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How to raise good citizens and avoid moral horrors? - Two approaches

Chapter (From Philosophy, Theology and The Jesuit Tradition: The Eye of Love)
Liberal and Authoritarian Approaches to Raising Good Citizens
Stephen Law

How do we raise good citizens? How do we raise people who will be morally decent, who will do the right thing, even when times are tough? Looking back over the twentieth century, we find great moral progress (especially in terms of our attitudes towards women, gay people, non-white people and other species), but also moral catastrophes – from the killing fields of Cambodia, to the Gulags, to Auschwitz, to the Rwandan genocide. If we wish to raise decent citizens who will stand up and do the right thing, who will exhibit significant immunity to the siren voices of these tempting them towards such horrors, what is the most effective approach?
I recommend a highly Liberal approach to moral and religious education. By a Liberal (with a capital ‘L’) approach, I mean an approach that emphasizes the importance of encouraging young people to think independently and make their own judgements on these important matters. Liberals believe young people should be helped to recognize that what is right or wrong, or true or false in any religion, is ultimately (and unavoidably) the responsibility of each individual to judge for him or herself. I recommend an approach to moral and religious education that emphasizes the importance of helping individuals develop the kind of intellectual and emotional maturity they will need to discharge this responsibility properly. A Liberal approach lies at the opposite end of the scale to what I term an Authoritarian (with a capital ‘A’) approach. Authoritarians place greater emphasis on encouraging an attitude of deference to external authority. Authoritarians suppose children should be raised to realize that what is right or wrong, religiously true or false, is not for them to judge – rather, they should defer to those who know.

Note that one can be more or less Liberal or Authoritarian. There is a wide range of positions one might adopt, from Extremely Liberal to highly Authoritarian. Western societies have become rather more Liberal, particularly over the last half-century or so. However, some believe we have drifted too far in the Liberal direction, and that we need to reintroduce some Authority back into the classroom.
Some traditional forms of moral and religious education have been Authoritarian, with emphasis placed on policing not just behaviour but also thoughts. A colleague of mine taught in a Catholic school in the 1960s recalls being punished merely for asking why the Catholic Church took the position it did on abortion (she did not reject the view, she merely wanted to understand what the reasoning behind it was). Some regimes have been brutally Authoritarian, meting out severe punishment to those who dare to question or express doubt. Some of these regimes have been religious (even today there remain several theocratic regimes that will execute anyone who dares to leave their faith). But of course atheist regimes can be at least as brutally Authoritarian. Totalitarian atheist regimes have demonstrated an Orwellian obsession with ruthlessly policing not just what people do, but also what they say and think.
Contemporary Western societies and schools tend to be fairly Liberal, certainly compared with the past. Citizens of the West are free to make their own judgements about which religion, if any, is true. Most religious schools in the UK pay at least lip service to the thought that children should be permitted to question and think for themselves on issues religious and moral (though whether this is something such schools positively and unrestrictedly encourage is another matter). UK citizens are certainly free to make their own moral judgements. Of course, that’s not to say that citizens are free to do whatever they want. Citizens of the UK are not free to drive at 150 miles per hour down the motorway. Still, they remain entirely free to believe, and publicly express the view, that they should be free to do so. It’s this freedom of thought and expression with respect to moral and religious questions that Liberals with a capital ‘L’ defend, not an anarchistic liberty to do whatever we want.
Contemporary Liberal thought draws heavily upon, and is historically at least partly rooted in, that period of our intellectual history known as, the Enlightenment. The French intellectuals Diderot and d’Alembert define the Enlightenment thinker as one who, ‘trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself’.[1]
The importance of think for yourself is a core Enlightenment value. Kant came up with one of the most quoted characterizations of Enlightenment:
[Enlightenment is the] emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason![2]
Interestingly, ‘Sapere’ and ‘Aude’ are the names of two philosophy for children organizations. Philosophy for children is obviously in keeping with an Enlightened, Liberal approach to moral and religious education. In arguing that children should be raised to be autonomous, independent critical thinkers, proponents of P4C (Philosophy for Children) promote a central Enlightenment value.
