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The Blameless. Part 1: The Young

October 19, 2008

Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because they are too young to understand how to behave.

I’m sure that plenty of behaviour in primary schools is down to the extent to which very young children are not always able to do things that adults take for granted or are ignorant of the significance of their actions. I’m also sure that children cannot be held responsible for breaking complex rules that they had no reason to know about or think existed. What is more incredible is the extent to which it is claimed that secondary school students, who have been in formal education for the better part of a decade, are ignorant of the basics of how to conduct one’s self. Nobody gets to the age of eleven without knowing that you are expected to obey your teachers; that it is wrong to hurt people, and that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company. It’s not as if the students who continually misbehave aren’t also continually told to stop. “He doesn’t know any better” is an obvious falsehood. Only those behaviours which a child will never have seen or tried before should ever be considered in this light. This is not to say that children are always to be considered to be as responsible as adults for their actions, but there is no reason to consider the action of being told to “fuck off” by a fifteen year-old as involuntary, like the crying of a baby, or simply a result of a lack of awareness of the fact that it wasn’t polite.

The sort of behaviour that most concerns teachers (disobedience, bullying, verbal abuse, violence) is, of course, the sort of behaviour that children learn is wrong at a very young age. This does not stop appeals to theories of moral development such as those of Piaget (1932) and Kohlberg (1958) who both claimed that children developed their moral reasoning in stages. Many criticisms have been made of their ideas, but whether there is truth in their theories or not, no amount of research into the moral reasoning of children tells us about the moral acts of children. It does not take a sophisticated standard of ethical thought to do what you are told while you are at school or to refrain from telling your teacher to “fuck off”. Any teacher can tell you that children’s behaviour does not tend to continually progress in a positive way as they grow. Where behaviour improves over time it is more likely to be related to social factors (like going into the sixth form, a change in peer group, or an increase in responsibilities) than some kind of natural development. If there are developmental milestones in behaviour they would actually be points, such as adolescence, where behaviour is prone to getting worse.

Of course, even if we accept that children do follow a natural process of behaving better as they mature (or more plausibly they are socialised into at least some good habits over time) then it would still make no sense to see them as beyond blame. Even if the young were more inclined to do wrong than the old, then that would still not absolve them of responsibility. Being more strongly tempted to do something than another person does not mean you are no longer obliged to resist that temptation. “But I wanted to …” is no excuse at any age. Society can show mercy to wayward children, punish them less strictly than it would adults. It cannot, however, justify declaring them to be either free from sin or without free will. Children are not to be worshipped as saints or dehumanised into animals. They are people, and that, rather than any inherent deficiency in the young, is why they do bad things.

References

Kohlberg, Lawrence, The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Chicago 1958

Piaget, J., The Moral Judgment of the Child, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co, 1932

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80 comments

  1. ["Nobody gets to the age of eleven without knowing that you are expected to obey your teachers; that it is wrong to hurt people, and that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company."]

    I agree totally. I just think that you make it read “Nobody should get”. That would be a sound and defensible ethical judgement. Whether your ethical judgements match reality is a different proposition, as I will show below.

    “Nobody gets to eleven without knowing they are expected to obey their teachers”: what about children with parents who disagree with the teachers, and side with the student at all times? This would have indicated to me, at that age, that I was not expected to obey at all.

    “Nobody gets to eleven without knowing that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company”: not all children are ever presented with polite company. I had acquaintances in school who swore regularly, and no sanctions stuck because the parents did not think that it was an issue. If you are told by your parents that swearing is something only stuffy sanctimonious prigs get worried by, you might blame those who react to swearing for their reaction.

    “Nobody gets to eleven without knowing that it is wrong to hurt people”: I’m sure there are many who are taught that there are all sorts of exceptions. The main one would be self-defence. Do you know of recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation research that shows how prevalent a gang territory mindset is in some (mainly deprived) areas? If I was scared for my life, and assured that I must defend myself (paradoxically with territory protective aggression) I might have a whole list of exceptions to the rule “thou shalt not hurt”.

    http://www.jrf.org.uk/pressroom/releases/141008.asp

    All this is not to say that children are free from blame or not deserving of punishment. It is just to say that moral progression is down to socialisation, and is not at all inevitable through age.


  2. I can only accept any of this in the situation where the child has been kept out of school until the age of 11, and their new school hasn’t yet had time to let them know that their parents don’t decide what is or is not acceptable in school.

    The reality of the situation is, of course, that student behaviour gets worse as they get older and their parents have less, not more, influence over them. Crap parents do let kids get away with things, but that is no excuse for the school letting them get away with it too, quite the opposite in fact.

    By the way, I clearly stated what was the most problematic behaviour, so I do not understand why you are going on about violence in self-defence or conversational swearing.


  3. [...] Children are too young to understand how to behave. [...]


  4. [...] Nature The Blameless. Part 1: The Young » 18 10 [...]


  5. ["Crap parents do let kids get away with things, but that is no excuse for the school letting them get away with it too, quite the opposite in fact."]

    Absolutely. I thought that was what I was saying when I altered your statement from “nobody gets” to “nobody should get”.


  6. ["I can only accept any of this in the situation where the child has been kept out of school until the age of 11, and their new school hasn’t yet had time to let them know that their parents don’t decide what is or is not acceptable in school."]

    So you expect children and young adults to automatically place the authority of the school above the authority of the parents?


  7. Not automatically, but I do think that after 6 or 7 years of full time education they should be aware that schools have rules and expectations in their own right, that are not subject to parental approval.


  8. ["Not automatically, but I do think that after 6 or 7 years of full time education they should be aware that schools have rules and expectations in their own right, that are not subject to parental approval."]

    What if they are also aware that the cultural background and rules of their family are far more important than the culture and rules of school?


  9. You appear to be repeating the same point in different words. Phrase it however you like, it still remains the case that after 6 or 7 years in full time education there is no excuse for not knowing that the rules in schools are not subject to a veto by parents.


  10. ["You appear to be repeating the same point in different words. Phrase it however you like, it still remains the case that after 6 or 7 years in full time education there is no excuse for not knowing that the rules in schools are not subject to a veto by parents."]

    A student is unhappy at a teacher’s enforcing of the rules.
    Student talks to parents. Parents – probably unreasonably – agree that the teacher is “full of expletives”.
    Student, when next told off, happily replies that they don’t care because the rules are unimportant. They know so because their parents don’t care.

    Explain to me what a school can do about this to alleviate the situation if the parents to continue to disagree with the school.


  11. (Student, when next told off, happily replies that they don’t care because the rules are unimportant. They know so because their parents don’t care.

    Explain to me what a school can do about this to alleviate the situation if the parents to continue to disagree with the school.)

    Do the same as grandma, next door neighbours or friend’s parents, exclude them. Nobody in this house is allowed to jump on sofas / swear / put feet on tables / interrupt adults. If you come here those rules apply to you. If you don’t want to abide by the rules, don’t come.

    It doesn’t matter what the family’s opinions or rules or lack of them are at home. When anyone is in another setting, there are rules that may or may not be the same as at home, and those rules apply to everyone impersonally.


  12. “they should be aware that schools have rules and expectations in their own right, that are not subject to parental approval.”

    The point you seem to be missing is the children who are are AWARE of that fact, but actively don’t CARE, because their parents have practically instructed them not to. And the word of the parent – “Ignore the rules at school” – counts for more than that of the school or anyone at it, and there’s nothing you can do about it.


  13. I am fully aware that plenty of badly behaved children don’t care that their behaviour is unacceptable. I just don’t think this (or their parents not caring either) is any excuse.


  14. “I just don’t think this (or their parents not caring either) is any excuse.”

    What it is that happens is not an excuse, it is what happens.
    You might not think that “I had an epileptic fit” is an excuse for me missing an appointment. You might believe that epilepsy is a fictitious disorder. However, if it is what happened, it is what happened.

    If a child is told by the parents to not care about school rules, it is what happened. Regardless of whether you confer the condition of “excused” because of this fact, it is what happened.


  15. Hmm. I think the problem here is your use of the word “excuse”, which here seems to mean “an explanation you, oldandrew, are prepared to accept”.

    To me, there’s an acceptable standard of behaviour in school. Most children understand the concept. Most children respect the concept, even if they sometimes ignore it – most transgressions of school rules are done by kids who know they’re crossing a boundary.

    But some children don’t recognise the boundary. It’s not that they cross it out of badness or contrariness – they really don’t see that there’s a boundary there. Why not? Because they only recognise boundaries set by people who can hurt them physically. Since you, the teacher, are unable to hurt them physically, you are not a person who has any power to set boundaries. And since the standards you futilely do attempt to set don’t have immediate, painful, physical consequences for transgression – they DON’T EXIST. Not for this minority.

    And what makes it worse is that not only are your powers non-existent to these children – their parents are actively undermining you, for precisely the same reasons.

