Responding to radical opinions in Ethics

different opinions

A friend recently asked me a question about teaching ethics. She volunteers as a facilitator of children’s dialogue in the NSW Primary Ethics program, and her question triggered an email conversation which I’ll be posting on this blog over the next few days.

My friend’s remarks are in blue. We begin with her question:

Our [NSW] ethics curriculum concerns itself with the well being of humans and animals. There are no answers given, but rather through a method of enquiry students learn to use reason and evidence, using ethical principles, to work out for themselves what is right and wrong.

My question is: how can we encourage children to choose the right way of action, given their varied and sometimes misguided backgrounds, as we are not supposed to point them in a certain direction?

You raised the question of how we can help children learn to act ethically, without telling them what’s the right way to behave. This is a challenging question, and it gets me wondering about the nature of the classroom discussion that provoked it. In my experience, children tend to have a strong sense of justice and concern for wellbeing, and as long as they have a chance to talk reasonably about ethical questions, they tend to find their own way towards ethically acceptable conclusions. Perhaps you’ve had different experiences, though. I’d find it very interesting to hear about times when you were tempted to point the children in a particular direction.

I have not really had any worrying comments from my students. There is one boy who makes controversial statements, but really with the aim of seeing the effect on the others…

I guess in having asked the question, how to help children to choose the right way of action, reveals something about my background. The first three years of my schooling were in a Communist country, where no questions, personal opinions or disagreements were tolerated. In addition my teaching of languages [at a high school in NSW] required no personal opinions. The answers were always either right or wrong.

Your early schooling under Communism must give you a unique perspective on democratic education!

I would say that – except in rather extreme cases – ethical questions don’t have a single correct answer. If we were to suggest to children that we know the right answer, and if we were to tell them (however implicitly) what this answer is, children wouldn’t have the opportunity to develop their own personal values.

As long as they have a chance to talk reasonably about ethical questions, students tend to find their own way towards ethically acceptable conclusions.

In ethical discussions with children, I think it’s wise for the facilitator to remain philosophically neutral. If we were to reveal our own beliefs, the children would tend to identify this view as ‘the right answer’, and we’d lose the diversity of opinion which is one of the hallmarks of philosophical dialogue.

Now suppose I were to teach a class of students who come from fanatical Muslim families and are comfortable with suicide bombings, etc. I imagine it would be difficult not to express my views on morally wrong behaviour. Of course this is an extreme example…

If I had a student who asserted that suicide bombing was an acceptable action, I’d probably be shocked to encounter such an opinion, but I would try to conceal my shock and I’d ask why the student thought so. Let’s say the student replied, for example, that his people have been oppressed, and that they are morally entitled to express their resistance in the form of terrorism. It’s very likely that another student would challenge that view, for example by saying that their should be some kind of limit on the expression of resistance, that resistance should be non-violent, etc. However, if no other student raised a challenge like that, I would ask: “Does anyone disagree, and why?”

If there were still no rebuttal, I would ask a question like: “What would our world be like, if everyone behaved violently whenever they were dissatisfied with something?” Then the first student would either have to condone random, ubiquitous violence (an unlikely response, which I am certain other students would readily challenge), or else the student would need to mount an argument that there is something special about the oppression of his people that justifies a violent response, whereas other kinds of oppression or dissatisfaction do not.

The process of philosophical enquiry shows some answers to be better reasoned, more coherent or more informed than others. Through questioning, children are able to see for themselves which opinions bear up under scrutiny and criticism.

This gets philosophically interesting, because the student is obliged to articulate his criteria for the acceptability of violence under particular circumstances. Every criterion that the student might articulate then becomes a contestable claim. So, imagine the student says “God tells us that oppressed people who belong to my religion are allowed to be violent – but oppressed people from other religions shouldn’t be violent, or else there would be too much violence in the world.” Then the other students (or the facilitator) might ask a number of questions, for example:

  • “Is it fair that one group of people should be granted different rights than another group of people?”
  • “How do you know that the claims about God in your scriptures are true?”
  • “How can we ever know when it is appropriate to put our trust in religious authority, or other kinds of authority?”
  • “Do we have convincing reasons to believe that God exists?”
  • “If you had been born into a family that practiced a different religion, do you think you would have the same religious beliefs as you do now, or different ones?”

By taking the initial claim seriously and investigating it, the student is obliged to think hard about his reasons for holding such a view, and whether those reasons are strong enough to withstand counter-arguments. The process of philosophical enquiry shows some answers to be better reasoned, more coherent or more informed than others. Through questioning, children are able to see for themselves which opinions bear up under scrutiny and criticism.

In the end, the student might change his mind, or he might not. But if he is required to think carefully about the beliefs and values that underlie his claims, there’s a greater chance that he will begin to think more independently, more reasonably and more ethically than if a facilitator simply said: “How could you say such a thing? Suicide bombing is completely unacceptable!”

Image by Tom Gauld, rearranged with apologies.


The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.


Go to Part 2 →

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3 responses to “Responding to radical opinions in Ethics

  1. Interesting!
    Here’s my question: Surely your choice of prompting questions are, in themselves, leaning towards a particular viewpoint. Sorry, that was a statement not a question … but you get my meaning 😉

    • Andi, thanks for your helpful comment. I didn’t actually realise the extent to which my questions were ‘leading’ until you pointed this out. On reflection, I have something to say in defence of my proposed questions, and also something to concede.

      In defence, I would say that these questions are deliberate provocations designed to have to the hypothetical student think about the issue from a different point of view. I use the strategy to provoke children to think even about widely-held beliefs, including why we should do good, and why we should follow rules and laws.

      So, I use probing questions to have children think more carefully not only about dispositions towards violence, but also about dispositions towards good behaviour. In this sense, I think the questions are justifiably ‘leading’ – leading the children to interrogate their beliefs, however socially acceptable their beliefs are.

      Having said all of that, I want to concede that some of the example questions in my blog post were poorly chosen, because questioning the existence of God (for example) would draw the discussion away from the central issue of whether suicide bombing is acceptable. It would be better, first, to ask more subtle questions that get children thinking about why there is a conflict between different interpretations of the scripture and how such conflicts ought to be resolved – before asking more foundational questions about religious authority and justification for religious belief.

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