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From Philosophy to Morality

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Part 2. Developing Moral Reasoning

A philosophy curriculum for children must not begin with erudition, merely living wonder. It must also begin by distinguishing philosophical questions from other sorts of questions. There is a profound difference between asking how many fingers are on my hands, and asking whether having ten fingers is why we like the number ten so much. The first question is primarily a scientific or mathematical question; the second is largely a philosophical or teleological question. And though there is no question that cannot be approached from either perspective, it essential, when guiding children through their own philosophical concerns, to start initially with a distinction between philosophy and the other disciplines. And it is that initial distinction between philosophical questions and other sorts of questions that allows a place for pure philosophical wondering to begin, even if that distinction is merely an artificial stipulation.

So the young philosopher must begin by learning to recognize the sorts of questions, that easily allow for philosophical inquiry and to distinguish these from other sorts of questions, such as questions that generally entail empirical observation or even questions about faith which also are generally considered resistant to philosophical inquiry. Once the domain of philosophical inquiry is thereby loosely outlined, and distinguished from other disciplines such as questions of science, math and religion, the student can then begin to engage in philosophical inquiry within a separate context. And in this fashion our young philosopher, without fear of religious or political censure, can begin to engage safely in the process of inquiring about coherencies and incoherencies –analyses that hang together and analyses that don’t hang together in an entirely philosophical way.

Now to attempt to demonstrate how philosophy is a necessary condition for moral reasoning. Essential for philosophical reasoning and therefore moral reasoning is the notion of “fittingness.” This initial insight comes from an amalgamation of David Hume’s moral philosophy of moral sentiment and Maurice Mandelbaum’s book, The Phenomenology of Moral Experience.

Accordingly, in a good philosophical analysis the pieces are made to fit together to form a coherent picture of some sort. A good philosophical analysis is a coherent analysis. A shoddy analysis is incoherent with many pieces of the analyzed object unaccounted for. The same is so for moral reasoning. Bad moral decisions are incoherent or only partially coherent, better moral decisions are more coherent. This ability to recognize fittingness however is developed only with practice. Moral reasoning is, as Aristotle also rightly saw, dependent on the development of good habits, in particular the good habit of practical reasoning, not merely mindless rule obedience.

For example, there is often an analogous similarity that suddenly comes into view in a fitting moral analysis: This situation is like that situation, and both are coherent and good, or both situations are incoherent and bad; or this situation is not like that coherent one and perhaps therefore, not as coherent. It is quite like common law and legal reasoning, where legality is determined by comparing this situation with another situation described in a precedent-setting case.

Perhaps strict honesty is not appropriate when my brother asks me if I like his finger painting. And this strict honesty is inappropriate, in just the way strict honesty is inappropriate when my Dad says “Very good thanks.” when someone asks him “Hi how are you?” when I just heard him tell me he feels like he is getting a cold. In both of these situations what is said, strictly speaking, is a lie, yet somehow they are both morally appropriate lies; lies in fact that may even be considered morally better actions than telling the strict truth. (Shiloh is a superb story to capture this problem.)

The puzzle of course, is to determine how these two analogous lies can be considered morally fitting acts? To do so one must look at the greater context, take a look at more of the pieces that allow these two analogous pictures to emerge. If the goal of the speakers is not to deceive, but to create social ease and good will, that context begins to allow the untruths to take a different shape than the shape of an unfitting lie. A different moral picture emerges, and these untruths now can be called “white lies”. Yet if, on the other hand, I say I did do my homework when I did not, this is clearly an attempt to deceive and not at all analogous to Dad’s “Very good, thanks.” It has a different shape altogether.

In this fashion we can begin to see that all of the golden virtues even when deemed absolute, are still more context sensitive than one might otherwise expect, and therefore more demanding of critical thinking than one might wish. Moral reasoning for children is by no means an attempt to make moral recommendations. What it is, is an attempt to help children behave more like people than pigeons.

Books I have successfully used to teach students to develop sensitivity to moral patterns include: Stone Fox by John Reynolds (for third grade); Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Nothing but the Truth by Avi for sixth grade; and Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder for high school. All students also respond well to contemporary films. Batman Begins, for example would be a wonderful film to use to investigate the distinction between various moral visions with superb characters who demonstrate quite different moralities.

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About carmine

  • Tao Jonez

    nah carmine, dat wuz bigtime sarcazm, saying be stand up, be truthful, use yer brain, use yer reason, gain the Knowledge

    ya can read over my shit again, dat should
    make it more better clear

  • carmine

    And what exactly does all that mean, perhaps in English? Are you suggesting we should just lie to children or even worse, punish them for thinking or asking questions about moral dilemmas? There may be no absolute extra-human truth. But certainly some people sling some pretty mean “bullshit” and kids generally recognize it for what it is. There is a new book called “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt. He is philosophy professor from Princeton or Harvard. He too has had his full of bullshit.

  • Tao Jonez

    yo, a lie is a lie. both are tryin ta deceive. sayin anything less is just self deception. philosophy is a good thang, got no problem there, but it is about askin questions with no objective answers. not a good thang ta stick in the heads of lil tykes that still ain’t learned there ain’t no Santa.
    between this bit, and part one, sounds ta me like ya is advocating indoctrination more than exploration. and that just ain’t right.
    commie china under Mao and the Hitler youth all started the exact same way, all thinking it wuz the best ta start training the tykes ta think the way they wanted when they wuz young, so they woudl grow up ta not question.
    thas the diametrically opposed purpose of philosophy, which is ta explore and question everything.
    keep yer sunday school training camp in chuch, and keep objective reading , writing, arithmetic and science out there in the public arena, cuz not everybody grooves to da same tunes, and it ain’t right ta force peeps ta dance if they don’t dig the groove
    know what i’m sayin?