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Moral and Spiritual Values
and (Public) Schools
by Rick Garlikov

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"

The term "spiritual" is often used to describe someone who is very religious or who is very devout in his/her worship of God. The "spirit" in "spiritual" is often a reference to the holy spirit of God, or, in Christianity, to the Holy Spirit. The spiritual person is one who is close to God, loves God, always thinks of God, puts God first, or who tries to do God's will. It is a person whose life, or important aspects of it are, in some way, centered around God.

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)

1) Normally, when one puts on the brakes and swerves while driving in order to avoid hitting a child that has run out into the street, one does so in order to save the child's life because one thinks life, particularly the life of an innocent child, is important. One does not apply the brakes in order to please God, though God may be pleased. One does not apply the brakes in order to please the child's parents, though they may be pleased. One does not apply the brakes in order to please the child's grandparents, though they may also be pleased. Nor does one apply the brakes in order to stay out of jail (if one is not speeding, it might not be a punishable offense), nor to make oneself feel good (since there is no reason to feel good about saving a child if one did not already believe it was a good for the child to be able to continue to live).

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

First, as I said before, there is no conflict between religion and morality where religious laws have an understandable moral basis that any sensitive and decent person can see whether they are religious or not. There is a wealth of such overlap and common values -- though they are not necessarily always the apparent or surface values we tend to hear about in typical discussions about social values. The conflicts lie with those particular religious pronouncements which have no apparent intrinsic or merely rational moral basis or which even seem to be erroneous from a merely rational (secular) point of view. I want to examine what the basis might be for believing that religious principles, particularly ones which do not seem to have any rational basis, are the moral principles people ought to follow.

The argument from God's superior moral knowledge: It is, of course, always possible that such religious pronouncements do state a correct moral position even though it is not clear to mere humans how they could be correct. In this regard it is possible that one must just have faith that the bestower of religious duties and laws knows something we do not and cannot know.

This is satisfying to some people, and apparently even satisfied Job at the very end of the Book of Job, but not until then. Job's view until the very end of the book makes more sense to most people, and I have written elsewhere ( that the Book of Job shows that people do have a sense of right and wrong apart from what God commands. To be merely obedient to any law or set of pronouncements, no matter from where they come, is not satisfying to everyone, and it is not clear to me that it should be satisfying without at least some evidence that points out either why a particular rule is actually right or without some evidence of the superior moral, and not just factual, knowledge and the superior power of the author.(1) It seems to me the book intentionally makes clear that Job had a legitimate complaint against God, and that God did not adequately respond to his questioning. Job's family and livestock did not deserve to be killed on the basis of any sort of moral failings, nor did Job deserve to have the suffering and sorrow inflicted on him that he did. Job did not have to know all the answers in order to know that he was innocent and undeserving of the evil God visited on him (or permitted to be visited on him); and it is just not very satisfying for God to say only that there were things Job just didn't understand. Was God powerless to help Job understand? Nor did God's granting Job a new family and new prosperity seem to me to erase his taking away from Job what He did. (I will return to this in the discussion of "Sunday School vs. Theological Values".)

Then, of course, there is the problem of disagreement among religions, sects, and denominations about which pronouncements are the correct ones in the first place. Where there are disagreements, which rules are the ones that a knowledgeably superior deity really gave? How does one sort out among those conflicting pronouncements which have no merit that is based on human reason or experience, the ones which humans ought to obey because they reflect a wisdom we can not understand nor appreciate? This is a real problem, but it seems to me that it is a problem that schools can largely work around because many sectarian disagreements are not about issues that involve how we should behave toward each other. Schools can easily leave out altogether issues that don't have civil implications such as whether Christians or Reform Jews ought to follow the kosher laws or any of the other Scriptural laws they believe to be retracted or not really meant to still apply, or issues as to whether the body of Christ should be portrayed on the cross or not, whether Easter should be celebrated according to the lunar calendar or a different calendar, whether Jews are permitted to turn on electricity or play musical instruments for pleasure during the Sabbath, whether women can become clergy, etc. Would it not be sufficient for schools to teach about those moral issues that have some palpable civil meaning, meaning which pertains to general social and civic interaction -- particularly those moral issues and ideas that reason and sensitivity can help us make sense of and judge with understanding? When people say schools need to teach moral and spiritual values, aren't they usually talking about societal and civic or civil sorts of values, not all esoteric religious practices and doctrines! They want students to know how to behave with regard to other people.

