Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Ethics and Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_317



Ethics are concerned with choices about interhuman relationships (Barrow 1982), but educators situated in a multicultural global mass media cannot avoid confrontation with the dominant bourgeois patriarchal Western values which they learnt as unconditional truths of logic or fact. Actions based on either deontology or utilitarianism remain rationally indeterminate, requiring a judgement involving the context in which the rational choice must be made. This article presents a complex triad of ethics to balance competing ideologies of ethics.

Educators in particular are exhorted to make space for previously marginalized voices to recognize values other than their own. But to what extent can they question the value of their values? Inability to move outside one’s contingent practices and assumptions can prevent teachers from recognizing oppressive practices, especially their own. Yet recognizing relativism can lead to a terror of exercising independent judgement, so that one takes refuge in the rules of others, the dominant local conventions. This professional implementation of the conventional rules and sanctions of the system can ironically be unethical, leading to impositions of power which can be seen as unfair if routinely applied. Authoritarian control lies directly counter to a view of ethics as professional powersharing, though it is compatible with and often concealed within an economic rationalist framework of increased and controlled efficiency. Any systematic ethical theory runs the risk of being labeled modernist, dogmatic, or insensitive to other cultures. The Kantian shift to idealist categorical imperatives or an Aristotelian appeal to ends which justify means seem to militate against simplistic appeal to logic or fact. Professional ethics requires ongoing judgements, interpretations of codes of conduct.

Where will the educator locate ethical codes of conduct or guiding rules for conduct? In ethics, we build up a rational frame composed of concepts such as good, honesty, justice, blame, and bullying, which help us to see connections between certain types of action and practices and for which often tacitly we generalize rules for good and bad behavior through social agreements. These concepts may well be transcendentally necessary before we can get any notion of a social being off the ground. As Rawls (1989) noted while we can agree about concepts, the conceptions which link these to our daily practices are more culturally contingent. What makes ethics more than a matter of mere “intuition” or haphazard choice is that it is connected by these common concepts, which means that we can talk about our different conceptions by using a vocabulary of shared concepts, showing by examples what we mean by our conceptions.

Ethical explanations and theory are traditionally polarized: the Aristotelians versus the Platonists, the utilitarians versus the Kantians, or the consequentialists versus the deontologists (Stout 1988; Strike and Ternasky 1993; Frankena 1963). In a postmodern era, it is less useful to treat them as oppositional theories than as frameworks which simply identify different aspects of morality.

Wren (1993, p. 81) identified two major forms of morality: the deontic and ethical. The central features of the deontic group, he says, are keyed to the notion of right action (relatively impersonal features such as justice, judgements, criteria of fairness, duties, rights, claims, and so on), and it therefore includes juridical, proceduralist, and intuitionist conceptions. The teacher who identifies with this will probably place more emphasis on the development of students as good citizens with a sense of civic duty. The ethical group (teleological, self-actualizing, and romantic) is so-called because its central features are keyed to the various personal notions of the good (such as happiness, self-actualization, personal excellence, authenticity, autonomy, and other forms of human flourishing) but will probably be favored by the teacher who seeks students’ personal happiness.

To separate out the ethical from the deontic, private from public, intra-moral from extra-moral, however temporarily, may distract us from seeing their interdependence. An autonomous or self-actualized person must have a personal commitment to public duty for it to be meaningful for him.

Many philosophers now present tripartite theories of philosophy which lend themselves more easily to a conversation about differences rather than a conflict between them. Beck (1994) names caring as the central concern of ethics, but says it is justified by both deontological and consequentialist arguments. Strike and Ternasky (1993, pp. 13–66) distinguish an Aristotelian perspective, a liberal democratic tradition, and a feminist perspective. Nozick (1990, pp. 151–156) identifies three basic stances to value questions – the egoistic, the absolute, and the relational which connects the first two stances.

