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Causal explanation in ethics and nature of moral education


To: Mark H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Causal explanation in ethics and nature of moral education
Date: 7 February 2008 14:04

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 25th January, with your two essays towards the Associate Award, 'The Need for a Causal Element of Morality' and 'The Implications of Moral Education'.

I'm going to give you two more goes on this, because although I'm satisfied that neither essay is pursuing a dead-end, both need a lot more work -- in fact re-thinking from scratch.

I find both essays difficult to follow. Perhaps an analogy would help. Reading these essays I feel like someone who has walked into a room where a discussion is well in progress, who struggles to work out what is being discussed and why.

Let's look at each essay in turn:

'The need for a causal element of morality'

There are two issues here, which you need to unravel:

The first issue concerns the distinction between causal explanation and justification in relation to the question, 'Why be moral?'

David Hume is perhaps the best known proponent of a 'naturalist' theory which rejects the possibility of an ultimate rational justification in favour of a causal account of human sympathy and how this gives rise to moral attitudes.

On the other side would be a philosopher like Kant who argues that the only legitimate question to ask is one of rational justification.

However, within the context of his sympathy theory, David Hume is fully able to accommodate the giving and accepting of reasons for action. In Kantian terms, all moral reasons are, according to Hume, hypothetical imperatives.

The second issue -- which is the issue which you are evidently attempting to address -- is how to deal with the problems and paradoxes which arise when we describe the model of a rational agent.

The solution to these paradoxes, in broadest terms, takes the form of reasons for being the kind of person who would not attempt to rationalize every decision. Herein lies the 'causal element' in morality.

Consider the criticism often levelled at Kant, that identifying moral action as action motivated by the thought of the Moral Law devalues actions done from sympathy, such as visiting a sick relative. Your aunt doesn't want to be told that you only came because it was your duty. You ought to want to visit her, because you care.

Kant would read this as offering a moral reason for seeking to become the sort of person who would act out of sympathy rather than the thought of duty. Kant's worry -- which he expresses in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals -- is that not everyone is capable of doing this. It is contingent whether you will ever succeed in making yourself a more sympathetic person. Whereas the Moral Law applies to everyone, without exception.

The main problem seems to me that talk of a 'causal element' is just too vague. You could be arguing in favour of virtue theory against other approaches to ethics. Or you could be looking at the paradoxes of moral rationality which Parfit describes, seeking the best solution. Or you could be arguing against Kant and in favour of Humean/ subjectivist 'attitude theory' which distinguishes between first-order and second-order intentions (wanting to become a more sympathetic person would be a second-order intention).

Any one of these alternatives would be fully adequate for an essay. You need to choose one, and make it clear from the start which line you are pursuing.

'The implications of moral education'

I take it that the problem you are addressing here is, How can there be moral education which is not indoctrination?

Different moral theories suggest different approaches to moral education. A Kantian would adopt a different method of imparting moral knowledge to a Utilitarian.

One question which arises is whether we are viewing 'moral education' as imparting a theory of morality -- so that someone brought up by a Kantian would become conversant with Kant's theory, or someone brought up by a Utilitarian would become conversant with the theory of Utilitarianism -- or, on the contrary, viewing moral education as merely the imparting of moral beliefs or rules, which the recipients take on trust without needing to know how these rules were derived.

R.M. Hare is a good example of a moral philosopher to takes a two-tier view, arguing that it is better that the general populace *don't* make decisions on the basis of preference utilitarianism (Hare's favoured theory), so that only the educators -- the philosophical elite -- know the why and wherefore.

However, this still leaves a very important element out of the picture. Morality is not something you learn in Primary school. Children acquire a sense of right and wrong much earlier, though the process of learning language and becoming part of family unit, interacting with siblings and parents, being punished when 'naughty'.

This fits in with Strawson's view that we acquire a sense of morality as we learn the language of folk psychology. Human beings are the kinds of entity to which certain kinds of 'reason' apply, reasons which imply the possession of attitudes and feelings, and this inevitably gives rise to a sense of right and wrong.

Why indeed do we need 'moral education'? I can't remember ever receiving one.

Once again, my difficulty with this essay is trying to work out what you are really arguing for. You need to come down from the level of high generality and state, clearly, what is the problem, what is your objective, what are the views you are against or the views you agree with, in short, what you are trying to do.

All the best,