The religious sanction argument: There are people who hold that morality would not be honored by some people if they had nothing to fear from ignoring it, and that some form of punishment is necessary as a threat and as a sanction to make such people do the right thing. Even if it is true, which I doubt, that people cannot come to moral sensitivity, understanding, and right behavior without some fear of retribution for failing to behave properly, that does not mean such retribution actually will occur. It only means that the promise of supernatural sanctions is perhaps necessary to continue to promulgate for social management reasons, whether it is true or not.

The converse of this is the belief that goodness needs to be, deserves to be, rewarded, and since it is not always rewarded in life on earth, there must be some sort of eternal reward for deserving people after they die. Again, however, the belief and the desire or even the psychological need for the belief do not insure the reality of it.

The "permanent record" (implied) argument: Parallel to this is the idea that good deeds (and evil deeds) need to be known - that there needs to be some sort of permanent record of what each of us has done, or that otherwise what we do is meaningless. Since memory, and even history, do not present a complete and meaningful permanent record of what each of us has done, no matter how famous or important anyone was in their lifetime, the notion is that since God is both eternal and all-knowing, nothing we do is ever forgotten or lost because it is in His mind. The idea is that God knows all, understands all, and remembers all. Again, however, the wish for such permanence does not insure the reality of it. But moreover, it seems to me a mistake to believe that impermanent things have no value. If you make a child smile for a moment, that is important, regardless of how long anyone remembers it. If you save a child's life by avoiding an accident, it does not matter that anyone besides you knows it. It is important to have happened, not to be known that it happened. It is my view that the desire for permanent knowledge of what we have done or accomplished is an irrational desire, one which often makes people not appreciate the value of many of their own accomplishments simply because they think not enough people knew about them.

The more interesting perspective is the one taken by a chef I interviewed who was the first person I ever met who made ice sculptures. Until I met him, I had never heard of ice sculptures. He would take a chainsaw at first, and then hand tools, to a huge block of ice until he had carved some exquisite, often delicately looking, figure, such as a swan. These would serve as centerpieces then or as accessories for a buffet or banquet table. Of course they melted during whatever function at which they were displayed, so by their very nature they were impermanent. Being afflicted myself at the time with the view that the beautiful and good should be permanent, I asked the chef whether he wasn't disappointed that his works melted; wouldn't he rather work in a more permanent medium since he made such beautiful things. He said he wasn't disappointed about their melting; he could always make another one if he wanted to, and he was happy just to do them and have people enjoy them at the time. That was sufficient. He sometimes made soap carvings for his young children, but that was the extent of his desire to sculpt. He saw no reason to want to create longer lasting works.

It seems to me that this view is just as worthy as the desire for some sort of permanent recognition, and as the desire for permanence of display of one's work in order to share it with more people. This seems particularly so if you consider the difference between creation and display. The act of creation is only done once whether it is a piece in ice or a piece in marble, and so from the inner perspective of the artist there is no difference in his work; the difference is in what the work means to others because normally more people will have an opportunity to see a particular, good marble sculpture than to see the one made of ice.

Of course, it is often pleasant to share good experiences with other people, but there is no reason to think such sharing needs to somehow be permanent or even that memories need to be permanent. It is sad when those who share our history are lost to us, but it should be enough that we had good experiences, and that we did share them when we did, regardless of with how many or for how long anyone remembers them.

