another set of questions is perhaps more tractable.
These questions concern the aspects or dimensions of our children and students
that we ought to be trying to influence when we engage in moral education: Ought
we to try to influence their actions, their beliefs, their thinking/reasoning, their
habits, their character, and/or their sentiments? Let us consider each in turn.


a. Actions
This is perhaps the most obvious thing we want our moral education efforts to
affect. Consider the parent of a small child telling him not to hit his little sister or
take her toys without first asking for and receiving her permission. Normally, the
parent wants the child, first and foremost, to behave properly. That is, the parent
wants the child not to hit his sister or take her toys. More generally, we don’t want
only that the small child believe that he shouldn’t hit his little sister, we want him
actually not to hit her. Action, then, seems to be a proper target of moral education
– prima facie, moral education has a proper action-guiding aim.

b. Beliefs
When we engage in moral education, should we try to guide, shape, or otherwise
influence the beliefs of our children, students and/or peers? It seems undeniable
that most of us in fact do so try. Should we?
Often, at least, we should. Consider again the parent of a small child telling him
not to hit his little sister or take her toys without asking first. Normally, the parent
wants the child not only to behave properly, but to believe properly too. That is, the
child should come to believe that it is wrong to – and so he should not – hit his
sister or take her toys.
Belief figures in the moral education of older children and adults too. When
teenagers and college students behave badly, we want not only to correct their
behavior, but their beliefs as well. (‘It’s wrong to, and so one should not, text while
driving; it puts innocent people at risk.’) And in political discussions concerning
moral matters – for example, whether the state has a moral obligation to provide
health care for all its citizens, or whether, and if so under what conditions,
immigrants should be extended certain benefits – we want to affect our
interlocutors’ beliefs as well as their political allegiances. We could debate whether
the latter example should be counted as an example of moral education. But since
the intended end result of such discussions is at least often the bringing about of a
change of opinion concerning moral matters, it seems appropriate to call this too a
matter of moral education. (Consider: ‘After our conversation I realize that I have a
moral obligation to give more to charity than I have been giving.’ In such a case,
shouldn’t we count the conversation as an episode of moral education? Moral
education needn’t take place only in homes or schools, and needn’t involve
Belief change, then, seems also to be a proper aim of moral education. At least
one of the things we hope our moral education efforts will affect is the beliefs of
our children, students and peers. So it appears that moral education also has a
belief-guiding aim.

c. Thinking/Reasoning
While it seems true that moral education rightly aims at influencing both the beliefs
and the actions of the morally educated, we must be careful to acknowledge
important constraints on the practice of moral education. We cannot impart beliefs
or foster actions in our students willy-nilly. As moral educators, we have no


alternative but to impart beliefs to young children, and encourage them to act in
particular ways, before they are able to reason about the standing of those beliefs
and actions. But we want our students to be able, eventually, to consider for
themselves the reasons for and against those beliefs and actions. (‘Why shouldn’t I
take my sister’s toys?’; ‘Why should I give to charity?’) We don’t want to
indoctrinate students into any particular set of moral beliefs, or provoke them into
thoughtlessly or irrationally acting in morally evaluable ways. (I concentrate next
on belief, setting aside action for the moment, in order to focus briefly on the threat
of indoctrination and its proper avoidance.)
How we can impart beliefs sans reasons while avoiding indoctrination is a tricky
matter. Certainly part of the story involves fostering students’ autonomy, their
ability to think critically, and their critical dispositions, so that they can eventually
judge competently for themselves the strength of the reasons for imparted (and
other candidate) beliefs (Siegel, 1988, ch. 5; Siegel, 2004; Steutel & Spiecker,
1997, 1999).
More generally: whatever we want to say about indoctrination and its avoidance,
an important aim of moral education is the enhancement of students’ abilities to
think well about moral matters. Our moral education would not be successful, or of
high quality, if we got students to believe and act in accordance with our own
views about moral matters, but left them at the end of their moral education unable
to say or understand why their beliefs and actions are/have been worthy, or to think
intelligently about objections and alternatives to them. If this is right, then the
ability to reason well concerning moral matters is also a proper aim of moral
education. That is to say, moral education has a reason-guiding aim (Scheffler,
1989; Siegel, 1988, 1977, 2003).

d. Habits
Aristotle famously argued that the development of proper habits is an important
aim of moral education: ‘The virtues arise in us…through habit… We become just
by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave
actions’ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a-b). Many other thinkers, including
Dewey and R.S. Peters, have agreed with Aristotle’s dictum. One can question
whether the development of habits is an intrinsic aim of moral education, or rather
only instrumental for the achievement of virtue or one of the other noted aims of
moral education. Resolving this question is not essential here, so long as it is
agreed that in some guise the development of proper habits is a legitimate aim
(whether intrinsic or instrumental) of moral education. So, with this qualification in
hand, let us grant the point: an important aim of moral education is the
development of proper habits. That is, moral education has a habit-guiding aim.

e. Virtue/Character
Aristotle is also associated with the view that an important aim of moral education
is the development in students of moral virtues, or traits of character. Traits such
as honesty, empathy, sympathy, fair-mindedness, and so on are generally thought
to be both important virtues, and virtues that it is the proper function of moral


education to foster. The parent wants her small child not just to not hit his little
sister, but to develop a virtuous, morally praiseworthy character that disposes him
not to do such things. Let us grant that moral education also has a virtue- or
character-guiding aim.
There are many deep questions to be asked concerning such virtues/character
traits. For example: Are intellectual virtues a sub-class of moral virtues, or are
these distinct sorts of virtues? If distinct, is the task of moral education the
fostering of both kinds of virtue or only the moral ones? Steutel and Spiecker
(1997) offer a penetrating analysis of both sorts of virtue and of the relations
between them; I regret that space precludes consideration of their complex and
instructive discussion here.

f. Sentiments
Closely related to, or perhaps a species of habit and virtue/character views, are
those that focus on feelings or sentiments. Nel Noddings (1984) has famously
argued for the fundamentality of caring to moral education. Michael Slote has
developed an account of moral education that draws not only on the work of
Noddings and Carol Gilligan, but also on the sentimentalist moral theories of
Hume, Hutcheson, and others, as well as recent psychological work by Martin
Hoffman on the character and development of empathy. An important feature of
Slote’s view is that the development of empathy is best understood not as a matter
of reason, reasons, reasoning, or rationality, but rather as a psychological process
involving the fostering of certain feelings. On his view, moral norms are based in
human feeling and emotion rather than reason or rationality, and ‘being moral
amounts to being (fully) empathically caring with others’ (2010b, p. 131). An
important benefit of the view, Slote argues, is that it offers a better account of
moral motivation than do its rationalist alternatives: if the child anticipates feeling
badly about hitting his sister he will be less likely to hit her. So an important part of
the view involves the ‘inductive’ processes that give rise to such feelings studied
by Hoffman.
Slote’s account is summarized in his 2010 article ‘Sentimentalist moral
education’; I commend it to the reader’s attention, along with his books The Ethics
of Care and Empathy (2007) and Moral Sentimentalism (2010a) referred to therein,
and the critical essays responding to it published alongside it. In one of them,
Noddings (2010) endorses much of Slote’s view:
I strongly agree with Slote that moral education should help to cultivate the
moral sentiments. We should encourage children to feel good about treating
others well and bad about hurting them….No care theorist would argue
against the claim that emotion is more basic to morality than reasoning.
(p. 148)
while at the same time raising important questions about various aspects of it, and
insisting – as does Slote – that reasons and reasoning nevertheless have an
important place in moral education. The just-cited passage continues:


As Slote explains, that assertion does not imply that reasoning is unimportant
in care ethics. On the contrary, care ethics demands a well-developed capacity
for reasoning because it does not depend on axiomatic rules and principles.
Carers must think well in order to assess and to respond appropriately to the
expressed needs of the immediate cared-for while considering the likely
effects of their decisions on the wider web of care and on the caring relation
itself. Both reflective and instrumental reasoning are required. But feeling
motivates our action and moral reasoning at every step. (ibid.)
All of this deserves more attention than I can give it here. For now, let us grant the
plausibility of the basic sentimentalist idea, and grant that moral education has a
feeling-, emotion-, or sentiment-guiding aim as well as the others identified thus
far. Let us also note that the emotion/reason contrast often used to distinguish
sentimentalist from ‘rationalist’ approaches to moral education should not be
overdrawn: as the most recently quoted passage makes clear, sentimentalist
theories do not reject reason; rather, they find an important, though subordinate,
place for it in their theories. I shall return to this point below.


Philosophers, psychologists and moral educators have argued about the legitimacy
of the place of each of our six ingredients in a properly conceived and executed
moral education. Aristotle and many others emphasized the importance for moral
education of the development of proper habits. Many parents, concerned that their
children carry on their moral tradition, take belief to be central: moral education
should see to it that their children’s moral beliefs mirror their own. Developmental
psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg, as well as moral philosophers in the
broadly Kantian tradition such as Richard M. Hare, Richard S. Peters and Kurt
Baier, take reason/reasoning to be the key to moral education (Curren, 2001).
Many philosophers have insisted upon the centrality to moral education of the
fostering of particular virtues and/or traits of character. Those in the broadly
Humean, sentimentalist tradition, in particular Noddings and Slote, have (as just
described) argued for the centrality of the development of particular psychological
traits or sentiments, especially those of caring and empathy. Almost everyone
thinks that moral education ought to result in morally appropriate action. So it
appears that all six of our listed ingredients arguably have some legitimate role to
play in moral education.
We should acknowledge that these several views of moral education are in
various ways at odds with one another, so perhaps we should not concede too
quickly that all six of our proposed ingredients are in fact important ingredients of
moral education. We should also acknowledge that our six ingredients do not
necessarily or obviously exhaust the range of ingredients; room might be made for
others. Moreover, almost everything said thus far can be – and most of it in fact has
been – challenged by moral philosophers, moral psychologists, or moral educators.
That said, I propose to adopt a pluralistic view of the matter here, and assume that
moral education properly aims at all six ingredients. That is, it aims to foster


morally appropriate belief and action, skilled moral reasoning, morally appropriate
habits, morally praiseworthy virtues and character traits, and desirable moral
If beliefs, actions, thinking/reasoning, habits, virtues/character traits and sentiments
all have a proper role to play in moral education, how should we understand the
role of reasons in moral education? The picture is complicated, because the role,
relevance and influence of reasons vary across our six ingredients: reasons and
reasoning appear to be relevant to some, central to others, and perhaps irrelevant to
others. Let us consider them in turn.

Action: Actions, especially the actions of small children, clearly can be influenced
by factors other than reasons. For example, we can be guided by fear, a desire to
please, and a host of other emotions, as well as by threat, intimidation, force, and
other ‘external’ influences. But we can also be guided by reasons, as the practices
and studies of ‘practical reason’ and ‘instrumental reason’ indicate: one may act
because of, and be guided by, one’s reasons. Reasons and reasoning, then, are at
least potentially relevant to the guiding of action, but they are not necessary for it.
How relevant they are will generally depend on the practices of moral education in
play: if we want and try to get small children to not speak unless spoken to, reasons
will likely play little role; if we want them to think about how they would feel if
someone did something (some particular action that is the focus of the moral
education episode) to them, and guide their own action accordingly, there seems to
be a larger action-guiding role for reasons. It seems that reasons needn’t, but can,
have a role to play in moral education’s effort to guide action.

Belief: Similar remarks apply to moral education’s practices of belief-guidance.

Beliefs clearly can be guided by factors other than reasons. For example, they can
be guided by practices that indoctrinate, as well as by a range of feelings and
emotions. But like actions, beliefs can be guided by reasons as well, and in fact
many moral education efforts focus on this sort of belief-guidance. So, as with
actions, how relevant reasons and reasoning are to such guidance in fact depends
on the practices of moral education in play. If the parent in our earlier example
wants her small child to believe that it’s wrong to hit his little sister, she can foster
this belief by giving reasons (‘imagine how you would feel if your big brother did
that to you’), or by issuing threats, creating fear, and a variety of other non-reason-
involving techniques. So, as with action, it seems that reasons needn’t, but can,
have a role to play in moral education’s effort to guide belief.

Thinking/reasoning: Here reasons and reasoning are, more or less by definition,

central. Insofar as thinking and reasoning are proper dimensions of moral education,
and their influence a proper aim of moral education, there must be a place for
reasons and reasoning in it.

Habit: Habits seem clearly to be the sorts of things that can be developed
independently of reasons and reasoning. Practice and drill seem key to their


development, and while reasons can in principle be utilized in order to motivate such
development (‘if you don’t develop this habit you’ll never win the tournament/become
valedictorian/win his/her love’), feelings and emotions can as well. As noted earlier,
Aristotle famously urged the importance of the cultivation of habits as important for
moral education; interestingly, he is often understood to have championed the
habituation of rational understanding rather than emotional response or mindless
reaction. (Slote, 2010b, p. 141, n. 6) Be that as it may, it seems clear that while the
development of habits can be influenced by reasons and reasoning, they can readily
be developed in non-reasoning ways. As with actions and beliefs, how relevant
reasons and reasoning are to the fostering of habits will depend on the practices of
moral education in play.

Virtue/character: As with actions, beliefs, and habits, reasons and reasoning

needn’t, but can, play roles in the fostering of particular virtues and character traits.
They can be developed with the aid of reasons and reasoning (‘here’s why honesty is
important’), but they can just as well be developed with the help of appeal to
particular emotions or feelings. Here too, how relevant reasons and reasoning are to
the fostering of virtues and character traits will depend on the practices of moral
education in play.

Sentiment: Sentimental moral education, perhaps exemplified by moral education

focused on caring, is often articulated by contrast with reasons and reasoning. But as
we have seen, both Noddings and Slote accept that the latter have a legitimate role to
play, even in moral education efforts that are explicitly aimed at the fostering of
appropriate sentiments. So even those, like Noddings and Slote, who, as we have
seen, hold that emotion is more basic to morality than reasoning, find an important
(though not dominant) role for reasons and reasoning in moral education. As with
actions, beliefs, habits, and virtues, particular sentiments can be developed or
enhanced by the use of reasons and reasoning, but also can be fostered in non-
reasoning ways. As with the other just-mentioned ingredients, how relevant reasons
and reasoning are to the fostering of morally desirable sentiments will depend on the
practices of moral education in play.

It seems then that of our six ingredients, only one – thinking/reasoning – requires the
use of reasons for its development. Reasons needn’t, but can, have a role to play in
the fostering of the other five in the course of moral education. There is room to
argue for an expansive role for reasons in the fostering of those five, but there is
equally room to argue for a diminished role. Different approaches to moral education
will assign a greater or lesser role to reasons, both in terms of their use in the
fostering of those five, and in terms of the centrality of the sixth.


I have not offered anything like proper arguments for the legitimacy of each of our
six proposed ingredients; the legitimacy of the place of all six can, will and should


be debated by teachers and other educators, including moral educators, and by

philosophers, parents, and citizens as well. Nevertheless, each seems plausible
enough that the wise course still seems to be the pluralistic one that accepts the
proper influence of each as a legitimate aim of moral education.
Supposing that the proper influencing of all six are legitimate dimensions of
moral education efforts, it is undeniable that reasons have a place in moral
education, for thinking/reasoning is one of the six. But this seems too easy. Can
anything more be said by way of establishing a substantial and ineliminable role
for reasons in moral education?
I see four considerations that favor such a role. First, there is the prima facie
case made above for the place of the fostering of children’s/students’ abilities to
reason about moral matters in moral education, and the undeniable role of reasons
Second, there are the prima facie cases made for the role of reasons/reasoning in
the development of the other five ingredients; while the size and relative
importance of that role will vary across the five, it seems clear that reasons will
have at least some minor role to play in most if not all of them, and might well
have a quite substantial role in several and possibly even all of them.
Third, there is the case (discussed above) made by Noddings and Slote for the
important, if subordinate, role of reasons even in moral education conceived along
sentimentalist lines. These three considerations seem to me to be collectively quite
substantial, and together to establish a strong case for there being some substantial
role for reasons in any viable conception of moral education.
Fourth, there is an argument that I have offered elsewhere for the central role of
reasons in education generally, in the context of the effort to establish the centrality
to education of the ideal of critical thinking. (Siegel, 1988, ch. 3) The basic idea is
that we are obliged to foster children’s/students’ critical thinking, because doing so
is required by our obligation to treat them with respect as persons. The idea that all
persons ought to be treated with respect as persons is a Kantian one. As applied to
moral education, the claim is that a moral education that fails to foster students’
ability to think critically about morality fails to treat them with respect as persons,
because, whatever beliefs it imparts, actions it encourages, habits or sentiments it
fosters, etc., students so educated will be unable to determine for themselves the
worthiness or otherwise of those very beliefs, actions, habits, and so on. Treating
students with respect, in other words, requires that we do our best both to enable
them to decide skillfully for themselves the desirability of candidate beliefs,
actions, etc.; and to foster their dispositions to exercise their ability to do so, and to
invite and encourage that exercise, however threatening to our own beliefs and
values it might be. Otherwise, however desirable the outcomes of moral education
are, they will have been imposed on students from without, rather than having been
embraced from within, on the basis of the students’ own independent judgment. In
short: We are obliged to treat everyone, including children and students, with
respect as persons; doing so requires that we foster and respect their own critical
thinking and independent judgment; such thinking and judgment centrally involves
the competent assessment of reasons; consequently, insofar as we are engaged in


moral education at all, the meeting of this obligation requires that reasons play a
significant role in it. Any moral education that has no such role for reasons fails to
meet our obligation to treat children and students with respect as persons.1


As we have seen, there is no quick, easy answer to the question ‘What is the role of
reasons in moral education?’ That said, the four considerations just rehearsed seem
to me to establish that that role is both necessary and substantial, although its exact
character remains somewhat elusive, because of the difficulty in specifying its
contributions to the fostering of our five proposed non-reasoning ingredients.2
This somewhat imprecise conclusion may well strike readers as unsatisfying. It
strikes me that way. What the imprecision shows, I think, is that in order to pin
down the role of reasons in moral education with more precision, we have first to
resolve more fundamental controversies concerning rival theories of moral
education, the place of our six ingredients within them, and the role of reasons in
the development of the other five.3

The claim made here does not concern the teaching of the five other ingredients, but rather the need
to foster students’ capacity to submit such teachings to independent critical scrutiny, however
taught. It can be seen as a kind of meta-obligation: however we foster the other five ingredients –
whatever role reason plays in that fostering – we are obliged to foster students’ capacity to subject
what is taught to their independent critical judgment.
Further considerations in favor of the important role of reasons and reasoning in moral education are
given by Musschenga in the next chapter.
It is my great pleasure to be a part of this effort to honor my friend and philosophical colleague Jan
Steutel, whose work, widely admired for its clarity, depth and good judgment, stands as a model for
us all. My sincere thanks to the editors, Doret de Ruyter and Siebren Miedema, both for the
opportunity to participate in this Steutel-honoring effort and for their helpful suggestions on the
penultimate draft.


Aristotle (1985). Nicomachean ethics. Trans. T. Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Bailin, S. & Siegel, H. (2003). Critical thinking. In N. Blake, P. Smeyers, R. Smith, & P. Standish
(Eds.), The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education (pp. 181–193). Oxford: Blackwell.
Curren, R. (2001). Moral education. In L. C. Becker & C. B. Becker (Eds.) Encyclopedia of ethics
(2nd ed.) (pp. 1127–1131). New York: Routledge.
Musschenga, B. (2011). Teaching moral reasoning. This volume.
Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press.
Noddings, N. (2010). Moral education and caring. Theory and research in education 8(2), 145–151.
Scheffler, I. (1989). Moral education and the democratic ideal. In Scheffler (Ed.) Reason and teaching
(pp. 136–145). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. First published London: Routledge &
Kegan Paul, and Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.
Siegel, H. (1988). Educating reason: Rationality, critical thinking, and education. London: Routledge.


Siegel, H. (1997). Rationality redeemed? Further dialogues on an educational ideal. New York:
Siegel, H. (2003). Cultivating reason. In R. Curren (Ed.) A companion to the philosophy of education
(pp. 305–317). Oxford: Blackwell.
Siegel, H. (2004). ‘You take the wheel, I’m tired of driving; Jesus, show me the way’: Doctrines,
indoctrination, and the suppression of critical dispositions. In L. F. Groenendijk and J. W. Steutel
(Eds.) Analytisch filosoferen over opvoeding en onderwijs: Liber amicorum voor Ben Spiecker (pp.
129–138). Amsterdam: SWP.
Slote, M. (2007). The ethics of care and empathy. London: Routledge.
Slote, M. (2010a). Moral sentimentalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Slote, M. (2010b). Sentimentalist moral education. Theory and research in education 8(2), 125–143.
Steutel, J. & Spiecker, B. (1997). Rational passions and intellectual virtues: A conceptual analysis. In H.
Siegel (Ed.) Reason and education: Essays in honor of Israel Scheffler (pp. 59–71). Dordrecht:
Steutel, J. & Spiecker, B. (1999). Liberalism and critical thinking: On the relation between a political
ideal and an aim of education. In R. Marples (Ed.) The aims of education (pp. 61–73). London:

Harvey Siegel
University of Miami, USA





The role and the importance of conscious moral reasoning is highly debated
nowadays. Philosophers disagree about the role of principles in moral reasoning
(e.g., Dancy, 1993, 2004). Social psychologists argue that the larger part of our
moral judgements are not the outcome of conscious reasoning, but flow from
unconscious and automatic, highly affect laden cognitive processes (e.g., Haidt,
2001, 2007). Some of them think that in certain cases intuitive judgements are even
more reliable than reasoned judgements (Dijksterhuis, 2004; Dijksterhuis &
Nordgren, 2006; Dijksterhuis et al., 2006; Ham, Van den Bos & Van Doorn, 2009).
Cognitive scientists hold that these unconscious cognitive processes cannot be
described in terms of the automatic application of rules that have become part of
tacit knowledge, but consist of the activation of social constructs such as schemas,
scripts, prototypes, stereotypes, representing types of behaviour (e.g., Bargh, 1996;
Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). Part of our tacit knowledge is the result of indirect
learning, part of it is also the result of intentional training directed at the acquisition
of specific skills. Against this background, phenomenological cognitive scientists
such as Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1991) represent moral development and moral
education as the acquisition of moral skills. I agree with those who stress the
importance of automaticity, also for moral judging. I also agree that the acquisition
of specific skills is an indispensable element of moral education. However, I regret
that as a consequence of the recent attention for intuitive thinking, conscious moral
reasoning does not get the interest it needs and deserves. Therefore I direct in this
chapter the spotlights at the importance and the nature of moral reasoning.

Why We Need Reasoning

Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus explicate (acquiring) moral competence in terms of
(acquiring) mastery of certain skills (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1991). For them all
morally maturated persons are ‘moral experts’. Dreyfus and Dreyfus are well
aware that experts also have to deliberate from time to time; they do not think that
expert deliberation is inferior to intuition. They distinguish between involved
deliberation and detached deliberation. Involved deliberation occurs when an
expert, facing a familiar but problematic situation, deliberates which of his
intuitions is most appropriate for that situation. Detached deliberation occurs when
an expert, in a novel situation, has no intuition at all. He then must resort to

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 71–83.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

abstract principles, like a beginner. Moral principles are, in the view of Dreyfus
and Dreyfus, aids for the inexperienced, for those who still need instruction.
According to them, detached deliberation, in which an appeal to principles is
unavoidable, is only required in ‘cases of total breakdown’ (1991, p. 247).
Influenced by Jonathan Dancy’s particularism, many moral philosophers nowadays
find that moral reasoning should not consist of the application or interpretation of
moral principles. In my view, it can hardly be accidental that particularists rarely
set up an argument about practical moral issues. I do not see how particularism can
provide us with a feasible model of moral reasoning that does not work with
Authors like Churchland (1996), and Dreyfus and Dreyfus believe, according to
Andy Clark that recent work in cognitive science and Artificial Neural Networks
confirm Aristotle’s views in which moral judgements require practical wisdom,
gained by rich and sound experience (Clark, 2000). According to cognitive
scientists neural networks such as the brain are capable of extracting and encoding
information (knowledge) in forms whose richness, fluidity, and context-sensitivity
far outstrips anything that could be supported by a set of linguistically couched
action selection rules, principles, or maxims. At the heart of this view is, says
Clark (2000) ‘[...] a daunting story about vectors, prototypes, high-dimensional
states and non-propositional, distributed encodings’ (p. 270)1. He finds that this
computational story fits in with work from cognitive psychology suggesting that
much human knowledge is organised around encoding of prototypical cases rather
than via the use and storage of rules and definitions.2 Clark does not agree with
Churchland, and Dreyfus and Dreyfus. According to him the marginalisation of
what he calls ‘summary linguistic formulations and sentential reason’ in their work
is a mistake. Summary linguistic formulations are not mere tools for the novice:
Rather, they are essential parts of the socially extended cognitive mechanisms
which support communal reasoning and collaborative problem solving, and
thus are crucial and (as far as we know) irreplaceable elements of genuinely
moral reason. They are the tools that enable the cooperative explorations of
moral space: a space which is intrinsically multi-personal and whose topology is
defined largely by the different – but interacting – needs and desires of
multiple agents and groups (Clark, 2000, p. 274).
Neither the Kantian nor the Aristotelian view of moral judgement captures,
according to Clark (2000), the subtlety, power and complexity of human moral
Instead it is the cognitive symbiosis between basic, prototype-style, pattern-
based understanding and the stable surgical instruments (for learning,
criticism and evaluation) of moral talk that conjures moral understanding
(p. 279).
I agree with Clark that ‘experts’ process of thinking and judging can be based on
patterns and prototypes as long as they deal with familiar problems. Reasoning is
needed, first, when the intuitive processes do not result in an unambiguous


judgement, or give no judgement at all, second, when one’s intuitive judgements

meet serious criticism from respected others, and, third, in situations where there is
no agreement while collective decisions are required. In the first case, reasoning
can be private. In the view of Dreyfus and Dreyfus, and also Churchland, a moral
‘expert’ seems to be a soloist, which is in line with the Aristotelian conception.
Aristotelians rarely speak of phronimoi (plural). Phronimoi do not seem to have –
nor need – mutual discussions on moral issues. Dreyfusian ‘experts’ also deliberate
alone. For two reasons deliberation in real life is rarely private. The first reason is
that we want our decisions and judgements to be able to withstand the criticism of
others, especially those whose opinion we value. The second reason is that many
problems require public debates and collective decisions.3 The Dutch Association
for Voluntary Euthanasia (NVVE), for instance, currently wants people who regard
their lives as finished, to get the right to euthanasia or assisted suicide. This
requires a collective decision: a change of law.
Philosophers, cognitive scientists, and psychologists agree that we need
conscious reasoning, but they disagree about when we need such reasoning, and
how much reasoning we need. This disagreement relates to differences in views on
the reliability of judgements that result from automatic processes. Jonathan Haidt
states that he does not tell how people should make judgements and decisions, he
only shows how people in everyday life judge and decide, and which role
conscious reasoning has (Haidt, 2001). What he says applies to all empirical
studies on reasoning. It is indeed the task of philosophers to tell us what sound and
valid moral reasoning is, but their lessons should aim at improving the everyday
social practice of moral reasoning. It cannot be the intention of moral argumentation
courses to teach lessons that can only be practised in artificial settings, that some
call a ‘logic laboratory’. If philosophers (or others) want to improve the practice of
moral reasoning they should know how untrained people reason and what the
strengths and weaknesses of everyday (moral) reasoning are. The next section
summarises the results of a few empirical studies on external factors that threaten
the reliability of intuitive judgements. These studies are relevant for determining
when conscious reasoning is needed. In the third and fourth sections I give a
summary of the findings from studies on factors inherent to (moral) reasoning. In
the last section I discuss the implications for (the teaching of) moral reasoning.

Factors Distorting Intuitive Judgements

Some authors argue that conscious reasoning should take place not only when
intuitive judgements conflict or when the intuitive processes do not result in
unambiguous judgements, but also when there is evidence of the unreliability of
intuitive judgements. In their view there is plenty of evidence for justifying a
sceptical attitude towards these judgements. Here I will not enter the debate on the
reliability of intuitive judgements.4 I confine myself to mentioning a few studies on
some external factors that may influence intuitive judgements.
While some philosophers (e.g., Nichols, 2004; Prinz, 2007) hold that moral
judgements are based on moral emotions, others such as Walter Sinnott-Armstrong


have the opinion that emotions can (also) cloud moral judgements. To corroborate
his opinion, he refers, a.o., to a study by Wheatley and Haidt (2005). They gave
subjects the post-hypnotic suggestion that they would feel a pang of disgust
whenever they saw either the word ‘take’ or the word ‘often’. The subjects were
later asked to make moral judgements about six stories designed to elicit mild to
moderate disgust. It turned out that when a story contained one of these words,
subjects were more likely to express stronger condemnation of acts in the story.
The presence of these words in stories elicits feelings of disgust which influence
the moral judgements on acts described in the story. Such an influence is irrational.
If disgust indeed clouds the judgement, we have reason not the trust judgements
that are influenced by this emotion. Such judgements must be subjected to a
process of conscious critical reasoning (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2006, 2008).
Greene cum suis have become famous by research in which they made fMRI
scans of the brain activity of research subjects while they were responding to a
series of personal and impersonal moral dilemmas as well as to non-moral
dilemmas all of which involved complex narratives (Greene et al., 2004). The
trolley problem is an example of an impersonal dilemma, while the footbridge
dilemma is an example of a personal moral dilemma.5 Greene et al., found that
responding to personal moral dilemmas, as compared with impersonal and non-
moral dilemmas, produced increased activity in areas associated with social/emotional
processing: medial frontal gyrus, posterior cingulated gyrus, and bilateral STS. In
contrast, impersonal and non-moral dilemmas as compared to personal moral
dilemmas produced increased activity in areas associated with working memory:
dorsolateral prefrontal and parietal areas (Greene et al., 2001). The differences in
these intuitive responses are due to differences in the emotional pull of situations
that involve bringing about someone’s death personally, in a direct way, and
causing his death at a distance, and, in a way, less personal. Sinnott-Armstrong
suggests that the increased activity in brain areas associated with social/emotional
processing might indicate that, when confronted with personal dilemmas, emotions
block subjects from considering the many factors in these cases (2006, p. 351).
The circumstances in which judgements are made can also be conducive to
illusion. I will mention two kinds of illusions. The first one occurs when appearances
and beliefs depend on context. Peter Unger (1996, pp. 88–94) discovered that the
order in which options are presented affects beliefs about whether an option is
morally wrong. People’s moral beliefs about a certain option depend on whether
that option is presented as part of a pair or, instead, as part of a series of options
that includes additional options intermediate between the original pair. The second
kind of illusions is caused by heuristics. Moral heuristics often represent
generalisations from a range of problems for which they are well-suited. According
to Jonathan Baron (1994) and Cas Sunstein (2005) moral heuristics become a
problem when they are wrenched out of context and treated as freestanding or
universal principles, applicable to situations in which their justifications no longer
operate. A heuristic that Sunstein suggests is ‘Do not play God’ or, in secular
terms, ‘Do no tamper with nature’. He thinks that this heuristic might explain the
wide-spread repugnance against for instance cloning.


The influence of framing effects6 should also be mentioned, e.g., the effects that
wording and context have on moral intuitions.7 A person’s belief is subject to a
word framing effect if the belief depends on which words are used to describe what
the belief is about. If I want my wife to believe that I did not drink too much wine,
and she does believe me when I say that the bottle is still half full, but does not
believe me when I say that the bottle is now half empty, then her belief is subject to
a word framing effect. My daughter has a boy friend from Ecuador. If you see them
together on a photograph, you might think she is tall. But if you see her among a
group of young Dutch adults of the same age, you would say she is short. In this
case, the belief about my daughter’s height is subject to a context framing effect. A
special kind of context framing effect involves order. If you see my daughter
amidst a group of female basketball players first, and besides her boyfriend next,
you will still consider her to be short. This is because of the framing of the first
impression. Tversky and Kahneman (1981) have shown that in choosing between
options involving risks, subjects were risk averse when results were described in
positive terms (such as ‘lives saved’) but risk seeking when results were described
in negative terms (such as ‘lives lost’ or ‘deaths’). If three children are in danger of
drowning, and I have to choose between saving two children who are close
together or the child a hundred yards to the right, most people will find that I have
to save the two. But if I must choose between saving a heavy child that desperately
clings to me and saving two smaller children after prying the heavy child away
from me, many, perhaps most people will say that I am not justified in letting the
heavy child drown.
Lewis Petrinovich and Patrick O’Neill (1996) found framing effects in various
descriptions of the trolley problem. They asked 387 students in one class and 60
students in another class how strongly they agreed or disagreed with given
alternatives in twenty-one variations of the trolley case. The trick laid in the
wording. Half of the questionnaires used ‘kill’ wordings so that subjects faced a
choice between (1) ‘throw the switch which will result in the death of the one
innocent person on the side track’ and (2) ‘do nothing which will result in the death
of the five innocent people.’ The other half of the questionnaires used ‘save’
wordings, so that subjects faced a choice between (1*) ‘throw the switch which
will result in the five innocent people on the main track being saved’ and (2*) ‘do
nothing which will result in the one innocent person being saved.’ These wordings
do not change the facts of the case, which were described identically before the
question was posed. The conclusion Petrinovich and O’Neill (1996) drew from
their study is: ‘Participants were likely to agree more strongly with almost any
statement worded to Save than one worded to Kill.’ Out of 40 relevant questions,
39 differences were significant. The effects were also not shallow: ‘The wording
effect … accounted for as much as one-quarter of the total variance, and on
average accounted for almost one-tenth when each individual question was
considered.’ Moreover, wording affected not only strength of agreement (whether a
subject agreed slightly or moderately) but also whether subjects agreed or
disagreed: ‘[…] the Save wording resulted in a greater likelihood that people
would absolutely agree’ (p. 152).8


The Social Function of (Moral) Reasoning

Why do we reason? Reasoning should guide us towards the truth and help us make
better decisions. This ‘standard view’ is wrong, according Dan Sperber and Hugo
Mercier. There is plenty of evidence that reasoning is fallible and sometimes
lowers overall cognitive performance.9 Reasoning is a high expenditure mental
activity. To assess its efficiency, not only benefits but also costs have to be taken
into account. When this is done, they say, it ceases to be self-evident that reasoning
is just a good thing for which there would necessarily have been selective pressure
in the evolution of the species. They propose an alternative theory, an
argumentative theory of reasoning, which says that reasoning aims at bringing us
towards decisions that we can justify to others, at producing arguments to convince
others (Sperber & Mercier, 2011).10 According to that theory, reasoning has a clear
evolutionary function. To find their way in the natural and social world, humans
need information. A great deal of information is communicated by others.
Communication, however, is used both to inform and to deceive. It is imperative to
check the reliability both of the source of information and of the content of the
information. Reasoning, as a process of giving and evaluating arguments, is
important for determining the reliability of the content of information.
An interesting prediction that the argumentative theory makes, according to
Sperber and Mercier, is that human reasoning may owe part of its effectiveness
to what, from a strictly epistemic point of view, should be seen as a flaw: the
confirmation bias. When engaged in a debate, people look for arguments that
support their views or undermine those of others. They are inclined dismiss
information and arguments that undermine their own views. The confirmation bias
is not something that people can easily suppress. It is a ubiquitous feature of human
Sperber and Mercier’s view aligns with that of Haidt (2001). Haidt calls his
theory ‘social intuitionism’. Moral reasoning is, according to him, produced and
sent forth verbally to justify one’s already-made judgements to others. This
phenomenon partly explains the adjective ‘social’ in social intuitionism. The social
context has also other influences on reasoning. The mere fact that friends, allies
and acquaintances have made a moral judgement exerts, according to Haidt, a
direct influence on others, even if no reasoned persuasion takes place. People tend
to agree with their friends and allies. That is why judgements of friends and allies
highly influence one’s own judgements. Haidt also points at the existence of a
confirmation bias. People tend to accepting evidence supporting their prior beliefs
uncritically, while subjecting opposing evidence to much greater scrutiny (Lord et al.,
Desire for harmony and agreement has strong biasing effects on judgements. In
explaining this bias Haidt not only refers to the social aim of reasoning –
persuading others – but also to research on cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957).
This research showed that people try to keep their attitudes and beliefs congruent
within the beliefs and attitudes that are central to their identity. They tend to ward
off evidence that threatens these identity-constitutive attitudes and beliefs.


From Tacit Mental Logic to Mental Models

While social psychologists look at the social character and function of reasoning,
cognitive scientists analyse the reasoning process itself. An interesting and
influential theory is developed by Philip Johnson-Laird (1998, 2010). Until about
30 years ago there was consensus psychology that our ability to reason depends on
a tacit mental logic, consisting of formal rules of inference akin to those in a
logical calculus. This model runs into a number of difficulties which lead Johnson-
Laird to develop an alternative theory: the mental model theory. Mental models can
be constructed from perception, imagination, or the comprehension of discourse.
They underlie visual images, but they can also be abstract, representing situations
that cannot be visualised. Each mental model represents a possibility. Mental
models are akin to architects’ models or to physicists’ diagrams in that their
structure is analogous to the structure of the situation that they represent, unlike,
say, the structure of logical forms used in formal rule theories.
The mental model theory assumes that logically-untrained reasoners are not
equipped with formal rules of inference, but rather rely on their ability to
understand premises. They build mental models of the relevant states of affairs
based on this understanding and on general knowledge. They can formulate a
conclusion that is true in these models. And they can test its validity by
establishing that no alternative models of the premises refute it. In other words, a
mental model is a representation of a possibility, which itself may occur in many
ways, and so its structure and content capture what is common to these many ways.
The model theory rests on an important principle concerning ‘working memory’,
which is the memory that holds a small amount of information, such as a telephone
number, for a few seconds (unless one keeps rehearsing it). Such a memory for
intermediate results is the heart of computational power. For example, more
computational power is required to carry out multiplication than to carry out
addition. Because working memory in human beings has a limited capacity, the
model theory rests on the following principle of truth:
Individuals tend to minimize the load on working memory by constructing
mental models that represent what is true, but not what is false.
Unlike mental logic, the mental model theory predicts that systematic errors in
reasoning should occur. A computer program implementing the principle of truth
predicted that for certain premises individuals should make systematic fallacies.
These fallacies tend to be compelling and to elicit judgements of high confidence
in their conclusions. So they have the character of cognitive illusions. An example
(Johnson-Laird, 2010, p. 4):
Only one of the following premises is true about a particular hand of cards:
There is a king in the hand or there is an ace, or both.
There is a queen in the hand or there is an ace, or both.
There is a jack in the hand or there is a ten, or both.
Is it possible that there is an ace in the hand?


In an experiment, 95% of the participants responded, ‘Yes’. The mental models of

the premises support this conclusion. For example, the first premise allows that in
two different possibilities an ace occurs, either by itself or with a king. Yet, the
response is wrong. To see why, suppose that there is an ace in the hand. In that
case, both the first and the second premises are true. Yet, the rubric to the problem
states that only one of the premises is true. So, there cannot be an ace in the hand.
The framing of the task is not the source of the difficulty. The participants were
confident in their conclusions and highly accurate with the control problems.
According to Johnson-Laird, the key to a correct solution is to overcome the
principle of truth and to envisage fully explicit models. So, when you think about
the truth of the first premise, you also think about the concomitant falsity of the
other two premises. The falsity of the second premise in this case establishes that
there is not a queen and there is not an ace. Likewise, the truth of the second
premise establishes that the first premise is false, and so there is not a king and
there is not an ace; and the truth of the third premise establishes that both the first
and second premises are false. Hence, it is impossible for an ace to be in the hand.
Many of the cognitive errors that have contributed to real-life disasters are
caused by the fact that people fail to consider possibilities that lie outside their
models. For example, the operators at Three Mile Island explained the high
temperature of a relief valve in terms of a leak, and overlooked the possibility that
it was stuck open; the master of the Channel ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise,
inferred that the bow doors had been closed, and overlooked the possibility that
they had been left open; the engineers at Chernobyl found an erroneous
explanation for the initial explosion and overlooked the possibility that the reactor
had been destroyed.
In making decisions, focusing implies that individuals will often fail to make a
thorough search for alternatives. In particular, if they are faced with the choice of
whether or not to carry out a certain action, they will construct a model of the
action and an alternative model in which it does not occur. The latter will either be
implicit or else merely a model in which the action does not occur. Hence, they
will be focused on the action and search for more information about it in order to
reach their decision. They will neglect to search for information about alternative
actions, and so contravene the rational standard for decision making. Empirical
evidence exists that people fail to consider alternative options and their costs when
they are unstated (i.e. people seem to ignore the opportunity-cost principle).

Implications for (Teaching) Moral Reasoning

In the second section I discussed some factors that influence and the judgements
that result from intuitive processes understood as those flowing from everyday
processes of reasoning. The factors I mentioned there are external to these
processes. In the third and fourth sections we were confronted with biases and
shortcomings that are inherent to the everyday process of reasoning. According
Sperber and Mercier, and also Haidt, biases such as the confirmation bias are
related to the social function and the adversarial character of reasoning. Johnson-


Laird connects the failure of reasoners to consider alternatives to their tendency to

minimise the load on working memory by constructing mental models that
represent what is true, but not what is false. How can courses in moral reasoning
help to prevent these biases and shortcomings?
I think that a good introduction in moral reasoning should start with an overview
of the results of studies about the biases and shortcomings of everyday human
(practical) reasoning, to raise students’ awareness, and should also show whether
formal moral reasoning can avoid these shortcomings and biases, and if not, what
supplementary countervailing strategies reasoners can deploy. I start with the
biases and shortcomings inherent to the everyday process of reason. First, the
errors in reasoning observed by Johnson-Laird. These observations might create
the impression, says Johnson-Laird, that people are incapable of valid deductions
except on rare occasions. This impression is not correct. Our reasoning in everyday
life has some remarkable strengths (2010, p. 5). People develop strategies to solve
problems they are confronted with in reasoning. One strategy is thinking aloud,
another is drawing a diagram to represent the different possibilities. Besides that,
most people also use counterexamples when they infer unbelievable conclusions or
when they are presented with a conclusion to evaluate, especially when the conclusion
is unbelievable but consistent with the premises. Training in argumentation can
strengthen these counter-strategies. Courses in moral argumentation demand that
students, reflecting on what is the right thing do in a given situation, make a list of
diverse options and review the cons and pros of each option.
Second, the confirmation bias. Sperber and Mercier think that the confirmation
bias is not something that people can easily suppress. It is a ubiquitous feature of
human reasoning. According to them, it can even be said that reasoning should be
biased. The last statement is, of course, an exaggeration. One cannot derive a
prescription, an ought-statement, from an observation of the evolutionary function
of reasoning. But it forces us to re-examine what the aim of (moral) reasoning is.
Sperber and Mercier say that reasoning aims at bringing us towards decisions that
we can justify to others, at producing arguments to convince others. In this view, it
is not the aim of reasoning to help us getting at the truth and making better
decisions. In the former conception it is the task of our adversaries or conversation
partners to find arguments that undermine or refute our standpoints. In the latter
conception it is the task of everybody engaged in reasoning about an issue, to find
arguments pro and contra all the standpoints that are represented in the discussion.
In my view we should distinguish reasoning from rhetoric. The aim of reasoning is
to find the truth, while the aim of rhetoric is to convince others of the correctness
of one’s own standpoint. For finding the truth is the imperative to collect the pros
and cons of the alternative standpoints. A well-known tool are the ‘pro and contra’
and the ‘pro aut contra’ survey of Arne Naess (1966). A pro et contra survey is a
straightforward survey of (1) the most important arguments that, in a given field of
discussion, are or will most likely be adduced in favour of an assertion and (2) the
most important arguments that, in the same area of discussion, are or will most
likely be adduced against the same assertion. This type of survey contains no
conclusion. The separate arguments are never weighed against one another. The


object is merely to set out the arguments as though they were intended for an
outside observer of the discussion. A pro aut contra survey is one with a
conclusion. It consists of the most important arguments that, according to the
surveyor or some person or group, have been or will likely be adduced for or
against an assertion. A survey of this type ends in a conclusion and implies,
accordingly, that the arguments have all been weighed against one another
What can be done about the external factors that may have a distorting influence
on everyday moral reasoning? Let’s start with the influence of emotion on
reasoning. It is both impossible and undesirable to neutralise the influenced of
emotions on moral judgements completely. Those who lack sympathy for the weal
and woe of others, will not take their interests into account in making choices
between alternatives. Emotions have an important epistemic function. They draw
our attention to morally relevant features of the situation. Emotions are also an
essential part of important human relationships, such as parenthood and friendship.
In some contexts, for instance, when a house is on fire, it would not be understandable
not to give priority to saving one’s own children. There is another function of
emotions whose value is undisputed. Emotions trigger inhibitions, for instance, the
inhibition to kill innocent and helpless people reasonable whose faces one can see.
Unsurprisingly, in their programme to exterminate the Jews, the Nazis switched
over from mass killings by shooting to the industrialised killing in the gas
chambers. Direct killing at a short distance is a burden for people with normally
developed moral feelings. Only hard core act utilitarians would be glad if we could
switch off feelings that lead us to give preference to our friends and beloved, and
feelings that trigger inhibitions to kill people. It is undesirable to eliminate the
influence of emotions on moral reasoning. It is important to teach students to see
when emotions direct our attention to morally relevant features of a case, and when
they hinder us to pass a balanced judgement. Anger usually has a negative influence,
but fear can both draw our attention to morally relevant facts and withhold us from
being overconfident or even reckless, and prevent us from giving in too easily to
the demands of bad people. A book I myself used a few times in a course on moral
reasoning is Anne Thomson’s Critical reasoning in ethics. A practical introduction
(2002). One of the strengths of the book is Chapter 7 on fair-mindedness and the
role of emotion. Thomson’s message in this chapter is that fair-mindedness
requires that we should both assess the appropriateness of our own emotions and
understand the emotions of others.
What about framing effects? The studies by Tversky and Kahneman, and
Petrinovich and O’Neill, show that framing effects also influence moral judgements
and decisions. The evidence of the occurrence of framing effects is indeed
overwhelming. However, there are also studies that show that experts are less sensitive
for framing effects than non-experts, and that framing effects can be minimised,
and even eliminated, by counter-framing and by discussions in heterogeneous
groups (Druckman, 2004). An important function of an argumentation course is to
make students aware that they often need more knowledge and expertise for
making a good decision than they actually have. The findings on the effects of


counter-framing and of discussions in heterogeneous groups underline the importance

of group discussions with argumentation courses.
Thus, there are diverse ways to counter framing effects and other biases. But do
they work? Wilson and Brekke analysed studies that have attempted to reduce
biases in information processing and judgement. They conclude that three steps are
necessary for successful debiasing. First, increasing awareness of biases. The
success of attempts to increase people’s awareness of biases depends in part on the
extent to which researchers succeed in convincing the research participants that
their judgements are indeed open to bias. Second, the studies reveal that awareness
of potential bias is not sufficient. People must also be motivated to correct it. Third,
some of the studies indicate that even when people are aware that information can
bias them and are motivated to resist that bias, they adjust their response either too
much or too little. Wilson and Brekke suggest that the reason is that they are
unaware of how much they are biased and thus do not know how to alter their
responses (1994, p.130ff.).
Summarising: I have shown that (training in) conscious and deliberate moral
reasoning is useful for countering internal and external factors that distort both the
judgements resulting from intuitive processes and those flowing from everyday
processes of reasoning.

Clark refers among others to work by McClelland et al (1989) and Churchland & Sejnowski (1992).
Here Clark refers to Rosch (1973) and Smith and Medin (1981).
See also Musschenga, 2009.
I deal with the reliability of moral judgements in Musschenga (2010).
This is the description of the classic trolley problem:
A trolley is hurtling down the tracks. There are five innocent people on the track ahead of the trolley,
and they will be killed if the trolley continues to go straight ahead. There is a spur of track leading
off to the side. There is one innocent person on that spur. The brakes of the trolley have failed and
there is a switch that can be activated to cause the trolley to go to the side track. You are an innocent
bystander (that is, not an employee of the railroad, etc.). You can throw the switch, saving five
innocent people, which will result in the death of the one innocent person on the side track. What
would you do?
And this is the footbridge variant:
A trolley threatens to kill five people. You are standing next to a large stranger on a footbridge
spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the hapless five. The only way to save
them is to push the stranger over the bridge onto the tracks below. He will die if you do this, but his
body will stop the trolley from reaching the others. Should you save the five others by pushing the
stranger to his death? Contrary to the response to the trolley problem, most people say no.
Framing effects are the effects on preferences and attitudes that occur when the same information is
casted in either a positive or a negative light.
For an extensive discussion see Sinnott-Armstrong (2008).
It is impossible to be complete, but I want to mention two other biases. First, the vivid/pallid
dimension: the tendency to be much more influenced by vivid, concrete data than by the same data,
or even much more probative data, presented in a pallid or abstract way (Nisbett & Ross 1980).
Second: wishful thinking, the tendency to be differentially inclined to believe what we want to be
true (Trope & Liberman, 1996). In their discussion of the foibles of human prediction, Michael
Bishop and Joel Trout mention a number of other deficiencies and frailties of human reasoning, part


of which are also relevant to the subject of moral reasoning (2005, pp. 37–45). Humans are bad in
reliably detecting correlations. Certain cognitive limits, including limits on memory, attention, and
computation could well be implicated in the relative unreliability of social judgements. Another
problem is that we tend to be overconfident about the power of our reasoning and our predictions.
These problems are exacerbated because we often do not receive sufficient and accurate feedback
for learning from our mistakes.
They refer to a great number of studies of, amongst others the psychologists Ap Dijksterhuis and
Timothy Wilson.
Sperber and Mercier state that they are not the first to propose such an argumentative theory of
reasoning. They refer to, among others the work of Stephen Toulmin (1958) and Chaim Perelman
and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969). We may be, they say, more original in doing so on empirical
grounds and from a naturalistic and evolutionary perspective.


