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Ethics and Educational Purposes
2002 Introduction Democratic transformational pedagogies focused on issues of social justice, exemplified in the works of Paulo Freire, have recently articulated the need for a coherent ethical position in relation to teaching and the administration of schools. This ethical position stands in opposition to claims of academic impartiality in the construction of social knowledge related to the economic conditions of our communities. In the context of educational policymaking, David Corson of OISE in Toronto argues for the need to achieve a system wide consensus in policymaking to establish universal norms that operate as principles at the system level to increase the scope and capacity for meeting social justice needs and goals. (Corson 1995).1 Toward the construction of a common ethic, Corson considered the clarification of principles to involve, finding a realistic set of shared values that overarch all the various social and cultural groups that the political system contains. (Smolicz, 1984).2 Frameworks for a Standard Conservative, liberal, and democratic educational purposes represent particular worldviews that differ mostly in their understanding of the “self” and the nature of our connection to others. Each perspective advocates for a different set of dominant institutional
p.134. David Corson. Power and the Discourses of Policy and Curriculum : An Introduction in Discourse and Power in Educational Organizations, Ed. Corson (OISE Press, Toronto) 1995. 2 P.134. ibid Corson on Smolicz, J. (1984). Multiculturalism and an overarching framework of values. European Journal of Education, 19, 11-24.
purposes, whether those purpose direct activity toward the promotion of market skills, autonomous individuals, or citizens capable of democratic transformation. In western society, educational purposes have traditionally been articulated within a liberal democratic framework that claims to be guided by respect for liberty and equality. This paper attempts to construct a set of core ethical concepts capable of guiding individual and institutional action within our de facto legal and political system in the form of clearly articulated policy purposes derived from principles of respect. This paper is intended to be a first person hermeneutical clarification of liberal ethical concepts arguing for the construction and application of a simple ethical proposition in the decision making processes of individuals and institutions. In other words, this paper proposes rooting a broad consensus for educational purposes in a choice between respect and violence. In the style of a moral entrepreneur, this paper challenges the reader to consider hastening the “end of violence” by implementing ethical reasoning and standards in our daily relations and within public institutions that intervene and act in our community. In moral theory the standard is expressed as a distinction between decisions that account or discount the preferences and/or interests of others. In behavioural terms, it is the difference characterized by an attitude of humility or superiority. This principle is in effect a command to respect others on the basis of the belief that all people are of equal worth. The Conflict of Liberalism
In Charles Taylor’s famous essay entitled The Politics of Recognition, Taylor presents a conflict between competing conceptions of liberalism represented by a difference between a “politics of dignity” and a “politics of difference.” Taylor claims that both types of liberalism are based on the notion of equal respect, expressed together with other competing values and interests that evidently create contradiction. In the end, he claims that a “politics of dignity” remains uneasy about elevating ethnic or cultural identities over the uniform application of universal rights, while a “politics of difference” protest the application of uniform standards which result in unequal consequences for different groups. Habermas claims that harmony between this apparent
contradiction is possible through an understanding of the internal connection between the individual rights of private persons and the public autonomy of citizens who participate in making the laws. (Habermas 1994).3 This paper attempts resolve the issue by implementing ethical educational purposes within an independent democratic framework borrowing from the intellectual heritage of western liberalism, so influential in the application of positive law principles and our understanding of institutional purposes. Rights and Needs By way of introduction to Taylor’s essay, Amy Gutman argues that the ideal of human dignity points in at least two directions, the protection of basic rights and the acknowledgment of particular needs. According to Taylor, both positions are rooted in a “politics of equal recognition” that promote in different ways the ideal of equal respect,
p.114. Habermas, J. Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State, in Multiculturalism (1994).
