, , , , , , ,

image of children wearing tee shirts with virtue ethics words: honesy, trust, integrity, etc.As I see it, virtue ethics [1] is a particularly good ethical framework for the education of children and young people, for its aim is to guide and assess what kind of persons we ought to be. For example, we might want to guide our children to be, among other things, kind, generous, courageous, and honest. But as children mature and their rational capabilities develop, they should be introduced to the much more demanding world of consequentialism [2], an ethical framework that guides and assesses what we ought to do. Most importantly, young people should be immersed in the question, “How can I do the most good?”. For this is the single most important question for young people as they enter adulthood and begin to think concretely about their place in the world. A complete, holistic education would immerse students in four fundamental questions:  1) Who am I? 2) How am I related? 3) What is the Good?  4) How can I do the most good? Perhaps they could focus on one of these questions each year.

As I stated above, virtue ethics falls within the framework of moral theories that guide and assess what kind of persons we are to be, whereas consequentialism falls within the framework of moral theories that guide and assess what we ought to do. Of the two, consequentialism is the more demanding, as it asks us to maximize the good that we would do. When consequentialists say that one should do the most good, they do not mean one should do no harm, nor do they mean one should do some good. They mean one should maximize the good one can do, and one should act upon it wholeheartedly.

As I see it, virtue ethics may be the best “First Ethics,” the best ethical primer, the best character training for children and young people. But as their rational capacities develop and mature, they should begin to grapple with the critical demands of consequentialism. This two-step approach to ethics is  consistent with child development.

I do not believe virtue ethics is robust enough to address the needs of the world we now live in.

This two-step approach is necessary because I do not believe virtue ethics is robust enough to address the needs of the world we now live in. It allows too much wiggle-room, too much room to live our lives ‘pretty much as we always have,’ with the provision that we try to be kind and help those less fortunate . . . at least a little. This may have been an adequate ethical framework forty or fifty years ago, but I do not believe it is today. For distance has collapsed, our circle has expanded, and our ethical responsibilities have increased . . . even toward animals.
. . . . . .
A Question for Theorists: Are there any inherent theoretical conflicts with the idea of first educating children in a robust secular virtue ethics, and then, as they mature, transitioning them to an equally robust consequentialism?

A Question for Everyone: What do you think of this idea?


[1] Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism).

[2]Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct.