Educational Studies in Mathematics

, Volume 92, Issue 3, pp 395–409 | Cite as

Ethical dimensions of mathematics education

  • Mark Boylan


The relationships between mathematics, mathematics education and issues such as social justice and equity have been addressed by the sociopolitical tradition in mathematics education. Others have introduced explicit discussion of ethics, advocating for its centrality. However, this is an area that is still under developed. There is a need for an ethics of mathematics education that can inform moment to moment choices to address a wide range of ethical situations. I argue that mathematics educators make ethical choices which are necessarily ambiguous and complex. This is illustrated with examples from practice. The concept of ethical dimension is introduced as a heuristic to consider the awareness of different forms of relationship and arenas of action. A framework is proposed and discussed of four important dimensions: the relationship with others, the societal and cultural, the ecological and the relationship with self. Attending to the different ethical dimensions supports the development of a plural relational ethics. Navigating ethical complexity requires embracing diverse and changing commitments. An ethics that takes account of these different dimensions supports an ethical praxis that is based on principles of flexibility and a dialogical relationship to the world and practice.


Mathematics education Ethical dimension Metaethics 



The author would like to thank Paul Ernest, Bill Atweh and anonymous reviewers of this and earlier versions of the paper.


  1. Alrø, H., Ravn, O., & Valero, P. (2010). Critical mathematics education: past, present and future. Festschrift for Ole Skovsmose. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.Google Scholar
  2. Anton, C. (2001). Beyond theoretical ethics: Bakhtinian anti-theoreticism. Human Studies, 24, 211–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Atweh, B. (2013). Is the good a desire or an obligation? The possibility of ethics for mathematics education. Philosophy of Mathematics Education Journal, 27. Retrieved from
  4. Atweh, B. (2014). Mathematics education and democratic participation between the critical and the ethical: a socially response-able approach. In O. Skovsmose & B. Greer (Eds.), Opening the cage: critique and politics of mathematics education (pp. 325–342). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.Google Scholar
  5. Atweh, B., & Brady, K. (2009). Socially response-able mathematics education: implications of an ethical approach. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics Science and Technology Education, 5(3), 267–276.Google Scholar
  6. Bakhtin, M. (1981). M.M. Bakhtin the dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bakhtin, M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bakhtin, M. (1993). Towards a philosophy of the act. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  9. Barwell, R. (2013). The mathematical formatting of climate change: Critical mathematics education and post-normal science. Research in Mathematics Education, 15(1), 1–16.Google Scholar
  10. Bauman, Z. (1993). Postmodern ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  11. Benhabib, S. (1992). Situating the self: Gender, community, postmodernism in contemporary ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  12. Boaler, J. (2005). The ‘psychological prisons’ from which they never escaped: the role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities. Forum, 47(2&3), 125–134.Google Scholar
  13. Boylan, M. (2009). Engaging with issues of emotionality in mathematics teacher education for social justice. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 12(6), 427–443.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Boylan, M., & Povey, H. (2009). Telling stories about mathematics. In L. Black, H. Mendick, & Y. Solomon (Eds.), Mathematical relationships: Identities and participation (pp. 45–57). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  15. Brown, T., & England, J. (2004). British Journal of Sociology of Education, 25(1), 67–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Brown, T., & McNamara, O. (2011). New Teacher identity and regulative government: The discursive formation of primary mathematics teacher education. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  17. D’Ambrosio, U. (2010). Mathematics education and survival with dignity. In H. Alrø, O. Ravn, & P. Valero (Eds.), Critical mathematics education: past, present and future (pp. 51–63). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.Google Scholar
  18. Davy, B. J. (2007). Another face of ethics in Levinas. Ethics and the environment, 12(1), 39–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Derrida, J. (1992). The other heading: reflections on today’s Europe (P. Brault & M. Naas, Trans.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Erdinast-Vulcan, D. (2008). Between the face and the voice: Bakhtin meets Levinas. Continental Philosophy Review, 41, 43–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ernest, P. (2013). What is ‘first philosophy’ in mathematics education? The Philosophy of Mathematics Education Journal, 27. Retreived from
  22. Foucault, M. (1988). Madness and civilization. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  23. Foucault, M. (1994a). The ethics of the concern for self as a practice of freedom. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Ethics—subjectivity and truth (pp. 281–302). London: Allen Lane.Google Scholar
  24. Foucault, M. (1994b). What is enlightenment? In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Ethics—subjectivity and truth (pp. 303–320). London: Allen Lane.Google Scholar
  25. Fraser, N. (1997). Justice interruptus: Critical reflections on the “postsocialist” condition. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  26. Fraser, N. (2008). Scales of justice, reimagining political space in a globalizing world. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  27. Fraser, N., & Honneth, A. (2003). Redistribution or recognition?: A political-philosophical exchange. New York: Verso.Google Scholar
