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Teaching Virtue in a Postmodern World

Teaching Virtue in a Postmodern World

10 Mins
October 20, 2010

March 2001 --  The Death of Character: Moral Education without Good or Evil .  By James Davison Hunter. (New York: Basic Books, 2000. 320 pp. $26.00.)

James Davison Hunter, a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, has a knack for giving focus to controversies that many people vaguely sense are swirling through the country. In 1991, he brought out Culture Wars, translating the nineteenth-century German term Kulturkampf to describe the sharp divisions in the personal and political values of Americans. Last year, Hunter published The Death of Character, which compels all participants in the "moral education" movement to ask: How can we teach morality in grammar school and high school when our college professors assert that no morality can be validated?

Ultimately, Hunter's concern is the broader one of restoring morality to America. But, as a social scientist, he has chosen to concentrate on the moral education of children because the number of projects and studies in that field makes it amenable to practical investigation. Nevertheless, by the end of his book, he is able to offer much food for thought on his broader topic as well.


Now, the moral instruction of children is a very old topic indeed, at least as old as Plato's Republic. But even within the modern era, one can trace the topic back to such early classics as John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Èmile (1762). Hunter quotes Locke's views on several occasions, because of the influence they had in the American colonies, but he more often cites native writers who also had a strong influence on America's earliest ethical ideas and who were of a distinctly more Puritan stripe.

Yet what is striking about American moral education prior to the twentieth century is how early it lost its religious coloration. Thus, in the first edition of William McGuffey's "readers" (1836), "children were instructed in moral living from lessons from the Bible. Much emphasis was placed on the afterlife, sin, and salvation through Christ" (p. 48). By the third edition, of 1879, the readers (no longer edited by McGuffey) had replaced the Christian virtues of colonial America with the bourgeois virtues of industrial America. "The Protestant emphasis on piety, righteous living, and salvation gave way to the values of industry, hard work, loyalty, thrift, self-reliance, and individualism. In the 1836 edition, the effect of a life of virtue would be realized in the afterlife; in the later editions, the virtue would reap material reward in the present world" (p. 48).

As I read history, however, this bourgeois morality of the late nineteenth century never found a philosophical foundation. Its virtues, which were those of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, were spread by such popularizers as Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Smiles. But the philosophers of the Enlightenment never solved the problem of justifying morality in secular terms. And following the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening (1795-1835), the citizens of England and America were only too happy to fall back on Christian tradition as the basis for their bourgeois ethics. The perfect symbol of this bourgeois-Christian alliance was the YMCA, founded in London in 1844.

Fifty years later, Hunter tells us, the climax and culmination of that alliance manifested itself as an explicit concern for character and character building. For example, Philadelphia minister James Russell Miller brought out The Building of Character in 1894, and Booker T. Washington's Sunday evening addresses at the Tuskegee Institute were published in 1902 as Character Building.

But even as these books were being published, the next major turn in moral education had begun under the name of progressive education. It was a movement having much the same collectivist-democratic spirit as political progressivism and its leading figure was the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, from whom progressive morality absorbed a spirit of ethical tentativeness. Thus, in The Study of Ethics: A Syllabus(1894), Dewey wrote that "'Chastity, kindness, honesty, patriotism, modesty, toleration, bravery, etc., cannot be given a fixed meaning, because each expresses an interest in objects and institutions which are changing'" (p. 61). For Dewey, says Hunter, character "was not so much living according to certain moral principles, but rather simply the 'interpenetration of habits' in a person's life. These habits predispose people to act in certain predictable ways. So it is that a person's habits define [his] character" (p. 61).

Allied with Dewey, and indeed an early mentor of his, was the psychologist G. Stanley Hall. According to Hunter, Hall held that "instead of a time to build character, childhood was understood as an 'easygoing, cavorting stage which youngsters must pass through peaceably if they were eventually to become mature, self-controlled adults.' Hall counseled parents not to exercise authority over their family but 'to be indulgent with young children; to treat them as young animals who simply have to behave as they do'" (p. 65, quoting Steven L. Schlossman, "Before Home Start: Notes toward a History of Parent Education in America, 1897-1929, Harvard Educational Review, 1976).

