Posts Tagged ‘ethics’


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.


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



October 18, 2008

Human wickedness, if accepted by society, is changed from an act of will into an inherent, psychological quality which man cannot choose or reject but which is imposed upon him from without and which rules him as compulsively as the drug rules the addict.

Arendt (1951)

In my last entry I talked about how, in the absence of more traditional views of human nature in which people are generally disposed to do wrong, it was necessary to come up with imaginative explanations of why children are not responsible for their behaviour, thereby allowing them to be innocent victims even when they are observed to be behaving like complete bastards.

The explanations were:

It is possible to imagine situations where this is true, but a moment’s thought would tell you that these sorts of situations are obviously rare exceptions to what is usual. But if you were a believer in the inherent innocence or goodness of children then it is impossible for a child to do wrong without some kind of explaining factor, an explaining factor usually picked from this list. Invariably what happens is that normal moral judgement is suspended and the discipline of psychology is bastardised to provide morality-free explanations of children’s behaviour to replace the obvious explanation. As if this way of thinking wasn’t damaging enough it also requires that teachers must be assumed to be oblivious of the “science” of human behaviour and require endless training in pop psychology. Then, having been thrown out the front door, moral judgement is sneaked in the back door in order to condemn the ignorance or intolerance of those who have not accepted the pseudo-scientific, psychological explanation of children’s sins.

The truth is that we don’t need a scientific model of the human mind to understand why we do wrong. We all have minds of our own (complete with weaknesses and a general susceptibility to temptation). A quick study of one’s own mind, and the minds of those one knows, suggests that people think, feel and do bad things. Trying to suggest a complex personal motivation for an individual’s history of sinning is like trying to suggest personal reasons why an individual might inhale oxygen or bleed red.

In the next few posts I will cover each of these “explanations” in turn and explain why they do not constitute grounds for ignoring the more obvious forms of moral reasoning. The likely complaint is that by identifying the human condition as an unavoidable cause of bad behaviour I’m not addressing how to “fix the problem”. My point, of course, is that I’m not saying it to “fix the problem”, I am saying it because it is true. People do bad things for no good reason. And this isn’t a frustrated statement about naughty kids; it’s a fact about human beings generally. This is a problem that we are not going to solve. We can’t change ourselves into saints through the application of rational principles, so why do we think that we can have that effect on future generations?


Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Schoken, 1951


Human Nature

October 14, 2008

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

Chesterton (1908)

… some American literati have professed their naïve belief that temptation and coercion are really the same thing, that nobody could be asked to resist temptation. (If somebody puts a pistol to your heart and orders you to shoot your best friend, then you simply must shoot him. Or, as it was argued – some years ago in connection with a quiz show scandal in which a university professor had hoaxed the public – when so much money is at stake, who could possibly resist?) The argument that we cannot judge if we were not present and involved ourselves seems to convince everyone everywhere, although it seems obvious that if it were true, neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible. In contrast to these confusions the reproach of self-righteousness raised against those who do judge is age-old; but that does not make it any the more valid. Even the judge who condemns a murderer can still say when he goes home: “and there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Arendt (1963),

Those who wish to declare themselves to be either more compassionate or more enlightened than others are keen to appeal to the inherent goodness or innocence of a badly behaved child. Claiming that a fifteen year old who tells their teacher to “fuck off” has actually done something morally wrong, let alone saying that such a student deserves to be punished, is seen as unenlightened and unfair. Those who advocate blame and punishment are seen as either cruel tyrants who hate the adorable little kiddiewinks or superstitious primitives who have no understanding of the science of human behaviour.

There is, of course, a problem with the suggestion that children are inherently good or innocent: it is not true. Children do bad things all the time. This is not a surprise as, of course, we adults do bad things all the time too and for the same reason. It is in the nature of human beings to fall short of moral perfection. We do not achieve moral perfection even for a short time, the best we can hope to do is to seek to recognise our moral failings and consider them grounds for admitting our fault; resolve not to repeat the offence; attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way try to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong.

There are problems here because what I am describing are the religious concepts of Sin (literally “falling short”) and Repentance. 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. It may even be this that causes the difficulties and the claims to greater rationality of those who pretend that, morally, children are either blank slates or, worse, natural saints. We are in a culture where people don’t like to use religious concepts in moral reasoning and so there is an incentive to replace this view of morality with another more “modern” (or “progressive”) one. “Sin” in particular has become devalued, often in two opposite directions. One is to view it as simply a euphemism for sexual activity, as in “living in sin”. The other is to view it only as conspicuous, serious wrong-doing, leaving us without the terminology to discuss either our personal failings or the everyday failings of humanity.

Without the concepts of Sin and Repentance, whether they are expressed in religious or secular ways, we are at a loss to deal with moral issues, except by ignoring them. Ignoring our moral failings is something many are loathe to do explicitly – people usually stop short of announcing their own sainthood – but such a claim is implicit in any moral theory that ignores what it is actually like to do wrong. Sometimes they don’t stop short of virtual self-canonisation. Two teachers I know told me that they never sinned. (My response was to suggest it was about time they started.) But if we accept as genuine the universal human experience of doing, saying or thinking things that our best judgement tells us are wrong, then without an acceptance of our inclination to sin and the need to repent when we do so, we simply cannot explain our own moral universe. We cannot explain where we have been or where we should go. Without the concepts of imperfect human beings needing to confront their weaknesses, we end up with a contradiction: our convictions and beliefs are in opposition to our inclinations and actions. If we deny that this contradiction exists due to our own imperfect natures, then it can only be resolved by

1) abandoning our convictions


2) denying our responsibility for what we feel or do.

