Designer fog

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Angela Neustatter quite rightly has misgivings about a national curriculum morality syllabus, especially if it includes "rule of thumb, an idee fixe" (TES, Letters, January 26). But I think her reasons for this misgiving are confused.

"One person's moral conviction is another's unconscionable act" and she expects parents to choose a school with "an approach which suits their own moral attitudes". The confusion deepens when she hopes her children will "evolve ethical standards which respect the rights of others in society but which are also of their own design".

Designer morality is one of the individualistic confusions of our age. To become moral adults children must accept for themselves a moral system, but it will be a discovery, not an invention.

John Wilson (Introduction to Moral Education, 1967) helpfully summarised what can be discovered: "to count as moral opinions they must be (i) freely held, (ii) rational (iii) impartial as between persons (iv) prescriptive, laying down a principle of behaviour for all people on all similar occasions, and committing the holder to acting on that principle and (v) overriding, taking precedence over his other opinions."

These views were as unpopular then as they are now, and no less true. Moral reasoning is hard work, far harder than swopping of preferences or personal feelings. It involves prescription, or universalisation, and that needs something beyond what I fancy at the moment. It needs principles that are bigger than all of us, that we recognise as commanding our rational assent; principles like truth-telling, consistency, beneficence, and responsible liberty.

Wilson draws a useful distinction between the moral reasoning that establishes basic principles and the moral reasoning which applies those to particular situations. If parents and teachers can introduce children to both these skills they will give them a framework within which they can deal with specific issues and instances. Teachers' (or parents', or media) behavioural preferences are an imperfect guide to children and may be confusing.

Part of human nature is the capacity to reason, to move beyond the multiplicity of experience to unifying principle and to relate the general to the particular. Teaching this might embarrass teachers (and parents) who would be forced to face what they would universalise. It would certainly blow away a lot of the fog which we honour with the name of "tolerance".

CHARLES MARTIN 19 Overgreen Lane Burniston Scarborough

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