expressed as the difference between treating people in a differenceblind fashion versus agreeing on a special status for minorities whose identity may be threatened within an adverse dominant culture. The first type of Liberalism (Liberalism 1), based on a “politics of dignity” is given expression by constitutional guarantees in the form of universal individual basic rights. In this view, the role of the state is to be neutral between competing conceptions of the good life and may not promote particular cultural or religious projects but must deal equally with all. They argue that “equality” between people is ensured through the application of uniform rights and entitlements that provide a framework for equal citizenship. In this view, human dignity consists largely in the ability of each person to determine for themselves a conception of the good life. Here, the notion of dignity is used in a different manner then I intend to use it in this paper. The second type of liberalism (Liberalism 2) has its foundations in a “politics of difference” and as such advocates for public recognition of a particular cultural or religious identity in order to protect or promote a specific difference, as given by the example of Quebec’s language laws that exist notwithstanding federal laws that protect freedom of expression in Canada. A “politics of difference” argues that the application of difference-blind standards favours the majority culture, and therefore they are willing to promote collective goals in favour of marginalized groups at the expense of the principle of equal treatment and non-discrimination so popular in a “politics of dignity.” Liberalism 1 is satisfied with the promotion of individual equal rights as the means to protect universal human dignity and to realize universal human potential, while Liberalism 2 suggests that recognition 4
of unique identities and equitable rights is a necessary condition for forming and defining one’s own identity as it relates to minority cultures within dominant cultures. It appears to be a unique condition for Liberalism 2 that a breach of equal rights or promotion of special status is made only on behalf of historically disadvantaged groups. In Canada that exception is recognized in s.15 (2) of the Canadian Charter or Rights and Freedoms. I doubt whether the advocates in favour of Liberalism 2 would maintain their arguments in favour of collectivist goals of dominant groups, although dedicated Quebequois nationals, the supporters of Israel, and various Islamic governments would likely disagree. Underneath the Conflict At issue between Liberalism 1 and Liberalism 2 are arguments about access to wealth and power. Liberalism 1 prefers “equal” rights, while Liberalism 2 demands systemic advantage for disadvantaged groups. I find neither position satisfactory because both uncritically accept a paradigm of “wealth and power” that I argue is the source of systemic inequalities and basically incompatible with the ethical imperative to humbly respect the dignity of others. Discourses surrounding a “politics of difference” recognize that gender, race, and class disparities result from circumstances of social prejudice, but these arguments stop short of critiquing liberal market values designed to create such disparity in the first place or to suggest interventions that might dislodge this dominant discourse. They appear satisfied to pursue gaining wealth and power for minorities rather than critiquing differences of wealth and power and presumptions of private production methods. 5
Both views of Liberalism take for granted that equal respect is to be expressed in a liberal society through the application of basic rights, and neither theory identifies liberal economic assumptions designed to create marginalized groups within our communities as being an issue in the debate. Behind the political debate between these two forms of Liberalism is an agreement to ignore poverty and the inequalities created by late stage capital economic policies designed to maximize the exploitation of resources in favour of corporate control and consumption with few limitations or social responsibilities. I believe that acceptance of “equal worth” entails ethical imperatives for personal and institutional behaviour that are in conflict with the idea of market driven production as relates to the production of basic necessities. In other words I argue in favour of a theoretical move beyond a liberal conception of “equal dignity” in order to recognize two ethical imperatives derived from the idea of “equal worth.” On this basis it is necessary to revisit the core liberal conception of a “politics of equal recognition” in order to uncover the ethical imperatives implicit in that discourse prior to the application of liberal legal and economic assumptions. Equal Worth Building on the work of Immanuel Kant, the proposition that all individuals are of “equal worth” ensures that each person deserves respect. What is “of worth” in each person deserving respect, according to Kant, is the recognition of universal human potential, rather than what a person may have made of it. Kant’s construction of 6
“equal worth” includes a presumption in favour of the autonomy of each person within a liberal framework limited by binding moral imperatives. For the purposes of this paper I will restate this value in what I call the principle of equal worth : all human beings deserve respect due to their human potential, whether they actualize it or not. Many modern ideologies, ancient religions, and spiritual
perspectives contain a similar foundation. Liberal ideology is not the only group to have created a system based on the idea of respect for the equal worth of people. The early writings of Eastern Hindu and Buddhist cultures contain spiritual perspectives relating to life and death, and in particular ethical conceptions relating to relationships and action. Early Greek and Roman texts are concerned with articulating the foundations of ethical behaviour in laws that justify punishment and exile. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is primarily constructed around ethical imperatives within the context of a monotheistic “absolute” religion, while native American spiritualism makes an equal claim to respect all of creation. The main variation of the first principle within these various worldviews is the extent to which respect is granted to others. Some people limit recognition of equal worth to a particular in-group based on relations of kin, gender, race, class, or nation. Recently many have argued in favour of extending the principle to all living things, such as animals and biospheres, as a response to environmental deterioration. It is possible that acceptance of respect for all people is the first psychological step toward developing a perspective of humility as articulated by Freire. It is also possible that to not respect a group of
people makes one generally indifferent to the application of violence toward that excluded group. Respect for Potential It is only in reference to the idea of “potential” that we gain further insight into the nature of the concept of “respect.” The concept of potential appears to be a consequence of our experience of the world, and in particular the experiences of growth and decay. We observe that physical conditions can limit or expand the growth or decay of living beings. Being reflects the conditions that support it. The possibility of changing conditions generates our understanding of the concept of potential. Applied in a personal context, we are confronted with the knowledge that certain conditions in the world are better or worse in relation to our personal growth as well as the growth of others. A presumption in favour of autonomy further asserts that individuals are best situated to determine which conditions are desirable in relation to their potential. If we decide to value our personal growth, physical and mental, then we are additionally confronted with the need to determine whether to respect the growth of others or not. Dignity and Autonomy If one chooses to adopt the ethical position that all people are of “equal worth” one is likely to consent to institutional policies that discourage violence and encourage respect for all people. Toward this end, if one intends to avoid contradiction with the proposition of equal worth then, one must both respect “the dignity of others” and “the autonomy of others.” These two co-original secondary principles, constructed by inference from the principle of equal worth, give 8