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Bert Musschenga
VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands





Systematic conceptual and theoretical interest in moral education goes back at least
as far as the Socratic question about the proper direction of a good or worthwhile
human life raised in such Platonic dialogues as Gorgias and Republic (Plato,
1961). The answer that both Socrates and Plato seem to have returned to this
question is that the good human life is one lived in the light of reason or a rational
knowledge of the good. Modern moral philosophers (roughly from Rene Descartes
onwards) have largely reinforced the fault-line traced by Socrates and Plato
between the rational and the less rational or affective aspects of human moral and
other motivation, but have been seriously divided on the question of whether moral
agency is grounded in reason or affect. For many, it has seemed that we cannot
make any sense of moral agency that is not grounded in right or wrong, better or
worse, reasons for conduct and that ‘non-cognitive’ feelings cannot supply such
reasons. To be sure, modern moral theorists have entertained rather different views
of the ‘objective’ grounds of such reasons. Whereas for Immanuel Kant (1967),
moral agency has its source in rationally self-justifying principles – the ‘categorical
imperatives’ – that disclose certain rationally undeniable obligations to ourselves
and others, for utilitarians (such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill), the
action-guiding principles of morality are grounded more in external, evidential or
‘empirical’ observation of the effects or consequences (for good or ill) of our
conduct (see Mill, 1970).
There are, of course, familiar problems about these views, which need not detain
us here. For now, we need only note that such forms of moral rationalism broadly
agree that without some ‘objective’ rational or evidential grounds for moral
judgement it is hard to see how there might be any such thing as moral education.
For moral theorists from Socrates onwards, the very possibility of teaching what is
morally right or wrong depends on access to rationally ‘objective’ criteria of moral
judgement and conduct. Despite this, such moral rationalism has had to fight its
corner against what has often seemed to be a no less powerful and influential
modern moral tendency to downplay or deny the role of reason in moral life. Such
so-called ‘emotivism’ or ‘sentimentalism’ is invariably traced to the influence of
David Hume (1969) who argued, on the basis of a rather austere empiricist
conception of knowledge and meaning, that moral judgements could not be based
on reason and/or evidence and were therefore only expressions of ‘subjective’

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 85–96.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

feeling or emotion. Moreover, on the basis of a so-called ‘internalist’ account of

agency – according to which desire (rather than belief) is required to motivate
action – Hume also argued that reason was but ‘the slave of the passions’. Taking
these two points together, there could strictly be no ‘rational’ moral agency.
Unsurprisingly, most latter day theories of moral education would appear to
reflect one or other of the forms of moral rationalism or sentimentalism lately
noted. On the ‘rationalist’ side, while a social constructivist (if not relativist)
interpretation of Kant was developed by the sociological pioneer Emile Durkheim
(1961), more orthodox Kantian ‘objectivist’ accounts of moral education were
developed in post-WWII years by the British educational philosopher Richard S.
Peters (1981) and (in the wake of Jean Piaget) by the American developmental
psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1984). And while both Peters and Kohlberg
seem to have held that something like a Kantian case could be made for the
justification and teaching of moral judgements, others have attempted rationalist
defence of moral education on more ‘utilitarian’ grounds. But sentimentalist
accounts of moral education, sometimes explicitly drawing on Hume, have also
been developed. One might include among these the now largely discredited
‘values clarification’ movement and the much more currently fashionable care
ethics approach to moral education (see, for example, Noddings1984) – though
care ethicists focus less on the formation of moral individuals and more on the
cultivation of caring educational institutions.


So far, it might seem that we are confronted with a stark choice between
‘objectivist’ and ‘subjectivist’ accounts of moral judgement and education: on this
reading, whereas moral objectivism depends on rationalist interpretation of moral
judgement that gives little or no place to subjective ‘affect’ – feelings or emotions
– in moral life, sentimentalists downplay the role of reason. However, it might
equally seem that we may avoid such dilemmatic choice, responding to any
question about whether moral agency is a matter of reason or feeling by insisting
that it is both. Indeed, it might appear obvious that moral agents are neither those
who act exclusively out of rational duty (feeling nothing), nor those who are driven
only (without reason) by morally appropriate feelings – but, precisely, those who
exhibit right reason and feeling. To be sure, neither moral rationalism nor
sentimentalism actually denies this. Thus, even for strict Kantians, right feeling
may have an important role in reinforcing rational moral duty, and for Humeans,
(instrumental) reason has a part to play in rationally satisfying the moral desires of
agents. The point is rather that whereas rationalism gives a primary place to moral
reason, sentimentalism gives the leading role to emotion or feeling. So a more
useful way to avoid the dilemma here would be to ask whether there might be a
moral theory that gives a more equal or balanced place to both reason and feeling.
One name that is conspicuously absent from the story so far is that of Plato’s
great pupil Aristotle. Something of a revolution occurred in twentieth century
ethics with the 1958 publication of Elizabeth Anscombe’s celebrated paper


‘Modern moral philosophy’ (Anscombe, 1981) in which she suggested that

Aristotle’s conception of virtue as good character promised a much richer view of
human moral life than anything available in the prevailing theories of moral
rationalism and sentimentalism. Since Anscombe’s paper, virtue ethics has become
a major field of modern moral enquiry to which some of the greatest names in
latter day ethics have contributed, and there has also been significant application of
virtue ethics to professional theorising in such professional fields as education (see,
for example, Carr & Steutel, 1999). To be sure, radically diverse forms of virtue
ethics have recently developed which differ from each other as much as they differ
from views that are not virtue-focused. To be sure, some of these views are not
even especially Aristotelian and have taken their main inspiration from other
philosophers (such as Hume, Nietzsche and arguably even Hegel). But I shall from
hereon focus on a fairly orthodox Aristotelian interpretation of virtue ethics as
promising the best ethical balance between reason and affect in any satisfactory
account of moral life.
For Aristotle (1941a), moral virtues are essentially states of good character.
Such states are in turn construed as dispositions to good conduct – or, as Aristotle
understands this, conduct conducive to human wellbeing or flourishing. Aristotle
therefore contrasts dispositions of virtuous character with more fickle and
changeable states of human affect. That said, human affect is nevertheless crucially
implicated in character. Indeed, as I have elsewhere said (Carr, 2009), Aristotelian
virtues are more or less equivalent to states of emotion, feeling or appetite ordered
in accordance with some deliberative ideal of practical wisdom. Thus, actions that
proceed from Aristotelian character have their source in affective states. Aristotle
is therefore also a kind of ethical ‘internalist’ who regards affectively charged
desires or choices as necessary for effective moral agency. However, innocent of
the more dubious modern psychological distinction between cognition and affect,
Aristotle takes human reflection and deliberation to have a ‘desiderative’ or
volitional aspect, and desires to have a reflective or deliberative dimension.
Significantly, what distinguishes the feelings or desires of human, as opposed to
brute or non-human, agency is that they are always rationally informed.
Indeed, it may be more accurate to say that what distinguishes genuine desires
and emotions from the raw affect with which humans are naturally (like non-
human brutes) endowed is their essentially cognitive or rational character. In this
regard, Aristotle may be regarded as the great pioneer of the cognitive theory of
emotions more lately ‘re-discovered’ by post-WWII philosophers of mind (for
example, Bedford, 1956/57; Kenny, 1963; Solomon, 1983). On this view what
actually distinguishes one emotion – such as jealousy – from another – such as
envy – is not the quality of feeling of such states, but their cognitive content or so-
called intentionality. It is precisely the intentionality of an emotion that tells us (for
example) that envy is of things or qualities that others possess, and jealousy is of
attention paid by a loved one to others (or vice versa). Thus, though we do credit
dogs or cats with feelings of fear or anger, such feelings rather fall short of genuine
emotion, since – lacking the conceptual resources required to give clear identity to
such feelings – non-human brutes could hardly know what they were ‘about’.


Moreover, it is precisely the intentionality of human emotions and passions that

allows scope for their rational development, cultivation or education. But why
would emotions need to be developed or educated? One pressing reason is that
emotions, like thoughts or beliefs, seem often to be mistaken. Othello is consumed
with jealousy of Desdemona, because he believes (at Iago’s prompting) that she is
betraying him with Cassio. But Othello is of course mistaken about this, and if he
could realize his mistake he might no longer feel such destructive emotion. On an
older view – associated by post-WWII philosophers of mind (Kenny, 1963) with
such key modern thinkers as Descartes and Hume – emotions seem to have been
regarded as non-cognitive or non-rational (if not irrational) states of affect that
might submit to denial, control or suppression, but could not really be rationally
altered or modified. But appreciating the cognitive element or component of
emotions promises the prospect of coming to a clearer perception of how things
really are, not least in those matters to which we may attach most significance by
virtue of personal care and concern about them.
In this regard, education – particularly with respect to important human personal
and social development – would not just be a matter of acquiring skills of literacy
and numeracy, or correct scientific, geographical and historical beliefs, but of
coming to have accurate affective perceptions of the world: it is a matter of getting
things emotionally as well as factually right. It may be a matter of coming to
realize that I am wrong to be angry with her for this omission for which she was
not ultimately at fault, or that I should not have feared failure in this or that trial if
only I had had more confidence in my own skills and abilities. But, of course,
emotional development is not just a matter of correcting mistaken emotions; it is no
less often a matter of developing finer appreciation of or discrimination between
emotions perhaps hitherto only dimly understood. Thus, what I previously
considered to be love for her, seems now – on sober reflection – to have been only
sexual desire or vanity. If love – in one of the many of its different and diverse
senses – means putting the interests of loved ones before one’s own, then perhaps
my obsessive and selfish passion for her was not really any kind of love, and I need
to reconsider my feelings. It is clear that the road to emotional maturity is paved
with such sober re-assessments and that (conversely) failure to engage in such
affective re-appraisal is the hallmark of emotional immaturity or retardation.
It is also fairly easy to see how such emotional development or refinement
underpins or reinforces the positive character traits of Aristotelian virtue. Thus,
coming to tame or moderate my fears of challenge through re-evaluation of such
fears in the light of increased confidence in my own skills and abilities seems a fair
description of the acquisition of courage. Again, coming to distinguish between
love as care for others and more basic sexual attraction or desire – and perhaps
thereby coming to recognize the moral superiority of care over animal attraction –
may put us well on the road towards justice as concern for others and perhaps to a
temperate recognition that sexual desires need putting in their proper place. Despite
the emphasis that Aristotle famously places on practice for the cultivation of
virtues, virtue is very far from mindless training and the virtuous are those capable
of sensitive and discriminating appreciation of and response to the finest nuances


of moral association and conduct. For Aristotle, indeed, achievement of such

sensitive and discriminating emotional response requires development of the
rational power or intellectual virtue to which he gives the term phronesis or
‘practical (moral) wisdom’. It is practical wisdom that assists the agent to
determine the morally proper measure and quality of a desire, appetite or emotion
in circumstances requiring virtuous action in accordance with Aristotle’s famous
principle of the ‘mean’.
Essentially, Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean holds that while virtues need to be
contrasted with vices, they do not stand in any simple bi-polar opposition to them.
In fact, since virtue dispositions depend crucially on the quality and measure of the
desires, emotions and appetites they involve, they may fall short in respect of either
excess or deficiency of these. For example, while it is clear that one person – a so-
called coward – may fall short of courage by having too much fear in dangerous
circumstances, it would also seem (albeit less obviously) that another person may
err by having no sensible fear. But since fear is a perfectly natural emotion that has
its proper place in the psychological economy of human agency, its complete
absence in circumstances in which it is natural to feel it is not virtue but foolish and
irresponsible ‘rashness’. So the moral trick is to have the proper measure and
quality of fear as circumstances require or dictate. Sometimes ‘discretion is the
better part of valour’ and it may be more virtuous to withdraw from trials or
confrontations that one knows to be ‘lost causes’ than to persist with them
hopelessly. The same is true of other virtues. While temperance is clearly
concerned with the moderation of appetites for food, sex and other pleasures,
Aristotle (by contrast, perhaps, with Plato) regarded such pleasures as humanly
natural, as proper in their place, and as not to be unduly denied. Again, it seems no
less clear of a virtue such as compassion that both excess and absence of right
feeling may be equally morally suspect.
Despite some famous philosophical ridicule – Bertrand Russell (1991)
memorably referred to the Aristotelian civic leader who said that he has always
tried to steer a course between partiality and impartiality – Aristotle’s doctrine of
the mean seems generally sustainable with regard to most if not all virtues. It
would also be quite mistaken to view Aristotle’s doctrine as a counsel of moral
compromise. Indeed, while Aristotle has sometimes been lately construed as a kind
of ethical ‘particularist’ – as, that is, someone who denies the very possibility of
general moral rules or principles – his explicit commitment to such principles
could not be clearer from the Nicomachean Ethics. There, Aristotle is abundantly
clear that there are certain actions, such as adultery, that are always morally wrong.
But Aristotle also recognizes that there are often conflicts of moral principle from
which agents may not emerge with entirely ‘clean hands’. Thus, while it is always
morally wrong to be dishonest or to tell lies, there may be circumstances in which
complete honesty conflicts with such other moral imperatives as care or
compassion, and in which the more compelling compassionate course may involve
some dissembling or ‘economy’ with the truth. There can be circumstances, in
short, in which even the virtuous may be morally forced to do what is not quite
ethically correct. (For consideration of such cases see Carr, 2003; Curzer, 2005.)



At all events, it is clear that emotional education is a key component of any

orthodox Aristotelian education of virtue. The question now arises of what form
such emotional education might take. What educational or curricular content or
methods seem best suited to the development of virtuous emotional states and
dispositions? If we accept, as educational philosophers mostly do, that education
extends beyond ‘mindless’ training in routine habits or skills to the promotion of
capacities for reflection and understanding, then we should expect Aristotelian
emotional education to be implicated in the cultivation of that ‘intellectual’ virtue
of phronesis or practical wisdom which is precisely concerned with proper
ordering and refinement of the affective dimensions of character. Indeed, Aristotle
identifies phronesis as the mode of reflection or deliberation that is most crucially
concerned with moral formation and all that this implies. Still, though Aristotle
associates phronesis with moral life and conduct, he does not appear to take this
capacity and/or moral education to be entirely disconnected from or uninformed by
other human enquiries. Indeed, while some modern theorists of moral education do
seem to have separated moral learning from other forms of enquiry – and even to
have proposed a distinct place for it in the school curriculum – it is more likely that
Aristotle held moral development to be a function of something more like a broad
liberal education.
First of all, as an ethical ‘naturalist’, Aristotle evidently held that there is much
to be learned about the nature of moral life from something like scientific reflection
on human nature. For Aristotle, virtues are, despite requiring cultivation, quite
natural properties that conduce to observable well being or flourishing. As Peter
Geach, a modern ethical Aristotelian has put it, ‘men need the virtues like bees
need stings’ (Geach, 1977): from this viewpoint, courage, temperance and justice
are ‘empirically’ observable powers that improve the quality of life or survival
prospects of agents in much the same way that insects or fish benefit from
defensive stings or fins and gills. That said, Aristotle evidently appreciated that
there are aspects of moral and emotional life that are not entirely conducive, if at
all, to investigation via the theoretical or empirical methods of natural or other
science. Evidently, the emotion, passion and feeling implicated in human moral
association and conduct have an ‘inner’ experiential or ‘subjective’ dimension that
also reflects complex and conflicting values, motives and desires. It is thereby of
much interest to human agents to appreciate not just that unwise love may lead to
this or that distress or suffering, but precisely why humans may come to love
unwisely, and even something of what it feels like when they do. Human interest in
human love is not primarily in how one brute instance of such love is causally
linked to this or that other external event of suffering, but in the psychological
complexities and interplay of erotic or ‘agapaic’ character, passion and motive.
In short, true understanding of the feelings, motives and actions implicated in
human love is to be sought in the discursive realms of phronesis or practical reason
rather than in the discourses of theoretical science. But where are such realms
located if not in science? It seems that Aristotle regarded ‘narratives’ as prime sites
and sources of practical reason and wisdom. One prime source of narrative, of


course, is history and historical enquiry. History and historians precisely attempt to
construct plausible accounts of bygone times, and telling convincing historical
stories clearly involves coherent psychological exploration and reconstruction of
the interplay of motives and feelings in past historical characters. But, of course,
historical knowledge and truth is ultimately dependent – as is scientific knowledge
and truth – on objective evidence. Imaginative history is to little real historical
purpose if it is not actually true. That said, it is clear that the stories of history are
only one sort of narrative. Indeed, other narratives may be simply stories – in the
manner of Shakespeare’s Othello or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – without
any pretension to literal truth. But in such absence of such objective or factual
truth, how might such stories be narrative sites or sources of practical wisdom or
It is therefore of no small present interest that Aristotle, as the key ancient
theorist of practical reason or wisdom, actually seems to have held the opposite
view: that despite the evidence-dependence of historical narratives, they actually
promise less insight into the practical complexities of human moral or other
association than imaginative works of literature. Thus, in the Poetics, Aristotle
(1941b) observed that poetry ‘is something more philosophic and of graver import
than history’, since it is addressed to matters of ‘universal’ more than particular
human concern (p. 1464). In short, he thought that whereas history did little more
than report the messy particularities of bygone human affairs, the finely wrought
tragic dramas of such artists as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides provided
deeper insight into the psychological and moral complexities of human character,
feeling and conduct. Indeed, at least two fundamental characteristics of art
arguably conduce to this goal. First, great dramatists (or other narrative artists) are
explicitly concerned to highlight and explore themes of universal human
psychological and moral significance in a precisely ‘archetypical’ way: Othello’s
jealousy is not just the jealousy of Othello, it is that of human nature as such. But,
secondly, great artworks aim not just to inform, but to move us: the aesthetic means
that successful artists employ to express common types of human experience –
poetic imagery, expressive music, the visual effects of painters – may assist us to
feel such experiences. For example, Wilfred Owen’s war poem ‘Dulce et decorum
est’, unlike the WWI newspaper report seeks to show us what it was actually like
to be there.
Indeed, Aristotle’s celebrated – if somewhat elusive – remarks in the Poetics on
the so-called ‘cathartic’ purposes and effects of great art are clearly related to this
second point. While we may be moved by an historical account of Julius Caesar’s
treacherous murder by those who may have included former friends or associates,
the validity of any historical account depends not at all upon this, only on its
factual accuracy. On the other hand, regardless of any poetic liberties that
Shakespeare may have taken with the facts of Caesar’s assassination, the success of
his drama clearly depends on its power to touch us with the tragic poignancy of
betrayal. Although much ink has been spilt in efforts to try to understand precisely
what Aristotle may have meant in the Poetics by the ‘catharsis’ or ‘purgation’ of
emotion, it seems clear that he considered great tragedy and poetry to have much


value and significance for the education of human emotion. Here again, it is not
just that artworks have the capacity to explore the ‘intentionality’ of affect – to
help us understand more clearly the character of particular emotions or what they
are ‘about’ – but that (as later romantic poets emphasised) they may assist us to
deeper actual feeling of emotions. But it was also of obvious importance to
Aristotle that the great poetic tragedies were concerned to explore the wider
implications and consequences of emotion for human character, virtue and vice.
For Aristotle, in short, arts promised to contribute significantly to the cultivation
and education of moral virtue.


In this regard, however, Aristotle may appear at some odds not only with his great
teacher Plato – who notoriously regarded arts as dealing more in sophistry and
delusion than in the truth of morality – but with much more recent western
educational and other philosophy and theory. Since Plato’s views were grounded in
what most philosophers would nowadays regard as a rather implausible idealist
epistemology, they will not be pursued here. However, some present comment on
possible contemporary objections to the Aristotelian view of the moral potential of
arts seems more in order.
If Aristotle is the great theorist of reason and enquiry of antiquity, one might
equally well regard Immanuel Kant (1967, 1968) as his great modern equivalent.
Like Aristotle, Kant was concerned to map significant distinctions between different
sorts of experience, knowledge and understanding, and Kantian distinctions
between science, morality, art and religion have undoubtedly had enormous
impact, not just on subsequent thinking in these fields, but also on theorising about
how we might go about educating in them. Less like Aristotle, however, Kant is
inclined to sharper epistemic distinctions between diverse forms of human enquiry.
Thus, while Kant distinguishes (like Aristotle) the practical reason of morality
from the theoretical reason of (what we may call for now) science, he is also
inclined (unlike Aristotle) to regard practical moral reason as definitive of morality.
So, while Kant appreciates the moral value of character, character is not for him (as
for Aristotle) an indispensable moral notion: what is morally essential is that the
agent should reason in an appropriate moral way. But again, though Kant
recognises and does not dismiss the ‘intentionality’ of much art, recognising that
many arts explore moral themes, he focuses more on what generally distinguishes
art from other fields of human enquiry and experience – which is or him their
broadly formal or ‘aesthetic’ qualities. For him, what is of key artistic value is not
any knowledge of human or other nature that artworks may reveal, but what
pleases and cultivates senses and/or perception.
Kant is therefore the main source and architect of a modern ‘autonomist’ ethical
theory and a ‘formalist’ aesthetics that, taken together, have often made it difficult
for moral philosophers, art theorists and educationalists to see much connection
between morality and art. Indeed, moral autonomism and aesthetic formalism seem
to raise two key (educational and other) objections to any Aristotelian or other


view of the moral value of poetry (or arts in general): one from the side of morality
and moral education, the other from the side of arts and aesthetic education.
First, from the ethical and/or moral educational side, Kantian or other autonomist
theories locate morality and moral learning in the mastery of certain capacities to
reason to principled solution of distinctively moral problems or dilemmas. On this
view, moral education is primarily a matter of the teaching of such rational
capacities to pupils, perhaps by specialist teachers who have made a particular
study of moral reasoning. A popular modern version of this view, developed under
the influence of Piaget (who drew explicitly on Kant) by the American
developmental psychologist Kohlberg (1984), ruled the moral educational roost for
much of the latter half of the twentieth century. Kohlberg’s was precisely a
‘developmental’ theory according to which moral reason develops through a series
of stages, making it the main task of teachers of moral education to assist progress
from one stage to the next. But if, on this view, moral reasoning is autonomous,
what might other kinds of reflection – such as aesthetic contemplation – usefully
contribute to moral understanding? Indeed, it seems to argue in favour of such
moral autonomism that we do not seem to learn from Othello or Madame Bovary
that jealousy or adultery are wrong: on the contrary, we cannot understand such
works without bringing to them (from elsewhere) some understanding that such
conduct is wrong.
However, from the arts and aesthetic education side of things comes the
objection that any such use of Othello or Madame Bovary to teach moral lessons
betokens a profound misunderstanding and a serious misuse of such literary
artworks. To be sure, one of the strongest formalist cards is that since not all
artworks are concerned with moral issues or to make moral points, such concerns
could not be the defining purposes of art. Indeed, in order to make sense of still life
or landscape painting – let alone abstract paintings, non-representational sculpture,
dada poetry and much music – one could hardly avoid focusing on other more
formal or aesthetic properties of artworks. Consequently, under the influence of
formalism, some important modern educational theorists (such as Oakeshott 1981;
for discussion of Oakeshott’s views, see Williams, 2007) have argued that while
the arts are educationally important for the cultivation of civilised tastes and
sensibilities – and while moral education is of course no less important – to use
artworks for such instrumental or ‘extrinsic’ purposes as moral instruction is to
misuse them. On this view, the central – more or less exclusive – purpose of arts
education is the cultivation of aesthetic perception and sense.
To describe such arguments against the moral value of poetry and arts as
overstated would be charitable: in fact, I believe that they are not only mistaken,
but conceptually confused. First, while it is true that we could not understand such
works as Macbeth or Anna Karenina without some prior knowledge that murder
and adultery are morally wrong, it is far from clear that we are persuaded of the
moral iniquity of murder and adultery by the sort of a prioristic reasoning beloved
of philosophers and psychologists in the Kantian tradition. Indeed, unless we
accept Kant’s metaphysical picture of rational moral agency as utterly transcending
the actual empirical circumstances of historically situated human agents, we may


need (in the manner of most neo-Kantians) to interpret the categorical imperative
in something like consensual or contractarian terms: that is, we agree with others to
proscribe what is mutually disagreeable. But mutual disagreeability does not serve
to identify what is morally wrong with murder or adultery. Here, it would seem
that Aristotle’s naturalistic ethics is closer to the mark in recognizing the intimate
connection between general moral principles and understanding of human
wellbeing and flourishing. We learn from our earliest years in dialogue with elders
and peers that certain kinds of conduct have destructive or undermining effects on
human affairs and association and are therefore to be avoided. However, such
learning is often much assisted by acquaintance with oral or written narratives,
including the (fairy and other) stories of childhood.
But, of course, we do not just learn from parents, teachers and stories that
murder or adultery are unfortunate for society or insofar as they are visited on
ourselves: we also learn that it is bad for agents to visit violence or betrayal on
others: that such conduct morally harms perpetrators as much if not more than their
victims. It is here again that Aristotle’s view reveals a morally deeper perspective
from the predominantly rationalistic ethics of modernity (of both duty and utility)
in shifting the ethical focus from the discernment of right moral action to the
cultivation of virtuous character. He appreciates clearly that our interest in the
practical business of moral development is not just in doing what is fair and just to
others but in becoming the kinds of persons who are just, honest, courageous, self-
controlled, compassionate and so on. If we are interested in leading flourishing
lives, and the various virtues of wisdom, honesty, courage, temperance and justice
are means to flourishing, then we must be interested in acquiring such qualities of
character. But, as Aristotle makes clear, any knowledge of such qualities of
character cannot be had via a priori theoretical speculation and requires the
ongoing experiential reflection of practical wisdom. It requires close and careful
attention to particular cases to learn whether the conduct of this person was
courageous or reckless or whether my feeling for her is love or vanity. But it seems
clear that such reflection on character and motive may be greatly assisted by the
reading of great literature – such as the plays of Shakespeare or the novels of Jane
Austen and Charles Dickens.
What, then, of the argument that it is educational misuse of literature and other
arts to exploit them for such artistically ‘extrinsic’ purposes? Despite its continued
educational influence and currency (Gingell, 2006), this argument is no less
confused. Perhaps the core confusion is a common tendency to define art in terms
of what is thought to be common to artworks – namely their aesthetic properties
and concerns – and then to assimilate all artistic purposes to such concerns: in
short, to confuse the artistic with the aesthetic. Clearly, however, what may be of
aesthetic value (such as a sunset) need not be art, and (arguably) what is of artistic
value (such as a ‘conceptual’ work) may have little or no aesthetic value. (For
versions of this distinction, see Best, 1985; see also Carr, 1999.) But even if we
accept that the bulk of human artistic effort is of aesthetic interest or exploits
aesthetic devices or effects, it does not follow that its main or only artistic purpose
is to exhibit such effects. On the contrary, while some artworks (abstract paintings


or sculpture) may be exclusively concerned with promoting aesthetic effect, it is

equally clear that many if most other artworks employ such effects precisely to
other (fairly diverse) artistic ends, including imitation of nature (landscape painting),
transformation of human perception of the world (impressionist, cubist and futurist
painting), emotional expression (expressionist painting and much music and
poetry), contacting unconscious aspects of psyche (surrealist paintings and novels),
depiction of character (portraiture, novels), exploration of moral and other
narrative themes (classical and Shakespearean tragedy, much modern fiction).
In this regard, those who think that they have understood a painting by Monet or
a Wilfred Owen war poem when they have grasped what it is about – but are not
moved by the aesthetic (literary or graphic) qualities of such works – are no less
‘philistine’ than those who dismiss a painting by Braque or Pollock because they
fail to see what it is about. But, equally, those who respond only to the aesthetic
qualities of such works and fail (or refuse) to see what artistic purposes literary or
other aesthetic devices aim to serve – in Owen’s case, to assist experience of the
horrors of modern war – have no less failed to appreciate the meaning of artworks.
Such artistic purposes, as already indicated, are also diverse: such is the great
wealth of human art. But it is clearly a grave error to regard such purposes as
merely ‘extrinsic’ to artworks on the grounds that aesthetic properties are what all
artworks have in common (if that is even true). It is as foolish to believe that we
can understand Dickens Christmas Carol as a work of art without grasping the
moral points that the author aimed to make about the injustices of Victorian
London as it is to suppose we can understand Handel’s Messiah without grasping
the religious themes it clearly aims to express and celebrate. But from this viewpoint,
some of the greatest ever works of literature – including classical poetic dramas,
Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen’s novels – have been rich explorations of
human character and emotion of the highest value for practical reflection on the
nature of moral virtue and vice.


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Philosophical Papers Volume III. Oxford: Blackwell.
Aristotle (1941a). Nicomachean Ethics. In R. McKeon (Ed.) The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York:
Random House.
Aristotle (1941b). Poetics. In: R. McKeon (Ed.) The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random
Bedford, E. (1956/57). Emotions. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 57, 283–304.
Best, D. (1985). Feeling and Reason in the Arts. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Carr, D. & Steutel, J. (Eds.) (1999). Virtue Ethics and Moral Education. London: Routledge.
Carr, D. (1999). Art, practical knowledge and aesthetic objectivity. Ratio, 12(3), 240–256.
Carr, D. (2003). Character and moral choice in the cultivation of virtue. Philosophy, 78, 219–232.
Carr, D. (2009). Virtue, mixed emotions and moral ambivalence. Philosophy, 84, 31–46.
Curzer, H. J. (2005). How good people do bad things: Aristotle on the misdeeds of the virtuous. Oxford
Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 28(1), 233–256.
Durkheim, E. (1961). Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of
Education. New York: Collier-MacMillan.


Geach, P. T. (1977). The Virtues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gingell, J. (2006). The Visual Arts and Education. Impact Publications No 13, Philosophy of Education
Society of Great Britain.
Hume, D. (1969). A Treatise of Human Nature. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Kant, I.(1967). The Critique of Practical Reasoning and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics.
Translated by T. K. Abbott, London: Longmans.
Kant, I. (1968). The Critique of Pure Reason. London: Macmillan.
Kenny, A. (1963). Action, Emotion and Will. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on Moral Development: Volume I. New York: Harper Row.
Mill, J. S. (1970). Utilitarianism. In M. Warnock (Ed.) Utiliarianism. London: Collins, Fontana.
Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A Feminist Approach to Ethics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Oakeshott, M. (1981). Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen.
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Plato (1961). Gorgias and Republic. In E. Hamilton & Cairns, H. (Eds.) Plato: The Collected
Dialogues. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Russell, B. (1991). A History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge.
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University Press.
Williams, K. (2007). Education and the Voice of Michael Oakeshott. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

David Carr
University of Edinburgh, Scotland (UK)





According to the Aristotelian tradition of moral thinking and acting, any parent or
teacher who takes moral education seriously should be engaged in the practice of
cultivating the child’s feelings – his passions, inclinations, emotions, appetites,
pains and pleasures. Special attention to the development of the child’s affective
life in the context of moral education is not only typical of Aristotle himself, but
also a salient feature of the educational writings of other representatives of the
Aristotelian tradition, from the classical work of Aquinas to the recent work of
Alasdair MacIntyre. To be sure, the Aristotelian tradition presents moral education
as comprising much more than sentimental education alone. But the cultivation of
affective dispositions is regarded as essential in three related but different senses –
namely, as necessary (the proper aims of moral education cannot be achieved
without sentimental education), as significant (a considerable part of our moral
educational efforts should be devoted to cultivating the child’s sentiments) and as
basic (the settlement of proper sentimental dispositions is a prerequisite for
effectively promoting other mental qualities, particularly those involved in the
intellectual virtue of practical wisdom or critical deliberation). If we may assume
that every evolving tradition of moral reflection and action has some ‘hard core’ of
enduring beliefs and presuppositions, the claim that moral education essentially
involves sentimental education certainly should be counted as belonging this ‘hard
core’, as understood in the Aristotelian tradition.2
But what exactly are the reasons for considering sentimental education such an
important ingredient of moral education? Especially with regard to the necessity
and significance of sentimental education, those reasons are basically located in
two other claims, which may be taken to be part of this ‘hard core’ of the
Aristotelian tradition as well. The first one is that the virtuous person should be
taken as the general or comprehensive aim of moral education. And because being
virtuous implies being a bearer of many different virtues, these individual traits
should be regarded as the more specific or particular morally educational aims. The
second claim is that moral virtues are not only dispositions for choice and action
but also dispositions towards feelings. It is with respect to how one feels and not
merely to how one chooses and acts that one may be said to be virtuous. To put it
more precisely, a virtuous person is someone who will have and exhibit particular
feelings on the right occasions, for the right reasons, towards the right people, with
the right strength and in the right manner. Virtuousness implies having proper

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 97–114.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

feelings – that is, having feelings as one should. It will be obvious that these two
claims offer strong reasons for giving sentimental education a central role in the
practice of moral education. For if the proper aim of moral education is the
virtuous person, and if having proper feelings is partially constitutive of being
virtuous, promoting proper sentimental dispositions will be an important task for
moral educators.
A presupposition of this line of reasoning is that the affective life of the child is
indeed educable. If the child’s dispositions to feel in particular ways were resistant
to all our educational interventions, taking the growth and settlement of virtuous
affective dispositions as an educational aim would be senseless. It is for this reason
that representatives of the Aristotelian tradition often try to convince us that
affective dispositions are actually susceptible to cultivation. In his Nicomachean
Ethics (NE) Aristotle divides the human soul into rational and non-rational parts,
and divides the non-rational part itself into the desiring part and the nutritive part
(NE 1102a27-1103a3). Feelings (pathé) are located in the desiring part – or,
perhaps better, the desiring part is composed of different types of feelings, such as
appetite (epithumia) and emotion (thumos). But although feelings are located in the
non-rational part of the soul, they can obey and listen to the rational part, not just in
the sense that feelings can be kept under control if they are contrary to the precepts
of reason (which is typical of continence), but also, and more importantly, in the
sense that they can be harmonised with the voice of reason by their being
transformed, moulded or reshaped (which is typical of virtuousness). Aquinas, in
his Summa Theologiae (ST) (Ia2ae, q. 55–67), also maintains that the passions are
susceptible to moderation and redirection in accordance with the good of reason.
The reactions of the sensitive appetite, which is located in the non-rational part of
the soul, are passions, feelings or emotions. And the moral virtues concerned with
the passions, such as temperance, courage, meekness, chastity, gentleness and
magnanimity, are perfections of the sensitive appetite. In contrast to the continent
or persevering man, who has to suppress or restrain his unruly passions in order to
act well, the sensitive appetite of the morally virtuous person is brought into full
conformity with reason. MacIntyre, too, believes that the affective life is educable,
even to the extent that it would not be an overstatement to call him an optimist
regarding education. For example, in his Dependent Rational Animals he argues
that our having feelings of affection and sympathy on certain occasions should
never be taken as ‘a brute and unchangeable fact about us’ (MacIntyre, 1999, p.
115). On the contrary, it is up to us to decide what kinds and degrees of affection
and sympathy we should cultivate in ourselves and encourage in our children.
MacIntyre rightly points out that individuals may find it difficult to have the proper
feelings of affection and sympathy towards other human beings and nonhuman
animals, either because their feelings are excessive (‘too much’) or because their
feelings are deficient (‘too little’). In his view, however, such deviations from the
standards of appropriate feeling are ‘generally corrigible faults’ (p. 116).



One may expect of a tradition of moral thinking and acting that highlights the role
of sentimental education that at least some indication is given of the ways in which
the affective life of the child could be transformed and steered in the right
direction. If the growth and establishment of virtuous affective dispositions are
such important aims of moral education, what could be the means to achieve these
In the Aristotelian tradition rather different types of educational interventions
are presented as possibly effective, ranging from reading stories, taking the child to
theatrical performances and stimulating mimetic enactment of poetry, song and
dance, in such a way as to encourage the child to emulate virtuous models and to
refine the child’s discriminatory capacities. However, a method of cultivating
feelings that is brought to one’s notice time and again, and that is generally
presented as a vital aspect of effective sentimental education, is habituation. The
central place of habituation in cultivating feelings is emphasised not only by
Aristotle but also by other representatives of the Aristotelian tradition. In his
taxonomy of the virtues Aquinas makes the well-known distinction between the
infused and the acquired virtues (SM Ia2ae, q. 55, art. 4). The former group of
moral virtues are caused in us by God without our action, and therefore cannot be
the result of habituation, but any moral virtue that belongs to the latter group is
caused in us by our becoming accustomed to its practice or acquired by us through
our becoming habituated to its acts (SM Ia2ae, q. 51, art. 2; q. 63, art. 2).
MacIntyre, too, stresses the important role of habituation in the growth and
settlement of the moral virtues, as may be deduced, for instance, from his account
of Aristotle’s views on education into the virtue of justice (MacIntyre, 1988, pp.
113–115), as well as from his article on the educational views of Aquinas, in which
he discusses sympathetically Aquinas’s claim that ‘the right kind of habituation . . .
is indispensable to the acquisition of the virtues’ (MacIntyre, 1998, p. 100). Indeed,
the idea that habituation is a vital aspect of sentimental education is rightly seen as
part of the ‘hard core’ of the Aristotelian tradition.
But what exactly is habituation if taken as a component of moral upbringing?
What are the defining characteristics of this educational method? Aristotle’s
answer to these questions can be fairly clearly reconstructed on the basis of his
explicit remarks on the nature of habituation (ethismos) and closely related
educational issues. From an analytical perspective, the outstanding characteristics
of Aristotelian habituation that can be discerned are the following.
First, habituation is essentially a form of learning by doing or, to put it more
preciselym, a process of cultivating virtuous affective dispositions by performing
the corresponding virtuous actions. In a much-quoted passage, Aristotle says that
the moral virtues are acquired by first having actually practised them, just as we
acquire crafts or skills: ‘we learn a craft by producing the same product that we
must produce when we have learned it, becoming builders, e.g., by building and
harpists by playing the harp; so also, then, we become just by doing just actions,
temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions’ (NE 1103a32-
b2). The child will not acquire virtuous affective dispositions if our educational


activities are confined to verbal instruction or teaching moral lessons. We also, and
primarily, have to make sure that the child performs the right actions, that is, does
the things the virtuous person would do under the circumstances.
Second, in the acquisition of the moral virtues it will not be enough to practise
the virtues only a couple of times or to act as virtue requires only occasionally.
Habituation, or at least effective habituation, implies doing the virtuous things both
frequently and consistently. Aristotle does not specify how frequently virtuous
actions need to be performed in order that the corresponding virtues should be
acquired, but his use of the word pollákis (for example, NE 1103a29, 1105b4),
which literally means ‘many times’, indicates that he assumes that they should be
performed over and over again. Moreover, from other passages in his work it may
be deduced that Aristotle also believes that virtuous actions should be performed
consistently, which roughly means that one acts always (or at least on most
occasions) as virtue requires and, consequently, never (or at least only exceptionally)
in a manner contrary to virtue. Aristotle (NE 1103b7-22; 1104a10-28) points out
that it is not only the moral virtues but also the moral vices that are produced by
performing the corresponding activities. For example, someone who runs away
from everything in fear and never endures anything becomes a coward, and
someone who fears nothing and rushes in to face anything and everything becomes
rash. Accordingly, the most reliable way to acquire the virtue of courage is always
to act as the courageous person would do under the circumstances and, consequently,
never to perform the activities that are expressive of the vices of cowardice and
It is important not to confuse frequency of behaviour with consistency of
behaviour. One can imagine that a child has rather limited possibilities for
practising a particular virtue, as, for example, when his parents are overprotective
and give him little scope for practising the virtue of courage, in the broad sense of
that term. Then the child may consistently act as courage requires but will perform
these acts too infrequently to acquire the dispositions regarding fear, self-
confidence and determination that are characteristic of the courageous person. The
educational upshot is that parents should not only make sure that the child
consistently acts as virtue requires but also give him ample opportunity for doing
virtuous things.
Aristotle’s claim that consistent and frequent virtuous behaviour is needed for
the growth and settlement of the affective dispositions that are constitutive of the
moral virtues sounds like a paradox. For is not being morally virtuous precisely a
precondition for acting virtuously? Aristotle is well aware of this possible objection
to his doctrine. Somebody might wonder, he writes, what we mean by saying that
people need to do virtuous things in order to become virtuous: ‘For if we do what
is grammatical or musical, we must already be grammarians or musicians. In the
same way, then, if we do what is just or temperate, we must already be just or
temperate’ (NE 1105a19-22).
In order to rebut this objection, it may be helpful to make a distinction between
two dimensions of the paradox in question, which might be called the motivational
and the epistemic dimensions. Focusing on the former dimension, one may wonder


how acting virtuously (justly, temperately, etc.) can be a precondition for becoming
a virtuous (just, temperate, etc.) person, when having the motivational constitution
of the virtuous (just, temperate, etc.) person is a precondition for acting virtuously
(justly, temperately, etc.). Aristotle himself seems to hold the view that for an
action to be done virtuously the agent must have chosen the action for its own sake
and be stably disposed to choose in that way (NE 1105a32-b1; Hutchinson, 1986,
pp. 89–92). How, then, could someone who is not yet virtuous act virtuously? If
this is the objection, however, it can be easily refuted by making a distinction
between two senses of acting virtuously (justly, temperately, etc.). On the one
hand, we may use the word ‘virtuous’ in a ‘thicker’ or more substantial way, in
such a manner that calling an action virtuous implies making the assumption that
the action exhibits or springs from the choices and dispositional make-up that are
typical of the virtuous person. If we use the term in this particular sense, it will be
clear that someone who is not yet virtuous cannot act virtuously. But we can also
use the word ‘virtuous’ in a ‘thinner’ or more formal way, that is, simply to register
the fact that the action is the right or the proper one, or the thing to be done under
the circumstances, without making any reference to the agent’s frame of mind. In
this particular sense someone who is not yet virtuous, and even occasionally the
vicious person, may act virtuously. If we keep the distinction between these two
senses in mind, the motivational dimension of the paradox evaporates: the child
becomes virtuous by acting virtuously, not in the ‘thicker’ or more substantial
sense but only in the ‘thinner’ or more formal sense of that term (cf. Dunne, 1999,
p. 58; Sherman, 1989, p. 187).
The objection could, however, also refer to the epistemic dimension of the
paradox, which focuses on the person’s knowledge of or insight into the moral
character of his options. The problem is this. Consistently acting virtuously, even
in the ‘thinner’ or more formal sense of that term, requires that one has the
intellectual virtue of practical wisdom, for only the individual who is practically
wise will be able to determine which options are the virtuous ones under different
circumstances. But if practical wisdom is a precondition of acting virtuously, and if
Aristotle is right in claiming that being practically wise involves having all the
moral virtues, how, then, can the growth and establishment of the virtues be
dependent on consistently acting virtuously? In order to become practically wise
one needs to act as virtue requires, but in order to know or see what virtue requires
one needs to be practically wise. If this is how the objection should be read, it can
be easily rebutted by introducing a third characteristic of Aristotelian habituation,
namely, the supervision of the learner by one or more virtuous persons, in
particular the parents or other guardians of the child (Sherman, 1989, pp. 160–
162). It is true that the child is not yet able to determine which action should be
performed under the circumstances, or is only able to do this in relatively simple or
familiar situations. Nonetheless he is quite well able to act as virtue requires, given
the coaching or guidance of his tutors, and given, of course, that his tutors have the
wisdom involved in mature moral virtuousness.
To sum up, then, it can be stated that habituation, in the Aristotelian sense of the
term, consists in (i) practising the virtues or, more precisely, performing those


actions that correspond with virtuous sentimental dispositions, (ii) performing such
actions frequently and consistently, and (iii) doing so under the guidance or
authority of a virtuous tutor.



Aristotle clearly believed that, given the natural capacity to acquire the virtues,
proper habituation operates as an effective method of moral sentimental education.
But is this true? Is the educational means (habituation) really an effective way of
achieving the educational aim (the growth and entrenchment of virtuous affective
dispositions)? Because this question is basically an empirical one, the best way to
answer it is by consulting the results of relevant empirical research. To our
knowledge, however, there has never been any systematic empirical investigation
into the connection between habituation (as the independent variable) and the
development of virtuous sentimental dispositions (as the dependent variable). But
there are other, albeit less reliable ways of examining whether or not Aristotle’s
belief in the effectiveness of habituation is wellfounded. We may, for example,
refer to our own experiences with processes of habituation, or to the evidence other
people give us about their experiences. Moreover, any plausible explanation of the
way in which habituation might do the work it is supposed to do, in particular by
introducing so-called mediating processes that help clarify how or why the relation
between the indicated variables occurs (cf. Eisenberg, 1998, pp. 17–18), may also
be regarded as giving some support for Aristotle’s view.
At first blush habituation does not seem to be a suitable method for cultivating
feelings. The educational means, habituation, and the educational aim, the growth
and settlement of virtuous affective dispositions, seem to be ill-matched.
To begin with, the first characteristic of habituation, the fact that habituation is
essentially a form of learning by doing seems to be indicative of learning skills
rather than of acquiring affective dispositions. Skills, or at any rate paradigmatic
examples of skills, cannot be acquired without practice, without repeatedly doing
the things in question, whereas affective dispositions, if learned at all, can be
acquired in quite different ways, for instance by classical conditioning or purely by
affective contagion. Thus, it is hardly conceivable that one can become a skilled
water-colourist without having practised painting in water colours, but a single
experience with a snapping dog may lead to ineradicable feelings of distrust
regarding this animal’s nature.
This comparison only shows, however, that affective dispositions, unlike skills,
need not be the result of learning by doing. What it does not show is that learning
by doing cannot result in affective dispositions, or that learning by practice cannot
be an effective way of acquiring them. This, of course, is true, but the problem still
remains that, while the relationship between practice and the learning of skills
seems intelligible enough and even natural, the idea of a similar relationship
between practice and the establishment of affective dispositions is rather obscure
and hard to accept without some convincing explanation. Suppose, for example,


that we want our students to acquire the intellectual virtue of clarity of thought and
expression, and that we try to achieve this aim by systematically encouraging them
to expound their views as clearly as possible, to construct their arguments in a
well-organised way, to avoid obscure language, to give lucid definitions of terms
that may give rise to misunderstandings and to perform many other relevant
activities that are expressive of this virtue. Doing such things, and doing them
repeatedly, is, without doubt, the most effective way of acquiring the skills of clear
thinking and writing. But why should the very same practice itself also be an
effective way of producing the sentimental dispositions that are constitutive of the
virtue of clarity, dispositions such as a heart-felt aversion towards woolly language
and an enjoyment of the lucidity of neatly arranged and well-presented arguments?
It is evident that all those exercises in clear thinking and writing might just as well
not have any influence on the student’s feelings whatsoever or even lead to
unfavourable affective attitudes towards clarity. The same seems to be true of the
typically moral virtues. Helping people in all kinds of different circumstances in
the context of service-learning3 is most likely to make students more skilled in
solving complex helping problems and in offering effective assistance. But why
should helping behaviour as such necessarily lead to the growth and settlement of
the affective dispositions involved in the virtue of helpfulness, such as concern,
sympathy and feelings of responsibility? Perhaps the impact of service-learning
projects will be that students develop an aversion to the standard forms of community
It is interesting to note that even Gilbert Ryle, in his pioneering paper ‘Can
virtue be taught?’ (1972), associates habituation, as explained by Aristotle, with
acquiring skills rather than with cultivating feelings. After having shown that the
acquisition of skills comes, if at all, only with practice, Ryle raises the question of
whether the virtues may be the result of similar learning processes. At first he is
inclined to answer this question in the affirmative (pp. 436–437), but the striking
thing is that in this context he merely refers to virtuous activities that may be
performed more or less skilfully, especially to forms of self-control, such as
curbing one’s greediness and keeping one’s temper. As we have argued elsewhere
(Steutel, 1999, pp. 126–131), certain virtues, especially the virtues of willpower,
are partly composed of capacities of self-control, and having such capacities
roughly consists in being skilled in using appropriate techniques of self-
intervention. Immediately after defending the view that virtues may be the result of
learning by doing, however, Ryle begins to attack it by pointing out that skills and
virtues are different in important respects. He shows that being virtuous, unlike
being skilled, implies having particular wants and aversions, attitudes and feelings,
cares and preferences – in short, the things we call virtuous sentimental
dispositions. And because of this, he maintains, virtues cannot just be the result of
repeated practical exercises. In other words, so long as Ryle focuses on the skills
that are part of the virtues of will-power, this tends to support Aristotle’s claim that
virtues are learned by practice; but for Ryle this claim seems completely to lose its
plausibility as soon as he recognises that moral virtues, unlike skills, are
constituted by affective dispositions.




If we focus on the second characteristic of habituation, the condition of frequency

and consistency, habituation seems to be a proper method for establishing habits,
rather than a suitable method of cultivating affective dispositions. To explain why
this is the case, a brief exposition of the defining characteristics of habits may be
If we elaborate on the analyses of John Passmore (1980, pp. 120–126) and R.S.
Peters (1981, pp. 55–56, 97–98), a first characteristic that should be pointed out is
that habits are dispositions to perform particular actions or activities, such as
getting up early, going to the pub after office hours or reading a story to the
children at bedtime. Perhaps linking habits with intentional behaviour makes the
definition too narrow, as some habits seem to be dispositions towards mental acts
(for example, thinking of objections to our moral claims) or towards non-intentional
behaviour (i.e., nail-biting). But in any case habits are dispositions to do certain
kinds of things, and not, for example, dispositions to be affected in certain ways
under particular circumstances. Second, habits are relatively settled or permanent
dispositions to do certain kinds of things. For example, when we say that checking
our email before going to bed is one of our habits, the clear implication is that this
is something that we have been doing for quite some time now and, most probably,
that it is something we shall continue to do. Habits do, of course, change, but to
call some rather unstable or temporary feature of someone’s behaviour a habit
would be a misapplication of the term. Third, habits are dispositions towards
actions or activities that are performed regularly. For example, having the habit of
looking at an evening news programme implies doing this not incidentally but on a
regular basis. This does not mean that a habit cannot be a disposition towards
actions or activities that are performed only rarely or infrequently. One may have a
habit of eating turkey only on Thanksgiving Day or a habit of going to church only
on Christmas Eve. The point is that having a habit implies always or at least
usually doing certain things when the moment has come or the circumstances occur
– not necessarily that the moment comes often or the circumstances occur
frequently, although this may be the case with respect to most of our habits. Fourth,
habits are dispositions to do certain things automatically, without reflection,
deliberation, planning or choice. This does not mean, as Peters suggests, that
having a habit implies being able to perform the corresponding actions or activities
while thinking about quite different matters or while concentrating on something
else (Peters, 1981, p. 55). A person may have the habit of studying at the university
library, or the habit of playing chess on Monday evening, or the habit of giving
reasons for taking a particular ethical standpoint, and obviously such activities
often require much reflection and great concentration. But what the person does not
need to do is deliberately decide on each separate occasion to perform these
activities. On the contrary, if the activities are expressive of habits, the person will
normally perform them without first pondering on their value or weighing up the
pros and cons.