A triadic taxonomy is proposed (Haynes 1998) in the form of an evolving spiral of judgement in which there is no prior value or end point.
  1. 1.

    consistency: a “subjective” aspect in which one internalizes practice to shape intentional actions. Here ethical acts are deliberate, chosen, shaped, and made justifiable by the personal coherence of internalized rules and concepts, meaning and values,

  2. 2.

    consequences: the “objective” aspect of ethics which sees practice as externalized individual or social behavior, in terms of its known and anticipated causes and consequences, both immediate and long term and

  3. 3.

    care: in which the carer attends to the cared-for in a special mode of nonselective attention or engrossment which extends outward across a broad web of relations. It is a holistic and responsive making of reciprocal connections in order to help others in a special act of receptivity.


Kohlberg outlined a neo-Kantian hierarchy based on a Piagetian notion of thought as interiorized action, leading from concrete to formal operations, from egocentrism to rational autonomy. He believed that moral judgement and moral behavior were conceptually as well as causally reciprocal, two moments of a single personal unity and that moral unity was the cognitive career of an individual subject or self. Each individual moves through reflection on disturbances to equilibrium from an egocentric and concrete level to a universal and abstract level of reason, through the three distinct levels of moral development (preconventional, conventional, and postconventional). This is consistent with a constructivist epistemology, in which an individual builds language systems from their engagement with a physical reality, ignoring political and social influences.

A similar rational developmental model underpins most national curricula, requiring students to abstract from the particularity of their circumstances to the universal principles apparently underlying each subject area. The principle of respect for persons defines the moral sphere. The more consistent one’s actions are with one’s self-constructed principles, the more ethical one is. The principle of respect for persons requires the subject to consider all persons as morally equal, which is also a matter of consistency. It means that you must do unto others as you would they should do unto you, a notion referred to by Hare as universalizability.

Universalizability means that whenever one uses the term “ought,” one must be ready to apply it to all similar situations, for all persons. On the rational consistency view, lying is always wrong, whatever the circumstances. Whatever one person is morally obliged to do in a particular situation, all others in comparable situations must also be obligated to do. Generalizing from one experience to the other is the most usual way we make meaning, and we encourage students to do it in schools. It becomes dangerous if the conceptions and generalizations so formed become rigid and closed on the basis of past experiences, for instance in racial stereotyping. The strength of the rational consistency model is at the same time its weakness because its categories of ethical concepts are abstracted and therefore distant from the complexities of real and experienced situations.

There are problems with the efficacy of any system which becomes logically consistent without contradictions, because, as Gödel pointed out in his attack on formal logical systems, such systems become self-justifying and circular. If ethics were only a set of coherent conceptions or principles, we would not know what to do when those principles came into conflict. Neo-Kantians (like O’Neill 1996) cannot evade this problem by building a more complicated system of qualifiers into the system, or by ranking the rules in some hierarchical and abstracting structure to resolve conflicts between them, for that only pushes the resolution of issues back to a more abstract set of ideals.

The consequences approach therefore places its emphasis on what can be observed and agreed upon intersubjectively, and like utilitarianism, it focuses on the scientific or measurable aspects of morality. It is also a teleological view – that is, it focuses on goals rather than internalized rules. Actions are assessed by the extent to which they reach those goals. It looks at cause and effect rather than at principles and outcomes rather than intentions.

Many educators adopt a consequentialist or utilitarian position for most of their decisions. They attempt to provide a felicific calculus for each action, that is, draw up all the possible beneficial consequences, weigh them against the possible harmful consequences, and carry out that action which promotes the greatest happiness or well-being for the greatest number of people. The position is called “objective” because it promotes the belief that such a calculus can be agreed upon, that different people can see the consequences of any action as if they were real in the world, and that the units that are being measured are really units.

