Saturday, November 26, 2005

On Teaching about Values

A new debate emerging at my college is whether higher education is just about intellectual development, or whether it should also be about moral development.

Not surprisingly, there are strong opinions on both sides. Some strenuously argue against moral development. Values, they say, are up to individuals to choose. It is inappropriate for some people to impose their values on others.

There are interesting assumptions behind this line of reasoning. One assumption is that to talk about values at all is already somehow dangerous or invasive. Another assumption is that we cannot talk about values without trying to impose particular values on others. Another assumption is that "imposing" values is somehow easy! It is so easy that we have to be really really careful, lest we "impose" values unwittingly! Another assumption is that we as individuals and our culture are not already trying strenuously all the time to impose values -- and often succeeding. And the final and most fun assumption to point out is the (erroneous) assumption that the plea not to impose values is not itself a value! If those who argue against teaching about values win, then they have succeeded in "imposing" their value (of non-imposition) upon everyone else -- and, worse: to have succeeded in imposing a value of non-imposition is self-contradictory!

So, let us look at the other side: can a case be made in favor of encouraging moral development? How can we do this without falling into some very real dangers?

I myself do believe that talking about values and morality is not bad or dangerous. It is important. I also think that we institutionally impose values all the time, in many institutional contexts -- and many of the values we impose are questionable. I think this makes it even more urgent to talk about this, and to raise awareness.

For example, it is common for professors to mark down work that is submitted late. This is a structural imposition of the value of timeliness. But is timeliness always the most important virtue? Sometimes it is quite important -- responding quickly to genuine emergencies is important and often can make the difference between life and death. But we create so many artificial deadlines and artificial urgencies, and some of these can be more harmful than helpful. For example, they can destroy creativity. They can undermine good, thoughtful, careful discernment. Not always is timeliness the most important virtue. But we structure it in to so much of what we do, cultivating an unthinking obedience to this imperative. It is an imperative that serves another value: "productivity." We don't stop to question whether productivity is itself always good. We unthinkingly accept that quantity matters more than quality. We produce so much that we may well be destroying our planet in the process.

I think it could be very powerful to have discussions about all of this in our teaching. Without these discussions, our students just buy right into all of our cultural assumptions, believing that they have freely chosen, when really they remain steadfastly unaware of how many values have been "imposed" upon them already. It is only if we all talk about this out loud that there is any hope that people develop the awareness that is necessary for genuine choice of values.

In contrast, I have become aware of how hard it is to impose values directly, through conversational attempts to persuade. This is why I am not at all afraid that, if we talk about values, we will "unwittingly" impose values. As soon as they are out in the open air of free conversation, they can be critically examined. I have learned this through teaching ethics courses. To my absolute and total dismay, even though I present compelling arguments against ethical relativism and try to "impose" the value of at least taking ethics seriously (but still feeling free to identify which specific values and virtues are most meaningful to you), I find that most students leave ethics courses more convinced of ethical relativism than ever before. This is true in general, of ethics classes everywhere. I knew this before I even started and so I tried explicitly to guard against this, but to no avail. So, seeing my own powerlessness to even persuade students to take seriously the general idea of ethics, I have absolutely no fear that I -- or anyone else -- could ever impose any specific beliefs whatsoever. It really is up to individuals to choose their beliefs.

So my tentative conclusion is that where beliefs and values are imposed, it is not through teaching or conversation or reading books. Imposition happens through subtle attempts to control behavior. And these attempts abound in our society. The most effective antidote is to teach about ethics and values explicitly, giving everyone a chance to take stock and re-evaluate what their beliefs and values really are.

Having said all of that, now I would like to note: I think the closest principle that comes to an ethical absolute in our culture today is the principle of non-imposition. It often gets phrased as a statement of ethical relativism: "there are no absolutes; it is up to each individual to choose their own ethical beliefs." Put that way, it is self-contradictory, because it poses as an ethical absolute itself! The other self-contradictory form it can take is what I described above: the desire to impose a value of non-imposition!

