Believer in moral truth comes into her own

1st November 1996 at 00:00
In a week that has seen heated debate on morality and discipline in our school system, TES staff report on proposals for offering a framework for good behaviour and citizenship to the nation's children.

Morality, well, that's all a matter of opinion, isn't it? If you like that sort of thing. Marianne Talbot begs to differ, and this week has the chance to do so on a national scale. The papers are clamouring for her words of moral wisdom.

Ms Talbot, from Brasenose College, Oxford, is the hired philosophical hand brought in by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to help it launch this week's Consultation on Values in Education and the Community.

The 41-year-old lecturer, an expert in the philosophy of the mind, is reassuringly hard-boiled when it come to moral truth. She holds the unpopular view that it exists. So when right-wing critics say that SCAA is a crock of liberal "mish-mash", the mandarins know where to find their riposte.

Her normal audiences are made up of undergraduates and sixth-formers. The Oxford tutees may be the nation's brightest, but they are no freer than the rest of us, she says, from the pervasive rot of relativism - the half-baked, "anything goes" version of relativism.

"My students seem to think it an appalling thing to say that someone else is wrong morally," she explains. "At the same time they hold absolutist beliefs. So while they say there's no moral truth, that it's all a matter of opinion, they also say it's wrong to exclude people, it's wrong to be racist and so on. They don't see the inconsistency. It's a flight from reality.

"The relativism isn't just moral. The people I see are relativists about everything you can put your hand on. I'm even told that 'truth is relative'. Each of us has valid perspectives. Therefore, there is no argument, no co-operation in the search for truth."

It will be a surprise to her former teachers that Marianne is prominent, let alone eminent. She dropped out of school in the fourth year after a career of disruption and truancy and embarked on a mixture of work and travel. She had a hard lesson in logic when her vegetarian restaurant in Australia failed. She thought there was a hole in the market, but there was no market.

Logic and leaflets in a public library came to her rescue. She enrolled on an Open University foundation course that included logic: "I found it appallingly difficult. I sat up all night and in the morning I found I'd really enjoyed it. The fact that I'd found it so damn difficult was part of that. The more I read about philosophy, the more I thought that this is absolutely what I want to do." She went on to get a first-class degree from London University and the rest, as nobody ever says, is philosophy.

Which, she believes, is a great shame. SCAA will be addressing this with an AS-level exam in critical thinking. But Ms Talbot would like to go further and see teachers trained in the basics of reasoning.

"I think the young are confused because we are; we have to sort out our own views. It's important that we move away from this idea that values are a matter of personal taste. We need to see that there is moral truth, even if we don't know exactly what it is."

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