Re-Introducing Ethics in Education

A driving spirit of the modern age is the desire to banish all speculation about things beyond the physical and observable realms of our existence. This spirit was well expressed by one of the leading Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume, who called for burning all books which did not deal with the observable and quantifiable phenomena: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

This is a breathtakingly bold assertion. The literate reader may examine his or her bookshelf to see what little, if anything, would survive after applying Hume’s prescriptions. Nonetheless, the spirit of the secular age was very much in tune with Hume, and relegated vast areas of human knowledge captured in literature, history, and the arts, to second-class citizenship. The modern world has been shaped by this downgrading of the spiritual, intuitive, and mystical, and the elevation of the rational as supreme judge and arbiter over all other faculties.

The leaders of the Enlightenment advocated rationality as the sole criterion for establishing an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. This has led to a dualism which has become firmly embedded in the foundations of Western thought, and has created a social science incapable of perceiving, let alone solving the problems currently being faced by humanity as a whole. Western hegemony has led to the global and widespread acceptance of this dualism, clearly expressed by Hume, in embracing the quantitative and passionately and violently rejecting the qualitative. Exploring the full range of difficulties caused by this dualism would take several books. In this essay we consider just one of the salient problems. Harvard Professor Julie Reuben expressed it as follows: “Truth was (a united whole) embracing spiritual, moral, and cognitive knowledge. By the 1930’s, this unity was shattered; factual cognitive knowledge (was separated from) moral/spiritual knowledge.”

The Enlightenment project had aimed to provide rational foundations for all human knowledge. However, influential intellectuals like Max Weber, in the early twentieth century, argued that scientific knowledge had to be value-free, because values could not be established empirically. Widespread acceptance of this rejection of morality and spirituality has had dramatic consequences in all realms of human life. The most important questions that we face as human beings were declared to be meaningless, and unworthy of our attention and study. We all recognize that our own life is an infinitely precious gift; the most important question we face is: how should we use this gift? What is the purpose or meaning of life? What characterizes the ‘good life’ and what steps can we take to achieve a lifestyle which embodies the good?

Influential positivist philosophers argued that these questions had no meaning, because there was no empirical or observational evidence which could be used to answer them. All answers were equally valid. We should simply do with our lives whatever we desire to do. There were no ethical or moral standards to guide our behavior. As one of the leading positivist philosophers, A J Ayer, stated: “Moral judgments are as meaningless as a cry of pain”. Centuries of traditional wisdom about life was discarded as meaningless noise, and the new generations were encouraged to work out answers to these deep and difficult questions on their own, starting from scratch. To understand the catastrophic consequences of this, imagine what would happen if we threw out accumulated wisdom in medicine (or any other field of knowledge), and started again from scratch.

The key to the social sciences is an understanding of the nature of human beings. Can we understand human lives without understanding responsibility, conscience, courage, love, heroism and cowardice, trust, jealousy and the enormous range of human emotions? All of these elements of human lives are deeply and inherently qualitative and cannot be measured on any scales. Thus, by definition, these do not qualify for inclusion in the realm of scientific knowledge. The wisdom of the ancients, contained in books discussing these concepts in literary and philosophical terms, without measurement and data, would deserve to be burned according to Hume. But all this book-burning would leave us without any guidance on issues central to human affairs.

The dualism that deified science, and scoffed at that qualitative and unmeasurable, resulted in a tremendous loss of knowledge about the nature of human beings and society. We are living with the consequences of a college education which teaches students how to build bombs, but nothing about the ethics of killing innocents. As a chilling example, consider the changing attitudes towards torture and murder. Japanese soldiers were executed for torturing American POW using waterboarding, and American soldiers in Vietnam were tried for such treatment of Vietnamese prisoners. But recent Presidents have thrown their full support behind the use of extreme torture techniques, officially approving their use. Hollywood movies glorify and justify torture, even though empirical evidence shows that it does not work to obtain useful intelligence. Official reports show that senior officials in the UK and the US concocted evidence to fool the public into supporting the invasion of Iraq, resulting in deaths of millions of innocent civilians, and unnecessary expense of trillions of dollars. But no one has been convicted of any wrongdoing. MBAs are taught that the bottom line is all that matters, and social responsibility should not interfere with the pursuit of profits. Thus, there is no outrage at the deaths of the poor and hungry farmers, caused by millions of dollars spent on research to produce genetically modified terminating seeds, so that rich organisations can make more profits by selling seeds every year. Even justice has been separated from morality; in the adversarial system, lawyers are taught that their responsibility is to win the case for their clients, regardless of whether or not justice would be served by this win. Reform requires deep and fundamental changes in the system of education, which needs to be firmly grounded in all those ideas that have been kicked out of the curriculum as ‘unscientific’.