    So the child in this instance is given two models of behaviour:
    1. Teachers: they see these people for perhaps 30 hours a week. These people have restrictive standards of behaviour, and enforce them by asking nicely. And one of the standards teachers have is that children should obey their parents, in principle.
    2. Parents and peers: they see these people ALL THE TIME. These people have less restrictive standards (but they still HAVE standards), and enforce them by verbal and physical violence. And one of the standards parents have is that children should NOT obey teachers.

    And you want to blame a child for the conflict between those two? You want to blame the child for paying more attention to (2) than to (1)?

    You might just as well blame a baby for crying when it’s hungry.


  16. This is getting absurd.

    The question here is not whether we can explain the existence of a child who does not behave (although I have a real issue with the snobbery of explanations that seem to imply that wrongdoing is only a result of deficiencies of upbringing). The question is whether we hold that child responsible for not behaving.

    An explanation of why somebody does something they know is wrong (such as the fact they were subject to bad influences, strong temptations, bad role models) can give you the reason to think “there but for the grace of God go I” and is reason for allowing them the chance to change, and for forgiveness. It most definitely does not mean that the actions aren’t wrong and the person committing them is blameless. The moment that you start saying “well, your parents think it is okay for you to do wrong, therefore it is” then you are fundamentally as much of a problem as the parents.


  17. “The question is whether we hold that child responsible for not behaving.”

    Is it? I thought the question was how we stopped the child from misbehaving? I’m not a teacher, I’m an engineer. Perhaps foolishly, I have relatively little interest in explanations for the sake of explanations. I’m interested only in SOLUTIONS. These of course usually follow from explanations – but if the explanation you have doesn’t lead to a solution… you have the wrong explanation. Try again.

    Right now, you’re apparently suggesting that the child is the one most responsible for their behaviour, and should be held most directly accountable. I am disagreeing, and pointing out that the parents are the ones most directly responsible for the behaviour of the child, and that therefore it is the parents who should, perhaps, be held accountable. You appear not to have understood that I am not suggesting that NOBODY is to blame, I am suggesting that by focussing on holding the child accountable you are wasting your time.

    Another quote: “An explanation of why somebody does something they know is wrong [...]can give you the reason to think…”

    My contention is that the children we’re talking about do NOT know what they do is wrong. They know YOU think it’s wrong, of course. But to them, what you think is irrelevant, because you are some sort of idiot in their eyes. YOU do not set the rules of what is right and wrong, because, as I said, if they do something you say is wrong, you don’t hit them.

    If you want to have any effect on their behaviour, you are simply wasting your time while you and their parents are on opposite sides. No amount of focussing on the child will change their attitude. If you think it’s possible, you should be focussing on recruiting their parents to your side. Without their support, you have zero authority.


  18. Is it? I thought the question was how we stopped the child from misbehaving?

    It is impossible to stop people from ever doing wrong. Plans that are based on the elimination of sin (or any other part of human nature) are called “utopian” and never work.

    A more realistic notion is to aim simply for an outcome that is just (in particular with respect to seeing the badly behaved do not end up better off than the well-behaved) and that encourages children to choose to improve their behaviour.

    Treating children as if they are not responsible for their actions undermines both of these aims.

    Perhaps foolishly, I have relatively little interest in explanations for the sake of explanations.

    That’s what you provided in your last comment.

    My contention is that the children we’re talking about do NOT know what they do is wrong. They know YOU think it’s wrong, of course. But to them, what you think is irrelevant, because you are some sort of idiot in their eyes.

    The point is that this is no excuse. When you are causing harm you might want to dismiss the feelings and opinions of all who disapprove of your actions (especially the victims) but doing so is not some deterministic reaction to circumstances. It is morally wrong. We can’t treat children as machines to be engineered into compliance, they have to be initiated into the shared moral universe of the rest of the community and being held responsible for their actions is part of that.

    What always amazes me is that human beings have no problem saying “good” or “bad” to a dog, whose understanding of the moral nature of its actions is less than even the most objectionable child. Yet, somehow, people are willing to view this kind of basic human concept as inappropriate for children. Then they act surprised when the child acts like a monster.


  19. “It is impossible to stop people from ever doing wrong.”

    I take it this is sarcasm. I’ll resist the urge to offer a sarcastic reply.

    “A more realistic notion is to aim simply for an outcome that is just (in particular with respect to seeing the badly behaved do not end up better off than the well-behaved) and that encourages children to choose to improve their behaviour.”

    Indeed. And you can only achieve those outcomes with the agreement and collusion of parents, because if you do not have that, any sanction you apply will either be simply refused (“my kid ain’t coming to your detentions”) or at the very least condemned (“take no notice of him, luv, I’ll be down there and complain on Monday”).

    “Treating children as if they are not responsible for their actions undermines both of these aims.”

    Only if they are, in reality, wholly responsible. It’s my contention that often they’re not, and treating them as if they are is futile. They are not responsible for the moral framework they’ve been told is the correct one.

    “It is morally wrong.”

    And there we hit the nub. You have a set of what you call morals. You believe some stuff to be “morally wrong”, as though there was some universally-agreed-upon set of such standards that everyone knows and tries to follow. And you’re calling ME utopian? ROFL, as I believe the young people say.

    Pop quiz: which of the following are morally wrong?
    – stealing?
    – physical violence?
    – blasphemy?
    – homosexuality?
    – foetal stem cell research?
    – driving an SUV?
    – letting someone disrespect you without consequence?
    – carrying a weapon for self-defence?

    Think about why you answer “yes”, or “no”, to any of the above, then think about how many ADULTS would be prepared to kill you for disagreeing with them on those subjects.

    “they have to be initiated into the shared moral universe of the rest of the community”

    But the problem you seem stubbornly unwilling to acknowledge is that they HAVE been initiated into a shared moral universe. Just not yours.

    “and being held responsible for their actions is part of that.”

    Not if your version of “being held responsible” is weak punishments like detention or temporary exclusion.

    “What always amazes me is that human beings have no problem saying “good” or “bad” to a dog, whose understanding of the moral nature of its actions is less than even the most objectionable child.”

    Poor analogy. An owner has complete control over the moral universe of their dog. You have next to no control over the moral universe of the children you try to teach…

    Or perhaps it is a good analogy, if we deal with reality and put you, the teacher, in your realistic place.

    When a human who is training a dog says “good” or “bad”, they are recognising that the dog is a pack animal, and acting as a pack leader. It submits to authority because it recognises a superior, instinctively, if the trainer is a large enough part of their life.

    A good example is a policeman training an attack dog. The dog, spending large amounts of time with its trainer, recognises him as its pack leader, and treats him with respect. It does not, however, regard all humans as worthy of that respect. Indeed, it will, on command, savagely attack humans it is told to regard as legitimate targets.

    What you seem to fail to understand is that to the type of child we are discussing, you are NOT a pack leader. You are the target they’ve been trained to attack.

    If a police dog was attacking you, on the command of its handler, would you expect it to respond to your commands? And if not, why do you expect any more response out of children who respect you less than they respect dogs?

    Regarding solutions: I could offer some, but to do so would be pointless. We can all be keyboard warriors, armchair generals, whatever you want to call it. Any solution I offered would probably come across as so authoritarian it would make ME laugh, leaning as I do more toward the left-liberal side of politics.

    I guess what has got me writing here is what I see as a fundamental error. I’m all for inculcating responsibility where possible. I just think you’re looking in the wrong place, and that if you persist you’re just banging your head against a wall and complaining that it hurts. Moral education is done by parents. And if parents indoctrinate their children with a morality in conflict with yours – why do you think you can do anything about it?

    (It occurs to me that this is a large part of the reason faith schools are so successful – there’s the explicit assumption of a shared set of moral values between parents and teachers as a condition of entry for the child. Whether or not the morals being indoctrinated are repellent mediaeval garbage is neither here nor there – one can at least be sure it’s consistent at home and school, and that consistency is what you don’t have)

    Any ideas?


  20. Indeed. And you can only achieve those outcomes with the agreement and collusion of parents, because if you do not have that, any sanction you apply will either be simply refused (”my kid ain’t coming to your detentions”) or at the very least condemned (”take no notice of him, luv, I’ll be down there and complain on Monday”).

    Schools have a legal right to set detentions, and to take action against those who don’t attend. Yes, weak SMT kowtow to parents, so what? That hardly changes the moral universe to one where we have to “win over” those who are demanding injustice.

    Only if they are, in reality, wholly responsible. It’s my contention that often they’re not, and treating them as if they are is futile.

    And this is where you are wrong. So far you seem content to repeat the opinion I’ve already argued against at length without actually coming up with any reason to justify it. “My mum told me I could break the rules” is not an acceptable excuse. A child might think it is; the school has a responsibility to correct the child’s error. You seem to be arguing that because the student has made this error, they don’t deserve to be corrected.

    And there we hit the nub. You have a set of what you call morals. You believe some stuff to be “morally wrong”, as though there was some universally-agreed-upon set of such standards that everyone knows and tries to follow. And you’re calling ME utopian? ROFL, as I believe the young people say.