That being said, it may be incumbent on us to honor the good deeds of others and to let them stand as examples to future generations, but it is not clear that in doing such things we preserve the memory of the person who did the deed, or the experiences s/he had. The military cemeteries in Europe are filled with rows upon rows of crosses and stars of David, many with names on them. But other than to the surviving family members and friends and loved ones who knew the deceased, it is not the particular names on those crosses that make those cemeteries so poignant. It is the quantity of graves and their markers, each signifying the loss of a life usually struck down before its prime, people at rest in peaceful, beautiful surroundings that serve even further to contrast with the violence of their deaths. The poignance of the U.S. national Vietnam war memorial is the sheer quantity of names, each representing the substance and experience of a once-living person. It is what those names signify, not the record of the names themselves, that is important to future generations. Even seeing monuments in villages or in churches to the named members who died in past wars is a moving experience for those who never knew them - not because of the names themselves but because they each represent a lost life.

Such monuments stand as examples to the future and as a reminder of the past, but they serve as examples and reminders only to those who view them. If and when the day comes that the last person to ever exist or see them dies, the monuments will no longer be examples nor reminders. Their jobs will be done and their importance will cease. But the importance of what they stand for - the value of the specific deeds and the value of the lives of those they commemorate - will not be ended by the end of civilization any more than it was actually captured or prolonged by the monuments in the first place. It is not just the memories of good deeds that make them good.

Surface Agreements and Disagreements
Sunday School Values vs Theological Values

There is one ostensible major problem with teaching ethics in schools, which, if people are not willing to address rationally, will be an insurmountable problem. If they are willing to address it rationally, it is not really a problem at all. There are a number of cases where people seem to disagree about moral issues, but where that disagreement is only on the surface, so, if people are willing to go "below" the surface and explore the issue in some depth, they will find less disagreement than was initially apparent. Perhaps even no disagreement. There are also cases where people have apparent initial agreement, but if they discuss a matter to some extent, they may find they have actual disagreement, though further discussion might lead them to agreement again, but in a different way from their original apparent agreement. Let me give some examples.

A minister I talked with one time said that if people tried to base morality on human values instead of religious values, that led to "situation ethics" which he thought meant that people would think right whatever they wanted to do in a situation, and they would be driven more by desire and whim than by some principled, stable, consistent set of values. But when I spoke with him on a different occasion, just a day later, he was talking about a great ethics course he had had in seminary, and he reminisced fondly about a particular class session where the teacher asked all these prospective clergymen whether they thought it would be right to lie in the case of, for example, hiding a Jewish family from the authorities in Germany in the late 1930's and early 1940's. All but one minister immediately said it would be right to lie. The teacher said he was surprised that they came so quickly to what he also thought was the right answer. (The one who thought it wrong to lie, thought so for the reason that he believed it would be wrong to endanger his own family in order to try to save strangers - that he had a stronger obligation to his own family's lives than to the lives of strangers.)

Now it is my view that this minister himself was practicing ethics situationally, in that he held, essentially, that lying was prima facie wrong and that one should not generally tell a lie, but that there might be certain (kinds of) situations or circumstances under which lying would be right, and perhaps even obligatory. But by doing ethics this way, one is not thereby abandoning principles and acting only on whim; one is simply abandoning overly simplistic or overly general sorts of principles that are wrong in the first place for particular kinds of circumstances.

In a class I taught in rural Alabama one time there was a nice young man who had moved from New Jersey recently. During one discussion that included something about helping a stranded motorist, he expressed astonishment that anyone would do that. "In New Jersey, no one would ever stop to help someone; I certainly wouldn't!" At first we all thought he was selfish and he claimed it was not selfish but that they were foolish to stop to help someone else. We seemed to have two quite different moral views about this situation. But as we kept talking about it, it turned out the differences were not moral differences, but something else. The reason he would not stop to help a stranded motorist was that apparently in New Jersey this would be the sort of scam some people were using to rob or carjack whoever stops to help. It was not a safe practice in the part of the state he was from. In Alabama that had not become a problem, especially in the small town where the college was located. The New Jersey student thought it right to help people, but not at some real risk to your life; the Alabama students agreed. The initial apparent disagreement stemmed from his not knowing it was safe to help a stranded motorist in Alabama and the other students' not knowing it would not be reasonably safe in New Jersey.

