Paul Schied played Socrates last week in his post and asked a number of important questions that we all need to be asking. And much as Socrates, he asked those questions without committing himself to any of their answers. I got the sense that he was torn in two directions by what seem to be opposite ethical impulses. One was his desire to see a more moral society; the other was his skepticism about whether a more moral society can be defined. I think this tension can be resolved.

It is a question as old as philosophy itself, whether morality is a convention or a natural fact. (The Greeks called these possibilities nomos and physis.) If morality is a matter of convention, then a moral education is truly essential to acting morally, for one can learn morality no other way. If morality is a matter of nature, then moral education is at best a frivolity and at worst an imposition. One could deduce the precepts of proper conduct with sufficient thought and speculation about the order of the universe. But since hardly anyone is an Aristotle or a Kant, even under the natural model of morality, nearly everyone must receive moral instruction from some human guide. So, regardless of how you like your metaethics, it seems that moral education from some human source is necessary.

The more interesting question is from where. The family is a traditional and often good source. But even if a child’s family does not provide him with a good moral education, he can still avail himself of his peers, who themselves might come from families which have given them a groundwork in morals. They will know what it means to say “That’s not fair” and they will find occasions to use it.

The school is another option. Elementary school teachers do not only teach multiplication tables and phonics; much of their time is spent adjudicating the petty disputes that arise when one little person transgresses the moral code that another feels in his gut (or his leg, or his arm, or wherever the booboo may be). These disputes are not all that different from the ones that big people have—only the stakes are smaller, the voices shriller, and the judges occasionally more reasonable. If all adults heeded the lessons of “Keep your hands to yourself” and “Do not take without asking,” America’s jails would be far emptier.

So schools can and do provide basic instructions in morality. I am not talking about stuffing some catechism, democratic or otherwise, into 2nd grade ears. Rather basic precepts, as general and uncontroversial as the Golden Rule.

We need not appeal to religion for the source and content of this wisdom. And we need not blush and shyly look askance when imparting it. Even if we should like to embrace a relativism or subjectivism about morality, and deny its absolute truth (which I am not saying we should), we could still say that the precepts which we teach are good for the function of our society—and for that reason it is worth instilling.

Photo credit: http://teacherstoriesltd.com/blog/?tag=teachers.

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