Home > Uncategorized > Re-Introducing Ethics in Education

Re-Introducing Ethics in Education

from Asad Zaman

A driving spirit of the modern age is the desire to banish all speculation about things beyond the physical and observable realms of our existence. This spirit was well expressed by one of the leading Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume, who called for burning all books which did not deal with the observable and quantifiable phenomena: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

This is a breathtakingly bold assertion. The literate reader may examine his or her bookshelf to see what little, if anything, would survive after applying Hume’s prescriptions. Nonetheless, the spirit of the secular age was very much in tune with Hume, and relegated vast areas of human knowledge captured in literature, history, and the arts, to second-class citizenship. The modern world has been shaped by this downgrading of the spiritual, intuitive, and mystical, and the elevation of the rational as supreme judge and arbiter over all other faculties.

The leaders of the Enlightenment advocated rationality as the sole criterion for establishing an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. This has led to a dualism which has become firmly embedded in the foundations of Western thought, and has created a social science incapable of perceiving, let alone solving the problems currently being faced by humanity as a whole. Western hegemony has led to the global and widespread acceptance of this dualism, clearly expressed by Hume, in embracing the quantitative and passionately and violently rejecting the qualitative. Exploring the full range of difficulties caused by this dualism would take several books. In this essay we consider just one of the salient problems. Harvard Professor Julie Reuben expressed it as follows: “Truth was (a united whole) embracing spiritual, moral, and cognitive knowledge. By the 1930’s, this unity was shattered; factual cognitive knowledge (was separated from) moral/spiritual knowledge.”  read more

  1. robert locke
    August 29, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    Asad, to avoid reinventing the wheel all the time, we need to recognize that this topic has been discussed a lot in the past two decades, especially by those concerned with teaching ethics in business school. The literature included works published in the rwer. Ralph Huenemann in 2012 noted, the following for example: “I have found the following items extremely helpful in exploring the current status of ethics
    in economics and finance:

    Daniel Kahneman,
    Fast and Slow
    , 2011.

    Robert R. Locke, “Reform of Finance Education in US Business Schools: An Historian’s

    World Economics Review
    , No. 58 (2011), 95


    Peter Radford, “Ethics in Economics

    Where Is It?”,

    World Economics Review
    , No. 58
    (2011), 2”

  2. August 29, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Robert, I must be a bit slow, because I could not find even a single point of overlap between what I have said in my essay and any of the three references you have provided. Perhaps you could elucidate.

    • robert locke
      August 30, 2016 at 8:50 am

      Hume’s famous quote is famous and so known to all and disputed by many for a long time. I know about the Enlightenment attempt to drive ethics out of science, and especially the social sciences. I discuss it in ch. ii “US managerialism and business schools fail to find their moral compass” of my book, with Spender, Confronting Managerialism, 2011. Are you reading this stuff Asad. I recommend you do to keep in contact with a long running discussion about teaching ethics in our business schools, which is intimately connected to the effects of the Enlightenment project. Don’t wall yourself off from the general discussion on the basis of what people in management call “The Not Invented Here, Syndrome.” People other than your group think and write, too.

      • robert locke
        August 30, 2016 at 1:39 pm

        Another point we made in Confronting Managerialism is germane here. In Confronting Managerialism Spender and I note: “It turns out at the end of the 20th century that the issue in higher education is not science vs humanities but science/humanities versus money/managerialism.” (p.102).

        The point came up some months ago in this blog when I disputed the importance of the causality of ideas in history. You affirm that ideas of the Enlightenment, e.g. Hume drove ethical considerations out of higher education. I think that the businessman’s takeover of education did. The idea is not original with me. Thorstein Veblen discussed it in a famous book published in 1918: The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, This would make this business takeover of higher education not the ideas of Hume, etc. a major source for the decline of ethics in higher education.

      • August 30, 2016 at 11:09 pm

        Asad and Robert, it seems to me you are at cross-purposes here. Asad’s quote of Hume goes to the root of the problem: a rational system starting from the axiom that if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. In particular, you cannot know the invisible cause of an effect. But the ethical issue occurs in Book 2, which derives for its axiom “you can’t derive an ought from an is”. [See W D Hudson, ed: “The Is/Ought Question”, 1969, Macmillan]. Hume saw morality as depending not on reasoning about unknowable consequences but on conscious feelings, where like his friend Adam Smith he advocated “sympathy”. Only in Book 3 does “business” enter the argument. Newton’s recording of his observations allows scientists to be sumultaneously conscious of them and to reach agreement on them by voting, and the same argument is extended to and was congenial in politics, where morality is replaced by laws with which a majority is sympathetic.