In another case, one of apparent initial agreement, which turned out not to be one of actual agreement, I watched two devout, conservative Christian men one day discuss morality and the state of society, and it turned out that one of them was a member of "The Moral Majority", a conservative religious movement. He took out a membership card that stated the principles of the organization and all of its members. I believe there were four principles altogether, and that one of them was that euthanasia was immoral. The other man, who was known locally as one of the nicest, most unselfish, most caring and helpful men in the community and in his church, agreed with all the principles from this card. But after he agreed with all the principles the first man had read, he said "Let me tell you about a case, though, and you tell me whether you consider this euthanasia or not. I don't think it is. Our mother, when she was in her 90's suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed, unable to speak, and was in a pretty much vegetative state though she was conscious. Our family took care of her at home, and we were totally attentive to her. After a year or so, with no real change in her condition, she one day seemed to be having a heart attack and became unconscious. My brothers and sisters decided it would be wrong to take her to the hospital and to try to save her, that she had suffered enough. But mother did not die immediately from the heart attack, and since she was unconscious, we just did not feed her, but let her lie there until she died. We didn't hasten her death, but we did not try to prolong her life. You don't consider that euthanasia, do you?" The first fellow visibly flinched and turned white, I thought, but he seemed not to want to offend the other man, and he said that he did not consider it euthanasia. I believe he did. I also believe he may not have considered it wrong. I don't know. My point, however, is that both men were opposed initially to what they both considered to be euthanasia, but it was quite likely that they did not have the same deeper understanding of what constituted euthanasia -- at least not in all cases.

What is required in doing moral philosophy is a willingness to go below the surface and to see what is really at issue, in as specific terms, and with as specific reasons as you can give. Only then do you start to see what each others' real values are. People are often willing to do that, but only if they do not feel they are being interrogated or challenged in some unfair way. Making them feel comfortable enough to pursue such a discussion is not always easy or possible. If parents are unwilling to let their children be involved in deeper discussions, that is a serious impediment for schools, but it is a social impediment, not a pedagogical one. It is no different than if parents don't want evolution even taught in schools or if they don't want math taught from any but a rote recipe and drill approach and are unwilling to listen to evidence opposing their view.

Having taught ethics to students of many different ages, racial and ethnic groups, and very different socio-economic backgrounds, I have found that almost all differences in moral views, where there are any, are at the surface level, not at the deeper level. The first difficulty is being able to get past the surface into the specific reasons and values that anyone has for saying some particular action or behavior is right or wrong. The second difficulty then is trying to think of situations that might help isolate specific values to see whether there really is disagreement "deep down" or whether the disagreement is based on one or both parties' holding principles they only think they believe in, or ones they really consistently do hold. For example, I had one class of students in philosophy in the early 1970's one time who, when we got to ethics late in the term, held the view that one should break a date whenever one wanted to, and that furthermore one should do whatever one wanted to. The reason they thought this was they held the view that honesty was the most important principle one could live by, and that it meant one should always be "true to one's self" and absolutely honest with others. They argued that if you were not totally honest, results would always turn out worse - for example that the other person would know you were having a bad time on the date and would have been better off if you had broken the date.

