Thursday, December 18, 2014

Who's afraid of moral relativism? I'm afraid of moral absolutism.

I keep hearing about the dangers of moral relativism, but what about the dangers of moral absolutism?

Accusations of moral relativism were made against the pilot of the Philosophical Ethics program delivered to primary schools by Primary Ethics. It is usually Christians who make this accusation. Even Christopher Pyne recently stated, as reported by The Australian 16/10/14

“When something is wrong it should be called for what it is,” he said. “The danger often in the West is this idea that as all voices need to be heard somehow they might all have some kind of moral equivalence.”

Miranda Devine wrote this about Kevin Donnelly in the Daily Telegraph 05/02/2014 when it was announced he was to review the new Australian Curriculum.

“Clear-thinking Donnelly is the perfect choice. An unabashed critic of moral relativism, he wants education to be about "objectivity and truth". He believes students should understand the foundations of Western civilisation and Australia's Judeo-Christian heritage. He thinks academic rigour and phonics and even - shock, horror - rote learning might be a good thing. He is against the fashion of students "constructing" their own knowledge.”

It came as no surprise when Donnelly announced that the curriculum should focus more on Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage (whatever that means - That we should teach the Ten Commandments? Is Judeo-Christian code for anti-Islamic, anti-atheist, or does it signal non anti-Semitic? That our Judeo-Christian heritage begins in the Middle East? That Judaism has been superseded by Christianity or that Judaism and Christianity are equally valued? ) Before beginning the review he was reported as attacking the curriculum for “uncritically promoting diversity” and undervaluing western civilisation.

Multiculturalism is connected to liberal values, such as ideas of freedom, tolerance and equal respect. It means we embrace pluralism in a democratic society. Multiculturalism isn’t about cultural relativism (the idea that everyone’s culture is of equal value), but it is about protecting people’s rights to identify as a part of a cultural group, to practice their culture and that the state should not impose a religion or culture on people. People can live as they choose so long as their choice does not impinge on the freedom of others. It is the way to go if we want a peaceful society. The option is colonisation, and assimilation, which is discriminatory, divisive and usually racist.

In the world of education it seems an appreciation of multiculturalism, tolerance, and respect for diversity has collapsed into ideas about student-led learning and constructivism. The constructivist model for learning does value what the student brings, and does appreciate that all students bring a set of tools and skills and knowledges to the classroom, even though they may not be the ones most valued by white western culture. It’s important for teachers to know where students are at before they can be taken somewhere else. The idea is that people’s learning builds upon what they already know, and yes, people can attribute meaning. Everybody does construct their own knowledge. That doesn’t mean they deny facts and evidence.

People who believe that morality is objective, that is, it is factually true (usually because they believe it comes form an ancient text), seem to apply that to knowledge. They fear morality being subjective, even culturally or historically subjective. People who believe morality can be subjective don't necessarily apply this idea to knowledge. Principles of mathematics and science are still true no matter what a person believes about morality. 

The accusation about moral relativism made by some Christians is that ‘anything goes’ because life has no meaning for people who don’t follow their ancient text. For some Christians, this ancient text provides a moral compass (even though this text is compiled, translated, interpreted). The same is true for people of other faiths who look to an ancient text. Lots of people of religious faith believe they know right from wrong because their book tells them so. They are moral absolutists. Never mind the circumstances that aren’t, and couldn’t have been, covered by their ancient texts, or the reasons those texts were written which might not be applicable in modern society. Never mind the very concerning idea that people are good because they are told to be and they fear they are being watched and will endure punishment for transgressions.

There is no evidence that people of one faith or another are any more moral than people of none. There are people who do good and who don’t, and they are pretty evenly spread across belief systems. I’d go so far as to suggest people who engage in moral reasoning are more moral because they aren’t motivated by fear of punishment.

I’m not exactly sure what people mean by moral relativism and why so many people warn against it. It seems to be a way of enforcing a religious divide and protecting their position of moral absolutism (which I’ve never heard discussed sensibly). I’ve heard moral absolutists say things like, ‘what if one culture thought it was OK to eat babies? We know that is wrong because the bible tells us’. Well, we all think it is wrong to eat babies, but for other reasons.