    At this point our debate ends. If you wish to take the Sophist position and refuse to acknowledge there is such a thing as right and wrong then so be it, but it becomes pointless to discuss with you what is right. Fortunately, you also forfeit the right to tell me I’m wrong. In fact even if I were to set up a school that organised the shooting of every child called Jordan and the slow torture of every member of SMT you’d still have no grounds to object.

    Of course, what you are saying probably isn’t what you actually believe. As Mary Midgley once pointed out:

    “These declarations of sceptical bankruptcy cannot be seriously intended, because they are always selective. Here, as elsewhere, no sensible person actually wants the desolating pointlessness of full-time, impartial, all-round scepticism. We just want to kill certain inconvenient opposing views …. There is no point sniping at such convenient inconsistencies, which are found everywhere. What matters is that the project of all-round moral scepticism is an unreal one. Nobody actually thinks that morality is just a matter of everybody’s subjective opinion, because human life cannot be carried on at all without a wide measure of moral agreement (Even in the Mafia, people have to have standards that they take for granted.)”


  21. “without actually coming up with any reason to justify it. ”

    My reason is clear: that the moral upbringing children are given before they reach you does not recognise your authority over them. I had thought I had made this perfectly clear.

    “You seem to be arguing that because the student has made this error, they don’t deserve to be corrected.”

    Again, I have made it as clear as possible that my position is that the student has been TAUGHT this error by authority they recognise, and therefore the only worthwhile approach is to attempt to correct that authority’s error. You can attempt to “correct their error” until you’re blue in the face, but you’re wasting your time as, as I have repeatedly explained, you are not a recognised authority to these people. To extend the previous metaphor – you’re not the boss, you’re dogmeat.

    “If you wish to take the Sophist position”

    Ironically, accusing me of Sophism is an ad hominem attack, which is itself a sophist approach. Hey ho.

    “and refuse to acknowledge there is such a thing as right and wrong then so be it, ”

    ??? Sorry, I simply don’t understand this.

    Once again – my point is that you and I live in a world of right and wrong. Our rules are likely very similar – don’t steal, don’t swear in front of children, etc.. So do the children we discuss. It’s just that the individuals rules in our worlds differ.

    What is frustrating is that YOU MAKE MY POINT FOR ME with your last sentence.
    “(Even in the Mafia, people have to have standards that they take for granted.)”

    That is precisely my point.

    Let’s forget the morality questions, since you seem uncomfortable with them and apparently agree with my position anyway, judging by your selection of the quote re: the Mafia.

    One repeat question then, again following on from an analogy of your choice:

    If a police dog was attacking you, on the command of its handler, would you expect it to respond to your commands? And if not, why do you expect any more response out of children who respect you less than they respect dogs?


  22. My reason is clear: that the moral upbringing children are given before they reach you does not recognise your authority over them. I had thought I had made this perfectly clear.

    The point I am making is that I have already addressed this argument directly in the post you are replying to.

    Ironically, accusing me of Sophism is an ad hominem attack, which is itself a sophist approach. Hey ho.

    You appear to be confusing Sophism and sophistry. If you claim that there is no such thing as morality you are taking the Sophist position. You are also making all dialogue between us futile, laughably so when you suggest I forget the “morality questions” in this discussion of morality and proceed from the assumption that children are to be treated like animals.


  23. SonofRB –

    “…children who are are AWARE of that fact, but actively don’t CARE, because…”

    Don’t care was made to care is a relic of old-fashioned parent or nanny sayings. At some stage, we all have to learn that even if we don’t care about our behaviour, other people do. Only sociopaths and psychopaths fail to learn this.

    Surely OA’s point in the post was that adolescents (and almost adults) must be aware at entry to secondary school that the world is a much bigger place than home. That much bigger place includes requirements for behaviour in a wide variety of circumstances. Work, study, weddings, sportsfields, shops, funerals, theatres, prisons, museums, baptisms and pubs all restrict the range of acceptable behaviours for everyone.

    OA and most sensible people recognise that authorities in schools must set and enforce rules for behaviour that promote learning and reject disruption. Until self discipline is well established, external disciplines must be imposed. Discipline does not mean physical violence. If a student is so warped and emotionally stunted by bad upbringing that they cannot respond to non-violent correction, then they should not be in a school, but in a mental health or other facility that can deal with their desperate personal problems.


  24. Surely OA’s point in the post was that adolescents (and almost adults) must be aware at entry to secondary school that the world is a much bigger place than home.

    I thought I’d made that point fairly clearly in the original post.

    There does seem to be a tendency with some of the comments posted here to ignore any argument I’ve made, and simply look for a way to restate the very opinion I’ve argued against. Presumably, those commentators’ believe that their opinion must be right, and if it is not being accepted then it simply hasn’t been presented clearly or emphatically enough.


  25. “My mum told me I could break the rules” is not an acceptable excuse. A child might think it is; the school has a responsibility to correct the child’s error. You seem to be arguing that because the student has made this error, they don’t deserve to be corrected.

    I thought it was clear that SonofRoj was saying that the point was not whether it was an acceptable excuse or not, just that it was having a deleterious effect on discipline and therefore must be addressed.
    Alcoholism is not an acceptable excuse for being a bad father, yet we still sent my father to AA. By trying to correct the situation, are we accepting the excuse?

    “The question is whether we hold that child responsible for not behaving… The moment that you start saying “well, your parents think it is okay for you to do wrong, therefore it is” then you are fundamentally as much of a problem as the parents.”

    I’m sorry, but SonofRoj made it clear he was going beyond responsibility to solutions. Subtly blaming his desire to solve the issue on the ‘sophistry’ of moral relativity is quite odd, considering he has not said at any point that it is morally right for the child to copy their parents’ morals.

    Yet again: my trying to solve my father’s alcoholism we did not morally absolve him of being an objectionable person and parent. We just tried to address the problem.

    There does seem to be a tendency with some of the comments posted here to ignore any argument I’ve made, and simply look for a way to restate the very opinion I’ve argued against. Presumably, those commentators’ believe that their opinion must be right, and if it is not being accepted then it simply hasn’t been presented clearly or emphatically enough.

    If I was SonofRoj, I would quite simply quote this back to you. You are claiming that he is ignoring the issue of needing to blame the pupil (when he has addressed this issue directly). You then claim he is morally wrong to accept the child’s behaviour as moral (when he clearly states he does not accept it). He does say that your moral stance is not universally accepted, which I’m sure you understand is the case. This is not the same thing as relativism.
    Your questionable moral standpoint keeps rearing its objectable head when you, at all turns, try to enforce your maxim that the Student Is Sinning And Must Be Punished:
    “My mum told me I could break the rules” is not an acceptable excuse. A child might think it is; the school has a responsibility to correct the child’s error.

    Yet, at the same time, you rightly point out that the school is not there to parent the children. It is not there to foster emotional development and self-esteem through useless PSHE lessons. How possibly can the school supercede the moral instruction of the parent when the parent is failing in this duty? You hide behind another of your favourite topics:
    Yes, weak SMT kowtow to parents, so what? That hardly changes the moral universe to one where we have to “win over” those who are demanding injustice.

    In short, you reduce all direct questions to your system back to your foundations of “but you must blame the student”, “no blame = no morality”, “schools are failing to enforce morality”.
    But maybe you have never shown that there is a link between these observations. Maybe blame in the school context will not actually address the problem. The fact that you fall back on “you are a relativist” when people point this out is depressing.


  26. If a student is so warped and emotionally stunted by bad upbringing that they cannot respond to non-violent correction, then they should not be in a school, but in a mental health or other facility that can deal with their desperate personal problems.

    Behavioural problems are not this clear cut:

    One teacher hates, hates, HATES, yo-yos.
    A student has a yo-yo and uses it at the end of class to impress a friend.
    The teacher wants to confiscate it.
    The student does not react well to confiscation for an explicable reason, and will not give it up unless it is actively taken from his or her hands.

    In this case, the student will in a very particular situation not respond to non-violent correction. Yet, who would say that this child should be in a facility and suffer the stigma of being labelled as deviant?


  27. I thought it was clear that SonofRoj was saying that the point was not whether it was an acceptable excuse or not, just that it was having a deleterious effect on discipline and therefore must be addressed.

    The point is that if you excuse something you do not address it.

    Alcoholism is not an acceptable excuse for being a bad father, yet we still sent my father to AA. By trying to correct the situation, are we accepting the excuse?

    If you judged that he was a bad father (and you mean this in a moral sense) you clearly did not accept the excuse.

    I’m sorry, but SonofRoj made it clear he was going beyond responsibility to solutions.

    No, he posted to a discussion of blame comparing blaming children for their actions to blaming a baby for crying. When this didn’t work he swapped his argument for the pragmatic one. When it was explained why this didn’t get him off the hook he swapped his argument for the relativist one. When this didn’t work he lapsed into indignation. Now, everyone’s welcome to debate this topic, no matter how incoherently, but I don’t need you acting as his spin-doctor, trying to rewrite the discussion.


