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T. M.

Scanlon on Meaning and Moral
Permissibility: Limitations of Moral
Pluralist Accounts of Moral Education
Christopher Martin
Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
ABSTRACT. Philosophers of education attempting to develop a reasoned programme of moral education often struggle with the fact that moral philosophy
provides many diverse and conflicting accounts of the ethical life. Typically,
attempts to resolve the conflict by demonstrating the superiority or priority of
a chosen ethical framework have often played out in applied philosophy of
education in terms of the development of rival, and often incompatible, moral
education curricula. However, recent developments in scholarship have evinced
a move to a more pluralistic account of moral education, incorporating insights
from a variety of moral paradigms. This shift offers opportunities in the application of moral theory to contemporary issues in education. This essay seeks to
define different approaches to pluralism in moral education and critically assess
them. Finally, I show how recent work by T.M. Scanlon on moral permissibility
stands as an excellent example of how developments in moral theory can make
important contributions at the level of applied philosophy to the furtherance of
a comprehensive account of moral education in ways that require neither a narrow monolithic nor a radically pluralistic approach.
KEYWORDS. Moral theory, moral education, T.M. Scanlon, philosophy of education, virtue ethics, Kantian ethics

I. INTRODUCTION

T

he fact that moral philosophy provides many diverse and conflicting
accounts of the ethical life creates numerous challenges for philosophers in education endeavouring to apply such theories in the development
of a reasoned programme of moral education. This observation is nothing
new, but the trajectory that philosophical reflection can follow in response

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES 18, no. 1(2011): 53-78.
© 2011 by European Centre for Ethics, K.U.Leuven. All rights reserved.

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to such challenges offers opportunities in the application of moral theory to
contemporary issues in education. Most interesting, in my view, is a shift in
the philosophy of education away from the appeal to any all-encompassing
or monolithic account of the ethical life toward more diverse accounts that
attempt to incorporate insights from a variety of frameworks. I group these
latter views under the term ‘moral educational pluralism’. Moral educational
pluralism is the view that there is no singular theoretical account that can
explain all aspects of ethical life, and so the justification of a comprehensive
moral education curriculum will have to draw from a variety of ethical concepts such as duty, virtue and care. While there may be a great deal of internal variation within this view, I will attempt in the present contribution to
provide a philosophical account of how such a view has come about and
assess something of its cogency. I argue that while we should aim for comprehensiveness in our application of moral theory in developing an understanding of moral education, I reject the view that moral pluralism can avoid
making certain theoretical commitments. Finally, I show how recent work
by T.M. Scanlon on moral permissibility stands as one example of how moral
theory can make important contributions to the furtherance of a comprehensive account of moral education. Though situated within a particular
philosophical tradition, Scanlon’s work is used as an example of how contemporary moral philosophy can be applied in ways that do not require the
exclusion of or downplaying of other concepts that make up the ethical life
in ways suggested by more strongly monolithic approaches. According to
this view, developments in moral theory can promote a more comprehensive
understanding of what moral education can and ought to be comprised of.

II. FROM MONOLITHIC MORAL THEORY TO A CONTESTED MORAL
EDUCATION
Debates about the nature, scope and content of moral education cross
a variety of disciplinary boundaries such as psychology, sociology, anthro-

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MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION pology and philosophy. or metaethical arguments about the nature and scope of morality itself. Noddings 1984) and MacIntyre’s ethics being translated into the promotion of virtue (MacIntyre 1981. Inevitably. For example. for example. the ‘moral content’ that any form of moral education curricula ought to have. or how explicit programmes of moral education for school systems may reflect dominant societal values. what virtues? Philosophers involved in such debates may be engaged in arguments about normative assumptions regarding the specific moral goods that should be aimed for. individuals sympathetic to Kantian or other rationalistic views of the moral life come to view moral education as an education in the application of learned moral principles. Sociologists may be interested in how daily life can shape our character. Policy makers. on the other hand. may be interested in determining which teaching methods are most effective in changing children’s behaviour. The most notable alternatives being the translation of Carol Gilligan’s care ethics into the fostering of empathy and caring concern for others (Gilligan 1982. Educational psychologists. any approach to moral education must make or imply some assumptions about the nature or scope of morality in order to refer to moral education at all (Sanger 2005).indd 55 14/03/11 11:32 . It should come as no surprise. Carr 1991). competing philosophical views encourage different (and perhaps conflicting) curricular emphases. may try to develop a rationale for implementing moral education curricula in school systems that offer little in the way of an explicit programme of moral education. — 55 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. What do philosophers bring to the table? When philosophers of education debate about moral education they are usually trying to identify. that philosophers of education have answered the question of what a moral education must consist in through the lens of a favoured philosophical tradition (Haydon 2010). Such assumptions determine what should be aimed for or sought after. For example. therefore. Is a good moral education one that produces rationally autonomous agents? Should it be the formation of virtues of character? If so. broadly speaking. as well as related fields including educational policy and curriculum development.

