Monday, August 22, 2011

An Aberration

I would like to see if McGrath’s piece can be used as a springboard from which to launch a discussion of moral education. The dominant Schefflerian view (see MEDI) is that morality is like science, and that therefore moral education is like science education. With science, there is no finished theory: theory is perpetually in the making. There is, however, a critical method that science deploys; and, in it, reasons are adduced back and forth for the viability of current theory, and for its possible modification or withdrawal. In education too, current theory is not presented as if it were final. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Instead, it is presented along with the reasons that have been adduced in its support; and students are encouraged to assess those reason and decide for themselves whether they are adequate to the support of the theory that they are alleged to support. Students are, that is, invited to approach received theory in a critical spirit. In this way, educational activity in relation to science is seen to be modeled after scientific activity (or the scientific process) itself.
Scheffler says that it is this way in the domain of morality too. Morality should not be looked at as a finished code, one that is to be educationally imbibed or ingested. Current morality is a point of view that emanates from an ongoing process of rational deliberation. It is exactly like science. Popular convictions are subject to change, in light of outcomes of this ongoing deliberation. What morality really is, is nothing more and nothing less than this process of ongoing rational deliberation about social affairs and interrelations. Sure, students can, and should, be familiarized with current moral thinking. But this is merely ancillary to what moral education should really do. It should introduce students to a way (a method, if you will) of deliberating morality, one that relies on adducing reasons and seeing how far they stand up to scrutiny, offering alternatives if need be, and so on and so forth. Because this is the essence of morality itself, it should likewise be made the core of moral education.

Note: Does this mean that current morality should be followed and practiced in no more than a tentative (questioning) spirit? If so, this may be where the weakness of the Schefflerian approach lies.

McGrath’s thinking serves as a counterweight to this point of view. From her perspective, science is real (not experimental), and morality is no less real than science. Taking this as her point of departure, she comes up against a conundrum. There appears to be an important asymmetry between the empirical domain and the moral one. In the empirical domain, deference to expertise makes sense. It is, in any event, widely regarded as making sense. When someone seeks knowledge about something, he naturally consults a recognized expert (an authority); and he is (epistemically) warranted in accepting what he learns by doing so. On the other hand, says McGrath, when one is confronted with a moral question needing to be resolved, one does not fulfill one’s moral responsibility by acting on the basis of (moral) information obtained from another party, no matter how expert this other party may be deemed to be. Focusing on the notion of moral knowledge, she contends that one does not acquire moral knowledge through the testimony of others. (Consequently, action taken on the basis of such putative knowledge is morally impugned.) This, despite the fact that, in the empirical realm, well-chosen testimony is regarded as adequately supportive of a claim to knowledge.

McGrath’s stress is on the (alleged) fact that we are not prone to regarding moral action taken on the basis of deference to a presumed expert as being truly moral action. This, contends McGrath, poses a problem for realism. For on realism, there is a fact of the matter about this or that moral question; and provided that information about it has accrued to the moral agent in a justifying/justified way, this should suffice to such an agent’s attaining moral knowledge and performing a moral act on the basis of this knowledge. For what else might be missing? McGrath devotes the bulk of her treatment to probing possibilities as to an answer to this puzzle.

I want to suggest that there are important repercussions for a theory of moral education here. According to the premise of this puzzle, morality cannot be taught by conveying moral facts, principles, or what have you. The matter may be cast in the form of a dilemma On the one hand, it should seemingly be possible to teach morality in this way. If realism is true, then it is (as McGrath contents) facts that count. (And so too for science!) And these facts should be teachable. (Morality teaching should be entirely assimilable to, say, history teaching.) On the other hand, if McGrath is right, then moral realism notwithstanding, morality cannot be taught by the mere conveyance of facts. This, because to teach by conveyance of facts is to rely on the authority/expertise of the teacher as purveyor of the facts which, ex hypothesi, is illegitimate where morals are concerned. This, then, raises the question not only of why not but, perhaps more urgently, of whether morality lends itself to being taught at all. If a Scheffler-type approach proves unviable/untenable (as per the above-mentioned objection), then, just maybe, moral education is entirely doomed.

I want to devote the remainder of this paper to probing whether there is, indeed, cause for despair about the prospects of a viable moral education.

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