    Subtly blaming his desire to solve the issue on the ’sophistry’ of moral relativity is quite odd, considering he has not said at any point that it is morally right for the child to copy their parents’ morals.

    Have you read the discussion? I accused him of taking the Sophist/relativist stance because he accused me of being laughably utopian for believing in right and wrong.

    In short, you reduce all direct questions to your system back to your foundations of “but you must blame the student”, “no blame = no morality”, “schools are failing to enforce morality”.
    But maybe you have never shown that there is a link between these observations.

    If you wish to propose a system of morality that exists without a concept of blame you can go ahead and try, but I’m fairly confident it is impossible.

    Again, Mary Midgley would be an appropriate philosopher to read on this topic, particularly the chapter “The Flight From Blame” in “Wisdom, Information and Wonder”.


  28. Really, DoSinope, yo-yos???

    Surely the essence of school discipline is a coherent set of school rules that are consistently enforced. If a teacher hates yo-yos, that’s just too bad in a school that has no rule banning their use out of the classroom. Teachers can learn to live by rules, even if they don’t like them. If school rules prohibit yo-yos, then a consistent system of enforcement might involve warnings in some schools or instant confiscation in others. If a student can’t handle this, presumably similar rules would get a similar response. Discipline is not an isolated action, it is a system. A student who can’t follow a simple set of rules needs help – real, professional help.

    None of these instances matter. What does matter is OA’s argument about school discipline policies where inconsistency is backed up by foolish notions (blamelessness for example) of children’s incapacity to understand or learn rules of behaviour. The best rules for running schools are the same as the best rules for dealing with children and adolescents in other circumstances. Severity of consequences matters far less than certainty and predictability.

    Unfortunately, the only certainty in a badly run school is that bad behaviour will be ignored when it is not rewarded.

    I’m off interstate for a coupla weeks, so I won’t be here to read any comments.


  29. “If you wish to propose a system of morality that exists without a concept of blame you can go ahead and try, but I’m fairly confident it is impossible.”

    I did mention a system of virtue ethics that I had read about in The Philosopher’s Magazine that dissolved the concept of blame, due to the difficulty of ascribing the cause of behaviour to free will when there are so many environmental variables that affect behaviour. It was in your post titled ‘needs':
    I think your whole idea of blame is questionable, as you always use it in reference to moral terms – “this person is compromised by giving in to temptation, and only their free will can be seen as a cause no matter what the context of their decision”. However, blame can also be seen as nothing more as a relation between you and somebody else – “I blame them for this and won’t trust them in a similar capacity again”. Blame is not a matter of besmirching someone’s soul or virtue, but simply a matter of trust. (This idea comes from modern virtue ethics, and I can get you the name of the relevant philosopher when I am next in the library).

    Your response was: “Oh please do.” While you evidently think that a dismissive sarcasm works in your favour when talking to people, I am quite sure it doesn’t, and I do not feel like going the distance to inform you of your error now after having tried to before. All I will say is that moral philosophy is a far wider field than you currently use it for, even disregarding any shade of moral relativism, and your stance of certainty on moral issues is wholly unwarranted. “Unimpeachable free will exists; free will = the morality and necessity of blame” is not acceptable to all philosophers, try as you might to limit your view and understanding to that which accords to your wishes.


  30. Your response was: “Oh please do.” While you evidently think that a dismissive sarcasm works in your favour when talking to people, I am quite sure it doesn’t, and I do not feel like going the distance to inform you of your error now after having tried to before.

    That wasn’t sarcasm. That was a genuine suggestion that you provide the reference. One that you ignored before and appear to be avoiding now.

    All I will say is that moral philosophy is a far wider field than you currently use it for, even disregarding any shade of moral relativism, and your stance of certainty on moral issues is wholly unwarranted. “Unimpeachable free will exists; free will = the morality and necessity of blame” is not acceptable to all philosophers, try as you might to limit your view and understanding to that which accords to your wishes.

    I am currently using moral philosophy to reason about right and wrong in the real world. Obviously there are philosophers who don’t believe there is such a thing, and I’m partial to a bit of Nietzsche myself, but clearly these philosophers have no place in this discussion because they cannot say anything about the topic at hand. It would be like discussing the best type of pork sausage with vegetarians, or the will of God with atheists; they might enjoy the discussion as spectators but they have nothing to say on the topic and if they were impolite enough to interrupt then it would only be to say “I don’t see the point of discussing this”.

    The problem we are having in this discussion is not Nihilists who disapprove of the entire concept being discussed, but Sophists. People who join a moral discussion as if they were the acknowledged experts on moral reasoning, but on cross-examination turn out to have nothing at all to say about morality beyond an incoherent (and self-contradictory) disapproval of other opinions.


  31. I’m not sure you read me correctly, although you quoted me. I said “…even disregarding any shade of moral relativism…”.

    While there might be an overly simplistic boundary between “those who say there is such a thing as right and wrong” and “those who say that this distinction is relative to the individual”, when someone disagrees with you they do not automatically fall into the second camp.


  32. I assumed you were accusing me of disregarding “any shade of moral relativism”.

    If you are saying that you were the one doing the disregarding then I’m utterly lost as to what your point is. Unless you have now come up with some notion of morality that dispenses with blame then we are back where we were, with you claiming we can drop an indispensable moral concept without giving the slightest hint as to how we’d cope without it (beyond hoping there was something in an old copy of Philosophy Today).


  33. There are different philosophical accounts of blame, for example see the main three referenced in the Wikipedia article on blame. These are affected by things such as compatibilism or incompatibilism – whether free-will and determinism are compatible or not. If you can have free will but also, at the same time, curb that free will with determined elements (they are compatible) blaming people for what they do becomes tricky.

    The ethical account of blame that I came across in the magazine was from Scanlon. As he has a youtube video on the ‘ethics of blame’ I probably remember correctly: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=urJcZf–wds
    His account avoids both the “evaluative” and “punitive” functions of blame (as he terms them). Instead he sees blame as a way of modifying one’s intentions and expectations towards people.

    Here is a quote from the very magazine article (http://philo.ruc.edu.cn/pol04/news/p_news/abroad/200807/3503.html):
    Scanlon argues that putting relationships at the heart of ethics transforms the way we see the relationship between blame and free will. Traditionally, it has been believed that to blame people requires that they be free in at least two ways. These Scanlon labels the requirements of psychological accuracy and fair opportunity to avoid.

    “Traditional compatibilists like Hume allowed that things like force and coercion are kinds of unfreedom which undermine blame,” says Scanlon, explaining the requirement of psychological accuracy. “It’s one thing for me to do something willingly; it’s another thing for me to do it only because I’m being coerced. So what attitudes you can attribute to me, with respect to my concern for the victim, or whatever, are different depending on whether I did it freely and willingly and thought it was fun or whether I did it only because people were holding my children hostage or something like that.”

    On this account, as long as my actions proceed from true beliefs and intentions, I can be blamed for them. However, “that leaves it open for the incompatibilist to say, well that’s not enough. Was the person free in having that character? So the question is why ask that question? We have to come up with some further explanation of why freedom is needed, and I think the most natural thing is fair opportunity to avoid. If you think of blame as some kind of sanction that involves doing something to a person that can’t be justified unless, among other things, they could have avoided letting themselves in for it, then we get a second requirement.”

    This is where it gets difficult to save blame, since for all sorts of reasons, it can be argued that if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that people do not have a fair opportunity to avoid being the people they are, and hence doing the things they do. Between nature and nurture, neurology and society, the gap for an autonomous free will to intervene becomes vanishingly small. However, by putting relationships at the heart of ethics, Scanlon believes he can retain blame while rejecting the requirement of fair opportunity to avoid.

    “I don’t think the requirement of fair opportunity to avoid applies to blame, because blame, as I understand it, doesn’t involve withholding something from a person that we unconditionally owe them. If we were condemning them to eternal damnation or doing something really nasty to them, then maybe we couldn’t justify blame without fair opportunity to avoid, but I think it’s a mistake to think that further freedom is required for that reason.”

    If this is right, however, why is it so commonly believed that fair blame does require opportunity to avoid?

    “First, I think that the idea that blame is essentially a kind of evaluation is very strong in its influence, and it shows, for example, in the common pairing of praise and blame. I think setting that aside would be a good thing.

    “Where my view is different from the evaluative view is in what’s going on in the person who is doing the blaming. In one case the person is just deciding that the person is bad or good, or ranking them or whatever; in the other case the person is making an adjustment in his or her intentions and expectations about how people are going to go along. So the crucial point as far as freedom is concerned is that the range of variability, the kind of re-evaluation of intentions and expectations that blaming involves, is not something that requires fair opportunity to avoid to make it morally permissible. It can be made appropriate simply by the way the person is.