Kant. It is clear. or maybe we encounter hard cases about assessments of goodness far more frequently than we do hard cases about what is right). We can see this at play with Kohlberg. Imagine for the sake of the argument that we agree that judgments of justice have deliberative priority over judgments about what is good. to treat other persons with respect.ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 This strong ‘monolithic’ approach to the justification of moral education – the development of a reasoned moral education curriculum through logical terms of ‘If theory A. In this view. that for a variety of sound educational reasons it is more important that we educate persons first in judgments of what is good (perhaps we must learn the latter before we can understand the former. there is no necessary relationship between the educational priority of ethical concepts and their priority in our moral reasoning. Accordingly. It is important here to distinguish between claims that certain ethical concepts have educational priority from the claim that certain concepts have deliberative priority. might be to argue that one theory’s central ethical concepts have greater educational priority than other concepts. Kohlberg formulates mature moral reasoning from the standpoint of a universal principle of justice as the apex of moral development (1981). It may be the case. or virtue? One approach. nonetheless. nevertheless. I should be moved by what is just when this conflicts with what is good for me and my interests.indd 56 14/03/11 11:32 . not theory B (or C…)’ – forces a specific argumentative strategy where adherents of one theoretical position try to demonstrate the priority or superiority of the ethical concepts that the position seems to handle best. claims that the moral worth of an action must lie in a principle of action conforming to universal law (4:401-403). or care for others. After all. He argues that efforts at inculcating traits in children reflect a ‘bag of virtues’ approach that would — 56 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. But what do we do with other ethical concepts such as moral sensitivity. The details of Kohlberg’s theory are well-known and do not need to be restated here. that his theory is best suited to those instances in which we have an obligation to consider the interests of others. for example. already mentioned.

indd 57 14/03/11 11:32 . This is the conclusion arrived at by Jurgen Habermas with respect to Kohlberg’s principle of benevolence. nor does it really do justice to the concept of care for others. it is more important that children become caring persons than to think from an impartial perspective of justice. and so on. This move can be interpreted as an attempt to assimilate the ethical concepts primary to care ethics. the core insights of the both. i. not persons conceived in the abstract (1990. The second strategy is to try to subsume the ethical concepts prioritized by rival accounts into one’s own theory. however. what comes out of Kohlberg’s attempt to assimilate care into his model of moral reasoning is something that does not quite remain true to the concept of universal respect for persons. 235243). can lead to alterations or changes that are detrimental to. For Habermas. the development of character is more basic than the development of cognitive capacities for moral reflection. Habermas points out that Kohlberg’s principle calls for something like an empathetic concern for specific individuals. for example. concrete others undermines the very impartiality required by the principle of justice. Yet. Extending a moral theory in order to assimilate ethical concepts from a rival theory. This was meant to show how the consideration of interests of other persons required by the principle of justice presupposes an empathetic concern for others (Kohlberg et al. Such strategies lead to potentially endless debate about the educational priority of ethical concepts. I am not arguing that we should never attempt to expand upon the scope of a particular tradition in moral theory in an effort to account for the — 57 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. Such an analysis serves as something of a cautionary tale for other attempts to assimilate conflicting ethical concepts into moral theories. or an outright contradiction of.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION presumably leave children at a more basic stage of moral development. 1990). the grounding of an ethic in concern for situated.e. Kohlberg’s later work sought to incorporate a complementary ‘principle of benevolence’ into his Stage 6 of moral development. To continue the example of Kantian-influenced conceptions of moral education.

Of course.ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 many different aspects of ethical life (in fact. III.indd 58 14/03/11 11:32 . we run the risk of doing a disservice to all these factors. Based on the analysis offered so far. is the belief that no one moral theory can capture all aspects of our ethical life. trying to assimilate all aspects of ethical life under one theory runs the risk of doing a disservice to both the theories and the concepts in question. it would seem that we are at least equally as unclear on what we can justify in moral education through a singular framework. as I broadly define it. have negative implications for the way in which we develop and implement moral education curricula. this is exactly what this paper attempts to do). If there is little settled agreement on the superiority and cogency of rival accounts at the level of theory. FROM A PLURALISM OF PRINCIPLES TO MORAL EDUCATIONAL PLURALISM One philosophical alternative can be termed ‘moral educational pluralism’. from this premise can follow all sorts of arguments about what a moral — 58 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. neglecting much of the emotive dimension of caring for others. trying to demonstrate the educational superiority or priority of one set of ethical concepts by excluding or marginalizing others can result in an unjustified privileging of that one dimension of ethical life. Moral educational pluralism. Asserting the educational priority of one set of ethical concepts over another on such philosophical grounds presupposes a degree of clarity and substantive agreement in moral philosophy that is rarely. achieved. First. For example. Second. This can. I am suggesting that by trying to assimilate care into terms of moral respect. or rule-following into terms of character. in turn. the viability of a monolithic approach for the justification of moral education is fairly limiting. Kohlberg’s rationalistic principle of benevolence could be used to justify a moral education that reduces the notion of care to a strictly cognitive exercise. if ever. Rather.