expression to the idea of respect for potential as applied within an existential framework recognizing both being and nothingness, or a material/mental, tangible/intangible duality. In other words, to respect “the dignity of others” requires addressing the actual material conditions or physical dependencies of people, while to respect “the autonomy of others” requires addressing conditions for independent thinking, and dependencies of an intangible nature. The imperative to promote dignity within an administrative or educational context suggests to me that ethical democratic institutions have a duty to establish minimum living conditions for people who are unable or unwilling to provide themselves with basic material conditions. The imperative to promote autonomy within an administrative or educational context suggests to me, a duty to promote independent thinking and argumentation on issues relating to forms of coercion and manipulation that serve to reduce autonomy, including the fear of poverty. In other words, I argue that to respect “the dignity of others” requires that one address physical dependencies in relation to each individual. To respect “the autonomy of others” is likewise to be committed to ensuring conditions for independent thinking and to challenge ideas that would limit self-government or autonomy. In our societies schools regularly undertake exercises that fit with purposes related to respect for the autonomy of individuals, however neo-liberal economic theory opposes any idea of socially directed 9
production even if for the benefit of dignity. Social justice critiques directed at schools acknowledge the need in some districts to focus resources on providing disadvantaged “ghetto” children with material supports like breakfast programs and remedial school supplies. It is my position that to implement the principle of respect for the dignity of others within educational institutions is to mandate production aimed at the production of necessities for the general population. Communication and Production So far I have suggested two ethical educational purposes capable of uniting divergent political perspectives and providing an ethical direction for educational institutions. I have also suggested that schools have a strong sense of respect for autonomy but are incapable of addressing respect for dignity without the authority to engage in social production. From an institutional perspective, the goals of autonomy and dignity might best be divided between the study of communication and the study of production. From a pedagogical view the goals might be divided between the study of art and the study of science. Such a suggestion is based on an idea for an adult educational institution organized around communication and production, art and science, to reflect the dual purposes of autonomy and dignity respectively. 4 The suggestion for an adult educational institution involved in the production of necessities, might converge municipal, provincial or federal resources, include health care, housing, employment services, hydro, transportation, food services or other alternatives as directed by
In previous papers I have advocated in favour of graduating children from public school in Grade 10 and constructing an adult educational sector open to all members of the community.
democratic councils and institutions for the benefit of securing the autonomy and dignity of the least advantaged, the resourceless, and the dispossessed. The study of communication might entail the construction of an open communications network responsible for hosting a debate over resource management and the production of basic necessities coupled with an educational undertaking to teach adults critical thinking skills in relation to personal or public issues under debate, and to teach selfdefence from interventions of persuasion and manipulation whether sponsored by friends, teachers, the media, the state, or the economy combined together under the study of art and science, communication and production. of To my mind these are some of the logical public consequences institutions. I do not anticipate agreement over the exact content of the concept of “necessary conditions” in the above propositions, but I do anticipate that assent to the basic proposition is acceptable to a large group of people. If we could dispel the current belief in favour of creating exclusive corporate dependencies we might consider implementing a system of social production in response to the ethical imperative to respect the dignity and autonomy of others. People may not agree over the scope of a minimum standard for dignity or the scope of conditions required for independent thinking, but I expect they could agree at a minimum over the difference between violence and respect and the need for public institutions to act accordingly. implementing ethical purposes within
Ethics and Rights In the political realm, conflict over the equal or equitable application of rights serves to point out the inadequacy of translating ethical imperatives into positive legal rights. Such an argument suggests that ethical imperatives should be expressed independently of the protection of rights. The full implications of the concept of equal worth in political philosophy has generally been ignored in favour of rights rather than dignity and autonomy. In early democratic capitalists states, like 15th Century England, restricting the social purposes of public institutions to the protection of rights would serve to exclude the interests of the poor and benefit a particular in-group, including the judiciary who built the laws of commerce and property hand in hand with the advancement rights. On this basis then liberalism has limited its conception of institutional purposes to the protection and mediation of rights rather than what would otherwise be legitimate institutional purposes directly related to the realization of ethical principles. Conclusion The claim for political and educational institutions to have clear goals has been dealt with in relation to the promotion of ethical standards relating to conditions for the dignity and autonomy of all people. If a person believes in the equal worth of all people they must agree to respect the dignity and autonomy of all people, expressed not only by the creation of rights, but also as assent to ethical principles for policy purposes within political institutions, and in particular the domain of education.
Dignity and autonomy can best be protected by the construction of a dynamic public institution of social production and communication that openly advocates for ethical standards and the use of social capital to promote self-government. To ignore groups of people who claim to be without the means to live above a “minimum standard of dignity” is a form of applied violence, akin to not feeding a caged animal. A similar argument could be made on the basis of creating dependencies that reduce independent thinking. In a nutshell, if one accepts the “equal worth” of all then one must commit to respect the dignity and autonomy of others which is linked to a proposal for an adult educational system divided into the study of art and the study of science, both addressing the ethical imperatives represented by communication and production. Overall, this paper advocates for “the end of violence” through implementing institutional and educational policies that recognize a public duty to protect the dignity and autonomy of each citizen in order to promote social justice goals and equal opportunities within a democratic society.
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