Graham Haydon argues that it is time to talk about a difficult topic.

If you said that you were teaching your students morality, would you get strange, even disapproving, looks? It probably depends on the institution you are teaching in. In some faith schools teaching morality may be exactly what is expected. In a more secular environment – and perhaps especially with older students in an FE College – the idea that teachers should be involving themselves in their students’ morality may be thoroughly suspect. Promoting values, yes; teaching citizenship, yes; social responsibility, yes; even, perhaps, teaching right and wrong (see last month’s column); but morality, no, that is something else, and something we are not comfortable even talking about.

It is not that there is a straightforward disagreement here between those who are happy to see themselves as teaching morality and those who are uncomfortable with the very notion. Sometimes when people are taking up different positions on an issue they may not be really disagreeing with each other at all, but using words in different ways. The word ‘morality’ does convey different ideas to different people, and it may even convey several conflicting ideas to the same person. This is partly because different traditions of thought, religious and otherwise, may have different understandings of morality, and in our multicultural world many people derive their own ideas from more than one tradition.

For many the very word “morality” has become tainted, suggesting the stiff correctness of Victorian behaviour, sexual repression (if not hang-ups), timid subjection to conformity, and a certain starchiness of tone.’ (Paul Standish)

Sorting out ideas

The notion of morality needs sorting out. It needs what philosophers sometimes call ‘conceptual analysis’ – a technical-sounding term for something that we all need to do from time to time if we are to think clearly about what we are trying to achieve in education. We need to look carefully at our ideas about morality and clear away confusions so far as we can. The only way anyone can do this – if they are to take other people with them rather than laying down a line dogmatically – is to work piecemeal through the various ideas and confusions and try gradually to get a clearer view. This may or may not end in consensus, but even if people still disagree they may have a clearer view of what they are disagreeing about.

This kind of sorting-out of our ideas takes time and patience. For ideas of the complexity of those conveyed by ‘morality’ it can’t be done in one session, or one column. I will start here, taking up a few ideas one by one, and continue another time. The kind of task I try to do here may be one that, allowing for age and circumstances, you can do with your own students.

Words and concepts

 The relationship between words and ideas (or concepts) is fluid. New concepts and new words come along; old words fall out of use, or sometimes remain but change their meaning. That’s a normal part of the way languages develop. It may be that the word ‘morality’ has become so charged with confusion and undesirable connotations that we would do better to avoid the word altogether (as many people already do). But even if we did avoid the word, we might still need to hang onto some of the ideas that it used to convey; and we would still need some terminology in which to talk about those ideas.

Some examples

Here’s a first idea that we should clear out of the way: the idea that morality has something specially to do with sex: as if, so far as morality is concerned, you can do what you like so long as you don’t transgress certain rules about who sleeps with whom, or who looks at whom, and in what way. If there is such a thing as morality at all, then certainly it will have something to say about sexual behaviour and relationships, but only for the same reasons as it has something to say about many other aspects of human life: because people are vulnerable, people can be hurt, there are values such as trust and friendship that are important, and so on. (If someone wants to use the word ‘morality’ to apply only to sexual matters, we can’t exactly say they are using the word incorrectly – language isn’t like that – but they may make it more difficult to see what the point is of the rules about sexual behaviour).

Here’s a second idea that will need much more attention: that morality is personal to the individual. This is the kind of idea that, just as is stands, could mean all sorts of things. Once you ‘unpack’ it, you will probably find that on some interpretations you agree with it and on some you don’t.

‘“But surely it’s always wrong to make moral judgements?’

This is the manifesto that I once heard someone lay down in an argument about the duty of toleration. It was spoken ardently and confidently, with no expectation that it might be questioned.’ (Mary Midgley)

The person quoted by Mary Midgley took it as obvious that it is wrong to make moral judgements about other people’s conduct. But this is odd, because the speaker was not saying only that she considered it was wrong for her to make moral judgements about others. She thought (apparently) that it is wrong for anyone to make moral judgements about others. And what is that, if it is not a moral judgement?

That might sound like a quibble, but it should lead us to think hard about what we understand by morality and the role it plays in our lives. It’s easy in a certain climate of ideas to be negative about morality – to see it all as a matter of being judgemental about others. I’d like to argue – in another column – that there is something about morality that we need to hang on to, as a positive part of our stock of values for living.

Dr Graham Haydon is course leader, MA in Values in Education, Institute of Education University of London.

First published in Learning for Life, November 2006