Do children need moral guidelines?

The time is always right to do what is right

How should a facilitator respond when students express controversial opinions in Ethics? Here I share my email conversation with a friend who volunteers as a facilitator in the NSW Primary Ethics program. This is the second of three posts; the first was Responding to radical opinions in Ethics. My friend’s questions are in blue.

Let us say there are parents who steal and this is the behaviour they demonstrate to their children, who in turn may not see anything wrong with stealing. How are we ethics teachers to conduct ourselves? Still give no guidelines? Or maybe rely on some other students in the class to steer the former in the right direction?

In the instance of the child who has seen stealing modelled as an acceptable behaviour, we could ask her why she believes that stealing is acceptable, and it will be interesting to hear her reasons! Perhaps she senses that the world is unfair, and believes that adopting the mentality of “each person for herself” is the most pragmatic way to get through life. We can interrogate those beliefs in a number of ways. If the world is unfair, do we have a responsibility to make it more fair? Does a fair society require honesty and trust? Is satisfying one’s own interests the most important goal in life? What would become of our society if stealing were universally accepted? Why do so many people find stealing objectionable?

Genuine moral dilemmas involve a conflict between two (or more) moral values. These should be genuinely controversial in an Ethics classroom, and are useful prompts for children to work out what they would do when values conflict.

Another approach we could take is to examine the concept of stealing very closely, and investigate the “grey areas” at the boundary of the concept, which may or may not be regarding as stealing, and which may or may not be regarded as acceptable. One of the activities from Phil Cam’s Thinking Stories 1: Teacher Resource/Activity Book asks students to consider whether or not the following are examples of stealing:

  • You borrow something and forget to return it.
  • You use someone’s things without asking.
  • You take something which you know the owner doesn’t need any more.
  • You find something that someone lost, and you keep it.
  • You take something belonging to someone else, thinking that it is your own.
  • You pick fruit from a neighbour’s tree that is hanging over the fence.

There is ambiguity in some of these examples, which may prompt us to reconsider our belief that stealing is universally wrong – or at least, to reconsider what we think counts as stealing.

Asking questions will help the children think about the ‘rightness’ of a proposed course of action from a number of different moral perspectives.

Many of the scenarios that are presented to children as moral dilemmas are not in fact morally problematic: there is a ‘morally right’ course of action, and an alternative ‘morally wrong’ course of action that appeals to self-interest or some other non-moral value. However, genuine moral dilemmas involve a conflict between two (or more) moral values. These should be genuinely controversial in an Ethics classroom, and are useful prompts for children to work out what they would do when values conflict.

reflection time

In Teaching Thinking: Philosophical enquiry in the classroom, Robert Fisher presents the following questions which can help children to develop attitudes of moral awareness:

  • Does this fit in with the sort of person I want to be?
  • Do I want people to behave towards me like that?
  • Does it help or harm other people?
  • Could I have done better?
  • Does this make the world a better place?
  • Is this a constructive or destructive thing?
  • What would others think of this?

Asking these questions can highlight differences among moral theories. For instance, a course of action that is consistent with virtue theory might be inconsistent with utilitarianism. Even if children are unfamiliar with these theories, asking the above questions will help the children think about the ‘rightness’ of a proposed course of action from a number of different moral perspectives. This will help them to draw their own thoughtful conclusions, independently of external moral guidelines.

Image above by Isabelle Arsenault. Top image from Oh My! with fonts from Magpie Paper Works.


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


Go to Part 3 →

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