It is particularly the third characteristic, the fact that habits are dispositions to do
certain things on a regular basis, that makes a connection with processes of
habituation almost self-evident. Not all habits are the result of habituation, and a
habit, unlike habituation, is not necessarily related to frequent behaviour. But the
kind of regularity that is typical of having a habit implies the kind of consistency
that is characteristic of habituation. It is this similarity that seems to make the
process of habituation particularly apt for cultivating habits. Many parents want
their children to acquire the habit of washing their hands before dinner. And what
would be a more natural way to achieve their aim than consistently inciting or
urging them to wash their hands before sitting down at the table? By consistently
doing the proper things at the proper moment, the odds are that the child will
acquire a settled disposition to do those things at the right time.
Of course, the fact that doing the proper things regularly, and therefore
consistently, seems to be an effective way of acquiring habits does not exclude the
possibility that the same method may also effectively stimulate the growth and
settlement of affective dispositions. But just like the relation between practice and
learning skills, the relation between consistently doing the proper things and the
establishment of corresponding habits is quite easy to grasp, whereas a relationship
between such a way of learning and acquiring sentimental dispositions is difficult
to fathom. Doing virtuous things on a regular basis is likely to result in virtuous
habits, but how could such a practice also result in dispositions to be affected in
virtuous ways? Suppose, for example, that cultivating the virtue of charity is part of
our educational programme. With reference to Aristotle’s view on habituation, we
consistently incite the child to perform particular acts of charity, like putting aside
a small part of his pocket money for a good cause, doing some shopping for invalid
neighbours and standing up for senior citizens on the bus. It is easy to understand
how always doing such things when the moment has come will make these
activities habitual. But it is hard to grasp how performing charitable acts on a
regular basis will itself also result in the firmly settled affective dispositions that
are constitutive of the virtue of charity, such as the disposition to feel compassion,
pity, distress or relief under the proper circumstances.
We might be criticised for overlooking the fact that the term ‘habit’ also stands
for a broad range of mental qualities, including dispositions to have particular
feelings or to feel particular emotions under certain conditions. Authoritative
English dictionaries tell us that the term ‘habit’, in its most current sense, refers to
a settled disposition or tendency to act in a certain way (The Oxford English
Dictionary) or to something that one does often or regularly (Collins Cobuild ).
This prevalent use of ‘habit’ is the one we explained above. But we seem to have
failed to notice that the term is also used in the sense of ‘habit of mind’ (Spiecker,
1999, p. 214). In this instance, the term does not stand for a pattern of action, but
refers to the way in which a person is mentally or morally constituted, to the sum
of the individual’s mental and moral qualities (The Oxford English Dictionary), or
to a particular mental constitution or the kind of thought, feeling or attitude
someone generally has (Collins Cobuild). Moreover, sometimes, especially in
authoritative translations of Aquinas’s writings, the term ‘habit’ refers to a class of


states or dispositions that includes the virtues and vices. In his classical definition
of virtue Aristotle uses the term hexis to denote the genus proximum of the virtues
(NE 1106b36-1107a3; 1105b19-1106a14). As the Latin equivalent of hexis,
Aquinas uses the term habitus, and this term is normally translated into English
with the term ‘habit’. So this use of the term, just like the use of ‘habit’ in the sense
of ‘habit of mind’, also covers the sentimental dispositions that are constitutive of
the moral virtues.
This objection, however, is beside the point. We do not want to deny that
sentimental dispositions are habits in the technical sense of hexeis or habitus, nor
that the term ‘habit’ does have the indicated different senses in ordinary language.
The only point we are making is that the relationship between regularly behaving
well and acquiring habits in the former sense (habits of behaviour) is readily
intelligible, while a similar relationship between doing the proper things on a
regular basis and acquiring habits in the latter sense (habits of affection) is difficult
to comprehend.
At the end of the previous section we noted that Ryle tends to identify
habituation, as explained by Aristotle, with the training of skills rather than with
the cultivation of sentimental dispositions. Here it may be instructive to point out
that Peters interprets Aristotelian habituation neither as a method of cultivating
feelings nor as a form of training in skills, but rather as a way of inculcating habits.
In his theory of moral education Peters makes a distinction between different types
of virtue, including highly specific virtues, such as punctuality, thrift and
politeness, and motivational virtues, such as compassion, gratitude and concern for
others (Peters, 1981, pp. 93–95). In discussing whether or not virtues may be
regarded as habits, he argues that the highly specific virtues seem to be the most
obvious candidates, in particular because these virtues are connected with specific
types of acts that can be performed automatically. In his view, however, it would
be wrong to regard the motivational virtues as habits, since exercising them
essentially involves the arousal of feelings and the active employment of one’s
mind (p. 98). Whatever one may think of this distinction, it is striking that Peters
interprets Aristotle’s remarks on habituation as a pointed description of the way in
which habits are acquired, and therefore also of the growth and establishment of
the highly specific virtues (p. 96). Because Aristotle stresses the importance of
habituation for cultivating virtuous affective dispositions, making a connection
between habituation and the development of the motivational virtues would have
been in line with Aristotle’s views. But in fact Peters only sees an educational link
between habituation and the highly specific virtues because he considers Aristotelian
habituation essentially to be a process of acquiring habits, in the sense we explained
above. And is not this a quite natural interpretation of Aristotelian habituation?



Up to this point the results of our exploration of Aristotelian habituation are rather
disappointing. If we focus on the first two characteristics of habituation, it seems to


be a form of training in skills or inculcating habits, rather than a form of cultivating

sentimental dispositions. However, one of the reasons why we were unable to
reveal a positive relationship between habituation and the cultivation of the
sentiments might be that we paid attention only to the growth or settlement of
affective dispositions. We have not introduced any example in which habituation is
intended to mitigate or even to remove affective dispositions, instead of strengthening
or inculcating them. Aristotle holds the view that our feelings and emotions may
deviate from the mean either because they are deficient (‘too little’) or because
they are excessive (‘too much’). Thus far we have focused almost exclusively on
aspects of people’s inner lives that may be considered somehow deficient. But it
may well be that habituation is particularly pertinent to the fashioning of an
emotional life that is in some way excessive.
At this point it may be interesting to note that both the Greek term ‘ethismos’
and the English term ‘habituation’ can be translated into Dutch with two different
terms that have slightly different meanings – namely, ‘gewoontevorming’ and
‘gewenning’. Literally translated, the term ‘gewoontevorming’ means ‘the
formation of habits’, and it is this term that is used as the Dutch equivalent of
‘ethismos’ in a recent, wellreceived Dutch translation of the Ethica Nicomachea
(Aristotle, 1999). The term ‘gewenning’, however, roughly means the same as
‘being accustomed to’ or ‘becoming or being made used to’.4 This is the meaning
that Peters seems to have in mind when he defines ‘habituation’ as ‘a wide class of
learning processes in which people learn by familiarising themselves with, or
getting used to, things, and by repetition’ (Peters, 1981, p. 102). Now the important
thing is that the term ‘gewenning’, unlike the term ‘gewoontevorming’, usually
refers to learning processes in which our feelings are tempered, mitigated, or in
some way reduced. As an illustration of his own definition of ‘habituation’, Peters
gives the example of a boy who ‘might learn not to be afraid of dogs . . . by being
constantly in their presence and getting used to their ways’ (pp. 102–103). This is a
clear case of gewenning: excessive feelings of anxiety may gradually lose their
strength and even disappear by means of repeated confrontation with their object.
So by shifting our attention from compensating for sentimental deficit to
tempering sentimental excess, we seem to have found forms of habituation that
may be reasonably effective. Although gewenning normally implies learning
processes in which particular feelings are tempered or even fade away, it is not
necessarily a way of making our inner life more virtuous. In many cases getting
used to things involves some kind of blunting, which often means that the strength
or scope of valuable feelings becomes deficient. For that reason, Peters denies that
habituation, in the sense of gewenning, is a proper method of cultivating
motivational virtues, such as a concern for others. Habituation, he says, seems to be
the wrong sort of term for stimulating children to be sensitive to the plight of
others, ‘for the last thing we want is to habituate children to the sight of suffering’
(p. 107). But cases of gewenning could also be pointed out that clearly work in the
right direction. For example, by getting used to regulating immoderate sense-
desires or inhibiting inordinate appetites, the frequency, intensity or persistence of
such desires and appetites may become less excessive or more appropriate, which


may be seen as an important step in acquiring the virtue of temperance. Or by

getting used to dangerous situations or threatening circumstances, we may become
less frightened and therefore more courageous.
To sum up, then, some forms of habituation, in particular forms that are called
‘gewenning’, do not merely consist in training skills or acquiring habits of
behaviour, but are genuine ways of modifying our affective life as well. From a
moral educational viewpoint, however, the importance of gewenning should not be
overestimated. The centre piece of moral sentimental education seems to be much
more a matter of strengthening or inculcating proper affective dispositions than a
matter of mitigating or getting rid of improper ones. According to Philippa Foot
(1978, pp. 8–10), the virtues are to be understood as corrective, in the sense either
of moderating excessive temptation or of compensating for deficiency of
motivation. Virtues such as persistence, industriousness, diligence, patience and
temperance, which may loosely be called the virtues of will-power, seem to belong
to the former group, as they can be understood as corresponding to natural feelings
and inclinations that have to be kept in check (Steutel, 1999, pp. 126–127).
Consequently, insofar as promoting the virtues of will-power implies sentimental
education, it will largely be a matter of gewenning. For example, cultivating the
proper sentimental dispositions that are constitutive of the virtue of patience will be
a matter of moderating the child’s liability to respond with excessive feelings of
impetuosity, irritation and boredom by accustoming him to situations in which
patient behaviour is required. This developmental relationship with gewenning
may be the reason why Aristotle illustrates his view on habituation by merely
giving examples of virtues of will-power, especially temperance and courage (NE
The corrective function of cardinal moral virtues such as justice and
benevolence, however, seems to be quite different. Unlike the virtues of will-
power, these do not correspond to particular natural inclinations that have to be
kept in check, but rather to deficiencies of motivation that have to be made good,
deficiencies such as a limited concern for other people’s needs or a lack of respect
for the rights of one’s fellow citizens. Accordingly, a central part of moral
sentimental education will consist in strengthening or promoting the growth of
virtuous affective dispositions, in particular the concerns, cares and commitments
that are constitutive of benevolence and justice. And we still have not found an
answer to the question as to how habituation could be a way of establishing,
intensifying, deepening or broadening such virtuous sentimental dispositions.
According to L.A. Kosman, acting in ways that are naturally associated with a
certain range of feelings ‘will “bring about” those very feelings, and eventually ...
one develops states of character that dispose one to have the right feelings at the
right time’ (Kosman, 1980, p. 112). Although we do not deny that this observation
may be true, we have not yet found any convincing example or plausible
explanation of such a ‘positive’ relationship between acting and affective



But what about the third defining feature of habituation, the fact that habituation is
impossible without the supervision of a virtuous tutor, usually a parent or a
teacher? Does this characteristic point us towards what we need for a plausible
interpretation of the relationship between habituation and the growth and settlement
of virtuous sentimental dispositions?
From our brief description of the authoritative role of the tutor in the second
section, one might easily get the impression that the tutor’s only task is to tell the
child what to do under the circumstances. The child should act as virtue requires,
but because he is not yet able to determine which action is the right or the virtuous
one under the circumstances in question, he should follow the instructions of
someone who is practically wise. To be sure, this is an important element of
habituation. But to reduce the role of the tutor to the giving of instructions would
be to caricature Aristotle’s views.
To begin with, at many places in his work Aristotle maintains that virtue and
vice have to do with pleasure and pain. Virtues include dispositions to like or to
enjoy the things that are just or noble, and to dislike or to be pained by the things
that are unjust or bad. Such affective dispositions, says Aristotle, are the result of
upbringing: ‘we need to have had the appropriate upbringing – right from early
youth, as Plato says – to make us find enjoyment or pain in the right things’ (NE
1104b11-13). And he depicts the kind of upbringing he is referring to as a form of
habituation by means of pleasure and pain. To put it differently, the virtuous
dispositions towards pleasure and pain are cultivated by the application of pleasure
and pain (NE 1104b16-18; 1172a21-22). Accordingly, the task of the tutor does not
merely consist in giving the child instructions. If the tutor wants to bring up the
child properly, the tutor must reward or praise the child when he is acting as virtue
requires and punish or blame the child when he is acting contrary to virtue. In
modern jargon we might say that habituation is a form of conditioning in which
virtuous affective dispositions are inculcated by connecting the child’s behaviour
with different reinforcing and punishing stimuli (Kupperman, 1999, p. 205; Peláez-
Nogueras & Gewirtz, 1995, pp. 182–183).
The role of pleasure and pain in Aristotelian habituation can be elaborated by
spelling out the implications of Aristotle’s thesis that the tutor must be a virtuous
person. As indicated before, one of the reasons why the tutor must be virtuous is
that practical wisdom is required for giving the child the proper instructions. But
being a virtuous person not only implies having the intellectual virtue of practical
wisdom: it also implies having essentially moral virtues, and these virtues might
best be construed in terms of particular cares or concerns (Carr, 1991, pp. 200–
208; Jackson, 1978, pp. 235–236; Ryle, 1972, pp. 440–441). For example, a person
of benevolence has a concern for the well-being of others or cares about their
happiness; and a person of justice has a concern for justice or an attachment to
ideals in respect of how people should be treated. Such virtuous cares and concerns
are not merely dispositions to act in certain ways, or dispositions that generate
action tendencies under certain conditions, but also dispositions to have and exhibit
particular feelings or to feel and exhibit particular emotions, such as compassion,


sympathy, respect, indignation, distress, relief, admiration and gratitude. A virtuous

concern is not itself a feeling or emotion but a disposition that is manifested in
having and exhibiting feelings or feeling and exhibiting emotions. To put it more
technically, it is a disposition that can be explained by subjunctive conditionals that
relate the disposition to observable phenomena, including different kinds of
affective response (Brandt, 1970, pp. 29–30).
Given the fact that the tutor is a person with virtuous cares and concerns, we can
sketch a more sophisticated picture of the role of pleasure and pain in habituating
the child. As a reaction to the child’s behaviour, the tutor will not merely give the
child a reward when he is acting rightly, or confront him with unpleasant things
when he is acting wrongly, but also show in word or deed all kinds of feelings and
emotions. If the child is acting as virtue requires, the tutor will respond with
positive feelings and emotions, showing joy, delight, elation, relief or pride, and if
the child is acting contrary to virtue, the tutor will exhibit negative feelings
and emotions, such as distress, sorrow, anger, sadness or disappointment. These
positive and negative sentimental responses to the child’s behaviour, which are all
manifestations of virtuous concerns, will also function as reinforcing or punishing
stimuli. In particular if there is a mutual loving relationship between the child and
his tutor, which will normally be the case if the tutor is his parent, the child will
experience the tutor’s positive affective responses as pleasurable and the negative
affective responses as painful.
Moreover, and in more general terms, the tutor will function as a model (Carr &
Steutel, 1999, p. 253; Peláez-Nogueras & Gewirtz, 1995, pp. 183–185). The tutor’s
virtuous cares and concerns will be manifested in virtuous deeds and appropriate
affective responses, and given a good relationship of love and trust between the
tutor and the child, the child will be inclined to imitate those actions and responses
(cf. NE 1180b3-8). Part of this process of imitation will be some kind of self-
reinforcement or selfpunishment. Because the child sees the tutor as a model or as
representing an ideal, his affective responses to his own behaviour will resemble
those of his tutor. If he recognises that his behaviour is contrary to the ideal set by
his tutor, he will feel ashamed or be angry with himself, and when he succeeds in
approximating the ideal, he will feel pleased or respond with feelings of pride,
which may stimulate further moral growth.
We believe that the learning processes indicated here do plausibly show how
and why habituation may be an effective way of stimulating the development and
settlement of virtuous sentimental dispositions. On the basis of the first two
characteristics of Aristotelian habituation – acting as virtue requires and doing so
frequently and consistently – our attempt to reveal the workings of habituation has
been only partially successful. Although the form of habituation that we called
gewenning might be presented as possibly effective, it is only a ‘negative’ method
of sentimental education in the sense that it is merely directed at moderating or
limiting the scope of the child’s affective dispositions where these are somehow
excessive. However, on the basis of the third defining feature of Aristotelian
habituation – the authoritative role of the virtuous tutor – a plausible account can
also be given of ‘positive’ methods of sentimental education that may be effective.


Given the presence of a virtuous tutor, forms of pervasive identification and

imitation, backed up by different forms of conditioning, are likely to result in
building up, strengthening or broadening the scope of cares and concerns where
these are in some way deficient.


When one investigates Aristotelian habituation, a careful distinction should be

made between explicating its defining features (What are the central characteristics
of Aristotelian habituation?) and explaining how or why it works (Is Aristotelian
habituation an effective way of cultivating sentimental dispositions?). Regarding
the latter aspect we must, of course, make the further distinction between
Aristotle’s explanation of the workings of habituation and our own account of how
or why Aristotelian habituation may be effective. As may be deduced from our
inquiry so far, our own view differs from Aristotle’s account in at least one
important respect. According to Aristotle, doing the virtuous things frequently and
consistently is in itself an effective way of cultivating virtuous sentimental
dispositions. We have argued, however, that although such practices may result in
more moderate or less excessive feelings and desires (gewenning), it is hard to
conceive how acting as virtue requires on a regular and consistent basis could in
itself be an effective way of boosting the growth of affective dispositions where
these are somehow deficient. For that reason, we have stressed the importance of
the role of the tutor, probably much more than Aristotle would be inclined to do.
The most obvious and direct way of reconstructing Aristotle’s account of how
habituation might do the work it is supposed to do is to consult his own explicit
remarks about this matter. This is grosso modo the strategy we have followed in
our investigation. Both our analytic mapping of the defining features of
Aristotelian habituation and our interpretation of his explanation of how such a
practice might be effective are based largely on Aristotle’s own explicit account,
especially on the things he says about cultivating the moral virtues in Book II.1-3
of his Nicomachean Ethics. Another, more indirect way of reconstructing
Aristotle’s views regarding the effectiveness of habituation is to spell out the
implications of his texts that are clearly not intended to address the subject of
habituation but pertain to other issues. A major example of this approach is Nancy
Sherman’s analysis of habituation in the final chapter of her book, The Fabric of
Character (1989). Under traditional interpretations of Aristotle’s explicit remarks,
she argues, habituation is seen primarily as a non-cognitive or mechanical training
of desires towards appropriate objects (pp. 157–158, 162). This interpretation,
however, does not do justice to Aristotle’s conception, for if we bring to bear ‘a
broader range of texts’ (p. 158), or if we extrapolate from other parts of his work
‘in a way that is consistent with its spirit’ (p. 171), we can see that it would be
much more in line with Aristotle’s views to construe habituation as a critical
practice in which various cognitive capacities are cultivated. It is especially on the
basis of Aristotle’s account of the emotions in his Rhetoric, according to which
emotions should be seen as essentially involving specific beliefs, evaluations or


judgements, that Sherman tries to show that an indispensable part of Aristotelian

habituation consists in cultivating the child’s perceptual and discriminatory
abilities, particularly by correcting and refining his reading or interpretation of the
particular circumstances (pp. 166–173).
We do not want to deny that emotional responses are dependent on the way in
which the situation is construed and, consequently, that instructing the child in how
to perceive or discern the circumstances that warrant these responses is an
important aspect of cultivating his affective life (Spiecker, 1999, pp. 216–217).
Indeed, exhorting the child to perform certain actions in the context of gewenning,
as well as responding to the child’s behaviour with reinforcing or punishing
stimuli, should go hand in hand with giving the child some explanation, not only to
confirm or criticise his interpretation of the situation and his corresponding
emotional reactions but also to promote the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom
by initiating the child into habitual practices of giving and accepting reasons
(Curren, 2000, pp. 211–212). Neither do we want to deny that interpreting
habituation in terms of such a critical practice may be in line with Aristotle’s texts
that deal with other issues. What is striking, however, is that Sherman considers the
cultivation of discriminatory abilities to be central to Aristotelian habituation
(1989, p. 172) and, consequently, tends to marginalise the formative role of the
characteristics of habituation highlighted by Aristotle himself. To be sure, she
recognises that, according to Aristotle, habituation ‘involves essentially practice
and repetition’ (p. 177), and she also admits that the use of rewards and the threat
of punishment will have a place in habituating the child (pp. 164, 171, 190). But
she nowhere acknowledges that these characteristics of Aristotelian habituation
may play an important role in cultivating sentimental dispositions – for example,
by pointing out the mitigating effects of gewenning, or by recognising that having
the right feelings at the right time not only is dependent on having well-developed
discriminatory abilities, but also requires the settlement of virtuous cares and
concerns by means of forms of conditioning and modelling. And, what is more
important, by rejecting the mechanical interpretation of Aristotelian habituation,
she tends to downplay the extent to which Aristotle sees habituation as essentially
involving the establishment of virtuous sentimental dispositions through acting
frequently and consistently as the virtuous person would do under the circumstances.
Nonetheless, this is exactly what Aristotle explicitly claims, not only once, but
frequently and consistently!

This chapter was previously published as Steutel, J. & Spiecker, B. (2004). Cultivating sentimental
dispositions through Aristotelian habituation. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 38(4), 531–549.
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, reprinted by permission of the publisher.
How exactly traditions of moral enquiry and practice are (or should be) differentiated, and also on
what basis someone is (or could be) considered a representative of a moral tradition, are complicated
questions (cf. Vokey, 2001, pp. 66–73). Here we simply assume that every moral tradition has its
own distinctive core of shared beliefs and that those who embrace and defend these beliefs are its


Service-learning, which is rather popular in the United States, may be defined as the active
participation of students in thoughtfully organised service that is conducted in and meets the needs
of communities. Examples of service-learning projects vary from testing the local water quality to
preparing food for the homeless.
Two of the definitions of the term ‘habit’ that are given in The Oxford English Dictionary – namely,
‘A settled disposition or tendency to act in a certain way’ and ‘The condition of being accustomed to
something through having constantly to do with it’ – can be regarded as descriptions of the
successful result of gewoontevorming and gewenning respectively.


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Jan Steutel
Ben Spiecker
VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands




Because the Internet is a readily accessible source of abundant and free

information, an open query using an Internet search tool is often educators’ first
step when seeking insights into how to improve or better understand their teaching
practice, including their work as moral educators. However, even online
information specifically intended for professional educators’ consumption, is not
generally subject to mandated publishing regulations or other controls regarding its
completeness or accuracy. This situation raises the question of whether educators
are accessing quality information and of the potential impact of poor quality
information on teachers’ professional decision-making. Although concerns about
the reliability of health information available to patients on the Internet has been an
issue in medicine since the mid-1990s (Silberg, Lundberg & Musacchio, 1997;
Sonnenberg, 1997), and several studies have been conducted evaluating Internet-
based medical information with respect to specific medical conditions and
treatments (e.g., Impicciatore et al., 1997; Soot Moneta & Edwards, 1999), the
question has to date rarely been raised in educational research. The aim of this
study was to begin to explore this issue by conducting a content analysis of online
information for educators about empathy, empathizing and empathic development.
Our research sought specific information about the definition of ‘empathy’, about
the composite skills and psychological processes of empathy, about why educators
should be concerned about empathy, and about how they can intervene to improve
the skills associated with empathizing and foster children’s empathic development.
Then, we critically analysed this information in terms of its type, quality, and


Study Aim
Our research objective was to understand and critically analyze online information
intended for a readership of educators about empathy, empathizing and empathic
development. To pursue this goal, we employed qualitative content analysis, a
research method used to interpret and analyse text data through the process of
systematically classifying themes or patterns (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). We did not
seek to examine the wealth of material proposing lesson plans and exercises that
are available to educators on websites. Rather, our intention was to focus on the

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 115–131.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

theoretical and conceptual content pertaining to the educational and moral psychology
of empathy.

Selection of Content (Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria)

The analysis pool was a representative sample of six websites. In addition to
selecting websites that specifically targeted educators and which contained substantial
theoretical and conceptual information about empathy, we gave preference to sites
that adopted a communication style and level of generality that we judged to be
inviting to in-service teachers. Accordingly, scholarly articles were omitted based
on the assumption that most teachers would not prioritize such sources.
Furthermore, we did not retain websites that presented empathy-related information
from a religious or spiritual perspective. As we sought to analyze websites with the
widest reach possible within the educational community, we felt that religious or
spiritual content would be considered pertinent only by a sub-group of educators.
Secular sites, by contrast, would likely appeal to all educators and regardless of
religious affiliation. We triangulated our inclusion and exclusion criteria with
Internet traffic ranking scores primarily to confirm that the websites in our sample
receive a minimum of traffic but also to obtain an indication, based on page-view
and linking data, of their relative interest among Internet users. The choice to focus
on a small number of sites each containing a rich source of information on the
educational and moral psychology of empathy permitted a deeper content analysis
than would have been possible had we opted to include a large number of sites
each containing little or fragmentary relevant data.

Table 1. Web site URLs with traffic and linking data

Websites Alexa Traffic Rank† Links in† URL

World of Empathy 26,161,646 2

Parenting Science 228,389 91

Teach Empathy 5,698,349 13

Empathy in Education n/a 0 14,540 1,404

Wikipedia 7* 431,555*

Alexa Traffic Rank and the Links-in ratings are measures of a website’s popularity. The Alexa Traffic
Rank indicates how popular a site is relative to all other websites measured in terms of the total number
of daily visits a site receives. A lower number indicates greater popularity. The Links in rating refers to
the number of links in other websites to the target website. A higher numbers indicates greater
* These figures indicate the traffic rank and links in for Information for individual
Wikipedia pages was not available.


Content Extraction
Because we came to the data seeking specific information, we opted for a directed
approach to coding. Directive qualitative analysis is characterized by taking as a
starting point for the data analysis a prior set of coding categories as opposed to
allowing the coding structure to emerge ‘naturalistically’ from the raw data (Hsieh
& Shannon, 2005). Nevertheless, a preliminary reading of the website content led
us to refine our initial deductive framework for organizing the data so that it
became better grounded in the data. In this way, we arrived at four leading
questions that guided the process of extracting, filtering, and categorizing the
relevant data from the sample websites. Specifically, we scanned for information
on: (1) the definition of empathy; (2) the subset of social skills and psychological
capacities that comprise empathy; (3) reasons why educators should help children
acquire and develop those skills and capacities; and (4) which pedagogical and
socialization practices help encourage empathy and empathizing in children and
support their empathic development (see Table 2).

Table 2. Themes and questions guiding the analysis of theoretical and conceptual content
about empathy

The definition of empathy

– What is empathizing?
– How is empathy different from cognate psychological phenomena like sympathy and
– Can a consistent definition of empathy be found across the websites?

The process of empathizing

– Which psychological capacities, skill, or abilities does empathizing involve?
– Are the psychological capacities involved in empathizing innate or learned?
– What contextual factors influence how and with whom one empathizes?

Why educators should be concerned with empathic development

– Why teach empathy?
– How do individuals benefit from being empathic themselves?
– How do individuals benefit from other people being empathic?
– How do empathic people benefit society?

How to teach and exercise the skills of empathizing

– What individual pedagogical practices exercise the composite skills of empathy?
– Which socialization practices are favourable to empathic development?
– Which socialization practices are detrimental to empathic development?

These themes, their codes and sub-codes were compiled into a hierarchical coding
list in a process known as a coding tree. By rendering the data accessible and
meaningful at a glance, this strategy enabled us to isolate for the purposes of
analysis the relevant instances of content from the extensive extraneous material


present on all the websites in our sample. Coding began on February 21, 2011 and
was completed 26 days later on March 21, 2011.


The Definition of Empathy

The review of the content on the websites dealing with the definition of empathy
revealed that five out of the six sites examined regarded empathy is the
psychological process by which people come to have an accurate understanding of
other people’s inner states (their thoughts, beliefs, desires, etc.) and especially their
emotional states. This conception of empathy is commonly referred to in the
psychological literature as ‘perspective taking’ or the ‘cognitive conception of
empathy’ (Maxwell, 2008). The term ‘cognitive’, in this context, is meant to
emphasize that, understood this way, empathizing implies coming to accurately
know about others’ inner states rather than becoming emotionally involved in them
– for instance, by sympathizing with or pitying another person’s aversive situation.
The latter psychological phenomenon, namely the familiar emotional state of
caring about another person’s suffering, is commonly referred to in the
psychological literature as ‘affective empathy’. The contrast between ‘affective’
and ‘cognitive’ in these labels is not meant to exclude by definition the possibility
that the emotions may play some role in the acquisition of information about
another person’s inner states – for instance, by enabling more astute observations
of outward signs of inner experiences (Maxwell & Le Sage, 2009). Five of the six
sites reviewed explicitly defined empathy in this ‘cognitive’ sense. Representatively,
the World of Empathy website states that ‘empathy is a process during which
an individual mobilizes all her/his resources (senses, emotional and intellectual
intelligence, experience, sensitivity, imagination and intuition) to project her/himself
in the situation of an ‘other’ to develop its awareness and understanding’. defines empathy similarly as the ‘capacity to put oneself inside the
shoes of another person and to see the world through that person's eyes’.
The one exception to the pattern of conceptualizing empathy as the capacity to
understand another person’s perspective was the definition of ‘empathy’ advanced
by Parenting Science. This website characterized empathizing as experiencing
feelings that are more appropriate to another person’s situation than to one’s own.
It describes empathy as ‘the sharing of another person’s feelings. Sam winces in
pain. Emma, who watches, feels distressed.’
An initial interpretive ambiguity was presented by two websites which frame
empathy in highly positive, pro-social terms. Empathy in Education says that
‘empathy is the ability to recognize and respond to another person’s emotional
plight or experience beyond background differences in beliefs’ and that it ‘involves
connecting, building relationships, listening and caring for others’. For its part,
Teach Empathy endorses a definition of ‘empathy’ developed by the Centre for
Nonviolent Communication, according to which empathy is a ‘practice’ that is
conducive to resolving conflicts peacefully. Both these descriptions suggest that


empathy implies not just understanding another person’s perspective but also being
concerned for others.
The question of how to understand Teach Empathy’s definition of empathy was
largely resolved by the observation that this website, like all the other sites we
analysed except one, explicitly distinguishes empathy from sympathy and other
cognate emotions such as pity and compassion. Indicating adherence to a cognitive
conceptualization of empathy, Teach Empathy specifies that ‘sympathy entails a
quality of support that requires a degree of agreement with the other person’s views.
[...] Empathy implies seeking to understand, not seeking agreement or
A closer reading of Empathy in Education also revealed that the author of this
website conceives of empathy as having two aspects. Consistent with the other
sites in our sample, Empathy in Education recognizes a cognitive aspect of
empathy which is coextensive with perspective taking. The site’s assertion about
the affective aspect of empathy mirrors the definition of empathy advanced by
Parenting Science. Affective empathy, the author writes, is ‘the ability to actually
feel another’s emotional state’. This site’s view seems to be that experiencing
aversive emotions with another person may ground or enable feelings of
solidaristic identification and a motivation to help. That is to say, empathy is not
regarded as an inherently prosocial emotion but it has the potential to serve
prosociality by ‘making it possible for us to learn how to act and react responsibly,
or even compassionately, towards others’.

The Process of Empathizing

All the websites in our sample treated empathy as a psychological construct. That
is to say, they assumed that empathy is the composite of a set of psychological
capacities or skills that enable the agent to regard a social situation from the
perspective of another person. Furthermore, they all considered empathy to be an
important social ability that has a biological basis in humans but which can be
improved with training, practice, instruction or appropriate socialization. Parenting
Science states, for instance, that empathy is ‘an innate capacity that people are born
with but which can be trained or taught’. Likewise, Empathy in Education asserts
that ‘empathy is an innate sense in most people, transcending culture’.
Although the vocabulary used to describe the psychological capacities involved
in empathizing varied considerably from website to website, four basic composite
skills recurred across our sample. These were: social observation, vicarious other-
directed introspection, and emotional self-regulation.
Social observation refers to the ability to rally observational skills in order to
draw inferences about other people’s emotions based on one’s understanding of
social cues like facial expression, voice tone, and body language. Starting from the
claim that empathy implies social observation, Empathy in Education infers that
the ‘right hemisphere of the brain’ is important for empathizing that this is the part
of the brain that ‘has the ability to recognize and interpret non-verbal cues and


facial expressions, and it puts this information into context and activates
background knowledge relating to this information’.
Vicarious other-directed introspection is the use of imaginative resources to gain
accurate insights into another person’s point of view: imaginatively ‘simulating an
observed experience to understand, even feel that observed experience’ (Empathy
in Education) or, stated more prosaically, ‘putting oneself into another’s shoes’
(Teach Empathy). One website (World of Empathy) emphasized how vicarious
other-directed introspection may often depend on an ability to draw creatively on
memories of one’s own similar experiences.
Emotional self-regulation or self-control sustains empathy’s characteristic intention
to understand objectively or socially engage with another person’s perspective.
More specifically, emotional control helps prevent empathy from becoming
sympathy or compassion. As World of Empathy expresses this point, ‘one must
keep in mind that the objective of empathy is not to live through other people and
bear their pains and joys. The objective is to grow understanding.’ Parenting
Science points out that, without emotional regulation people would presumably
simply withdraw from others suffering and would be strongly disinclined to help
relieve others’ distress. As witnessing someone else’s distress is unpleasant, pro-
social helping requires a degree of emotional self-control.
All the websites reviewed mention contextual factors which influence how and
with whom one empathizes. The factor that recurred most frequently was
familiarity bias, or the notion that people empathize more readily with people with
whom they share similarities or with whom they otherwise identify. Citing social-
psychology research on the familiarity bias of empathy, Parenting Science asserts,
for instance, that ‘kids are more likely to feel empathy for individuals who are
familiar and/or similar to them [and] may also find it easier to empathize with
people who they’ve shared unpleasant experiences with’. Other empathy-mediating
factors mentioned were cultural beliefs which inform one’s perception of who
deserves to be empathized with and ‘negative feelings’. Concerning the latter, explains that ‘it is much more difficult to be empathic when we are
upset, angry, disappointed, or frustrated with another person. In such situations our
negative feelings will often serve as a roadblock, not permitting us to see the world
through the eyes of the person with whom we are upset so that even well-meaning,
caring people are likely to say or do things that intensify the negative feelings.’

Why Educators should be Concerned with Empathic Development

Invariably, our sample websites urged educators to be concerned with empathic
development in their work with young people on the grounds that accurately
understanding others’ perspectives is crucial to effective social functioning. As
Empathy in Education expresses this view, ‘skills such as listening, noticing and
interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues are all important components of building
relationships, and necessary skills in dealing empathically with those around
us’., in its article titled ‘The Importance of Empathy’, concurs that
‘empathy implies that you have trained yourself to consider how other people


perceive situations, how they perceive you, and how they would describe you. If a
person is lacking in empathy, he or she is likely to misread what is transpiring in a
situation and misunderstand the intentions of others.’ Echoing this appraisal of
empathy’s role in positive interpersonal relationships, appropriate reactions to other
people, effective communication, and pro-social behaviour, World of Empathy
describes empathy as a ‘major social skill’ while Parenting Science says that
‘empathy seems to be a crucial component of social intelligence’.
Having particular salience to educators’ work with children, three more specific
reasons were discernable across several of the sites in the sample to justify why
educators should be concerned with empathic development. The first is that a lack
of empathy is a factor in violent behaviour. Teach Empathy in particular
emphasizes the correlation between poor empathy skills and cruelty and
aggression, arguing that ‘violence is more of a failure to experience empathy [than
it is] a failure to curb passions and act rationally’. The second reason was that
empathy is a necessary ingredient of classroom interactions conducive to learning.
Indeed, World of Empathy and Empathy in Education both suggest that, for this
reason, educators have a professional obligation to develop their own empathizing
skills. Empathy enables educators to ‘connect to, and understand their students in
order to best serve their needs’ (Empathy in Education) and the empathic teacher
will be more ‘sensitive to emotions, experience, skills and pace of thought, logical
paths and possibly adopt tools which will help the individual’s generation of
understanding’ (World of Empathy). The third specific reason for teaching
empathy we identified in our analysis was that, being a cornerstone of social
adaptation, empathy is a personal trait associated with career success. Robert
Brooks, writing for, is especially candid on this point: ‘I have
frequently been asked at my workshops what I consider to be one of the most
salient characteristics of a successful parent or teacher or business leader. While
there are several, what I typically mention first is the ability to be empathic’.
Empathy, he believes, is ‘embedded in the mindset of the successful person’.

How to Teach and Exercise the Skills of Empathizing

‘To develop empathetic skills,’ World of Empathy advises, ‘one can use very
simple tools or techniques, which will help to develop sensitivity, the capacity to
see through someone else’s eyes, and the ability to learn from these experiences
and grow in conscience and understanding’. As a means to helping young people
develop the composite skills of empathy, the websites we reviewed recommended
a significant number of interventions ranging from cooperative learning to playing
pro-social video games to ‘positive parenting’. We analysed these items into two
main categories: (1) individual pedagogical practices, or teacher-guided activities
primarily intended for classroom use; and (2) socialization practices intended to
advise parents and others responsible for children’s socialization about how to
promote empathic development.
Two individual pedagogical practices stood out for being recommended by all
or nearly all the sites in the sample. Aimed at improving skills of social


observation, the first of these encompassed all more or less formal activities that
involve paying concerted attention to others and, in particular, social cues that
indicate others’ mental states. When explicitly labelled, activities falling into this
category were referred to variously as ‘active listening’, ‘active observation’, and
‘mind-mindedness’. Unsurprisingly, given the centrality of perspective taking in
the definition of empathy prevalent across the sample (see the section ‘The
Definition of Empathy’ above), role-taking activities were by far the most widely
recommended individual pedagogical practice. In this category, we included both
the study of stories as a way to ‘get an idea of what others feel and live’ (World of
Empathy) and structured role-playing activities. With respect to the latter, Empathy
in Education puts forward the idea of teaching empathy by having children role-
play solutions to complex social conflicts. ‘Developing strategies to understand
how another feels in a situation,’ Empathy in Education asserts, ‘makes students
responds to problems where the answers require discussion and may not have a
certain right or wrong answer’.
Role-playing and story-telling also emerged as dominant themes in the discussions
of socialization practices favourable to empathy and empathic development in the
two websites in our sample which addressed the issue of socialization. Parenting
Science and cite research showing that ‘positive’ or ‘inductive’
discipline, where an adult reacts to a transgression by drawing the child’s attention
to the negative consequences of his wrong-doing on other people rather than
stating rules and threatening with punishment, lead to better behaviour and greater
concern for others. Encouraging children to engage with other people’s
perspectives by role taking also helps them improve their perspective taking skills,
according to these sites. Hearing and discussing stories helps children appreciate
‘what the world is like when experienced from another person’s point of view’.
‘What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it?
When families discuss these questions,’ the author of Parenting Science writes,
‘kids may learn a lot about the way that other people’s minds work.’ For, disciplinary encounters between caregivers and children provide
an occasion to practice perspective taking: ‘One of the best ways to prompt
empathy and sympathy is to take the other person’s side. If your child and a sibling
or friend are arguing about sharing a toy or inviting someone to play, these are
perfect opportunities for some role-swapping. Ask your child to think about what
the other person is saying, feeling, and thinking and to respond as if she were that
Parenting Science, which contains a significant amount of content on empathy
socialization, was alone in identifying socialization practices, experiences or
activities that may be detrimental to empathizing and empathic development.
Among these were poor adult models of empathic behaviour, exposure to video
game violence, authoritarian parenting, and the use of tangible, extraneous rewards
to encourage kindness and helping.



Conceptual Slippage between Cognitive and Affective Empathy

In spite of ostensibly defining ‘empathy’ as a perceptive skill that involves
‘look[ing] at a situation from another point of view’ (Empathy in Education),
‘understanding the emotional states of others’ (Wikipedia), or ‘see[ing] the world
through [another] person's eyes’ ( a certain conflation of this
cognitive conception of empathy with the affective conception of empathy was
broadly discernible in our sample sites. That is to say, while they all recognized
empathy as a psychological capacity that is distinct from (albeit possibly involved
in) sympathy and compassion, the contribution of cognitive empathy and to states
of caring attentiveness to others’ needs and perspectives tended to be portrayed as
educationally and psychologically unproblematic. This assumption was evident,
for example, in the repeated claims to the effect that strong empathy skills are
a prophylactic against violence, favourable to understanding and recognizing
interpersonal differences, and a determinant of pro-social behaviour.
The finding that a certain conceptual slippage between cognitive and affective
empathy is apparent in information about empathy and empathizing intended for
educators on the Internet corroborates previous work in this area. The fallacy of the
Golden Rule – i.e., the assumption that cognitive empathy leads to solidaristic
caring, sympathy and pro-social helping (Maxwell, 2008) – is also a common
feature of the discourse on empathy in practical and professional ethics education
(Maxwell, 2008) and in the conceptualization of some school-based social and
emotional learning and violence programmes (Maxwell, & DesRoches 2010).
As we have argued elsewhere, the significance of the fallacy of the Golden Rule
in moral education is twofold (Maxwell & DesRoches, 2010). First, it confuses the
intentions of empathy education. Second, it can lead educators to overlook
important insights from developmental social psychology about empathic
development’s dependence on early socialization.

Overlooked Significance of the Precocity of Empathic Development

To address the two points in reverse order, the precocity of empathic development
means that, relative to other aspects of socio-cognitive development, the main
achievements of empathic development occur early in childhood (Hoffman, 2000).
When tertiary cognitive abilities begin to arrive in late childhood they start to work
in conjunction with an already established disposition to respond with concern to
others’ distress. Some have argued that the convergence of these developmental
achievements enables the kind of abstract and complex empathizing characteristic
of deliberation over practical moral problems (Gibbs, 2003; Hoffman, 2000).
Hastings et al.’s (2000) research has helped refine Hoffman’s claim about the
precocity of empathic development by providing evidence for a sensitive period for
empathic development. Studying the way that children with significant behaviour
problems (e.g., frequent aggressiveness) respond when they witness harms to


others, the researchers observed that children with behaviour problems at age four
showed about the same level of personal concern as children without behaviour
problems. Aggressive four-year-olds, that is, may lack impulse control but not
empathy. By age seven the picture has changed significantly. At this age, while
children with no previous behaviour problems showed increased responses of
concern for persons who are hurt or upset, the empathic responsiveness of children
with behaviour problems has now decreased. Between four and seven, it seems, is
a crucial period for empathic development. It is then where at-risk children appear
to drop away from their peers in terms of making age-expectant gains in personal
concern in response to perceived suffering.
The two sites in our sample that dealt with empathy socialization (i.e., Parenting
Science and were consistent with this research insofar as they
portrayed empathic development as a social disposition whose emergence is
facilitated by adult intervention and, in particular, by inductive responses to
transgressions. Insofar as the information provided about empathy socialization on
these sites failed to identify any privileged period of childhood for empathy
socialization, however, it lacked precision. In our reading of the literature on
empathy socialization, inductive discipline and individual pedagogical practices
like role-playing and social observation are likely to have the greatest impact on
empathic development during the preschool and kindergarten years. This is not
meant to discredit or downplay the potential utility of such interventions before or
after this period of childhood but only to underline that evidence overlooked in the
sites on our sample suggest that empathy socialization and ‘teaching empathy’
should be given a special priority in the pre-school years and, hence, are of special
interest to educators working with this age group.

Prevalence of Persuasive Definitions of ‘Empathy’

With respect to the second problem of adequately disambiguating ‘empathy’,
because empathy has several meanings all open to various subtleties of
interpretation it will usually require a stipulative, essentialist definition which is
sensitive to the context in which it is used. That is to say, a simple dictionary
definition will almost always be inadequate for the purposes of communicating
clearly what one means by ‘empathy’. Five out of the 6 of the sites in our sample
opted for the same cognitive conception of empathy that is favoured by social-
cognitive psychologist working in the constructivist (or ‘Piagetan’) paradigm (cf.
Maxwell & DesRoches, 2010). In this tradition, empathy is standardly considered
to be synonymous with social perspective taking. Other traditions in psychology
define empathy differently. For example, in the longstanding programme of
empathy research in social psychology that has sought to scrutinize the folk notion
that empathy is a ‘moral emotion’ insofar as it motivates people to help others,
psychologists conceive of empathy in an affective sense (for reviews see Hoffman,
2000; Davis, 1994). According to this definition, empathy is an emotional state of
distress experienced in response to the perception of another’s adversity. As noted
above, Parenting Science adopted this latter definition of empathy. Treatments of


empathy in philosophy and ethics also tend to understand empathy in this sense of
being primarily a state of ‘involvement in another’s suffering as something to be
relieved’ (e.g., Nagel, 1970; Nussbaum, 2001). To this extent, ‘empathy’ is not
distinct from but rather broadly synonymous with ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’ (for
an overview of conceptions of empathy in psychology and cognate fields see
Maxwell, 2008).
Common English too tends to favour an affective conception of empathy and it
was presumably for this reason that the authors of several of the sample websites
felt compelled to present their preferred cognitive definition of empathy as a
corrective to common linguistic usage. The definition of empathy as social
perspective taking, website authors suggested, is the ‘true’ definition of empathy
whereas conceptions of empathy that regard empathy as coextensive with the
emotions of sympathy and compassion demonstrate a misunderstanding of the
In light of empathy’s well documented polysemy and empathy’s folk definition,
we are forced to conclude that persuasive definitions of empathy are prevalent in
our sample. A persuasive definition is one which purports to present the true or
commonly accepted definition of a term but which stipulates an altered or
uncommon view. Persuasive definitions are a questionable argument strategy
typically employed to make controversial or disputed aspects of a term seem
plausible by appealing illegitimately to established knowledge. In two of the sites,
persuasive definitions were used rhetorically to support grandiose claims about
empathy’s educational significance. For example, World of Empathy states that
‘empathy is not a sense in itself, but a synthetic and optimal use of one’s resources:
ideas, emotions, sensations, imagination, experience’ and, in an apparent attempt to
present empathy as a social and personal panacea, another site assures its
readership that:
The gift of empathy is that it integrates mind and heart in the very same act as
it brings together self and other. When we ignore care and empathy, we pay
an enormous price in the form of depression, apathy, victimization, and anger
on an individual level, and crime, neglect, alienation, bullying, even war, on a
societal level. When we cultivate care and empathy, not only does our
emotional health improve, but also our vision, hope for the future, and the
capacity, both individually and collectively, to act as moral agents in
addressing the enormous challenges facing us today (Teach Empathy).
The persuasive definitions of ‘empathy’ in the other sites reviewed were, by
contrast, quite anodyne. Rather than using a persuasive definition to drive a highly
controversial, overstated, and value-laden conception of empathy, these sites were
guilty only of falsely representing the consensus about the meaning of ‘empathy’.
In either case, the predilection for the cognitive conception of empathy likely
reflects the authors’ academic training in developmental psychology and was possibly
further motivated by a desire to avoid controversy and to appear educationally
responsible. Empathy is presented as an ‘asset for personal development’ (World
of Empathy). That is, concrete, practical benefits accrue to persons possessing


sophisticated insights into others’ perspectives and to the people around them.
Empathy is not overworked sensitivity ‘to all sorts of experience without being
able to position [one]self’ (World of Empathy) and it is not just ‘being nice’
‘passive’ or ‘naïve’ (Teach Empathy).

Lack of Semantic Control Obscures the Aims of Empathy Education

The false representation of the consensus over the meaning of empathy in our
sample would remain largely a rhetorical issue if it weren’t for the sample sites’
general lack of semantic control with respect to the distinction between cognitive
and affective empathy, discussed above. The effect of this slippage is potential
confusion about the goals and scope of empathy education when conceptualized as
training in perspective taking skills. In our reading of the basic literature on
empathic development, other directed insight and concern for others follow parallel
developmental trajectories. Hence, helping young people develop skills in
perspective taking is a distinct educational project from fostering a disposition of
concern for others.
Two considerations make this claim plausible (cf. the discussion of this point in
Maxwell & Le Sage, 2009). Consider, first, that the insights into other people’s
perspectives that cognitive empathy affords may be used for harmful, deceitful, or
malicious ends. Wishing to make a victim of a classmate, for example, a victimizer
may call the child a nickname that she knows the child finds especially hurtful.
This is a case where the victimizer ‘empathizes’ with the child to more effectively
harm her. Second and similarly, studies on perspective taking abilities and
psychopathy (a psychiatric disorder characterized by shallow emotional responding
and an absence of such ‘moral emotions’ as guilt, remorse, and other-directed
concern) indicate that psychopaths do not have impairment in the area of
perspective taking (e.g. Blair et al., 1996). Psychopaths’ physiological and
emotional responses to distress cues are indeed very different from those of non-
psychopathic controls. For instance, unlike control subjects, psychopaths show few
measurable physiological signs of distress when viewing pictures of distressed
people (e.g. Blair, Mitchell & Blair, 2005). But belief attribution and emotion
recognition in psychopaths is not deviant. Especially significant for understanding
empathy education is the small body of literature on the use of perspective taking
training in the treatment of psychopathic criminals. The overall picture is that,
contrary to expectations, social skills and social perspective taking treatment
programmes tend to lead not to a decrease but rather to an increase of criminal
behaviour (cf. Rice et al., 1992).
Given the complex yet tenuous relationship between cognitive and affective
empathy, then, the unqualified association of ‘empathy education’, when
understood primarily as training in perspective taking skills, with desirable social
outcomes like ‘positive relationships’, ‘appropriate behaviours’, ‘caring’ and
‘nonviolent communication’ is misleading. Knowledge in psychology seems to
suggest that the disposition to respond with concern to the perception of adversity
facing another person is more closely linked with conditions of early socialization


than it is with an individual’s skill level in perspective taking. In sum, where

educators do not take sufficiently into account the parallel developmental
trajectories associated with empathy and empathizing into account they run the risk
of misleading their constituency – children, parents, and possibly even themselves
– into believing that structured activities that improve perspective taking skills
foster affective empathy.