        When Robert looks back only as far as the business man’s takeover of education, he surely misses the point that they themselves had been educated: that the system they then taught in business schools was what they had learned in their own higher education, i.e. how to get a majority on your side to get what you want, or conversely, that what the eye doesn’t see, the heart [law] doesn’t worry about. The ability to afford large scale investment began roughly with the bank of England in 1694, Hume wrote in 1740 and Adam Smith in 1776, just as steam engines began to become available to power mass production. Whatever was taught in universities at that time, physical enslavement was still legal and wage slavery ubiquitous, and contemporary accounts, not to say graphic reconstructions like those of Dickens or Walter Greenwood’s “Lancashire” (1951, London: R Hale: [County Books]), suggest that by the time there were business schools, morality had become very unsympathetic.

        Last night, perhaps for the first time in 50 years, I re-read the start of A N Whitehead’s “Science and the Modern World”, 1925, Penguin (Pelican) edn 1938. I found the first chapter was on Hume, saying what I’ve been saying rather differently:

        “If the cause in itself discloses no information as to the effect, so that the first invention of it must be entirely arbitrary, it follows at once that science is impossible … Some variant of Hume’s philosophy has generally prevailed among men of science. But scientific faith has risen to the occasion, and has tacitly removed the philosophic mountain.

        “In view of this strange contradiction in scientific thought, it is of the first importance to consider the antecedents of a faith which is impervious to the demands for a persistent rationality. We have therefore to trace the rise of the instinctive faith that there is an Order of Nature which can be traced in every detailed occurrence”.

        He goes on to find rationality in Greek and Scholastic logic but not in Hume. I find on the contrary, that Hume is all too convincingly rational, but “garbage in, garbage out”.

        [A.N.Whitehead, d.1947, was a famous mathematician (co-author of “Principia Mathematica”) who in his later years became a renowned philosopher of physical process, social and scientific development and education].

  3. robert locke
    August 31, 2016 at 8:14 am

    “When Robert looks back only as far as the business man’s takeover of education, he surely misses the point that they themselves had been educated”

    Right Dave and you must remember that what people were taught in England, France, Germany, and the USA in the 19th century had a lot to do with ethics. Educational philosophers stressed that the leadership classes need an education in character building (the playing fields of Eton) not management training. Generally, the belief was that the opinions of businessmen were self-serving, and that as a class they were not fit for leadership, which should fall to those receiving the moral training of a Christian-Classical education, because the greatest challenge to leaders is not on their knowledge but on their integrity and incorruptibility. None of this has much to do with the ideas of Hume. What Veblen was talking about was the institutional structure of modern education that eliminated the classics and humanities from our educational system, and replaced them with money/managerialism.

    • August 31, 2016 at 12:23 pm

      See my comments at https://weapedagogy.wordpress.com/2016/08/27/re-introducing-ethics-in-education/comment-page-1/#comment-1031.

      I ended that discussion of bad and good ethics exemplified in “spoiled” and “good” children by saying “How we feel about others influences our choice of actions, but conversely, rational words influence our feelings”.

      So I agree with you, Robert. By businessmen focussing on the rationale of what they are trying to achieve their feelings become fixed on their own aims and not on those of other people. Veblen was of course right, but the institutional structure of state-sponsored English education was already self-serving, with “public schools” training an elite for Machiavellian government of regions and businesses, and compulsory Humean “moral” education training the “lower classes” in the value of doing what they were told.

      • robert locke
        August 31, 2016 at 12:47 pm

        Can’t argue with you about that. In societies dominated by traditional elites, the elites justified their domination by the specious claim that they were morally fit, by inherited class values and educational traditions, for their class leadership role, and that people in the lower orders, including the business classes, were egoistic and incapable of the sort of moral selfless behavior necessary to a well functioning society.

        Stendhal in Lucien Leuwen wrote that the great contest in the 19th century was that of rank versus merit. That the merit people won, I. e., the businessmen, however, does not mean that we have seen much improvement in ethical behavior over the traditional elites. The Right’s cartoon depiction of the Third French Republic in the late 19th century, was to sketch her (the Republic) as la gueuse (the slut).

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