There are other ways of working out a system of moral reasoning, ethics, or moral philosophy. There is a long history of considering what it is to lead a good life, and how to determine the right course of action. Virtue ethics is based on the writings of Aristotle, and focuses on having a virtuous character. Being virtuous will lead to happiness. Kant talked about the universal law - what if everyone else was doing it? What would that look like? He is concerned with motive, not outcome. However, he was concerned with valuing every person’s right to human dignity. His ideas informed the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Deontologists consider the role of duty - duty to family, the social group, to country, to following the rules. Personally happiness is not a factor. Consequentialists judge according to the consequences of an action. Utilitarians consider what is the greatest good, or greatest happiness, for the greater number of people. This idea was developed by Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. They assume that people are moral and of equal value. From this point one can argue for equal rights, separation of church and state, and freedom of expression. Others might consider moral reasoning on the basis of sentience (that people have the capacity for reason, and can feel pain). There is also Buddhist ethics, which focuses on compassion. All follow logical reasoning. All will apply evidence to their arguments. For Absolutists there is absolute right and wrong, usually ascribed to God (which makes them religious fundamentalists) or patriotism.  

Lets look at who tries to impose their will on others. Lets look at who refuses to examine another person’s point of view. Lets look at who cannot consider the possibility of being wrong. Lets look at who threatens violence at those who disagree, whether it be by killing them, or condemnation to burn forever in the fiery pits of hell.

It isn’t people who apply moral reasoning. It isn’t people who value human rights.

Which brings me to this: the Dunning-Kruger effect. Dunning and Kruger, psychologists at Cornell university in 1999, conducted experiments on the disconnect between perceived and actual competence. People of low ability rated themselves highly, because they didn’t know enough to know they were incompetent. People with high competence rated themselves lower than their ability, because they were so competent they thought everybody else must be the same or better. David Dunning said, ‘If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. […] the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.’ Others have expressed similar sentiments over the years, including (and this is from Wikipedia)  ‘Confucius ("Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance"), Socrates (“I know that I  know nothing”), Bertrand Russell ("One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision"), and Charles Darwin, ("ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge") and Shakespeare, who wrote in As You Like It "The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole" (V.i)).

I’m thinking moral absolutists suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. What other explanation is there?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Removing SRI in Victoria and SRE in NSW

This is what is happening to Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in Victoria and Special Religious Education (SRE) in NSW.

In Victoria the rules around SRI have changed. Schools now have to provide more information about the content and delivery of SRI. Parents need to opt their students in each year. As a result the enrolment has fallen, so much so that some schools can’t justify running the program. VIctoria does not have Special Education in Ethics as an option, so when students opt out of SRI they are in non-scripture, doing nothing.

At the same time there has been more examination of what is being taught and rejection of the content. The main provider of SRI in Victoria is Access Ministries, an evangelical group who says they have the right to use public schools to grow their church. Their messages include ones of intolerance, homophobia, and asking children to evangelize.

This is  a blog post from a Victorian parent who managed to have SRI dropped at her child’s school. It wasn’t difficult. What she did was build coalition - both inside the school community and with groups who support education over indoctrination. She presented a letter to School Council outlining what she wanted and why. It was passed. Done.

In NSW things are happening too. A state review in SRE is being started.

The issue isn’t only a problem in primary schools. High schools are part of the story too. Most high schools abide by the policy by running SRE. They schedule it at the end of the school day so most students just go home. The problem in high schools is the Scripture Union position. This group is authorised to run a voluntary lunchtime religious club called Inter School Christian Fellowship (ISCF). In practice, the person holding this position is removing students from their mainstream classes. In one school, teachers have been told that when this happens they are to cease giving any new information to the remaining students. Obviously, this is not OK. As much as one can argue about how many ways this is wrong, the only thing that matters is how it breaches policies. Which it does in various ways. Scripture Union is not an authorised SRE provider. It is not exempt from Department of Education policies. These policies include ones about values, homophobia in schools, respect for diversity, teaching controversial issues in schools, and the general capabilities of the new Australian curriculum. One school website says the club contains about 120 students with extensive activities listed.

I’ve been looking at the relevant policies and finding out what is happening in local schools. What I’m finding is lots of breaching of policy. In fact, I haven’t found one yet that abides by the policies. I’ve been writing to schools, stating what is happening, what the policy is and asking principals to ‘please explain’. I’ve successfully taken a case to P&C.

I’m surprised that principals have been permitting these policy breaches for years. All they needed to do was call the Department of Education or to check with their local directors. I do understand that principals can feel bullied by the religious groups. (And principals are busy people with many serious matters to deal with.)

I’ve been talking to other action groups including Human Rights Advocacy Australia and The Greens (who have a policy of removing SRE from schools, but will be satisfied for now with closing the door on evangelists in public schools). I’ll also be talking to Marion Maddox.

I have written to the NSW Minister for Education and the Secretary for the Department of Education.

I know what I’ll be asking for in the review.