Despite the progressivist vision that psychologists were formulating in the universities, Hunter says, American primary and secondary schools continued to teach something like the late nineteenth-century understanding of morality (p. 70). It was not until the late 1940s that progressive morality made substantial inroads in the field of child-rearing, most notably through Benjamin Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946. At the same time, the progressives' antipathy to authority--exemplified by G. Stanley Hall's injunction to parents--was also being incorporated into moral education. In 1949, psychiatrist Morris W. Brody wrote inParents magazine: "If you want your child to do what you want him to do when you want him to do it, then you must first learn to do for your child what he wants you to do when he wants you to do it. If you conform to the child's wishes, he will conform to yours" (p. 69).


As Hunter tells the tale, the next major step in moral education, the movement known as "values clarification," was produced in the 1960s by the joint action of student rebellions and the Great Society. The opening gun was Values and Teaching, published by Louis Raths, Merrill Harmin, and Sidney Simon in 1966. But the essential tenet was set down seven years later in Clarifying Values Through Subject Matter by Harmin, Simon, and Howard Kirschenbaum. "Young people," the authors said, "have become aware that their schools are failing them, and an increasing number of students are no longer willing to tolerate a curriculum that does not acknowledge their needs, interests, and concerns." Whether the student rebellions of the 1960s were the result of progressive child-rearing practices is a question for another day. But it is no wonder that students would not "tolerate" their schools' accumulated wisdom about the qualities and behavior of an educated person inasmuch as they had grown up in homes where parental conformity to childish wishes was a precondition for children's conforming to parental wisdom.

In just these same years, of course, government spending on the transformation of people and society burgeoned. So: "Spread by teacher workshops and paid for in part by state and federal tax dollars, Values Clarification quickly became the reigning fashion in moral education" (p. 74). Its raison d'être was the alleged plurality of value perspectives in America (though the cry of sociologists only a decade earlier had been the bland uniformity of American values). Ethical plurality, in turn, supposedly meant that students could not get "clear" on their values (p. 75), and values clarification was intended to remedy that.

By its own description, therefore, values clarification was not moral education. "'The teacher who instructs at the values level is accepting and nonjudgmental. He may correct students on the facts level, but he understands that there are no right and wrong answers to questions at the values level'" (p. 75, quoting Clarifying Values Through Subject Matter, pp. 34-35). At the same time, values clarification had very definite ideas about what was right and wrong at the meta-ethical level. "The program opposes any notion of morality as conformity to some external code or set of values, or as morally conventional behavior that is exclusively determined by a social agency or institution. It rejects a broad range of outside forces that come to 'impose values': religion, social institutions, science, reason, and tradition" (p. 76). Note the conflation of group opinion (social institutions, tradition) and reality (reason, science) as "external factors."

Because of the movement's explicit subjectivism on the moral level, the values clarification movement fell out of favor in the 1980s, first with parents, and then with those who provided moral-education curricula in response to parental demand (p. 86). The approach that took its place was what Hunter terms the psychological strategy.

Now, the psychological strategy is also known as the self-esteem movement, and here one must proceed cautiously because the language employed by this strategy can sound similar to the language employed by Objectivists. In order to distinguish the Objectivist self-esteem movement originated by Nathaniel Branden from its all-too-popular simulacrum, one must make two distinctions: between earned self-esteem and unearned self-esteem; and between concrete achievements and global achievements. The result is a four-fold division: (1) Earned pride regarding a concrete achievement, such as one might experience after winning a spot on the U.S. Olympics team--and recognizing what that means. (2) Unearned pride regarding a concrete achievement, such as one might experience after passing an exam that has been dumbed-down--and evading the nature of the exam. (3) Earned pride about oneself as a person, such as one might experience after consistently practicing the virtues that support life--and recognizing that one does so. (4) Unearned pride about oneself as a person, such as one might experience after repeating the mantra "I am a strong and worthy person"--and never asking if it is true. In practice, the so-called self-esteem movement tended to focus largely on (4), partly on (1), and occasionally on (2). It could not comprehend (3), which is the core of the Objectivist view, because it could not or would not openly embrace egoism. Quite the contrary. Service to others generally ranked high in the virtues promoted by self-esteem movements. Thus, one of the "six pillars of character" propounded by the Character Counts! Coalition is "caring," which includes the flat injunction "Help people in need."