But I cannot simply argue against ethical relativism without being open about my own take on what the ethical absolute is. After thinking about this for a long time, I came up with a single ethical absolute that I believe in completely -- and it turns out to be identical to one of Immanual Kant's expressions of his "categorical imperative" (the third formulation, for those who want to know. See Kant's Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals). My way of putting it is to say: everyone deserves respect. Or, it could be rephrased: we owe everyone respect.

I've talked about this before, but I don't think in those earlier postings I mentioned it as an ethical absolute. But I do think it is.

Of course the content of that principle hinges on what is meant by "respect." I've talked about this before as well, but I'd like to simplify and summarize it here as: looking for, responding to, and trying to draw out the goodness of others. It is a principle rooted in the belief that there is goodness in everyone. But it is also a principle that respects that people might not always be acting from their best (good) selves. And so it is fully consistent for "respectful" behavior to include calling others into accountability for their disrespectful behavior.

And this is an important point to understand. I do not think that the value of non-imposition is an integral part of respect. In general, it is respectful to let people be who they are and not to try to control others' behavior. But this is not itself an absolute rule. There are specific exceptions to this rule: when others engage in disrespectful behavior, it is respectful to call them into accountability. It is respectful both on behalf of the disrespected, but it is also respectful on behalf of the person being disrespectful, because it calls them away from their problematic behavior and attitudes and calls them back to their best selves.

Put another way: you are doing someone a favor if you stop them from doing something really bad that they will later regret.

I have offered this principle (the principle of respect) as a proposed ethical absolute in one of my classes, and my students have been doing a great job of arguing against it, trying to turn it into something inconsistent -- but to no avail. I have, so far, been able to respond effectively to each of their attempts. Will I succeed in "imposing" this value by the end of the semester? If so, will I have hopelessly damaged these unfortunate souls?

Or is this instead a supremely important principle that we need desperately to keep trying to teach each other all the time?


  1. In contrast, I have become aware of how hard it is to impose values directly, through conversational attempts to persuade. This is why I am not at all afraid that, if we talk about values, we will "unwittingly" impose values. As soon as they are out in the open air of free conversation, they can be critically examined.

    That's a really interesting point and story; I'm going to remember that next time I hear people debating this sort of thing.

    On a side note, have you ever considered trying a sort of "action through inaction" approach? Presenting ethical relativism positively, and waiting until someone's "groupthink conscience" kicks in and they decide to disagree.

    On relativism and non-imposition, I think it's important to clarify what we mean by imposition.

    If we mean physical force, then "non-imposition" means a libertarian or anarchist society, which I think makes a lot of sense. Especially since you can reformulate the above sentiments as (1) the less imposition, the better, and (2) imposing non-imposition is the least possible imposition.

    If we mean by "imposition" just any kind of non-relativist moral stance that makes judgments on people's character or behavior, then I think I might agree with you (that this kind of non-imposition doesn't make sense).

    I wonder if a lot of the problem is that your students are confusing these two forms of "imposition". People so frequently fall into the "statist fallacy" — assuming that if something is wrong the state should prohibit it, and if it's right the state should impose it.

    I'm going to think about your "principle of respect". It seems (your comments aside) that it would be equivalent to non-imposition, but I'm sure if I think about it more (and after getting some sleep) I might find that's not true.

    PS, have you read anything about Christine Swanton's pluralist, Nietzsche-inspired virtue ethics? I haven't (though I was thinking about picking a senior thesis topic along those lines), but I wonder if your students might find it "acceptable", being pluralist, and based on an anti-establishment thinker.

  2. Thank you for these comments! I appreciate your thoughts on imposition -- I agree that this concept needs further clarification, and the distinctions you make are helpful.

