Moral autonomy as an aim of moral education
It is generally thought desirable, and as we shall see for good reason, that children should grow up into moral beings, and undesirable that they should not. Growing up in this desirable way means not only that they become moral rather than non-moral beings, but also that they become at least morally acceptable, if not actually morally good, rather than morally obnoxious or objectionable beings. Obviously such a desirable development is not accomplished in every case, nor is failure especially rare. Even if one is sceptical, as I am, about the current denunciations of the moral decline among the young (for when have not the old and middle-aged perceived the social changes around them as ominous signs of a weakening moral fiber or outright decadence?), one might agree that the task of furthering this desirable development could and should be promoted more effectively than this is now being done by those supposedly doing it, parents and the churches. But the moment this is said, one wonders who is better qualified than parents and ministers and how such qualifications could be acquired or conferred. What exactly could be the subject-matter of such teaching, instruction, or training? Is there a body of moral knowledge, or a reliable and easy method by which each individual can arrive at some solutions to his moral problems? Are learners to be taught more than ‘moral information’ and skills; are they also to be conditioned, induced, or frightened into conformity with some principles or rules? And what could these be but moral convictions of the dominant group in the society? We seem then to be confronted by at least two formidable problems. The first is that, since there is no agreed method for finding out what is right and what wrong, society must either leave it to chance, that is, to accidental environmental influences, what moral convictions, if any, will be held by the members of each new generation, or society must organize moral teaching in accordance with some preferred moral theory, which would surely amount to indoctrination. The second problem is that, since even conveying ‘moral information’ is not enough to bring about a satisfactory level of moral performance (as opposed to giving the learner the skill enabling him to turn in such a performance, if he wants to), society must either leave it to chance whether a person will turn in an acceptable moral performance or it must condition him to do things which he would not naturally or normally do or want to do, and which he will in the end do in the teeth of his real nature.