A consequentialist theory of ethics is not inconsistent in its movement up a hierarchy with Kohlbergian ethics because from the subjective point of view, a young child starts with an immediate egocentric and concrete concern for pleasure and pain as immediate benefits and costs and builds up from that calculus to a wider awareness of short term and long-term consequences to a concern for abstract consequences. As a person internalizes the rules that they construct both through concrete operations and the acquisition of social practices through language, the physical consequences of their actions become less and less easy to distinguish from the linguistic and logical structures of knowledge and belief. What counts as a consequence becomes more and more abstract as it is forced to cover a wider and more complex set of actual and possible circumstances.

The consequential point of view by itself is inadequate as a foundation for ethical behavior, if it presumes that the greatest good for the greatest possible number could be discovered independently of any conceptual structure or idealistic structure. Such a structure is necessary to provide the criteria for good or bad consequences. As Kant said, percepts without concepts are empty; concepts without percepts are blind. Janus-like, they are not mutually exclusive, but different aspects of the same actions.

A hierarchical dualistic model which combines consequentialism and a move towards logical consistency is inadequate because it still basically assumes a modernist model of the moral subject. One can only arrive at the “truth” of maximizing benefits or of universalizability within a frame of transcendental arguments which presume categorical imperatives, moral laws which cannot be disobeyed, or facts which exist outside a web of beliefs. We are confronted with the paradox of polyglot universalism, treated consistently by O’Neill (1996) or consequentially by Nussbaum (1997).

Although universalizability principles transcend cultural values, we cannot deduce from these concepts which practices or conceptions are to count as most worthwhile. Simply thinking within a coherent system of abstract ideas will not help us settle intercultural disputes. The two great comprehensive ethical systems – Kant’s ethics of duty and utilitarianism – put enormous emphasis on human rationality. In a complex world, competing coherent systems will require ongoing negotiation for the competing merits of different conceptions of ethics which could each be consistent with their own abstracted concepts but are incompatible with one another (Lyotard 1988). Reason alone will not show the fly out of the flybottle.

Heidegger (1927) posited that Sorge or Care as an ontological attribute is a prerequisite to reasonableness. Ethical sensitivity seems closely related to care. Care, argued Gilligan (1982), is not a matter of logic or justice, but more a matter of caring within a circle or web of responsibility. The emphasis on contextuality and narrative moves the care frame outside an objectively measured one or a logically constructed one and is centered in the personal response. To care is to inhabit a Habermasian lifeworld, to be aware rather than reflective (Habermas 1990, p. 207).

Gilligan’s conception of morality as concerned with the activity of care centers moral development round the understanding of responsibility and relationships, just as the conception of morality as fairness ties moral development to the understanding of rights and rules (Hekman 1995).

Because an ethic of care focuses on response to the situation it is more grounded in the perceptions of situations than the abstracted reflection and measurement of them required by either the consistency or consequences model. The strengths of the consistency and consequences approaches, namely that they invoke important forms of cognitive accountability, are at the same time its weakness in placing too much emphasis on rationality and too little on the immediate response, a way of seeing which is personal. While caring uses distinction as an instrument it does not depend upon it for its meaning.

What do we mean when we advise someone to take care? How is it related to the more sentimental notion of caring? The thesaurus indicates that care is related to anxiety, responsibility, being anxious, and being careful. This is a common thread throughout many of those who write about the need for an ethical community to be a caring one (Noddings 1984; Nussbaum 1996).

The ethic of responsibility is needed for ethical practices to be meaningful, because it is a holistic response rather than a distanced or analytic one. This ethic of responsibility or care picks up the etymology of responsibility as responding (Buber 1961), that is, it is one in which one responds to the concerns of others, not out of a sense of duty but out of a feeling of responsive mutuality (Benhabib 1992). The apparent gender differences are more illusory than useful and the ethic of care or responding to the world situationally and holistically is as much an agent of conceptual development as it is a different manner of conceptualizing morally.

The ethic of care is not superior to the consistency or consequences aspects – they are all necessary components of a dialogical and relational process of moral growth.