    You wrote that you think that my principle of respect might be equivalent to non-imposition, but I do not agree, because I think it is part of respect to call others into accountability when they are being disrespectful -- and this is an implied attempt to try to "impose" the value of respect on those being disrespectful. But having said that, I must also clarify that I do think that, except in these kinds of cases, non-imposition is generally an important part of respect. Respect is mostly about not trying to control others, but letting them be who they are, and trying to tune into the best possible interpretation of why they do the things they do.

    Behind this interpretation of respect is my increasing realization that we moralize difference too much in our culture. Those who like to drive cars as fast as they can get away with all the time seem to regard it as a moral failing for people to drive at or below the speed limit. Those who are "fashionable" seem to regard it as a moral failing for others not to share their own fashion sense. Those who work hard regard it as a moral failing to want to have a life outside of work, while those who want to have a life outside of work regard it as a moral failing to be a "workaholic." And on and on.

    I think it is a very important part of respect to just let people be different and treasure these differences.

    But all of this is not to say that differences are never morally significant, of course. So I come back to my view of the basic difference between the principle of respect, and the principle of non-imposition. The principle of non-imposition implies that no differences are actually morally significant. The principle of respect says many differences are not morally significant, but some are. In particular, the principle of respect draws the line at respect itself: when others engage in behavior that is disrespectful or harmful to others, it's not okay to just let them proceed unchallenged. It is important at the very least to point out the problematic consequences of such behavior and request that the problematic behavior stop. In extreme cases, some kind of nonviolent restraint may be called for.

    I hope this helps clarify!

  3. Thanks; I think that must be the difference, is that in your 'respect' theory the agent is reserving the right to sometimes make a moral judgment even on someone they are respecting.

    But I still can't see how what you said towards the end -- "when others engage in behavior that is disrespectful or harmful to others, it's not okay to just let them proceed unchallenged" -- is different than the non-imposition theory. (I think this feature is what I was originally thinking of when I said I thought the two theories might reduce to each other.) Wouldn't your students agree that when others engage in behavior that imposes on or is harmful to others, it's not okay to just let them proceed unchallenged?

    (I guess I'm asking for you to explain how disrespectful and imposing behavior are different.)

  4. This might help: to call someone on behavior and ask them to change is not non-imposing. It is to try to impose one's values (in this case, it is an attempt to impose a value of respect).

    You can see from this that I do not think that "imposing" is always forcible. And so your earlier question of what "imposing" means is a very important one.

    If "imposing" necessarily does have "forcible" connotations, then maybe I need to find another word for what I am trying to describe.

    The word I am looking for would be a word that gets at "trying to change each other's values and behaviors."

    So, rephrased: I think that in general we should not be trying to change or control each other. But there are exceptions: when we see someone else trying in problematic ways to change or control another, it is right to call them on that, and request that they stop. In this, we would be trying to change and control their behavior, but it is appropriate in this case because the effect would not hurt the person we are trying to change, and would free the other person from being hurt.

    Persuasion should be tried first. If we can persuade the other to stop, then that other has participated in the choice and was not forced into it. But still, the person ended up changing behavior (and maybe values as well) due to our intervention, and so there is a way of interpreting this as our having succeeded in imposing our values (even if the other cooperated in accepting it).

    But part of what I was getting at in my original posting was that I am puzzled that people are so concerned about people imposing values on each other at all, because values and beliefs are not the kinds of things that can ever be forced on each other. No one can actually force another to believe something or to value something! At most, the only thing we can force others to do is change behavior.

    And so I was trying to re-interpret "impose" in a way that made sense of people's concerns. When people fear the imposition of values, what they must actually be fearing is that people might succeed in persuading each other to accept their values!

    Put this way, it doesn't seem quite so ominous. And so I guess that was one of the main points I was really trying to make. People need not fear the forcible "imposing of values" because it is actually impossible, although persuasion is still possible.

    If "imposing values" instead means, "changing others' behavior in light of your values," then my original analysis holds -- because I do claim that there are times when it is appropriate to do this (and doing this is not always forcible but can be persuasive instead).