I thought they were carrying the principle of this sort of honesty too far and proposed various scenarios for them, such as breaking the date to the prom 10 minutes before just because you changed your mind, even though the other person had gone to a lot of trouble and expense and was really looking forward to attending, etc. But they had become entrenched in defense of this principle of total honesty, no matter how (apparently) brutal. I even asked about murdering someone, and they said "Sure, if you are willing to accept the consequences and still really want to do it." I couldn't believe they really believed that everyone should do anything they wanted to whenever they really wanted to do it, but nothing I thought of convinced them during that class period. That night I thought of a different approach. I had promised them no quizzes, tests, or papers during the term because I had a totally different way of grading them. We were now into the 12th week of a 15 week term, and homecoming weekend began in a couple of days. The next morning, stating the pretext that they had obviously not been reading the assignments they had because they knew they would not be tested on them, I told them that on Monday and Tuesday they would have a two-part midterm that would count 60% of their grades. I was lying to them, but they believed me. They were stunned. Instead of arguing, as I thought they would, they went strangely passive. Their only question was what would be covered which day. I said I would not tell them because they were responsible for everything we had covered so far, and this was not a game where they could get by with some sort of strategic cramming. I had a really difficult time keeping from laughing as I made this sound more and more abusive, waiting for them to argue. They took my holding back my laughter for an intense anger from within me. Finally, they were totally silent and acquiescent without any objection to the exam.

So I said that I had some questions then for them. Did they not know it was Homecoming weekend? They knew it. Did they not remember I had told them there would be no exams? They remembered it. I then asked how many of them thought this was terrible of me to do this. A few raised their hands. I looked at the others, and asked where there honesty was - weren't they after all going to go back to their dorms or to their other classes and tell their friends what an awful person I was, and weren't they going to be much more descriptive of my character. Most of them sheepishly raised their hands in agreement. So I then said "If you think I am really terrible for doing this, you must think I am doing the wrong thing, because how could I be terrible or cruel for doing something right?" They saw the logic in that and agreed they thought this was a terribly wrong thing for me to do. At which point I told them there would be no exam, and that I had only made up that there would be.

Now they became angry, and loud. They wanted to know why I put them through all that for the last 30 minutes. I reminded them of their chief operating ethical principle of the previous day - that it is always right to do whatever you wanted to- and I asked them how they thought it could be wrong for me to give a horrendous exam if I had really wanted to do it. They couldn't have it both ways - that giving the exam was wrong and that it is always right to do whatever one wants. I then asked how many still held that principle. All but two of them gave it up because they saw they didn't really believe it.

Teaching moral philosophy or ethics requires being able to understand how complex issues can be analyzed into component parts, and it requires being able to think up ways to get students to understand how to do that. It raises issues of core values as you go along, but those core values have to do with things far more basic than just issues of life and death, honesty, obedience, loyalty, etc. And one is not so much trying to teach core values by imposition, as one is trying to teach by reason and the presentation of evidence. One is trying to get students to learn how to analyze complex issues and to learn how to discuss them meaningfully with others, so that if someone disagrees with them about a moral issue, they can find out where they or where the other person may have been mistaken.

This is not an anti-religious position, because it is the kind of thing that theologians and reflective members of the clergy do and have always done. It is only what I call a "Sunday School understanding of religion and morality" that doesn't realize this -- the sort of simplistic view often given to children about God and about the world and about morality, that some people just do not get beyond. But they don't get beyond simple beliefs only because they don't think about those things; not because it is irreligious to think about them.

Religious views are not the only simplistic views adults have, so this is not a problem or symptom peculiar to religion. Schools (and life in general) tend to be places where a great deal of material is covered in ways that don't foster reflection or deeper understanding. For example in history and social studies, many American adults believe that simple majority rule is the only possible form of democracy, even though the U.S. Constitution has other formulas for a vote's passing, and even though there are many other potential, and perhaps even better, ways to make individuals' votes count for more, and to prevent the "tyranny of the majority". Many adults have naive views about how science is conducted, about the nature of history and the causes and meanings of historical events, and about the nature of arithmetic and concepts in it.