Here. and sometimes these demands call on us all at once. The pluralism of outcomes interpretation claims that since no one theory can sufficiently account for all our ethical concepts.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION education can and should consist in.indd 59 14/03/11 11:32 . good or bad. a reactionary curriculum that responds to whatever policy trend is dominant at a particular moment. But I think it could lead to a fairly robust instrumentalist approach to moral education. This perspective is best articulated by Kenneth Strike: In some contexts. Does such a shift. sometimes about virtue. but the community needs them to be a little more impartial in their judgments. we simply inculcate in children those ethical conceptions that we think will serve the most useful outcome at any given time. This does not entail an explicitly relativistic position. we want to talk about respect. The second conclusion would reflect not so much a pluralism of outcomes but pluralism at the level of moral principle. in any of its forms. there is no clearly defined sense of moral rightness or wrongness. offer much in the way of an alternative? The first interpretation is what I term ‘pluralism of outcomes’. If children are thought to be generally slack and untidy. care. there exist a variety of moral phenomena at any one time. but life is complex. Philosophers are tempted to deal with such — 59 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. I want to examine three different ways that this shift to pluralism can be interpreted. I will leave this approach where it is. There are demands of moral respect. Maybe we think that children are sufficiently morally sensitive. If so. In this view.e. we adopt a more Kantian approach. All may offer good reasons for acting at any one time. courage and empathy. and we become puzzled when these diverse conceptions are in tension. What I have in mind here is an approach to moral education that seems to be adopted by formal schooling generally – i. in others utility. which would require us to construct a particular programme of moral education. time to break out some virtue ethics. Sometimes we want to talk about care. In what follows. Sometimes we are unsure. as I suspect it would have little philosophical appeal even if it might have merits from a policy perspective.

courage or duty sit more comfortably within rival moral theories should not really be relevant to our moral deliberations. For Strike. they may wish to encourage. They may not be able to do both. In this account. 43). they may conflict. For Strike. moral philosophy mistakenly inflates various theories into comprehensive doctrines that must each defend themselves against the central claims of the other. with a choice between justice and mercy is not like being faced with a choice between Kantianism and utilitarianism or Christianity and Islam. The fact that justice. 43). Plurality at the level of principle is Strike’s explanation of moral pluralism. care. courage or duty. depending on the context. a plurality of moral principles reveals conflicting moral goods: Becauce justice and caring aim at different moral goods. It is part of the human condition and we cannot achieve every good fully in every situation (1999. we are simply faced with a choice in concrete circumstances between caring or justice. One account of such a conflict is moral pluralism. Moral pluralism says that moral goods are irreducibly many and often conflict. each moral theory is simply better at explaining certain moral phenomena. and there is something — 60 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. We try to make things fit (2005. Theory construction of this sort easily distorts moral experience. Such projects should not interfere with a comprehensive moral education. rather. 21).indd 60 14/03/11 11:32 . What is of educational relevance here is a learned ability to apply various principles appropriately. Perhaps we should not. for example. and they may wish to give each student what he or she deserves. this means that educators are not really faced with a conflict between rival moral theories. We are not asked to choose one in favor of the other” (2005. rather. When teachers grade. and so on: “To be faced.ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 puzzlement by constructing philosophical theories that locate these conceptions in a larger picture. Is this a move forward? The application of moral understanding to specific cases is an integral part of moral thinking.

Consider that Strike needs to tell us how one is supposed to go about deciding between such a plurality of principles.indd 61 14/03/11 11:32 . that the separation between a plurality of principles. But the application problem makes sense here because even though two duties conflict it remains a conflict of moral duty.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION appealing about the idea that care. What makes the duties conflict is that while both may be valid (I have a duty to tell the truth but I also have the duty to save an innocent life) it may be unclear which duty is appropriate to a particular situation. But there is nothing within each of these — 61 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. despite suggesting that we can and should do away with moral theory in addressing this question. however. and each can offer reasons to act. justice. one of the problems with a strongly monolithic moral education is that it might suggest that would-be students should ignore. Consider the idea that in trying to apply something like a principle of respect for persons. There is no balance to be struck. is a theoretically sufficient explanation of moral pluralism. or maybe even look down on. I am not convinced. Yet. care and duty do not share a common ethical ‘metric’. Duty offers a reason to lie. The answer depends on what we think our duty really is in this situation. Strike suggests that as distinct goods. or you can lie and save a life. Each represents different values (or goods). After all. You can either tell the truth and an innocent person will die. but it also offers a reason to tell the truth. it is worth reviewing his argument in some detail. 43). This seems like a genuine problem in the application of the principle of respect to a specific situation. on the one side. To see how this comes about. he endorses a kind of ethic of balance that requires some kind of theoretical justification. we can have a conflict between two duties. other aspects of moral experience. and their application to specific situations. Strike claims that plurality at the level of moral principle creates situations where we must assess how the moral goods served by such principles can be balanced in situation (1999. virtue and duty can all be recognized as legitimate parts of our admittedly complex ethical lives. on the other.

