How can we raise good citizens? If we want to raise people to do the right thing in even the most difficult circumstances, how should we educate them? How can we best immunise them against dangerous, extremist ideologies? The moral catastrophes that blighted the 20th Century – from the Nazi Holocaust to Cambodia’s Killing Fields – provide stark reminders of how crucially important these questions are. They tend to attract two opposing answers, which I am going to label ‘Liberal’ and ‘Authoritarian’. I realise, of course, that both these terms are used in a variety of ways and that both come with a great deal of baggage. Please set all that to one side. I will use the terms in just the following very specific way:
- Liberal: We should raise citizens to be independent critical thinkers who take responsibility for making their own moral judgements rather than defer to others.
- Authoritarian: We should raise citizens to realise that what’s morally right and wrong is not a matter for them, as individuals, to judge. Just as a child is raised to trust the authority and expertise of their teachers on chemistry and history, so we should also raise young people to defer more or less uncritically to the authority of some appropriate moral authority.
I use a capital “L” and “A” as a reminder that these are my own terms of art.
Western societies have become much more Liberal over the last century or so. Back in the 1950s, many schools took an Authoritarian approach. A colleague of mine tells me that as a young girl educated at a traditional British Catholic school in 60’s, she was once disciplined simply for asking why the Catholic Church took the position it did on contraception. Even questioning, let alone rejecting, the prevailing moral orthodoxy could get you into trouble. Deference to Authority was encouraged. Pupils were largely viewed as passive receptacles into which the “correct” moral and religious attitudes could be poured and set.
Of course, during the 60’s, many started to throw off the perceived straight jacket of traditional religious and moral teaching. Individuals were increasingly encouraged to make their own moral and religious judgements.
A common complaint against Liberalism
However, many social and religious conservatives now argue that Western societies face a moral sickness in large part brought about by this dramatic shift in the Liberal direction. We went too far, they argue, with the result that crime and immorality is now spiralling out of control. Some warn that the fabric of Western civilization is now under threat – that our moral foundations of our society are beginning to collapse.
set a timebomb ticking which would eventually explode the moral framework into fragments. The human cost has been colossal, most visibly in terms of marriage and the family. There has been a proliferation of one-parent families, deserted wives and neglected and abused children. But the cost has been far wider in terms of the loss of authority, institutions in crisis, and what Durkheim calls ‘anomie’, the loss of a public sense of moral order.
British author and columnist Melanie Phillips concurs. As Phillips puts it,
[i]nstead of authority being located ‘out there’ in a body of knowledge handed down through the centuries, we have repositioned it ‘in here’ within each child.
She believes the result of this shift has been catastrophic:
There were no moral standards anymore, only choices.
Kant and the Enlightenment
Where did this Liberal philosophy come from? One obvious source is the intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment. According to Diderot and d’Alembert, two key Enlightenment thinkers, the Enlightened thinker is one who,
trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously describes Enlightenment as:
emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy… the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason!
According to Jonathan Sacks, the influence of Enlightenment, as Kant characterises it here, was malign:
According to Kant…[t]o do something … because of habit or custom or even Divine Command, is to accept an external authority over the one sovereign territory that is truly our own: our own choices. The moral being for Kant is by definition an autonomous being, a person who accepts no other authority than the self. By the 1960’s this was beginning to gain hold as an educational orthodoxy.
It seems reasonable to regard the Enlightenment as the defining moment for the collapse of external authority.
On Sack’s and Phillips view, our disastrous loss of external moral authority traces in large part back to Enlightenment thought. The cure for our moral malaise requires that external moral Authority be brought back centre stage, and particularly into our classrooms.
What truth is there to this diagnosis of collapsing moral foundations? Is there even a moral collapse to diagnose (rather than, say, a moral shift, with traditional views about the role of, for example, women, gay people, sexuality, being replaced by far more progressive and desirable attitudes)? I’ll leave you to make your own mind up about that.
In my opinion, Enlightened citizens, as Kant understands the term, are what we should be aiming for.
I believe Enlightened citizens actually offer our best protection against the kind of moral catastrophes that blighted the Twentieth century.
In my book The War for Children’s Minds I look in detail at many arguments for and against the thought that there has been a damaging loss of authority. In particular, I unpack many philosophical muddles that have clouded the debate. Here, I’ll make just two key points.
Muddling Liberalism and Relativism
The most popular argument that raising citizens in a Liberal way results in moral catastrophe is that a Liberal approach must inevitably promotes something called moral relativism. Moral relativism is the view that there is no objective moral Truth-with-a-capital T. What’s true is always relative to individuals or communities.
Some truths do appear to be relative. Take, for example, truths about the deliciousness or disgustingness of foodstuffs. For many, wichitee grubs – the huge larvae eaten live by contestants on the TV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here – are disgusting. On the other hand, for some Australian natives, they’re a tasty snack. So what’s the truth about wichitee grubs? Are they disgusting, or not? It seems there is no Truth-with-a-capital-T. When it comes to deliciousness and disgustingness, the truth is whatever we perceive it to be. For some, it’s true that wichitee grubs are disgusting. For others, it’s false.
The moral relativist believes that, similarly, there is no moral Truth-with-a-capital-T. For those individuals or communities who believe female circumcision is morally abhorrent, it is. For those who believe it is morally desirable, it is. There’s no objective Truth when it comes to morality. Like disgustingness and deliciousness, what’s “true” boils down to subjective taste or preference. We have our truth, they have theirs.
Very few moral philosophers sign up to moral relativism. There are obvious difficulties with it. Not least, notice that moral relativism rules out the possibility of both moral error and moral progress.
If the truth is whatever you take it to be, then you can’t be wrong. And whatever truth you end up with won’t be any more true than the one you started with. If you think it’s possible for us to make moral progress – in recognising the immorality of slavery and racist attitudes, for example – then you really should reject moral relativism.