But is it really a good idea to raise young people to think critically and independently about moral and religious matters? Here are a few of the more obvious objections that might be raised.
(i) Doesn’t such a Liberal approach promote moral relativism? Doesn’t it encourage the idea that there is no objective fact of the matter about right and wrong that every moral point of view is equally ‘true’? And isn’t relativism a dangerous philosophy? Doesn’t it lead us down the road to an ‘anything goes’ society, in which lying, cheating and even murder are moral for those who deem it so?
This is a perrenial concern. In 2004, the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) proposed that all children be exposed to a range of religious faiths and atheism and be taught to think critically about religious belief. The IPPR’s recommendation was that ‘[c]hildren with strong religious beliefs would be encouraged to question them and to ask what grounds there are for holding them … Pupils would be actively encouraged to question the religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom.’[3]
Many religious people were entirely comfortable with this proposal, but others were not. The columnist Melanie Phillips’s response to the IPPR’s Liberal suggestion quoted approvingly from a Daily Telegraph editorial:
As [this] Telegraph leader comments, this is nothing other than yet another attempt at ideological indoctrination: ‘It reflects the belief that parents who pass on the Christian faith are guilty of indoctrinating their children, and that it is the role of the state to stop them. The IPPR and its allies in the Government are not so much interested in promoting diversity as in replacing one set of orthodoxies by another: the joyless ideology of cultural relativism.[4] [You have opened, yet not closed, a quotation mark?]
Phillips’s response is confused. To suppose children should be encouraged to think and make their own judgements in order to figure out what is true is obviously not to promote the relativist view that whatever belief they arrive at is as ‘true’ as any other. Indeed, a moment’s reflection reveals that a Liberal view that by thinking things through an individual might be able to get closer to the truth actually stands in stark contrast to the kind of crude relativism that says that every moral point of view as as ‘true’ as any other. For if relativism were true, the view one arrived at after careful deliberation will be no more ‘true’ than the one you start with. So there would be no point in such careful deliberation, at least no so far as getting nearer to the truth is concerned.
Indeed the reasons why moral relativism is untenable is something a Liberal teacher might explain to their pupils. A teacher can spell out the reasons why they believe relativism is untenable, even while allowing their pupils the freedom dissent, to argue the contrary, to make their own judgement. Teachers are free to take a position and argue a case even within a Liberal regime that encourages individuals to make their own judgements.
Ironically, ensuring children have the courage to think for themselves and apply their own intelligence, rather than just uncritically accept, is not, as Phillips, claims, just another form of ‘ideological indoctrination’, but rather one of their best defences against it. If we want young people to have some immunity to intellectual snake oil, we need to ensure they have both the intellectual ability to spot it when they are presented with it and the intellectual confidence and courage to say ‘no’.
(ii) Children are insufficiently mature to be able to think critically and independently about such Big Questions.
This suggestion is contradicted by a growing body of evidence that suggests that not only are children able to engage fruitfully in collective rational discussion about philosophical topics (including moral amd religious questions) they benefit a great deal from doing so, not just intellectually but also socially and emotionally.
There have been a number of studies and programs involving philosophy with children in several countries. Here are a few examples.
