Ethics and morality in education

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Adriving 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 recognise 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 characterises 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 behaviour. 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.

The key to the social sciences is an understanding of the nature of human being. 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 on 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 non-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’.

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