    “In that sense my view is a kind of desert view. I want to say, to go back to the friendship case, if the person treats me like this, then it isn’t appropriate to go on confiding in him, trusting him and so on. That idea of appropriateness can seem overly intuitionistic or aesthetic or something, but I think the idea of a relationship gives it a little bit of structure. The reason I call it a desert-based view is that it holds that certain reactions, certain changes in our expectations and intentions for how to treat a person, are justified simply by what the person is like and how that is expressed in their action. It doesn’t require instrumental justifications, that it will make them better; nor does it require that they had fair opportunity to avoid my changing this, so they can’t complain, because they are like that. They didn’t choose to be like that, but they are like that, and now I see they are like that it gives new meaning to what’s going on with us.”

    So central to this argument is the idea that blame isn’t punitive?

    “It isn’t punitive no. It’s not intended to change people, I mean, maybe sometimes it is, but that’s not the fundamental idea.”

    While Scanlon terms his approach a ‘desert-based view’, in doing away with the punitive aspects of blame, and its correlation with praise, it seems to be very different to what you think the function of blame is.


  34. And again I’m baffled. You were meant to be finding a moral theory that dispenses with blame but doesn’t dispense with morality. None of the theories you have suggested here do anything like that.


  35. First of all, I’m not sure there could be such a thing as a “moral theory that… dispense[s] with morality”.
    Second, if such a thing were possible, in what way is Scanlon’s destructive of morality?


  36. The point is Scanlon’s theory doesn’t dispense with blame. In fact it appears to be a theory of blame.

    (Was it not obvious that this is what I was saying? I only mentioned the possibility of a theory throwing all morality out along with blame, in case you suggested something like emotivism.)


  37. Of course Scanlon’s theory doesn’t dispense with blame. I was not aware that you were expecting me to theories away a central aspect of human behaviour.


  38. Strangely enough I took you at your word when you wrote:

    “I did mention a system of virtue ethics that I had read about in The Philosopher’s Magazine that dissolved the concept of blame”


  39. Apologies, perhaps I should have written “deconstructed” rather than “dissolved”, however I did not want to appear too postmodern.

    What I am saying is that Scanlon has taken apart the concept of blame and picked out what he finds to be essential in it – not so much as a moral necessity as part of punishment, but as a reason for mediating your relationship with someone. It is part of a system of ethics around relationships.

    As the relationship between teacher and student is about legal requirements to educate, then – except in severe circumstances that involve the removal of the pupil to another setting – the essential relationship between the two is not going to change. From this perspective, assigningblame (which is “not intended to change people”) is not important, instead it must be about improving the relationship between teacher and student by finding some way to make the student act properly in class. I think this leads us straight to SonofRoj’s concerns that we should be going past blame and focusing on behaviour improvement.


  40. “As the relationship between teacher and student is about legal requirements to educate”

    Oh for pity’s sake.

    How many babies have you just thrown out with that bathwater?


  41. “I accused him of taking the Sophist/relativist stance because he accused me of being laughably utopian for believing in right and wrong.”

    False. Have YOU read the discussion.

    I accused you of being laughably utopian for believing EVERYONE (and specifically parents) shares YOUR personal conception of right and wrong.

    And you made my point for me by pointing out that even the Mafia has a code of conduct, and yet somehow failed to understand how that proved my case and fatally undermined your own.

    Hey ho.


  42. “How many babies have you just thrown out with that bathwater?”

    I don’t know. Perhaps you could inform me?

    I would also like your thoughts on the different theory of blame, provided by Scanlon, as it seems to me to disagree quite importantly with your idea that dispensing blame is morally necessary.


  43. I accused you of being laughably utopian for believing EVERYONE (and specifically parents) shares YOUR personal conception of right and wrong.

    The grounds you give for claiming (ludicrously) that I think that was:

    You have a set of what you call morals. you believe some stuff to be “morally wrong”

    You also described this as “the nub”. The implications of this are pretty hard to miss. Or do you always put speech marks around phrases you have no issues with and prefix concepts you accept with “what you call”?

    The accusation you make above, is something you gave as an argument against believing in morality, it wasn’t an accusation in itself.

    Of course, if it had been it would have been a particularly stupid assertion backed up by nothing I have ever written.


  44. I don’t know. Perhaps you could inform me?

    Well strangely enough it is impossible to discuss what is morally right if you only recognise what is legally required.

    I would also like your thoughts on the different theory of blame, provided by Scanlon, as it seems to me to disagree quite importantly with your idea that dispensing blame is morally necessary.

    Where did he say that? I thought you admitted that he didn’t dispose of blame?


  45. “You also described this as “the nub”.”

    What an unpleasant piece of deliberately selective quotation that is. The nub I was referring to was the point made IMMEDIATELY after the quotations marks – the point you have, for some reason, not quoted. Missed the point much?

    The nub I was referring to was that you characterise certain things as “morally wrong” as though there was some universally-agreed-upon set of such standards that everyone knows and tries to follow.

    Obviously if you omit the bold-text there I come across as some sort of amoral relativist halfwit. How do YOU come across for omitting the bold-texted bit from your quotation in order to portray me thus?

    I ask again: TO YOU, personally, which of the following are morally wrong?
    – stealing?
    – physical violence?
    – blasphemy?
    – homosexuality?
    – foetal stem cell research?
    – driving an SUV?
    – letting someone disrespect you without consequence?
    – carrying a weapon for self-defence?

    Think about why you answer “yes”, or “no”, to any of the above, then think about how many ADULTS would be prepared to kill you for disagreeing with them on those subjects.

    Seriously – what are your answers to those questions?


  46. Ironically I have now reread the discussion, and discovered that in fact, I never did actually accuse you of being laughably utopian.

    I expressed laughing astonishment that you – someone who apparently believes that all adults share the same set of beliefs regarding what is morally right – implicitly called me utopian, specifically in your post of 14:09, December 22nd.


  47. “it is impossible to discuss what is morally right if you only recognise what is legally required.”

    I await your answers to the questions posed at 3:01 with interest.


  48. Bored now. Obviously I don’t think that all adults share the same beliefs. I have already told you that such the claim that I believe such a thing is “a particularly stupid assertion backed up by nothing I have ever written”. For some reason you seem to have ignored this and written three more comments that suggest you still believe this silly assertion.

    Has this got through to you now? Or are you going to keep quizzing me about an opinion I don’t hold?


  49. Fair enough.

    Your opinion, however, doesn’t seem to be internally consistent.

    You accept that some adults can operate by a different version of morality, for example one in which it is acceptable for a child to ignore or even assault a teacher.

    You have to accept that, given that such adults exist, they will bring up any children they have to believe the same things. The child will be exposed to this warped morality from birth and will have it continuously reinforced by parents, siblings and peers.

    And your position is, apparently, that the child is to be blamed for this. Indeed, your position seems to be that blaming the child is the solution, and that anyone who deflects blame away from the child is part of the problem.

    Can you see why, to an outside observer, you appear to be banging your head against a wall?

    Since you don’t want to share your personal version of what’s right and wrong, how about an answer to another previous question – and please note, to head off the spurious objection you raised last time I posted this question, I’m not suggesting you start treating children like animals. I’m responding to YOUR comment: “What always amazes me is that human beings have no problem saying “good” or “bad” to a dog, whose understanding of the moral nature of its actions is less than even the most objectionable child.”

    If a police dog was attacking you, on the command of its handler, would you expect it to respond to your commands? And if not, why do you expect any more response out of children who understand the moral nature of their actions perfectly well – but don’t share YOUR personal moral framework?


  50. “‘I would also like your thoughts on the different theory of blame, provided by Scanlon, as it seems to me to disagree quite importantly with your idea that dispensing blame is morally necessary.’
    Where did he say that? I thought you admitted that he didn’t dispose of blame?”

    The main focus of what I am trying to inform you about is that blame is not morally necessary. You keep picking up on this point as if it means “blame does not happen”. I don’t understand this, as blame does indeed happen. I never said it did not. I’m just saying that I don’t believe it is morally necessary to blame. And I also think that Scanlon takes this view. Let me show you how he differs from your conception of blame.

    You have argued that all people, children, the poor, everybody, have a “fair opportunity to avoid” doing wrong. So, when a pupil misbehaves, there are no circumstances that take away blame. They could have done otherwise – avoided that behaviour – and are thus morally responsible.
    Part of asserting this moral responsibility is to blame them. You seem to be using blame evaluatively – “you have given in to temptation, you have been bad”. You also seem to be using it punitively – “you deserve to be blamed, this entails punishment”.

    Scanlon, in my reading, goes against this approach to blame quite clearly. To quote the magazine article I posted above:
    “This is where it gets difficult to save blame, since for all sorts of reasons, it can be argued that if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that people do not have a fair opportunity to avoid being the people they are, and hence doing the things they do. Between nature and nurture, neurology and society, the gap for an autonomous free will to intervene becomes vanishingly small. However, by putting relationships at the heart of ethics, Scanlon believes he can retain blame while rejecting the requirement of fair opportunity to avoid.”

