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Philosophy and Children

Ethical Education Through Philosophical Discussion

Ana María Vicuña Navarro
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

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ABSTRACT: This paper addresses the problem of educating for democracy in Chile and other places where human rights have been violated. Based on a research project conducted about the ethical foundations of human rights, I maintain that ethical education must be an indispensable ingredient of an education for democracy. I argue that an effective ethical education requires both an appropriate setting for the fostering of an open and tolerant discussion, and adequate guidance from the teacher for the understanding of complex ethical problems. As the ideal setting for it, I propose the creation of a ‘Community of Inquiry’ as it is understood and practised by the Philosophy for Children Program created by Matthew Lipman. As the basis both for identifying the main problems and for the training of the teachers, I build on Ernst Tugendhat’s ethical theories. The most significant consequence for ethical education derived from Tugendhat is the inclusion of a discussion of the problem of the foundation of ethics in order to avoid ethical relativism resting on the individual’s personal decision to belong to a moral community. To this the child should be invited through philosophical dialogue in a community of inquiry.

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In this paper I intend to discuss the impact that early training in philosophical discussion may have in ethical education, both in terms of understanding ethical problems and in terms of motivating for acting ethically. The concern for ethical education stems from the special situation created in Chile before and after the recovery of democracy and from the author's experience of several years working in the Philosophy for Children Program.

The question that confronted Socrates and the sophists: "Can virtue (arete) be taught?" is still a poignant and urgent question in philosophy of education, and even more so for those who undertake the task of educating for democracy in places where democracy has been overthrown, forgotten in practice, or never existed. In order to ensure democracy's consolidation and betterment, ethical education is required.

I intend to argue that effective ethical education requires both an appropriate setting for philosophical discussion and a clear guidance for the tackling of ethical problems. I think that this setting can be created by the fostering of what in the Philosophy for Children Program is called a "Community of Inquiry" (Lipman, Sharp & Oscanyan,1980:45), but the adequate guidance for effective ethical education must come from a thorough understanding of ethical problems that goes beyond what the contents of the Philosophy for Children novels and teacher's manuals -which are the standard materials used for teacher training in the program- offer.

Although it is expected that the right guidance be provided by a well trained teacher, skilled in conducting a philosophical discussion, the art and skill he or she masters is often insufficient when it comes to ethical problems. The reason for this, I think, is to be found in the nature of contemporary ethics rather than in defective teacher training. There is a marked tendency towards ethical relativism which is necessary to face.

In what follows, I intend to suggest ways in which some of the difficulties involved may be overcome. Most of what I will say is the result of a research project about the ethical foundations of Human Rights and how to educate for them (Fondecyt (1) Project 194-0687, "La Fundamentación Etica de los Derechos Humanos y Algunas Proyecciones para una Educación en el Respeto a todos los Hombres"[The Ethical Foundations of Human Rights and some Projections for an Education in Respect for All Human Beings] by Vicuña, López & Tugendhat ). A most significative role in this project is played by Ernst Tugendhat's ethical theories.(Co-researchers in the project were Ernst Tugendhat, Celso López and myself).

The research had been motivated by the necessity felt by educators in Chile to answer the question : What ought to be done in order that Human Rights are never again violated in Chile as they were during the military regime? We felt that an illuminating answer could come from philosophy, in its practical dimension of opening up philosophical discussion on the most diverse subjects, creating an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect, and providing the appropriate tools for rigorous argumentation and analysis. As a model for this kind of discussion, we had the Philosophy for Children Program in mind.

In a previous research project (Fondecyt* 0703-91 by Vicuña & López), my husband C. López and I had shown that the creation of a "community of inquiry" through philosophical dialogue, using the Philosophy for Children materials, can be an effective tool for developing democratic attitudes and behaviours both in children and teachers (Vicuña,1991). Despite our success in that experience, we felt that our country needed deeper changes that could turn it into a "democracy at heart", so to speak. There are still many social, political and economical inequalities in Chile that belie its profession of democracy. It seemed to us that no country can consider itself a true democracy until every citizen is able to partake of and to feel responsible for the well being of his fellow citizens. The extreme poverty and ignorance of many people in our country, together with the many still unresolved and unpunished crimes against the human rights committed during the military regime, made us think that education for democracy in Chile would not be successful unless education in ethics were provided as an indispensable ingredient.