In 1997, a small Australian primary school near Brisbane introduced into a philosophy program in which children collectively engaged in structured debates addressing philosophical questions that they themselves had come up with. The effects were striking. There was marked academic improvement across the curriculum. A report the program says,
[f]or the last four years, students at Buranda have achieved outstanding academic results. This had not been the case prior to the teaching of Philosophy. In the systemic Year 3/5/7 tests (previously Yr 6 Test), our students performed below the state mean in most areas in 1996. Following the introduction of Philosophy in 1997, the results of our students improved significantly and have been maintained or improved upon since that time.[5]
The report indicated ‘significantly improved outcomes’ in the social behaviour of the students:

The respect for others and the increase in individual self esteem generated in the community of inquiry have permeated all aspects of school life. We now have few behaviour problems at our school (and we do have some difficult students). Students are less impatient with each other, they are more willing to accept their own mistakes as a normal part of learning and they discuss problems as they occur. As one Yr 5 child said, ‘Philosophy is a good example of how you should behave in the playground with your friends’ … Bullying behaviour is rare at Buranda, with there being no reported incidence of bullying this year to date. A visiting academic commented, ‘Your children don’t fight, they negotiate’ … Visitors to the school are constantly making reference to the 'feel' or 'spirit' of the place. We believe it's the way our children treat each other. The respect for others generated in the community of inquiry has permeated all aspects of school life.[6]
In 2001–2002, the psychologist Professor Keith Topping studied the effects of introducing one hour per week of philosophy on eleven to twelve-year-old pupils at a number of upper primary schools in Clackmannanshire. Teachers received two days of training. The study involved a battery of tests and a control group of schools without a philosophy programme. Benefits of the programme included:
·               The incidence of children supporting opinion with evidence doubled, but control classes remained unchanged.
·               There was evidence children’s self-esteem and confidence rose markedly.
·               There was evidence that class ethos and discipline improved noticeably.
·               All classes improved significantly in verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative reasoning. No control class changed. Children were more intelligent (av. 6.5 IQ points) after one year in the programme.

When the same children were tested again at fourteen, after two years at secondary school without a philosophy programme, their CAT scores remained the same while those of the control group scores went down. Three secondary schools were involved and the results replicated themselves over each school.[7] Such pilots lend considerable weight to the claim that not only can children of this age think philosophically, it’s also educationally very good for them. There is evidence (from Burunda and elsewhere) that there are benefits to introducing such programmes with even younger children.
(iii) But such an approach to moral and religious education is incompatible with raising ones child within a religious tradition, which is surely every parent’s right.
Liberal approach to moral and religious education is compatible with raising a child within a religious school. They key to a Liberal approach is allowing young people to question, think for themselves and make their own judgements. But this is clearly consistent with explaining to youg people what a particular religion involves, what the school believes its virtues are, and so on. Teachers and schools need not be gagged, unable to express or argue for a particular point of view.
Many religious schools embrace a Liberal approach to moral and religious education, encouraging children to make their own judgements and exposing them to a range of points of view (even while making the case for their own particular religion). For example, in response to the IPPR’s proposals concerning critical thinking about religion (discussed above), Chris Curtis, director of the Luton Churches Education Trust said, ‘Christianity stands head and shoulders above the rest … therefore I’m not afraid. I want young people to understand the different varieties of faith and choose the Christian faith by informed choice, rather than because it’s the only thing they came across.’[8]
But aren’t parents entitled to have their child school-educated in whatever manner they see fit? Suppose a parent wants their child educated in an Authoritarian way. They want they child to display passive, uncritical acceptance of whatever they are told about morality and religion. They want their child drilled in certain religious, or atheistic, beliefs, and to be made fearful of raising difficult questions or expressing doubts. Is this not their right?
I think most of us recognize that, say, political schools that selected pupils of the basis of parents political beliefs, that started each day with rousing political anthems, that encouraged passive uncritical acceptance of certain key political tenets, that strongly discouraged dissent, would be an unacceptable blight on our cultural landscape. These are the kind of schools you find under totalitarian political regimes. The appearance of Marxist or Thatcherite (and so on) schools in this country would be seen as a threat to healthy democracy, would be frowned upon and indeed very probably – I think justifably – banned. But then why are the religious equivalents of such schools any more acceptable (particularly given that religions are themselves often very political organizations, promoting political views on, for example, the role of women, charity, state weddings, and so on, and engaging in political lobbying)?