    First of all, he is dispensing of argument about fair opportunity to avoid, as he accepts that free will is too hard to diagnose. I would put it like this: How can we ever know if someone truly chose to do something? We can only ever assert that they chose. They can only ever say they chose. But choices are often constrained by previous circumstances, and we can even be uncertain about the historical causes of our own biases and predilections for thought and behaviour.
    So, what does it mean to blame someone when you think that they might not have autonomously chosen to do that thing, might not have had clear free will to do it? I think it means that they are not fully morally responsible in the way you want them to be.

    Therefore, Scanlon has taken blame from the area of religious (evaluative, punitive) morality and made it into an ethical relationship between two people. You can blame someone for doing something they could not help but do. You can blame someone for doing something that was morally correct just because you did not want them to do it. You can blame someone without them being morally responsible, and without wanting to alter them to be more responsible in the future:

    “Where my view is different from the evaluative view is in what’s going on in the person who is doing the blaming. In one case the person is just deciding that the person is bad or good, or ranking them or whatever; in the other case the person is making an adjustment in his or her intentions and expectations about how people are going to go along. So the crucial point as far as freedom is concerned is that the range of variability, the kind of re-evaluation of intentions and expectations that blaming involves, is not something that requires fair opportunity to avoid to make it morally permissible. It can be made appropriate simply by the way the person is…
    “[Blame] isn’t punitive no. It’s not intended to change people, I mean, maybe sometimes it is, but that’s not the fundamental idea.”

    This is the sort of idea of blame people might have when they question why it is so important for you to blame the students. It doesn’t change anything (it’s not punitive). It doesn’t pinpoint the problem (there was fair opportunity to avoid). It’s just something you feel you have to do, that alters your relationship with the student who you have blamed – “now I see they are like that it gives new meaning to what’s going on with us”. At best, it might lead you to alter your relationship in a way that does something that helps the student improve, but not necessarily. And, I believe, on this account you could not blame someone for doing something (e.g. not be disappointed by their behaviour, only accepting of it as eventually ameliorable), not change your relationship with them,

    So, blame away. Blame anyone you want. Blame yourself. But it’s not morally necessary because it does not morally evaluate, does not punish, and does not confer a diagnosis of free will and moral responsibility for that wrong doing. And this is the sort of view people might have when they agree with you that certain actions are ethically right or wrong, but don’t see why it is so essential to blame the actor for it. I hope this elucidates why your arguments about this can cause bewilderment, especially when you call people’s views on right and wrong into question when they disagree with you – your view of blame is not universal.

    Please do correct me if I am wrong in talking about what you think about blame, or if you disagree with my basic understanding of Scanlon.


  51. SonofRojBlake,

    You now seem to have gone back to repeating an argument you have already used several times before.

    Now, I know you are making more and more of an effort to make it sound plausible that a child who has been in school for 6-11 years can be considered to be a passive reflection of their parents, unable to even contemplate choosing to behave.

    The trouble is for that this is bollocks however you phrase it. And I have explained several times why it is bollocks, and why, even if it wasn’t bollocks (or perhaps I should say “to the extent that it isn’t bollocks”), why passively accepting it as an excuse would make a bad situation worse. I’m not going to explain again just because you’ve come up with another way to make the same implausible argument.


  52. DiogenesofSinope,

    Denying free will is pretty much a variation on denying morality. If we don’t have free will, then we don’t actually have choices. If we don’t have choices then there cannot be things we should or shouldn’t choose to do. If there is nothing we should or shouldn’t choose to do there is nothing that is morally right or wrong. And so there is no point discussing morality and I am left wondering why you have joined this moral discussion in the first place.


  53. Yet denying free will does not deny the concepts of right and wrong.
    Nor is it an acceptable argument that you have decided we must have free will just because without it your sense of morality would be useless.
    Finally, I am not saying that there is no free will. I am agreeing with Scanlon that it is hard to be sure that free will, and therefore ‘fair opportunity to avoid’, is the cause of any behaviour:
    “This is where it gets difficult to save blame, since for all sorts of reasons, it can be argued that if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that people do not have a fair opportunity to avoid being the people they are, and hence doing the things they do. Between nature and nurture, neurology and society, the gap for an autonomous free will to intervene becomes vanishingly small. However, by putting relationships at the heart of ethics, Scanlon believes he can retain blame while rejecting the requirement of fair opportunity to avoid.”

    Scanlon’s approach retains a version of blame while admitting that free will is hard to come by. This version of blame is very different to yours. All you have been saying is “but if you don’t think blame is morally necessary you are rejecting blame”, “if you disagree with my ideas on morality you are a relativist”, and now “if you deny free will you can’t talk about morality”. (I remember that earlier you said that a moral relativist can’t take part in a discussion about morality, as if moral relativism is not an argument about morality, and as if a moral relativist will not want to discuss their ideas with people who disagree with them.)

    I hope I have shown that indeed you can show blame is not as morally important or punitively useful as you think it is; and that you can, as everybody else who disagrees with you has, question the existence of free will without jettisoning the concepts of right and wrong. The best outcome of this realisation is that you stop denying people the ability to take part in a discussion just because you don’t agree with them, and don’t want to give them the time to disagree with you. The worst outcome is that you keep doing this and annoying people online who aren’t comfortable with your level of intellectual disregard.


  54. All you have been saying is “but if you don’t think blame is morally necessary you are rejecting blame”

    I didn’t say that. I said I can’t imagine a system of morality without blame which, according to you, is something entirely different.

    if you disagree with my ideas on morality you are a relativist

    When you accused me of this the first time, it could have simply been a misunderstanding. Now you are repeating it, it looks like dishonesty on your part.

    and now “if you deny free will you can’t talk about morality”

    As with blame, if you can imagine a system of morality without free will, go ahead. But it seems pretty much impossible to me.

    The worst outcome is that you keep doing this and annoying people online who aren’t comfortable with your level of intellectual disregard.

    I simply don’t see why I have to repeat in the comments the arguments from the blog entry (or the surrounding entries) or, and this is particularly annoying, why I have to remind people of their own arguments. As far as I’m concerned the comments are for discussing the blog entry, not for discussing who said what. If people post arguments that have already been answered, or attacks on strawmen, or Sophist arguments that throw out morality for the sake of controversy, I will be dismissive. It’s a waste of time.

    I remember that earlier you said that a moral relativist can’t take part in a discussion about morality, as if moral relativism is not an argument about morality, and as if a moral relativist will not want to discuss their ideas with people who disagree with them.)

    The point is that I have no interest in defending my ideas to a moral relativist. There is no point discussing something with somebody incapable of telling you anything about whether you are right or wrong.

    Hang on, this is me repeating myself yet again, isn’t it? Do you actually have an argument that I haven’t already covered?


  55. “The point is that I have no interest in defending my ideas to a moral relativist.”

    What troubles me is that it does not matter if the person you are talking to understands that they are taking that position, or argues that they are not. So it could easily look as if you are merely ignoring your detractors.

    “As with blame, if you can imagine a system of morality without free will, go ahead. But it seems pretty much impossible to me.”

    I have already mentioned a theory which limits the importance of free will when blaming others. What do you think of Scanlon’s concept of blame, then, which starts from the point that assuming free will is not possible and sees blame (and therefore the ethical relationships between people) as something not about assigning moral responsibility at all?


  56. OldAndrew: “As far as I’m concerned the comments are for discussing the blog entry”. I’m more than happy to do this instead, as that is what comments are for.

    To quote your original post: “Of course, even if we accept that children do follow a natural process of behaving better as they mature (or more plausibly they are socialised into at least some good habits over time) then it would still make no sense to see them as beyond blame. Even if the young were more inclined to do wrong than the old, then that would still not absolve them of responsibility. Being more strongly tempted to do something than another person does not mean you are no longer obliged to resist that temptation. “But I wanted to …” is no excuse at any age. Society can show mercy to wayward children, punish them less strictly than it would adults. It cannot, however, justify declaring them to be either free from sin or without free will.”

    I think that Scanlon’s view shows that you might be wrong to see responsibility as linked with blame – according to Scanlon blame does not need responsibility (termed as “fair opportunity to avoid”). Therefore a link between blame, free will, and responsibility is no longer tenable.
    Also, if we remove the punitive element of blame, which is supposed to somehow make you more willing to be morally responsible in future, then it is no longer important to assign blame to students when they misbehave. Blame is not important in altering their future behaviour. From this view, your arguments that we must blame children are not important.


  57. What troubles me is that it does not matter if the person you are talking to understands that they are taking that position, or argues that they are not.

    I don’t know about you, but if somebody tells me their (deeply flawed) position, and then subsequently argues that they don’t actually believe it and never actually said it, then this is additional grounds not to take them seriously. You seem to think that it means that they have been unfairly maligned by anyone who foolishly believed them when they stated their position in the first place.