Only once we have chosen to ‘achieve’ a certain good (in this case. Strike claims that judgments of appropriateness require that we strive for a balance between goods: If we grant that there is a plurality of principles that people have developed to speak to certain kinds of situations and that work well in certain contexts and less well in others.indd 62 14/03/11 11:32 . — 62 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. 45). For example. sometimes more of the other (43). the question concerns which principle is appropriate to the situation. Respect or utility? Both. The ‘good’ of care will be a reason to act one way. care or justice) does the question of application make sense. and we can reason our way to the right balance (2005. virtue and respect. and the ‘good’ of justice is going to recommend that fairness should be a reason to act in different way. is it fair to encourage a student by boosting a mark. we might better conclude that we should deal with the tensions among them by striking balances rather than by constructing theories. Sometimes more of one. having chosen justice. Should I boost the student’s grade? What about the other students who performed equally well but will now get a lesser grade by comparison? I don’t think we can really characterize this dilemma as a matter of application at all. I may want to give students what they deserve. But what criterion does he have in mind? Perhaps balance means that we should try to make roughly equal the number of times we act on reasons proffered by care and justice. But what do we mean by balance here? Strike says that we can draw from a plurality of principles. a question that must be addressed prior to a principle’s application. or does fairness suggest that encouragement is not a relevant reason for acting in this way? What happens when two different moral goods or principles are at play? A conflict between distinctly different moral goods seems like a separate problem from that of application. In this case. but I know that one student in particular needs encouragement. In addressing such cases.ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 values that can help us to assess which reasons are more appropriate to act on in a given situation.

Strike’s brand of moral pluralism needs an explanation of how and why certain moral goods should be balanced (and why they unavoidably conflict in the first place). there is a difference between encouraging a more comprehensive or inclusive account of the ethical life. I suspect that Strike really wants to do the former. Strike ends up endorsing a kind of meta-ethics of balance that needs to be explained and justified. and doing away with moral theory altogether. it is difficult to see how far the call for balance among conflicting goods can be instructive as a component of a programme of moral education. Strike needs to construct a theory explaining why and when the search for balance trumps theory construction.indd 63 14/03/11 11:32 . How is ‘balance’ not simply one more moral good among duty.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION Or is balance something closer to Aristotle’s ‘mean’? Moreover. the way in which we promote this thinking in children). then perhaps the rational thing to do is to act on those reasons that will do the most good. 36). or sufficient as an explanation of moral pluralism. as but one more rival normative ethic. and so on? Furthermore. what about cases where striving for balance is not the solution. Contrary to his own efforts. Nevertheless. — 63 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. on the other. it seems that in trying to sidestep philosophical disagreement by avoiding making any explicit theoretical commitments. but the problem? What if balancing care against justice by occasionally (but not always) bumping up the marks of my students makes some of them illegitimately competitive in competing for an academic scholarship? If a plurality of moral goods offers conflicting reasons to act. He wants to avoid having theoretical debates about the ethical domain getting in the way of our moral thinking (and by extension. In any case. respect. on the one hand. conceiving of the ethical world as a domain of conflicting goods backslides into a fairly substantive ethics of ‘balance’ that is hard to apply. All these alternatives could be what Strike has in mind when he argues that we need to strike a “reasoned balance” when different moral conceptions compete (1999. care. Yet. and thinks he can do so only by embracing the latter.

8).” The meaning of this imperative can be understood as an “ought” that is not dependent on subjective purposes and preferences and yet is not absolute. What you “should” or “must” do has here the sense that it is “good” for you to act in this way in the long run. These kinds of questions can be distinguished from moral questions: Only a maxim that can be generalized from the perspective of all affected counts as a norm that can command general assent and to that extent is worthy of recognition or. distinguishes public morality. in other words. Aristotle speaks in this connection of paths to the good and happy life (1993. Moral commands are categorical or unconditional imperatives that express valid norms or make implicit reference to them. The distinction is also adopted by Habermas. successful or not-failed life (1993. or morality in the narrow sense. We can make distinctions between these aspects. 5).indd 64 14/03/11 11:32 . broadly speaking. Public morality refers to universalizable or generalizable questions of interpersonal conduct and moral permissibility. In this view. 33-40).ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 A third explanation of moral pluralism is that it reflects pluralism at the level of ethical life. reflect distinct aspects of our ethical world. different aspects of the ethical life. Ethics refers to more personal questions about the identity and the good life. — 64 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. The question “What should I do?” is answered morally with reference to what one ought to do. Graham Haydon. Ethical questions are generally answered by unconditional imperatives such as the following: “You must embark on a career that affords you the assurance that you are helping people. is morally binding. The imperative meaning of these commands alone can be understood as an “ought” that is dependent on neither subjective goals and preferences nor on what is for me the absolute goal of a good. from the pursuit of a good or well-lived life (1999. who articulates the differences as follows: One will be able to choose between pursuing a career in management and training to become a theologian on better grounds after one has become clear about who one is and who one would like to be. all things considered. for example.