Presence of Neurofallacies
Our sample of Internet-based content about empathy for educators reflected the
current widespread public interest in neuroscience. Given what has come to light in
recent research on the rhetorical appeal of neuroscience explanations, we were
particularly interested in including in our analysis an assessment of the neuroscience
information these sites contain. Every site we reviewed argued that people are
naturally disposed to empathize with others on the grounds that empathy has a
biological or neurological basis. Half the sites in our sample (i.e., Parenting
Science, World of Empathy, and Empathy in Education) contained clear instances
of the so-called neurofallacies of neurorealism or neuromyths.
The rhetorical appeal of neuroscience-based explanations has been observed
both in studies of media coverage of neuroscience (Racine Bar-Ilan & Illes, 2005;
Racine et al., 2010) and in research in social psychology on how non-experts
evaluate the evidential strength of neuroscience explanations (McCabe & Castel,
2008; Weisenberg et al., 2008). Weisberg and colleagues’ study showed that
explanations with superfluous neuroscience information tend to be regarded as
more credible than explanations based only on behavioral-cognitive information
(2008). Furthermore, when bad explanations included neuroscience information,
non-experts found it more difficult to perceive the weaknesses of those
explanations, and were thus more likely to judge a bad explanation as convincing.
In analyses of media reporting on neuroscience information, Eric Racine has
coined the term ‘neurorealism’ to capture the phenomenon whereby neuroscience
evidence, especially from functional neuroimaging (fMRI) techniques, is used to
make a psychological phenomenon seem to be more objective or real in the eyes of
the public than if it were supported by common sense or by social science alone
(Racine Bar-Ilan & Illes, 2005; Racine et al., 2010). Neurorealism therefore
describes a form of naive realism propelled by public fascination for contemporary
neuroscience. In this passage from World of Empathy, for instance, the author
suggests that people really do become distressed when they witness others
suffering because these experiences can be recorded graphically using fMRI:
Science has shown that human beings (as well as several species of animals)
have a natural predisposition to empathy. It was even possible to measure
[with fMRI techniques] empathetic reactions of some individuals exposed to
someone else suffering, through increased cerebral activity in the region of
the brain corresponding to pain.


In a similar vein, Parenting Science uses neurorealism to support its ‘Teaching

empathy tip #7’, which involves encouraging children to imitate the facial
expressions in order to better understand other people’s feelings. The author argues
that making faces can ‘boost our empathic powers’ on the basis of a neuroscience
study which showed that ‘when researchers have asked people to imitate certain
facial expressions, they have detected changes in brain activity that are
characteristic of the corresponding emotions. People also experience changes in
heart rate, skin conductance [and] body temperature’. This instance of neurorealism is
unusual in that it attempts to convince the reader that imitating facial expressions
generates corresponding emotional experiences even if one is not aware of having
The term ‘neuromyth’, first used publicly in a 2002 OECD report on the
prospects and challenges of applying brain science to learning, refers to ideas about
how the brain works which, despite being false or inaccurate, have become widely
accepted in the educational community. Fed by excitement about neuroscience’s
potential to improve educational practice and extend human potential for
achievement, such misconceptions involve misinterpretations of the basic brain
research on which they are purportedly based (OECD, 2002; Goswami, 2004). One
of the most common neuromyths is the belief in hemispheric dominance.
According this neuromyth, there are ‘right brained learners’, with supposed
strengths in language and arts, and allegedly more rationally-minded ‘left-brained
learners’. Another is the widespread belief that John Bruer labelled ‘the myth of
the first three years’ (Bruer, 1999). According to this neuromyth, early childhood
presents a ‘critical period’ for learning which, if missed, will be forever lost.
Because translating neuroscience findings to the field of education is a highly
complex affair (OECD 2002, Fischer et al., 2010), a problem that is compounded
by the fact that teachers are presently poorly trained to interpret the relevance of
research findings in cognitive and neuroscience to educational practice (Hardiman
et al., 2011), neuromyths have proven difficult to uproot once they become
established. Neuromyths are not just an innocuous hype but can have a negative
impact on children. A flagrant example of the impact of neuromythology on child
policy was the former Georgia State governor Zell Miller’s provision of several
million dollars in the 1998 state budget to fund the purchase and delivery of a
recording of classical music to for families of all newborn children. The legislation,
now widely considered an embarrassment, was based on a hasty interpretation of
neuroscience research on benefits of exposure to classical music on cognitive
development, or the so-called Mozart effect (Rauscher, Shaw & Ky,1993). The
marketing and sale to parents and educators of dubious and possibly harmful
‘brain-based’ instructional DVDs for toddlers is another example of an ethically
questionable practice capitalizing on the myth of the first three years (Racine,
Of our sample sites, Empathy in Education stood out as being responsible for
propagating the neuromyth of hemispheric dominance by offering an analysis of
the composite skills of empathizing in terms of the specialized functions of the left
and right brain:


The right side of the brain handles many of [the necessary skills in dealing
empathically with those around us], such as attending to nonverbal cues and
nuances in facial expression and body language. The right side also sees the
whole picture; where the left side of the brain may analyze only the actual
words being spoken the right side takes into account the whole picture based
on context and a holistic view of the person. Building these skills and
exercising the right brain to better see the whole person that we are
communicating with will build our interpersonal intelligence.
Another passage in Empathy in Education uses the neurofallacy of neurorealism to
render plausible the site’s left/right brain-based analysis of empathizing. As proof
that the right brain’s role in empathizing is to interpret social information, the
author adduces neuroscience research which has shown a correlation between
‘deficits in empathy’ and a ‘decrease in volume of the right temporal lobe’.


Teachers face undoubted challenges accessing complete, authoritative and

balanced sources of information and in no area is this truer than with respect to the
controversial area of moral education. The accessibility, low cost, and generous
quantity of information potentially relevant to instruction and socialization on the
Internet is an obvious attraction. Furthermore, information provided online has
significant potential to contribute to teachers’ continuing education and professional
development and, ultimately, to benefit the children and young people they teach.
Whether this potential of the Internet for improving teaching practice is realized
depends in part on the quality of the information available and on the way that
teachers use that information. Our expectation going into this evaluative study of
empathy-related information for educators on the Internet was that it would be
inconsistent, partial, and significantly ideologically informed. Our findings showed
it instead to be reasonably consistent and, notwithstanding some significant
limitations, of moderate quality. This result defied our expectations. To improve
the quality of online information specifically related to empathy for teachers,
online information projects led by trusted organizations like the Association for
Moral Education, the Jean Piaget Society, and the Society for Research on Child
Development whose membership includes experts in this area may have a role to
play. This study raises the question of whether its findings are generalizable to
other areas of importance to educators’ practice. We would urge those involved in
teacher training to be attentive to the need for teachers’ abilities to critically assess
the quality of online information and recommend that further educational research
initiatives be undertaken to evaluate existing information for teachers on the
Internet and monitoring new sources as they come online.



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Blair, R. J. R., Mitchell, D., & Blair, K. (2005). The psychopath. Oxford: Blackwell.
Bruer, J. (1999). Myth of the first three years. New York: Free Press.
Davis, M. H. (1994). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Madison: Brown & Benchmark.
Gibbs, J. (2003). Moral development and reality: Beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman.
Thousand Oaks: Sage.
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Fischer, K. W., Goswami, U., Geake, J., & the Task Force on the Future of Educational Neuroscience
(2010). The future of educational neuroscience. Mind, Brain, and Education, 4(2), 68–80.
Hardiman, M. (forthcoming). Neuroethics, neuroeducation, and classroom teaching: Where the brain
sciences meet pedagogy. Neuroethics.
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Hsieh, H.-F. & Shannon, S. E. (2005). Three approaches to qualitative content analysis. Qualitative
Health Research, 15, 1277–1288.
Hoffman, M. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for justice and caring. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Impicciatore, P., Pandolfini, C., Casella, N., & Bonati, M. (1997). Reliability of health information for
the public on the world wide web: Systematic survey on managing fever in children at home. British
Medical Journal, 314(7098), 1979–1981.
Maxwell, B. (2008). Professional ethics education: Studies in compassionate empathy. Dordrecht:
Maxwell, B. & DesRoches, S. (2010). Empathy and social-emotional learning: Pitfalls and touchstones
for school-based programmes. In B. Latzko & T. Malti (Eds.) Children’s moral emotions and moral
cognition: Developmental and educational perspectives. New Directions for Child and Adolescent
Development, 129, 33–53.
Maxwell B. & Le Sage L. (2009). Are psychopaths morally sensitive? Journal of Moral Education,
38(1), 75–91.
McCabe, D. P. & Castel, A. D. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of
scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107(1), 343–52.
Nagel, T. (1970). The possibility of altruism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Nussbaum, M. (2001). Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of the emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
OECD (2002). Understanding the brain: Toward a new learning science, vol. 1. Paris: OECD
Racine, E. (2010). Pragmatic neuroethics. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O. & Illes, J. (2005). fMRI in the public eye. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6(2),
Racine, E., Waldman, S, Rosenberg, J., & Illes, J. (2010). Contemporary neuroscience in the media.
Social Science and Medicine, 71(4), 725–33.
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Bruce Maxwell
Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Canada
Roxanne Desforges
Concordia University, Montreal, Canada




‘Conscience, or the moral sense,’ Henry Home, Lord Kames wrote in 1758, ‘is
none of our principles of action, but their guide and director. (…) It is the voice of
God within us which commands our strictest obedience, just as much as when his
will is declared by express revelation’ (Home, 1976, p. 45; Essay II, Ch. III).
Thirty years later, Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid writes that conscience ‘grows
to maturity from an imperceptible seed, planted by our Creator’ (1999, p. 640;
Essay V, Ch. III). And in his ‘Observations concerning Conscience’ he notes that
‘[t]he seeds (…) of moral discernment are planted in the mind by him that made
us’ and emphasizes that ‘[t]heir progress depends very much upon their being
cultivated and properly exercised’ (1999, p. 595; Essay III, Ch. VIII).
For many centuries, and certainly until the nineteenth century, it was common to
see conscience – either literally or metaphorically (but to the same effect in terms
of its perceived authority) – as the Voice of God in us. Since God sees everything,
his voice will always warn us when we are about to do something improper or
outright immoral, and will condemn us when we fail to heed its admonitions. It
was equally common to think of moral education as the education of conscience,
and to understand the latter as the cultivation of a seed implanted in us by God or
of a disposition to attend to divine commandments.
The nineteenth century was also the century of Charles Darwin (1809–1882)
and (still, to some extent) Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), of the theory of evolution
and the rise of psycho-analysis. Darwin’s thought on conscience and morality can
be seen as the culmination of two or three centuries of English and Scottish
philosophy; Freud’s as both a natural outgrowth and a criticism of three centuries
of German thought on the subject.
The general tendency of British moral philosophy since the sixteenth century
was to bring morality – and conscience with it – down to earth, to naturalize it,
until, in 1871, Darwin could write that we can think about morality without
needing to assume the existence of ‘a special God-implanted conscience’ (1922, p.
174). Moreover, conscience does not receive its content from God; instead, it
depends wholly on the approval and disapproval of others – i.e., on their positive
and negative feedback on one’s behaviour, especially during one’s childhood – and
ultimately on the survival or at best the happiness of the species.
Darwin (1922) does not distinguish between a moral and a non-moral meaning
of the word ‘ought’:

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 133–145.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

The imperious word ought seems merely to imply the consciousness of the
existence of a rule of conduct, however it may have originated. Formerly it
must have been often vehemently urged that an insulted gentleman ought to
fight a duel. We even say that a pointer ought to point, and a retriever to
retrieve game. If they fail to do so, they fail in their duty and act wrongly
(p. 177).1
Any ‘rule’ of conduct gives rise to a ‘duty’. And these rules depend on what the
survival (and where this is no longer directly at stake, the happiness) of one’s
species requires:
If (…) men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees,
there can hardly be any doubt that our unmarried females would, like the
worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would
strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.
Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed
case (…) some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience (pp. 51–152).
Conscience, for Darwin, is the individualized, interiorized agent of the interests of
the community.
For Freud, too, the origins of conscience are social (rather than divine), but in
his view it is culture rather than biology that produces the conscience. To see how
we must study the psychological development of the individual.
Greatly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Freud sees in history a
battle between culture and nature, between a ‘special process’ that takes place
through mankind, a process in the service of ‘Eros’ that (for unknown reasons)
strives to unite single human individuals, then families, tribes, peoples, nations, in
one great unity: Mankind (1948, p. 481). This ‘programme of culture’ resists the
natural aggressive instinct, the sibling and major representative of the death
instinct. So the history of civilization shows a battle between Eros and Thanatos,
the life instinct and the destructive instinct.
By studying the individual’s psychological development we can discover the
means culture employs to neutralize the aggressive, destructive instinct. The
agression is ‘introjected’, interiorized, turned against the individual’s own self. It is
adopted by the Superego, that, in the form of conscience, employs the individual’s
aggression to check the expression of this aggression against others.
The tension between the stern Superego and the Ego that is subject to it we
call [awareness of] guilt; it expresses itself as need for punishment. Thus,
culture overcomes the individual’s dangerous desire for aggression by
weakening it, disarming it, and by having it guarded by an inner authority, as
by an occupation force in a conquered city (Freud, 1948, pp. 482–483. My
Conscience is the Superego in its judging and threatening function. When does it
judge or threaten us? When we have done, or are thinking of doing, something
wrong. But how do we know right from wrong? Not by some natural, innate moral


sense. Conscience often forbids not what is harmful or dangerous, but the things
that please us.
In this, then, a foreign influence appears; this determines what is to be called
good and evil (1948, p. 483).
For ‘foreign influence’ read, first of all, the parents, on whose loving care the child
depends and whose love the child fears to lose – which furnishes the child with the
first and main motive to act in ways that please its parents. A true conscience arises
when the fear of loss of love and protection and of punishment are interiorized. The
individual then carries the voice of his father, his mother, and secondarily his
broader social environment, within itself. This still, small voice is neither God’s
nor that of a divine representative; it is nothing more or less than an extension of
parental (and ultimately, societal) authority within the individual.
Not only was conscience (apparently) unmasked and demystified, in the
twentieth century the notion itself was virtually abandoned by philosophers and
psychologists alike. Not only was it no longer seen as a divine faculty, it was no
longer seen as a faculty at all. As the idea that the mind was made up of separate
powers or faculties was abandoned as implausible, so, by and large, was the notion
of a conscience.2 Why speak of a conscience – a word with no clear referent –
when one can simply speak of moral emotions, moral conduct, moral cognition,
and moral motivation, things that are also amenable to empirical investigation? At
best it seems a useful shorthand for all these things together, and their
interrelations, which is how Kochanska and others use it (e.g., 1996, 2005, 2006).
The relative unimportance of using the exact term ‘conscience’ is clear from
Kochanska and Aksan’s explanation that they ‘use the constructs of conscience or
morality to describe some of those autonomous inner guiding systems independent
of external control’ (2006, p. 1588; italics in original). Instead of ‘conscience’, we
could also just say ‘morality’. Thompson, Meyer, and McGinley (2006, p. 267)
write that conscience “consists of the cognitive, affective, relational, and other
processes that influence how young children construct and act consistently with
generalizable, internal standards of conduct”. Again, ‘conscience’ seems to be
merely an umbrella term covering many interrelated factors in moral development;
the same is true in Stifter et al., (2009), where the term is not defined, but used as a
stand-in for a range of more specific measures of moral emotion and conduct.
In what follows I will discuss three questions to which the above gives rise. The
next section will address the question whether conscience is simply a psychological
phenomenon (or set of phenomena), the product of temperament and socialization,
and nothing more. If it were nothing more than that, why would anyone care about
what conscience says? In response to this, the third section presents a philosophical
concept of conscience. This is at the same time an answer to the question whether
it is still possible to develop a plausible concept of conscience, conceived as a
reality in its own right (rather than a bundle of phenomena). In the last section I
turn to moral education. Does moral education have anything to do with (the
development of) conscience? Do we need the word ‘conscience’ at all if we wish to
think about (the ends) of moral education? In answering these questions I hope to


show the importance of having a philosophical concept of conscience, alongside

psychological approaches. It is with the limits of the latter, rather than their value
as such, that I am concerned here.


The reason conscience was held in such high esteem for such a long time in our
history is very simple: it was considered to tell the truth, to possess or pass on to us
an infallible knowledge of right and wrong.3 Darwin and Freud suggest otherwise.
If Darwin is right, the moral ‘ought’ experienced in conscience is on a par with any
other ‘rule of conduct’, that is, any other natural compulsion or disposition to
behave in a certain way. Moreover, what conscience ‘says’ depends on one’s
biological make-up, and serves the interests of the population or the community to
which its ‘owner’ belongs. Freud places a stronger emphasis on socialization. A
child’s conscience derives its content from the child’s parents. If one declines (as
most of us probably would) Freud’s vision of a battle between Eros and Thanatos
nothing stands in the way of seeing an individual’s conscience as the purely
contingent, accidental result of (primarily) the combined influence of two people
who happened to have a child together. Conscience reflects what one’s parents
happened to believe.
Modern developmental psychology offers us more nuanced views, of course,
which stress the importance of a number of factors. But in this perspective
conscience remains the product of temperament and socialization. We all know
that people’s consciences differ. Psychology (and common sense) tells us why:
because we have different temperaments and we are raised by different people in
different circumstances. So why would anyone care about what his or her
conscience says? Better put – for the answer to that might be: because they cannot
help it – what reason does anyone have to listen to his or her conscience?
And not just any reason will do. That one would experience feelings of guilt or
remorse if one acted against one’s conscience could be a reason to listen to it, for
such feelings are unpleasant. But this is not the kind of reason we require, for it
would be the same kind of reason we could have for doing what a dangerous
madman says. In such a case, rather than obey the madman and do something
against our will, we would prefer it if the police arrested him. Similarly, rather than
listen to conscience because of the ‘threat’ it entails, we might prefer it if
psychotherapy removed the threat. A threat gives us reason to do something that
will remove the threat, in whatever way possible. If conscience were no different
from a threat, it would not specifically give us a reason for listening to it, except if
this were the only way to remove the threat it posed (i.e., the danger of feeling
guilty or remorseful).4 If the only consequence of ignoring your conscience is a bad
feeling, you may simply look for ways to get rid of the bad feeling while still
ignoring your conscience. But if the consequence of ignoring your conscience is
that you act wrongly, that you transgress morally, this constitutes a reason not to
ignore one’s conscience – unless, of course, one has given up on morality
altogether. So the reason we need to have for listening to our conscience is the


same kind of reason we need for taking a person’s advice: we need to have at least
some reason to think there might be something to it. In other words: there should at
least be the possibility of a connection between conscience and moral truth. Is there
– can there be – such a connection?
The first thing we must do is resist the idea that what conscience ‘says’ cannot
be true, simply because it is the product of socialization. Everything we know, we
learned, and a lot of it not by our own experience. Our knowledge of mathematics
is also the product of learning. We don’t doubt the truth of the multiplication table
because someone taught it to us. Admittedly, there are important differences
between morality and mathematics. But the point here is simply that the fact that
something was taught does not make it untrue.5
Perhaps, then, the problem is that people’s consciences are all different. If they
all say different things, how likely is it that conscience has anything to do with
objective moral truth? (cf. Mackie, 1990, p. 36ff.). Although one can make the
familiar response that disagreement in morality is not as great as moral skeptics
sometimes suggest – even globally, there is remarkable agreement about basic
moral principles – it has to be admitted that conscience cannot simply be a fount or
transmitter of objective moral truth. The variety in consciences does reflect (among
other things) disagreement about morality. If there is a link between conscience
and moral truth, it has to be more subtle.
The question concerning the diversity and disagreement among the ‘dictates of
conscience’, to use an old-fashioned phrase, does not reach the core of the
problem, however. For even if everyone’s conscience were to be exactly the same,
would ‘nag’ its owner in exactly the same situations, would forbid and allow
exactly the same things, the question would still remain: if it is just a psychological
phenomenon like any other, why bother? There are many psychological
phenomena that we do not consider to be normative. Many emotions, just by
themselves, for instance, we do not take to imply anything about what we ought to
do. I may be angry, or happy – so what? Those are just facts about my mental state
at a given moment in time. Why would it be any different with feelings of guilt,
that most common manifestation of conscience? Dreams are psychological
phenomena; do they tell me what I ought to do? One certainly hopes people don’t
take them that way. So when our conscience troubles us, why would we take this to
be normative, to have or express some moral authority? (If one answers: ‘Because
conscience merely reminds you of what you yourself hold to be true in moral
matters,’ the question bounces back: ‘And where did this “knowledge” come from?
Was it not merely the contingent product of temperament and socialization? Isn’t
this “knowledge” also just a fact about your mental make-up?’)
Most people, I suppose, probably feel that conscience is different, that there is
indeed a normativity there which eludes the psychologist.6 All the psychologist can
do is observe that people experience conscience as normative, as prescribing or
forbidding certain actions (or thoughts). And psychologists can study the way such
a phenomenon arises in people’s development. (Much important work has been
done in this area recently, and is being done.) But the moral ought itself eludes the
psychologist’s gaze, simply because as a scientist (s)he aims to limit him- or


herself to description and explanation, to the view from outside (cf. Turiel, 2006, p.
13).7 It is not surprising, then, that recent work about the development of
conscience is vague when it comes to the relation between conscience and
morality. Kochanska and Aksan (2006, p. 1600), for instance, describe a number of
‘paradigms’ they developed to study children’s moral conduct. ‘Some paradigms
call for restraint in the face of prohibitions’, others for ‘sustaining a mundane
chore’ or abiding ‘by the rules of the game’ (rules that make winning impossible!).
They do not explain what makes these situations moral situations. For instance, do
the parents prohibit the things they prohibit because these things are morally
wrong, or are they made wrong because the parents prohibited them? The latter
seems to be the case – for the child is ‘left alone with extremely attractive but
prohibited objects’ – but this would imply that conscience could have any content
If we want to know whether conscience can be thought of as somehow
connected with moral truth, then, we need to go beyond psychology.


Experiences of conscience – experiences that we voice in terms of conscience

(nagging, forbidding, warning, a light or a heavy conscience, etc.) or related
expressions (‘I cannot do this’), or by reference to feelings of guilt or remorse –
range from the trivial and mundane to the existential and spiritual, from matters of
little consequence to ones of the utmost gravity. Expressions of such experiences,
in various forms, can be found from ancient Egyptian times on. In the first
centuries AD, the Greek ‘syneidesis’ (and variants) and the Latin ‘conscientia’
(from which our ‘conscience’ derives) become the standard expressions for these
experiences. From then on, conscience also begins to become an object of
(philosophical and psychological – the distinction didn’t exist then) analysis.
We are now so used to thinking of ‘a’ conscience as something (every)one ‘has’
or ‘possesses’, as something (some entity) that does things, that it seems we must
either still believe it exists, it is there, somewhere, as an object one can study, or
accept that there is no such thing, and that the term, therefore, is meaningless,
except perhaps as a useful shorthand for things that do exist or are measurable
But there is an alternative. It is important to remember that ‘conscience’ (or its
predecessors) was first and foremost a term used to express a particular kind of
experience, rather than indicate (point out) some existing entity. The central
element in experiences of conscience is the awareness of a superior moral standard
(perceived, for instance, as a divine command, a moral law, or an inspiring ideal).
One’s thoughts or conduct are judged by this standard, or one is inspired to meet it.
A trivial illustration: a boy steals some of his brother’s glass marbles and
experiences feelings of guilt. A serious example: on February 21st, Lybian airforce
pilots conscientiously refused to obey orders to attack civilians. The core of such
experiences is that ‘good’, in a broadly moral sense, is a reality, that expressions
like ‘the right thing to do’ and ‘a good person’ are meaningful. Moreover, this


moral reality impresses itself on us as of ultimate importance. Expressions of

conscience are expressions of ultimate concern.8
What this phrase is meant to convey is that human beings are capable of being
grasped by a concern that transcends all their everyday concerns and activities,
even their long-term ambitions and projects. This concern is not to be seen as
simply the most important in the hierarchy of a person’s concerns; rather, it lies
‘beyond’ all specific or concrete concerns. Nothing concrete in life (family, career,
success) that we hold to be the most important can be identified with what is
ultimately or absolutely important; a moment may come when we have to give
them up, as conscientious objectors (but also soldiers, sometimes for equally
conscientious reasons) in many wars have done.
Moral experience is one type of experience in which we are reminded of what
matters, and of the fact that things matter, that it is not indifferent what we choose
to pursue, that some things are more important than others – even if we cannot
determine once and for all what is most important and what comes next.
To capture the above in a short phrase we may define conscience as a concerned
awareness of the moral quality of our own contribution to the world, including
ourselves. There is something peculiar about experiences of conscience. They are
qualitatively different from other experiences. For instance, to someone for whom
it is normal to eat meat the experience of eating meat is a neutral experience. But
for someone who, for moral reasons, just became a vegetarian eating a sausage roll
because he couldn’t resist it is not a neutral experience at all. It has a totally
different emotional and cognitive quality. The vegetarian, one might say, is
‘thrown’ into a different mode of consciousness, a different way of experiencing
things. This mode of consciousness is what we commonly call ‘conscience’. It is in
this mode of consciousness that we have experiences of conscience, ranging from
the most common, negative experiences (guilt, remorse) to experiences of
inspiration and empowerment.
The special experiential quality of this mode of consciousness derives from two
things: the fact that conscience concerns the moral quality of one’s thoughts,
actions, et cetera; and, secondly, the fact that it concerns the moral quality of one’s
own thoughts, actions, and so on. When you feel guilty, this is not just a feeling,
but it is a feeling about something; it tells you something about what you have
done, are doing, are contemplating to do. A feeling of guilt implies moral
disapproval, but of a special kind. Moral disapproval is very different when it
concerns other people’s actions than when it concerns one’s own. This, too, lends
the experience of conscience its distinctive quality.
Conscience is a mode of consciousness, it is a way in which we are aware of
certain things, a way in which we attend to the moral quality of what we
‘contribute’ to the world, including ourselves – for we know that we can (to some
extent) make ourselves better persons, or the opposite, and to knowingly do the
latter would be wrong.
If conscience is a mode of consciousness, this means that it does not necessarily
‘tell us’ the truth. Just as the fact that something is present in our consciousness
does not guarantee it is true, or that it also exists in the world outside us, the fact


that something throws us into conscience (in the form of a feeling of guilt, for
instance, accompanied by an articulated moral judgement), does not mean that this
is appropriate in that situation or that our moral judgement is correct.
Does this mean it can only ‘say’ what one’s parents made it say, or that
conscience can only reflect the values of one’s society? Does it mean, moreover,
that there is no such thing as truth in moral matters, or at least that if there is, we
cannot know that or when we know it? These (meta-ethical) questions are
obviously too large for this paper; philosophical reflection on them fills libraries.
The position I take here is that, if we are careful, we can speak of moral truth. We
can get to know things in this area of life. At least in some situations (perhaps in
many) there is a right thing to do; in others, it may not be possible to determine a
single right course of action. However imperfect our moral insight, we cannot –
and have no good reason to – let go of the idea that ‘goodness’ is real rather than a
fiction, that it really matters what we do, what choices we make. (If nothing can be
‘true’ in morality, in whatever sense of the word ‘true’, surely it doesn’t matter
what you do.)
That conscience can emancipate itself from the values that gave it its original
shape is demonstrated by conscientious objectors who (sometimes at great personal
risk or cost) resist social pressure and ‘take a stand’. There are many examples
even from Nazi Germany (Gollwitzer, Kuhn & Schneider [Eds.], 1958). But of
course one does not have to be a conscientious objector – whether one becomes
one has much to do with circumstances – to have reached a level of moral
autonomy sufficient to disprove the idea that conscience is necessarily fully
heteronomous (i.e., receives its content directly from external sources).9
When someone conscientiously refuses to cooperate with a fascist regime, or,
more recently, when a pilot refuses to attack fellow citizens, we are inclined to
think they are right. In such cases, conscience indicates moral truth and motivates
people to cling to it. That conscience may do this – in spite of social pressure, in
spite of what one was taught, sometimes even against (what one held to be) one’s
own beliefs –, and that this is not an exceptional occurrence, constitutes a good
reason to think about the education of conscience.


Moral education is unthinkable without an affective component. It can never be a

purely intellectual exercise, resulting in a pupil’s possession of disinterested moral
knowledge, a child’s knowing the answers to a set of questions about ‘right’ and
‘wrong’ like it knows the names of all European capital cities. Without an affective
component (an element of feeling and caring, of interest and emotion) the words
‘right’ and ‘wrong’ would not have the meaning they have for us; they would
merely be labels stuck to arbitrarily composed sets of behaviours or intentions.
‘Right’ would mean ‘what these people happen to approve of, or reward’; ‘wrong’
would be the opposite of that. Hence, the literature on psychopathy speaks of a
‘lack of conscience’ or a ‘defective conscience’ when someone seems to possess


moral ‘knowledge’, but lacks the affective response that normally accompanies this
(Porter, 1996; Ramsay, 2000).10
Moral education, then, involves, among other things, a fostering of that
‘concerned awareness of the moral quality of our own contribution to the world’
that we call conscience. The education of conscience is – inevitably – part of moral
education. But I wish to argue for more; in this last section I will argue that the
final end of moral education and the final end of the development of conscience are
one and the same: a twofold openness. I will illustrate the two kinds at the hand of
Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on the one hand, and the work of Carol Gilligan and
the virtue approach to moral education on the other.11 12
Inspired by Piaget’s theory of children’s cognitive development and (like
Piaget) by Kantian ethics, Kohlberg devised his famous account of moral
development as a progression through six stages, divided in pairs into a fairly
egoistic Pre-Conventional Level, a social or moral Conventional Level, and a Post-
Conventional Level we might call ‘ethical’; this ends in moral behaviour guided by
universal ethical principles.13 In some of his work Kohlberg locates conscience in
the fourth – so an intermediate – stage.14 Kohlberg there sees conscience as playing
a passing role in morality, because he considers it to be ‘closed’. For him,
conscience is heteronomous, a spokesman of convention. He is concerned with
openness, for he believes people capable of transcending the conventional morality
of their society. I agree, but since the conscientious objector is the paradigm
example of someone who does this, I would say that conscience can and should
also develop beyond the conventional level.15
I also object to Kohlberg’s identification of the universal principles of the final
stage with principles of justice. Gilligan (1993) famously criticized Kohlberg on
this point, proposing an ethics of care as an alternative to his ethics of justice. The
ethics of care, with its emphasis on being responsive to the situation at hand,
exemplifies the aim at a second kind of openness, which we might call an
‘openness to the layout of reality’.16 The virtue approach to moral education shares
this aim. It sees ‘phronesis’ (practical wisdom) as an important aim of moral
development. This entails a responsivity to (the value dimension of) the situation at
hand. The ethics of care, similarly, is highly sensitive to the particulars of
situations and (personal) relations. An important difficulty for the ethics of care,
however, is that it is virtually impossible to care equally for distant persons. While
many philosophers today recognize that a certain partiality towards the near and
dear is not unreasonable, this partiality must remain within acceptable bounds. If
not, the openness of the ethics of care is lost. The reason Kohlberg insists on an
impartial, universalistic approach is exactly that he wishes to avoid the closedness
of (unreasonable) partiality.
The ‘mature’ conscience, then, is characterized by two kinds of openness. The
first is related to the ultimacy of the ultimate concern that finds expression in
conscience. It entails that we do not absolutize our moral standards; no standard
must be conceived as definitive, for the ultimate lies outside our grasp. Even when
we take a moral stand – and we need not refrain from doing so –, we remain open


to the possibility that we are mistaken. The second kind of openness is openness to
the layout of reality, to salient aspects of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Since the latter kind of openness is inevitably grounded in a particular
perspective, moral education paradoxically entails, first of all, that children acquire
a well-defined value perspective, a perspective that entails a particular hierarchy of
values. Only by development through such a perspective can anyone attain
openness, which consists in the careful opening up of the perspective to other
values and priorities.17 Even if one wholly rejects the value perspective in which
one was raised, it will have fulfilled its function: to anchor the distinction between
the valuable and the valueless, the important and the insignificant. For someone
raised in no perspective at all, this distinction is meaningless, or at best identical to
the distinction between ‘I like’ and ‘I don’t like’.
It requires, secondly, the cultivation of empathy, moral emotions and moral
sensitivity. The latter is inseparable from (though more encompassing than) a
refined grasp of moral concepts, the acquisition of which should also be part of
moral education. Developmental psychology, pedagogy and educational research
can tell us much about the way moral education may accomplish these tasks. But
perhaps the most difficult task is this: we want conscience to track moral reality,
feeling guilty (for instance) to track being morally blameworthy – in other words:
we want conscience to convey moral truth. At the same time, however, we want
conscience to retain the kind of openness that means we can never be satisfied that
we know – definitively know – the truth. My guess is that this kind of openness
comes with the second kind, with the development of the ‘moral senses’ (plural!).
The attainment of a conscience that is open in both senses is, of course, an ideal;
its realization will always be imperfect. Paradoxically, whatever ideal people set as
the aim of moral education (or one of its aims), they need to ‘have’ a conscience, to
know experiences of conscience, to be able to come up with a plausible idea of
what the aim of moral education should be. In other words: we need something that
is inevitably imperfect to determine the ideal. This should keep us busy for a while.

Cf. ibid, pp. 933–934: ‘Any instinct, permanently stronger or more enduring than another, gives rise
to a feeling which we express by saying that it ought to be obeyed. A pointer dog, if able to reflect
on his past conduct, would say to himself, I ought (as indeed we say of him) to have pointed at that
hare and not have yielded to the passing temptation of hunting it.’
Naturally, there have been (distinguished) authors in the twentieth century that found a use for the
concept. In moral philosophy, where most authors avoided the concept, John Dewey is the main
exception; of course he does emphasize that conscience ‘is no peculiar, separate faculty of mind’
(1969, 355) [1891]. Another exception in the English language area is Gilbert Ryle (1971) [1940]. In
German philosophy, Martin Heidegger (1984) [1927] developed a (non-moral) concept of
conscience. Niklas Luhmann stands out as the most influential German author on conscience in the
second half of the twentieth century (1965; 1970; 1973). In psychology, psycho-analysts have
continued to speak of conscience; in the rest of the discipline the notion was more or less avoided
until Kochanska, Aksan and others revived it from the 1990s onwards. For an overview of twentieth-
century psychological approaches to conscience see Zimmer (1999).


This is not to say that the possibility of error was not seen. The medieval scholastics, for instance,
discussed the erring conscience extensively; they distinguished between ‘synderesis’, which was
divine and infallible, and ‘conscientia’, its fallible application. For different conceptualizations of
the distinction see Langston (2001), Potts (1980) and my brief treatment in Schinkel (2007, pp. 175–
180). But even for someone like Adam Smith (1723–1790), who anticipated both Darwin’s work
and modern developmental psychology, conscience judges impartially and objectively; it tells us
what is right and proper. See Smith (1982).
In fact, there are other ways to silence one’s conscience, as Micelli and Castelfranchi (1998) show.
One should not think, to be sure, that there is no disagreement about mathematics; in mathematical
theory, and in the philosophy of mathematics, there are many conflicting positions.
This is the reason why most people would find it problematic to take a pill or use therapy to get rid
of feelings of guilt or remorse; in many cases, they are there for a reason, and to rid someone of them
would mean to blunt their conscience (see the case of psychiatrist Kleinman described in Van Heijst,
2008, p. 67).
In Darwin’s work, we see that a shift has occurred (though it is not fully complete, and Darwin
appears to be uncomfortable with it) from a philosophical to a scientific perspective. The ‘authority’
of conscience, about which he cannot say anything, has given way to force or ‘enduringness’; the
social instinct is ‘ever-enduring’ and therefore outlasts the ‘weaker impressions’ of desires and
passions (1922, pp. 174, 177).
The term ‘ultimate concern’ is Paul Tillich’s; he described faith as ‘the state of being ultimately
concerned’ (1957, p. 1). For more on this and the matters discussed in this section see Schinkel
(2007), especially chapters 1 and 8.
One thing the recent psychological work on the development of conscience shows is that it is never
just values that shape conscience, but also factors like temperament and qualitative aspects of the
relationship between the child and its parents. This means that a person’s conscience is never wholly
determined by ‘external’ factors; thus, recent psychological research also refutes the idea, proposed
by earlier psychology and psycho-analysis, that conscience is heteronomous.
Le Sage (2004, ch. 3) points out, however that not only emotional disabilities but also purely
cognitive impairments may lead to a ‘defective’ or ‘incomplete’ conscience.
Much of what follows is taken from Schinkel (2007, pp. 360–366; ch. 8.3).
For a critical discussion of Kohlberg’s theory, see Crittenden (1999). Gilligan can be seen as the
‘mother’ of the ethics of care; as such, she has also had a considerable influence on (particularly)
feminist ethical theory.
See, for instance, Kohlberg (1973). Later versions of the theory include one or more added stages.
In Kohlberg (1981), for instance, he calls it the stage of ‘social system and conscience maintenance’.
In other texts (e.g., Kohlberg, 1973) Kohlberg appears to feel the same way, associating the final
stage with the decision of a conscience informed by universal moral principles.
This is John McDowell’s phrase (1998, p. 26).
In Kohlberg’s developmental scheme, the Conventional Level necessarily precedes the Post-
Conventional Level; the virtue approach acknowledges that conscious reflection, planning, and rule-
following precede the stage of practical wisdom or moral virtuosity (Nussbaum 1992, p. 68; cf.
Dreyfus [n.d.]). The view I defend here is also expressed by Galston (2003, pp. 421–422) and
Emerson as quoted by Standish (2003, p. 229).


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Anders Schinkel
Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands





Young children are not normative agents. Because of this, they are not morally
responsible for their behaviour. One of the primary aims of educating children is to
ensure that they become normative agents who are capable of shouldering moral
responsibility for their actions. Transforming a child from being simply a member
of the homo sapiens species into a morally responsible, normative agent is one of
the most important dimensions of moral education. We all agree, of course, that
this important feature has to be taken care of in the philosophy of (moral)
education, but there is surprisingly little discussion in the literature of what it
exactly involves. In this chapter, therefore, I focus on this aspect of moral
education and investigate what it comprises.
My proposal is to do this in terms of criteria which I extract from an inspection
of the philosophical contours of the concept of moral responsibility. The general
idea is this. To be successful on the score of turning children into morally
responsible agents, the process of moral education has to fulfil certain requirements;
and for the precise content of these requirements I suggest to draw upon a
philosophical analysis of the notion of moral responsibility. Contemporary accounts
of responsibility have striven to uncover and clarify the positive conditions of
responsibility. In the second section, I specify further my favoured analysis that a
person is morally responsible for performing an action, if and only if (i) he is an
agent of an appropriate sort, (ii) he performs the action in the belief that he is doing
something morally obligatory, right, or wrong, (iii) he has appropriate responsibility-
grounding control in performing the action, and (iv) the action causally issues from
authentic actional springs. Needless to say, each of these conditions requires
considerable elaboration and defence. It is the first and second of these four
conditions that are of immediate concern in this chapter. Since the control and
authenticity conditions are in themselves not normative conditions, they are not
directly relevant to moral education.1
So, if one asks: ‘What does it involve to educate for morally responsible
agency?’, then the answer can only be given against the backdrop of an analysis of
(among others, at least) these two necessary conditions for moral responsibility: the
agency condition and the moral knowledge condition. This chapter specifies, then,
first the content of the necessary agential and moral profile that children should
acquire during their moral education. And, secondly, it looks in some detail at the
way in which youngsters can possibly acquire – and, as a counterpart, how parents

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 147–160.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

can possibly instil – such a profile during the process of their moral upbringing. As
a preliminary, I locate educating for moral responsibility on the map of moral
education and outline the conceptual content and conditions of moral responsibility.2


Although educating for morally responsible agency does not exhaust moral
education, it is (still) an essential component of such an education. This truism is
somewhat ignored in the contemporary discussion on moral education. To see why,
let us take a quick survey of the debate on moral theory and moral education:
There seem to be three main philosophical theories of morality (or four, if we
separate virtue ethics and communitarianism) that could potentially influence
current understanding of moral education. Virtue ethics and mainstream
communitarianism would naturally encourage a form of moral education in
which schools and parents would seek to inculcate good character in the form
of specific (labelled) habitual virtues. Kantian/Rawlsian rationalism/liberalism
would seemingly encourage moral education to take the form of developing
certain capacities for moral reasoning and certain very general principles
[derived from a general duty of respect for the autonomy and dignity of every
person] that can be applied to different moral dilemmas or decisions. Finally,
an ethic of care would most naturally see moral education as a matter of
children’s coming to an intelligent emotional understanding of the good
or harmful effects of their actions on the lives of other people as well as
deepening understanding of defensible ways to live their own lives. Care
involves caring for oneself as well as others (Noddings & Slote, 2003, p. 349).
Morality and political philosophy fundamentally bear on conceptions of the aims of
moral education. Simplifying and generalizing somewhat, we can distinguish
between two paradigms: the first incorporates Kantian moral philosophy, Rawlsian
political philosophy, and Kohlbergian developmental psychology, while the second
virtue ethics, communitarianism, and an ethic of care. Noddings and Slote suggest
that the educational aims central to the Kantian or deontic paradigm are tied to
personal autonomy, moral reasoning, moral principles, and critical thinking,
whereas those at the heart of the paradigm of virtue and care ethics are affiliated
with good character, moral sentiment, and caring relationships involving benevolence
and kindness. Aims of the first type are concerned with encouraging self-conscious
and conscientious attention to one’s own intentions, values and choices, as well as
promoting obedience to universal (moral) rules and principles. Aims of the second
sort are associated with enforcing spontaneous other-directed reactive attitudes and
sentiments, as well as inculcating virtuous dispositions and particular acts of caring.
Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1981) Kantian model of moral education, dominant in
the 1970s, has been criticized by, among others, Carol Gilligan (1982) and Nel
Noddings (1984) and has virtually been replaced by a virtue and feminist, care
ethical model in the 1980s. One might, however, wonder whether this replacement
has not thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In moral philosophy we have to


distinguish between two basic theories: the theory of the good and that of the right.
Persons and their characters are evaluated by using predicates of goodness, badness
and betterness, and their acts are assessed by means of predicates of rightness,
wrongness and moral obligation or duty. Ascriptions of moral responsibility, as a
corollary of judgements of duty, also belong, most naturally, to the second domain
of moral theory.
Now, the near substitution of the deontic model with the non-deontic one in the
philosophy of moral education gives, at least, the impression that notions such as
morally right and wrong, moral obligation and moral responsibility are ‘survivals,
or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer
generally survives, …’ (Anscombe, 1958, p. 26). Hence, ‘[t]he situation’ for the
concept of moral responsibility ‘… [might be] the interesting one of the survival of
a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one’
(p. 31). The danger exists, therefore, that theorists today develop a conception of
moral education at the expense of the deontic notions, and in particular with no
intelligible place for moral responsibility at all. The paradigm shift to virtue and
care ethics seems to make educating for morally responsible agency unintelligible
and unimportant, as if it is not an essential component of moral education anymore.3
To keep moral responsibility on the map of moral education, we better distinguish,
along the lines Bernard Williams suggests, between a narrow conception of
morality in which the morally deontic notions of obligation, right, and wrong are
primary, and a broader conception in which morality’s ambit extends beyond
obligation to, roughly, considerations of how one should live and the good life.
Williams (1985) dubs the narrow conception ‘morality, the peculiar institution’ in
which moral obligation is inescapable and the characteristic reaction is moral
blame. Morality, broadly construed, includes then, for example, an ethics of virtue
or concerns of love or care. This distinction is sometimes articulated as the
theoretical distinction between ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’, even though these two terms
are often used interchangeably:
It is notoriously difficult to define morality and thus to contrast it clearly with
a broader concept of ethics. It is possible, however, to identify characteristics
of morality which some theories have been held to lack while still counting as
ethical theories. Such characteristics are (a) a distinction of kind between
moral and nonmoral reasons, (b) a strict demand of responsibility (‘ought’
implies ‘can’), (c) the prominence of duty or obligation as the basic moral
notion, and (d) an essential concern for the noninstrumental good of others
(Annas, 2001, p. 485).
Below, I indicate the use of the narrow conception, identified by these characteristics,
by placing the words ‘morality’ and ‘moral(ly)’ between double quotes and speak
about ethics (and ethical education) when I have the broader conception in mind.
To not confuse the issues, we should, correspondingly, distinguish between a
narrow and a broader conception of moral education. One can admit that ‘moral’
education conceived of in the Kohlbergian style does not exhaust the domain of
moral education, but such an admission does not justify its wholesale replacement


by ethical education conceived of in the virtue and care theoretical style. To give a
comprehensive picture of moral education, we should cover both ‘moral’ as well as
ethical education. This inclusiveness implies that educating for ‘morally’ responsible
agency is as essential to moral education at large as educating for leading a virtuous
and caring life. Of course, it is a further question how these two components of moral
education relate? Whether there perhaps might be an asymmetry between them?
Or, whether maybe the one component can be reduced to the other? But whatever
answers one gives to these further questions, neither of the two components should
be neglected in an all-encompassing picture of moral education.
Here I confine myself to one essential component – that of educating for ‘moral’
responsibility. Henceforth, I drop the double quotes around ‘moral(ly)’, since my
considerations are restricted to the narrow conception of morality. The concept of
moral responsibility belongs to a cluster of core concepts within morality, the
peculiar institution. It is conceptually connected to moral obligation by means of
the so-called equivalence thesis:
One is morally responsible (in the backward-looking sense) for having done
something if and only if one had a moral responsibility (in the forward-
looking sense) – that is: a moral obligation – not to do that thing but did it
nonetheless (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 171).4
Moral obligation is, on its turn, conceptually connected to moral wrongness,
because ‘a moral obligation not to do that thing’ is, of course, a moral obligation
not to do the morally wrong thing. So, for example, one is morally responsible for
telling a lie if and only if one had a moral obligation not to lie and one had that
obligation because lying is morally wrong. With the concept of moral responsibility
in place on the map of moral education, I now turn to its philosophical elucidation.


A philosophical theory of moral responsibility is supposed to elucidate, at least, (i)

the concept of moral responsibility itself and (ii) the conditions under which this
concept is properly applied, specifically those conditions under which a person is
correctly said to be responsible for performing a particular action.
What does it mean to be a morally responsible person? Two views on the nature
of moral responsibility can be distinguished in the contemporary debate: the
reactive attitudes view and the ledger view. On the first view, to be a morally
responsible person is a matter of being an appropriate candidate for the reactive
attitudes (Strawson, 1962; Fischer & Ravizza, 1998, pp. 1–8). Reactive attitudes
and feelings are distinctively normative responses, like resentment, indignation,
gratitude and forgiveness, which we naturally have to the perceived ill or good will
(or indifference) of other people towards us as manifested in their behaviour. The
reactive attitudes and the associated practices of blaming and praising are
constitutively expressive of holding persons morally responsible. Our indignant
reactions to, for example, a serial killer are representative of our holding him
morally responsible for his heinous deeds. The reactive attitudes are constitutive of


holding morally responsible and, when appropriate, of being morally responsible.

Since psychopaths and young children are improper recipients of the reactive
attitudes, they are not morally responsible. And because even normal adults are in
particular circumstances (e.g., when they have a legitimate excuse) inappropriate
targets for the reactive attitudes, they are then not morally responsible for their
pertinent actions. Attributions of moral responsibility are here essentially
connected to moral emotions and closely associated with outward expressions of
these reactions, such as overtly blaming and punishing. Although the relation
between reactive attitudes and their behavioural expressions is not necessary, it is
in general a much closer and more intimate relation than that between rational
judgements and such public effects.
On the ledger view, a person is morally responsible in case it is appropriate to
apply moral judgements to his behaviour. Moral responsibility is associated with
moral judgement or appraisability, in the sense that the moral value of each of a
person’s deeds is assigned, as a credit or debit, to a metaphorical ‘ledger’ or
balance sheet with the purpose of assessing his moral worth. Morally judging
someone, for example, to be blameworthy, is constitutively indicative of holding
that person morally responsible. Being morally responsible for such an individual
is then based on the fact that he or she is deserving of such blaming. And a person
deserves to be blamed for a certain action, when it can be judged that he or she did
something morally wrong. Such a negative mark or debit in his or her ledger
represents the objective, moral fact that this person is deserving of blame and thus
fully morally responsible for what he or she did. The blaming at issue here is
inward: it amounts to making an inner moral judgement. Michael Zimmerman
(1998) encapsulates this view eloquently:
Moral appraisability has to do with that type of inward moral praising and
blaming that constitutes making a private judgment about a person. …
Blaming someone may be said to constitute judging that there is a ‘discredit’
or ‘debit’ in his ‘ledger [of life]’, a ‘negative mark’ in his ‘report-card [of
life]’, … Someone is blameworthy if he is deserving of such blame; that is, if
it is correct, or true to the facts, to judge that there is a ‘debit’ in his ‘ledger’.
… To appraise someone in the manner just indicated is to ‘measure the man’.
It is to evaluate him in a certain way; … it is to make a judgment as to his
moral worth, … (p. 38).
On this view, moral responsibility attributions are essentially inward moral
judgements about a person’s moral worth, quite apart from any ‘emotional’ or
‘practical’ consequences. These inner judgements are thus made quite apart from
any outward expressions which possibly flow from them, any reactive attitudes or
public expressions of such attitudes, or any sort of condemnation or punishment.
So, although a judge might take into account extenuating circumstances and
respond with a reduction or even acquittal of punishment, the moral judgement that
a person is deserving of blame for a crime remains objectively the same entirely
unaffected by other negative or positive entries in his or her ledger.