The first of these options (abandoning any principle in response to the inclination not to comply with it) is often disguised as a dislike for Puritanism or hypocrisy. “Why should anyone suggest I shouldn’t do what I want to do?” people ask, even in cases such as speeding or smoking where the harm (or potential harm) to one’s self or others is obvious. When applied to schools this takes the form of a mindless anti-authoritarianism. Teachers are portrayed as ogres, driving students to bad behaviour through their unreasonable requests and unpleasant personalities. Any teacher who has been told they were at fault for enforcing the school rules will be familiar with this form of disapproval.

The second option (denying responsibility for feelings and actions) is one that people are sometimes cautious about applying to themselves as it does have implications of insanity, although people increasingly do seem willing to express even obviously selfish feelings as if they can’t be judged for having them. It is, however, seen as tolerant and broadminded to deny the responsibility of others for their actions. Where once being non-judgemental meant refraining from the casting of stones, it now seems to require looking at the obviously guilty and saying “well they couldn’t help themselves”. Temptation can now be a considered a medical or psychological condition. Examples of this are easy to identify, just by flicking through a newspaper. I’m sure it was with a great deal of sympathy and good intentions that those who were inclined to drink excessively were told they were suffering from the “disease” of alcoholism, but I wonder if they would have accepted such a diagnosis if they knew it would lead to the promiscuous being diagnosed with the laughable condition of “sex addiction”. Where psychological and medical explanations don’t explain our mistakes, then the alternative is simply to separate actions from consequences. The results of our actions are simply quirks of fate beyond our control. It is presumably for this reason that newspapers now report women “falling pregnant” in the same way somebody might “fall ill” or “fall over”.

With regards to education, the belief that children are not responsible for their actions is the default position for those attempting to reconcile their denial of human nature with the rather obvious fact that all children do bad things. The usual explanations of why children are not to be held responsible for their actions are:

For those of you reading this who are teachers, is this sounding familiar?


Arendt, Hannah,Eichmann in Jerusalem, Revised Edition,Penguin, 1963

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, 1908


Ethics Man

October 11, 2008

I am planning to write a few posts on the ethics of education. I have already entered this territory before, (for instance in these posts: Values and Professionalism) but I have become more and more convinced that the problems in our schools are philosophical and ethical. The values and the beliefs that shape large parts of our education system, and public discourse about education, are not simply misapplied, they are wrong. Improving our education system does not simply require a change in techniques or organisation; it requires that we re-evaluate some of the concepts currently used to justify how our education system is, and some of the concepts that have been unwisely discarded.

In particular, (and this will be familiar to anybody who reads this blog regularly) we no longer seem expected to believe that students are responsible for their actions, or that they might deserve punishments (as well as rewards) for those actions. It is controversial to even challenge this. The received wisdom – that children are beyond blame – is seen by its adherents as axiomatically correct to an extent where it is morally wrong to question it. These are all comments (and I could have found dozens of others) that have been aimed at me where I have argued merely that children are morally responsible for their actions and are deserving of punishment when they do something bad:

A basic antagonism to student [sic] underlies everything that you say and recommend.

[he] was probably fired for assaulting a student years ago and blogs to relive its “glory” days.”;f=3;t=004257;p=1

I really hope you are not teaching anymore and am thankful that more enlightened teachers are around (and perhaps trained in more uptodate [sic] methods and ideas). I have no intention of continuing with this thread as I find your comments offensive.

If you are still caught in the pessimistic cycle of believing in inate [sic] misbehaviour then maybe a career change.  Apologies for sounding rude but i [sic] believe the old saying “if you’re not part of the solution then your part of the problem

The outrage that is felt at the suggestion that children are both responsible and culpable is astounding to me. It seems to be based on a belief that failing to accept certain doctrines about children, amounts to an actual hostility to children. Those who make these arguments believe that you must agree with them in order to have genuine concern about, or knowledge of, children. This is held so strongly, and so blatantly in defiance of reason, that it is plausible that they adopt these stances entirely so that they can consider themselves to be more compassionate and enlightened than others.

Of course, there is a strong element of hypocrisy in the comments. They object to my willingness to apply moral judgements to student behaviour, but are enthusiastic to apply such judgements to me. I would argue that this sort of incoherence is inevitable. Like much modern moral debate they have thrown key moral concepts out through the front door (specifically: responsibility, judgement and desert) only for them to return through the back door. This is because the concepts they were rejecting were indispensable. If children are blameless then somebody else must be to blame, and inevitably the conclusion is reached that I must be to blame for everything I describe. It is simply impossible to start ethics from scratch without accounting for the concepts we already rely on to make sense of the world, and blame is one of these.

In fact, this is true of philosophy generally. As Midgley (1996) argued, philosophy is like plumbing:

Plumbing and philosophy are both activities that that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences. Each system supplies vital needs for those who live above it. Each is hard to repair when it does go wrong, because neither of them was ever consciously planned as a whole. There have been many ambitious attempts to reshape both of them. But, for both, existing complications are usually too widespread to allow a completely new start.

Another philosopher, Macintyre (1981), suggests that the plumbing of ethics has already been torn up:

What we possess … are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts of which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have—very largely, if not entirely— lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.

Whether this is accurate or not across the whole of ethics, my point is that it is most definitely true in education. Basic moral concepts, such as responsibility and desert, have been lost from our schools. We educate as if we don’t even know what human beings, let alone children, are actually like, and as if we can’t hope to make moral judgements about what we, or our students, are doing. We need to consider these ethical issues, as what is happening in our schools is not just inefficient or harmful, it is morally wrong.

My plan is to post in the next few weeks on the topics of:


Midgley, Mary, Utopias, Dolpins and Computers, 1996, Routledge

MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue, 1981, University of Notre Dame Press

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