and we may come to learn to think carefully about the application of such principles. Haydon — 65 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. What kind of player do I want to be? What habits will I need to acquire to be able to play well? These are all distinct and important questions for the wouldbe athlete. However. Such differentiation seems to make sense. what appears as a conflict between distinct moral goods may. This is a question of public moral principle. There may be a plurality of principles. we make similar distinctions in other aspects of social life. My intentions in carrying out this work address a different question. Pluralism at the level of ethical life can help address the insufficiency of pluralism at the level of principle. as if Kantian moral theory alone should be able to justify standards of a good or well-lived life in addition to standards of moral permissibility. it will also be necessary to model teamwork. Conflating such distinctions encourages a certain antagonism between different approaches to moral education. Educationally speaking. 183-184). a question of the kind of teacher I hope to be (or the kind of teacher that I am). but this is not all that new players will need to know. or Aristotelian theory alone should be able to settle contemporary questions of social justice in addition to questions of character or virtue. Haydon argues that by not making clear distinctions between questions of the good and questions of moral permissibility. It would be odd. for example. to argue that impartial rules can justify all relevant aspects of learning a particular sport. moral education struggles with an over-reliance on various moral frameworks such as Kohlberg or Aristotle (2010. In the role of teacher it is impermissible to not act on the best interests of the students in my custody. at least in some cases.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION Haydon and Habermas argue that each approach is asking a distinct question calling for a different kind of ethical assessment. Consequently.indd 65 14/03/11 11:32 . reflect confusion about the kind of ethical inquiry we must undertake. After all. and encourage habits of training and practice. For example. Competent rule-following may be necessary for a sport to be a game. As new generations of young players enter the game. no one aspect is ‘superior’ to the other.

On this account. SCANLON ON THE CRITICAL AND DELIBERATIVE USE OF MORAL PRINCIPLES It may seem contradictory to hold to the idea that different accounts of moral value can all be judiciously applied to the development of justifiable moral education curricula. even if the theories that may help us understand these distinct aspects may conflict. One refers to what I may or may not do. requiring different kinds of reflection. Even if we can make a clear theoretical distinction between the ethical and the moral. For Haydon.indd 66 14/03/11 11:32 . For example. the other reflects my character. whether I act in accordance with the interests of students and the extent to which I do so because I care are two different ethical questions. or concern for impartiality. the appeal to Kohlberg. 186). Both are part of the ethical life. fear of losing my job. As he argues. each theory may be trying to grasp different aspects of moral experience. These aspects may all have relevance for individuals in a process of moral education. But I think that Haydon gains some ground in showing how the ethical life does not have to be conceived as an undifferentiated domain of moral goods. IV. — 66 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. Gilligan and Aristotle together in our understanding of the moral life only seems contradictory when we are committed to the idea that there is an allencompassing theoretical account of the ethical life among them (2010. life is much more messy and complex in practice. I think that one likely critical response to these insights is that an unhelpful degree of artificiality would creep into moral education. But this requirement does not stipulate that I may not be moved to do so out of care for those students. especially since so much discussion in moral theory and moral education has focused on the inadequacy of competing frameworks.ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 would say that the obligation to never act against the best interests of students is a question of moral permissibility.

To be clear: I am not arguing that Scanlon is himself a moral pluralist. Even if we could settle on such distinctions at the level of moral theory.M. Accordingly. Such an account maintains a theoretical distinction between the permissibility of actions and assessments of character along the lines suggested by Habermas and Haydon without entailing an artificial separation at the level of moral experience. we can cogently search for the respective competencies involved. Scanlon on moral permissibility can make helpful contributions to the furtherance of a coherent account of moral education. Life cannot be easily differentiated into so many heteromorphic pieces. even in the abstract. Several commentators have challenged this separation on the grounds that the conception of the person at play in such a distinction is too narrow or reductive (Sandel. for example. Facts of character greatly influence our intentions. works by Rawls and Parfitt). Scanlon’s own account of moral permissibility. I will show how recent work by T. The application of Scanlon’s work serves as an example of how recent work in moral philosophy can be applied in ways that do not require a return to a more ‘monolithic’ approach to philosophical reflection on moral education curricula. along with the conditions of their attainment. His work is well-situated within the company of Kantian constructivists that have adopted the central insights of proceduralized moral thinking as rendered by the Categorical Imperative test (see. Our (in)capacity for empathy shapes our ability to understand the interests of other persons. I think we can do so in a way that makes use of moral theory but without being reductive. is — 67 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. how would this be in any way helpful in justifying a vision for moral education? I argue that if the moral/ethical distinction holds. In addressing these concerns. this version of educational moral pluralism could be misleading in suggesting to children (and teachers) that ethical problems can be reduced to a specific kind of question. Taylor).indd 67 14/03/11 11:32 . or that his work in some way represents an atheoretical approach to our understanding of the ethical life. for example.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION Habermas and Haydon’s distinction parallels the liberal distinction between the right and the good.

