Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The trouble with school ethics classes


It is difficult to see how anyone could object to the teaching of ethics in schools. Everyone could benefit from a better understanding of ethics after all.

However, the recent emerging brawl in NSW over the teaching of ethics in public schools is making for some interesting bedfellows as the Atheist Foundation and the Sydney Anglican diocese trade blows over the proposal by the St James Ethics Centre.

The Centre is proposing that students who do not sign up for scripture classes in the public school system should be offered ethics courses as an attractive alternative to 'twiddling their fingers' while scripture classes take place.

One of the ironies of the fight is that the Centre itself was originally established by the Anglican parish of St James, King Street, Sydney. This is one of the few tolerated 'non-evangelical' Anglican parishes in a diocese otherwise dominated by the evangelical approach of the Jensens.

Still the Centre is now less formally related to the parish and has moved towards a greater independence from any particular religion. Nonetheless their website home page prominently features a quote from St Augustine.

And they can now count the Atheist Foundation as an ally in their efforts to promote ethics education in schools. The Foundation argues that one can be ethical without religious faith and that secular values 'can be appreciated regardless of one's religion or lack thereof'.

The concerns of the Anglican diocese seem to move in two directions. The first is that the ethics programs might attract students away from existing scripture classes and diminish their effectiveness. This looks more like a matter of turf wars, of seeking to maintain numbers and so justify their continuance.

However the more substantive issue is the Anglicans' concerns over a 'secular' ethics displacing traditional Judeao-Christian ethics based on the Bible. Secularism is raising its ugly head!

This is perhaps less an issue for Catholics who have always claimed a basis for ethics in 'natural law', not just the Bible. But for evangelical Christians solely dependent on the scriptures for their ethical demands, the claim of a secular ethics based on reason alone is more problematic.

Indeed the Catholic Church has been much less vocal on the issue, perhaps for this reason. The Catholic tradition has always seen its ethical precepts as based on reason, with scripture assisting us because of the 'darkening of the intellect' caused by sin.

The claim that a purely 'secular' ethics can be developed based on reason alone is itself not unproblematic. At least since the time of Kant, philosophers have been attempting to derive ethical precepts 'from reason alone', with lesser and greater success.

Certainly there has been no agreement between them beyond bland generalities. Indeed the injunctions offered by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, such as 'in all things strive to do no harm', 'live life with a sense of joy and wonder' and 'enjoy your own sex life' are superficial and ineffectual in resolving significant moral issues.

On the other hand the course proposals of the St James Centre seem on first glance more designed to make people more reflective moral agents, rather than to help them arrive at substantive moral precepts; more about procedure than content. While of value in itself, such a process has no clear way of overcoming the debilitating effects of self-interest, however enlightened, leading to a moral subjectivism and relativism.

Certainly the moral relativism of our present age will not be challenged by such an approach. Absolute injunctions against torture or slavery require something more than a procedural account of moral reasoning.

In seeking to develop our moral reasoning, we may well ask what exactly counts as 'reason'? Many people today would claim that the ability of our Aboriginal people to live sustainably on this continent may have something to teach us about proper use of resources, a major moral issue. Is that not then a 'reason' to at least consider their moral precepts?

The fact that the vast majority of religious believers live lives of simple virtue, despite some spectacular failures, may also be a 'reason' to seriously consider the contribution of religious ethics.

Even a secular ethics may find in this sufficient reason to at least dialogue with religious ethics; certainly it would be unreasonable to completely exclude such dialogue. I'm sure the St James Centre would agree, but I'm not sure their atheist supporters would.

Finally any ethical approach must recognise the difference between moral reasoning and moral performance. Beyond appeals to self-control, moral reasoning cannot provide the empowerment we need in order consistently to perform as moral agents. Nor can it tell us what to do in the face of our own persistent moral failure.

We need something beyond moral condemnation and genuine moral guilt in the face of such failures if we are not to sink into despair. And so beyond ethical consideration there are questions of grace and forgiveness, areas where Christianity at least claims to know something worth knowing.

Part two: Storming the atheist ethic

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. He co-authored with Shane Clifton, a Pentecostal theologian, the book Globalization and the Mission of the Church (T&T Clark, 2009).

Topic tags: ethics classes, st james centre, scripture classes, sydney anglican diocese, Atheist Foundation



submit a comment

Existing comments

some nice points, but when you slipped from 'reasoning' to a 'reason' you lost me for although we may have a reason for studying aboriginal sustainability they don't appear to have a reason for believing in it.

tony marks | 16 April 2010  

Does the writer need to factor in the fact that the vast majority of religious non-believers live lives of simple virtue, despite some spectacular failures, may also be a 'reason' to seriously consider the contribution of non-religious ethics;

Carmel Maguire | 16 April 2010  

Secular ethics can be derived very easily from consideration of environmental and ecological sustainability.