  28. Gerdes, P. (1996). Ethnomathematics and mathematics education. In A. J. Bishop, M. K. Clements, C. Keitel, J. Kilpatrick, & C. Laborde (Eds.), International Handbook of Mathematics Education (pp. 909–943). Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  29. Glass, R. (2001). On Paulo Freire’s philosophy of praxis and the foundations of liberation education. Educational Researcher, 30(2), 15–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Griffiths, M. (2003). Action for social justice in education. Maidenhead: OUP.Google Scholar
  31. Gutiérrez, R. (2008). A “gap-gazing” fetish in Mathematics Education? Problematizing research on the achievement gap. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, 39(4), 357–364.Google Scholar
  32. Gutiérrez, R. (2013). The sociopolitical turn in mathematics education. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, 44(1), 37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Gutstein, E. (2006). Reading and writing the world with mathematics. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  34. Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  35. Hand, V. (2012). Seeing culture and power in mathematical learning: Toward a model of equitable instruction. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 80, 233–247.Google Scholar
  36. Infinito, J. (2003). Ethical self-formation: A look at the later Foucault. Educational Theory, 53(2), 155–171.Google Scholar
  37. Jardine, D. (1994). On the ecologies of mathematical language and the rhythms of the earth. In P. Ernest (Ed.), Mathematics, education and philosophy: An international perspective (pp. 109–123). London: Falmer.Google Scholar
  38. Jardine, D. (2012). Pedagogy left in peace: Cultivating free spaces in teaching and learning. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
  39. Kemmis, S. (2010). Research for praxis: Knowing doing. Pedagogy Culture and Society, 18(1), 9–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kemmis, S., & Smith, T. (2008). Enabling praxis: Challenges for education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.Google Scholar
  41. Levinas, E. (1982). Ethics and infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo. Pittsburgh: Duquansne University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Levinas, E. (1998). Otherwise than being: Or beyond essence. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Mendick, H. (2006). Masculinities in mathematics. Buckingham: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Neyland, J. (2004). Toward a postmodern ethics of mathematics education. In M. Walshaw (Ed.), Mathematics education within the postmodern (pp. 55–73). Greenwich: Information Age Publishing.Google Scholar
  45. North, C. (2006). More than words? Delving into the substantive meaning(s) of “social justice” in education. Review of Educational Research, 76(4), 507–535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. North, C. (2008). What’s all this talk about “Social Justice”? Mapping the terrain of education’s latest catch phrase. Teachers College Record, 110(6), 1182–1206.Google Scholar
  47. Powell, A., & Frankenstein, M. (Eds.). (1997). Ethnomathematics: Challenging Eurocentrism in Mathematics Education. New York: SUNY.Google Scholar
  48. Puka, B. (2005). Teaching ethical excellence: Artful response-ability, creative integrity, character opus. Liberal Education, 91(3/4), 22–25.Google Scholar
  49. Reay, D., & Williams, D. (1999). I’ll be a nothings: Structure, agency and the construction of identity through assessment. British Educational Research Journal, 25(3), 343–354.Google Scholar
  50. Rolston, H. (2007). The future of environmental ethics. Teaching Ethics, 1, 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Roth, W.-M. (2013). Toward a post-constructivist ethics in/of teaching and learning. Pedagogies An International Journal, 8(2), 103–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Shan, S., & Bailey, P. (1991). Multiple factors: Classroom mathematics for equality and justice. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.Google Scholar
  53. Shildrick, M. (1997). Leaky bodies and boundaries: Feminism, postmodernism and (bio)ethics. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  54. Sidorkin, A. (2002). Lyotard and Bakhtin: Engaged diversity in education. Interchange, 33(1), 85–97.Google Scholar
  55. Skovsmose, O. (1994). Towards a philosophy of critical mathematics education. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Spinoza, B. (2000). Spinoza: ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Standish, P. (2008). Levinas and language of the curriculum. In D. Egéa-Kuehne (Ed.), Levinas and education: at the intersection of faith and reason (pp. 56–66). New York: Routlege.Google Scholar
  58. Strhan, A. (2012). Levinas, subjectivity, education: Towards an ethics of radical responsibility. Chichester: Willey-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  59. Sullivan, S. (2009). Green capitalism, and the cultural poverty of constructing nature as service-provider. Radical Anthropology, 3, 18–27.Google Scholar
  60. Sullivan, S. (2010). ‘Ecosystem service commodities’—a new imperial ecology? Implications for animist immanent ecologies, with Deleuze and Guattari. New Formations a Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, 69, 111–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Walshaw, M. (2004). The pedagogical relation in postmodern times. In M. Walshaw (Ed.), Mathematics education within the postmodern (pp. 121–139). Greenwich: Information Age Publishing.Google Scholar
  62. Walshaw, M. (2013). Poststructuralism and ethical practical action: Issues of identity and power. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, 44(1), 100–118.Google Scholar
  63. Walshaw, M., & Brown, T. (2012). Affective productions of mathematical experience. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 80, 185–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Zembylas, M. (2007). A politics of passion in education: The Foucauldian legacy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 39(2), 135–149.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sheffield Institute of EducationSheffield Hallam UniversitySheffieldUK

Personalised recommendations