It is at this point that the question of the teachability of ethics emerged. Can something of this kind be taught? How should this be done? How can anyone be sure that the purpose has been achieved? In asking these questions, we had in mind the very practical and concrete ones that were often voiced in Chile (and probably in many other places) in connection with human rights' violations: Who had been the teachers of the men that tortured and murdered their fellow human beings?, What kind of ethical education did they offer?, Why didn't it work?

As we were struggling with this kind of questions, we came across the philosophy and the person of Ernst Tugendhat who, by a happy coincidence, had moved his residence to Chile. From him we began to learn how to approach those questions, and we were fortunate enough as to be able to embark him on our research project. Therefore, the project could be considered an educational application of Tugendhat's ethical theories.

I shall try to show first some consequences for ethical education that can be derived from Tugendhat's ethical theories and next how the Philosophy for Children Program, through the creation of a "community of inquiry", can provide an appropriate setting for this ethical education.

The following are the points of Tugendhat's theory that seem to me to be the most important for ethical education:

1) We must not abandon the problem of the foundations of ethics for, if we did, we would become ethical relativists in practice.

2) In the absence of a foundation for ethical propositions, the only alternative left is violence.

3) Ethical propositions, being normative, cannot be founded empirically. This leaves only two alternatives: to renounce to the goal of founding them (which has already been shown to be equivalent to relativism) or to try to found them.

4) To found ethical propositions on religious or traditional beliefs is no longer possible in modern, i.e. post Kantian times.

5) The only possible foundation left is the individual's personal decision to belong to a moral community determined by universal mutual respect.

6) This decision implies accepting the rule of acting in accordance with Kant's categorical imperative, which in Tugendhat's view is equivalent to the impartial application of the golden rule.

All these points are argued for by Tugendhat in several places (Tugendhat, 1988, 1992 and 1994). I shall limit myself to a brief summary of the arguments where they have a bearing on the consequences for ethical education that I want to draw.

The first consequence for an education for democracy is that it has to include an ethical education that takes into account the problem of the foundations of ethics. This is the only way to fight ethical relativism.

Tugendhat has shown that one of the most significant differences between ancient and modern ethics is the importance ascribed by the latter to the question of the foundation of ethical propositions. For anyone thinking these problems in modern times, it is no longer possible to avoid this question. As Tugendhat puts it, we cannot act as if we were back from modernity's pretension for foundation (Tugendhat,1988:49). Not addressing this question is equivalent in practice to favour ethical relativism, because the idea of a rational confrontation between the competing founding predicates would be illusory (Tugendhat,1988:142).

Since no equalitarian society can be built on the absence of common criteria to judge human interactions, the problem of the foundation of ethics cannot be left out of the discussions with the children and the teachers. It seems to me that this is a point that the Philosophy for Children Program has overlooked, at least as far as the contents of the novels and instructional manuals go and especially in the training of teachers.

A second consequence is the necessity to formulate an ethical theory, compatible with a pluralistic society, that is founded independently from religious or traditional beliefs.

This is especially important for a country like Chile, where the vast majority of the people are catholic, or at least identify themselves as catholic, while at the same time they struggle to become a modern society and receive all the cultural impact of more developed societies. This creates a sort of schizophrenia that easily leads to a double discourse or double standard in ethical matters, which reflects on such issues as divorce, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, or sexual education by the public system. It is being assumed in Chile that the last word on these matters has to come from the catholic church. For most people, however, this represents the right answer only as long as it does not conflict with their practical interests. When this happens, either religious faith or religious practice are usually given up by the individuals affected, yet their cases are often taken by them as exceptional, not as affecting the general rule. Hence, e.g., the double discourse of some congressmen who voted against the divorce law while being themselves divorced in the only way this is possible in Chile: by the fraud of declaring the marriage invalid on account of an address mistake in the Marriage Act. This shows that even for those who share in the catholic faith, the church's word is not binding. But they act as if it should be binding for the people, fearing and hence assuming that once religious faith is lost, there is no way of founding moral obligations. In other words, they act on the belief that in a modern, pluralistic society there cannot be a common set of ethical norms. Therefore, the official discourse is defending a morality based on religious beliefs, but the private discourse is different. This is nothing but disguised moral relativism, unwittingly assuming that might is right. Hence the importance of finding a way out of this trap.