Short Posts on Diverse Topics: My author page on LinkedIn. Other works: Index . Related: Re-Enchanting the World.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2016.ethicseducation

  1. David Chester said:

    There is a difference in studying our society between its business-side workings and its ethical-side workings. That does not mean that there are no business ethics, but it does mean that when these subjects are being taught that they are quite different. Our ethics are actually related to what was once religious principles, only now that we have atheists, they claim to have forgotten this (but still it does apply). We cannot today indiscriminately kill, rob or rape, yet in past civilizations when the religious practices were different and monotheism did not yet exist, to kill, rob or rape were not punishable offenses and were even encouraged in certain places. Ask an atheist if he/she has moral principles and the answer will be “yes” in most cases. Ethics should be taught and explained to include its relationship to religion but without making it a religion–a difficult subject to put across. We can begin however, by showing atheists that they do believe in one thing–themselves and their egoes.

  2. Mustsign topost said:

    classification precedes quantification unless you’re fudging the numbers

  3. Ed Seedhouse said:

    Well, I am one of those atheists and skeptics and I do not believe in my “ego” as a physical or “spiritual” thing at all, nor that I am some separate atomic being unaffected by the world and society I live in. Relationships between people are observable, and it is a plain physical fact that we are connected to each other and to the world. To a virtual certainty there are currently atoms in my body that were in the body of everybody else on earth at one time or another – we all live in the same ocean of air and that is a perfectly physical connection, no mysticism required.

  4. Dear Ed — I have nothing against atheists — I used to be one myself, and understand very well how the evidence against the existence of God seems overwhelming from many different angles. You provide materialistic reasons to believe in unity of mankind. However, this become effective in promoting peace and love only when we feel this in our hearts, and is not particularly helpful when we reason it out with our heads — currently death and destruction, killings and torture, are at an all time high in human history — obviously, people do not feel connected with each other. How to achieve intuitive, heartfelt understanding of this connectedness that you mention — that is a central question, without any easy answers.

  5. Ethics is one of those things we need to be specific about. Richard the Lionheart was from all accounts a good Roman Catholic and spent much of his life defending the Church and Christendom from the Saracens and heretics. Some of this defense was quite brutal. But by the standards of his time and Church he was an ethical man. Per Zaman we need to bring the unscientific (e.g., ethics) back into economics. That’s difficult since economics is itself unscientific, or maybe better described as a fake science. The relationship between real science and ethics has often been a strained one. But generally scientists have recognized, if not always adhered to limitations on their work that reflect codes of conduct to protect human life and the Earth. Most scientists recognize that science is not the world and the world is not science. But again, economists are not scientists.

  6. David Chester said:

    There is ethical teaching in economics too. You should read about Henry George’s approach to the rights for sharing natural resources. He wanted to tax these rights (which is not really the exact word, for the collection of the opportunity-rights as national revenue. This is due to the fact that a tax causes a reduction of national and individual progress, whilst this revenue collection encourages the better use of the opportunity provided by the natural resource, land). I find that the ethics in economics are often hidden and implied rather than directly stated, but in fact many of our reformers were most ethical in what they proposed.

    Richard the Lionheart was a bad king and neglected his duties in England and France. He could have left the Crusades to others, but he loved to be part of a “good” fight! That does not make him an ethical monarch.

    And as for science in macroeconomics, it is there if and when you will but search for it (as in my book “Consequential Macroeconomics”), because the very idea of economics, for obtaining the most by doing the least, has ethical foundations!

  7. David, is the “opportunity of use” the most important thing about natural resources, land, etc? That clearly is an ethical question. Is it ethical to treat the Earth as merely or even mostly as a “natural resource?” By ethical here I’m referring to the right, good, or just decision. I agree that the values in the economy and in economic theories are often not displayed or even acknowledged. But that still does not mean these values are ethical. Is the pursuit of self-interest, wealth in terms of money and property, or hiding information from your neighbors ethical? Agreed that Richard the Lionheart was not a dutiful king. He spent little time in England preferring France and/or to be in battle. But he was counted as a pious man both by his subjects and by the Church. I translate pious as ethical, again in terms of the time in which he lived. Again, economic actions – obtaining the most by doing the least – are value-based. But are these values ethical? Are they a right, just, or fair choice? In terms of most ethical codes of which I am aware, outside neoliberalism or its offshoots these values are not ethical. As for Henry George I personally like and agree with some of his proposals – community ownership of natural resources and a tax system to support that. The question is this, why is community ownership ethical while private ownership is not?

    • David Chester said:

      Socialists claim that we are all equal, but they do not include equal rights to opportunity, only to property. This means that until we see the difference, the US Constitution (as an example) and other similar declarations, will not stop the monopolization of this opportunity. Then unequal amounts of accumulated property and goods will result from it. It is not the earth which should be getting this treatment but the opportunity-rights for its access. This is not a play on semantics, the ownership is not in question. It is the benefit from ownership which translates into opportunity-use which is significant.

