The new A Level RS: what about ethics?

April 13, 2014 · Posted in Blog 

The UK government has announced that there are going to be changes to Religious Studies A Level to make it more challenging in line with other A Level developments. So what do I think we should be thinking about regarding ethics?
Ethics has long been a mainstay of the A Level offering a theoretical and practical rigour but there have been some clear problems in recent years that need addressing:
1) Crude simplification of ethical theories that dislocate them from the philosophy and leave them as a seeming random list of principles. So, for example, many learn to recite Kant’s categorical imperative without realising how it relates to his philosophy of the person and that it is his philosophy of the person that leads his thought to reject utilitarianism. So we need to have questions that really dig into to the theory and not simply seek to test theory through application.
2) Crude use of testing theory through application. This is the kind of question that says apply utilitarianism to war, for example. Of course a particular war or other ethical issue with some details would make an interesting case, if we had case studies, but the tendency to simply name an issue topic in a question encourages the issues outlined in 1, above, and also leads to a poor treatment of the ethical debate surrounding ethical issues in their own right.
The only way to deal with 1 and 2 is to have better questioning in the exam papers and better marking by people confident in the literature, beyond the summaries of revision guides. We need questions that get candidates to explore the frameworks in ethical theories critically, as well as look at issues.
3) what about ethical problem solving? To encourage innovative deeper thought, I propose an element of the exam which poses ethical problems to solve for candidates to draw from across their religious and philosophical thought to resolve. This would help avoid the boring reciting of standardised answers and reveal depth of understanding.
So case studies, case studies, case studies…. This would be a fine innovation for a levels.
4) should we keep ethics? Of course! But I would say that as I write ethics books. But more importantly than my own self interest, with so much RE devoted to what I see as phenomenological features of religion, and so many problems in life related to moral problems, I believe ethics is simply too important not to keep centre stage as an option for A Level RS. Personally I would love to see more scripture studied at A level, and schools do have the option to combine a philosophy paper with a textural one. So that option balance should remain.


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