Of these two views on the conceptual content of moral responsibility, the ledger
view chimes best with the peculiar institution of morality. On the latter view, moral
responsibility attributions are only contingently associated with the reactive
attitudes and the attendant practices of blame and praise, as they are ultimately
based on an independent judgement of a person’s moral worth. Again, ‘independent’
here means independent from the moral emotions and their outward expressions,
but not from some or other standard of moral rightness. And (deontic) morality
precisely rests on such a faculty of moral judgement specifically exercised in the
judgements of moral obligation and moral wrongness (as well as moral rightness),
whereas virtue and care ethics rely on the faculty of moral sensibility that also
issues the reactive attitudes and feelings. The reactive attitudes view is thus more
akin to ethics.
Under which conditions is a person morally responsible? In the venerable
tradition of analyzing the conditions under which the concept of moral responsibility
is properly applicable that traces to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (1109b30-35),
lack of freedom and ignorance – aspects of the involuntary – can undermine a
person’s accessibility to moral blame or praise. And ‘[s]ince that which is done by
force or by reason of ignorance is involuntary, the voluntary would seem to be [a]
that of which the moving principle is in the agent himself, [b] he being aware of the
particular circumstances of the action’ (1111a20). These two widely accepted
conditions need supplementation with two others. One requires the subject of
moral responsibility attributions to be a normative agent; the other requires morally
responsible actions to be ‘truly one’s own’ or authentic. As I indicated in the
introduction, the analysis I favour is the following (Haji, 1998; Haji & Cuypers,
2008). Person S is morally responsible for performing action A, if and only if, in
doing A (i) S is a normative agent – the agency condition, (ii) S believes that S is
doing something morally obligatory, right, or wrong – the epistemic condition, (iii)
A is under S’s control – the control or freedom condition, and (iv) A causally stems
from authentic motivational springs – the authenticity condition. As I remarked at
the outset, the freedom and authenticity conditions are in themselves not normative
conditions. On my interpretation, a free action does not have to manifest a moral or
whatever other normative stance; it might be neutral or capricious. And being an
authentic action is just a matter of having the appropriate causal history. In
contrast, since the agency condition and the epistemic or moral knowledge
condition – morality is a specific type of normativity – are clearly normative
conditions, they are of immediate concern to moral education. I now turn to the
details of these two conditions.


Psychopaths and young children are not morally responsible for their conduct
partly because they fail to fulfil responsibility’s agency or/and moral knowledge
presuppositions. To be morally responsible, one must be an agent of a certain sort:
a normative agent. One agency requirement of moral responsibility is that the
candidate be capable of intentional deliberative action. Such action, in turn,


requires some psychological basis for normative or evaluative reasoning. An

agent’s deliberations issue in a practical judgement about what to do, which in turn
gives rise to a decision or intention to act. Such practical deliberations involve
appraisals of reasons for or against possible courses of action by appeal to, what I
dub, the agent’s evaluative scheme. In addition, to be morally responsible for an
action, an agent must have knowledge of elementary moral concepts, such as those
of morally right and wrong, as well as moral obligation, and he must be able to
appraise morally (even if imperfectly), decisions to act, actions, consequences of
action, etc. in light of the moral norms that are partly constitutive of his evaluative
scheme. Let me unpack this crude sketch and I begin with the epistemic condition.
How strong is the moral knowledge requirement? As knowledge entails truth,
some theorists (for example, Smith, 1983) endorse the objective view that an agent
is morally responsible for an action only if performing that action is objectively
wrong (or right) in accord with some moral (realist) theory. Others (for example,
Haji, 1998, pp. 140–167) maintain the subjective view, according to which a belief
condition – the agent’s believing that performing the action is wrong (or right) – is
sufficient to fulfil the epistemic requirement. Although I will not argue for the
weaker interpretation here, I hold the latter view, maintaining that the moral
knowledge condition for moral responsibility is about moral beliefs and not about
(objective) moral truths.
What does the normative agency requirement involve? Notice first that the
moral standpoint – specifically, the standpoint of what is morally right, wrong, or
obligatory – is only one among many normative standpoints. There is, for example,
the standpoint of self-interest or prudence, the standpoint of love, the standpoint of
a particular religion, the aesthetic standpoint, the standpoint of a specific cultural
tradition, and so forth. Cognizant of the fact that it is at least partly in our power to
nurture our children into different sorts of normative agent, I focus here on the
process of turning our children into morally responsible agents. My proposal then
is that it is a sufficient condition of a person’s being a morally normative agent at
time t, if that person has at t (i) an evaluative scheme with the requisite moral
elements – the agent is (minimally) morally competent; (ii) deliberative skills and
judgemental capacities – for example, the agent has the capacity to apply the
pertinent moral criteria that are elements of his or her evaluative scheme to moral
reasons, as well as the capacity to form moral judgements; and (iii) executive
capacities – the agent is able to intentionally act on (at least some of) his or her
decisions or choices. A young child, like a toddler, who fails to have deliberative or
executive capacities will be much less in ‘moral contact’, if any, with its actions
than a person who does have such capacities. Read condition (ii) to entail that the
agent is (at t) able to engage in genuine deliberation and judgement; his or her
deliberative and judgemental activities must meet the thresholds of rationality and
morality below which such activities fail to count as bona fide deliberation and
Moral beliefs are essential elements of the agent’s evaluative scheme. Such a
scheme is partly made up of moral criteria (besides other normative standards and
ingredients) the agent believes, though not necessarily consciously so, ought to be


invoked in assessing moral reasons for action, or in evaluating beliefs about how
the agent should go about making moral judgements. To be an apt candidate for
moral responsibility, the agent’s evaluative scheme must include a set of moral
principles, norms and concepts; the agent must, as I noted, be (minimally) morally
competent. He or she must grasp moral rules like ‘keep your promises’, ‘don’t
cheat’, ‘don’t steal’, etc. and understand the concepts of rightness, wrongness, as
well as obligatoriness. The agent must also be able to appraise, morally, various
reasons, choices and actions in light of the moral standards that are elements of her
evaluative scheme. However, there is no requirement that such appraisals be fully
considered, free of error, or even conscious. Nor is there any requirement that the
standards are evidentially-based or justified in any strong (objective) sense of
‘moral justification’. The agent may simply assimilate, without much critical
scrutiny, various moral criteria of her environment.
We now have the precise content of the morally normative agency and moral
knowledge requirements for moral responsibility before our eyes. Moral agency
comprises a cluster of abilities and moral knowledge consists of a set of moral
beliefs that belongs to the agent’s evaluative scheme. Being aware of the details, I
refer, for further convenience, to the ability cluster and the belief set taken together
as the agent’s moral competence. In order to be (held) morally responsible an adult
person must exhibit, among other things such as freedom and authenticity, a
specific agential and moral profile; he or she must show evidence of being morally
competent. Consequently, given that young children do not display such a profile
and are, therefore, not morally responsible, they only can be morally responsible in
their later life if they acquire this necessary moral competence during their
upbringing. Provided that children should acquire the moral competence for being
morally responsible as adults, how could or, more empirically, how do they in the
course of their development and education come to acquire this competence? This
crucial developmental/educational question extracts the kernel from my initial
question at the outset, ‘What does it (possibly) involve to educate for morally
responsible agency?’ Against the backdrop of my foregoing analysis, I now take up
this key question – the acquisition question – about responsibility in moral


Parents (and teachers) face the task of turning non-responsible youngsters into
morally responsible agents. One significant assumption of educating children for
morally responsible agency is that their becoming morally normative agents is not
just a matter of maturation on the basis of an innate genetic program. Educators can
only meaningfully take on this task, if the educational environment plays a
constitutive, or at least a contributory role in the process of children’s becoming
such agents.
Accepting this assumption implies taking a substantial position on the acquisition
question as regards moral competence. As to the nature of moral competence
acquisition during the process of moral development and/or moral education, three


views can be distinguished: (i) social-learning theory, (ii) constructivism and (iii)

Social-Learning Theory, Nativism, and Constructivism

Which mechanism explains how children acquire their moral competence? According
to the social-learning theory, morality is learned in a social environment (Wren,
1982). Moral competence acquisition is based on the combined mechanisms of
empirical observation and explicit instruction. Given that moral behaviour is a type
of rule-following behaviour, children observe moral actions of other people –
especially, their parents’ moral actions – after which they inductively generalize
and eventually internalize the moral rules governing those actions. In addition,
children are explicitly instructed in the difference between right and wrong; saying
‘telling the truth is right’ and ‘lying is wrong’ belongs to the basic moral
instruction parents give their children. Morality is thus a product of socialization
and internalization.
At the other extreme, according to nativism, morality is innate (Dwyer, 1999).
Becoming morally competent is not a matter of perceptually acquiring a novel
capacity in a social context, but a matter of the gradual activation of a genetically
preformed module of the mind. Impressed by the striking parallels between the
development of moral competence and that of linguistic competence, theorists
exploit the so-called ‘linguistic analogy’ for making plausible a nativist approach
to the psychology of moral development. Provided that language and morality are
both normative systems, in the sense that they involve constraints on utterances or
judgements, a Universal Moral Grammar constrains how a child acquires its
morality, just as a Chomskian Universal Grammar constrains how it acquires its
language. Independently of whether or not children are exposed to many instances
of moral situations of different types, or to lots of explicit moral instruction, their
full-blown moral competence emerges across the globe. As in the language case,
the poverty of the moral stimulus in moral development lends credibility to the
postulate of the innateness of moral competence.
Whereas the social-learning theory conceives of the mind as a blank slate
(tabula rasa), nativism theorizes that the mind’s architecture is an evolutionary
designed constellation of mental modules, among which the domain-specific
module of morality. On the former view, the mind remains entirely passive; on the
latter, the mind automatically executes its innate genetic program. According to
constructivism, the mind itself plays an active role, but only in co-operation with
its social environment. Not only the mind, but also the environment essentially
contributes to the construction of morality. Moral competence is neither the
internalized product of socialization, nor the effect of genetically guided
maturation, but has to be actively constructed by the mind in a dialectical
relationship with its social environment. Although this mid-way position has a
respectable research tradition since Jean Piaget (1932) and later Kohlberg (1981),
no constructivist has as yet provided a plausible account of the mechanism that
constructs moral competence in the midst of interpersonal interactions. Piaget’s


notion of (moral) equilibration (l’équilibration) as the fundamental factor of moral

development (Fedi, 2008), as well as Kohlberg’s notion of reversibility in moral
judgements, for instance, remain hopelessly vague.
In the light of these three views on the nature of moral competence acquisition, I
return to the educational assumption laid bare above. The character of the process
of moral education, in particular, that of educating for becoming morally
competent, mirrors the character of the process of moral development, in particular,
that of the acquisition of moral competence. That is to say, the way in which
educators can possibly, if at all, inculcate moral competence in youngsters
correlates with the way in which those youngsters can possibly acquire such a
competence. For this reason, the structure and degree of the impact of parents (and
teachers) on the emergence of moral competence in children varies along the
spectrum of the three views. Accordingly, the educational environment functions
as (a) a constitutive cause in social-learning theory, (b) a triggering cause in
nativism, or (c) a contributory cause in constructivism. Although there are different
nativist approaches, they all agree on the claim that in the course of biological
maturation, governed by an innate genetic program, moral competence emerges
essentially independent from the social environment. The educational environment
only triggers the acquisition process but does add neither form nor content to
children’s innate moral competence. On the nativist view, educators are, therefore,
discharged from their task to educate for morally competent, and thus, responsible
Endorsing the educational assumption, as both social-learning theory and
constructivism do, implies for that reason taking a substantial stance with regard to
the acquisition question. On both views, moral competence acquisition essentially
relates to the educational environment, which plays either a constitutive or, at least,
a contributory role. The structure and degree of the influence of the social context
differ between these two views, primarily, as to the role of innateness and that of
children’s active participation in the acquisition process. According to the
constructivist view, there is still a partial role for innateness as well as an active
role for the child’s psychology to play in moral competence acquisition, whereas,
according to the social-learning theory, these two other contributory roles are
excluded because they are incompatible with its presupposition that the mind is a
blank slate.
Here I do not further pursue the extensive and complex debate between social-
learning theory, nativism and constructivism about the moral competence
acquisition question (Nucci & Narvaez, 2008; Sinnott-Armstrong, 2008). For the
purposes of this chapter, I take instead for granted the correctness of the
educational assumption and the plausibility of the constructivist view.5 Starting
from these suppositions, I speculate about how the educational environment
contributes to moral competence acquisition by exploring the way how deontic
moral beliefs emerge in the process of moral education, as this cognitive
requirement has to be fulfilled for educating for morally responsible agency.


Deontic Moral Beliefs and the Process of Moral Education

Recent empirical research demonstrates that very young children, even within the
first year of life, manifest a range of pro-social behaviours – like helping,
comforting, and sharing – that, given the early surfacing, seem to derive from
natural empathy based on an innate liability to emotional contagion (spontaneous
emotional responses to con-specifics).6 In whatever way the emergence of innate
affective capacities might be congenial to the empirical foundations of ‘ethics’ and
support the reactive attitudes view on the nature of moral responsibility, it does not,
in and of itself, explain how deontic moral beliefs come about.
A more relevant empirical finding to the emergence of ‘morality’ is that preschool
children, and even toddlers, discriminate between moral and conventional rules,
and accordingly, between moral transgressions (e.g., stealing a pencil, pushing
someone off a swing) and non-moral ones (e.g., wearing pyjamas at school).
Surprisingly, and contrary to Piaget and Kohlberg, children not only attach
significance to moral rules as distinguished from conventional rules much earlier in
their lives, but they also do so independently from any possible sanction (e.g., no
sweets as punishment) following upon transgression. Children’s specific moral
reactions and judgements are evidence of their deontic thinking. Deontic beliefs in
children appear from the age of two and a half or three years onwards. As early as
that, they reason about what is forbidden or allowed, obligatory or not obligatory
according to moral rules, although they are not as yet able to articulate these rules
as such rules. Given this fact, in addition to other considerations such as evolutionary
and neurological ones, some theorists (for example, Cummins, 1996) argue that the
capacity for deontic reasoning is innate.
Defending a biopsychosocial model, a constructivist need not deny that children
are endowed with an innate, inchoate structure for deontic reasoning. However,
such a structure remains idle, according to constructivism, unless it is placed in an
educational environment that sustains the child’s active participation in the
development of its deontic beliefs. Children actively respond to an educational
environment on the basis of socio-psychological factors and biological tendencies.
Darcia Narvaez (2008) summarizes this view succinctly:
Contemporary developmental psychologists emphasize ecological contextualism
where active individuals play leading roles in shaping their own [moral]
development within many arenas of interaction. Individuals interact with
multiple social environments, constructing understanding, building schemas
and operations at a far greater and faster pace than initially understood by the
acknowledged progenitor of developmental psychology, Jean Piaget (p. 236).
As to the emergence of deontic moral beliefs, the important point is that moral
education, in particular explicit parental instruction, is an essential component of
the constitutive process of interaction between the child and its educational
environment. I drive this point home by focussing on the semantics of deontic
terms in the child’s moral judgement.


Explicit parental instruction in deontic terms seems to be essential for the child’s
coming to understand the semantics of ‘right’, ‘wrong’ and ‘obligatory’.7 The
semantics of deontic terms is complex. Starting from modal terms such as
‘necessary’ and ‘possible’, the child has to learn the meaning of deontic terms such
as ‘must’ and ‘may’ in relation to moral rules and actions. For instance, what must
be done – an obligation – expresses the necessity to perform an action, while what
may be done – a permission – expresses the possibility of performing an action.
Competent deontic reasoning about actions involves, among other things,
understanding what a permission and a ban, an obligation and a release thereof
means.8 Such deontic understanding clearly implies deontic beliefs. For example,
meaningful obligatory acting is acting in the belief that one’s action is morally
right, in the sense of being morally required and not merely morally permissible.
Now children achieve an adequate comprehension of the semantics of deontic
vocabulary only at a late stage and, according to some studies, even by the age of
twelve children’s deontic terms are not yet semantically isomorphic with those of
their parents and other educators. This empirical finding chimes well with, and
constitutes partial evidence for the claim that during the process of education
parents, so to speak, slowly talk their children into deontology and that,
correspondingly, explicit parental instruction is essential for the emergence of
deontic belief. In the educational process over a considerable time-span, parent’s
deontic speech is a necessary means for the gradual appearance of children’s
deontic capacities. Deontic morality is, to a large extent, constructed:
Bans and permissions are important educational means for modifying
behavior from early childhood on, which precludes individual learning
processes from being ruled out as an explanation for the findings. In addition,
children’s deontic capabilities are not available as one ‘block’ at a certain
age, as the evolutionary view might suggest, but are acquired over a period of
several years (Beller, 2010, p. 126).


In this chapter, I explored what it involves to educate for morally responsible

agency. To be (held) morally responsible in their later life, children have to acquire
the necessary moral competence during their educational process. Educating for
morally responsible agency requires, partially but centrally, explicit parental
instruction in deontic vocabulary in order to ensure the child’s moral competence
acquisition. To make sure that the child matures into a morally responsible agent,
certain deontic elements – at least, the concepts of right, wrong and obligatory –
must be instilled in the child as parts of its evaluative scheme. Provided that the
instilment of pertinent deontic beliefs is necessary for the child’s being morally
responsible for later behaviour, parents and other educators are not only allowed
but also under the obligation to educate the children they care for into deontology.



1 I elaborated on the third, and especially the fourth condition, as it is relevant to the philosophy of
education, in Cuypers (2009).
2 In writing this chapter, I was inspired by Steutel’s (1984) essay ‘Deugdzaamheid als opvoedingsdoel’.
I dedicate this chapter to Jan.
3 For an illustration of this danger to lose moral obligation and moral responsibility out of sight, see,
for example, Matthews (1994, pp. 45–67).
4 Although widely accepted, the equivalence thesis is controversial. Zimmerman (2008, pp. 171–205),
for example, argues that it is false in both directions.
5 For supporting arguments for a coherent contemporary constructivism, see, for example, Rest,
Narvaez, Bebeau and Thoma (1999).
6 For further discussion of the empirical data I refer to here, see Dwyer (2003).
7 For further details about deontic reasoning, see, for example, Beller (2010).
8 All four concepts are logically interrelated according to the so-called ‘deontic square of oppositions’.


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Stefaan E. Cuypers
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium




Critics of sex education curricula have written about a ‘hidden curriculum’ that
presupposes a ‘normal’ adolescent. This hidden curriculum assumes that adolescents
are heterosexual, gender stereotyped, ruled by hormones, impulsive, and unthoughtful
about sex. Thus, adolescents are given the kind of curriculum that would apply to
this narrow stereotype, and health-focused sex education speaks to this imagined
norm. In matters of health and wellness, as well as pregnancy prevention, it may be
true that most adolescents could use most of the same facts –that is, that the
majority of the presented facts could be applied to a wide range of adolescents. But
it would be unwise to ignore the effects of the hidden curriculum regarding what it
means to be a normal adolescent and what it means to be sexual. There are several
reasons why it is important to acknowledge adolescents in their particularity for
health-oriented, ethics-oriented, or relationship-oriented sex education. In
particular, if sex education is to be ethics-based, then specific attention needs to be
paid to those adolescents who are most vulnerable to being hurt by sex or whose
rights are most likely to be violated. Thus, in this chapter we examine the meaning
of an ethics-based education and what is necessary to include in an ethics-based
sex education curriculum with regard to vulnerable adolescents.


Of those who have written about sex education, only a few have addressed the
importance of including ethics or moral education in the curricula. Of course, many
who design curricula have ethical principles in mind that they hope teens will
follow. These authors tend to be more conservative writers. For example, in the
United States for the past two decades, Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM)
curricula have been the norm in high schools around the country. Such curricula
include moral guidelines with regard to sex before marriage and sex that is not
heterosexual. Liberals (identified with the Comprehensive Sex education movement)
have argued that these curricula, which do not include information about
contraception and focus on refusal skills to maintain abstinence, are dangerous to
sexual health. Rather than argue against the moral issues embedded in these
curricula, the strategy of liberals has primarily been to point out the dangers to
adolescent health and develop an ‘evidence-based’ curriculum that shows health
outcomes for teens. For example, if a curriculum claims to prevent sexually
transmitted diseases (STDs), the number of new cases of STDs in a population can
be measured and the curriculum can be labeled ‘evidence-based’. Evidence-based-

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 163–177.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

ness was the key way in which opponents of AOUM curricula fought to get these
curricula out of schools. Moreover, the rise of therapy culture around sex (that is,
bringing sex into the public eye where popular stars make self-disclosures and the
discourse around sex centers around issues of health and happiness) required
teachers to teach ‘healthy’ sex behaviors and discourage ‘unhealthy’ sex behaviors
(Furedi, 2003; Janssen, 2009) rather than right and wrong. AOUM curricula took a
moral stance (moralistic, some would say), while comprehensive sex educators
took a scientific, health-based stance. As the Obama administration has put an end
to the domination of abstinence-based curricula, new ideas about how ethical
principles can be incorporated into sex education are afoot. Those who write about
the need for democratic sex education or ethics-based sex education are addressing
this absence.
Halstead and Reiss (2003), in their book, Values in Sex Education: From
Principles to Practice, write that values are a part of all sex education and that
educators have a duty to reflect on ‘the explicit and implicit values which underpin
all their work’ (p. 4). They assert that schools have three distinct duties: (a) to
uphold society’s values, (b) to provide information and fill in gaps of understanding,
and (c) to encourage students to choose a ‘rational path through the variety of
influences that impinge on their experience and to construct their own developing
value framework through a process of critical reflection’ (p. 4). Elia (2000) frames
this kind of teaching as democratic sex education.
There is also a growing body of work that discusses sex education related to
issues of ‘normality’ and power (Janssen, 2009). Those who write about what a
democratic sex education could look like point specifically to inclusion as a key
component. They argue that for sex education to be democratic, it must speak to all
children and teens. Demands for inclusion most often point to lesbian, gay,
bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) teens, who are made invisible in current
sexuality curricula. Janssen (2009), for example, discusses ‘queer pedagogy’ as
teaching that avoids homophobia and avoids setting heterosexuality as the norm.
According to Bower and Klecka (2009), ‘queer theory highlights that sanctioning
one way of being or acting as “normal” positions all other ways of being or acting
as “deviant”’ (p. 359). Rasmussen (2004) notes that teaching from a pleasure
perspective could provide a counter-narrative to LGBTQ teens viewing themselves
as possessing “wounded identities”(p. 445) in terms of their sexuality. This is the
only kind of sexuality that LGBTQ teens are permitted to express, and its
connection to the lack of acceptance they experience in their development and the
culture at large is thus internalized; their sexuality is forever linked with their
Another democratic principle that is addressed in writing about ethics in sex
education is the principle of freedom. Gutmann (1999) asserts that in democratic
education, choice is not meaningful for anyone unless the person choosing has ‘the
intellectual skills necessary to evaluate ways of life different from that of their
parents’ (p. 30). She writes that ‘teaching mutual respect is instrumental to assuring
all children the freedom to choose in the future’ (p. 32). She goes on to state:


Social diversity enriches our lives by expanding our understanding of

differing ways of life. To reap the benefits of social diversity, children must
be exposed to ways of life different from their parents and – in the course of
their exposure – must embrace certain values, such as mutual respect among
persons (pp. 32–33).
While she does not specifically address sex education, Gutmann’s democratic
principles of mutual respect and appreciation of diversity are echoed by ethics
writers who do.
Steutel (2009) writes about sex education from an ethical perspective and argues
that two conditions are necessary for sex between minors to be morally permissible:
information and voluntariness. In other words, he believes that students need
information to make informed choices, and the sex they engage in must be
voluntary. In a different article with Spiecker (1996), Steutel and Spiecker define
‘morally good sex’ as sex that maintains mutual care and respect and incites
individuals to avoid harming each other. With regard to sex education, Steutel and
De Ruyter (2011) have recently argued that the state has a right to compel students
to respect others’ rights to sexual self-determination. They write that students must
be taught that every adult should be able to ‘arrange one’s sexual life according to
one’s own values, beliefs, and preferences’ (p. 3). They also ask whether sex
education might require something more than respect, and more specifically,
whether it might teach students to care about the other person and be considerate of
the other person’s needs and desires. They argue that while this is morally ideal, it
cannot be a requirement and goes beyond what must be compelled of citizens.
New Zealand researchers recently published an ethics-based curriculum for high
school students that is grounded in ‘anti-rape education’ (Carmody & Willis,
2006). They noted that anti-rape education focuses on what girls and women need
to do to protect themselves and on how to report rape, and they used these observations
to develop a curriculum to address those who rape. Rather than teaching refusal
skills (Kitzinger & Frith, 1999), which makes girls responsible for preventing rape,
their curriculum asks students to examine the ethics of sex and the way one treats
others, in hopes that those who might rape or take advantage of others might
choose differently. Influenced by Foucault’s concept of ethics that connects the
care of the self to the care of others, Carmody and Willis’ curriculum teaches social
skills with regard to negotiating relationships and preventing sexual violence.
Lamb (2010) takes these ideas for ethical sex education a step further and writes
about sexual citizenship from a feminist perspective, where gender relations and
diverse sexualities are considered. She also incorporates the virtue of care that
Steutel and De Ruyter find morally ideal. Ethical sex education for Lamb not only
asks an adolescent to keep him or herself safe, but to care for the other or others
with whom the adolescent is having sex, and to consider those who are not sexual
partners but who might nonetheless be affected by the adolescent’s actions.
Citizenship, she argues, requires information and education to act in the world on
behalf of both oneself and others in matters pertaining to sexual activity. She
argues for a caring curriculum, one that Steutel and De Ruyter (2011) would refer
to as a ‘thick interpretation’ of Kant’s rule of respect.


The injunction to care for others may require more than a respect for others’ rights.
This concern is principle-based, whereas the kind of care that Gilligan (1982),
Blum (1994), and Murdoch (1970) discuss is more of a loving attention to others
with attention to their particularity. To truly care, one needs to take into
consideration the other person in his or her particularity. With regard to sex, this
particularity could be conceptualized as a person’s particular pleasures or particular
vulnerabilities. If sex education curricula aim to help students take care of other
people, these curricula would benefit from teaching students what pleases others so
that others may benefit from sex. In the conservative world of sex education, such
consideration seems unlikely. Perhaps a more realistic manner in which to discuss
the issue of care is to emphasize the importance of not causing harm to others.
Doing no harm can be conceptualized as a separate principle for teens to follow
in addition to respecting the rights of other teens for sexual self-determination. For
Steutel and De Ruyter (2011), this principle of nonmaleficence takes precedent
even over the importance of respecting the rights of others. While respecting the
right of a classmate’s sexual self-determination would mean that one would not
force her into sex, there is something more satisfying and personal in considering
that one would not force a classmate into sex because it would harm her, not just
because it would take away a right.
Sexuality educators might even want to encourage teens to exercise something
more broad than an injunction to do no harm, by asking them to care, and to extend
‘loving attention’ towards others. To this end, caring for another is also caring
about that person’s pleasure. As New Zealand researcher Louisa Allen (2007)
writes, ‘Recognising and fulfilling young people’s need for this information [about
sexual pleasure] can constitute them as legitimate sexual subjects in ways that
withholding such knowledge denies’ (p. 251; also see Sexual Subjects, 2005).
If a sex education should be developed that is based on care and personal rights,
it is important to examine the care that is needed by particular groups, what groups
are vulnerable, and the reasons for their vulnerability. Students growing up in areas
where there is no sex education or where they only receive AOUM education are
vulnerable students. Students growing up in poverty or in communities responding
to natural disaster or war are vulnerable. So are students who have been maltreated
and sexually abused as children. LGBTQ students are vulnerable due to prejudices
and lack of education with regard to LGBTQ issues among their peers. Students
with physical and developmental disabilities are vulnerable.
In this chapter we will consider three of these groups and their vulnerabilities.
We will begin by defining vulnerability, and then discuss what might be addressed
in a caring curriculum that would address the unique needs of these groups. The
first group we explore, LGBTQ students, helps us to understand vulnerability because
of marginalized status. The second group, students with developmental disabilities,
helps us to understand vulnerability due to society’s lack of accurate information
about this population and the barriers these individuals face in interpreting sexual
interactions and asserting themselves. The third group, students who have experienced
rape or childhood sexual abuse, helps us to understand how personal hardship can


increase vulnerabilities because of situational or personal variables the adversity



First it is important to consider what it means to be vulnerable sexually. What

makes certain groups more vulnerable than others? And to what are they
vulnerable? For the purposes of this chapter, we will consider vulnerability in the
context of the harm that could befall someone sexually. Most obviously, a person
could be vulnerable to the harm of being mistreated sexually, abused, raped, treated
as an object – in short, exploited. Such exploitation can cause physical, psychological,
and emotional harm. Along with this mistreatment is the harm of having one’s
sexual rights violated, such as the right to say no as well as the right to consent to a
sexual act. Taking away this right is taking away a person’s freedom.
Several factors contribute to making a person vulnerable to exploitation and
having their rights violated. There are four categories in particular that are
important to consider when examining vulnerability: (a) lack of information and
competence, (b) marginality, (c) personal characteristics, and (d) susceptibility of
some individuals to sexually harm others.
A lack of information increases an individual’s vulnerability, as it interferes
with the ability one has to give valid consent (Wertheimer, 2003). With regard to
lack of competence, some people may not know their rights or options in certain
situations, and as a result, they may comply with sexual acts with which they are
uncomfortable. Even when individuals are comfortable with sexual acts or desire
them, the lack of competence to make decisions might lead some to engage in
pleasurable or wanted sex that has unanticipated consequences (from heartbreak to
disease). There are also cases in which a person may have enough information, but
still not be competent to make decisions (e.g., the person is drunk or grief-stricken).
Belonging to a marginalized group, particularly one that is marginalized because
of sexuality, makes one vulnerable. A group is vulnerable due to the fact that
marginalization is often caused by fear, hostility, and a belief that members of this
group ought to have different rights than the majority. Thus, although it grows out
of oppression, the vulnerability caused by invisibility and marginalization is
different than the vulnerability that is associated with oppression. Some groups
have not been permitted the same opportunities for sexual exploration and sexual
pleasure that groups in the majority have. Without having their rights explicitly
violated, cultural understandings of who sex is for and what it is about leaves
certain groups vulnerable to not having the freedom to become sexual. One might
argue that repressive child-rearing interferes with children’s ability to experience
sexual pleasure and express themselves sexually (of course in ways that are
developmentally appropriate). In some cultures, women fall victim to ideologies
that label them as deviant for pursuing sexual pleasure. Thus circumstances and
ideologies can make individuals vulnerable to having inhibited sexual development
without being sexually exploited.


Additionally, there are personal factors (personality traits, situations, or histories)

that might make one more vulnerable to exploitation. For example, a personal trait
of gullibility may make a person more vulnerable to exploitation. Some situational
factors can interfere with people’s ability to exercise their rights, even if they
recognize that their rights are being violated. They may live under circumstances in
which they have little protection, such as those who live in tents in refugee camps.
They may also have had life experiences, such as a previous history of
maltreatment, that affect them physically or psychologically and consequently
might make them prone to situations or decisions that would increase their chances
of being exploited. Some individuals may have even been taught to behave in ways
that make them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Many men and women
with developmental disabilities, for example, are instructed by their caregivers to
be obedient, which makes them less likely to object to requests to engage in
unwanted sexual activities (Craft & Craft, 1983).
Finally, we must also consider that among the adolescents for whom we develop
sex education curricula, some may be vulnerable to developing in ways that cause
them to sexually harm others. While the majority of healthy and well-cared for
adolescents do not grow up to exploit others sexually or ignore the rights of others,
it is important to consider the possibility that some of the adolescents who will be
filling the seats in sex education classrooms are at risk of becoming sex offenders.
Thus, those adolescents who are vulnerable to acting out on others in sexually
exploitative ways must be included in a discussion of vulnerable populations.
Below we examine three groups that are vulnerable with respect to the several
definitions above. We describe how each group is vulnerable and suggest what
moral demands in sexual behavior are required such that a sexual ethics curriculum
might incorporate this knowledge. We discuss the demands for sexual ethics
curricula both for the students in these groups and for those who are not among
these populations, who can learn how to better relate to those more vulnerable than


Several theorists have noted the purposeful invisibility in the AOUM curricula of
any kind of sex other than heterosexual sex (Garcia, 2009). Liberal comprehensive
curricula that are used in public schools do not typically address LGBTQ issues,
and if they do, they tend to do so in a separate lesson. Curran et al., (2009) write
that ‘children and compulsory reproductive heterosexuality remains a bond that
cannot be broken’ (p. 157). In their discussion of the treatment of LGBTQ issues in
schools, they claim that even in neo-liberal, supposedly nonhomophobic discourses,
LGBTQ people are consistently construed as adults who have been deprived of a
childhood. They assert that LGBTQ individuals are always seen as fully-formed
adults and not pictured or imagined as teens or even children with developing
sexualities. Discussions of age of consent are often ‘heteronormalized’ (Janssen,
2009), and apply only to heterosexual teens. As Bower and Klecka (2009) write,
this heteronormative thinking points to all non-heterosexual people as deviant, and


therefore marginalizes them. Moreover, when teachers are put in the position of
either pleasing LGBTQ parents or pleasing heterosexual parents who do not want
their children to discuss LGBTQ issues, teachers tend to bow toward the requests
of the latter (Bower & Klecka, 2009).
The failure of sex education curricula to address the sexuality of LGBTQ teens
makes this group more vulnerable. They are more prone to health risks, such as
STDs, when they are not given the information they need to make healthy
decisions. In addition, there are issues relevant to dating and hooking up that arise
that might make LGBTQ adolescents more vulnerable to confusion with regard to
whether the same rules regarding age of consent apply to them as they apply to
heterosexual adolescents. This lack of straightforward information also makes
them more vulnerable to exploitation. Confusion and shame about one’s sexuality
can lead to acting out or proving one’s sexuality in problematic ways. This
confusion also makes some LGBTQ students more vulnerable to sexually harming
others, be it intentional or not, as they are more likely to engage in sexually risky
behaviors (such as having unprotected sex) in response to their conflicted feelings
towards their sexuality. Finally, pleasure is rarely discussed at all in sex education
curricula (Allen, 2007; Lamb, 2010), and when it is, it is almost always done so
within a heterosexual framework. Failure to develop subjectivity with regard to sex
inhibits adolescents’ ability to consent freely and to make choices that are
beneficial to their growth. Therefore, LGBTQ students are disadvantaged twice.
Those in the LGBTQ community also need information regarding how to make
ethical decisions with respect to sexual activity. These individuals are well aware
that similar ethical violations occur in sex between non-heterosexual teens as they
do between heterosexual teens. Thus, like heterosexual teens, LGBTQ teens need
sex education that teaches the principle of mutual consent and situations in which
valid consent might be compromised. LGBTQ teens are, like heterosexual teens,
vulnerable to exploiting others, and it is important that curricula not only represent
them as potential victims, but as potential harm-doers as well.
The marginality of LGBTQ teens is a major issue that greatly contributes to
their vulnerability. The 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by the
Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that in the U.S.,
nearly nine out of ten LGBT students experienced harassment and almost two-
thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. The report showed that 65%
of students were verbally harassed, 40% were physically harassed, and 19% were
assaulted. The survey found that the more students were harassed, the more likely
they were to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. A different study
reported that 36% of LGB youths in grades nine through twelve attempted suicide,
with 20 of those attempts resulting in medical care (Robin et al., 2002). These
statistics support the need for sex education courses to work with students of all
sexuality identities around ethical issues of respect and care. Moreover, the
invisibility of LGBTQ discussions in sex education curricula most likely contribute
to the environment that permits hostile hallway harassment.
Some advocates for LGBTQ teens have already begun working on how to
‘queer’ education or ‘queer’ pedagogy, which means in part to develop curricula


‘that afford every child dignity rooted in self-worth and esteem for others’ (Sears,
1999, p. 4), to explore assumptions about identity, diversity, and prejudice, and to
challenge heterosocialization. To truly have sexual ethics education that addresses
the vulnerabilities of marginalized groups, curricula need to openly acknowledge
identity, diversity, and prejudice and emphasize respect and caring. Very few
curricula that are used in public schools incorporate teaching about sexual harassment
within a sex education curriculum, nor do many use hypothetical situations about
consent in which both teens are the same gender. This makes LGBTQ teens
vulnerable to the harm of exploitation as well as the harm of rape. They are also
vulnerable to exploitation by adults if/when they seek out experiences and situations
outside of their own high school in which they may feel more comfortable in their
From this discussion, it is clear that the lack of a sex education curriculum that
addresses the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ adolescents may rob these
individuals of the ability derive pleasure from sexual experiences. They are left
invisible, or at best, marginalized in schools, which makes them vulnerable to
harassment and exploitation from peers, adults, and sexual partners.


Students with developmental disabilities are sexual beings and have sexual
subjectivity. Research indicates that those adults with developmental disabilities
are less knowledgeable about sex and have more negative attitudes about it than
their peers with physical disabilities. They also have lower levels of experience
(McCabe, 1999). To this end, several curricula have been developed to specifically
address teens with developmental disabilities (Dixon & Craft, 1992; Frawley et al.,
2003; Lindsay et al., 1992). The concern of the authors is not only to prevent
exploitation, but to promote responsible sexual behavior and provide information
to these students so that they may have the same opportunities for meaningful and
satisfying sexual relationships as their peers who do not have developmental
One source of vulnerability for those with developmental disabilities is that they
are targets for sexual exploitation. Developmentally disabled students have a high
rate of victimization. A National Crime Victimization Survey in 2007 reported that
people with cognitive disabilities had a higher risk of violent victimization that
persons with any other disability, and that rates of rape and sexual assault were
more than twice the rate as those without a disability. Almost half of all people
with developmental disabilities who have been victims of sexual violence experience
ten or more abusive incidents (Valenti-Hein & Schwartz, 1995). The high
incidence of exploitation of this population is caused, in part, by the fact that
people with developmental disabilities have more difficulty interpreting the
meaning of situations and have more limited verbal capabilities than those without
cognitive impairments (Turk & Brown, 1993). Individuals with developmental
disabilities are less likely to be able to discern whether a situation is safe or
whether it is going to cause them harm. Given the emphasis that their caregivers


often place on compliance, people with disabilities are also more likely to comply
with requests, even if it puts them in situations in which they are not comfortable
(Craft & Craft, 1983). Finally, their restricted verbal communication skills make it
challenging, and in some cases impossible, for these individuals to express consent
or unwillingness in a sexual situation, and to report incidences of sexual harassment
or abuse.
Considering that students with developmental disabilities are targets for sexual
exploitation, creating curricula that are delivered to them outside of a mainstream
sex education course only addresses a part of the issue and in effect makes them
responsible for preventing their own victimization. A sexual ethics curriculum
needs to teach non-disabled youths to care for and protect peers with vulnerabilities,
as well as to understand the ethical violations of engaging in sex with a person who
may not have the competence to consent or disclose exploitation.
Spiecker and Steutel (2002) take up an additional issue with regard to whether
sex between adults with developmental disabilities is ‘morally permissible’. They
define the developmentally disabled population as ‘human beings who are lacking
to a certain extent the capacities of practical reasoning implied in having the status
of an adult,’ and they note that their ‘powers of practical reasoning will permanently
show at least some’ limitations (p. 162). They are, in short, concerned with the
inability of these adults to give valid consent. Their solution involves a proxy
caregiver who could aid in that decision and help protect against exploitation,
while permitting expression of desire. While this is one solution, it seems to
suggest that individuals are not allowed privacy and autonomy with respect to their
sexual development because they cannot give valid consent. The ability to give
valid consent is associated with the ability for practical reasoning. Those familiar
with developmentally disabled adults will know that there is a range of abilities for
practical reasoning and that this ability may change in different situations for the
same individual. If we are to protect rights to autonomy and privacy for all groups,
it might be more ethical to judge on an individual basis whether a developmentally
disabled teen requires the more restrictive presence of an outsider (typically parent
or guardian) to assist in their sexual decision-making. It is certainly possible that
two developmentally disabled youths can have mutually satisfying sex, without any
resulting harm. This sex would also be considered ethical, given that the two
individuals have equal or close to equal capacities for reasoning. But equal capacities
for reasoning may not be the only additional requirement. It would seem that the
capacity to assert one’s self when one feels uncomfortable or coerced is an
important requirement for developmentally disabled youth to retain the autonomy
to make their own sexual decisions. On the other hand, we should not hold
developmentally disabled youth to a higher threshold than non-disabled teens with
regard to assertiveness.
Crucial to the argument for more freedom for developmentally disabled teens is
the acknowledgement that as adolescents, they too seek autonomy from their
caregivers and crave the freedom to pursue relationships on their own. And, as it is
for non-developmentally disabled teens, the freedom for some experimentation and
choice is important to their development. Developmentally disabled adolescents


are still developing and they should not to be seen as permanently in a place of lack
of competence.
Thus, sex between two consenting developmentally disabled teens ought to be
morally permissible. Perhaps what is most important to our argument, however, is
mutuality, rather than the capacity for practical reasoning. Children, for example,
play sexual games that are morally permissible even when they do not always have
the capacity for practical reasoning. When the games are mutual and the children
are similar in age and cognitive development, liberal parents tend to give children
the freedom to seek knowledge and pleasure with peers. If mutuality is the key,
then the capacity to understand and judge mutuality might be the rule by which
developmentally disabled teens are permitted freedom for their own sexual
pursuits. The capacity to understand mutuality is one that children have acquired
through play, not a capacity that is only firmly established in adulthood. For this
reason, this principle can and should be taught to adolescents with regard to sex
between any individuals who have not yet reached adulthood.
We might also consider that developmentally disabled adolescents are not only
vulnerable with regard to being exploited, but that they may not understand the
rights of others or their own responsibility in harming other people. Even when
teens have received adequate education with regard to unwanted sexual contact, it
is still difficult for them to see themselves as responsible for the sexual choices
they make (Garwood & McCabe, 2000). For example, developmentally delayed
individuals are more likely to respond aggressively to benign or ambiguous
circumstances based on the cognitive difficulties they have in interpreting
situations (Timms & Goreczny, 2002). Those adolescents who have sexually acted
out or who have been deemed sex offenders are an ignored population (Timms &
Goreczny, 2002). While known to be difficult to treat, they may need not only
social skills training, but moral education with regard to caring relationships,
mutuality, and other people’s rights. Grieve, McLaren, and Lindsay (2007) point to
several sexual education programs that have helped teach these aptitudes to
individuals with developmental disabilities. Such curricula as the ‘Life Horizons’
(Kempton, 1988) and ‘Picture Yourself’ (Dixon & Craft, 1992) programs employ
such resources as videos of real-life situations and stick figure drawings to teach
appropriate behavior in sexual situations. In implementing their own similar
curriculum and measuring its effects, Grieve et al., (2007) found that individuals
with developmental disabilities demonstrated increased sexual knowledge as well
as ‘changes in attitudes related to the areas of naivety toward sexual relationships’
(p. 33). The use of drawings and other ‘expressive modalities’ such as doll-houses
or puppets are helpful in exploring sexual feelings and situations with teens with
developmental disabilities (Lamb, 2006, p. 269). Thus, moral considerations regarding
sexuality may not all be so advanced that they could not be a part of a curriculum,
as long as that curriculum was adapted for the particular cognitive needs of the
individuals to whom it was taught.
Children and adolescents with a developmental disability deserve a sex education
that enhances their own sexual subjectivity, with the concomitant ability to say no
and to say yes. While Wolfe and Blanchett (2003) argue that these curricula need


to prevent sexual abuse, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy, they also argue that
curricula must help students with disabilities to develop a ‘positive sexual identity’
(p. 47). We agree with this assertion, and believe that teaching skills such as
assertiveness and an ability to read people’s intentions will help not only protect
these individuals, but also assist them in developing this positive sense of self with
regard to their sexuality. We also maintain, however, that it is important to
recognize people with developmental disabilities as individuals with the capacity to
care for others in sexual relationships. Thus, education that sticks only to issues of
health and refusal contribute to a perspective that sex is an individual endeavor. As
those who are developmentally disabled can be some of the loneliest teens (Lamb,
2006), helping them to see sex in relationships, and sex as caring, can help them to
reach out to others in ways that will lead to mutually satisfying sexual
relationships. Issues regarding pleasure, guilt, relationship, sexuality, choice, and
autonomy regarding sex may be similar for developmentally disabled and non-
developmentally disabled kids. Thus, while our efforts are protective, they also
respect the fundamental sexual autonomy that developmentally disabled teens


United States Surgeon General David Satcher (2001) wrote in his report on sex
education in America that one of the goals of sex education should be ‘freedom
from sexual abuse and discrimination and the ability of individuals to integrate
their sexuality into their lives, derive pleasure from it, and to reproduce if they so
choose’ (Introduction, par. 2). The report stated that 22 percent of all women have
been victims of forced sexual acts and that 104,000 children are victims of sexual
abuse each year.
With this understanding, and the knowledge that roughly 10 to 20% of high
school girls and boys will come to a sex education class with this negative
experience about sex, it seems odd that curricula are strangely silent on the topic
except to give victims resources. Sex education curricula are uniquely positioned to
help those with negative experiences understand the harm of objectification and
exploitation, and to teach them that sexual freedom rather than coercion can be
connected to their future experiences of sex as something pleasurable rather than
Multiple studies have now shown that child sexual abuse is associated with an
increased risk of adolescent and/or adult revictimization (Arata, 2002; Noll,
Trickett & Putnam, 2003). Those who have been harmed by sexual abuse may not
develop certain skills that are necessary for them to be able to exercise their rights
with regard to consent. For example, someone trained at an early age to succumb to
exploitation by an abuser often loses the will to say no. The depression and low
self-esteem that is a common outcome of sexual exploitation also leaves victims
vulnerable to exploitation in that they feel they deserve to be treated poorly, or in
some unconscious way may be re-enacting their abuse compulsively because they
have not come to terms with it. Cloitre, Scarvalone and Defede (1997) suggest that


victims of abuse have difficulty identifying feelings and often become numb to
their experience as a defense mechanism and way to dissociate from their pain.
This numbing makes them less able to react in dangerous situations or say no in
circumstances in which they could be exploited. Moreover, sexual abuse is correlated
with substance abuse, which may further impair their judgment of potentially
harmful situations (and consent under the influence is never valid consent).
Those who have been sexually abused are also vulnerable to never developing
their sexual lives in a way that is satisfying and/or does not cause harm to them. It
is well known that the majority of prostitutes report sexual abuse in childhood.
Also, Noll, Trickett and Putnam (2003) assessed the attitudes and activities of 77
sexually abused women and compared them to 89 who were not abused. Ten years
after the event, abused women had first intercourse at a younger age, used birth
control less effectively, and were more preoccupied with sex. Their preoccupation
with sex was related to anxiety, and those who were averse to sex had experienced
dissociation while being abused.
Those who have been sexually abused are not only vulnerable to further abuse,
but also vulnerable to abuse others. The fastest growing number of perpetrators of
sexual assault are children and adolescents who sometimes are called ‘sexually
reactive’ children, sometimes ‘sex offenders’ (Okami, 1992). It has long been
known that treatment groups for adult sex offenders involve the offender looking
back and understanding the messages he or she received about sex as a child and
teen as well as any abuse he or she might have experienced. That is, the re-
education of sex offenders in prison often offers sex education that could perhaps
have been a part of public sex education. While it is unwise to try to incorporate
therapy that helps victims to deal with their abuse within a sex education class
(given how stigmatized victims of abuse continue to be and how therapy, rather
than the classroom, may be the most beneficial place to process the feelings
associated with abuse), information about sexual abuse, the rights of children that
were violated, and the typical feelings and reactions of victims are all topics that
would help teens begin to cope and process what they have experienced. Most
importantly, teens who have been sexually abused need to understand how this
abuse can, but does not have to, affect their sexual preferences and sexual pleasure
in the future. Education that incorporates these kinds of sexual problems of
childhood and adolescence into the curriculum ‘normalizes’ them to some extent,
which can combat the secretive shame that contributes to depression in victims and
acting out as future perpetrators.


What does it mean to empathize with those who are vulnerable? To understand
vulnerability and consider it when interacting with others requires a moral response
of care. Acting on principle may not be enough, but cultivating an attitude towards
those with vulnerabilities may help create a more caring and protective community
for all. We recommend that as students begin their independent sexual journeys,
they be encouraged to think of others as well as themselves. If sex education


curricula explicitly address the concerns of those most vulnerable, students are
asked not only to consider the ethical questions that arise with these populations,
but to examine the particular identities, experiences, and abilities that play a part in
the way they relate to each other ethically.
While we have discussed the vulnerabilities of three populations, teaching
specifically about these groups may increase the risk of developing stereotyped
lessons where overarching views and rigid principles are endorsed. This is not our
intent. Instead, talking about vulnerability with regard to sex, and how these
vulnerabilities are tied to certain attributes and experiences, can help students to
see other people in all their particularity and vulnerability and proceed more
carefully in their relationships. An open, honest, and comprehensive sex education
can afford all students the opportunity to reclaim the freedoms they are forced to
relinquish due to their unique vulnerabilities.


