There are serious obstacles to teaching moral values in (public) schools, but they are not the theoretical or moral obstacles normally raised in discussions. Those can be satisfactorily addressed, I believe. The real problems are more of a pragmatic nature because (1) conducting productive value discussions is very difficult to do, even when teachers are well-trained in moral philosophy, (2) teacher education does not currently generally include moral philosophy, so unless they have learned moral philosophy outside that part of the curriculum, teachers are not likely even to be sufficiently trained to teach it very well, and (3) institutional, administrative values and needs of schools often conflict with humane moral values and the needs of students. (4) Parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders, often don't really want (anyone) to think for themselves, though they pay lip service to wanting that. What they really often want is for others to believe as they do because they believe they are right. And they don't want to have to consider arguments or discussions that point to the possibility, let alone the likelihood, that their views are mistaken. I will discuss the real problems at the end of this essay. I want to begin with the problems usually mistakenly put forward as being definitive and insurmountable. I need to make some concepts clear first, however.
Ambiguity of the phrase "spiritual values": The phrase "spiritual values" may refer to at least three different kinds of things, described below. Without clarification of the usage intended, ambiguity often causes confusion or unnecessary disagreement.
Morality not necessarily religious in nature: The concept of "spiritual values" is often conjoined with "moral values" in a phrase such as "moral and spiritual values", as if the two concepts somehow necessarily go together (in one or more of a variety of ways I will discuss further on). But it is a mistake to think so, if by "spiritual" one means "religious" in some aspect. It is a mistake because it causes unnecessary suspicions about the moral values, moral character, and moral behavior of other people along religious or denominational lines; and it is a mistake because it unnecessarily keeps moral education out of secular schools where it is mistakenly thought to be an intrusion of religion into those schools. Even when the phrase "moral and spiritual values" is not used, the conjunction of religion and ethics is still implied as in the common exhortations such as "We must bring God back into the schools and begin teaching moral values there again."
Moreover, it is a mistake because those who equate or conjoin the moral and spiritual tend provincially to confuse particular religious values with general moral ones, and then slip into evangelism when discussing morality and behavior, either offending or alienating those who do not accept a (particular) religious doctrine, because the implication is that unless "you" have the exact same religious precepts the speaker (or group they represent) does, you cannot truly be happy, fulfilled, or content with your life, or you cannot truly be good and decent to others.
Three Different Meanings of "Spiritual"
Or it may mean a relationship between the spirit of God and the spirit of the person, for example that the spiritual person is spiritual because, for example, "s/he partakes of the spirit of God", or because "the Holy Spirit resides in his/her heart". There are numerous poetic or metaphysical ways of describing this.
I will refer to both of the above meanings of "spiritual" as "religious".
But "spiritual"can be as much about the human spirit as it is about the spirit of a deity. A person who is not religious in the practicing sense, but who has the utmost respect for others, and who believes there is a higher good than mere practical or material human concerns, physical needs, or his/her own desires and self-interest, may be described as a very spiritual person even if s/he does not believe in God as being some sort of person with particular character traits. In this sense, "spiritual" is being contrasted with "material", "physical", "corporeal", "merely functional", or "mercenary".
All these usages are common, and it is pointless to seek "the" supposed real meaning of the term spiritual, because all of them are real.
The Arguments for Separating "Moral" and "Spiritual" (Religious)
One may even choose to plow into an empty parked car in order to miss the child, because one realizes the life of the child is more important than mere material objects, even expensive ones.
A Jew might do this; a Muslim might do this; a Christian might do this; an atheist might do this. Such an act has to do with valuing the life of a child, regardless of what philosophical basis, if any, one might have for doing so.
2) Or take the belief that it is wrong to steal from another that which they have worked hard to create or that which they have acquired by trade for something else into which they have put much labor. Is that a Christian value just because it might be a value in the Christian religion? Of course not. It may be a purely philosophical or secular value, just as it might be a value important in any number of religions. Is a person any less moral because s/he thinks it unfair to steal than because s/he thinks God has commanded him/her not to steal? Is a person any less moral because s/he thinks it is unfair to steal than because s/he thinks God will punish him/her for stealing? Might it actually not even be more moral not to steal from a conviction it is unfair than from fear of damnation or even from fear of estrangement from God?
3) It seems plausible to hold that religions champion certain values, or that God champions certain values, because they are good values, not that they are good values because some religion holds them. In fact, many a theological explanation, and many a homily or sermon has explained in human terms, in human values, the meaning and point of some commandment found in the Bible or other sacred document -- and it seems important and natural to do that. Yet if morality were truly scripturally based, there would be no need to try to see any point to whatever commandments are prescribed; one would have to believe in them just because they were commanded. Moreover, the troublesome commandments and passages are just those ones that don't seem to make sense in terms of any values important to human beings. Often new religions or new denominations arise from differing interpretations of those passages, or from outright rejection of those passages.