While decidedly Kantian. This is in marked distinction from an approach that would be dismissive of such complexity. that an action aiming at the death of an innocent person is always wrong. Scanlon argues that intent cannot serve as a fundamental explanation of the wrongness of an action. Scanlon’s target is the doctrine of double effect. The doctrine holds that the latter case is impermissible because here one is intending to use another as a means to saving five. However. Moral Dimensions (2008). it is the agent’s intention that determines.indd 68 14/03/11 11:32 .ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 based on the contractualist principle of reasonable rejection developed in his What We Owe to Each Other (2000. Scanlon’s theory is open to the possibility that the ethical life requires more than honouring the right principle. This doctrine holds. It can therefore by used to inform a conception of moral education that includes a variety of ethical concepts. the moral permissibility of an action. In this view. attempts to overturn the commonly accepted distinction between intended and merely foreseen consequences in assessments of the rightness and wrongness of actions. But it would not be permissible to withhold the drug in order to save the five others by transplanting his organs into them after he is dead (2008. and can never be justified by its good effects. in any programme of education there are risks: many students will succeed. The doctrine is used to justify cases such as the following: [I]f the limited amount of a drug that is available could be used either to save one patient or to save five others. Scanlon’s most recent book. However. chapter 4). what I wish to show is how moral theories such as Scanlon’s (and I suspect others as well) can actually make more nuanced contributions to our understanding about the ethical life in ways that do not necessarily try to ‘crowd out’ other moral concepts even while being situated within a particular moral philosophical tradition. Consider the example of educational programming. but some others may fail — 68 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. for example. Now. it is permissible to give it to the five. 1). even though the one will die. fundamentally. esp.

is it permissible to undertake the education of the young? The double effect doctrine would try to explain the permissibility of education in terms of intention: it would be wrong to undertake a programme with the intention of deliberately sacrificing the developmental interests of some students in order to increase the developmental benefits of others. the intention to run the programme is wrong because the act intended is wrongful. Scanlon’s critique is far more complex than I can offer here and would take us far from the topic at hand. But if a programme intends to promote the learning of all students. Consider a variation on the last example: imagine that you have extremely reliable empirical data predicting that the majority of students targeted by a specific educational programme will always show a healthy progression in their learning and development. The distinction clearly parallels the distinction between the ethical and the moral proffered by — 69 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. Clearly. it would be strange to reply that your decision to authorize the programme depends on the principal’s intentions as the double effect doctrine would suggest: does she intend to promote the development of most of the students or is her intention to indoctrinate a minority? For Scanlon. given the likely consequences.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION and even be left worse off from the experience. Scanlon thinks that this is not a sufficient explanation. and the failure of some is merely an unintended side-effect. 21). As the director of your school district. the action is permissible.indd 69 14/03/11 11:32 . What is important for our purposes is that Scanlon claims that the doctrine of double effect arises from a failure to distinguish between assessing the agent and assessing the permissibility of her proposed action (2008. will become deeply indoctrinated. Yet. and the act intended is wrongful because of the consequences. but a small number. this shows that intention is not necessary for moral permissibility. a local school principal has asked if she may run this new programme in your school. rather. Given these risks. who cannot be determined beforehand. Intention does not directly bear on the permissibility of action in the way claimed by the doctrine of double effect. your assessment would focus on whether there is justification for implementing the programme.

Consider a further variation of the previous example.indd 70 14/03/11 11:32 . not an explanation of why the action would be wrong. we could say that she acted wrongly in her intention to take her own career advancement as sufficient reason to undermine the rational autonomy of some of her students. Scanlon illustrates this distinction by showing that moral principles can be used in either a critical or deliberative sense (2008. The data predict. “May I implement the curricula? After all. reliably.ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 Habermas and Haydon. 22-28). however. but only in terms of a critical assessment of agent’s thinking. Fundamentally. and the predicted outcomes do occur. Let us consider more closely the two usages of a general prohibition against indoctrination. — 70 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. we could criticize her for taking her own career advancement as a reason for risking the well-being of the students in her care. but can do so in a way that shows how both dimensions can be operative in the same moment of moral experience. Imagine the school principal goes ahead and implements the programme. Scanlon would say that this is true. This is a critique of the way the principal went about deciding. If the principal asks. In their deliberative usage. In assessing the principal’s action. what makes the action wrong is not that the principal acted for a selfish reason. Let us assume that this is a decisive reason for not implementing the programme (imagine something like a principle of non-indoctrination). the same principle can be used to assess an agent’s moral reasoning. but the fact that indoctrination is morally impermissible as a matter of principle. a moral principle is used to assist agents in assessing the permissibility of their proposed actions in the form of “May I do X?” Principles tell us what reasons are relevant and which considerations count for or against actions. that some students will become indoctrinated because of a new programme. From a deliberative standpoint. In their critical usage. it will benefit my career”. the principle tells us that the fact that some of the students could benefit from the programme and their better test results would improve the overall performance of the school (and therefore bolster the principal’s career) is not a sufficient reason for implementing it.

