Can we teach moral education without reference to belief?

February 27, 2012 · Posted in Blog 

In the Guardian, Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association argued that schools should teach morality for the here and now, and not out of some kind of religious life hereafter consideration. On the face of it, to teach children who may come from any or no religious background a kind of morality that has reference to religious beliefs seems unreasonable. After all, surely you have to have some confidence in the basis of those morals and if you do not share the beliefs then it would hardly lead to a resilient moral education.

What Copson is really worried about may be that we limit our behaviour, in negative ways, because of the fear of hell, or out of a desire to please some deity. He clearly believes this is not a good way to live.

However, there might be reasons to question this. First, is it not at all reasonable to consider how we may look back on our actions afterwards, even towards or at the end of our life, when thinking about the big decisions in life? Surely I will want to feel that I have made decisions I am content with. I will surely feel some consolation if I can look back with some sense of having done the right thing. This means it is not enough to consider the here and now when making moral decisions. Perhaps a kind of “God’s perspective on our life” is a way of lifting us out of the moment when we make moral decisions to think beyond the immediate. Is this really such an unhelpful thing when making moral decisions? To have some consideration for how our future selves will view current behaviour is one way of avoiding impulsive action that we may later regret.

More generally, Copson refers to the separation of moral education and religious education, but it is not clear that moral education can be taught or understood without reference to beliefs. Human rights themselves can be seen as things people belief in. Values such as equality, dignity, liberty and compassion and ideas that are believed in and inspire moral conduct. It is not clear that there are any moral systems which do not have some reference to beliefs of some sort. In some cases these are beliefs about the divine, but in many other cases it is beliefs about virtues, values and beliefs about what makes a good live.

While it would be unwise to teach British children exclusively from the moral canon of a single religious tradition, it would be equally unwise to teach them morality without reference to belief. It is hard to see how such a thing could be possible.

Better, to teach about the moral understandings found in the many ways of life experienced by humankind, religious and philosophical and especially those understandings that are commonly held by many, or all, such as compassion and dignity.


2 Responses to “Can we teach moral education without reference to belief?”

  1. Mike Radford on February 27th, 2012 7:08 am

    I don’t think that Copson is denying the place of belief in moral education. Rather he is asking about the origins of such beliefs. As a humanist I suspect he will argue that it is sufficient for those beliefs to originate in rational understanding, perhaps a Platonic or Kantian model of belief.

    You argue that moral education must to some extent lie in raising awareness of the prospect of some kind of future perspective where I look back on my life and ask whether it was a good moral life. Presumably if it was, then I will be rewarded by an easier death!

    I am not sure that we need to look at our moral lives in whole life terms or towards the final impact of moral behaviour on our lives. Moral behaviours might be embedded in notions of spiritual well being, that relates to what it means to lead a fulfilling and, for want of a better word, joyful life. We don’t need to look forward at all, but rather engage in a continuous review of our lives in relation to our understanding of what it means to be a fully human being.

    The key question for the spiritual / religious educator is the same question asked by the Ancient Greeks, i.e. what does it mean to lead a ‘good’ life, indeed what is the ‘good’ life ? and perhaps, the question asked by Deleuze, how might I live my life differently ? I don’t think that these questions can be addressed in a purely rational way.

  2. admin on February 27th, 2012 10:50 am

    Actually I was not particularly thinking in terms of what comes after death but simply that as we approach the end of our life we will naturally look back and our actions of the past may give us consolation or otherwise. Given that we all face death and the uncertainty of beyond, it is important to consider that time and how we will feel about the life we have lived. When we behave morally now, is it not reasonable to think about the possibility that we might regret or be proud of some actions afterwards?

    Of course we are also conscious of what has gone before and surely conscious of the things we are proud about and the things that give us regret or pain. This awareness we have is part of the here and now in which we live and make new choices and decisions, facing new challenges. This process is surely something that makes us aware that we will one day look back at the decision we now face and have simile feeling in the future.

    I think we should be attentive to our present experience, after all that is all we ever actually experience, but we do so with memories and with hopes.

    I absolutely agree with asking the question what does it mean to live a good life. This is the question that meets us in moments of choice, in our memories of past actions and in our hopes for a better future.

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