Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Ethical Diversity" or Moral Relativism?

I have set up a notification at my local library such that I receive an email whenever they acquire a book on the subject of homeschooling. One recent acquisition was Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling by Robert Kunzman of Indiana University. I was curious to read it even though I am more moderate in my political beliefs that the profiled families and of course am a Catholic rather than an Evangelical Protestant.

Kunzman is very concerned in the book with whether homeschooled kids get to encounter what he calls "ethical diversity". It's not enough in his view to merely expose kids to differing beliefs; he wants parents to:
"present conflicting perspectives- that they themselves reject -in the strongest possible light, to allow their children the opportunity to genuinely consider them as potentially reasonable alternatives."
He criticizes homeschoolers who
"emphasize why [they] believe those alternate worldviews are wrong".
Rather, home educators ought to
"provide the best case for [other worldviews], showing that they have points worth considering, even though at the end of the day you feel they're incomplete or even wrong?"
First of all, I don't believe for one second that government-run schools in this country present Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular in the strongest possible light or provide the best case for it. Just look at the treatment of the Church in the typical world history course. So it's hypocritical to criticize homeschoolers for not presenting alternative worldviews in a positive enough manner.

But leaving aside the bias in government-run schools for the moment, I take issue with Kunzman's basic premise. There's a difference between recognizing that we live in a pluralistic society where people are free to believe what they choose, and saying that all those beliefs are equally valid & should be presented as such. I reject moral relativism and I am going to teach my kids through the prism of our family's Catholic faith. I don't consider other worldviews to be "potentially reasonable alternatives" with "points worth considering" as if I'm merely choosing between different flavors of ice cream. This is eternal salvation that's on the line.

Do I fully support others' freedom to hold a different worldview? Absolutely. God gave each of us free will, and we have the liberty to choose our own paths. Christ warned us that the way is narrow and that only a few would find it. We should therefore not be surprised that there are so many competing worldviews. The Founding Fathers in their wisdom granted us Americans the legal protection to follow whatever religion we choose for ourselves. Respect for pluralism, however, does not mean that I don't consider other worldviews to be, quite simply, wrong.

I'm not going to be all wishy-washy and pretend that there is no objective right or wrong, just whatever's right for each of us individually. In Kunzman's chapter on the Protestant "Generation Joshua" youth civics program, he makes it clear that he disapproves of such an "adversarial", "narrow", and "dogmatic" view and he prefers one filled with "moral shades of gray", where "reasonable disagreement might exist on important issues." Christ, however, framed things in black-or-white terms: "He who is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30). That's the lens through which I'm going to teach my children.

Kunzman's book was published by Beacon Press, which apparently is the publishing arm of the liberal Unitarian Universalist Church. I'm not sure if Kunzman is Unitarian himself [Updated: he appears to be a member of the UU Church of Bloomington] but certainly he shares their enthusiasm for "ethical diversity" and dislike of moral absolutes. It may strike him as "adversarial" for me to teach my worldview as right and all other worldviews as wrong. But Jesus came into this world in order to be the adversary of sin. My responsibility as a parent is to do the best I can to raise my children to be Christ's disciples. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ."


christinemm said...

Very good post, appreciated hearing your thoughts. Am with you on the moral relativism.

Ms. Wobbly Bits said...

Humm Obviously Public Schools and Colleges don't talk about Intelligent Design, in fact you could get fired for even bringing it up. I will probably teach my kids about Darwins Theory as just a theory and history and the religions of different regions but I will be using Catholic Curricula and focusing on our faith and traditions, dont public school parents do the same with their faith also?

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I am definitely opposed to any concept that relies on moral relativism. Without appeal to
specific theologies, if one accepts the premise that there is an objective reality, and that one can therefore define good and evil according to a standard (for me, life is the standard), then it follows that there are certain actions that are good and certain actions that are evil. A person must therefore be making judgments about actions based on such a standard.

Although I may disagree with theology of Christianity (and I do), I believe we Jews share with Christians the above basic understanding of moral reasoning.

Homeschoolers should teach our children basic, objective morality, and certainly we should frame it within our family traditions. There is nothing wrong with the Western Intellectual Tradition in this regard.

Finally, like you, I am not impressed by historical arguments that there is something wrong with objective morality because some people who claimed it misused it. Yes, when the Bishops of the Rhineland (for example) approved the butchering of the Jewish population in their towns and cities by crusaders, their action was morally wrong. And how do we know that their actions were evil? By using the very system of moral absolutes that Kunzman would have us reject. Without such a system of moral absolutes, individuals cannot know right from wrong and choose between them. (And as I understand it, the Catholic Church--which has experienced much in its long history--does recognize the need of each individual to inform and follow his own conscience, and would therefore condemn such evil. (I used to work for what I, somewhat tongue-in-cheek called the Roman Empire and I had this discussion with none other than the Archbishop of Santa Fe).