Buddhists may not have realised that their arguments were derived from principles of sustainability, but the derivation of their "Five Precepts", as outlined by Kulananda in "Western Buddhism", ISBN 0-7225-3232-6, is a purely secular exercise that proceeds to an excellent alternative for the Ten Commandments.

Instead of being a set of "Thou shalt not's", the Precepts all begin with "I undertake to". This wording reflects a demand for wisdom on the part of the adherent, not just blind obedience.

Similarly, observation of symbiotic relationships between many species leads to development of ethical thinking.

David Arthur | 16 April 2010  

Very interesting article. I became a staunch atheist 55 years ago because of, among other things, my low opinion of the ethical standards in the Anglican schools in which I found myself. Do you seriously expect me to trust someone (at all) who says you cannot be ethical without believing in God?

Nigel Sinnott | 16 April 2010  

A journey from spiritual nothingness to born-again Sydney evangelical to atheist has been an interesting one.

I find Neill's reference to external "grace and forgiveness" as something worth knowing, amusing. They were never tangible in my experience.

Moral reasoning can empower one to be a moral agent and the study of philosophy has been helpful in discovering the amazing possibilities which inform moral values.
Young students are intelligent and discerning They need a broad range of ideas and possibilities to assist in making a choice about their moral values.
Lets not confine them to a restricted diet especially one as constipating as the Jensen model

GAJ | 16 April 2010  

To simply makes claims that religious morality is 'better' despite the overwhelming evidence that it is not, makes this article more than one sided. It's just assumptions and assertions with no evidence at all, placing the burden of proof on others to dispute the claims rather than backing those claims up with solid material.

The churches do not instigate advancement of morals and ethics, they claim moral absolutes and have to be continually dragged into the light.
If one is going to make claims as above one should show how christian morality is better than logically reasoned ethical decisions without it, not just claim it.

One of the major problems we have is this type of 'belief system enclosed morality' stops children facing issues and having to think. The answers are said to exist already by religion and they are not exploring WHY it is wrong to do something, only being told it is because 'god says'. This may work for those kids that fall for the gun against their head that is the threat of hell, but just is not an option for others not of faith and totally corrupt denying us the ability to teach our children ethics.

Dave | 16 April 2010  

> "But for evangelical Christians solely dependent on the scriptures for their ethical demands"

Well, sort of. However, since the Christ Figure is recorded by the Marcan and Lucan Authors as having said "All these commands and regulations are encapsulated in the Golden Rule, viz, love your neighbour as yourself", this means in practice that evangelical ethics tends to involve fairly pragmatic balancing, as opposed to parsing of Aquinas and not-always-terribly-convincing hair-splitting between "the intended effect" and "the unintended (even if 99% inevitable) effect" in areas such as birth control and pacifism.

Rod Blaine | 16 April 2010  

Well, for the Christians, it might be fine not to take ethic classes but attend church every week. Monopolising the right to ethics won't serve the wider society of multiculturalism.

AZURE | 17 April 2010  

Neil Ormerod's final point is a desperate attempt to escape despair. No, "questions of grace and forgiveness" are certainly not "beyond ethical consideration". They are totally unethical.

The all too pervasive human desire for a merciful God is indicative of moral failure.

Avoiding a just retribution for one's sins and crimes by dumping them on another, be He divine or human, is morally despicable.

David Miller, Existentialist Society | 17 April 2010  

Jensen has a hide if he wants to influence the content of 'non-scripture' classes as well as that of those 'scripture' classes pushing his own brand of mind-shrinking morality and superstitions.

Ginger Meggs | 17 April 2010  

Well, said Neil. How irrelevant have the churches become. My wife is the RC Sale diocese catechist and an active member of Lumen Christi Parish. I am a former cleric and have no wish to be identified in any way with the RC institution, but am motivated by Jesus to work for the past decade among the indigenous Australians and in Cambodia. In the local parish only a handful are presenting for confirmation, less than 10% at the catholic school are RCs and at the two Churchill Government schools over 50% are RCs. We can count on one/two hands the number of school leavers i.e. 16 - 26 who attend RC church more than thrice a year. This includes our own children and grandchildren. Yet they show a great interest in 'ethical' issues of the developing world, indigenous challenges, ecology, economic survival. Ethics as an alternative to biblical religious studies is most welcome yours Mike Parer

Mkchael S Parer | 18 April 2010  

Just a note of appreciation for this thoughtful analysis. The Ethics Centre's proposal is designed to address the injustice of children being consigned to a period of deliberately meaningless activity as a means to deter them from opting out of SRE. The proposal has also been designed to minimise any damage to SRE - by offering a program that complements the ethical component of the main curriculum and SRE alike and by offering freely to provide to faith groups all material produced for ethics classes - so that they might adapt and use them for their purposes.