Consider the Chinese cultural practise of foot-binding, which was carried out for thousands of years and which typically produced physically crippled children. This is a practice that would, rightly, be prohibited in the UK, irespective of whether some parents wanted to engage in it. Children ought not to be have such a crippling practice inflicted on them, whatever the view of their parents. But then can a similar case not be made for preventing parents psychologically crippling their children by mentally straightjacketing their thoughts and shutting down their critical faculties? Perhaps this is an unfair analogy, but there are clearly limits to what parents can impose on their children educationally (the State insists on schooling for literacy, for example), and it is arguable that highly Authoritarian schooling – be it religious or atheist – places unacceptably psychologically stunting restrictions on children’s minds.
(iv) Surely we have a duty to communicate what we know to the next generation, not just concerning physics and chemistry, but about morality and even religion. If we don’t inform young people about right and wrong, and ensure they believe it, we will leave them without a moral compass. Again, this is a dangerous outcome. Who knows where their thoughts might lead them, morally speaking?
As should be clear by now, a Liberal approach to moral education does not require a hands-off strategy in which no views are ever defended or arguments ever given. Teachers can still educate children about morality, and also make a case for certain moral and religious points of view. A Liberal approach merely requires that that young people be raised and encouraged to think critically and independently and to take on responsibility for making their own judgements on matters moral and religious rather than attempt to hand responsibility over to some external authority.
Let’s examine the analogy drawn between morality and a science such as physics or chemistry. Clearly, in a chemistry class, the teacher cannot reasonably be expected to justify every last claim to the satisfaction of his students. If progress is to be made, much must simply be accepted by the child on the teacher’s or textbook’s say-so. But if this is true of chemistry, then why not of morality and religion? Why shouldn’t children similarly be expected to accept certain moral and/or religious views simply on the say so of a textbook or teacher?
I note, to begin, that if a child asks why they should accept that the Earth is round or why their body contains much carbon, such curiosity is healthy and should be fostered, not cut off at the knees. True, too much questioning of this kind would disrupt a class, but a good teacher might, say, direct the child to resources that would answer the question, or offer to explain after the class. Only a poor chemistry teacher would say: ‘It is not your place to question or think independently about such things; just accept what you are told.’
Also note that when what is being taught is a matter of controversy, it would certainly not occur to any good chemistry teacher to give only one side of the story, censoring and restricting access to data and arguments that challanged what he or she decided the children ought to believe. And of course, when it comes to issues moral and religious, a great deal is a matter of controversy.
Furthermore, morality is, in at least one vital respect, unlike chemistry. Suppose a chemistry professor tells novice chemistry students to drop a large piece of ceasium into a bucket of water and observe the result. There is an explosion and someone is killed. Are the students responsble for what happened? Of course not – they just followed the orders given them by their professor, whom they trusted to know best. But now suppose some students are told by their religious and moral authority that it is their religious and moral duty to explode a bomb in a crowded supermarket. They do as instructed, and someone dies as a result. Are those students responsible for what happened? Can they justifiably say ‘We’re not to blame – we trusted our moral and religious teacher to know best’. Of course not. We each have a responsibility to make our own moral judgements, including judgements about whether we ought to follow the advice of any supposed expert. This responsibility is unavoidable. Convienent though it might be if I could just handover the responsibility for making tough moral decisions to some external authority, the fact is the responsibility has a boomerang-like quality. I might try to pass it to someone else, but it always comes back. Others can be source of good moral advice and wisdom, but it always comes back to you, the individual, to make your own judgement, including the judgement whether you should follow whatever advice you have been given.
But then, given the unavoidability of this responsibility, surely it’s a good idea both to raise individuals to recognize that they have it and to ensure they possess the intellectual, emotional and other resources they’ll need to discharge it properly.
(v) What if young people end up believing the wrong thing, morally or religiously speaking? Anarchy and chaos may ensue.