4) There is nothing about believing in God that in itself makes one act justly and righteously, even if one wants to do the right thing. Sometimes one is weak or simply makes an error in judgment about what one ought to do. Those who follow the Golden Rule, for example, may make a judgment about how to treat others based on how they themselves would want to be treated, even though the other person may not want to be treated that way, and even though there is objective reason to believe it is not in the other person's best interest to be treated that way, though it might be in the best interest of the person doing the act to have been treated that way. A parent told me one time when I was a college academic advisor to freshmen that he wanted his son to study engineering because he wished someone had made him study engineering when he was younger. But his son did not want to become an engineer, and all his son's scores indicated that there were other areas of study in which he would be far more successful and likely to be happy. The fact that the father may have been better off studying engineering, if that is even true, does not mean he should impose that field of study on his son. This is not to say that parents never know what is best for their children when their children disagree, nor is it to say that someone cannot know what is better for someone else than that person knows for himself, but there has to be some evidence other than knowing how oneself might have been better off.
5) Religious zealots in particular seem to be people who fervently believe in religion and in God and yet do wrong, sometimes terrible, acts - often because they believe they are doing God's will. Their religious beliefs may be mistaken in some way, but that does not mean they are not devoutly committed to a higher spirit. They are spiritual, even though not moral.
6) It may even be possible that one can be extremely devout and think that such devotion frees one from any punishment for wrong-doing and that therefore one does not need to be moral here on earth. I am not sure. I do not think it justified to call hypocrites those who are apparently devout, but otherwise immoral, just for being both of those things. It seems to me that believing in God and in certain attributes of God, or believing one has a special relationship with God, does not necessitate one will even try to be good to other people. A person who merely believes in God may feel that is sufficient, and that God does not really care about any behavior other than one's acceptance of Him or one's belief in Him.
There are many arrogant, self-centered, rude people who quite honestly believe in God, often wearing their religious convictions on their sleeves and talking about God's wonderfulness and importance every opportunity they get. They are sincere in their devotion, but they are not otherwise good people, even though they may not murder anyone or commit any of what they consider to be sins. I am not certain there is any one or two motivations for the devotion to God of people like this, but sometimes it seems they are motivated to be good to those who can do them great good or harm, whether God or others in power. And sometimes it seems they may have a genuine appreciation for God's gift of life and blessings to them, without seeing the need for their own being nice or a blessing to other people -- particularly to those not in a position to do them any pragmatic good.
It seems to me that we want schools, as well as homes and other places, to teach children how to be kind and decent to others who are deserving, and to do the right thing for themselves and others. It is our character and obligations to ourselves, along with our relationships and obligations to others, that schools can discuss without intruding on anyone's views about their relationship with God.
7) Some people make the claim that if we are going to speak of "moral laws" at all, that implies there is a giver of those laws, and that there cannot be moral values without a belief in a deity who somehow makes moral laws or enforces them. However, this is a mistake resting on an ambiguity of the word "law". Moral laws can be understood as moral principles or as something like mathematical, logical, or scientific laws in the sense that they are discovered, not invented or fabricated. In this sense they are not something that needs to be passed by anyone. Nor are they mere decrees, no matter who is supposed to have issued the decree. Moral laws are general, sometimes abstract, principles about how things ought to be; we discover them by persistent concerted scrutiny, using our collective moral sensitivity, understanding, judgment, and wisdom. Sometimes we do not get it right. It is not the case, in this sense of "laws" that the existence of moral laws therefore implies the existence of a law-giver. Laws of this sort are not "given" by anyone.
8) Basing a moral system on moral philosophy or collective human sensitivity and reasoning does not deny the fallibility or limitations of human judgment. Whether one is trying to discover moral principles or "merely" trying to interpret them as they appear in a sacred text, one is faced with many of the same problems caused by limited understanding.
9) Creating something does not give one unlimited moral superiority, or total moral control or authority over it. Clearly parents, insofar as they can be said to create children, do not have the moral right to do anything they want to their children nor to require anything they want from their children. Nor does the creator of something like a vaccine have the moral authority to destroy it just because s/he wants to. Nor does ownership of a famous work of art give one the moral right to deface or destroy it just because one might choose to. It is not the relationship of production, creation, or ownership of any sort that bestows moral primacy of anyone over anything or anyone else. Moral ideas and pronouncements are right or wrong because of what they say, not because of who said them. Even if God created the heavens and earth and all that inhabit them, that alone does not grant God absolute, arbitrary moral authority over all of it.
10) Total physical control of another also does not bestow moral authority. If someone orders you to kill an innocent person upon penalty of shooting you if you do not, that does not make it morally right for you to kill the innocent person. It might possibly excuse you for doing it, but it does not justify your doing it. Even if God has total physical control of the means of existence and of human happiness, that does not grant God the moral legitimacy to command whatever He wishes nor to have His commands obeyed.
11) Many ethical situations are not covered, at least not obviously
or directly, by religion. When it is justified to break a date, for example,
is not something one can find in the Bible under "dating regulations".
Assumed and Implied Relationships Between Ethics and Religion
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