Therefore, it makes much better sense to acknowledge that evil has happened inside of all human institutions, and that there are bad people in the world. Teaching our children to recognize that there is good and evil in the world, and that they are responsible for their own actions prepares them to live in the world as moral agents.

Kunzman, on the other hand, would have us raise them to be putty in the hands of would-be dictators, because they would have no basis to make moral judgements of their own. The rank-and-file Nazis who slaughtered millions of civilians were just such morally deformed creatures, fit only for obeying orders without question.
This is what Kunzman would like to make our children into. In the scheme of good and evil, what is his proposal?

Bill said...

I'd recommend reading the book. Apparently you read something else. It's quite a good read, and he's certainly not a moral relativist! I'm a conservative evangelical pastor and evan I can see he's got some really intelligent things to say!

Crimson Wife said...

I did read the book, and overall felt that Kunzman did a decent job of presenting a balanced view of his subjects. That's more than I can say about other education professors who've written about homeschooling.

I would've preferred Kunzman to include some conservative Christians from more liturgical denominations (Anglicans, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, and/or Catholics) because I think that would've given the readers a better sense of the diversity of conservative Christian homeschoolers. I've got a friend who worships at a "high church" Anglican parish and her homeschooling is very different than that of a different friend who worships at the local non-denominational Evangelical "mega-church".

But I will have to disagree with your contention that Kunzman does not promote moral relativism. All the quotes in my post came straight out of his book. I returned the copy to my library so I don't have the page numbers, but they're mostly from the introduction and the conclusion.

halflight said...

A very thoughtful post.

I come at the subject not as a home-schooler or educator, but as an amateur philosopher. I was taught by one of my professors something to the effect that "the first step to making a good argument for your position is taking your potential opponents' arguments as seriously as possible". In short, don't construct "straw man" arguments that satisfy only those people who already agree with you. Also, we have to recognize our own presuppositions and where those may differ from the presuppositions of others. An observant Roman Catholic and Unitarian-Universalist start from very different places in ethical reasoning, and it's difficult enough to identify where the root of a particular ethical disagreement lies, let alone completely resolve all outstanding issues so that one position is shown completely rational and the other discredited. There's nothing wrong with having some cognitive humility; in theological terms, having a healthy sense of our own fallenness, present even in the intellect, and our primary dependence on grace, not brain power. To paraphrase Augustine, we believe that we may know-- we don't figure it all out for ourselves.

In words a child can understand, we believe certain things are right or wrong because we are Christians (or Jews, or Muslims, etc.). It's a good thing to be able to explain why we believe these things, but the fact that we (especially a child, for heaven's sake!) haven't worked out an exhaustive rational justification for our ethics doesn't mean our ethics are per se groundless. Especially when those beliefs or presuppositions are the product of a religious or philosophical tradition and community, and not an individual's mere exericse of personal preference.

I don't think following the above principles when educating a child about ethics inexorably leads to moral relativism. On the other hand, I think it's unreasonably ambitious to expect an elementary school-aged child to engage in full-blown ethical reasoning. Realistically, a home-schooler provides a child with the set of presuppositions from which that child may be able to explore ethical problems at a later time. To me, Kunzman's approach skips that very necessary part of moral development. You have to educate a child within a religious or ethical system, before you can meaningfully explore other systems. A child has to know what he believes, and some of the reasoning behind it, before he'll have any ability to evaluate other systems. When "diversity" becomes the all-exceeding value, and educators insist on presenting to young children all ethical systems in the same light, that deprives the child of proper training in his or her own religious or ethical tradition.

I'll close with a quote that I think is a terrifyingly ironic indictment of the easy moral relativism that our culture often sinks into:

"It doesn't matter what you believe, the important thing is belief." -- Josef Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda

Lion Kimbro said...

I think a lot of people who claim to be, or seem to be, "moral relativists," are actually moral absolutists, but can't (or haven't) figure out how to express their positions in that language.

More specifically, I think that there are people who understand that there are a lot of ways to accomplish something, (such as "living life,") and that other cultures have different ways of achieving objectively moral ends.

It is a crude analogy, but a culture or a personality can be understood something like a machine -- and it is held up by the expectations and regulations and the characteristics and nature of its internal functioning.

So for example, in one culture, women can have sex when they are 16, and in another culture, women can have sex when they are 18, and in another when they are 21. (Or consider drinking laws, or speed limits, and whether it is fair to transgress them, etc.,.)

How the society functions is a complex of many, many factors. It is like an incredibly complex machine.

If you find something that works in one machine, and then try to directly transplant it in another machine -- it may cause the other machine to collapse completely.

This doesn't mean that morality is relative -- it is not. But it does mean that the application of rules and rationalizations from one society will necessarily lead to moral ends when transplanted to another society.

The "relativist" is not a relativist because they actually are, but because they are being righteously defiant before those who call themselves "absolutists." But in truth, it has nothing to do with absolutism or relativism; People are just getting confused by the labels.