27-28). In either of these cases. the intended act results in indoctrination. But the objection is partly a red-herring. This distinction has interesting possibilities for moral education. she supposes that the action it describes has [moral worth or value]. children’s moral thinking should be encouraged in this direction. MORAL MEANING AS A COMPREHENSIVE CATEGORY OF MORAL ASSESSMENT Scanlon argues that these two forms of ethical assessment distinguish between the permissibility of an action (deliberative usage) and the quality of decision-making employed by the reasoner (critical usage) (2008. It does not matter if she acts from a desire for career advancement or mistakenly sees indoctrination as a valid aim or purpose. From a deliberative standpoint. the deliberative assessment.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION There are many other contexts in which acting for career advancement would be permissible. Many of the standard criticisms of the idea of acting from duty — 71 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. after all. “May I implement the curricula?” would result in a ‘no’. For example. a misreading of the role of duty in Kant’s theory. or more appropriately. and Scanlon’s framework can clearly fit with Haydon’s distinction between the ethical and the moral. a Kantian-centred conception of moral education would likely claim that because only those actions have moral worth that are motivated by and in accordance with duty. This conception of moral worth raises the potential objection that acting out of an interest in doing one’s duty is not the only relevant feature of the ethical life. what makes the implementation of the curriculum wrong is that the principal may not undermine the developmental interests of all her students. This misreading is clearly articulated by Christine Korsgaard: When an agent finds that she must will a certain action as a universal law. V. Without a sufficient reason to do otherwise.indd 71 14/03/11 11:32 .

There may be many coexisting reasons informing the agent’s action. fundamentally. What may I (or may I not) do? It is clear that there is nothing in Kant’s account that requires an agent to act on such principles only or strictly as a means to fulfilling a duty. 11). Accordingly.indd 72 14/03/11 11:32 . it remains the case that acting from duty is a necessary condition for the act (and the end sought) to have moral worth. and those coexisting reasons may have moral relevance. or even egoistic is based on the thought that the agent’s purpose is ‘in order to do my duty’ rather than ‘in order to help my friend’ or ‘in order to save my country’ or whatever it might be. Now. I may not have to help my friend simply in order to fulfil a duty. Kant’s account is focused on the worth of actions in the context of what Haydon would call public morality and what Scanlon calls moral permissibility. but the duty will be to do that act for that purpose. this may well be good enough. Only in the latter case does the action have moral worth. But that is just wrong. the picture broadens somewhat. I am assuming his account as a cogent one). Sacrificing your life in order to save your country might be your duty in a certain case. Scanlon objects to the idea that acting from and in accordance with duty is the only type of moral worth or moral meaning we — 72 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. that I have a duty to do it. However. and only those reasons that are universalizable or generalizable are morally good reasons. This raises an objection that is more germane to Scanlon’s project: according to Scanlon’s account of Kant (because I am presenting Scanlon as an illustration of a comprehensive account of moral education. From the standpoint of trying to figure out what is morally permissible.ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 are based on confusion about this point. and the whole action will be chosen as your duty (2009. impersonal. but I must make helping a friend my purpose because it is my duty. The idea that acting from duty is something cold. But when we shift to an assessment of the agent’s character. our maxims make salient our reasons for acting. Duty is not our only end. including duty. My purpose has moral worth only if my reason for doing so is. Our actions can have many purposes and ends to them.

for example. I would go even if I did not feel like an evening out. What we may (not) be permitted to do and our own reasons for (not) doing it are distinct moral questions. Scanlon develops this distinction as follows: while the agent’s intentions may not have a fundamental role in determining moral permissibility. The meaning of the action for me and for my friend depends on the fact that I see both of these considerations as reasons for going. that I promised my friend that I would meet him for dinner. Here is why: Scanlon’s analysis makes a good case for the idea that moral permissibility (public moral principles) and the goodness of actions (the reasons the agent has for acting) are actually two different categories of moral assessment (2008. I may regard each of these as an entirely sufficient reason for going to the restaurant at the appointed time. Scanlon identifies at least two aspects of ethical life in this example (or as he calls them. and given how much I expect to enjoy it. The first is moral permissibility: one may not break one’s promise without sufficient reason. they do confer a certain meaning or value to the action. with the reasons the agent — 73 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. 100-101). if another friend offers him a ticket to a concert he really wants to attend. 56-57). 24-25. is this is a sufficient reason to break the promise? The assessment of permissibility has nothing to do. Consider the following example given by Scanlon: Suppose. fundamentally. moral dimensions). and that it is also true that I would greatly enjoy seeing him and that there is no other way I would rather spend my evening. These meanings can reflect our relationship with others. My going would have a different meaning if I went solely out of obligation or only because I thought it would be fun (giving no weight at all to what I promised) (2008. While we can undertake a universalizability test akin to the Categorical Imperative in order to determine that we have an obligation not to do X.indd 73 14/03/11 11:32 . For example.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION should be concerned with. I would go even if I had no obligation to do so. it does not follow that our own reasons for not doing X must always be due to this sense of moral obligation. Given that I promised.