Now for the muddle: in the minds of many Authoritarians, a Liberal approach promotes moral relativism. They believe that to encourage individuals to think for themselves and make their own moral judgement is to encourage the view that the truth is whatever we then believe it to be. We each invent our own morality for ourselves. Morality boils down to subjective taste or preference. But this is moral catastrophe. In particular, we can no longer say that anyone is morally mistaken – be it Mao, Stalin, or Hitler. You can now see why Melanie Phillips goes so far as suggesting that, by promoting Liberal attitudes, the Enlightenment “gave us the Holocaust.”
This line of attack against Liberalism is immensely popular with social and religious conservatives. Yet it rests on a fairly obvious muddle. To say that we ought each to think for ourselves about moral and religious matters is obviously not to say that the truth is then whatever we believe it to be.
In fact, in so far as Liberals think that there’s a point to thinking critically and independently about moral matters – because it can allow us to make moral progress and get us closer to the truth – they oppose moral relativism. Liberals can, and indeed, should, explain the obvious failings of moral relativism (even while encouraging students to think for themselves). There’s no contradiction in Liberals offering reasoned argument in support of moral and religious beliefs, including the belief that moral relativism is false, even while encouraging students to think for themselves and make their own judgement.
The Religious Liberal and the Authoritarian Atheist
Another common misconception about a Liberal approach is that it is incompatible with religious schooling. A religious school can be a Liberal school, encouraging students to think critically and independently and make their own judgements. The school is free to make a case for, say, a Christian ethic, but so long as the school allows and indeed encourages students to make up their own minds rather than just passively accept what they’re told, it can still be Liberal.
Indeed, not only can religious people be Liberal, atheists can be Authoritarian – sometimes brutally so. In Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia, the feared knock on the door in the middle of the night would come, not from the Holy Inquisition searching for religious heretics, but atheist thought police hunting down atheist heretics. Individuals had no choice but to sign up to the atheistic beliefs of the regime.
We can be more or less Liberal or Authoritarian. And it’s certainly true that over the last century or so we have moved leftward on this horizontal axis:
Liberal ———————————————————— Authoritarian
The atheist vs. religious axis cuts across the Liberal Authoritarian axis like so:
Prof. Keith Ward I Holy Inquisition
Liberal ———————————————————— Authoritarian
Richard Dawkins. I Mao, Stalin
In the top left-hand quadrant are the religious Liberals. I asked my friend and colleague Keith Ward (Professor Emeritus of Divinity at Oxford University) where he would locate himself on this chart, and he placed himself top left. In the bottom left quadrant we find atheist Liberals such as the Richard Dawkins, who, while often accused of being Stalinist, actually very much encourages people to apply their own intelligence and make their own judgements. In the top right quadrant are the religious Authoritarians. Bottom right we find atheist Authoritarians like Mao and Stalin.
Over the last few years, the battle between the religious and the atheists has been increasingly loud, with enormous salvos being fired north and south. The New Atheists, including Dawkins, have fired off furious fusillades, with the religious then returning fire. So intense has the heat and smoke generated by these exchanges become that it is easy to lose sight of what I suspect is actually the more important battle: between the Liberals on the left and the Authoritarians on the right. In fact, it may be in the interests of atheist and religious Liberals like Ward and Dawkins to join forces in combatting what I consider to the more significant enemy: Authoritarianism.
Avoiding moral catastrophe: Lessons from the 20th century
What kind of case can be made for a Liberal approach? There’s growing empirical evidence to suggest that raising young people to think critically and independently provides our best defence against moral catastrophes. Research has been done into the backgrounds of those who saved Jews during the Holocaust, often at great risk to themselves. Pearl and Samuel Oliner interviewed and researched the childhood backgrounds of rescuers. They found that the most dramatic difference between rescuers and non-rescuers lay in the extent to which parents placed greater emphasis on reasoning rather discipline and physical punishment. The Oliners say, “It is in their reliance on reasoning, explanations, suggestions of ways to remedy harm done, persuasion, and advice that the parents of rescuers differed from non-rescuers.” They add that “reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others.” The non-rescuers, on the other hand, tended to feel “mere pawns, subject to the power of external authorities.” Their research also indicated that while religiosity played some role in motivating rescuers, it “was only weakly related to rescue.”
The philosopher Professor Jonathan Glover also researched the backgrounds of both those most eager to join in killing in places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Bosnia and those who worked to save lives. Glover says:
If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.
Glover adds, “I think that teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies.”
Such research provides support for the view that if we want to raise new citizens to have some immunity to the sort of moral horrors that blighted the 20th Century, our best bet is to adopt an enlightened, Liberal approach to moral and religious education. We should aim to raise individuals who will both recognize their own individual responsibility for making moral judgements, as well as possess the kind of skills and maturity they’ll need to discharge that responsibility properly. The dangers of raising moral sheep are only too obvious.
What about immunizing young people against indoctrination into dangerous extremist ideologies? It’s tempting to think the solution is just to indoctrinate young people with our own preferred ideologies first. Get them to more or less uncritically accept what we tell them. However, as Glover remarks above, our best bet, if we want to provide immunity to ideological indoctrination, is to give young people the critical thinking skills and independence of mind needed to spot and resist indoctrination. Young people whose minds have no such critical defenses, who have simply been trained to passively accept what Authority tells them, will be the most vulnerable to the next even more charismatic, self-styled Authority that comes along.
For a much more extensive and detailed examination of the arguments for and against a Liberal approach to raising good citizens, see my The War for Children’s Minds.
Stephen Law is a philosopher and author based at the University of Oxford. He researches primarily in the fields of philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and essentialism.