    What do you think of Scanlon’s concept of blame, then, which starts from the point that assuming free will is not possible …

    I have already answered this. If somebody doesn’t believe in free will then I can’t see how they have a coherent moral system. Telling me that you think Scanlon does, doesn’t ask the points I made about how. Now feel free to answer the question but at the moment you seem to be going round in circles, when I ask about a system about blame you talk about a system with blame but not free will and when I ask about free will you talk about blame.

    I haven’t read Scanlon’s article but your interpretation of it seems to suggest something deeply incoherent, using concepts such as being “fair” or “ethical” and “blame” as if they would still have meaning in a universe without punishment, responsibility or free will. You seem to be suggesting a form of self-contradictory “partial relativism” where we throw out basic ethical concepts (that you don’t like) but then continue to talk about other ethical concepts (that you do like) as if nothing has changed. If my argument doesn’t make sense from the point of view of this utterly incoherent position then I really don’t care. I doubt anything much does make sense.

    I might add, that despite your claim, none of this is referring back to the actual argument of the original post which was not about whether blame existed, or whether people had free will, but was about whether we should accept treating children as blameless simply for being young. The desperate efforts to throw out morality, either partially (in the form of throwing out blame or free will) or wholly, are ways to exit the discussion not ways to challenge a position in the discussion. It is no concern of mine whether somebody without a concept of free will thinks I’m right or wrong, because they can’t claim that I have any choice about whether to be right or wrong in the first place or in the future. It is no concern of mine whether somebody without a concept of blame has an opinion about what I am saying because they would be unable to say I was actually at fault. Moreover, I have already directed you to a book that discusses the necessity of blame, so it leaves me baffled why you don’t go and read that instead of looking for basic ethical concepts in my blog posts to disbelieve. When you go to an argument about who can be blamed and start doubting the use of the concept of blame you do look every bit the Sophist.


  58. “I haven’t read Scanlon’s article but your interpretation of it seems to suggest something deeply incoherent, using concepts such as being “fair” or “ethical” and “blame” as if they would still have meaning in a universe without punishment, responsibility or free will.”

    As far as I understand, Scanlon exactly attempts to rescue blame from the ideas that:
    blame requires free will (when free will is always doubtable)
    blame is punitive (he puts forward the idea that it is not)
    blame is evaluative (e.g. it cannot show evaluate the actor as morally responsible for their actions)

    This seems to go against your idea that questioning the primacy of free will stops blame from having any meaning. All you are doing is asserting that when people disagree with you, they can’t talk with you on the subject of blame – which seems to mean you don’t really want to tolerate disagreement. And this is indeed the tone of many of your responses.

    “When you go to an argument about who can be blamed and start doubting the use of the concept of blame you do look every bit the Sophist.”

    Surely you mean: ‘When you go to your argument about who should be blamed, and start doubting my use of the concept of blame, you do look every bit the Sophist.’
    Because, as far as I am aware, you are talking about your concept of blame, not ‘the’ concept of blame. Otherwise I could not find a competing view.

    And while you have rubbished this competing view – without attempting to read about it – you have not shown the essential correctness of your ideas. You have only closed them off from debate, partly by refusing to encounter competing positions, and partly by calling these competing positions (which you do not attempt to understand) unpleasant names. You can continue to assume your rightness, but you will continue to be disagreed with. No matter what you call this disagreement – amorality, relativism, or whatever – your protests will continue to ring hollow.


  59. “‘When you go to your argument about who should be blamed, and start doubting my use of the concept of blame, you do look every bit the Sophist.’”

    Apologies, I meant to say (using your voice):
    “When you go to my argument about who should be blamed, and start doubting my use of the concept of blame, you do look every bit the Sophist.”

    The point being that the argument is yours, the definition is yours, and therefore it is under contest. I am not arguing against a universally accepted definition of blame that cannot be questioned. If you limit the definition, then you are merely withholding your definition from debate, which to me is simply to ignore detractors.


  60. You seem to be declaring that my argument is flawed because I personally chose the words which appear in it. If you think I am using the word “blame” in an unusual or idiosyncratic way, then you need to explain what is wrong with how I used it. If you accept I am using it in a perfectly conventional way then the fact that somebody else might use it in a bizarre, seemingly non-moral, way is neither here nor there.

    Oh, and it really doesn’t matter whose argument it is. If you join an argument about blame, and, after horribly contradicting yourself, you suddenly decide that we should change what the word “blame” means, you do look like a Sophist.


  61. “There is no point discussing something with somebody incapable of telling you anything about whether you are right or wrong.”

    Interesting observation from someone who, when pressed to describe what they consider to be right or wrong, simply ignores the question(s).

    On the basis that you’ve just described why it’s pointless talking to you – good day sir.


  62. “If you accept I am using it in a perfectly conventional way then the fact that somebody else might use it in a bizarre, seemingly non-moral, way is neither here nor there.”

    You asked me to read a book, by a philosopher, on morality and blame earlier. Are you arguing from a philosophical idea of morality and blame, or from a conventional idea of morality and blame?

    If you are arguing from a philosophical idea, then I was not wrong to bring in another philosopher to provide a different viewpoint.
    If you are arguing from a conventional idea, then I believe your use of philosophy to back yourself up is meaningless – it is merely window dressing to hide your use of common and unquestionable assumptions.

    I stress it again: just because you feel you are using an unquestionable definition of blame does not mean that you can refuse to engage with contrary argument. As I said in my previous comment: “If you limit the definition, then you are merely withholding your definition from debate, which to me is simply to ignore detractors.”

    It has been my job here to show that your idea of blame is not the only one. I have done this repeatedly. Your response is: “What are you talking about? My idea of blame is the only one!” I suggest that you turn off the comments for your blog posts, or only allow those that say “ditto me too!”, because you clearly do not want your ideas to be questioned.


  63. Interesting observation from someone who, when pressed to describe what they consider to be right or wrong, simply ignores the question(s).

    Did you really think that this was the place for it? I mean, I see nothing in the original post that says “Please send me a random list of moral issues to discuss”.


  64. You asked me to read a book, by a philosopher, on morality and blame earlier. Are you arguing from a philosophical idea of morality and blame, or from a conventional idea of morality and blame?

    I believe that good philosophy talks about the same concepts as real people in the real world. When I recommended Mary Midgley’s book it wasn’t because she talks about philosophy, but because she talks about these issues. It certainly wasn’t an invite to redefine words because “a philosopher once used it like this”.

    I stress it again: just because you feel you are using an unquestionable definition of blame does not mean that you can refuse to engage with contrary argument.

    I didn’t say I was using an unquestionable definition of blame, I just observed that you haven’t questioned it. You have simply asserted that my argument wouldn’t work if “blame” was redefined to mean something other than what I was using it to mean. So what?

    It has been my job here to show that your idea of blame is not the only one. I have done this repeatedly.

    And this is why you have come up with such a bizarre non-argument. You can redefine “blame” to be a type of sausage if you like. The point is that is not how I am using it. Telling me “your argument wouldn’t work if your words meant something else” is no argument.

    I suggest that you turn off the comments for your blog posts, or only allow those that say “ditto me too!”, because you clearly do not want your ideas to be questioned.

    You haven’t questioned my ideas, you’ve simply demanded the right to redefine one of the words I used to describe my ideas and now you are acting outraged that I don’t consider that to be worth bothering with.

    Do you actually have an argument that doesn’t simply involve quibbling over words? Ever hear of the Principle Of Charity?


  65. “I believe that good philosophy talks about the same concepts as real people in the real world.”

    Yet it can use those concepts in a different way. As Scanlon says in the video I linked to, philosophy must question common sense and go beyond it.

    “I didn’t say I was using an unquestionable definition of blame, I just observed that you haven’t questioned it… You haven’t questioned my ideas, you’ve simply demanded the right to redefine one of the words I used to describe my ideas and now you are acting outraged that I don’t consider that to be worth bothering with… Do you actually have an argument that doesn’t simply involve quibbling over words?”

    So, by bringing in a new definition of blame, that disagrees with yours, I am NOT questioning what you are doing? And by defining this definition of blame as ‘sophistry’ or ‘relativist’, you yourself are not ‘quibbling over words’?

    What I was doing was showing that you can still talk about blame while accepting that free will is limited. It has been argued (by myself and others) that free will is not as clear cut as you say, and that therefore it is not helpful to hold student morally responsibility for everything they do without thinking about it carefully. However, it is clear that you believe that the idea of free will is ‘common sense’, that philosophy that does not agree with common sense is worthy to be ignored, and that when you do try to question common sense that you are just ‘quibbling over words’.

    You are arguing from a position of certainty, and are dismissing any doubt over this certainty. Please do not invite a discussion of your blog posts if you wish to act like this, it is unfair to your respondents. Nor, please, label your thoughts as philosophical in the slightest – you are not entering into the process of philosophy in good faith, and it is unfair to your respondents as they expect to be listened to when they comment.