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Sharon Lamb & Aleksandra Plocha

University of Massachusetts Boston, USA




We all know that adolescents have sexual contacts – not only with other
adolescents but also with adults.3 We also know that people have different and
often incompatible moral opinions about such contacts. Some people, perhaps for
religious-moral reasons, morally condemn all sexual contacts in which adolescents
are involved. Others take the more lenient view that sex between adolescents, but
not sex between adolescents and adults, may be morally acceptable. And still
others are of the opinion that sexual contacts of adolescents, no matter whether the
other party is an adolescent or an adult, are morally permissible but only if
particular conditions are fulfilled.
Given these conflicting moral views, one may wonder why the sexual contacts
of adolescents have never been the subject of systematic ethical reflection. To be
sure, in the field of moral philosophy that goes by the name of practical (or
applied) ethics, several books and many articles about sexual contacts between
adults have been written in recent years. Also adult–child sex, in particular
paedophilia, has been a central topic of critical evaluation in several philosophical
papers. To my knowledge, however, publications in practical ethics that specifically
focus on the sexual contacts of adolescents are completely absent.
In this chapter, I want to make a start towards rectifying this regrettable
omission. I will do so by addressing the following question: does a liberal sexual
ethics provide an adequate perspective for morally evaluating sexual contacts of
adolescents and, if not, what could be a more adequate ethical view? My reason for
taking a liberal sexual ethics as a starting-point is that many moral philosophers, if
not the majority, tend to support or are at least sympathetic to its central claims.
Moreover, it seems to be the prevalent view on sexuality, not only in the relatively
small field of practical ethics, but also, albeit more implicitly, in modern Western
societies at large. However, before I try to give an answer to my twofold question,
I shall, in order to prevent confusion and misunderstandings, clarify some of its
central terms.


First, the term ‘liberal sexual ethics’ should be briefly explained. The key idea of
this modern ethical view is undoubtedly the notion of consent. If we want to
evaluate sexual contacts or some sexual interaction from the perspective of a
liberal sexual ethics, we have to make an appeal to the so-called principle of

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 179–192.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

consent. According to this principle, sexual contacts are morally impermissible or

unacceptable as long as at least one of the parties involved has not given his or her
consent; and such contacts are morally permissible or acceptable as soon as all the
parties concerned have given their consent. By regarding the consent of all the
participants not only as necessary but also as sufficient for making sexual contacts
morally permissible, a liberal sexual ethics gives consent a very special, almost
magical role (Kleinig, 2001; Wertheimer, 2003, pp. 119–120). Person A asks
person B to sleep with him and, merely by consenting to A’s proposal, B drastically
alters the moral quality of her relation to A. Just by nodding affirmatively or by
smiling encouragingly, a sexual act of A that would otherwise be a serious moral
offence is transformed by B into morally permissible conduct.
Quite rightly, however, a liberal sexual ethics points out that the consent of the
parties involved may not be valid, that is, may not be the type of consent that
makes the sexual contact morally permissible. In order to perform its magical,
normative, transformative role, the parties’ consent has to meet particular criteria,
namely, the criterion of voluntariness (the consent is not the result of coercion or
intimidation), the criterion of information (the consent is not obtained by deceit or
manipulation) and the criterion of competence (the consent is not given by
someone who lacks the capacity to make sensible decisions).4 If B consents to have
sex with A, but only because A threatens to beat up her children if she refuses, or if
B would not have given her consent if A had told her the truth about his contagious
disease, or if B is seriously psychotic or intellectually disabled, her consent is
invalid. For these reasons, the core principle of a liberal sexual ethics is normally
not simply called the principle of consent but the principle of valid consent.
Notwithstanding the valid consent of all the parties involved, however, the sex
may still be morally unacceptable. According to the liberal sexual view, sexual
contacts should also meet two conditions that pertain to outsiders or so-called third
parties, that is, to persons who are not themselves taking part in the sexual
interaction. The first condition is that the sex is not significantly harmful to
innocent outsiders (Archard, 1998, pp. 68–69; Wertheimer, 2003, p. 131). Suppose
that A is married but not to B. And suppose, furthermore, that A solemnly
promised his wife to be monogamous, or that his sexual affair with B, after being
disclosed, has disruptive consequences on his family. A liberal sexual ethics will,
under normal circumstances, count such facts as overriding reasons for considering
the sexual contact between A and B as morally impermissible. The second
condition is that the sex should not be unnecessarily offensive (Archard, 1998, pp.
72–73). For example, if A has sex with B in broad daylight on a public bench in
Hyde Park, the sex will not meet this condition and therefore should be regarded as
morally impermissible.
In sum, then, a liberal sexual ethics claims that the consent of all the parties
involved is both necessary and sufficient for making the sex morally permissible,
but only if their consent is valid and outsiders are not significantly harmed nor
unnecessarily offended. To prevent unnecessary complications, I shall, in the rest
of my argument, take it for granted that the conditions pertaining to outsiders are


A second central term that needs some preliminary clarification is ‘adolescence’. In

accordance with the rules of ordinary language, the beginning of this stage of life
can be roughly located in the occurrence of bodily changes that are the result of a
considerable increase in the production of growth and sex hormones. In
developmental psychology three of these striking physiological changes are
distinguished: the speeding up of the growth and maturation of both primary and
secondary sexual characteristics. Sometimes developmental psychologists opt for a
much more specific criterion to demarcate the onset of adolescence, namely, the
first menstruation for girls and the capacity to produce sperm for boys (Doreleijers
& Jansen, 2004, p. 38; Mönks & Knoers, 2004, p. 228).
The end of adolescence should be located in the attainment of adulthood. This
demarcation, however, immediately confronts us with the problem that in educational
and psychological circles quite different and often incompatible conceptions of
adulthood are proposed and defended. And also the way in which the term is used
in common parlance is far from univocal. Therefore, it is important to make clear
from the outset that I will use the term ‘adulthood’ in a particular way, namely, in
the so-called status meaning of that term. In addition to the term ‘adulthood’, there
are many other terms that have a status meaning, ranging from ‘student’ and
‘teacher’ to ‘illegal alien’ and ‘citizen’. However different the meaning of these
terms may be, their usage has one thing in common: if we refer to a certain person
by a status term, we assume, albeit often rather implicitly, that this person has or
does not have particular rights or duties. For example, if we point out that this
person is the parent of that child, and we use the term ‘parent’ not in its biological
but in its status sense, we indicate that the person has both the right and the duty to
take care of the child and to bring it up. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true of the
status term ‘adulthood’.
The period preceding adolescence is often called childhood. According to this
relatively narrow meaning of the term ‘childhood’, an adolescent is by definition
not a child anymore. As the dividing line between childhood, in this restricted
sense, and adolescence, I introduced a biological criterion: the occurrence of
certain bodily changes or, much more specifically, the first menstruation for girls
and the production of living germ-cells for boys. Just as often, however, the term
‘child’ is used to refer to every individual who is not yet an adult. According to this
much broader meaning of ‘childhood’, an adolescent is by definition still a child.
To mark off childhood, in this comprehensive meaning, from adulthood, I introduced
a status criterion: someone with the status of an adult has certain rights and duties
that cannot be ascribed to or imposed on someone with the status of a child, and the
other way round.5


After this brief terminological clarification we are still not sufficiently prepared to
tackle my twofold central question. A closer analysis of the status of adulthood
and, correlatively, a closer examination of what it means to have the status of a
child are needed. This analysis focuses on two aspects. First, we should make clear


what exactly are the rights that should be assigned to adults but are to be denied to
adolescents, precisely because they still have the status of a child. Second, some
indication should be given of the mental qualities which are required for having the
status of an adult and which, therefore, are not yet fully developed in adolescents.
In line with my central question, I shall confine my analysis to the sexual sphere of
life. So my twofold question is: which rights that pertain to the sexual domain are
partly constitutive of the status of adulthood; and on the basis of which mental
qualities can this status be ascribed?
One way of answering this question is by going back to a liberal sexual ethics,
in particular by focusing our attention on the ethical justification of the principle of
valid consent. A first step in justifying this principle reveals that, with respect to
the sexual domain, having the status of an adult involves only one single right. But
because this right covers all the sexual doings and dealings of adult persons, its
impact can hardly be underestimated. It may be argued, as a first justifying step,
that the principle of valid consent is derived from, or a specification of, a relatively
more basic and encompassing moral principle, which I shall call the principle of
sexual selfdetermination. According to this principle, every adult person should
have the right of sexual self-determination, that is, the freedom to arrange one’s
sexual life according to one’s own values and preferences. Because this freedom
right is accorded to all adults in equal measure, the principle sets clear limits to our
freedom of action: we all have the duty to respect every other adult’s right of
sexual self-determination.6
Forms of behaviour that are inconsistent with this duty and which, therefore,
should be regarded as violations of a person’s sexual freedom right, are specified
by the principle of valid consent. By taking valid consent as a necessary condition
of morally permissible sex, the principle points out which forms of sexual
behaviour are violations of someone’s sexual freedom right. These are precisely
those sexual acts to which no consent has been given or, if they are consented to,
the consent is obtained by coercion or fraud. And by taking valid consent as a
sufficient condition of morally permissible sex, the principle indicates which forms
of non-sexual behaviour are infringements of the right of sexual self-determination.
These are actions and measures that oppose or seriously hamper particular sexual
relations between validly consenting adults, such as penalising sexual contacts between
unmarried adults, threatening persons for having a homosexual relationship, committing
so-called honour revenge and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
A second step in the justification of the principle of valid consent brings to light
which mental qualities one must have acquired to be granted the right of sexual
selfdetermination and, therefore, also for having the status of an adult. I tried to
show that the principle of valid consent can be justified in terms of the principle of
sexual self-determination. But what are the justifying grounds of this principle
itself? How could we justify that we, as adults, should be free to arrange our sexual
lives as we see fit, provided that we respect each person’s freedom to do the same?
Although I do not want to deny that the sexual freedom right can be defended
from a Kantian perspective or some contractarian view (cf. Wertheimer, 2003, pp.
127–130, 2006, p. 185; Steutel & Spiecker, 2004, pp. 55–57), here my attention


will be focused on a utilitarian account. As early as 1859, in his classic On liberty,

John Stuart Mill argued convincingly that having the freedom to lead our life in
accordance with our own beliefs about what is valuable in life, serves our own
wellbeing. This view, I think, holds true for our sexual life in particular. Regarding
the sexual domain, we ourselves know best what our preferences, aspirations,
values and ideals are, perhaps even better than with respect to other spheres of life.
Because of this, we are in the best position to determine whether or not particular
sexual contacts will promote our own good. Consequently, the general practice of
reciprocal respect for each other’s right of sexual self-determination, tends to be in
the interest of all those concerned.7
The utilitarian justification of the principle of sexual self-determination and,
therefore, also of the principle of valid consent, gives a clear indication of the
requisite mental qualities for the status of adulthood: it is the rather complex
capacity to steer a prudent course in the sexual sphere of life. After all it is hard to
see how the right of sexual self-determination could serve our own well-being if
we would not have this capacity. For that reason, Mill explicitly states that children
do not qualify to be granted the right of sexual self-determination. Since they have
not yet acquired the required capacity to a sufficient degree, it may be expected
that the freedom to do what they want in matters of sexuality does not serve but
rather tends to undermine their own welfare (cf. Kleinig, 1976).
Giving a detailed account of the capacity to steer a prudent course in the sexual
domain would be far beyond the scope of this chapter. In the context of my
argument, two brief remarks will suffice. First, I called this capacity ‘complex’
because it is composed of several relatively independent sub-capacities. Obviously
one of these is the capacity of prudent judgement, that is, the ability to determine
whether or not particular sexual contacts are to our benefit or at least do not harm
us.8 But just as important is the capacity to act accordingly, that is, to put our
prudent judgements into practice. One may have the ability to make sensible
judgements without being able to act accordingly, as one may lack the required
self-confidence, assertiveness or skills of self-control. Second, the utilitarian
justification of the right of sexual selfdetermination refers to a relatively or
comparatively accurate judgemental capacity. Having the ability to judge prudently
in sexual matters does not mean that our judgements will always be accurate and,
on occasion, another person’s judgement about what will serve our well-being can
be more accurate. It only implies that we are generally better able to determine
which sexual contacts will promote or be detrimental to our own well-being than
anyone else.9 For if other individuals would be generally better able to make
sensible decisions on our behalf than we ourselves are able to do, we would be
better off to give those others the right to determine for us which sexual contacts
are in our interests instead of claiming that right for ourselves.


The results of my preliminary analyses can be summarised as follows. The claim

that a person should be regarded as an adult, in the status meaning of that term,


implies the claim that this individual should have the right of sexual self-
determination and is based on the claim that this person has acquired the capacity
to judge and act prudently in the sexual sphere of life.10 Given the upper limit of
the stage of adolescence that I pointed out, these claims are by definition not
applicable to adolescents. Notwithstanding their remarkable bodily changes,
adolescents still have the status of a child. And the claim that someone still is a
child, implies the claim that this person is not yet eligible to be accorded the right
of self-determination and is based on the claim that this person’s capacity to judge
and act prudently in matters of sexuality is still underdeveloped.
We can now start to answer the first part of my central question: does a liberal
sexual ethics offer an adequate perspective for morally evaluating sexual contacts
of adolescents? As I have already explained, this ethical view holds that the
consent of all the parties concerned is a sufficient condition of morally permissible
sexual contacts, but only in so far as their consent meets the criteria of voluntariness,
information and competence. An important implication of this view is that the
consent of adolescents to sexual contacts is ipso facto invalid and, therefore, in
itself not sufficient for making these contacts morally permissible. Since their
capacity for judging and acting prudently is still underdeveloped, their consent
cannot meet the criterion of competence. That is why their consent, also in the
absence of any form of coercion or deceit, lacks that magical transformative power
that is typical of the voluntary and informed consent of adults. Suppose that B
consents to A’s proposal to have sex with him. And suppose, furthermore, that A
did not put any pressure on B, nor could be accused of deceiving her. Given these
conditions, A can rightly claim that the sex is morally permissible if B has the
status of an adult. But if B is an adolescent and, therefore, has the status of a child,
A cannot justify his sexual behaviour simply by pointing out that B has given her
In my view, this implication of a liberal sexual ethics deserves our full support.
Taking the voluntary and informed consent of adolescents as valid, that is, as
sufficient for making their sexual contacts morally permissible, would actually
mean giving them the right of sexual self-determination. And we have seen that as
yet, precisely because their capacities for judging and acting sensibly are too
immature to make them competent, the right to sexual freedom should be withheld
from them.
According to a liberal sexual ethics, however, the valid consent of all the
participants is not only a sufficient but also a necessary condition of morally
acceptable sexual interactions: if at least one of the parties did not give his or her
valid consent, the sex is morally impermissible.11 And the implication of this
central aspect of a liberal sexual ethics for adolescents is much more radical. Since
the consent of adolescents does not meet the criterion of competence, their consent
cannot be valid. Consequently, taking valid consent as a necessary condition of
morally permissible sex actually implies that all their sexual relations, not only
with adults but also with other adolescents, should be considered morally
impermissible. In other words, the fact that B is an adolescent, does not only make
her consent insufficient to morally legitimise A’s sexual contact with her, it also


makes that contact morally unacceptable, even if B, without being forced or lied to,
has given her consent to A’s proposal.
That this implication of the liberal view on the life of adolescents is far-reaching
can be shown in the following way. It may be taken for granted that the age of
entering into the stage of adolescence will vary considerably from child to child.
But if we take the first menstruation or the production of living germ-cells as its
starting point, empirical research shows that nowadays the mean age of the onset of
adolescence is 12.5 years for girls and roughly two years later for boys (Archard,
2004, p. 108; Mönks & Knoers, 2004, p. 228). Also the age at which adolescents
grow into adults will vary considerably. But if we want to pin down the onset of
adulthood at an average age, it does not seem unreasonable to choose, in line with
Dutch criminal law, the age of 16.12 Given these age limits, the stage of
adolescence covers, on average, a period of 2.5 years. In this period the production
of sex hormones is responsible not only for striking bodily changes but also for the
acceleration of psycho-sexual development. Adolescents show a growing interest
in sexual matters, fantasise about sex frequently, fall in love easily and often
experience rather strong sexual feelings and desires. Now by taking competence as
a necessary condition of morally permissible sex, adolescents, in contrast to adults,
are, so to speak, deprived of any moral space to express all these fantasies, feelings
and desires in sexual contacts. Regarding this stage of life, one can hardly maintain
that a liberal sexual ethics is living up to its own name.13
My guess is that many people will be inclined to reject this implication of a
liberal sexual ethics. Whether or not from their own experience, they will bring up
examples of sexual contacts between adolescents and probably also of sexual
interactions between adolescents and (young) adults, that are intuitively completely
morally acceptable. However, besides the fact that convincing counterexamples
can be presented, another reason can be given for dismissing this implication of a
liberal sexual ethics for the sexual contacts of adolescents.
Adherents of a liberal sexual ethics may defend this implication by pointing out
that the world of sexual contacts is quite complicated and full of pitfalls. Because
of this, they may argue that those who are not competent to make prudent decisions
in matters of sexuality, including adolescents, will generally be better off if they
keep away from this often rather murky world. Hence, to protect the interests of
incompetent individuals, sexual contacts in which they are engaged should be
morally (and perhaps also legally) prohibited.
This argument definitely has some force. By forbidding sex that involves
adolescents, and given a general willingness to observe this proscription, adolescents
are less likely to be harmed by sexual contacts. But there is a drawback to this
prohibition as well: its general observance will also be more or less detrimental to
the interests of adolescents. Not only because their sexual desires will be frustrated
for a relatively long period of time, but also because for several years they will be
excluded from the positive side of sexual contacts, especially the experience of
sexual pleasure and intimacy. So, instead of prohibiting all sexual contacts of
adolescents, a better policy would be to look for a moral principle that, if generally
complied with, gives adolescents the opportunity to enjoy the bright side of sexual


relations, while keeping them away from the dark side. In other words, with respect
to the sexual contacts of adolescents, we should try to articulate or to construe a
moral principle that better serves their interests than the liberal principle of valid
consent. What principle could that be?14


To begin, I wish to point out two conditions that are to be taken as necessary for
morally permissible sexual contacts in which adolescents are engaged, namely,
voluntariness and information. If at least one of the parties concerned has not given
his or her consent, or has consented under duress or after being deceived, such
sexual contacts, whether between adolescents or between adolescents and adults,
are morally impermissible. A liberal sexual ethics rightly claims that both conditions
also hold for sexual relations between adults. But whoever the participants might
be, both conditions do have the function to protect their interests or, to put it more
precisely, to prevent sexual contacts that will harm them.
Empirical research shows repeatedly that involuntary sex seriously affects the
victim’s well-being, no matter whether an adult or a child. First there is the
immediate mental harm of enforced sex, that is, the feelings of distress that are
triggered at the time of such sexual contacts and for some time thereafter, such as
disgust, fear, dismay, abhorrence, desperation and the feeling of humiliation.
Moreover, involuntary sex also tends to produce long-term harm to the welfare
interests of the victim. Well-documented examples of psychological impairments
are post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic lack of self-confidence, serious relational
problems, phobic anxieties, depression, suicidal thoughts and suicidal attempts (cf.
Rind et al., 1998; Wertheimer, 2003, pp. 103–112).
Deception is also likely to provoke mental damage in the victim. In deceiving
the victim, the perpetrator tries to obtain her consent by deliberately presenting the
situation as much better than it actually is. By doing this, the perpetrator suggests
that the victim’s consent can only be to her advantage, whereas in fact his intention
is to manoeuvre her into a situation that profits him at the expense of her. Hence,
consent that is the result of deception or manipulation tends to undermine the
victim’s well-being. First of all because she will get into a situation that will
probably be harmful to her, but also because, if she realises she has been misled,
she will be affected by negative feelings, such as disappointment, sadness, regret
and, above all, the painful awareness of being betrayed. A paradigmatic example of
such a perpetrator is the so-called ‘loverboy’.
If each of the participants actually have the status of an adult, the conditions of
voluntariness and information are not only independently necessary but also
together sufficient for making the sex morally permissible. But this is not the case
if at least one of the parties is an adolescent. Since the consent of adolescents
cannot meet the criterion of competence, a third condition has to be fulfilled in
order to make their sexual contacts morally permissible. And just like the
conditions of voluntariness and information, this condition, too, must be justifiable
in terms of their interests. To put it differently, because adolescents are not yet


sufficiently capable of judging and acting prudently, this third condition should, so
to speak, compensate for their lack of prudence. And the intriguing question is:
what could that condition be?
Not only in the sexual domain but also in other spheres of life adults have
freedom rights that are not assigned to children, in the status meaning of that term.
Think, for example, of healthcare and medical treatment, schooling and education
and financial transactions and making contracts. Now it should be noted that the
reason why these rights of self-determination are withheld from children, namely
the fact that their capacities for steering a prudent course in these different fields
are underdeveloped, is precisely also the reason why they are placed under parental
authority. Put another way, because children are not yet sufficiently capable of
looking after their interests, others are given the authority to do that for them,
precisely with respect to those areas of life that are demarcated by adult freedom
rights. Henceforth I shall assume that those who have parental authority are the
child’s parents, although, of course, the child may also be placed under guardianship.
But whoever those with parental authority may be, the assumption is that they, as
adults, are not only better able to arrange their own lives more prudently than
others can do for them, but also that they are generally better equipped to steer the
lives of children under their authority than those children are themselves capable of
That said, my suggestion is to locate the third condition of morally permissible
sexual contacts of adolescents in the authority of their parents. At first blush this
may seem plausible and even rather obvious, but on closer inspection it turns out to
be quite difficult to specify the legitimising role of parental authority in a proper
way. So the question is: assuming that the third condition has to do with parental
authority, how, then, should it be defined?
In my view, this question can be answered by focusing on the normative
foundation of parental authority, namely, the duty of parents to look after the
child’s interests. Many of the rights we have lack a corresponding duty to exercise
these rights, let alone to do that in a particular way. But such a correlation definitely
holds true for parental authority. Parents not only have the right on behalf of their
children, to make decisions, with a view to protect or to promote their interests –
they also have the duty to exercise that right and, what is more, to do that as best
they can. This role-responsibility of parents is actually composed of two sub-
duties. First, parents have the duty to intervene in the child’s life, or to abstain from
intervening in the child’s life, if they believe that such interventions or intentional
non-interventions are required in view of the child’s interests. This sub-duty is
conditional upon, or needs to be informed by, a second parental sub-duty, which
may be seen as an epistemic meta-duty. The parents’ beliefs about whether or not
their interventions will in fact protect or promote the child’s interests, may be
illfounded, untenable or even completely mistaken. Therefore parents also have the
duty to make sure, to the best of their ability, that these beliefs are accurate or at
least well-justified.
With reference to this twofold parental responsibility, the third condition of
morally permissible sexual contacts of adolescents can be specified as follows: the


parents have given their consent to the sexual contact on the basis of their
considered belief that the sex will not harm the welfare interests of the adolescents
involved. According to this specification, the third condition consists of two
components that correspond with the two sub-duties that form the justifying basis
of parental authority. The first is that the parents have given their consent to the
sexual contacts of these adolescents because they believe that those contacts will
not harm them. The second is that their belief is well-considered or the result of
careful thought, that is to say, the parents have tried, as best they can, to form a
belief that is accurate. Just like the conditions of voluntariness and information,
this condition has the function of protecting the interests of adolescents. For if the
parents fulfil their role-responsibility as they should, it is reasonable to expect that
the sex to which they can give their consent will be to the benefit rather than to the
detriment of the adolescents involved and that the sex that will not have their
consent would tend to harm rather than to promote their welfare interests.


In conclusion I wish to point out that the duty of parents to exercise their authority
in a sensible way seems to be at odds with another parental duty, namely, the duty
to make sure that their children acquire the capacity to make prudent judgements
and to act accordingly. Given their authority, parents must ask adolescents to listen
to their reasons and to respect their decisions. As a central aspect of sex education,
however, parents should also stimulate adolescents to form their own judgements
and to make their own choices. In other words, parents should ask adolescents to
be obedient and should promote their independence. And are not these tasks
incompatible? After all, how could the reinforcement of heteronomy be reconciled
with the promotion of autonomy?
Although I have no wish to trivialise the potential conflicts between these
parental tasks, I shall try to formulate some general guidelines which, if observed,
put these tasks on the same track. These are guidelines that recommend ways of
exercising parental authority that are at the same time conducive to the development
of adolescents into competent actors in sexual relations.
First, parents are well-advised to explain to adolescents what their reasons are
for giving or withholding their consent to their sexual contacts. By making it clear
to adolescents why they think that sex will serve or harm their welfare interests,
parents will increase the adolescents’ insight into possible advantages and
disadvantages of certain types of sexual interactions. As it may be hoped that these
adolescents will consider the possible effects on their welfare in future, their
capability of making prudent choices will be improved.
A second guideline is that parents should stimulate adolescents to put forward
their own opinions about the sexual contacts they would like to have and maintain.
Although adolescents do not yet have the right of sexual self-determination, they
do have the right to be heard (Archard, 2004, pp. 64–66, 117). To put it more
precisely, they have the right to influence the decisions of their parents by
expressing their own views and parents have the corresponding duty to give them


the opportunity to do that and to take their views seriously. Encouraging adolescents to
exercise this right will tend to improve the judgement of both parents and
adolescents. Parents will be better informed and, therefore, be better equipped to
make considered decisions regarding the sexual contacts of adolescents. And
adolescents will be spurred to think for themselves about the positive and negative
welfare consequences of their sexual contacts.
As a third guideline, parents are recommended to allow adolescents to experiment
with sexual contacts, within clearly demarcated boundaries. By giving adolescents
free space, parents not only meet the adolescents’ growing need for autonomy, they
also give them the chance to learn from their own experiences. In comparison with
self-reflection or imagination, experimenting with sexual contacts may be a more
effective way to discover what their preferences are and which forms of sex within
which kinds of relationships will be more or less fulfilling. It is the task of parents
to make sure that this experimental learning space is relatively safe. The risks must
not be too high and possible damage should be limited. Therefore, parents should
make perfectly clear to adolescents the limits within which they are expected to
stay, for example, by persuading them always to use contraceptives, never to take
part in sex parties, not to make appointments via the Internet and only to have sex
in a safe environment with trusted persons of about their own age. In this way,
adolescents will know in advance which sexual contacts will gain their parents’
consent. If parents take these guidelines seriously, they will treat adolescents as
individuals who still have the status of a child and simultaneously promote their
growth into persons who have the status of an adult. By paternalistically protecting
their interests, they will stimulate their capacities to look after their own interests.
In short, they will use their authority as a way of attaining the educational aim of
sexual self-determination.


Many thanks to Ben Spiecker for his helpful comments – and for all those years of
pleasant and productive cooperation.

This chapter is a translation of a shortened and slightly adapted version of the author’s inaugural
lecture (Steutel, 2007), presented on the occasion of his appointment to a Special Chair in
Philosophy of Education at the University of Amsterdam.
This chapter was previously published as Steutel, J.(2009).Towards a sexual ethics for adolescence.
Journal of Moral Education, 38(2), 185–198. Published by Taylor & Francis Ltd,, reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Recent empirical research shows that, at the age of 16, the percentage of Dutch young people who
have experience with sexual intercourse, oral sex or anal sex is 41, 40 and 8 respectively (de Graaf et
al., 2005, p. 13).
How these criteria should be interpreted is painstakingly discussed in Wertheimer (2003, Ch. 8–10)
and Archard (1998, pp. 44–53). For an instructive analysis of the criterion of voluntariness, see also
Soble (1998, pp. 77–82) and Primoratz (1999a, pp. 161–165).


Feinberg (1980, pp. 124–125) makes a distinction between A-C-rights (i.e., the rights that are
common to adults and children), A-rights (i.e., the rights that belong to adults only) and Crights (i.e.,
the rights that are characteristic of children and possessed by adults only in abnormal
circumstances). Every status distinction between childhood and adulthood refers to particular C-
rights and A-rights and often also to certain C-duties (e.g., the duty to obey one’s parents) and A-
duties (e.g., the duty to be self-supporting).
Not only moral principles but also moral ideals play an important role in evaluating sexual conduct.
We may, on the basis of our principles, consider certain forms of sexual contacts morally
permissible but nonetheless regard those contacts, in the light of our ideals, as morally unworthy or
morally objectionable – for example, because the sex is humiliating, degrading, disgraceful, self-
seeking, instrumental, vulgar, cheap, miserable or depressing. Accordingly, one may, as an adherent
of a liberal sexual ethics, whole-heartedly defend that any adult’s right of sexual self-determination
should be respected and at the same time acknowledge that this right is not always exercised in a
way that is morally unobjectionable, let alone morally ideal (cf. Primoratz, 1999a, pp. 19–20, 170–
172; 2001, pp. 214–216; Wertheimer, 2003, pp. 5–7, 131–132, 142–143; 2006, p. 184; De Ruyter &
Spiecker, 2008).
For a (quasi-)utilitarian justification of adult freedom rights, including the right of sexual
selfdetermination, see also Feinberg (1980, pp. 143–144), Wertheimer (2003, pp. 124–125, 139–
140; 2006, p. 185) and Archard (2004, pp. 55–56, 77–78, 117).
This judgemental capacity may itself be taken as a complex mix of different components, in
particular (1) knowledge and understanding of the nature, social meanings and consequences of
sexual contacts, (2) the capacity of comparing and weighing the benefits and harms of sexual
contacts and (3) a relatively consistent and stable set of preferences or values on the basis of which
sexual contacts and their ramifications are evaluated (Buchanan & Brock, 1989, pp. 23–25; see also
Archard, 1998, p. 124; 2004, pp. 93–95, 105–108).
See Wertheimer (2003, pp. 226, 229) and Feinberg (1980, p. 143): ‘A given normal adult is much
more likely to know his own interests, talents and natural dispositions (the stuff of which his good is
composed) than is any other party and much more capable therefore of directing his own affairs to
the end of his own good than is a government official.’
The term ‘autonomy’ is often used as a synonym for ‘self-determination’. It is important, however,
to distinguish what may be called the ethical and the psychological meaning of that term (cf.
Feinberg, 1989). According to the former meaning, an autonomous person is an individual who
possesses rights of self-determination (including the sexual freedom right). According to the latter
meaning, an autonomous person is an individual who has the capacities that are needed for
exercising rights of self-determination in a proper or sensible way (including the capacity for
judging and acting prudently in the sexual sphere of life). My point is that psychological autonomy
is the legitimising foundation of ethical autonomy.
Authors who consider valid consent as sufficient for morally permissible sex also take it as
necessary (e.g., Soble, 1996, pp. 30–33; Primoratz, 1999a, Ch. 10, 1999b, 2001; Wertheimer, 2003,
2006). But authors who do not address the question whether or not valid consent is a sufficient
condition (e.g., Finkelhor, 1984, pp. 17–18) or answer this question in the negative (e.g., Belliotti,
1993, Ch. 7), also regard it as a necessary one.
The line between childhood and adulthood, in the status meaning of these terms, can be drawn on
the basis of two different types of criteria, which may be called conventional and substantial criteria
respectively (Spiecker & Steutel, 2002, pp. 161–162; see also Houlgate, 1992, p. 137; Kleinig, 1976,
pp. 3–5; Shapiro, 1999, p. 715). The former criteria take a particular age as the dividing line between
those who have the status of a child and those who have adult status. Such criteria are used in
particular in legislation and other official regulations. According to the latter criteria, however,
having the status of a child or an adult is dependent on whether or not the individual actually is
sufficiently capable of exercising freedom rights in a proper way. Conventional criteria are
indispensable for practical reasons. And, if well-chosen, they will highly correlate with the relevant
capacities (Archard, 2004, pp. 85–91). But even then relatively large numbers of so-called false


negatives (i.e., individuals who, because of their age, are counted as children, but who should, on the
basis of a substantial criterion, be considered adults) and false positives (i.e., those who have
reached the age of adulthood, but are to be regarded as children from the perspective of a substantial
criterion) are inevitable.
From the premise that competence is a necessary condition of morally permissible sex, Wertheimer
(2006) consistently concludes that sexual contacts of individuals who have the status of a child are
morally impermissible: ‘Refusing to treat a minor’s consent to sex as valid requires her to abstain
from sexual relations (as well as requiring that others abstain from having sex with her)’ (p. 190, see
also 2003, p. 222).
The principle of valid consent, as I explained it, is applicable to the sexual contacts of all human
beings, whoever they are. According to this (standard) interpretation, the principle can be formulated
as follows: ‘Sexual contacts between human beings are morally permissible if, and only if, all the
parties have given their valid consent’. One may argue, however, that the principle should be taken
much more narrowly, as applying to sexual contacts between adults only. According to this reading,
the principle should be formulated in a different way: ‘Sexual contacts between adults are morally
permissible if, and only if, all the parties have given their valid consent.’ Much can be said in favour
of this interpretation but if it is accepted, a liberal sexual ethics has no moral implications for the
sexual contacts of adolescents whatsoever. To put it differently, if the principle is taken in this
restricted sense, a liberal sexual ethics does not offer a moral perspective for adolescence at all, let
alone an adequate perspective.


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Jan Steutel
VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands





Suppose we are living, like most people in the Western world, in a society that is
both liberal and democratic. Suppose, further, that we are deeply devoted to the
basic values of our society. And suppose, finally, that we want the younger
generation to grow up into adults that are as strongly committed to those fundamental
values as we are. What, then, should be our central aim of civic education?
In order to find an answer to this question, we shall begin with a brief analysis
of several concepts, in particular ‘civic education’ and ‘liberal democracy’. In the
following section, we will argue that the aims of civic education in a liberal-
democratic society involve at least a particular group of moral virtues. Conceptions
of civic education that do not consider the cultivation of these virtues as necessary
or desirable or regard these aims as appropriate only for a particular kind of liberal
democracy, demand, in our opinion, not enough from the younger generation. To
clarify our view we use the ideas of Yael Tamir, who defends such a conception in
one of her publications. Thereafter we will defend the view that civic education in
a liberal democracy also implies the cultivation of intellectual virtues. We will,
however, argue that this objective should be restricted to the political sphere and
should not be stretched to the non-political or private sphere. Conceptions of civic
education that do so, demand in our view too much from the younger generation.
Amy Gutmann’s theory of democratic education will be introduced as an example
of such a conception.
Some, especially the advocates of a particular idea of multiculturalism, will
think that our conception of civic education crosses the line in a certain respect.
They will believe that our views attach insufficient value to the diversity of the
multicultural society. So-called universal values are unjustifiably forced upon
cultural minorities. Others, especially the advocates of a particular type of
nationalism, will think that our conception should be expanded: civic education
ought to produce a specific national identity. Young people should not only be
raised as liberal-democratic citizens, they should also, and perhaps in the first
instance, be raised as Dutch, Belgian, UK or US citizens. In the final section of this
contribution we will very briefly react to the objections from the camps of
multiculturalists and nationalists.

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 193–207.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.


Civic education may be typified by the slogan ‘by and for the state’. By the state: if
we are claiming that a certain part of moral education should be regarded as civic
education, we are placing the supreme authority over that part in the hands of the
state. Here the word ‘state’ refers to a more or less complex set of institutions
whose function it is to define and impose collectively binding decisions, in
particular by making, applying, interpreting and enforcing the law. Instead of the
word ‘state’, we also use the word ‘government’ here. Claiming that the state has
supreme authority over a specific part of moral education implies that the
institutions of the state are assigned a certain right to interfere, for instance the
parliament’s right to make demands on curriculum subjects such as history or
sociology, or to enforce these laws by means of the Schools Inspectorate’s
supervision. What is more, the claim implies that the institutions of the state are
also regarded as being responsible for the indicated part of moral education. The
state is not only entitled to intervene, but is also obliged to do so, if necessary.
Civic education should also be conceived of as education for the state. This part
of the slogan can best be explained by introducing the concept of ‘citizen(ship)’.
Just like being a priest, professor, or parent, being a citizen is having a certain role
or position. But unlike priesthood, professorship, or parenthood, having the role of
citizen is not related to being a member of the church, university, or family, but to
being a member of the state. In the preceding paragraph we used the term ‘state’ to
refer to a composite set of public institutions. But if we say that citizenship is
membership of the state, we are using the term in a different sense. Then the term
refers to a political community, that is to say a society which is regulated by a state
in the former sense. Being a citizen, in other words, does not mean being a member
of the institutional framework of rule (the parliament, the cabinet, the civil service,
the police, child protection, etc.), but being a member of a community that is ruled
by such a framework. On the basis of this brief analysis, the general aim of civic
education can be typified as the good citizen. Civic education is that part of moral
education in which the child is stimulated to grow into a well-functioning member
of the state, in the broad sense of the word. This is roughly the meaning of ‘for the
Every political community is structured by certain principles in which the
fundamental rights and corresponding duties of citizens as well as the government
are laid down. The rights and duties that are characteristic of a liberal-democratic
state are, in our view, adequately outlined by the first and most important principle
of justice, as articulated and defended by John Rawls. This principle, the so-called
principle of greatest equal liberty, is summarized by Rawls in the following way:
‘Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights
and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all’ (1993, p. 5).
The main tenor of this principle is to protect the freedom of all citizens as much as
possible by assigning every adult member of society an optimal package of the
same basic rights. The central rights of this package are the well-known civic
liberties (like freedom of thought and liberty of conscience), the political-
democratic rights (like the right to vote and the right to run for public office), and


also the fundamental rights that are covered by the so-called ‘rule of law’ (like the
right of legal due process or the right to impartial treatment in court).
We regard the implementation of this package of basic individual rights and
corresponding duties as a necessary condition for calling a political community a
liberal-democratic state. According to this principle, not only autocracies and
theocracies, but also states that are organized in accordance with a typical classical
liberal view, cannot be labelled a liberal democracy. Although in a classic liberal
political community citizens have the same civil liberties, typical political rights
are reserved for citizens with a certain economic status only, for example
landowners (Locke), or for persons who are self-supporting (Kant). To put it more
broadly, contrary to what is characteristic of a liberal-democratic state, classical
liberalism does not involve the commitment to the modern ideal of representative
democracy on the basis of direct and general elections.
Moreover, we also regard the implementation of the basic rights that are covered
by the principle of greatest equal liberty as a sufficient condition for calling a state
a liberal democracy. This implies that a liberal-democracy is not necessarily a so-
called welfare state. In such a state citizens do not only have typical active rights,
in particular the civic and the political ones, they also are accorded certain passive
rights, especially welfare or social rights, like the right to medical care, the right to
a minimal income or the right to work. These rights are not implied by Rawls’
principle of greatest equal liberty. And though one could argue on valid empirical
grounds that introducing welfare rights contributes significantly to the broad-scale
use of political rights and civic liberties, our definition of ‘liberal democracy’ does
not refer to them.
Now that we have clarified the meaning of the constituent terms, we are better
able to explain the tenor of our central question. The aim of civic education is the
good citizen, that is, the development of young people into members of a political
community who perform their role well. Most Western societies are liberal-democratic
states, which means that they are organized according to Rawls’ principle of greatest
equal liberty. Our question is: what should be the aims of civic education in such a


There is an instrumental relationship between the good citizen and a flourishing

political community. Every political community needs citizens with characteristics
that are functional for its preservation and vitality. Such citizens are called ‘good’
and their characteristics are regarded as virtues, at least by advocates of the society
concerned. The viability of a liberal democracy and its institutions, too, is dependent
on citizens with certain qualities. Without citizens with sustaining attitudes, liberal-
democratic institutions cannot function properly and might perhaps even disintegrate.
Such citizens are normally called ‘liberal’ and their qualities are considered liberal
virtues. These qualities are the aims of civic education that we are looking for.
With reference to our definition of a liberal democracy, we can argue that the
typical virtues of the liberal citizen are precisely those that correspond with the


principle of greatest equal liberty. Because this principle is a principle of justice,

the corresponding virtue could be labelled, as Rawls does, ‘a sense of justice’. In
fact this cardinal virtue incorporates all other moral virtues that are constitutive of
liberal citizenship. Important examples of these other corresponding traits are
tolerance towards different ways of life, the disposition to respect the equal rights
of fellow citizens, a deeply rooted aversion towards discrimination, as well as
typical democratic attitudes like the intrinsic willingness to vote, compromise,
justify political claims in terms of public reasons, and to abide the laws that are
constituted through democratic procedures. All these traits are of instrumental
value to a flourishing political community that is organized according to the
principle of greatest equal liberty. For the bearer of these virtues is by definition
willing and able to support and uphold the liberal-democratic institutions.
Though the traits at issue are clear examples of moral virtues, Rawls normally
designates them as political. His reason for doing this is to make clear that his
theory of justice does not apply to the virtuous person as such but only to the
virtuous person in his role as citizen (cf. Rawls, 1993, pp. 194–5). To put it
differently, liberal virtues should not be regarded as general, that is, as traits of the
good human being, but have to be conceived of as specific, that is, as traits
connected with a certain role or position, in this case with our political role as
citizens. Moreover, the listed virtues are not characteristic of the good citizen as
such, but, more specifically, of the good liberal citizen. Philosophers sometimes
make a distinction between virtues needed to sustain all political communities and
those required by a liberal-democratic community (cf. Galston, 1991, p. 221 ff.).
Traits like law abidingness, soldier’s courage, and the willingness and ability to
delay satisfaction of desires are regarded as examples of the former group.
However important the sustaining function of these virtues may be, including for
sustaining a liberal-democratic polity, we will confine ourselves in this contribution to
the virtues of the latter group: the distinguishing characteristics of the liberal
citizen (cf. Spiecker & Steutel, 1995, pp. 390–1).2
We now have a first answer to our central question: the aims of civic education
in a liberal democracy include the moral virtues of the liberal citizen. If we want
our children to grow into citizens who perform their role well in a liberal-
democratic community, we should at least cultivate the moral virtues that correspond
with the principle of greatest equal liberty. Some authors, who consider themselves
liberals, would protest against this view. For example, Yael Tamir (1995) has
defended a kind of liberalism that clearly is incompatible with our conception of
civic education in a liberal democracy. She introduces an important and illuminating
distinction between two kinds of multiculturalism. The first one, which she calls
thin multiculturalism, is typical of political communities that accommodate
different but exclusively liberal cultural communities. As an example of such a
state she refers to Canada. While the English- and French speaking communities in
this country are different in many respects, they both are liberal communities in the
sense that they share liberal beliefs and values. In that respect, these communities
are similar to the dominant Flemish and French speaking cultural communities in
Belgium. According to Tamir (1995), such a liberal unity in a cultural diversity


makes a ‘unified stratum of civic education’ (p. 166) both possible and necessary.
And the way she conceives of this ‘thin layer of civic education’ (p. 165) is more
or less identical with our conception.
However, there are also political communities that are multicultural in a second
sense, which Tamir calls thick multiculturalism. Such states encompass or
accommodate both liberal and illiberal cultural groups or communities. Most
political communities in the Western world are thick multicultural societies. For
example, in the Netherlands the political and cultural scene is dominated by
communities that endorse basic liberal principles. Nevertheless, there are also quite
vibrant religious communities which are opposed and even hostile to liberal values
and democratic institutions, in particular fundamentalist Calvinistic and Muslim
groups. According to Tamir (1995), the right liberal attitude towards such groups is
to respect them, which implies that no action is taken by the state to assimilate
these minority cultures. On the contrary, respecting them involves that efforts are
made to retain their ways of life (pp. 168–9). It is obvious that judged from this
liberal attitude our view on civic education will be rejected. As stated before, civic
education is education by the state. This implies that the state is given the right and
responsibility to see to it that young people acquire typical liberal-political virtues,
including, and perhaps even in particular, the younger members of illiberal
communities. According to Tamir, assigning the state the authority to promote the
assimilation of illiberal cultures by these educational means should be dismissed as
a form of disrespect.
One may wonder how it is possible that both Tamir and the present writers are
champions of a liberal democracy and yet think so differently about civic education
in a thick multicultural society. According to Tamir, decent illiberal communities
should, as a matter of liberal principle, be tolerated, respected and protected.
Consequently, the state is not allowed to pursue a policy of opposing their anti-liberal
ideologies and concomitant institutions. In accommodating illiberal communities, says
Tamir (1995), a liberal state should compromise, for principled reasons, its own
principles (p. 170). We, on the other hand, think that the liberal state has the right
to actively impose liberal beliefs on illiberal communities, in particular by creating
optimal conditions for fostering liberal virtues in all its citizens. With regard to
illiberal communities, we would say, the state should in principle not compromise
its own principles.
In our view, Tamir’s (1995) claim that the right liberal attitude is one of
principled respect towards illiberal communities is based on a defective line of
reasoning. Central in her argument is the distinction between autonomy-based and
rights-based liberalism (pp. 167–8). The former kind of liberalism, she argues,
takes personal autonomy to be paramount. Hence it judges illiberal cultures to be
inferior to liberal ones. The basic value of rights-based liberalism, however, is not
personal autonomy but equal concern and respect for persons. Therefore, says
Tamir, rights-based liberalism can and should express respect for illiberal
communities. Thus, it is this latter form of liberalism that Tamir defends.
Just like Tamir, we have a strong preference for rights-based liberalism. Indeed,
in the next section we will argue that personal autonomy should not be regarded as


an aim of civic education in a liberal democracy. Also in accordance with Tamir,

we think that autonomy-based liberalism is opposed to cultures that rights-based
liberalism actually can tolerate and respect, namely cultures that disavow the ideal
of personal autonomy. But from this it cannot be inferred that rights-based
liberalism should also be respectful to communities that reject the very rights this
liberalism stands for. Tamir makes, without a doubt, a fine distinction between two
kinds of liberalism. But strangely enough she confuses the corresponding forms of
illiberalism. As a matter of principle, rights-based liberalism can and should respect
cultures that are illiberal from the perspective of autonomy-based liberalism, that
means, communities which reject personal autonomy as an educational aim or ideal
of life. This however, does not in any sense imply that rights-based liberalism can
or should be respectful to cultures that are illiberal from its own point of view, that
means, communities which oppose the rights that are covered by the principle of
greatest equal liberty.
Apart from Tamir’s reasons for claiming that liberalism involves an attitude of
respect towards illiberal communities, we also have difficulties with accepting the
claim itself. For endorsing this claim boils down to depriving the state of important
possibilities of sustaining and preserving the liberal-democratic order of the
political community. Most illiberal communities are eager to transmit and spread
their beliefs, in particular by founding their own schools, setting up their own
political parties, and funding newspapers and networks that are favourable to their
views. Accepting Tamir’s claim would mean that the liberal state is not allowed to
curb or counteract such tendencies. On the contrary, the state would even be
obliged to protect and support such illiberal conceptions and ways of living. But is
it not odd to demand of the liberal state to sustain activities that affect its own
One could object to our view by arguing that illiberal communities in most
liberal democracies are relatively small and have little political power. Why then,
try to assimilate them? Would tolerating such harmless minorities not show better
political insight? Our answer to this objection is twofold. First, contrary to Tamir,
we are claiming that the state, from the perspective of rights-based liberalism, has
the right to undermine the viability of illiberal communities. Whether a liberal state
should exercise that right by actively opposing such groups is a matter of strategy.
Under certain circumstances, and on the basis of practical considerations, the state
could decide to tolerate and even to sustain such illiberal communities. Our
fundamental point here is that such forms of state tolerance should always be
instrumental and never be principled. If, for example, the Dutch government gives
a fundamentalist Hindu group permission to found their own school in The Hague,
such a decision can only be justified on instrumental grounds. Freedom of education
principally ends where ideas are being passed on that are in conflict with this
freedom of education itself. Second, there is an important reason for a liberal state
to be constantly on the alert for illiberal communities. As Tamir rightly observes,
such communities do not accept liberal-democratic institutions as a matter of
principle, but mainly out of well understood self-interest, or at least always with
reservation. It is exactly this instrumental or extrinsic motivation that makes these


illiberal communities unreliable and potentially dangerous partners. For once they
have gained enough political power, they will demolish the liberal order and
impose their own values on the whole of society. In her program and election
campaigns, the political party SGP (Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij [Political
Reformed Party]) declares explicitly that our society should be arranged in
accordance with God’s laws. Both Sunday as a day of rest and Christian education
will then be obligatory for all Dutch people, and women will no longer have the
right to run for political functions. The objectives of this party, that is seated in the
House of Representatives for many years now, are anti-liberal. This means that the
party is, from a rights-based liberalism, an enemy of the state. The same goes a
fortiori for parties that are inspired by a racial ideology. In order to prevent such
parties or groups to undermine the institutions of a liberal democracy, the state has
the right to take corrective measures. One of these measures is to create favourable
conditions so that civic education, which aims to transform those motivations of
self-interest into intrinsic commitments to the principle of greatest equal liberty,
can flourish.