Both care and consistency are marks of personal integrity and commitment, and in that respect opposed to consequences which focusses on what happens regardless of the way any individual perceives it. But in taking care as well as caring, one must pay attention to the Other while consistency remains a matter of one’s internalized conceptual and logical schemata. From another perspective, thinking about consequences and internal consistency are both cerebral and analytic, the knowledge of cause and effect that can allow us to consider consequences often being at least proto-theoretical. In that respect care, holistic, and sensed rather than intellectual is oppositional to consistency and consequences.

To illustrate their interdependence, I (Haynes 1998) borrow a metaphor from Lacan (1975, p. 112), that of the Borromean knots, interlocking rings such that when any one of the rings is cut the entire interlocking system falls apart. What the Borromean knot particularly emphasizes is the fall from privilege of any one of the rings that constitute the knot. Neither consistency, consequences, nor care provides adequate foundation for ethical decisions, but jointly they constitute the base for ethical decision-making.

To remove ethics from a logical or factual foundation does not make it anarchic or chaotic (Squires 1993). Ethics is founded on reasonableness and an educator will be ethical to the extent to which he or she gives serious consideration to these three aspects of any situation:
  • What are the consequences, both short and long term for me and others, and do the benefits of any possible action outweigh the harmful effects?

  • Are all the agents in this situation being consistent with their own past actions and beliefs? That is, are they acting according to an ethical principle/ethical principles which they would be willing to apply in any other similar situation? Are they doing to others as they would they should do unto them?

  • Are they responding to the needs of others as human beings? Do they care about other people in this particular situation as persons with feelings like themselves? Are they attentive to others?


  1. Barrow, R. (1982). Injustice, inequality, and ethics: A philosophical introduction to moral problems. Brighton/Totowa: Wheatsheaf Books/Barnes & Noble.Google Scholar
  2. Beck, L. G. (1994). Reclaiming educational administration as a caring profession. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  3. Benhabib, S. (1992). Situating the self: Gender, community and postmodernism in contemporary ethics. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Buber, M. (1961). Between man and man. (trans: Gregor Smith, R.). London: Collins.Google Scholar
  5. Frankena, W. K. (1963). Ethics. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  6. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  8. Haynes, F. (1998). The ethical school. London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Heidegger, M. (1927). Being and time. (trans: MacQuarrie, J., & Robinson, E.). (1962). New York: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
  10. Hekman, S. (1995). Moral voices, moral selves: Carol gilligan and feminist moral theory. Oxford: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  11. Lacan, J. (1975). Encore. Paris: Editions de Seuil.Google Scholar
  12. Lyotard, J. F. (1988). The differend. (trans: van den Abbeele, G.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  13. Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  14. Nozick, R. (1990). The examined life. New York: Touchstone Books.Google Scholar
  15. Nussbaum, M. (1996). Compassion: The basic social emotion. Social Philosophy and Policy, 13(1), 27 T.Google Scholar
  16. Nussbaum, M. (1997). Poetic justice: The literary imagination and public life. Beacon: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  17. O’Neill, O. (1996). Towards justice and virtue: A constructive account of practical reasoning. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Rawls, J. (1989). A theory of justice: A defense of pluralism and equity. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  19. Squires, J. (Ed.). (1993). Principled positions: Postmodernism and the rediscovery of value. London: Lawrence and Wishart.Google Scholar
  20. Stout, J. (1988). Ethics after babel: The languages of morals and their discontents. Boston: Beacon.Google Scholar
  21. Strike, K. A., & Ternasky, P. L. (Eds.). (1993). Ethics for professionals in education: Perspectives for preparation and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  22. Wren, T. E. (1993). Open-textured concepts of morality and the self. In T. E. Noam & G. G. Wren (Eds.), The moral self (pp. 78–95). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tingrith, Margaret RiverCrawleyAustralia