Of course if you allow people to make their own judgements, you run the risk they will make the wrong judgement. However, how likely is it that young people raised to think independently and make their own judgements will end up convicing themselves that they ought to, or can justifably, act in, say, an entirely selfish bullying, way? Schools that run philosophy for children programmes appear to produce young people that are at least as moral as other children. Moreoever, even if some children do end up concluding that they’re entitled to behave in such abhorent manner, that’s not to say we must then allow them to do so. What Liberals encourage is freedom of thought and expression, not freedom of action. Indeed, Liberals can, in principle, be as strict as Authoritarians when it comes to behaviour. A Liberal approach does not entail anarchy, not even if, as seems highly unlikely, some young people end up developing pernicious views. In any event, Liberals are free to challenge and argue against such views.
(vi) Religion is a necessary or at least important social adhesive, and the effect of a critical, questioning approach is to dissolve the important social bonds that religion forges.
In his book Isaiah Berlin, John Gray says about Count Joseph de Maistre (1753– 1821), one of the Enlightenment’s most trenchant critics, that,
when he represents reason and analysis as corrosive and destructive, solvents of custom and allegiance that cannot replace the bonds of sentiment and tradition which they weaken and demolish, he illuminates, better perhaps than any subsequent writer, the absurdity of the Enlightenment faith (for such it undoubtedly was) that human society can have a rational foundation. If to reason is to question, then questioning will have no end, until it has wrought the dissolution of the civilization that gave it birth.[9]
The thought that religon forges important social bonds is often expressed in defence of religious schools. Even the atheist philosopher Simon Blackburn acknowledges that: ‘one of the more depressing findings of social anthropology is that societies professing a religion are more stable, and last longer than those that do not. It is estimated that breakaway groups like communes or new age communities last some four times longer if they profess a common religion than if they do not.’[10]
Isn’t unfettered independent critical thought likely to threaten such religously-forged bonds?       
I have stressed that a Liberal approach to moral and religious education is compatible with religious schooling, and indeed welcomed by some religious schools. They do not see unfettered philosophy in the classroom as a threat to religious faith. If this view of the compatibility of philosophy in the classroom and robust religious belief and culture is corect, then the former is no threat to the bonds forged by the latter.
And in fact, there may be advantages to the introduction of philosophy within a religious setting. As Blackburn acknowledged, there is evidence to suggest that religion is a particularly efective social adhesive, binding people together into communities in an effective way. But, as Michael Ignatieff reminds us, there is a downside to such religious bonds: ‘the more strongly you feel the bonds of belonging to you own group, the more hostile, the more violent will your feelings be towards outsiders.’[11]
As we glue individuals together more tightly by applying the social adhesive of religion, we may well end up creating far deeper divisions between such social groups. Contrast philosophy in the classroom. As we saw above, there is some evidence that philosophy for children programmes generate create a more harmonious atmosphere and greater mutual respect and social cohesion within school communities. Perhaps such programmes are not as effective at forging social bonds as are religions, but they appear to have a positive effect, would appear to offer a form of social edhaesive that comes without the risk associated with the application of religious social adhesive – that divisions between religiously-bonded social groups are likely to exacerbated.
(v) Drawing on tradition is unavoidable. We cannot intellectually figure out what is good without drawing on some tradition or other. And in Britain our moral and cultural tradition is essentially rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus it is with that Judeo-Christian tradition, rather than autonomous, indepdnent intellectual activity, that contemporary moral teaching should usually start.