Moral virtues like justice, tolerance and respect are not the only qualities of the
liberal citizen. Also typical of such a person are traits of character which are often
called intellectual virtues. Examples of such virtues are open-mindedness, respect
for evidence, intellectual honesty, tolerance towards rival views, clarity,
thoroughness and intellectual modesty. A main characteristic of intellectual virtues
is that they are composed of so-called rational passions. Such passions can be
conceived of as wants and aversions that constitute, as R.S. Peters (1981) once
wrote ‘the passionate side of the life of reason’ (p. 68). For example, someone who
is open-minded will have a deep aversion to prejudice, a repugnance towards ignoring
relevant evidence and a want to seriously assess the force of counter-arguments. A
person who is intellectually honest will be averse to covering up private doubts
about one’s views, will have a desire to admit frankly his or her own errors in
reasoning, as well as a contempt for smuggling away unwelcome evidence. The
bearer of the intellectual virtue of clarity is characterized by a heart-felt aversion
towards vague or obscure language and the want to express his thoughts as clear as
possible. Cultivating these passions and stimulating intellectual virtuousness amount
to the same thing.
In the preceding section we argued that the virtue of justice is the cardinal one,
in relation to the other moral virtues of the liberal citizen. The group of intellectual
virtues is also based on and unified by a cardinal virtue, in this case the virtue of
concern and respect for the truth. If we claim that traits like open-mindedness,
precision in reasoning and a willingness to participate in rational discussions are
intellectual virtues, we indicate that these qualities can be derived from, or are
specifications of, the virtue of concern and respect for the truth. The principal
characteristic of this cardinal intellectual virtue is the intrinsic willingness to
investigate as thoroughly as possible whether non-trivial beliefs are true or at least


well-justified. If we consider a trait of character an intellectual virtue, we assume

that practicing such a trait will increase the chance that the formation of our beliefs
results in true ideas or well-justified conceptions (cf. Steutel & Spiecker, 1997).
But why should we regard these virtues as qualities of the good citizen? Why
does a citizen need intellectual virtues in order to perform his or her role well in a
liberal democracy? The answer to these questions is that the cultivation of these
virtues, just like the cultivation of the moral virtues that are constitutive of liberal
citizenship, is necessary for a healthy and stable liberal democracy. Intellectual
virtues are constitutive of being a critical thinker (Siegel, 1997, pp. 55–71), and it
is rightly pointed out that a properly functioning democracy needs citizens who are
critical in at least two ways (Galston, 1991, pp.224–7; Kymlicka & Norman, 1994,
pp. 365–6; Kymlicka, 1999, p. 82). First, liberal citizens must have a questioning
attitude towards political authority. Covered by the principle of greatest equal
liberty is the political right of citizens to elect representatives who govern or rule in
their name. Realizing this ideal of representative democracy requires citizens who
are willing and able to asses critically the arguments and decisions of officials.
Second, democratic citizens are expected to participate critically in public discourse.
Democratic representation is not the only characteristic of a liberal democracy, so
is a free and open debate. Without citizens who are prepared and capable of
participating in such critical debates on political matters, the democratic ideal of
public discourse would be nothing but an idle idea (Rawls, 1999, pp. 138–140). It
goes without saying that these two related forms of being critical imply a whole
range of intellectual virtues. To put it more strongly, showing one’s critical
capabilities in assessing both officials and public debates is ipso facto showing
one’s intellectual virtuousness. Consequently, if these ways of being critical are
necessary for a vital and flourishing liberal democracy, the same must be true of
intellectual virtues.
It is important to note, however, that these intellectual virtues should not be
regarded as general but as specific traits. Just like the moral virtues discussed in the
preceding section, these qualities are connected to the role of citizen. Because this
role is a political one, the scope of the intellectual virtues at issue is limited to
the political sphere. Of the citizen qua citizen we only expect that intellectual
virtuousness is demonstrated with regard to political policy and legislation, or,
more particularly, with respect to the decisions of officials and in the public debate
concerning the arrangement of the political community. To put it differently,
intellectual virtues as general traits are characteristics of the critical human being,
whereas the intellectual virtues we are talking about are specific traits that are
characteristic of the critical citizen. Furthermore, and again just like the moral
virtues discussed above, the intellectual virtues referred to are not typical of the
good citizen as such, but only of the good liberal citizen. Traits like open-mindedness,
tolerance towards rival views and respect for scientific evidence are regarded as
virtues because they are functional for a flourishing liberal democracy. From the
perspective of an anti-liberal political community, for example a dictatorship or a
theocracy, such critical qualities would be considered dysfunctional and therefore
regarded as vices, or at least not as traits of the good citizen.


The central question of this chapter is: what should the aims of civic education in a
liberal-democratic political community be? Our first answer was that these aims
encompass the moral virtues of the liberal citizen. Now we can add that the
intellectual virtues of the liberal citizen are also part of these aims. Preparing our
children for their later role as citizens in a liberal democracy also implies
cultivating intellectual virtues with regard to the political sphere. The political
philosopher Amy Gutmann, however, would not be satisfied with this second
answer to our question. She argues in several publications (Gutmann, 1987, pp.
19–47; 1989; 1993) that democratic education should not only foster critical thinking
concerning political policy and legislation, but should also encourage rational
deliberation about non-political matters, in particular about the arrangement of our
personal lives. According to her, the virtues of the democratic citizen include the
willingness and ability to think critically about both one’s society and one’s life. In
comparison to our conception, this view proposes aims of civic education that are
more comprehensive. Gutmann does not limit the field of application of the
intellectual virtues to the political sphere, as we do, but it is extended to the private
domain. The qualities of the critical thinker are not merely interpreted as specific
virtues that are typical of the good citizen, but also conceived of as general traits
that characterize the good human being.3
The implications of Gutmann’s view on intellectual virtues are far-reaching.
Actually she is advocating a theory of civic education that is based on a determinate
conception of the good life or on an ideal of human perfection. It is true that she
repeatedly points out that democratic education should not initiate the child into a
particular way of life but instead should provide the child the necessary equipment
for choosing rationally between different, competing ways of life or conceptions of
the good life. Recommending this as an aim for civic education, however, clearly
implies a plea for a certain way of life, namely, a self-governed life on the basis of
critical self-reflection. True to the tradition of Kant and Mill, the good life is taken
to be the examined life, or at least the examined life is regarded as having more
value than the unexamined life (Gutmann, 1989, p. 79). Moreover, by claiming that
the self-reflective life is an aim of civic education, the state is given the right and
the responsibility to take the lead in educating children accordingly. Consequently,
the state is allowed to neutralize or counteract forms of education that hamper the
growth of critical thinking about the ideals of life. Think, for example, of forms of
religious upbringing which instruct the child not to arrange its life according to its
own reason (autonomy), but to obey the commanding will of an external Lawgiver
(theonomy). Such religious communities, Gutmann argues, ‘must be prevented
from using education to stifle rational deliberation of competing conceptions of the
good’ (1993, p. 4).4
What to think of this view of civic education? Is critical deliberation about ways
of life or conceptions of the worthwhile life a central aim of civic education in a
liberal democracy? Like Gutmann, we argued that certain virtues have to be
regarded as aims of civic education because their cultivation is required for a
properly operating liberal-democratic polity. We do not believe, however, that she
succeeds in demonstrating that a flourishing democracy needs widespread cultivation


of critical thinking in conceptions of the good life. According to Gutmann, the core
value of democracy is conscious social reproduction. Implementing this value
means roughly that every citizen is assigned the same right to participate in the
collective process of deliberately shaping the future structure of society. Conscious
social reproduction, Gutmann argues, is not only a political ideal, it is at the same
time an educational ideal. Civic education in a liberal democracy should cultivate
precisely those qualities that are necessary for adequate participation in that collective
process of reflection. According to her, these qualities involve the willingness and
capacity for rational reflection, not only regarding the good society, but also with
respect to the good life.
But is cultivating critical thinking on ideals of life and human perfection really
necessary for conscious social reproduction? The subject of deliberation in conscious
social reproduction is the structure of our political life, not the arrangement of our
personal life. Why, then, regard critical reflection on personal ideals as an aim of
liberal-democratic education?
In fact the principle of greatest equal liberty gives us a good reason for making a
distinction between being a good citizen and leading a good life. Rawls’ first
principle incorporates civic liberties like freedom of thought and liberty of
conscience, which give each citizen the right to lead his or her life from the inside,
according to his or her own values and ideals. Though fundamental, this right is not
absolute, that is to say, good reasons can be given for overriding it. Indeed, we
ourselves defended this position in the previous section when we argued that the
state is allowed to oppose conceptions of the good that are clearly in conflict with
the principle of greatest equal liberty, like ways of life based on racist or
fundamentalist ideologies. However, the point is that these overriding reasons are
only negative, that is, they only indicate which ways of life may be thwarted or, if
necessary, forbidden by the state. They are never positive, they may not refer to
determinate conceptions of the good that may be promoted or even enforced by the
state. To put it differently, the right to give content and meaning to one’s life from
the inside, must be protected by the state against conceptions of the good that
threaten this fundamental liberty. The state itself would endanger this fundamental
right to arrange one’s life according to one’s own view if it were to impose a
particular conception of the good on its citizens. But isn’t this exactly what
Gutmann is arguing for? A certain conception of the good – the examined life – is
regarded as a guiding ideal of civic education, which gives the state the right to
impress a certain way of life on its citizens. Assigning such a right to the state does
not protect but jeopardizes basic freedoms that are implied by the principle of
greatest equal liberty. Consequently, if we want to prevent this danger, we should not
define the good liberal citizen in terms of a particular conception of the good life.5


Our central question is: what are the aims of civic education in a liberal democracy?
In our answer we have made an analytical distinction between two kinds of aims,
namely, inculcating typical moral virtues like tolerance, non-discrimination and a


democratic attitude on the one hand, and encouraging so-called intellectual virtues,
which are constitutive of being a critical citizen, on the other hand. However,
insofar as these virtues figure as aims of civic education, they should be regarded
as political qualities. They are exclusively connected with our political role as
citizens and, consequently, their range of application is limited to the political
sphere. Both kinds of aims were selected and justified by claiming a relationship of
functional necessity between the pursuit of these aims and a flourishing liberal
democracy. Typical of a liberal-democratic society is that its basic structure is
arranged according to Rawls’ first principle of justice, the principle of greatest
equal liberty. Our claim is that such a society would wither and perish, or at least
not function properly, if the indicated virtues were not cultivated.
In conclusion we will react very briefly to two important and much heard
objections to our view. First we discuss the criticism from the side of multiculturalism
and then we shall look at the criticism of nationalists.
Multiculturalism is not a scientific theory that describes and explains the
multicultural society; it is an ethical ideal in which values like cultural diversity,
one’s own cultural identity and respect for other cultures are considered important
(Blum, 1992). This ideal is often defined in such a way that the pursuit of it, in
particular by means of multicultural education, can come into conflict with
implementing liberal-democratic values. Especially in relation to cultural communities
that reject or are even hostile to liberal values and democratic institutions, like
communities with sexist or racist ideologies, such a conflict can become salient. In
our discussion with Tamir, we have argued that from a liberal-democratic
perspective the state has the right to assimilate such illiberal communities, in
particular by creating optimal conditions for the development and maintenance of
liberal virtues. Multiculturalism, however, is often conceived of as involving an
attitude of respect towards all cultures other than one’s own, including illiberal
ones, as well as a disposition towards valuing and celebrating cultural diversity,
even if illiberal communities are part of it. From this perspective the state has a
duty to accommodate illiberal communities by publicly affirming and recognizing
their cultural identity
The more or less explicit foundation of this multiculturalism can be found in a
certain cultural relativism. According to this meta-ethical position, objective values
or ethical principles that are universally valid do not exist. Every culture has its
own criteria for good and evil, right and wrong, being virtuous and non-virtuous.
Consequently, one culture is ethically not better than another culture; every culture
is ethically of equal value. Moreover, every attempt to impose one’s own ethical
criteria to another culture, including the pursuit of the liberal-democratic government
to assimilate illiberal cultures, is in fact nothing but cultural imperialism or
arbitrary power wielding.
In our view, this multiculturalism based on relativistic grounds is untenable.
Firstly, this position is theoretically incoherent. That which is explicitly rejected,
namely the possibility of values that are universally valid, is implicitly endorsed by
claiming that the values of multiculturalism deserve universal acceptance. This is
also true for the reverse: that which is explicitly defended, namely a meta-ethical


cultural relativism, is implicitly rejected by denying the relativity of such values as

cultural diversity, the possession of a cultural identity and respect for other
cultures. Secondly, multiculturalism as we have explained it is also practically
incoherent. It is a position that advocates a specific kind of education, that is an
education in which children are being taught to respect other cultures, to appreciate
their own cultural identity and to celebrate cultural diversity. However, how can
such an education be reconciled with respect for cultures that reject these values or
these aims of education? Practices of multicultural education, especially when
supported by the state, will undermine such cultures instead of confirming them.
Thirdly, it is wrongly suggested that multicultural values, in particular the ideal of
cultural diversity and respect for other cultures, are in tension with liberal-
democratic values. General acknowledgement of the typical liberal civic rights
precisely is in our view an indispensable condition for realizing these multicultural
values (cf. Macedo,1995a; 1995b). For how is it possible for citizens to have
respect for other cultures, when their own right for freedom to arrange their lives
according to their own culture is not being respected? And when this right of
freedom would not be acknowledged or not be protected against all kinds of
totalitarian claims, how then is it possible for many different cultures to grow and
In a certain sense, nationalism offers an opposite type of criticism. The reproach
is that important aims are missing in our conception of civic education, particularly
the cultivation of a national identity. This term is often used in a collective sense,
for example to make clear that a political community is characterized by a dominant
national majority culture, and consequently that this community is not only a state,
but a nation as well. If cultivating a national identity is seen as an aim of civic
education, the term is being used for an individual, namely as an indication for a
configuration of qualities that makes a person a typical representative of a national
majority culture.
Not only fascists and reactionary romantics argue in favour of cultivating a
national identity, recently liberal philosophers have stressed the importance of this
educational aim as well (cf. De Jong, 1998, pp. 266–270). These liberal philosophers
argue that an intrinsic commitment to the political morality of liberalism as such
does not provide sufficient guarantee for social unity in society. They point out that
in multinational states like Canada, a growing agreement about liberal values
includes a growing desire for self-government of national minorities (Kymlicka,
1999, pp. 94). To keep the political community together, we cannot limit ourselves
to cultivating a liberal identity, but education should also promote the development
of a national identity.
Regarding this so-called liberal nationalism we want to make three comments.
Firstly a conceptual point. We cannot at the same time raise our children to be
liberal citizens and persons with a national identity if the dominant majority culture
in our society has elements that are clearly opposed to Rawls’ principle of greatest
equal liberty. If the national culture is for example characterized by religious
fundamentalism or by ethnicity as discriminating principle, the cultivation of a
national identity is incompatible with teaching a liberal identity.


Secondly a normative point. Let us assume that the national majority culture
completely corresponds with the fundamental principles of a liberal democracy. Is
the promotion of a national identity as one of the aims of civic education allowed
in such a case? If a majority culture exhibits a specific conception of the good life,
the answer must be negative. Suppose for example that the dominant culture is a
type of Christianity that endorses the liberal rights and corresponding duties
completely. In that case, cultivation of a national identity would basically be the
same as the development of good Christians. Clearly, it is not the task of the state
in a liberal democracy to guard the development of young people into Christian-
Finally, a more empirical consideration. Let us assume that a national identity
that is not contrary to the principle of greatest equal liberty and is not connected to
a specific ideal of the good life, is possible. The philosopher Will Kymlicka (1999,
pp. 94–7) seems to defend that possibility by defining ‘national identity’ not in
terms of shared values or ideals, but by describing it in terms of feelings of
solidarity, affinity and involvement that are rooted in the awareness of a shared
history and in speaking the same language: ‘Citizens can share a national identity
in this sense, and yet share very little in terms of ethnicity, religion, or conceptions
of the good’ (1999, p. 95). If we can assume that a clear empirical connection
between such a national identity and the internal cohesion and stability of a liberal-
democratic society exists, we have a strong argument to consider the cultivation of
such a national identity as one of the aims of civic education. Cultural minorities
too should then be stimulated to learn the national language and gain knowledge of
the national history; not only with the intention that they acquire language
proficiency that is necessary to take part in the public debate, or that they, in
confrontation with a complicated history, develop the awareness that liberal values
deserve support, but also that they eventually develop a certain emotional
identification with that language and history.

This chapter is a translation and slight revision of Steutel, J. & Spiecker, B. (2001). Staatsburgerlijke
opvoeding in een liberaal-democratische samenleving. In: P. Smeyers & B. Levering (Eds.)
Grondslagen van de wetenschappelijke pedagogiek. Modern en postmodern (pp. 228–245).
Amsterdam: Boom.
Elsewhere, (Spiecker & Steutel, 1995, pp. 390–1) we made a distinction between ‘basic rights’ and
so-called ‘basic rules’ (like the prohibition to steal, to commit fraud, to use physical violence or to
break contracts). Basic rules are, other than basic rights, constitutive of every minimally tolerable
society. Therefore, qualities that correspond with these rules can be seen as examples of virtues that
are necessary for maintaining every political community.
By limiting the scope of the virtues of critical thinking to the political domain, our view of the aims
of civic education is also materially different from the ‘standard’ view of liberal education, as
developed and defended by Peters and Hirst. According to the ‘standard’ view, the central aim of
liberal education is personal autonomy, which is partly explained in terms of critical or rational
deliberation (cf. Hirst & Peters, 1970, pp. 52–5). As far as liberal moral education is concerned, the
autonomous person is conceived as someone who is willing and able to reflect critically on moral
traditions and conceptions of the good life (cf. Peters, 1981, pp. 120–2, 152–5). In other words,


according to both Gutmann and the ‘standard’ view of liberal education, teaching the child to tackle
the question of how one should live critically and reflectively is regarded as a central educational
Gutmann’s view is a clear example of (what Tamir calls) autonomy-liberalism. See for instance
Meira Levinson (1999) for a strong plea for this position and Snik (1999) for a nuanced defence.
Against that, we take a position that is strongly related to so-called political liberalism (or, what
Tamir calls rights-liberalism).
Autonomy-liberals believe that the distinction between critical thinking on political matters (the
arrangement of society) and critical thinking on personal matters (the arrangement of our lives) is
artificial (cf. Gutmann, 1995, pp. 563,573–6; Snik, 1999, pp. 144–5). They refer mainly to ‘spill
over’ effects: in actual practice, promoting critical deliberation on public policy will almost certainly
have the effect of fostering critical thinking in general, including with respect to the intrinsic value
of views on the good life. In our opinion, such ‘spill over’ effects do not diminish the importance of
the indicated distinction, and with that the distinction between autonomy- and political liberalism.
From a liberal perspective, the aims of state policies should be neutral, not their consequences. This
means that state policies that aim to promote a controversial ideal of the good life (like the examined
life) are unlawful. In contrast, unintended side effects on the maintenance or distribution of
conceptions of the good life do not make state policies unlawful.


Blum, L. A. (1992). Antiracism, multiculturalism, and interracial community: Three educational values
for a multicultural society. Boston: University of Massachusetts.
De Jong, J. (1998). Waardeopvoeding en onderwijsvrijheid [Values education and the freedom of
education]. Academisch proefschrift Nijmegen.
Galston, W. A. (1991). Liberal purposes. Goods, virtues, and diversity in the liberal state. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Gutmann, A. (1987). Democratic education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Gutmann, A. (1989). Undemocratic Education. In N. L. Rosenblum (Ed.) Liberalism and the Moral Life
(pp. 71–88). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Gutmann, A. (1993). Democracy and democratic education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 12,
Gutmann, A. (1995). Civic education and social diversity. Ethics, 105, 557–79.
Hirst, P. H. & Peters, R. S. (1970). The logic of education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Kymlicka, W. (1999). Education for citizenship. In J. M. Halstead & T. H. McLaughlin (Eds.)
Education in morality (pp. 79–102). London/NewYork: Routledge.
Kymlicka, W. & Norman W. (1994). Return of the citizen: a survey of recent work on citizenship
theory. Ethics, 104, 352–81.
Levinson, M. (1999). The demands of liberal education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Macedo, S. (1995a). Liberal civic education and religious fundamentalism: The case of God v. John
Rawls? Ethics, 105, 468–96.
Macedo, S. (1995b). Multiculturalism for the religious right? Defending liberal civic education. Journal
of Philosophy of Education, 29, 223–38.
Peters, R. S. (1981). Moral development and moral education. London: Allen and Unwin.
Rawls, J. (1993). Political liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Rawls, J. (1999). The law of peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Siegel, H. (1997). Rationality redeemed? Further dialogues on an educational ideal. New York /
London: Routledge.
Snik, G. (1999). Grondslagen van liberale visies op onderwijsvrijheid. Pedagogisch Tijdschrift, 24,


Spiecker, B. & Steutel, J. (1995). Political liberalism, civic education and the Dutch government.
Journal of Moral Education, 24, 383–94.
Steutel, J. & Spiecker, B. (1997). Rational passions and intellectual virtues. A conceptual analysis.
Studies in Philosophy and Education, 16, 59–71.
Tamir, Y. (1995). Two concepts of multiculturalism. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 29, 161–172.

Jan Steutel
Ben Spiecker
VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands




In the first decade of the third millennium, a consensus emerged on the public
relevance of ‘learning about different religions’ in the European world. The world-
shaking event of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001, 9/11,
is sure to be mentioned as a catalytic factor in any treatise on this topic. Religion,
especially religious difference and confrontation (Samuel Huntington’s renowned
formula of the ‘clash of civilizations’, on the trends of global conflict, is
predominantly related to religions), has become a topic for debate globally. And
education is sure to be brought into the debate, as soon as a public concern for
peaceful inter-religious dialogue is contrasted with ‘clashes’ of whatever proportion
as desirable for the present situation of a, locally and globally, inevitable religious
diversity. It is all but co-incidental that in 2010 a volume dedicated to inter-
religious education appeared, in two substantial parts, in the series International
Handbooks of Religion and Education. It contains contributions from all over the
world, with titles such as ‘Enlightenment’s Wake: Religion and Education at the
Close of the Modern Age’, ‘Bridging Christianity, Islam and Buddhism with Virtue
Ethics’, ‘Balancing the Particular and the Universal in Inter-religious Education’,
and ‘Education for Peace as a Dimension of Inter-religious Education’ (Engebretson
et al., 2010).
In the European context, a consensus on the relevance of a religious education
that in one way or another addresses religious diversity and difference, emerged in
even more straightforwardly cooperative research projects that were often also
straightforwardly related to school practice. A case in point is the REDCo Project,
the research project on religion and education in schools, conducted between 2006
and 2009, that was funded by the European Commission. REDCo is the abbreviation
of Religion in Education: a Contribution for Dialogue or a Factor of Conflict in
Transforming Societies of European Countries. Co-ordinated by Wolfram Weisse
of the University of Hamburg, eight European countries worked together in
research that collected, amongst other things, the views of adolescents on teaching
and learning about religious diversity in schools (Weisse, 2007, cf. also the other
contributions in Jackson et al., 2007; Weisse, 2010). However diverse in the way
schooling and religion are and were related (or not related, for that matter) in the
varying contexts with their quite distinctive histories and traditions (Germany,
England, Norway, Estonia, France, Spain, Russia and the Netherlands1), a remarkable
consensus was found. Most students, to mention one of the research findings,
‘would like the state funded schools to be a place for learning about different
religions/worldviews, rather than for instruction into a particular religion/worldview’.

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 209–221.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

Two other findings are as telling: ‘Students wish for peaceful coexistence across
differences, and believe this to be possible’, and ‘For students peaceful coexistence
depends on knowledge about each other’s religions and worldviews and sharing
common interests as well as doing things together’ (Jackson, 2011, p. 107/108).2
Outcomes such as these show a striking, if not amazing similarity of interest and
opinion in which students share as much as the researchers and teachers involved
in the project. A consensus seems to be shared by the entire research community –
and precisely this consensus seems to lie at the heart of the European development
that was hinted at in the opening sentence of this article: a consensus on the public
relevance of ‘learning about different religions’.3 A religious education aiming at
this is of public relevance because it contributes to citizenship education for the
culturally and religiously diverse societies of the present Europe.



A main factor fuelling the European interest in citizenship education was (and is)
the concern about social cohesion in the culturally diverse societies. The need for
education of citizens for these societies may have led to the development of a new,
discrete subject or domain in the general education curriculum in its own right,
citizenship education. It may, however, also appear in the guise of other, more or
less newly developed curricular domains, such as, e.g., intercultural education,
peace education or human rights education, or be integrated into existing subjects,
such as, e.g., moral education or religious education. Robert Jackson, Professor in
Religions and Education at the University of Warwick, has over the years fulfilled
a leading role in European research that conceived of and further developed a
pluralist religious education that fitted in with the citizenship education that is
generally seen as desirable in Europe – and elsewhere in the world, but here I will
concentrate on the European scene. His ‘interpretive approach’ to religious
education (Jackson 1997), developed for use in publicly funded schools in the UK
(United Kingdom), i.e., England and Wales, has been an inspiration to projects in
other countries, and is a major influence in the European context. This approach
was, for example, employed as methodological and theoretical framework for the
above mentioned REDCo-project (Jackson, 2011a).
That a new understanding of religious education, with a straightforward relevance
for citizenship education in the recent European context, originated in England and
Wales, can be explained by the special position of the subject RE in publicly
funded schools in these countries: it being an obligatory subject in all schools since
1944, and not, as in many other countries in Europe, an ‘extra subject’ in the
curricula of confessional schools (see Meijer, 2009, 10). In 1944, a Christian
religious education had been so self-evident as not to be explicitly formulated in
the Education Act. It speaks of ‘religious education’ without further qualification,
and therefore, when religious diversity emerged in later decades, the 1944 law
allowed for representing religious plurality in religious education.4 In the 1970s an
agreement developed that religious education ‘could not continue as the attempt to


foster Christian faith’, or indeed any particular religion, but that it should rather
‘promote a sympathetic but critical understanding of religions’ (Hull, 1982, xiv).
John Hull, emeritus professor in theology at the university of Birmingham, and
Jackson, with a background in religious studies, religious anthropology and
ethnography, rather than theology, were two main figures in the development of a
non-confessionalist, pluralistic concept of religious education in the UK that was
soon to become quite influential in Europe (cf. Meijer, 2004, 2006 on the
educational work of Jackson and Hull respectively).
This pioneering role of the UK fits into an interesting broader historical trend
that Jackson (2010) hints at (while, it is true, drawing attention to a ‘danger of
over-simplification’), viz., that it is ‘in the north, that most research and
development has been done so far in the field of religious education’ (p. 1124).
This reminded me of an observation on the relation between religion, schooling
and learning in Europe in early modernity (cf. Meijer, 1995) that I find intriguing.
It is somewhat of a digression here, but I take the liberty to put it in and will
moreover come back to it later on. Houston (1988), in his book on culture and
education in (early) modernity, comments on the distribution of schools in Europe
around 1600: ‘In general, towns were more favoured than rural areas and lowland
more that upland zones; Protestant countries usually had more schools per head of
the population than Catholic; north-western Europe (except Scandinavia) was
better endowed than the Mediterranean world and Eastern Europe’ (p. 33). The
factor of religion, in particular the distinction between Protestantism and Catholicism,
is relevant in the explanation of the historical difference in the spread of literacy
and schooling in Europe. A comparable geographical pattern is presented in other
historical educational research on early modernity. Hamilton (1990) has summarized
it as follows: ‘Together, Calvinism and Lutheranism profited greatly from
Gutenberg’s invention. The provision of multiple copies of God’s word in a
language that the faithful could understand (…) gave the Protestant communities in
Britain, France, Holland, Switzerland and elsewhere an interest in schooling – and
reading – that marked them out from Catholic communities’ (p. 32).5 Today’s
Europe is quite a bit more united in its shared interest in research and in developing
a contemporary concept and practice of religious education. The REDCo-project,
in which, as said, Spain, Estonia and Russia participated alongside North-West
European countries, demonstrates this. But there are more European developments
to consider.
In his article in the International Handbook of Inter-religious Education, that
was already mentioned in the introduction, Jackson gives an overview of relevant
European developments (2010, p. 1124ff.).6 He mentions work on religious
education within networks of European researchers and educators, such as the
REDCo project and ENRECA, the European Network for Religious Education
through Contextual Approaches (cf. Heimbrock et al., 2001).7 The European book
series Religious Diversity and Education in Europe (published by Waxmann,
Münster since 2006) already contains many volumes with research outcomes from
both networks. However, the main task Jackson sets himself in the 2010 article is
to give an overview of projects and developments in citizenship education and in


religious education as relevant for citizenship education within European institutions,

particularly the Council of Europe.8 He establishes a ‘considerable support in the
European Union and the Council of Europe for a more ‘maximal’ approach of
citizenship education’ (p. 1126), referring to the contrast between a minimal and
maximal interpretation of citizenship that Terence McLaughlin (1992) introduced.
A ‘minimal’ interpretation of citizenship education defines the subject in terms
of the knowledge to be transmitted (the civics-related content) only, whereas a
‘maximal’ interpretation, in Jackson’s paraphrase (2010), ‘emphasises active
learning and inclusion, is interactive, values-based and process-led, allowing
students to develop and articulate their own opinions and to engage in debate’ (p.
1126). Jackson observes that it is this ‘values-based and process-led’ maximal
interpretation of citizenship education that is in tune with the Constitution of the
European Union, which draws, according to its preamble, ‘inspiration from the
cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed
the universal rules of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person,
democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law’.9 In the same vein, the Council
of Europe, that is ‘currently taking a strong interest in both the study of religious
diversity in schools and education for democratic citizenship’, underwrites the aims
of ‘protecting human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law and seeking
solutions to problems such as discrimination against minorities, xenophobia and
intolerance’ (p. 1130).
A religious education that contributes to citizenship education for a pluralist
democracy itself has to be pluralist. That is not only a matter of content (though it
is that too: some representation of religious plurality is necessary), but it is
essentially also a matter of values and of classroom methods and teaching and
learning styles. What is needed are pedagogies that stimulate self-reflection and
self-criticism, and pedagogies – the two actually go hand in glove – that stimulate
the willingness and capacity to listen to the voices of others, and so to avoid
stereotyping. Such pedagogies are needed for the true and truthful representations
of different religions – according to their traditions as well as to their present states
as ‘living religions’, and at the same time such pedagogies foster the capacities and
attitudes of the democratic citizen. Jackson (2010) argues that, ‘in integrating
religious education and citizenship education, pedagogies that give voice to children,
thus promoting “differentiated citizenship”, should be favoured’ (p. 1143). Qua
intention this can be agreed with; although the expression ‘differentiated citizenship’
is unfortunate, notwithstanding the inverted commas. It threatens to deny exactly
what was looked for, viz., the citizenship that members of liberal democracies
share.10 They differ in many respects, e.g., ethnically, culturally and religiously,
and in liberal democracies, differences, even profound differences, are allowed to
exist and to continue to exist. As citizens however, the members of these societies
are alike: not only do they have the same rights, but they are also expected to have
the capacities and attitudes of the liberal democratic citizen.



The idea of religious education elucidated in the previous paragraph fitted in with
the idea of intercultural education that had already emerged in the European
context. The two share educational aims that wear the relevance for citizenship
education for pluralist democratic societies on their sleeve. Take, e.g., the
characterization of inter-cultural education by the Council of Europe in 2002, cited
by Jackson (2010): it is about ‘developing competences and attitudes enabling
individuals to respect the rights of others, developing skills of critical empathy and
fostering dialogue with others from different backgrounds’ (p. 1131). These
fundamental values are comparable with the ‘moral and the intellectual virtues of
the liberal citizen’ that Jan Steutel and Ben Spiecker (2000, 2001) identified as the
aims of citizenship education.11
In their, impeccable as usual, strictly analytical manner, Steutel and Spiecker
start out with some preliminary conceptual clarifications. To specify what kind of
state the citizen is educated for, e.g., they make use of Rawls’ famous principle of
justice, the principle of greatest equal liberty that is constitutive of a liberal-
democratic state. All citizens of this state share the same basic rights: the civic
liberties (such as the freedom of thought and liberty of conscience), the political-
democratic rights (e.g., the right to vote), and also the fundamental rights of the
‘rule of law’ (e.g., the right to impartial treatment in court). The aims of citizenship
education for this state are formulated in terms of the liberal virtues that
characterize the ‘good liberal citizen’. The cardinal moral virtue is identified, once
more with Rawls, as a sense of justice. ‘In fact this virtue incorporates all other
moral virtues that are constitutive of liberal citizenship. Important examples of
these other corresponding traits are tolerance towards different ways of life, the
disposition to respect the equal rights of fellow citizens, a deeply rooted aversion
towards discrimination, an intrinsic commitment to the rule of law, as well as
democratic attitudes like the willingness to compromise, to vote, to accept the
majority decisions and to justify political claims in terms of public reasons’
(Steutel & Spiecker, 2000, p. 245). In short, the moral virtues that are the qualities
of the liberal citizen are justice, tolerance and respect.
The liberal virtues are political virtues, and Steutel and Spiecker tie them to the
political domain exclusively, to our role as citizens, and don’t want to generalize
them ‘as traits of the good human being’ (ib.), relevant to all other areas of life
alongside the political. They contrast their position in this respect to Amy
Gutmann’s, who connects the educational aim of personal autonomy as much to
the personal as to the political sphere. This educational aim would, then, not only
be a matter of liberal citizenship education but of a liberal general education. In
this difference of opinion the emphasis is on the intellectual virtues of the liberal
citizen, rather than on the moral virtues identified in the previous paragraph:
‘Gutmann does not limit the field of application of the intellectual virtues to the
political sphere, as we do, but extended to the private domain’ (2000, p. 249).
Interestingly enough, when Steutel and Spiecker elaborate on these intellectual
virtues, they bring a classic idea of R.S. Peters (1972) into play, an idea that is a
part (and maybe even the heart) of his theory of general liberal education, viz., the


idea that ‘the use of reason is a passionate business’ (p. 59). It is so crucial a
passage that I will cite it comprehensively.
Moral virtues like justice, tolerance and respect are not the only qualities of
the liberal citizen. Also typical of such a person are traits of character which
are often called intellectual virtues. Examples of these virtues are open-
mindedness, respect for evidence, intellectual honesty, tolerance towards
rival views, intellectual fairness, a concern for accuracy in observation and
inference, clarity, thoroughness and intellectual modesty. A main
characteristic of intellectual virtues is that they are composed of so-called
rational passions. Such passions can be conceived as wants and aversions that
constitute, as R.S. Peters once wrote, ‘the passionate side of the life of
reason’12. For example, someone who is open-minded will have a deep
aversion to prejudice, a repugnance towards ignoring relevant evidence and
the want to seriously assess the force of counter-arguments. A person who is
intellectually honest will be averse to covering up private doubts about one’s
views, will have the desire to admit frankly his or her own errors in
reasoning, as well as a contempt for smuggling away unwelcome evidence.
The bearer of the intellectual virtue of clarity is characterized by a heart-felt
aversion towards woolly or obscure language and the want to express his
thoughts as clear as possible. Cultivating these passions and stimulating
intellectual virtuousness amount to the same thing (Steutel & Spiecker, 2000,
p. 247).
One cannot but agree with Steutel and Spiecker’s argument, that these intellectual
virtues are as much constitutive of liberal citizenship as the indicated moral virtues:
they are necessary for the upkeep of the liberal democracy, for its vitality and
flourishing. Indeed, as Steutel and Spiecker say with Harvey Siegel, these are the
virtues that are constitutive of being a critical thinker. Critical thinkers are, e.g., not
docile but they have a questioning attitude towards political authority, and they
have the equipment to participate critically in public discourse, in the free and open
debate on all kinds of public problems and interests. And at that point one of my
doubts concerning Steutel and Spiecker’s adamant restriction of the cultivation of
intellectual virtues to the public, political sphere arises. It takes a general liberal
education to be prepared for the breadth of types of problems and interests that can
arise in the public debate of a liberal democracy. To take just a selection by way of
example: the current problems, either putative or real, in matters of environment
and sustainability, of the global economic-financial crisis, and of cultural and
religious diversity. The critical citizen of the liberal democracy needs quite some
breadth of knowledge and understanding (cf. Van der Ploeg 1999, p. 49). This
observation anticipates the matter of the next section about the relation between
liberal citizenship education and liberal general education.
But first, in closing this section, I want to present a second doubt as to Steutel
and Spiecker’s argument. I find the whole thought of restricting the exercise of the
rational passions to one domain (‘limit the field of application to the political
sphere’, to repeat Steutel and Spiecker’s already cited expression), counter-intuitive.


Here the parallel with literacy and reading comes in, which was my reason to
supply footnote 5. Just like reading, critical thinking is ‘a generalizable skill’, to
use Hamilton’s characterization. Certainly, the term ‘generalizable’ indicates a
possibility, and strictly analytical-logically speaking, it need not ever be realized in
actual fact. However, it is not very likely that literate persons, who can read and
(parallel to ‘rational passions’) like to read or even love to read, will restrict
themselves to reading only the Bible and related reading matter that is, by some
religious authority, considered ‘orthodox’, and therefore suitable reading matter. If
readers have predilections for certain kinds of texts (which as a rule they will
have), than it is because those have developed: whereas one person prefers poetry
or novels, another favours fact over fiction and prefers to read biographies or
historical studies. This is a matter of the personal development of readers – and a
general education that supplies breadth and intends to widen horizons so that
individuals can indeed develop their personal talents and predilections is the
background, or even the basis of such a development.
As little as for literacy, can I picture the rational passions as being essentially
compartmentalised in their execution, tied to citizenship in the public domain only,
without ever affecting choices of one’s private life: what to eat, not only incidentally,
but on a daily basis; whom to befriend with and whom to marry; whether to
continue the religious tradition of one’s forefathers the same way or in slightly or
boldly different ways, or to leave it behind altogether, etc. etc. Rational persons,
and certainly persons who are passionate about understanding things, getting it
right, being reasonable, etc. (cf. the entire list of intellectual virtues above), may
not be as passionately geared towards understanding and reflection in all areas of
life, but I find it hard to imagine that they would not think over and take personal
responsibility for important decisions in their personal lives.
When it comes to the justification of liberal education, alongside its instrumentality
to the maintenance of liberal democracy, its intrinsic value that is bound up with
the concept of ‘the educated person’ and the value of ‘the examined life’ seems to
force itself upon us. In the next section, the argument that it is in actual practice
impossible to separate the instrumental from the intrinsic values of liberal
education, and that it is not really obvious to conceive of a liberal citizenship
education apart from a comprehensive liberal education, will be further developed.



In the philosophy of liberal education of Richard S. Peters, the development of the

person and the development of reason, conceived of as a development in the
different modes of knowledge and experience, go together so close as to be two
sides of the same coin (cf. Hirst & Peters, 1977, pp. 53–55). Recently, probably not
co-incidentally in the year of his 90th birthday, there was renewed attention for this
classic of the discipline of philosophy of education in a supplementary issue of the
famous Journal of Philosophy of Education (Cuypers & Martin, 2009), the journal
of which Peters himself was the first editor in the 1960s. The editors of the special


issue introduce its various parts: the first part addresses the conceptual analysis of
education, which is preliminary to the questions of its justification, topic of the 2nd
part; the themes of moral development and education and the context of Peters’
thought take another two parts.
In the conclusion of his article, which opens the first part of the volume, Barrow
(2009) ‘trenchantly’ asserts the plausibility of Peters’ initial conviction that education
is ‘about developing the mind, human reasoning and understanding, as fully as
possible, for its own sake (notwithstanding the fact that it may have great utility)’
(p. 23). The aspect of the ‘breadth’ of liberal education, which is taken up more
extensively and explicitly in the second part, is already present in this formulation
(‘as fully as possible’), and the intrinsic value is clearly put in the foreground (‘for
its own sake’). The first article of the second part, on the justification of education,
links straightforwardly on to this: education is about initiation into worthwhile
activities, and although ‘Peters clearly acknowledges the public, social, and cultural
features of education, he focuses most significantly (…) on the intrinsic goods of
being educated’ (Katz, 2009, p. 105). The next article even speaks of ‘Peters’
aversion to instrumental justifications’ (Hand, 2009, p. 120; italics WAJM). The
education of the person is emphasized by Peters, any possible instrumental value of
this education seems to be of secondary importance.
Following up on this interpretation, Peters’ position strikes me as being somehow
the inversion of the position that Steutel and Spiecker adopted. The development of
reason and its passions (the ‘intellectual virtues’) were justified by Steutel and
Spiecker as aims of citizenship education for a liberal democracy, but they should
not be generalized. Peters’ argument runs rather the other way round: because of
the intrinsic educational value of breadth of understanding and of the development
of reason/the mind/the person13 ‘to the full’, he is wary of any instrumentalisation
of education, be it economically or politically or whatever else. One would think
that it shouldn’t be too difficult to take the two together and combine the two kinds
of values without any loss or peril on either side. One of the first14 to my knowledge
to do exactly this was Anthony O’Hear in his contribution to philosophy of
education (1981). I will close this article with a sketch of his clear and, to my
opinion, convincing argumentation.
O’Hear straightforwardly combines the ideas of two philosophers: Karl Popper’s
social philosophy and Richard Peters’ educational philosophy. From Popper he
takes the concept of the ‘open society’. The open society is distinguished from
‘closed societies’ – in the historical form of the tribal societies that have
disappeared, but also in the modern form of totalitarian societies, in which political
and world view unanimity is forced upon the people by totalitarian regimes.15 ‘I
prefer to talk about the open society rather than democracy,’ says O’Hear (1981),
‘because not all democracies are open societies, although in admitting the right of
all citizens to choose and criticize policies an open society must be democratic in
some sense’ (p. 56). The idea of the open society does, then, equal the idea of a
liberal democracy, it is a deliberative democracy. In an open society, freedom of
thought exists as well as the freedom to express one’s thoughts, that is: freedom of
speech. And this will lead inevitably to explicit, while not repressed, difference and


plurality of opinion. The right to express one’s thought freely is shared by all:
everybody has the right to contribute to an ongoing exchange of opinion, and
therefore no-one’s opinion is exempt from criticism.
It is the central tenet of O’Hear’s argument (1981) that in the education for this
open society the instrumental and the intrinsic values go together: ‘in an education
preparing people for life in an open society, individual and social goals will tend to
converge. An open society needs well-informed people, qualified to work for a
living, with a firm understanding of morality’ (p. 55). It is especially with regard to
the first mentioned element, the need for ‘well-informed people’, that the aspect of
the ‘breadth’ of Peters’ concept of liberal education comes in, though the two other
aspects, work and morality, are as well served by a general liberal education. The
following passage gives the connection between Popper’s social philosophy and
Peters’ educational philosophy in the characteristic straightforward manner of
O’Hear’s style of argument (1981).
On the assumption that any adult person in a modern non-totalitarian society
is not automatically going to fill some traditional or assigned social role, and
that his manner of life, including his political and religious beliefs, is not
simply going to be laid down for him, I suggest that the following abilities
will be necessary:
– ability to support him or herself;
– ability to make informed choices about life, including career, religion,
politics, life-style and general attitudes;
– ability to decide what is and what is not morally acceptable.
Corresponding to each of these abilities, we will expect a person’s education
to provide him with the necessary basis, i.e.
– sufficient skills to obtain work;
– a general education giving a reasonable understanding of the nature of man
and the world;
– an education in morality (p. 48).

This is then followed by a more extensive discussion of the contribution of the

various domains or ‘forms of knowledge and experience’ (p. 49–56), but we have
to stop short there. The following observation is however relevant to this article.
Just as the liberal general education is, as such, citizenship education for a liberal
democracy, so it is, as such, moral education. There is no need for moral education
as a separate domain or subject in the curriculum. Precisely the (moral and
intellectual) virtues of the liberal citizen discussed above, are once more presented
as related to the pedagogy of, in principle, each and every subject:
in any field of study respect for truth and accuracy is of paramount
importance, and this should become apparent in teaching. In practice this
means that such moral qualities as impartiality, objectivity, willingness to
listen to others and to submit to evidence and reason are central to the pursuit
and teaching of any subject. That these are moral qualities becomes clear


when one reflects that a large part of moral behaviour consists in the
readiness to consider one’s own desires and opinions in the light of the
desires and opinions of others, and to see oneself as only one person among
others, who have equally valid rights and points of view (p. 120/121).
I agree with the thought that the classical concept of liberal education, i.e. a general
liberal education aiming, by way of curriculum and of pedagogy, at breadth of
knowledge and understanding and at the cultivation of the intellectual virtues,
supplies as such the citizenship education for a liberal democracy. Liberal
citizenship education as a separate subject is not necessary when a general liberal
education is catered for. The curriculum of a general liberal education constantly
needs rethinking and updating in order to keep up its relevance to the public issues
of the present (and future) context.16 This is where the relevance of a pluralist
religious education as discussed in the first part of this article comes in. Knowledge
and understanding of religions and religious diversity is important in the general
liberal education for today’s pluralist democratic societies. However, this doesn’t
necessarily imply that it has to be a curriculum area or subject in its own right; the
involved content could very well be part of another area or subject, be it
intercultural education or history or yet another domain.
In closing, I want to draw attention to another semantic dimension of the
educational concept at hand. The generality of liberal general education is not only
a matter of breadth of educational content, it is also general in the sense that it is
for all. This egalitarian aspect has been part of the concept of general education
from early modernity on: rich or poor, boy or girl, whatever one’s birth or lineage,
the right to a general education is shared by all. For today’s pluralist, liberal
democracies we should add in the same vein: for all, whatever their ethnic, cultural
and religious origin. A general liberal education is about the broadening of
everyone’s horizon, about developing everyone’s cognitive perspective, to take
another term from Peters’ vocabulary (cf. note 13). This is the best preparation for
the unpredictable situations and choices – private and public – that the future adults
will be confronted with. From this educational standpoint, the present adult
generation has no the right to set religious or political limits to the breadth of the
education of the present children and the future adults, to narrow down their
education for ideological reasons. The liberating generality or breadth of education
is, then, tied to the openness of the future. The adults of the future would not be
sufficiently equipped with only the ready-made views and rules of conduct
construed by the adults of today, be it parents or state officials. The future adults
will have to be able to think and judge for themselves, about their own – at the
moment still opaque – situation, the problems and solution perspectives pertaining
to that situation (see further Meijer, 2001).

For the Netherlands, Siebren Miedema et al from VU University Amsterdam and Cok Bakker et al
from Utrecht University participated in the REDCo project.


These citations are taken from the Editorial Introduction to the special issue of the BJRE, the British
Journal of Religious Education 33, 2011, No 2, on the REDCo project. The volume is also to appear
as a book in 2011 or 2012: R. Jackson (Ed.), Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict:
Perspectives on Religious Education Research. London: Routledge.
This doesn’t, by the way, exclude additional options for religious education in the context of
religious diversity, such as ‘learning from religions’.
This Act was in force until 1988, when a new education act instituted the so-called National
Curriculum with ten subjects. Religious education is not among these ten that are prescribed in quite
some detail of content. The act does, however, require that RE is provided in all schools and it also
requires that the subject should to some extent reflect the current religious pluriformity.
The passage continues as follows: ‘(…) their investment in schooling and reading also had a more
complex social consequence. Reading is a generalizable skill. To be able to read the Bible is also to
be able to read other writings about society, social conduct and social change. In promoting reading,
therefore Protestant authorities also gave the faithful access to heretical notions. Accordingly, the
promotion of heresy was an inevitable consequence of the promotion of Protestantism’. I supply this
text here in order to be able to refer to it below.
Since 2009, Jackson is, alongside his professorship in Warwick, also professor of Religious
Diversity and Education at European Wergeland Centre in Oslo, instituted by the Council of Europe
(in cooperation with Norway). On its website, the Centre presents itself as ‘a European resource
centre on education for intercultural understanding, human rights and democratic citizenship’. It is
‘open to all member states of the Council of Europe, and the main target groups are teachers, teacher
trainers, decision makers and multipliers within education for intercultural understanding, human
rights and democratic citizenship’ (
‘The European Network for Religious Education in Europe through Contextual Approaches
(ENRECA) was set up in 1999 in order to bring together scholars engaged in empirical and
theoretical research in aspects of religion and education in relation to intercultural issues. The group
is committed to research on the educational implications of the changing patterns of religious and
secular plurality in European countries’ (
The inter-governmental organization in Strasbourg, founded in 1949, currently comprising 47
member states.
A passage from the preamble of the European Constitution, cited by Jackson, 2010, p. 1128. Jackson
notes that this ‘statement about religious heritage was not a factor in the French and Dutch rejection
[by referenda] of the Constitution’.
In his earlier work Jackson already contributed thoughts on the connections between religious
education and citizenship education: Jackson, 2003, 2004. In an article on religious education’s
contribution to intercultural education, citizenship education and values education (Jackson, 2004, p.
126 ff.), he also used the expression ‘differentiated citizenship’, at that place indeed also in inverted
comma’s (2004, p. 142). In both cases, the expression is not explicitly clarified. Therefore, I take it
to be a suggestive figure of speech, rather than a clearly analyzed concept. What Jackson is explicit
about, however, in the 2004 article as much as in 2010, is that all kinds of skills have to be shared
by citizens, exactly because of the importance of cultural and religious differences that bring
diversity in perspectives on social issues. In 2004 he mentions, e.g., the skills of listening,
negotiating and formulating a position, and the skills of dealing with difference and constructive
criticism (p. 141).
Actually, they speak of ‘civic education’. However, in its specification as ‘education for the
state/political community’, ‘civic education’ is explicitly related to the concept of citizenship
(Steutel & Spiecker, 2000, p. 243). This article is also in this book in an extended version (see Civic
education in a liberal-democratic society). I will continue to speak of ‘citizenship education’, as is
common usage today.
This citation is from R.S. Peters, 1981, p. 68.
The three concepts ’person’, ‘mind’ and ‘reason’ are intertwined, analytically related, in Peters’
view. Further, he often uses the concepts ‘consciousness’, ‘agency’ and ‘responsibility’ in connection


with the concept of ‘person’ (e.g., in the context of discussions of the ethical idea of ‘respect for
persons’). See, e.g., chapter 8 of his Ethics and Education (Peters, 1966).
Presently, there are quite a few more contributions to philosophy of education that argue likewise in
pleading that the intrinsic, personal educational value and the instrumental, political value of general
liberal education go hand in hand: Amy Gutmann (1987) and Van der Ploeg (1999, cf. 1995) were
already mentioned above, another example is Meira Levinson (1999).
Not incidentally, Karl Popper’s famous book The Open Society and Its Enemies first appeared in
1945, at the close of the Second World War (Popper, 1964).
Another respect in which the curriculum needs constant deliberation and updating is as to
developing scientific and academic standards. Although the curriculum is not just a watered down
version of academic disciplines, it is the case that outdated knowledge is out of place here. Cf.
Imelman’s multi-layered format for a continuous cultural educational discussion: Imelman, 2009.