      My remark about hidden assumptions concerning ethics is not about the ethics themselves and if you think that giving a worker a hard time by stopping his use of a particular labor-saving technique is still ethical employment, then we cannot agree. Here values and ethics do correspond.

      Many people think Henry George called for communal ownership of land. They are mistaken–what George wanted is that when land is privately owned (which he readily accepted), its potential rent (so called economic rent) is shared. So I can’t answer you last question. The advantage is that the government gets the economic rent as its income instead of taxing the other production-based activities. All of these are burdens on national progress. By taxing land values, unused land becomes costly for its owner when held unused. Then land value tax encourages its proper use and at a lower cost, due to less competition for its availability, and it is beneficial to all but those who speculate in rising land values.

  8. As I understand it economics is about the things humans need and want in order to survive and to live a relatively comfortable life. Some of these things are called psychological, such as a sense of family, security in relationship with other humans, and knowledge of surroundings. But even these “resources” are partly physical, and certainly many other resources are mostly physical – food, water, shelter, protection, etc. There are always choices in how to secure these needs. For example, food can be grown, hunted, stolen, etc. What does an ethical choice regarding obtaining food and other resources look like? That’s my central question. I sense some code of right/wrong underlying your comments. Seems that code is that all should have the same access to the benefits of the Earth’s resources. For you is this ethical? Is it right? Not just efficient or workable, but morally just and fair? Now the big question. Why? Why is the arrangement you prefer ethical while alternatives are not?

  9. See my comments supporting Asad on the significance of Hume at

    Here Asad himself seems to be trapped in a Humean position when answering Ed: “However, this become effective in promoting peace and love only when we feel this in our hearts, and is not particularly helpful when we reason it out with our heads … How to achieve intuitive, heartfelt understanding of this connectedness that you mention — that is a central question, without any easy answers”.

    Reason is not particularly helpful if we don’t define our terms, so that’s one issue to address: the difference between ethics and morality – as in the Golden Rule (“Do as you would be done by”) and its instancing in the Decalogue (others tellng us “Thou shalt not …”, not me resolving “I will not”). Hume turned Christian ethics back into social mores (and Kant of course objected to that, just as he had objected to Hume’s interpretation of causality).

    But Hume helped uncover two more issues: whether ethics itself has needs a meta-ethics (i.e. whether there are good and bad ethics); and personality differences such that some people are more rational and others more feeling. Hence also the significance of education as people grow up, acquiring control of their feelings as they learn the skills of rational thinking. Is not the difference simply between self-centredness and other-aware (learning to be thankful, or rebellious against injustice)? Between the “spoiled” and the “good” child?

    An example of a “heartily good” economist was John Stuart Mill, reacting against the autistic Bentham’s rationale of the “utility” of industry’s producing quantitively more material goods, by redefining “Utilitarianism” as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. I personally rebelled rationally even against this, having already done so against Hume’s counter-productive denial of causality. The issue is not happiness but what causes it, which in my own experience was gratitude: not least to my parents and the God who made me what I am. I am helped to articulate this by fond memories of Lady Mary (Polly) Cartland, mother of famous romatic novelist Barbara Cartland, chastising one of my children for dashing off after she had given us a lift to church by insisting: “When people help us, our first duty is to say ‘Thank you'”. How we feel about others influences our choice of actions, but conversely, rational words influence our feelings.

  10. Ken, as a matter of interest (your surname being uncommon), have you any connection with the M Zimmerman in Hudson’s “The Is/Ought Question”, in 1969 Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of New York at Buffalo? His essay, “The ‘is/ought’: an unnecessary dualism”, concludes,”there is no need to think we are trying to do away with ‘ought’ statements. Rather we are merely wondering about what would happen if we dispensed with ‘ought’ statements as against what would happen if we did not”. Like you, he seems to go round in circles asking questions, but in a response to a critic saying he is merely obscuring the ‘is/ought’ barrier “by using ‘want’, which looks like a purely descriptive or ‘is’ term, in an evaluative sense”, he ends up accepting a Humean double negative: not wanting to not obey the law.

    • No connection. Ethics (morality, et al) has many “causes,” many sources. I too am interested in these. But I reject the notion that “rationality” can always help us find either ethics or its causes. This needs to be qualified a bit to note that rationality itself takes many forms and has many origins. I note such rationality not generally included in discussions like as emotional rationality, bodily rationality (in the flesh, to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty), and spiritual rationality. As for asking questions, I find this useful in discovering things and figuring out what’s going on. “The law.” Which law, from where, how, and when? Hopefully asking questions will help us answer these questions and see more clearly the creation of the law you mention.

  11. Ethics is subjective which means that as a society we have to have at least a plurality agreement on what is ethical.

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