I do not see our approach as excluding the religious world view. Many students will bring this to the discussion. However, scripture will not be privileged in the way it is, say, in some SRE classes.

Substantively, I think that Socrates' view of human being (as opposed to, say ant being) offers a rich source of insight about ethics - that is one that goes beyond mere procedure. But this is a larger discussion for another time.

It is unfortunate to see the hierarchy of the Sydney Anglicans offering such a diminished view of religion that it should seek to prosper simply in the absence of any option other than ... Nothing.

Simon Longstaff | 18 April 2010  

The trouble with the row over school ethics classes is that Archbishop Peter Jensen thinks it is HIS business what MY child does during non-scripture at our local public school. If children opt out of attending any of the special religious education classes on offer at a particular school - for whatever reason - they should be allowed to do something more meaningful with their time than be supervised colouring in, watching videos or doing homework.

The current policy is unjust. The provision of a secular ethics class in a secular school by a secular provider for secular students is a wonderful option to doing nothing.

What Neil fails to mention in this article, is that not only are the atheists supporting this ethics pilot, so are the Uniting Church, the Islamic Council, the Hindu Council, the Dalai Lama, Fr Brian Lucas, general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and thousands of parents whose children opt out of SRE across NSW.

I'll take all the support on offer to convince the government to change the policy to allow secular ethics to be taught to our children who are being discriminated against on the basis of their non-religion.

Teresa Russell | 19 April 2010  

Michael Parer, you seem to think that our schools should teach children only what they already know or are passionate about. These are the things that schools DON'T have to make a special effort to teach them, because they will teach themselves in their spare time.

Secular ethics classes sound fine in theory. But if they are introduced en masse, I bet Sydney to a brick that the "secular ethics" of the pilot program will within 5 years morph into "atheist ethics". But of course the atheists won't volunteer to teach it in their spare time like all the religious people do; they'll demand the taxpayers pay for it and that Government teachers teach it. There would be little objection to secular ethics classes if we were guaranteed they would remain truly secular and if children taking religious classes were not excluded.

Ronk | 19 April 2010  

"Secularism raises its ugly head"

I might have missed something here, but what's ugly about secularism? Are you suggesting that Australia should become a theocracy?

Richard Webb | 22 April 2010  

Here's an ethical question for the Catholics: If the CEO of a business is repeatedly told of cases where staff have been found to be raping children, and the CEO orders that these cases be kept secret and not reported to appropriate authorities - meanwhile transferring the offenders to other regional offices, where they can freely continue their abuse with other children, until they are caught again etc. - should the CEO be held accountable for his actions? Where this style of cover up appears to be company policy, should anyone in said company be trusted to determine - and especially to dictate to children - what is "right" and what is "wrong"?

cj | 22 April 2010  

"Absolute injunctions against torture or slavery require something more than a procedural account of moral reasoning." - I was quite surprised by this, considering the reasoning behind the inquisition and the anti-abolitionists. What we need is less scripture and more ethics.

Damian Abadd | 22 April 2010  

Surely the diocese knows that scripture classes for most NSW students are primarily an hour of baby-sitting (perhaps colouring in pictures of Jesus and lambs), or scenes from an 18th century novel where bizarre lay preachers rave about demons and hell.

Mike | 28 April 2010  

love the discourse ... is Neil any relation to Robert Ormerod, Kogarah Marist, 1954-9

Gary Elliott | 28 April 2010  

To Gary Elliott, indeed Robert was my brother. He died 12 years ago from cancer. Glad he is still remembered.

Neil Ormerod | 29 April 2010  

Instead of an ethics class, how about teaching "Religion With Your Eyes Open" as an alternative to blind faith SRE. Teach them what was done in the name of God during the Crusades. Get them to question whether they want to worship a god who condones stoning women to death or encourages young men to blow themselves up in crowded places. See if they can figure out why Jews multilate their male children's penises. Ask them why they think Galileo was hauled in front of the Inquisition and forced to recant findings we now know to be true. Tell them how an Untouchable is treated in Hindu society. Most of all, teach kids that it is not OK for religious authority figures to play with their private parts.

Religion has played such an important part in the world's history that it is impossible not to teach it as part of a child's education, but let's teach facts not beliefs. Maybe if we can open enough kids' eyes, the hatred and bigotry that organised religion breeds in our society will decline.

Tom MacKean | 18 May 2010  

May I suggest reading the Euthyphro? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro) If you read that and don't see problems with your argument, I pity you.

Anson F. | 07 June 2010