That autonomous critical thinking is not where moral education should start – it is a late stage that should be reached only after proper immersion in a religious faith – is a view expressed by, for example, the former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Sacks acknowledges the importance, in a mature citizen, of a critical, reflective stance towards his or her own tradition. But Sacks emphasizes that one must first be fully immersed in that tradition. He also stresses the importance of deference to Authority in the earlier stages of assimilation. Sacks believes that ‘autonomy – the capacity to act and choose in the consciousness of alternatives – is a late stage in moral development … It is not where it begins.’[12]
Sacks believes that before we can properly criticize a practice, we need to set foot within it, ‘finding our way round it from the inside’. But this, says Sacks,
presupposes distinctive attitudes: authority, obedience, discipline, persistence and self-control … There is a stage at which we put these rules to the test. We assert our independence, we challenge, ask for explanations, occasionally rebel and try other ways of doing things. Eventually we reach an equilibrium … For the most part … we stay within the world as we have inherited it … capable now of self-critical reflection on its strengths and weaknesses, perhaps working to change it from within, but recognizing that its rules are not a constraint but the very possibility of shared experiences and relationship and communication … autonomy takes place within a tradition.[13]
In defence of this view, Sacks cites philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, who is well-known for his critique of Enlightement thought and in particular the view that reason is itself dependent upon tradition. MacIntyre argues that it is impossible for individuals to conjure up morality out of thin air, independently of any tradition because whatever forms of reasoning we employ will themselves be born of and dependent upon some tradition. We cannot reason our way to moral truths without drawing on some tradition or other, for ‘all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought’.[14]
I cannot ‘step outside’ of all tradition and think from a tradition-free perspective, for what I am ‘is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition.’[15]
But isn’t, say, a Liberal, philosophy-for-children-based approach to moral and religious education, in which children are encouraged to establish moral and religious truths autonomously and indepdnently of any tradition, hopelessly na├»ve? Isn’t Sacks right to insist that moral and religious education should begin with more or less uncritical, passive acceptance of a religious tradition, with autonomous critical thinking put on hold until some ‘late stage’?
I believe the above objection involves a misunderstanding. MacIntyre may be correct that reason cannot be applied independently of any tradition. It does not follow that certain areas should be deemed off-limits to autonomous, critical investigation until some ‘late stage’.
As I have pointed out above, a Liberal approach can be applied within a religious school that draws heavily upon traditional religious thinking. A Liberal need not suppose that reason can be applied independently of all tradition. They suppose only that reason, in the form of autonomous critical thinking, should be applied traditional thinking – including the tradition upon which reason itself draws.
In fact, even MacIntyre agrees that ‘nothing can claim exemption from reflective critique’.[16] In applying reason, we may look to and draw upon a tradition. MacIntyre may be correct that we have to. But that’s not yet to establish that we should be encouraged, at any stage, blindly and unquestioningly to accept our tradition’s cultural religious, moral values.[17] Given that philosophy for children programmes – in which children, even quite young children, are encouraged to think critically and autonomously about life’s Big Questions, including moral and religious questions, appear to be successful in fostering ethically sophisticated and mature young adults, Sacks contention that, in the absence of largely passive, uncritical acceptance of traditional views until some ‘late stage’, significant moral dangers loom is not only un-evidenced, it runs contrary to the evidence.
Sacks suggests that ‘the very possibility … of communication’ is dependent on a prior framework of authority, obedience, discipline, and so on. Clearly learning a language, certainly ones first language, involves immersing onself in the linguistic practice, simply accepting that those using the language know what the words mean and use them appropriately. Without such faith in, and disciplined adherence to, the linguistic rules governing the meaning, language learning and communication break down. But is the same true of moral and religious belief? Must one uncritically place ones faith in various moral and religious beliefs long before one is in a position to engage in communication and critical thought about them?
Clearly not. ‘Stealing is wrong’ may indeed express a rule, but it does not express a linguistic rule in the way that ‘Triangles have three sides’ does (as G.E. Moore famously pointed out – see his ‘open question’ argument in §13 of his Principia Ethica[18]) Yes, you must accept what the latter expresses before you can communicate fully and effectively with others about ‘triangles’. But you need not accept what is expressed by ‘stealing is wrong’ in order to engage in a meaningful, critical conversation about the rights and wrongs of stealing.
As I say, studies suggest even fairly young children are capable of engaging in quite sophisticated discussions about why stealing is wrong, whether it is always wrong, and so on. They are already quite capable of communicating effectively on such themes. But then such discussions need not be put off until some ‘late stage’. It is no less obvious that longstanding, uncritical acceptance of religious belief is an unavoidable precursor to independent, critical thought about religious matters.