Tugendhat has shown that ethical propositions can be founded on a motive for willingly submit oneself to a system of norms of universal mutual respect (Tugendhat,1988:142). Although this foundation is not a necessary one, it is the only one that is left once the appeal to superior truths is forsaken. By "superior truths" Tugendhat means non-empirical propositions that are presupposed to be true and are used to found ethical propositions, although themselves are unable to be founded except on religious or traditional beliefs. As long as all founding predicates rest on those superior truths, Tugendhat argues, the result can only be pure and simple relativism. The only rational way out of this situation would be either to renounce completely to morality or to look out for a founding predicate that, not presupposing a superior truth, would offer a motive for willingly submitting to a system of moral norms. This, in the end, means that the foundation rests on a personal decision: the decision to belong to a moral community. The reason an individual would have for making this decision is the will to escape from the alternative of living in a society that lacks founded social norms.

As Tugendhat acknowledges, this foundation is weak in that it lacks the necessity that a foundation on superior truths has, but it is the only one that is possible in modernity (Tugendhat,1994:7). The fact that it is not necessary means that a person is ultimately free to renounce to understand himself as a member of a moral community. If someone wants to take this option, there is no way of compelling him or her to act otherwise.

This leads to the third consequence for the purpose of educating for democracy : ethical education has to be approached in a dialogical way. This means that the future citizens can and should be helped in finding reasons for taking the decision in favour of morality, but these reasons should appeal to their freedom and rationality and not to the authority of religious or traditional beliefs. It is at this point that the importance of philosophical dialogue for ethical education becomes manifest, since there is a dialogical, intersubjective component in the making of a decision that has to do with the question of how one wants to understand oneself in relation to others.

Not any kind of dialogue will be sufficient for this purpose, however. Moral education is often presented in terms of dialogue. Questions like: "How would you like it if someone did this to you?" are often asked to little children in the belief that this will help them understand the rather complex argument: "If you do not like to be treated badly, you should suppose that no one likes it, and if you expect others not to treat you in a way you do not like, you should not treat them as you would not like to be treated yourself, unless you think that you are in any way superior or more deserving of respect than others".

Not very often are this or similar arguments displayed in this long form, because children immediately understand the meaning intended in the question and do not challenge it. But, what if they were to challenge it? What if they were stimulated to ask why this is so? They would be led to look for the founding predicates of social norms and they would come to the question whether all human beings are equally deserving of respect.

In my experience working with children and teachers in Chile, once one presses a question like this a little farther, both children and teachers come up with some form of the religious answer: "All human beings are equally deserving of respect because they were all created equal (or they were all born equal, or they are all the sons and daughters of God, or they are all equal by nature )".

If we remind ourselves now of one of the questions that motivated our inquiry, the one concerning the kind of ethical education that the men who later tortured their fellow human beings had been offered and why it didn't work, we could hypothesize that they had probably received an indoctrinating ethical education based on unquestioned traditional or religious beliefs that they later abandoned. Somehow they were led to believe that not all human beings are equal (It is known that, in their training, torturators were taught that leftists and political opponents in general were inferior "humanoids").

If we want ethical education to be effective, we should renounce, even in the education of very young children, to the appeal to the belief in God or any other superior truth for the foundation of such propositions as "All human beings deserve equal respect", in order not to risk that, losing their faith when they grow up, they may become dangerous to society. This may sound ridiculous, but the fact is that many people are left only with their early childhood conceptions of morality and, although most of us do not turn into criminals but become in general "good" persons, not many of us care much for other human beings beyond the limited circle of our friends and relatives. This is apparent in the general indifference to such social problems as the homeless, the street children, or the hunger in the world.

It is at this point that the Philosophy for Children Program has shown its effectiveness for helping children develop the critical skills they need to think for themselves and the dialogical skills required to think cooperatively. In the Program's terminology, what the teacher does is to foster the development of a "Community of Inquiry". According to Lipman, the conditions required for the creation of a community of inquiry are intrinsic to philosophy itself, therefore, whenever children are encouraged to think philosophically, the classroom is converted into a community of inquiry. Among these conditions are: the readiness to reason, mutual respect and an absence of indoctrination (Lipman, Sharp & Oscanyan, 1980:45).