The basic question is whether schools should be places that foster reflection and understanding in whatever areas they teach or whether they should be mere "training" facilities where students learn currently accepted specific facts and general practices and ideas. If the former, then teaching ethics or anything else is not problematic from a social perspective. But if schools are merely to be places where conventional views are transmitted without much understanding, then it will be socially impossible to teach those aspects of morality where people have different views, even if they are only surface differences. However, even then, it is my contention that there are not that many such differences in religious views over the sorts of topics that could be covered and should be covered under the rubric of morality and values in schools. Moral philosophy is an academic subject with a rich history in Western culture of nearly 2500 years. It can be taught to interested students in a way that is neutral with religion so that it neither offends church leaders nor the federal courts.

The principal characteristics necessary to be good at learning to teach this effectively are (1) the willingness to take student views seriously even if they may seem obviously false, (2) the understanding that reason is the only tool that can make the course work (and not authority or dogmatism) regardless of where it might lead, (3) a willingness to make mistakes in front of students and have to change one's own views, and (4) a willingness to be sincere, honest, and genuine with students. And (5) it needs to be taught without grades, or at least with as little emphasis on grades as possible, so that it is not authoritarianism disguised as reasoning, and so that students don't feel pressured simply to memorize the material in order to be able to give the teacher's views on a test. In fact, the school "memorization" culture is one of the most difficult things to overcome in the classroom. Students have tended to memorize themselves into an intellectual passivity; teachers have continuously have to seek ways to rekindle curiosity, reflection, and a willingness to voice disagreement.

Below are topics that I believe are important to include in an ethics course. Notice they are not about specific moral issues. The purpose of the course, the way I conceive it, is to help students develop and understand moral principles and the nature of morality and moral reasoning in general. That way they can apply their understanding to any situation or issue that might arise. And the way to develop moral principles is to examine non-controversial situations first in order to see what is important about them and what the determining factors might be for deciding what is right to do. Then one develops general principles and examines other non-controversial situations or issues in their light to see whether modifications need to be made in the principles. After substantial practice and improvement in this manner, a class can then, if the teacher chooses to, begin to examine more complex and/or more controversial issues in order to see how they relate to the easier cases. Often, complex cases dissect into components which are not particularly difficult nor controversial. Seeing and weighing the individual components can yield understanding of the complex original, often eliminating all or most of the controversy.

Included Topics:

1."Who's to say" what is right or wrong? (And "Does morality depend on religion or what God says?")

2.The meaning of terms such as 'good', 'bad', 'right', 'wrong', 'duty', 'ought', 'obligation', 'motive',
'consequences', 'intentions', etc.

3.Reasons why the distinctions between motive, intention, and act are important.

4.Evidence for the objectivity of ethics, and invalidity of the evidence that ethics is just subjective

5.The nature of moral responsibility

6.Normative ethics: seeking the highest ethical principles and values:

A.Theories holding that right actions are those which have the best overall consequences (and
ideas about what the "best" or "good" consequences are) 
1.egoism -- best consequences for the person doing the act 

2.altruism -- best consequences for others 

3.utilitarianism -- best consequences for the greatest number 

B.Theories holding that something other than the value of consequences is what makes acts right or wrong: 

1.Kant's principles 

2.the Golden Rule 

3.various lists of specific rules, laws, or regulations 

4.duties, such as promise keeping, paying debts, obligations to family, etc. 

5.principles of reasonable or fair distribution 

7.Problems with all the above theories

8.A theory of obligation and of right which takes into account the above theories and their problems.

9.Whether, and why, one should be ethical (particularly when it goes against one's own self-interest).

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1. For example with regard to human activities, as I write this, my house is being re-roofed by a company I am told does very good work, by contractors who I know have high standards and by people who have told them they were very pleased with past such referrals. The two previous roofs on the house are being removed, including flashing and other metal work. If I were to judge by myself how the job is going, I would be extremely worried because the roof looks like a real mess now. But I have faith and confidence based on these people's past track record that it will turn out quite good. In other words, my direct empirical evidence and logic are supplemented and, in this case, superseded, by other sorts of evidence. But this evidence is, of course, about roofing, not about any other sorts of skills or good works they may have done. (Return to text.)