I have here anticipated a number objections to a Liberal, and indeed broadly philosophical, approach to raising good citizens, though there are, of course many more (for further examples see my book The War For Children’s Minds (Routledge, 2007). I want to finish by flagging up one reason for favouring a Liberal, philosophical approach to raising good citizens.
The most obvious risk involved in more Authoritarian approaches to raising good citizens is that they are more likely to produce moral sheep. Of course there can be advantages to a society within which a powerful moral Authority is at work. If all individuals have a strict moral code drilled into them from a young age, and if the questioning of their moral Authority is not tolerated, then a society may emerge in which crime hardly exists and the streets are litter free. But let’s hope that this Authority remains benign. If it evolves into or is replaced a more malignant Authority, individuals raised to defer more or less uncritically to whichever Authoritary they are presented with will lack the inner resources they will need to stand up and be counted when Authority takes a sinister turn.
Research has been conducted into the backgrounds of those who saved Jews, often at considerable risk to themselves, during the Holocaust. Pearl and Samuel Oliner conducted extensive interviews with and research into the childhood backgrounds of rescuers, and drew some striking conclusions. In The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, they report that the most dramatic deference between the parents of rescuers and non-rescuers lay in the extent to which their parents placed greater emphasis on explaining rather than on punishment and discipline: ‘Parents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning.’[19] ‘It is in their reliance on reasoning, explanations, suggestions of ways to remedy harm done, persuasion, and advice that the parents of rescuers differed from non-rescuers.’[20]
Oliner and Oliner add that ‘reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others’. Accoding Oliner and Oliner, non-rescuers tended to feel ‘mere pawns, subject to the power of external authorities’.[21] They also found that while religiousity played some role in motivating rescuers, it ‘was only weakly related to rescue’.[22]
Professor Jonathan Glover, Director of the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London, has also conducted research into the backgrounds of both those most eager to join in killing in places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Bosnia, and those who tried to save lives. In an interview in The Guardian, Glover says:
If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.[23]
Glover adds, ‘I think that teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies’.
Such research provides some support for the view, defended here, that if we want to give new citizens some immunity to the moral horrors and catastrophes that blighted the twentieth century, our best bet is to adopt a Enlightened, Liberal approach, indeed a broadly philosophical approach, to moral and religious education. We should aim to raise individuals who will both recognize their own individual responsibility for making moral judgements and possess the kind of skills and maturity they will need to discharge that respnsibility properly. The dangers of raising moral sheep are only too obvious.

[1] Quoted in Phillips, All Must Have Prizes (London: Warner Books, 1998), p. 190. My emphasis.
[2] Immanuel Kant, quoted in the entry on ‘Enlightenment’ in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
[5] Buranda State School Showcase 2003 Submission Form.
[6] Buranda State School Showcase 2003 Submission Form.
[7] From private correspondence with Paul Cleghorn. The preceding information in this paragraph comes from: <>
[9] John Gray, Isaiah Berlin (London: Fontana, 1995) p. 125–6
[10] Simon Blackburn, ‘Religion and Respect’ (revised version August 2004), p. 18. Available online at: <>
[11] Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging (London: Viking, 1993) p. 188.
[12] Ibid., p. 177.
[13] Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Hope (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997) pp. 176–7.
[14] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (2nd edition, London: Duckworth, 1985) p. 222
[15] Ibid, p. 221.
[16] John Horton and Susan Mendus (eds.), After MacIntyre (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994) p. 289.
[17] By the way, I am not suggesting that MacIntyre thinks otherwise. While MacIntyre is a well-known critic of ‘liberalism’, it’s less clear to me to what extent he would wish to be critical of Liberalism-with-a-capital-L. See the appendix to this chapter.
[18] G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (New York: Digireads, 2012).
[19] Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality – Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: The Free Press, 1992), p. 179.
[20] Ibid., p. 181.
[21] Ibid., p. 177.
[22] Ibid., p. 156.
[23] Jonathan Glover, ‘Into the Garden of Good and Evil’, The Guardian, 13 October 1999.


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What is Humanism?

What is Humanism? “Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad. We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view. What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o