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Two Principles of Early Moral Education: A Condition for the Law, Reflection and Autonomy

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We establish the thesis that in moral education, particularly in the first years of the child’s development, unreflexive acts or unreflexiveness in certain behaviours of adults is a condition for the development of the personality structure and virtues that enable autonomous ethical reflection and a relation to the Other. With the notion of unreflexiveness we refer to resolvedness in the response of adults when it is necessary to establish a limit, or cut, in the child’s demand for pleasure, as well as to resolvedness as one of the structurally essential elements in behaviours with which the adult subordinates the child to the symbolic order or language. In philosophy, a symptomatic position in this context is represented by Kant’s theory of education. On the basis of the “traditional” concept of “negative education”, and through Freud’s and Lacan’s psychoanalytic concepts, we identify two principles that should, in contemporary times, be an essential part of the moral educational behaviours of adults: (1) the principle of a delimited response to the child’s demand for the satisfaction of pleasure, and (2) the principle of reasoned, reflected, but nevertheless certain, persevering, resolved unreflexiveness in the subordination of the child’s desire to the symbolic order (the discourse). On the basis of the preceding analysis, we highlight certain consequences of this structure of the subject for the contexts of particular theoretical discussions and for school practice.

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  1. Cf. Winterhoff (2008) as one of the recent discussions originating in the German cultural sphere and demonstrating that, in our contemporary societies, the problem is not limited to one particular culture.

  2. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, in the USA in 2011, over five million children aged 3–17 suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (9 %), with boys (12 %) being approximately twice as likely to be afflicted as girls (5 %) (Summary Health Statistics…2012). The percentage of children diagnosed at some stage as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder increased from 7 to 9 % from 1998–2000 through 2007–2009 (Akinbami et al. 2011). However, in the 12–17 age group, 9.8 % of children have a learning disability and 11.9 % have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Summary Health Statistics…2012, p. 13). Teachers therefore have an average of two or three children from each group in every class. Due to the uneven distribution of these problems regarding ethnic groups and social status, the burden in particular schools and school classes could be significantly greater.

  3. Regarding rampage shootings, see Rocque (2012), Harding et al. (2002). The Norwegian Breivik represents a somewhat different case, while suicide attackers with a goal, such as in the case of attacks by Al Qaeda, are a completely different instance.

  4. In the text quoted above, for instance, Callan also deals with Sandel’s theory of the self, which was written as a critical response to Rawls’s political theory (cf. Sandel 1998, p. ix), a theory that acknowledges its indebtedness to Kant.

  5. This is true not only for a person of so-called Western culture. With regard to questions of how language and thinking of a man include abstractness, cf. Claude Lévi-Strauss in La Pensée sauvage (1962).

  6. Similarly, Nawrath (2010) derives the value and consequences of Kant’s moral philosophy for the philosophy of education, determining that: “Construing a moral laboratory—like every society has ever done implicitly—does not mean to teach children norms or principles of what to do, but to teach them what to do and how to do it and strengthen their abilities to realize that kind of action demanded by the moral norms they have already learned” (p. 376).

  7. As well as some other discussions dealing with various aspects of Kant’s philosophy of education (cf. Martin, 2011; González, 2011).

  8. Love is, of course, understood within this framework, i.e., that it demands “connection”. We believe that parents today can still understand love of the child in such a way that if they love the child and want the best for him/her they must, in the case of inappropriate behaviour, demonstrate disagreement with such behaviour, also by temporarily withdrawing their love from him/her.

  9. In his theory of education, Kant uses the notion “negative” in two quite different senses. Demonstrating the influence of Rousseau, on the level of the initial care for the child, “negative” means “to allow nature a free path”, as is evident, for example, when Kant writes: “In general it should be observed that the first stage of education must be merely negative, i.e., one should not add some new provision to that of nature, but merely leave nature undisturbed. The only art permitted in the educational process is that of hardening” (Kant 2007, 9: 459). Kant points out that it is not advisable to limit the child, that here moral education is non-limitation. Nonetheless, even on this level, “non-limitation” is joined by “hardening”, that is, limitation. The question of moral education enters on the level of the cultural patterns and specific individual features that lead to particular behaviours: that which “hardening” includes with regard to specific patterns of culture at a particular time. The other sense of the negative in moral education, which is not linked with care for the child but rather with formation in the context of disciplining, includes “limitation” in the sense of prevention, for example: “Formation is I) negative, viz., the discipline which merely prevents errors” (ibid., 9: 452).

  10. However, the result is always relative in this regard, as the “right measure” is in principle impossible and relative to the norms of a particular culture.

  11. Also in Kant, with the negative education process, the moral formation of the personality is, of course, not complete. The continuation is, again, primarily dependent on the intersubjective relationships of the child with adults and on the behaviour of adults.

  12. The point we are making here has often been discussed in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory (cf. Žižek 1991, 2005). Salecl (cf. Salecl 1991) connects discipline in moral education to Kant’s moral law as a categorical imperative, linking it with the “superego dimension” of Kant’s moral law, as emphasised by Lacan in the text “Kant avec Sade” from his Écrits (cf. Lacan 1966, p. 765–790).

  13. Lacan’s concept of the imaginary is based on the Freudian concept of narcissism, which also includes so-called primary narcissism. In Lacan’s theory, the child’s ego is the first and privileged object for the child. Lacan therefore also names the child’s ego as an imaginary object the other [autre], writing it is as a (“small other”); some second ego—for instance, the mother ego in this first period in the imaginary relation to the child—is therefore the second (ego) as an object, and is thus written as a’ (cf. Fink 1995, p. 84). According to Lacan, that which structures the progress of the Oedipus complex is the shift that arises (or one way or another fails) in the development and decline of the Oedipus complex, a shift in relation to this object in the so-called first period, when the child establishes itself in an imaginary relation to the mother (the “mother object” in this context is represented by all adults), to a symbolic relation to the object to which the child arrives in the so-called second and third periods through the intervention of the paternal metaphor, that is, the bearer of the Name-of-the-Father.

  14. “Third, the father is revealed as the one who has it. This is the resolution of the Oedipus complex. This resolution is favourable in as much as the identification with the father happens at this third stage, where the father intervenes as he has it. This identification is called Ego-Ideal” (Lacan 1998, p. 194).

  15. In relation to this kind of personality, an appeal to moral principles has no effect, nor does discussion as to whether an appeal to moral principles “puts separateness ahead of connection” (Noddings and Slote 2003, p. 344).

  16. It is worth mentioning just a few such discussions that (in terms of content) focus on moral development and ethical reflection: for instance, discussions that concern citizenship or democracy education (Fernández and Sundström 2011), philosophy for children (Bellous 2009; Šimenc 2008, 2011), or, as already demonstrated, when we discuss the consequences of Kant’s moral philosophy for education (Nawrath 2010; Scott Johnston 2007), etc. Not least, it would be necessary to consider how this subject functions when it enters higher education (cf. Zgaga 2009): how young people perceive study, how they decide to study and how they study.


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Krek, J. Two Principles of Early Moral Education: A Condition for the Law, Reflection and Autonomy. Stud Philos Educ 34, 9–29 (2015).

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