I’ll ask that these rules be implemented.
  • that parents are given information about the content of all SRE options
  • that parents are given information about  who delivers each SRE, including links to websites
  • that food, lollies and other tangible enticements are banned from SRE
  • that students opt in rather than opt out, and this decision is made each year
  • that the school seeks to have authorised providers deliver SRE based on student and parent interest rather than to deliver students to interested SRE providers
  • that parents are told they have the right to complain to the school about the content and delivery of SRE, in accordance with Department of Education policy
  • that the school run an inclusive, non-denominational, non-faith based end of year celebration, or none at all in SRE time
  • that members of church groups who deliver SRE sign an agreement akin to the Access Ministries CRE one in Victoria, which states that teachers do not evangelise; do not teach faith as fact; do not express views which are derogatory, biased or discriminatory on the grounds of lifestyle, culture, religion, family structure or sexuality; do not pressure students to participate in faith responses such as in prayer or singing; and do not ask students to proselytize or evangelise within their school.

These are all reasonable requests which should be implemented. They bring SRE into compliance with other Department of Education policies. These policies are about values in schools, about controversial issues in schools, about respecting diversity and about the general capabilities in the national curriculum. Currently SRE instructors during SRE time are exempt from these policies. That means that currently in public schools there is about 40 minutes a week  for each student in which all these policies are suspended.

I’ll also be asking that schools have the option of running their SRE programs on four days a year - teacher development days which are otherwise pupil free days. In this way SRE students can opt -in and no-one else’s teaching and learning is disrupted. This would fulfil the current school year time requirement for SRE.

I expect there will be many media stories coming out of the review.

I am confident that things will be changed in NSW as a result of the review. My only reservation is the possibility that SRE remains in NSW schools on the basis of the availability of the Primary Ethics program. Wouldn’t that be ironic.

If you want to know more, ask me.

Links to relevant documents here:

Department of Education SRE Policy

Controversial Issues in schools


Homophobia in schools

Human Rights Advocacy Australia

Fairness in Religion in Schools (Victoria)

The list of authorised providers of SRE in NSW

The list of schools that have a Scripture Union person at their school for ISCF

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Opting in and opting out

I'm sick of opting out.

Ask me what I want to opt into.

I don't want to opt out of religious celebrations at public schools. I want them to just not be on.  Do your religious celebrations in your own time. If you can't cater for everyone, don't run the event at all.

 I don't want to opt out of overseas trips at public schools. Aside from language studies, I don't understand why they are offered, except as a way of competing with private schools. A band playing in a room in Sydney isn't any different from the same band playing in a room in another country. Don't we have world class teachers and facilities in Sydney? Do students get tired of playing at the Opera House? Schools don't have to provide every experience for students before they turn eighteen. Are their privileged experiences not enough of an opportunity? Do your overseas trips in your own time*.

I know public schools want to offer everything to everyone (except people who can't afford such things) and I wonder if these things are driven by vested interests - church groups, travel agencies - rather than by students and parents. The people who are in the in crowd argue that others can opt out, and that's fair. That's not fair. Opting out means not being included. It means other people are having experiences and building relationships and gathering points of reference that the opting out people are excluded from. The opting out students are left behind. They are marked by their difference - either by religion or by expendable income. You shouldn't have to declare such things at a public school. Children are not asked to opt out on the basis of gender, race, class, ability or sexuality, and they should not be asked to opt out on the basis of religion.  Again, if everyone can't attend, don't run it at all.

Ask me what I want to opt into. I want to opt into transparency, inclusion and respect for everyone. I want equality of experience regardless of gender, race, class, ability, sexuality and religion.

Public schools are supposed to be compulsory, secular and free. If you want your religious celebrations and overseas trips, opt into another school system.

*High school band touring Europe. Total cost $379,170.00 for 66 students and some teachers. 

Monday, December 01, 2014

A tale of three schools

I did some fundraising recently for one of my kid's schools. Lets call it school A. I approached businesses for donations we could give as prizes for our Trivia Night. It was fun. Very sociable. People were kind. It took longer than I expected but I enjoyed it. The event didn't raise a lot of money, but that wasn't our intention. I enjoyed giving prizes to lots of people who volunteer their time for the school.

I attended the P&C of another of my kid's schools. Lets call it school C. The funding is being reduced, because the demographic of the local area is changing. The school could do with some assistance and greater parental participation.

I received an email from another of my kids' schools. Lets call it school F. They are doing fundraising for their band event. I agreed to buy some food to contribute, and emailed back, saying I'd just done fundraising for another school, and after emailing certain businesses they sent us tickets we gave as prizes. The reply came. Oh, yes, we usually receive tickets from the Sydney Symphony, etc, but mostly our prizes are donations from parents, including one from an artist parent (there are other known figures who are parents at the school). I'm feeling a little embarrassed. Then another email. I seem to be a good person to take over the fundraising role for the band (which happens to be going to Europe next year). Would I like to take on the role?