57). This suggests that a more complex and educationally worthwhile picture of moral education is possible despite the fact that. and we have no need to reduce one set of reasons to the other. and perhaps diminish. Doing so would change. to single out one of them as the reason for which I act. On the one hand. Accordingly. For Scanlon. a failure to see a promise as a reason to show up suggests a character flaw. Scanlon’s account shows how a reasoned conception of moral education can justifiably recommend that one come to understand a variety of morally laudable intentions. Disjunctively allowing for only one or the other as morally relevant reasons diminishes the possibilities for the accurate and comprehensive conferring of moral meaning on our actions. the meaning of the act (2008. This does not mean that the agent’s intentions are ethically worthless. Intentions inform a different kind of assessment from permissibility. Consider the example of a person whose wealthy relative’s dying wish is to see that person one last time. we are operating with a particular tradition of moral theory.ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 himself may have for not showing up. but his or her only reason for doing so is in order — 74 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. a case can be made that understanding both respect for persons and friendship are educationally worthwhile from the standpoint of moral education. In this case. the moral worth of duty and the ethical meaning of care. The person visits. The basic question is simply whether anyone in that situation has sufficient reason(s) to break the promise. Scanlon continues: [G]iven that I see both of these considerations as reasons. potentially opening up a more comprehensive account of moral value or meaning. to be moved out of a sense of obligation or duty alone suggests a failure to understand what friendship involves. the agent betrays an inability (or unwillingness) to see other persons as worthy of equal respect. at least in the case of Scanlon. there is no need. On the other. Another example can be made in terms of permissibility. both the ability to be moved by a promise and the reciprocity of friendship are of ethical value. for the purposes of determining the meaning of the act.indd 74 14/03/11 11:32 .

rather. According to a Kantian interpretation. Here. Yet. rather. In this respect. Now. acting from reasons of selfishness or that only accord with — 75 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin. if the relative were a complete stranger this could require meritorious assessment of the agent’s character in the sense that Kant has in mind when he talks about the good will. visiting out of a sense of duty alone seems more problematic. they are different species of the same genus of moral assessment. To be clear: Scanlon is not rejecting the idea that acting from duty can have moral worth. But the moral meaning of the action does reveal something ethically relevant about the person’s character and their relationship with their dying relative. If the relative were someone close to the person. he wants to make the case that there are various types of moral meaning or worth. each depending on the agent’s intentions. it must be done from duty (4: 398). it is clear that in this case there remains a distinct failure to be moved by an appropriate sense of care or empathy. In this case. Only the latter has moral worth. But this is but one type of moral worth or meaning. this too reveals something about the person and the relationship with the dying relative. 101). given the person’s relationship with the sick relative. Scanlon claims his own theory of moral meaning and Kant’s conception of moral worth both rely on the agent’s intentions (2008.indd 75 14/03/11 11:32 . In terms of public morality or moral permissibility there seems to be nothing wrong with what the person has done. It is not as if the person ought not to have met the relative’s dying wish! One response to this is to assert that one ought to have visited the relative. the selfish motive is not by itself impermissible. but for the right reasons. While Korsgaard is right in claiming that acting from duty is not cold or impersonal. if the person acted for the reason that they have an obligation to help a person get their dying wish when they are the only person who can meet this wish. it is very little: they see the relative simply as an opportunity for financial gain. it is not enough that we visit in accordance with duty. for example. In the case of the dying relative.MARTIN – LIMITATIONS OF MORAL PLURALIST ACCOUNTS OF MORAL EDUCATION to be considered more generously when it is time to finalize the will.

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES – MARCH 2011 duty (or both) reveals something lacking in the person. as well as Scanlon’s account of public standards of moral permissibility. but I think the level of sophistication in the approach is right. However. Moral theories are not static. The idea that we adopt Kant in toto and apply his — 76 — Ethical Perspectives 18 (2011) 1 94294_Eth_Persp_2011-1_04_Martin.indd 76 14/03/11 11:32 . So while we can make clear distinctions between questions of permissibility and character. for example. We may disagree with the particulars of Scanlon’s approach. but in the critical assessment of the potential relevance and meaning those reasons for the specific individual involved (what Haydon would call ethical questioning). While failing to act for the ‘right reasons’ may not count against the permissibility of an action. 58). What I mean to show is how moral theories can progress in ways that can be reflected in our justification of moral education. Finally. what I want to show is that contemporary moral theory can and does respond to the plurality in our ethical lives and is not necessarily as ‘monolithic’ in its treatment of ethical concepts as it is often portrayed in the philosophy of moral education. VI. can provide arguments for why children can and should be educated in reasoning. CONCLUSION Scanlon’s distinction between moral permissibility and the various moral meanings of our actions represents one example of how a particular type of educational moral pluralism can be supported by moral theory. could be said about the relationship between character formation and reasons. Much more. it can reveal a fault in the agent (Scanlon 2008. both can coexist in the same action and both can have ethical relevance. not simply about deliberative assessments of moral permissibility (or Haydon’s education in public morality). I do not mean to give a full defence of Scanlon’s account here. I am not suggesting that my account of Scanlon’s theory and its relevance to moral education has been exhaustive. for example. nor am I suggesting that Scanlon’s Kantian approach is the only theory that can do so. Scanlon’s analysis.

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