  66. So, by bringing in a new definition of blame, that disagrees with yours, I am NOT questioning what you are doing?

    You can have all the alternative definitions you like. Until you find reason to suggest the way I used it was wrong you are quibbling over words. “If your argument meant something else, it would be wrong” is not a counter-argument to anything.

    Please do not invite a discussion of your blog posts if you wish to act like this, it is unfair to your respondents.

    I invite discussion of the arguments and ideas in my blog posts.

    I do not invite efforts to redefine the words in them.

    I do not invite people to invent strawmen and argue against those.

    I do not invite people to repeat the opinions I have already argued against as if they had never read the original post.

    I do not invite people to quiz me on random moral issues.

    I do not invite people to throw out basic moral concepts (or even all moral concepts) and then pretend they haven’t.

    And most of all, I do not invite people who are not even honest enough to acknowledge what I am actually saying and why, to come and lecture me on “the process of philosophy”.

    My issue with your “argument” is not that it defies common sense (although it does) but that it is in no sense an argument against what I said in my post.


  67. “My issue with your “argument” is not that it defies common sense (although it does) but that it is in no sense an argument against what I said in my post.”

    Interestingly, this is what your respondents say to you – that your comments are not addressing what they say. They then ask you to address their comments. You then say that you refuse to, because they are not accepting your or ‘the’ definition, being relativists, sophists, defying common sense, not being honest, or throwing our basic moral concepts. (These are all words and terms you have used in this discussion).

    The very idea that the point of the argument is to disagree with your or ‘the’ definition, with common sense, and with your ‘basic moral concepts’ is then rebutted by saying that we haven’t disagreed with you at all. We’ve just redefined words, ignored common sense, and thrown basic moral concepts away. Yet we have done them by disagreeing… and then you say I have not disagreed with you. How strange.

    All I can conclude is that you wish to diminish the arguments of those who do not hold the same basic principles as you with name-calling. Tough luck – many argument you have online are with people who do not accept these basic principles. Free will leading to moral responsibility can be argued against. The use of blame as punitive or evaluative can be argued against. The whole truthfulness of your position, philosophically, of why people act they way they do (sin, temptation, etc.) can be argued against. And you do not diminish those arguments one jot by sidelining a debate that does not stick to your basic ideas.


  68. The whole truthfulness of your position, philosophically, of why people act they way they do (sin, temptation, etc.) can be argued against

    Well, when you want to argue against what I am saying, rather than the words I use to say it, let me know.


  69. “Society can show mercy to wayward children, punish them less strictly than it would adults. It cannot, however, justify declaring them to be either free from sin or without free will.”

    Society can indeed justify children being free from sin, if society stops using religious ideas like ‘sin’. Outside of that religious framework, of course we are free from ‘sin’ – it does not exist.
    Society can, likewise, justify children (and everybody else) from being without free will, through applying something like biological determinism.

    I can understand that you are saying that “According to me, OldAndrew, society cannot justify declaring…”. This is because you believe in sin, and not in biological determinism. You still have not shown why disbelieving in either ‘sin’ or ‘free will’ is more widely unjustifiable, e.g. to everybody everywhere and not just you.


  70. Outside of that religious framework, of course we are free from ’sin’ – it does not exist.

    I covered this point here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2008/10/14/human-nature/


  71. I argued that: “Outside of that religious framework, of course we are free from ’sin’ – it does not exist.”

    You say that this answer my point fully: “In suggesting an existing inclination to moral failure I am echoing at least part of the doctrine of Original Sin. This is not to say these ideas rely on a religious perspective. What I have talked about here can be deduced from obvious observations of both the world around us and one’s own inner moral world, but that doesn’t stop them being seen as religious ideas.”

    I reassert my point – the idea of sin relies on a religious perspective. Because you share in that perspective you see sin. That is why you can say that sin “can be deduced from obvious observations of both the world around us and one’s own inner moral world”…

    So, again, you make an assumption. You assume that everybody believes in sin (although it is a religious idea), even though not everyone is religious… because you do. Or, have you got conclusive evidence that everybody deduces from natural observation that sin existst?


  72. You assume that everybody believes in sin

    There’s a really strong smell of straw round here. I posted a passage from G.K.Chesterton about exactly those people.


  73. You are calling my argument a straw man, when all I am saying is that you assume that everybody believes in sin because it is an obvious fact, or at least should believe in sin because it is an obvious fact.

    This is one Chesterton quote you have used: “They began with the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes… Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” Unless you are disagreeing with Chesterton, this clearly seems to support my argument rather than show it to be a strawman. You are saying that sin is obvious, and we all believe in it (or should do).

    Please explain how this goes against my assertion that “the idea of sin relies on a religious perspective” when Chesterton calls Original Sin ‘part of Christian theology’.


  74. You are calling my argument a straw man, when all I am saying is that you assume that everybody believes in sin because it is an obvious fact, or at least should believe in sin because it is an obvious fact.

    Are you seriously suggesting that there is no difference between saying people should believe something and that they do believe it?

    Please explain how this goes against my assertion that “the idea of sin relies on a religious perspective” when Chesterton calls Original Sin ‘part of Christian theology’.

    You seem to be under the strange impression that something can’t be part of Christian theology and an obviously true fact about the world. That the universe exists is a part of Christian theology. That doesn’t mean everybody who believes the universe exists relies on a religious perspective.


  75. “Are you seriously suggesting that there is no difference between saying people should believe something and that they do believe it?”

    The commonality between the two claims (do believe and should believe) is that it is ‘obvious’. It is this ‘obvious’ness that leads to your assumption that people either generally do or should believe in Original Sin.
    .

    .

    “You seem to be under the strange impression that something can’t be part of Christian theology and an obviously true fact about the world. That the universe exists is a part of Christian theology. That doesn’t mean everybody who believes the universe exists relies on a religious perspective.”

    The existence of the universe is not unique to Christian theology. This, in part, is because of clear empirical evidence for it.
    The existence of Original Sin is, I believe, unique to Christian theology, and then is disputed amongst different denominations. Ideas of ‘sin’ might be more widespread, but still aren’t universally accepted.

    And nor is there the evidence for Original Sin that there is for the universe.

    I believe it is up to you to show that Original Sin is ‘obvious’ in its truth “can really be proved”, as this is what you claim.


  76. The existence of the universe is not unique to Christian theology. This, in part, is because of clear empirical evidence for it.

    Finally we are getting somewhere. That is exactly what I am saying about sin. I am suggesting that the fact that we are not all saints is utterly unmissable.


  77. Diog of Sinope

    You can’t get at OA’s fairly standard Christian concepts of sinful, bad, evil behaviour or predilections without considering other religious, political or non-religious/political positions on these issues.

    AFAIK, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim parents and teachers are pretty keen on setting standards of behaviour both for home and school, (as are atheists like me.) When you come to atheists, I suppose the most prominent one at the moment is Dawkins. (Reluctantly. I’m not a big fan – I see him as being a fundamentalist – just as blinkered and restricted as others. But I can’t think of anyone else at the moment.)

    However, I did agree with one observation he made in a TV thing I saw during the hols. He’d just finished talking with a couple of hellfire and damnation types when he suggested that he thought that we should “do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not …” here the quote fades in my memory but it’s approx ‘not for fear of penalties in an afterlife.’

    We do not need to believe in original sin to recognise that everyone has the capacity to do good and to do wrong. Good parents, teachers and other leaders are “good” because they focus on bringing out the best rather than the worst in others. But the worst is there to be got at.

    And I object to your Tourette’s furphy. A well-brought up Tourette’s sufferer recognises when they’ve lost it – they apologise instantly for outbursts, just as you or I might for accidentally knocking someone else with a knee or an elbow.

    As for political positions. Left and right are irrelevant. The same sort of let chaos rule nonsense has been happening in USA schools regardless of the political colour of the state & federal governments.
    Libertarians and anarchists are e x t r e m e l y strict about the idea of all of us taking personal responsibility for our own actions.

    None of this matters except to illustrate the point that there’s nothing exceptional about OA’s writings or his moral stance, apart from the fact that he’s willing to think seriously, research these issues and write clearly about them.


  78. Dear Andrew

    I’m enjoying your words greatly.

    I’m a student teacher at the IOE, London. What would you say to our institutes claim that they don’t teach us about behaviour management because they think good lessons will not lead to poor behaviour?

    Kazu


  79. I’m not sure what Oldandrew would write, but that’s rubbish. Have you been to the cinema lately? Children don’t behave at them, and that’s an environment where
    a) They’ve chosen to go.
    b) They’ve (usually) paid for the opportunity.
    c) The studios have spent many millions to entertain them.
    d) There is an actual enforceable sanction (removal and police).

    So to suggest a teacher can just “plan and deliver good lessons” seperate from behaviour management is ludicrous. You cannot have a good lesson without it.

    fat-tony


  80. I would also add that for most of us, good lessons do not happen all the time and that you need to be prepared for when things go wrong. At good schools you can occasionally get away with a bad lesson but at Hellhole High you need to have the techniques to survive 9X last lesson on a Friday after they have just had PE



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