Barrow, R. (2009). Was Peters nearly right about education? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 43,
Supplementary Issue 1, 9–25.
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education. Supplementary Issue 1 of the Journal of Philosophy of Education, 43.
Engebretson, K., De Souza, M., Durka, G., & Gearon, L. (2010). International handbook of inter-
religious education. Dordrecht/Heidelberg/London/New York: Springer.
Gutmann, A. (1987). Democratic education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hamilton, D. (1990). Learning about education. An unfinished curriculum. Milton Keynes: Open
University Press.
Hand, M. (2009). On the worthwhileness of theoretical activities. Journal of Philosophy of Education,
43, Supplementary Issue 1, 109–121.
Heimbrock, H.-G., Scheilke, C., & Schreiner, P. (Eds.) (2001). Towards religious competence:
Diversity as a challenge for education in Europe. Münster: Litt Verlag.
Hirst, P. H. & Peters, R. S. (1977). The logic of education. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Houston, R. A. (1988). Literacy in early modern Europe. culture and education 1500–1800. London:
Hull, J. M. (Ed.) (1982). New directions in religious education. Lewes (Sussex): The Falmer Press.
Imelman, J. D. (2009). Kleine vormingsleer. Nadenken over cultuur, leerplan, docent en leerling in een
Bildungs-vijandige tijd. In Braeckmans, L. (Red.) Cultuur en onderwijs (pp. 135–188). Gent:
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Wilna A.J. Meijer

University of Groningen, the Netherlands




Political liberals routinely defend, on the one hand, the importance of individual
conscience, freedom of expression and the right to self determination. On the other
hand they insist upon the necessity of shared political principles that provide the
basis for social cooperation. It is a familiar tension in political theory, and scholars
disagree about the scope and content, not to mention the ranking, of these goods.
Accordingly, the tensions that arise between them provide the impetus for an
ongoing, and sometimes contentious, debate. Each of the first set of items in their
own way stress the importance of conforming to one’s own interpretation of the
good life as well as the ability to make decisions for oneself and to take
responsibility for those decisions. Meanwhile, shared political principles – among
them a sense of fair play and mutual respect – involve various reciprocal obligations
we all have by virtue of sharing both a political space and a common civic fate. I
argue that the basis for the exercise of these obligations is the possession of certain
civic competences.
For the purposes of my argument I shall accept the conventional view that civic
competence at a minimum will entail the capacity to deliberate about politically
relevant issues and to know that other views of the good life are also worthy of
being pursued. Accordingly others with whom one does not agree should not be
subject to censure or excluded from public debate. In order to cultivate these
competences, there first must be some kind of civic education, one entailing the
rights and duties of citizenship. Civic education need not occur in a school, nor
must its parameters be secular. But civic education will inculcate knowledge of
constitutional rights and freedoms as well as an awareness of the obligations we
have toward others on the basis of our shared citizenship if not our common
humanity. Legitimate civic education will refrain from inculcating uncritical
loyalty toward the state; it will accommodate both plurality and dissent. Whatever
the case, civic education assumes the necessity of specific competences.
In this chapter I will not elucidate the contours of civic education, whose details
in any case are not settled. Rather I will focus on competences relevant to the
exercise of citizenship. For the present discussion the relevant tasks will be those
within the reach of older children. By older children I refer to adolescents between
fourteen and seventeen. I eventually defend the idea that older children are capable
of possessing the relevant competences, including those deemed necessary to vote.
My argument entails nothing about an obligation to use one’s competences in a
particular way; nor does it require that older children vote. The purpose of my
argument also is not to specify a particular age for voting, but because the omission

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 223–236.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

of this detail may prove distracting for some readers, I hereby submit fifteen as the
new threshold for voting privileges. This would lower the voting age by at least
three years.
I proceed as follows. I begin by examining the notion of competence, taking
care to inspect its activity-related aspects. I then turn my attention more
specifically to the idea of civic competence. This is followed by a discussion of the
competences that many older children have, or could have, provided the right kinds
of background conditions are in place. The presence of a sound civic education
certainly satisfies one critical background condition, and with the aid of a civic
education that facilitates informed participation, the political act of voting certainly
qualifies as one way older children can put their civic competences to good use.
Certainly civic virtue comprises many more civic competences than the act of
voting; this can be exhibited in a variety of ways. Indeed, one could argue that
civic virtue need not even be explicitly political. One also could argue that for
political effectiveness the impact of voting is overstated compared to, say, that of
media campaigns, lobbying or sustained protest. Yet I focus ultimately on the
voting privilege for the following reason: older children routinely exhibit civic
virtue (say, through voluntary service) and even engage in overt forms of political
activity. Yet even those who choose not to still have these options available to
them. Hence there is no need to defend what they already are able to do. Indeed,
given the fact that persons under the age of eighteen are flatly denied the voting
privilege, it seems only appropriate to focus my attention here.


Competence does not ordinarily describe a general state of affairs or how persons
live. It is therefore senseless to describe persons as generally competent. Rather it
is an activity-related descriptor; competence normally describes some ability to do
something, to perform some sort of function well. Hence we normally speak not of
general but of specific competences. At the minimalist end of basic competence we
might find examples such as the ability to wait one’s turn, tie one’s shoes, or wait
for the light to turn green before crossing the street: each demonstrates a specific
competence that even very young children can exhibit. Gradually competences
become more complex. The ability to accurately add or subtract displays an
important mathematical competence; expressing a preference after considering
different options exhibits another; the ability to regulate one’s habits, engage in
activities responsibly, or interact with others respectfully also express competences
– many of them entailing certain moral sensitivities – that are necessary for
functioning normally in most societies. If we were to employ the notion of
competence more generally we might say that it describes an individual who has
acquired the capacity to perform the task of choosing and acting prudently in
specific circumstances according to the mores and customs associated with said
But immediately we see the problem with talk of general competences, for
performing some function well will require specific capacities and the foregoing


examples tell us little about what those capacities are. Beyond the performance of
specific actions, which will usually conform to acceptable standards, competence
implies something about a person’s reflective capacities but also broadly describes
the importance of self-determination, viz., the conscious and free choice to think
and act in particular ways in light of the relevant information (i.e., competence
standards) and the known risks. There is an implicit reasoning standard here, one
that presumably entails a capacity to adjudicate between conflicting claims or
outcomes, to make comparative judgments, and to revise one’s thinking in light of
negative evidence. Whether or not individuals actually meet this inspiring ideal is
an open question; but the foregoing description will sound familiar to philosophers
who routinely emphasise a highly rational approach to decision-making or
How much rationality is really necessary for a basic competence of this sort to
be met, and is rationality the most relevant criterion? That will depend, of course,
on the particular function which persons are expected to perform. A person’s
competence to compose oneself in public or to be courteous towards those with
whom one does not agree does not require reasoning so much as favourable
dispositions and learned civil behaviours. But then will the self-determining
aspects of competence suffice? Surely it also matters which decisions are made as
well as which actions are chosen. Persons may evince autonomous choices yet
engage in immoral behaviours such as tax evasion or the failure to comply with
laws forbidding theft and perjury. Persons also notoriously make choices and
engage in activities that are decidedly harmful to others or to themselves. So the
moral aspects of competence cannot be neglected. Whether it is possible to speak
about ‘morally competent’ persons generally is doubtful; yet persons behaving
morally certainly will need to possess the dispositions and character necessary for
choosing and acting upon appropriate moral judgments about right and wrong. It is
not absurd to say that these dispositions and character lend themselves not only to a
resolve to act upon certain moral obligations toward others, but also their
competent execution as the situation and circumstances may demand.
Now, with the exception of cases involving illegal activity, interference with the
self-determination of others – even when others may deem certain actions immoral
– generally requires justification. Interference when moral incompetence seems
certain to harm others may be one thing; but can the same interference be justified
in cases that aim to mitigate harm to oneself? Liberal societies generally allow
persons to harm themselves in all sorts of ways, perhaps in the recognition that
these risks and hazards follow from the exercise of liberty. Even so, some forms of
self-harm are absolute and may warrant intervention. Those with suicidal
tendencies, for example, are generally deemed psychologically incompetent owing
to a condition of severe depression that profoundly impairs sound judgment –
rendering their usual competences inept – but which can be treated with proper
intervention. We generally believe that such interventions are particularly warranted
in cases of youth depression, when feelings of despair often are temporary but can
have fatal and tragic consequences. The point of the example is merely to illustrate


the difficulty of determining acceptable moments of interference with another’s self

determination in cases of self-harm.
However, when we address these questions the self-determination standard will
be unsatisfying. To begin with, the relationship between self-determination and
competence remains somewhat unclear. For example, the emphasis on self-
determination is problematic given the ways in which all of our lives are shaped
and informed by myriad background conditions and socialisation processes, most
of which we seldom realize or fully understand. Poverty, for example, profoundly
inhibits one’s capacity for self-determination, even if persons living in poverty do
not perceive those limitations. Family relations, too, strongly influence how we
think and behave. While thoughts, decisions and actions may not be determined by
background conditions, they certainly are profoundly shaped by them. Abused
persons may not be irreparably damaged by their abuse, but abuse will doubtless
have some deleterious effect upon their state of mind.
Further, we have reason to question a person’s competence when self-determining
actions are not balanced against some kind of well-being standard. That is, we must
also see that competence entails capacities independent of a person’s conscious
choices. Anyway, well-being cannot only describe my identification with something
‘from the inside’, nor can it merely reflect some kind of crude preference
satisfaction; nor can it only refer to my state of affairs relative to other people.
Consider the following examples: I may be wealthier and have better physical
health than persons in developing countries and yet suffer from a debilitating form
of self-loathing; I may think my life is going well, though in fact I routinely
underestimate my abilities, inclining me to pass over important opportunities; or I
may possess few if any material resources to advance my own interests; or, finally,
owing to my lack of financial savvy and planning, I may remain blithely unaware
of financial ruin following my retirement.
So well-being will inevitably involve some combination of the following: how
well my life is going relative to a number of objective criteria (e.g., physical health,
intimacy, safety, material resources) as well as my own assessment about how
things are going all things considered. It simply will not do to base competency
judgments on someone having consciously, even rationally, made a decision about
something. Further, interfering with persons acting upon their own judgments may
go some distance in protecting a person's well-being yet at the same time fail to
uphold the principle of respect for persons. Among other things respect for persons
requires taking seriously the fact that others have different ideas or convictions
about what they find sensible or worthwhile.
Now, I have already said that competence does not describe what persons are in
the general sense. Rather, it refers to specific tasks, skills or functions. Let me
unpack that a bit by considering, say, parenting. Good parenting describes a type of
competence. Yet in specific functions most parents are likely to be incompetent in
a variety of ways: we may poorly manage our finances; we may spend too much
time at work; we may not closely monitor the Internet activities of our children.
Nevertheless, we are generally competent as parents, which is to say that we
possess the basic capacities (e.g., knowledge, skills) necessary: to keep our children


safe; to provide them with a reasonably healthy diet; to interact in appropriately

intimate ways, etc. Such general competences – in this case, parenting – can further
support and frame our understanding of more specific competences, such as
homework assistance, meal preparation, career guidance, and the like.
Four additional points need to be made here. First, competence of whatever sort
can only exist on a continuum. It admits of degrees. Incompetence may be
absolute, but competence never is; there is always room for improvement. To
illustrate: this author is certainly incompetent to land a large aircraft, to speak
Bengali, or to swim the butterfly. I certainly can acquire the knowledge and skills
necessary to do these things competently provided that my natural capacities are
suited to them and I receive adequate training. However, it remains to be seen
whether I would, in fact, be able to do these things competently (particularly when
one undertakes such daunting tasks in middle age). For example, knowledge and
skills must be combined with some degree of lived experience. Even so, there is
nothing in principle that prevents me from reaching an acceptably competent level.
Second, and closely related to the first point, while it may be possible to speak
of total incompetence, competence does not betoken a state of maximization.
Owing both to human fallibility as well as the possibility of improvement,
competence does not describe a fixed point but rather an acceptable capacity to
execute certain performances. Even the most competent are capable of serious
error either in perception, judgment or performance and therefore cannot flawlessly
execute a particular competence.1 Moreover, even the most competent are capable
of improving their skill or craft. Competent teachers, brick masons, trapeze artists
and brain surgeons can strive for higher levels of competence without ever arriving
as some absolute level beyond improvement or the possibility of error. Even when
it is not physically possible to improve a particular technique (owing to the
limitations of the human body), technology may make it possible to improve what,
say, neurosurgeons are able to do.
Third, once a basic threshold of competence has been reached, gradations of
competence may still be considerable among competent persons. But a carpenter
either can or cannot hang a window frame while balancing on a ladder; a
competent manager either can or cannot control his temper when various stresses
arise. An ethnographer either can or cannot execute competent field work. Similarly,
the demonstration of reading at grade level is not a complicated procedure. Persons
either can or cannot read at grade level and in keeping with reading assessments
they are judged either competent or not. Now of course with more experience there
will presumably be greater insight and wisdom about how best to approach a
situation or perform a particular task, but none of this impugns the basic competence
standard, whatever that standard is. But of course beyond adducing the necessary
abilities at thresholds of competence – attainment levels – we do speak of persons
having certain excellences. That is, their achievements beyond the requisite
standard merit special consideration, and on the basis of these achievements we
rightly accord them praise and recognition beyond whatever level of competence is


Fourth, as I have already noted, acting competently is unavoidably influenced by

background conditions. Competent performance accordingly can be hampered by
the presence or absence of enabling social, relational and economic conditions.
Professional welders may not be able to repair a broken chasse during cold or
windy conditions; a high jumper may not be able to cultivate her craft without the
necessary facilities and equipment; even a native speaker may lose his capacity to
think clearly or competently express himself in his own language in the face of
acerbic criticism and ridicule. The point is that competences will be environment
dependent, and if the so-called competence is irrelevant to performing or enjoying
the necessary functions of a person’s environment, the question of incompetence
need not arise.
Finally, delineating both in moral and legal terms between younger and older
children is important, and not only because they are developmentally different.
Young children are defined primarily by their needs and require care of a particular
sort. Owing to their vulnerable and dependent state, their underdeveloped rational
capacities and their extremely limited life experience, the protection of their
welfare interests is paramount. Indeed, their safety and well-being are justifiably
prioritized, and these are almost entirely dependent upon the resources, care and
assistance others provide them. Indeed, very young children cannot think, act,
choose or care responsibly for themselves. They are – quite properly – seen as
completely vulnerable and dependent and it would be evidence of gross
misjudgement for adults to accord young children any kind of self-determination or
agency rights, viz., those for which they alone are responsible. Accordingly,
restrictions on the freedom of young children are defended on the paternalist
grounds that doing so promotes their present and future well-being.
Conversely, older children in the main have important capacities that younger
children do not. Of course, both younger and older children share many of the
same interests. That is, they doubtless benefit from any number of goods conducive to
well-being: unconditional love and acceptance; empathy, concern and guidance;
fair opportunities and choices; suitable boundaries of freedom; and appropriate
levels of respect for their preferences (even when these are highly variable). Be
that as it may, older children are different. While it may be true that many adults
are prepared to give consultative weight to children’s preferences, I aim to show
that older children’s competences should be taken more seriously, even when their
ideas and preferences may conflict with their parents or guardians.


Allow me to proceed from the foregoing remarks about competence so that I might
hone in on a particular kind of competence, viz., civic competence. Civic competences
demonstrate something about civic virtue. Civic virtue broadly describes the
dispositions one needs for promoting the common good (see Dagger, 1997), and
this means promoting the interests of most people within one’s sphere of influence.
While I stated earlier that civic virtue does not require political participation in any
way – being a good parent also is a sign of civic virtue – most theorists take it for


granted that these will entail many forms of participation ranging from volunteer
work, service learning, community projects, protests and boycotts, writing letters to
politicians and newspaper editors to voice one’s concerns, organizing school or
neighbourhood activities, etc. Each of these expresses a manner of engaging with
others knowing that we share a common civic fate and that cooperative action
undertaken with others can yield positive results for the entire community. Notice,
too, that each of the civic activities mentioned above are quite within the range of
possibility for all but the very youngest, elderly or disabled. Yet one civic behaviour
that remains curiously and decisively off limits to younger persons is voting. While
any number of social and political benefits can be achieved through other shared
activities in the absence of voting, the relevant question is why persons who are
capable of possessing the relevant competences are denied an important corresponding
How would we determine whether a person had reached a respectable threshold
of civic competence? That will likely depend on how rigorous a standard of
competence we have. Suppose we began with basic capacities of discernment and
judgment that demonstrate reflective and volitional competence. How would we
assess whether older children meet the standard? One option is to take the
Kohlbergian stages of moral development as an approximate gauge in order to
illustrate the progression from incompetence to some kind of ideal rational
decision-making. According to the model, the aim is to advance beyond pre-
conventional notions of moral behaviour – such as obedience or mere conformity
to socially approved norms – to the capacity for abstract and impartial moral
reasoning motivated by concerns for justice. Kohlberg’s model nicely corresponds
to some paradigms of civic education, which emphasise personal and political
autonomy and the capacity to rationally deliberate among different political
conceptions. Here the capacity for rational thinking is extolled. Just as Kohlberg
envisioned children developing through various stages of moral development –
from pre-conventional, to conventional, to ultimately post-conventional – a number
of liberal philosophers argue that children ought to receive an education necessary
for rationally participating in democratic politics.
Now while I will not gainsay the importance of rationality, a number of things
should be pointed out. First, rational decision-making will be rather difficult to
detect or assess, mainly because reflection and choice remain functions that escape
notice beyond what persons say or what they do. What appear to be rational
decisions may be little more than habit, personal preference, or impulse that we
justify rationally post hoc. Second, it is not clear why earlier stages of development
– ones captured by the label ‘conventional’ and thus presumably less rational –
would count as morally inferior or less significant. Partiality (towards, say, our
own children) may be the very basis of our rational thinking, steering us toward
morally sound judgments regarding another’s welfare.
Third, contrary to arguments that idealize rationality, decision-making is a more
complex affair. As Robert Fullinwider (1989, p. 322) points out, ‘learning learning how to apply moral concepts and make discriminations
among different cases, and this acquired capacity is intuitive rather than technical’.


Indeed, rationality models not only appear to be psychologically naive, as

Fullinwider suggests, they do not appear to possess any moral content apart from
social convention (stages of moral development deemed inferior according to
Kohlberg’s model). While our moral compass certainly need not be bound by our
environment – the premise of cosmopolitan justice – surely it is where deliberations
about morality begin.
What sort of civic behaviour must one demonstrate to be deemed competent?
One political theorist proffers the following list:
Deliberative citizens display a set of skills and virtues related to deliberative
interaction: skills related to articulating a position and the reasons for its
affirmation; listening skills; the ability charitably to understand the views of
others; analytical skills that facilitate a critical assessment of different
positions; an appreciation of the benefits of exchanging ideas; and a
commitment to reason rather than to employ attractive slogans and rhetoric
(Clayton, 2006, p. 147).
Whether the average citizen of voting age satisfies these criteria is an empirical
matter, but expecting the average voter to make, say, objectively wise and impartial
decisions, is to set the bar too high. It is to imagine that the average voter is some
kind of ideal citizen. But here is where the problem arises vis-à-vis conventional
political competence standards: the average adult is assumed to possess the
requisite ideal qualifications, while older children presumably do not possess them.
But if the privilege to vote is to be denied older children by adults on the basis of
the latter's alleged intellectual superiority, one would think it similarly legitimate
for exceptionally gifted and talented adults to deny the vote to adults of average
intelligence (cf. Wikler, 1979). This move is the moral equivalent of installing
Plato’s philosopher rulers, whose infinitely wise decision-making competences are
the special reserve of an elite few.
This view still has currency. At least one contemporary theorist has argued that
only the most high-minded citizens – whose ultimate concern is for the common
good – should be eligible to vote; those motivated by self-interest are morally
blameworthy and accordingly should be disqualified from exercising the voting
privilege (Brennan, 2011). On this view, the overwhelming majority of citizens
pollute the democratic process simply by showing up to cast their vote! But surely
this sets the bar far too high. Notice, too, that this moves us rather far away from
any democratic conception of civic competence.


I began this chapter by highlighting the importance of freedom of conscience and

self determination on the one hand, and shared political principles that form the
basis of social cooperation on the other. So what can we say about self
determination so far? Well, certainly that older children seem to exhibit a great
deal of it, both in terms of the tastes and preferences they have, the choices they
make, their grasp of fairly complex situations, the responsibilities they assume, and


the activities in which they may be involved. A number of researchers (e.g.,

Weithorn & Campbell, 1982) have found little if any difference between early
teens and adults in terms of their ability to understand fairly complex issues, weigh
possible outcomes, and make informed decisions. Many older children also exhibit
a rather sophisticated capacity for critical thinking and understanding; they are able
to explain, evaluate and adduce reasons using logical thinking and knowledge of
relevant evidence at least as well as many adults. Certainly anyone who has
worked with older children at home or in school has learned that it will not do
simply to issue directives without also providing reasons and evidence. Older
children demonstrate far more engagement with their own learning and participation
in activities when their own decision-making abilities are taken seriously. With
these facts Gareth Matthews (2009) concludes:
If the relationship we adults have to our children is focused solely on those
competences that we can be assumed to have and our children can be
assumed to lack, then it will be no surprise if our attitude toward our children
is completely paternalistic. We will picture our children according to what I
call the ‘deficit model of childhood’ (p. 175).
Now I am not claiming that the differences between older children and adults are
non-existent. Sixteen year olds do not possess the knowledge or wisdom that
twenty year olds might, and their general lack of experience may make them
potential targets for deception or exploitation. Accordingly, we can expect most
adult voters to have some competences that older children do not. But this line of
reasoning smacks of an ad infinitum regression: few twenty five year olds, for
example, possess the wisdom of forty year olds. So a threshold of some sort is
needed, if only for practical considerations. But the need for a threshold is not
being debated. What I am debating is the denial of the voting privilege to older
children. (Remember that this will be children roughly between fourteen and
seventeen.) Second, my argument is circumscribed to rather straightforward civic
competences; this will include the knowledge and skills necessary for understanding
the general concerns confronting the average voter, not necessarily for debating the
restructuring of complex tax policy.
And what can we say about shared political principles, particularly as these may
pertain to the civic dispositions and competences that older children should have?
Well, if we look at the core aims of civic education, canvassed by countless authors
on the theme, we will find some of the following aims: learning about the relevant
functions of government specific to their political context; cultivating in children
the capacity to critically reflect upon the conflicting norms in a pluralist political
environment; channelling legitimate forms of self-interest toward the common
good. Nothing in these strikes me as beyond the capacities of older children;
indeed, these aims factor heavily into civic education curriculum and instruction.
So what about the specific competences necessary for voting? Of what do these
consist? David Archard (1993) gives us a clue:
The competence required of the voter is a minimal rationality, an ability to
distinguish between parties, candidates and policies in terms of interests, aims


and goals which can be identified as worth promoting. In short, the ability is
that of making a choice between alternatives on relevant grounds (p. 72).
It strains credulity to claim that older children – adolescents – are unable to meet
these criteria. Perhaps if we have doubts they exist because we currently lack a
precedent for assessment; or perhaps we find it difficult to believe that older
children can exercise these capacities not unlike how few persons could imagine
women or ethnic minorities exercising a similar right less than a century ago. But
of course these views have been shown to be little more than naked prejudice
exercised by those unwilling to cede power. Are older children somehow different,
or is this simply what Matthews called a ‘deficit view’? Are voting privileges
denied because older children actually lack the competences Archard describes, or
does it have far more to do with maintaining the power of those denying the
privilege? Do we simply lack the imagination for not having tried? To be sure there
always will be older children whose eligibility for the basic competences remain
seriously in doubt, but the denial of the voting privilege seems a strange aberration
from the list of civic virtues and competences – volunteering, discussing, campaigning,
protesting, etc. – older children routinely exhibit. Nor should the answer to the
question of voting privileges be determined by a lack of competence in individual
children any more than persons of an immigrant background should be denied a
citizenship right on the basis of criminal activity among some of their fellow co-
We might begin to rethink this issue when we consider a general set of virtues
and competences that are observable in ordinary older children already of school-
attending age. Indeed, given that older children in most countries must take classes
on government and civic responsibility, where they learn about their rights and
responsibilities as citizens, but where they also learn that behaviours such as voting
can make a real difference, they arguably are better positioned to vote competently
relative to others if they see the immediate relevance of what they are learning with
what they are also doing. Meanwhile, older children learn that while knowledge of
the political process is important and they each have a role to play, they must wait
several years before being able to exercise that privilege.
Of course in the absence of sound civic education in schools and elsewhere, we
can only conjecture about these things. Yet giving older children the vote amounts
to allowing their input to have an impact on the political process. This would mean
that they not only learn about the different functions of government, or even that
they see the relevance of their political knowledge and skills applied to real social
issues, many of which bear immediately and in the future tense on the quality of
their lives. It would also provide some kind of balancing out of the voting realities
presently obtaining in most Western liberal democracies, where the retired and
elderly represent a disproportionately large percentage of the voting bloc and
unduly influence the issues taken up in the political process (cf. Schrag, 2004).
Given this troubling imbalance, we should not be surprised if many concerns of
younger people are routinely ignored by politicians and empty nesters who can
safely avoid addressing their concerns knowing that they are ineligible to vote.


Older children having the right to vote would mean politicians would have to be at
least as concerned with the interests of the young.
Of course lowering the voting age to fifteen will not automatically yield higher
poll turnouts or a more engaged citizenry. Ordinary adults eligible to vote
themselves fall into a wide range of civic virtues: from the informed and engaged
to the cynical and indifferent; from those motivated by fear of immigration or
unemployment, to the garden variety voter whose information about different
candidates comes from ideologically biased advertising, newspaper headlines and
cable channel sound bites. So-called knowledge about political issues and
candidates is often piecemeal; preference for a political party may express little
more than a crude form of affiliation (i.e., the candidate is from here, s/he is ‘one of
us’) or to some trait – appearance or charisma – completely irrelevant to the
candidate’s political qualifications. The point is that in liberal democracies (never
mind the rigged polls in totalitarian states) a sizable portion of the population
eligible to vote are egregiously uninformed if not jaded and disengaged. If, then,
older children are not well informed or express apathy about politics, they arguably
are no worse off than the average adult. My point of course is not to argue that a
poorly informed populace is good for the health of any free and democratic society,
but rather that the ineligibility criterion of older children amounts to little more
than an age qualification and tells us little else about their actual capacities to
understand the relevant issues or to make informed decisions impacting the
political process.


One objection to my argument will surely be that my distinction between older and
younger children is itself arbitrary. Is my distinction any more meaningful than
those I criticise? It is certainly true that any distinction I make between older and
younger children is somewhat arbitrary. But then, any specified age relative to a
competency is bound to be. Countries vary regarding the age of consent, eligibility
to marry, thresholds for acquiring a driving permit or the right to consume alcohol.
But it is suspiciously arbitrary to assume that persons are competent to vote, i.e., to
judge between candidates, or to express their convictions and beliefs with the intent
to influence the political process, only when they reach the age of eighteen. Given
all I have said about the relevant competences, this delayed privilege to exercise an
important form of civic engagement seems to me unjustified.
To be sure, time is needed first to develop certain competences, the ostensible
reason behind the delay in being granted specific political freedoms. Older
children, like everyone else, are not likely to understand all of the complexities
behind the relevant political issues; they also are prone, like everyone else, to make
errors in judgment or to be unduly swayed by misleading campaign promises and
advertising. Yet the basic civic competences necessary for voting, which enable
persons to influence the political process, are not analogous to other competences
older children may or may not possess such as the right to drive, to purchase
alcohol, or to possess firearms. The threshold for these activities – which varies


considerably from one country to the next – is usually delayed given the risk of
immediate physical harm either to oneself or to others. While it is true that poll
outcomes are potentially disastrous, none of these reasonably can be compared to
the ‘hazards’ of voting. Indeed, the present threshold signals not only arbitrariness
but also a significant injustice, one I have argued that disproportionately advantages
the preferences of (much) older people.
Still others may object with developmental arguments. Adolescence, they point
out, is a period of rapid and volatile change, both in terms of physical stature as
well as emotional and intellectual capability and maturity. Such rapid growth,
combined with a general lack of experience, produces a questionable level of
competence not becoming of the desirable voter. The question is whether these
undermine or preclude the possession of civic competences, let alone the
competences necessary to vote. Adults, too, go through dramatic life changes –
unemployment, divorce, foreclosure, death of loved ones, stock market crashes,
clinical depression – that certainly affect one’s judgments but do not automatically
render one incompetent. Similarly, many have experiences (e.g., living through an
economic depression) that others do not but this too is no basis for disqualification.
Nor, as I argued earlier, is the fact that many persons may vote against their own
best interests.
But surely, some will protest, it is the case that youth especially are impressionable
and impulsive. No doubt many are. But older children in this regard are not unique.
Millions of adults make impulsive decisions; they purchase things they do not
need; give away their money to religious charlatans; overestimate (or underestimate)
risk; make rash judgments, etc. Older children may perhaps be more likely to make
poor decisions, but as Wikler notes, ’an expectation is not itself sufficient to make
a case for restrictions’ (1979, p. 378).
Let me once more stress the importance of the principle of respect for persons.
Respect for persons is a principle not contingent on whether or not others find
one’s views reasonable. Of course, in cases where a person’s well-being is in
doubt, relative to some objective standard of mental or physical health, then some
justifiable form of paternalism may be warranted (e.g., to prevent self-harm or
harm to others), but it bizarre to claim that voting constitutes some act of harm. To
the contrary it not only expresses a conventional civic act, it also is consistent with
other civic virtues and competences older children routinely display. Denial of the
voting privilege is therefore a failure to show respect for persons deserving of said


I have argued that older children possess – or certainly are old enough to acquire –
a range of civic competences, including the knowledge and skills necessary to vote.
I have defended the view that older children are capable of possessing the relevant
civic capacities, by which I mean that they are able to demonstrate the
competences relevant for understanding the major issues on which most persons
base their political decisions, and on this basis are able to participate meaningfully


in the political process. Even if we require a more stringent standard for civic
competence, I have argued that most older children may be just as capable as most
adults to adjudicate between conflicting claims, to make comparative judgments,
and to revise one’s thinking in light of negative evidence. Accordingly, older
children clearly meet an acceptable standard for the relevant competence. The
denial of the voting privilege for older children is a clear failure to accord them the
respect they are owed as persons. Further, denial of the voting privilege is
unjustifiable because most older children generally are denied the opportunity to
exercise a competency they are able to demonstrate and more importantly one that
bears upon the political process that has immediate and long term implications for
their lives.
Nothing in my argument renders obsolete the necessity of expedient distinctions
for demarcating basic competence from incompetence. Nor does my argument
exclude some kind of reasonable waiting period prior to exercising crucial rights
and freedoms. Competences always exist on a continuum and will be environment
dependent. Thresholds for demonstrating any competence in any case are likely
unavoidable, and some legal restrictions on the exercise of rights and duties are
justified with respect to minors. Nevertheless, I have argued that voting does not
qualify as such an instance given that older children are able to exhibit both a range
of relevant general competences, as well as the specific competences necessary for
carrying out the voting privilege.

Neither does being competent necessarily mean that one can indefinitely execute a particular
competence. Competences can be lost, through injury, trauma, or absence of routine practice. Loss
of a competence may be temporary, say, recovering the capacity to serve a tennis ace after
convalescing from a debilitating shoulder injury, whereas in other instances the loss of a competence
is irretrievable owing to an incurable condition such as Alzheimer’s.


Archard, D. (1993). Children: Rights and childhood. London: Routledge.

Brennan, J. (2011). The ethics of voting. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Clayton, M. (2006). Justice and legitimacy in upbringing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dagger, R. (1997). Civic Virtues: Rights citizenship and republican liberalism. New York: Oxford
University Press.
Fullinwider, R. (1989). Moral Conventions and Moral Lessons. Social Theory and Practice, 15(3),
Matthews, G. (2009). Philosophy and developmental psychology: outgrowing the deficit conception of
childhood. In H. Siegel (Ed.) The Oxford handbook of philosophy of education (pp. 162–176).
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schrag, F. (2004). Children and democracy: theory and policy. Politics. Philosophy and Economics,
3(3), 365–379.


Weithorn, L. & Campbell, S. (1982). The competency of children and adolescents to make informed
treatment decisions. Child Development, 53(6), 1589–1598.
Wikler, D. (1979). Paternalism and the mildly retarded. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 8(4), 377–392.

Michael S. Merry
University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands



A Blessing or a Curse?


It is obviously a mistake to think that moral development concerns the development

of children alone. Like most commonplaces, the expression ‘one is never too old to
learn’ is true in some sense and it is especially true with respect to moral
formation. The path towards moral wisdom is a lifetime commitment, particularly
if one pursues to become an ideal moral person.
The issue addressed in this chapter is the moral education and development of
students in either academic or higher vocational education who are taught to
become professionals, call them pre-professionals. Higher education students have
already gone a long way on the path of moral development. Parents, family
members, teachers at primary and secondary level, peers and friends have had their
share in the development of pre-professionals towards the moral person they
presently are. Yet, to become a good professional in the full, also ethical sense,
they need to develop further. Therefore, institutions of higher vocational and
academic education make room in their curriculum for the moral education of pre-
professionals through professional ethics education. The aim of such teaching is
that students acquire the moral capacity necessary to become good professionals.
Yet, at which capacities should professional ethics education focus? One possible
answer is that we should focus on teaching moral competence or even moral
competences to pre-professionals. The central issue here is whether and why such a
focus should be considered a blessing or a curse for (improving) moral education
of pre-professionals.
Like all questions, this question derives its meaning from some assumptions,
some ideas that we have to take for granted to understand the question and to
consider it relevant and important for further reflection.
Firstly, the question assumes that professional moral education is important
enough to be an issue. This does not seem to require much elucidation. In my view,
and, I would add, in any decent view of professionalism, good professionalism has
at least two normative dimensions. Firstly, it involves that one performs one’s
profession adequately or, in the ideal case, perfectly, in a technical and methodical
sense. Secondly, good professionalism also has an intrinsic normative moral
dimension that consists of the moral constraints as articulated by its professional
community (in a professional code), the basic moral attitudes and dispositions, and,

D.J. de Ruyter, S. Miedema (eds.), Moral Education and Development, 239–253.

© 2011 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.

the moral goals and ideals of one’s profession. Only then is a professional a good
professional in the full double normative sense of the word.
The second assumption of my question is that such moral education takes its
shape through development of moral competence(s), within specific courses or
throughout the entire curriculum. Framing higher professional education in terms
of competences has become quite common, in the Netherlands and elsewhere. The
introduction of the competence framework into education promised to bridge the
gap between theory and practice, between cognition and action, between knowing-
why, knowing-that, and knowing-how, for each student individually. Yet, there has
been considerable debate about the competence discourse within educational
sciences in general and philosophy of education in particular.1 The issue at stake
was, and still is, whether a framework of competences is the sound and suitable
way to organise professional education. Here, we ask this question with respect to
moral education to pre-professionals.
Thirdly, discussing moral competence education of pre-professionals, I take a
moral philosophical perspective, combining views from both professional ethics
and philosophy of education. Competence and moral competence are studied from
other angles as well, not in the least, from the perspective of moral psychology and
development psychology (e.g., Bebeau & Monson, 2008). Yet, I will leave
reflection on these perspectives to others.2
Finally, the reader may have noticed that I pose a normative question, supposing
that there are bad and good ways to implement professional moral education
through moral competences. My answer, therefore, implies an appeal to standards
of good moral education.
A common reaction to my leading question is that all depends on what we mean
with moral competence(s). Only after we have settled the conceptual issue we can
address the question if moral education to pre-professionals in terms of moral
competence(s) is a good or bad thing, a blessing or a curse. Yet, the definition of
competence is notoriously problematic. Already in the 1970’s, Spady complained
that the ‘conceptual house’ of competence based education was ‘not in order’
(Spady, 1977, p. 9). Since then, the discussion about ‘competence(s)’ and its
meanings has continued. Reviewing the ostensibly endless debate, Lum argues,
however, that a ‘traditional’ analytic-philosophical focus on the concept of
competence will not further the debate (Lum, 1999). This chapter aims to add to
the debate and, therefore, it seems wise not to start with a conceptual discussion
once again. The risk of such a start is that we get stuck in matters of definition and
conceptual distinctions without even getting at the question that we want to answer
in the first place.
In order to answer the question whether moral competence education to pre-
professionals is a good or bad thing directly, I start with formulating arguments for
either position. Issues of the meaning and definition of ‘moral competence’ will,
nevertheless, pop up inescapably. Yet, one may ask whether the formulated
arguments and conclusion depend on the analysis of the meaning of moral
competence or whether this analysis is determined by the arguments.


I will proceed as follows. In a first round, I will present several arguments pro and
contra moral education to pre-professionals in terms of moral competence(s). After
a conceptual interlude, we continue our discussion in a second round. Arguments
of the first round will then be discussed by confronting them with some counter-
arguments. At the end, I shall invent the provisional result of this discussion with
some concluding remarks.

A Rough Initial Description

Even if we start with arguments instead of conceptual analysis, we need to have a
general idea what we are talking about when we discuss moral competence(s) of
professionals. For that reason, the following rough and tentative sketch may be of
Moral competences may be considered as clusters of integrated knowledge,
skills and attitudes that all professionals need in their daily practice in order to
flourish as morally good professionals. Self reflection seems to play a crucial role
in integrating these clusters into one’s personal moral development.
‘Moral’ can be taken to refer in the minimal sense to a kind of non-indifference
towards others besides oneself. It may also refer to other-regardingness, and
optimally, to a kind of altruism that puts the interests and well-being of others first,
perhaps even at the cost of oneself. Thus, a moral professional performs her job to
serve others, for example, in case of a teacher her pupils or children, and she does
so in accordance with the moral standards and ideals of her profession, from her
own critical reflective viewpoint.3
To illustrate what these clusters of knowledge, skills, and attitudes might
involve at least from a moral psychological point of view - we may refer to James
Rest’s four components model (FCM). Rest distinguished, in reaction to
Kohlberg’s one-sided emphasis on moral reasoning and judgement, several
(psychological) processes that are necessary for moral action: moral sensitivity,
moral reasoning and judgement, moral commitment and motivation, and moral
character (perseverance, etc.) (see Rest & Narvaez, 1995; cf. Bebeau & Monson,
2008, p. 558).
Finally, it seems characteristic to moral competence(s) that these clusters of
knowledge, skills and attitudes instantiate in real life moral action and behaviour.
A good tree is known by its fruits, a morally competent professional by her just
deeds and virtues. Thus, it is not enough to be aware of a moral situation (moral
sensitivity), to be able to reason and make judgements about it (moral reasoning),
to be committed and motivated to give more weight to moral considerations than to
others (moral commitment/motivation), and to be persistent in trying to be moral
(moral character). In order to be a morally competent professional, one should also
act on these considerations (cf. Bridges, 1996, p. 373).



The Blessing of Moral Competence Driven Education

There are at least two arguments why competence driven moral education to pre-
professionals might be a good thing, ‘the curriculum integration argument’ and ‘the
personal components integration argument’ respectively.

I. The curriculum integration argument

The first argument states that professional moral education in terms of competence
enhances integration of moral education into general professional education. The
argument goes as follows:
• Professional education at professional schools, in higher education and
universities is nowadays often framed in terms of competence(s)
• Yet, moral education is often still a neglected part of professional education;
• Moulding moral education to the shape of general professional education will
support introduction of the moral dimension of good professionalism into the
curricula of professional education.
If moral education is integrated to a competence driven curriculum, being a
competent professional will not only mean that one has the necessary knowledge,
skills, and the right attitude to become a good professional in a ‘technical’ sense
but also that one has moral competences or is morally competent.

II. The personal component integration argument

The second argument for approving of professional moral education in terms of
moral competence relates to the comprehensiveness of moral competences and its
close relation to the person that is or is not competent.
• Moral competence refers to a cluster of moral considerations. It comprises not
only knowledge about the morally good and the bad (in rules, principles, and
theory), the right and wrong within one’s professional practice, but also skills of
critical moral reflection, reasoning, and judgement, and a moral commitment
and character. Moreover, it focuses on actual action and behaviour in specific
situations in professional practices that should follow from this knowledge,
these skills and attitudes. Words and good intentions are not enough. What
counts in moral competence is that one uses this knowledge and these skills and
abilities in professional practices through tailor made action and praiseworthy
• While moral education of pre-professionals runs the risk of focussing one-
sidedly on only one of the preferred characteristics of a morally good
professional, e.g. their cognitive, or reflective qualities, the moral competence
based approach integrates knowledge, skills, attitude, and action.

In short, both arguments focus on integration of professional morality, either into

the curriculum of professional education or into, so to say, the person of the pre-


The Curse of Moral Competence-Driven Education

However, there are at least two arguments why competence-driven moral education
to pre-professionals might be a bad option too. These two arguments mirror the
two pro-arguments (I and II) to some extent.

III. The dwindling effect argument

The first argument against competence driven professional education is that
framing moral education in terms of competences seriously undermines the
articulation of the specific moral quality of good professionalism. The moral
quality of professionals as persons is broken down – we could say, deconstructed –
into an often extended and detailed list of rather general skills and attitudes that do
not express a relation to specific moral qualities. De Ruyter and Kole (2010) have
called this the dwindling effect.4
The effect occurs if one specifies moral competence in detailed, concrete and
observable skills and attitudes (or psychological processes). Such competences
tend to lose their identity as moral competences or their moral quality gets
truncated to a minimal deontic morality with negligence of the aspirational
dimension of (morally) good professionalism. In this way, the (aspirational) moral
dimension of good professionalism seems to dwindle.
Take for example Narvaez’ extended list of the four moral psychological
processes of judgement, motivation, sensitivity and action, specified in skills and
subskills. Subskills like ‘gathering information’, ‘be a leader’, ‘cultivate wonder’
seem to have lost their specific moral character (Narvaez & Lapsley, 2005, pp.
A further consequence is that a list of such specific competences no longer
offers a comprehensive view of good professionalism within one’s own profession.
There is no overarching aim or telos that gives meaning and coherence to the list
and contextualises its items in the moral practice of the profession. Instead there is
just a set of more or less atomistic decontextualised skills and attitudes.

IV. The disintegration argument

The second counterargument is that lists of atomistic general competences do not
contribute to the formation of morally good professionals as persons. The more
detailed, specific and decontextualised the competences are spelled out, the more
they invite a box ticking attitude amongst students and a corresponding way of
assessing and judging their development by teachers. In order to succeed their
course in professional moral competence, students need to have ticked all the
required competences on their scoring card, and they tend to do so in an
increasingly instrumental way. Rather than growing into morally competent
professionals (as persons) with a proper sense of the moral aim and meaning of
their professionalism, they become persons with a handful of so called ‘moral
competences’ in their backpack. The interconnectedness between these skills and
abilities, their overarching goal, and the personal identification with them fades
away. Rather than integrating the diverse components of moral professionalism


through personal identification, moral education in terms of competences might

disintegrate personal moral formation of pre-professionals.
Thus, we have two arguments for being enthusiastic about teaching moral
competence to pre-professionals in higher vocational and academic education and
two arguments against it. While there are other arguments, for our purposes it
suffices to concentrate on these four for the moment.


When we take a closer look at the arguments presented so far, it appears that there
are diverse interpretations of the concept of competence in play – call them
‘conceptions’. Are the pro- and con-arguments directed towards the same
phenomenon or does their divergence perhaps hinge on diverse conceptions of (the
concept of) competence? Reasoning about the suitability of competence driven
moral education of pre-professionals cannot, so it seems after all, escape an
analysis of what we actually and precisely mean with competence.
Many conceptual and theoretical distinctions have been launched in the
literature on competence, but I will apply a distinction elaborated by David Carr
(Carr, 1993, 2000, pp. 91–108). It is representative for many other attempts to
clarify the mist of meanings surrounding competence.5
We may say that the first two arguments correspond with what Carr calls
competence in the wider capacity sense. The emphasis in this interpretation of
competence is on the integrated capacities of a person as a competent person. A
competent person is more than the sum of her set of obtained skills and
dispositions. Thus, the focus is rather on a singular wide competence. The morally
competent professional in this sense has an overall aim (a telos), in line with the
internal goods and ideals of her specific (collective) professional practice. She has
to meet normative moral standards in terms of the specific virtues, values, and
norms of her practice in order to be qualified as a morally competent professional.
Moral competence in this sense expresses autonomous agency and voluntary
identification with the normative standards of one’s professional practice. To
evaluate and judge whether a morally competent professional meets these
normative standards, she and other professionals takes the first-person perspective
of an active participant of the collective practice. This, what also be called
‘insider’s perspective’, means that one has to be initiated into this practice of those
who share the same metier. One has to be a member of the group and a participant
of the practice to be able to assess oneself or a colleague as a good professional in
the moral sense. Evaluating oneself from this self-reflective ‘internal’ viewpoint
enables professionals to a type of moral self regulation, a kind of substantive
rational moral control that may be called moral professional autonomy. Moral
education to pre-professionals should guide students on the path to such moral
professional autonomy; to, what Strain calls ‘vocational professionalism’ (Strain,
2005, p. 6).
The two arguments against competence driven moral education appear to be
more in line with another conception of competence. It is, what Carr would call, a


narrow view of competences as dispositions. In this dispositional sense,

competences are causal powers to perform specific tasks and actions effectively.
Whether one has acquired them or not, can be assessed rather objectively, from the
outside, from a third person observer point of view. A competent person is a person
who, according to objective assessments and research, has all the competences
necessary. Thus, the focus is here on the plurality of competences instead of a
singular wide competence. And a competent person in this sense is primarily a
person who scores high on the ticking box list of all these detailed competences.
Good professionalism along this line is nothing more and nothing less than the sum
of these dispositional competences, the moral or ethical ones included. Such
professionalism focuses on accountability rather than responsibility, on proper
performance in correspondence with protocols and procedures rather than personal
capacity and discretionary judgement, on external regulation, assessment and
control rather than professional autonomy and self regulation. In Strain’s terms,
this approach depicts, in contrast to ‘vocational professionalism’, ‘competence
professionalism’, which ‘strongly relates to the demands upon the professional
from outside agencies, demands about how the professional behaves at work and
outside work.’ (Strain, 2005, pp. 6–7). This also accords with what others call
‘managerial professionalism’ (e.g., Sachs, 2001).

Arguments and Conceptions

Although both conceptions of competence ‘are inextricably interwoven in the web
of our general practice’, and one hardly can have the one without the other (Carr,
2000, p. 95), there is a tension between them. This expresses itself in the discussion
whether we should opt for competence driven moral education of pre-professionals.
How then do our two pairs of arguments and the two conceptions of competence
relate? The simplest interpretation would be that Carr’s conceptual distinction
between (singular) competence in the wider sense and (the plurality of) competences
in the narrow sense, is not a neutral conceptual distinction. It functions, in terms of
Taylor, as a qualitative distinction that implies an evaluation of the members of the
conceptual pair (Taylor, 1989). The wide sense is, then, the positive sense referring
to a kind of capacity that we would like pre-professionals to achieve during their
studies in higher education – ‘wide’ sounds good, ‘while’ narrow sounds bad. We
may hope that integration of moral education into the curriculum by moulding it in
terms of moral competence supports the development of such a positive capacity
for good professionalism in students (argument I). Besides, this wider sense of
moral competence catches nicely the ideal of integrated skills, abilities, dispositions,
and actual behaviour that is more than the sum of its parts and characterises good
professionals (argument II).
The other two arguments would, according to this straight and simple interpretation
of the relation between the pairs of arguments and the two conceptions of
competence, refer to the negatively evaluated narrow and plural dispositional view
of competence. The concrete competences are like the trees that prevent one from
seeing the wood; one loses sight of the holistic view of good professionalism that


aspires to more than the sum of a set of atomised dispositions and skills. The
plurality of atomistic competences hampers personal integration and identification
while their general character makes their moral quality dwindle.
Now, the conceptual distinction may legitimately play the role of a qualitative
distinction in Carr’s analysis – Carr himself thinks that much hinges on which
conception ‘is allowed to gain ascendancy’ (Carr, 2000, p. 95). In the context of
our analysis of arguments pro and contra moral education of pre-professionals in
terms of moral competence, however, such appeal would be rather rhetorical. Carr
points, like other critics of competence based education, at an ambiguity of the
concept of competence that warns us to be cautious with the use of this term when
we are reasoning about the pro’s and con’s of moral education of pre-professionals
in its terms. As mentioned before, there is not simply a clear and unambiguous
meaning notion of competence, to be found somewhere, out there, that we can
discover by conceptual analysis and to which we can refer as a neutral basis and
firm starting point for our discussion of the best way to stimulate the moral
development of pre-professionals. If the meaning of concepts and their conceptions
depends on our use of them in daily practice, as I assume (in a Wittgensteinian
fashion) then we should be constantly aware of the way in which the concept of
competence(s) is used in discussions and debates about moral education and in its
actual practice in higher education and on the working floor. We can only conclude
which use is most appropriate after we have discussed the relative weights and
strengths of the four arguments. Definitions do not decide a debate. Their
acceptance is, rather, the outcome of a debate, a debate how competence might be
fruitfully employed – if at all – in moral education to pre-professionals.


Formulating two arguments pro the wide sense of competence in professional

moral education and two arguments contra the strict sense is rhetorically selective.
It would have been correct to search for arguments against the wide sense and for
the narrow sense as well, and then, to weigh them against each other.