Lipman says that the expression "community of inquiry" was presumably coined by Charles Sanders Peirce and was originally restricted to the practitioners of scientific inquiry who are dedicated to the use of like procedures in the pursuit of identical goals (Lipman,1991:15). In its application to the work with children it means that

(...) students listen to one another with respect,build on one another's ideas, challenge one another to supply reasons for otherwise unsupported opinions, assist each other in drawing inferences from what has been said, and seek to identify one another's assumptions. ( Lipman, 1991:15 )

What is remarkable in this description is the repetition of the reciprocal expression "one another". It speaks of a mutual venture in which all members participate helping each other and cooperating, but also challenging and criticizing each other, always in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In addition to this, the community of inquiry is

committed to the procedures of inquiry, to responsible search techniques that presuppose an openness to evidence and to reason.(Lipman, 198O: 45)

For all these features of the community of inquiry and based on my experience working with children and teachers in the Philosophy for Children Program, I consider this the ideal setting ( if not the only one) for ethical education.

Since, as mentioned above, Tugendhat has shown (Tugendhat, 1988:122-146), that a foundation for ethics is possible, it is imperative for ethical educators to undertake the task of showing this alternative to their students and helping them decide to become moral persons. But this cannot be done in an indoctrinating manner, which would go against the same principles of equal and universal respect they want to teach.

Ethical education should be accomplished through philosophical dialogue, that is, inviting children to question and to find for themselves the reasons for choosing to live in a world in which all human beings are equally deserving of respect and to examine the consequences involved in making this decision or making the opposite one.

In Tugendhat's conception the only way of doing it is by appealing to the motives a person may have for deciding to live in a society regulated by social norms that are founded in equal mutual respect, i.e. that are not arbitrary. Tugendhat thinks that this decision is motivated by the individual's interest, which well understood implies the equal interest of all individuals. He explains it by reference to the concept of legitimacy as referred to an institution (Tugendhat,1994:3). An institution is legitimate when it is impartial, i.e. when it acts for the good of all equally. For once the appeal to a transcendent instance is abandoned, the only instance for legitimacy that is left is that of the equal interests of all individuals. This leads us to speak of equal rights, equal dignity and equal respect for the dignity of everyone.

The question of why should one accord equal rights and dignity to everyone is, then, no longer answered in religious terms giving as reason the natural equality of all human beings as the sons and daughters of a loving God, but in terms of our own best interests: We want to be treated with respect for our dignity. We have no reason to justify treating others differently from the way we want to be treated. So, we decide to accord them the same rights that we want for ourselves.

Tugendhat has shown that this rests on an egalitarian interpretation of justice which stems from the fact that it is no longer possible in modern times to justify inequality ( Tugendhat,1994:4) , so that the only criterion for normative distribution is equality.

In the community of inquiry children not only learn to discuss about these issues with philosophical rigour and in an open, tolerant and respectful manner. They experience for themselves what it is like to live and to participate in a community in which all members are treated equally, all abide by the same self generated rules and all cooperate and help each other in finding meaning to their lives. And the teacher, while being an authority figure is not authoritarian at all, but a guardian of impartiality.

Children who have partaken of this experience will surely grow up to become persons who care for other people and are willing to help build a better society. They not only will not turn into murderers or torturators but will become people who are not left indifferent by the social problems caused by inequality and the selfishness of the powerful.

In order to take full advantage of the community of inquiry, teacher training should include a full discussion of the ethical problems discussed above, so that they are able to better guide the children in the multiple occasions that the Program provides -at every level- for ethical inquiry. And children from seventh grade on should be fully introduced to this discussion also. For this purpose, as a result from our research project, we wrote a children novel on ethics that will be published soon (Tugendhat, López & Vicuña,1998).

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(1) Fondecyt is the Chilean National Fund for the Development of Science and Technology.


Lipman,M., Sharp,A.M.&Oscanyan,F. (1980) Philosophy in the Classroom, Temple University Press.

Lipman,M. (1991) Thinking in Education, Cambridge University Press

Tugendhat, E. (1988) Problemas de la Etica, Editorial Critica, Barcelona (Spanish translation of the original German Probleme der Ethik , Reclam, Stuttgart, 1984)

Tugendhat, E. (1992) Justicia y Derechos Humanos, Publicacions de la Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona.

Tugendhat, E. (1994) "El Problema de una Moral Moderna", unpublished Conference read at the Seminar "Etica y Justicia Social" held at the Universidad Nacional Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile, November 15, 1994.

Tugendhat, E.,López, C. & Vicuña, A.M. (1998) Manuel y Camila se preguntan : ¿Cómo deberíamos vivir? Reflexiones sobre la Moral forthcoming for Planeta, Santiago, Chile and, in German translation, for Reclam, Stuttgart.

Vicuña, A.M. (1991) "Filosofía para Niños y Educación para la Democracia", Revista de Educacion 184 pp.41-44 and 185 pp.33-37.

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