But the ultimate demise of the self-esteem movement, Hunter says, came less from theoretical critiques than from hundreds and even thousands of empirical studies. "The nub of it is this: there is little or no association, causal or otherwise, between psychological well-being and moral conduct, and psychologically oriented moral education programs have little or no positive effect upon moral behavior, achievement or anything else. Even analysts who are sympathetic to this overall strategy have come to the same judgment" (p. 152).


"By the late 1980s and early 1990s," Hunter tells us, "discontent with the psychological regime in moral education and character development had grown enough to form a genuine backlash" (p. 107). And this backlash took two main forms: the neoclassical strategy and the communitarian strategy.

Under the neoclassical approach (which Hunter also calls "neoconservative"), "right and wrong are not, in the final analysis, matters of opinion but essential qualities that all civilizations over the ages have discerned. They are also reflected as hard realities . . . which human experience will confirm: through well-being--by conformity to the moral law; or in ruin--by resisting the moral law. Because humans are so unformed at birth, the only way that the young acquire virtue and learn to live well in everyday life is in the formation of habits through imitation and practice" (p. 108). The most famous product of this line of thinking is William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues , published in 1993.

The second backlash, communitarianism, looks not to inherited values but to the shared values of one's contemporary community. "Though their social agenda often has a conservative flavor, communitarians typically articulate a vision of morality by social consensus (as distinct from the inherited moral consensus of the neoconservatives.) . . . The emphasis upon social consensus has a rationale: individuals are social creatures inextricably embedded in their communities. As such, their identity, their most meaningful relationships, and their morality can only develop from a healthy connection to the social fabric of which they are a part" (p. 112-13).

Today, these two proponents of "objective values" are in full cry, but Hunter points out the obvious problem. If one claims to teach objective values, one must demonstrate their objectivity. And no intellectual in either the neoclassical or communitarian movement has been able to do. That thus we are told by Thomas Lickona, the author of Educating for Character and one of the leading figures in the moral education movement. "The idea that there are objective moral truths is a proposition denied by the doctrine of subjectivism." That is true, what does it prove? Lickona responds: "About subjectivism, Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft writes: 'Of all the symptoms of decay in our decadent civilization, subjectivism is the most disastrous of all'" (p. 194, quoting "The Case for Character Education, Tikkun, January -February, 1997). Hunter comments: "The case, in short, is that there must be objective moral truths because without them, all we have left are subjectivism and the decadence it brings along with it. The problem, of course, is that the moral consequences of moral subjectivism do not demonstrate the existence of objective morality" (p. 194).

But there is yet another reason for the failure of the "objective morality" movements, apart from their inability to secure their theoretical foundations. And that is the inconsistency of their values and virtues. Neoclassicists, Hunter points out, "completely ignore the often intense disagreements between Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Mill, Jefferson and Adams, Falwell and John Paul II . . . and no effort is given to discern the ways to sort through these differences . . . Thus, when advocates [of the neoclassical approach] champion the 'Tao' or the 'Judeo-Christian ethic,' they champion an ethic that never existed in reality and now only exists as an ethical abstraction or political slogan" (p. 210).

The communitarians suffer from their own form of this problem. Although they wish "the community" to lay down moral laws, they generally envisage the community as morally tolerant and politically liberal. So, while they deplore the disappearance of self-responsibility, they are loath to support communities that demand people behave in one way rather than another. Hunter quotes Amitai Etizoni as follows: "'As long as these preferred moral expressions do not lead to discrimination against those who do not abide by them . . . they do not amount to puritanism'" (p. 199, quoting The Spirit of Community, p. 43). But only a community that can attach penalties to misbehavior, through mechanisms of ostracism and discrimination, can enforce moral principles such as self-responsibility.

This emptying out of morality, by trying to make it inclusive of all values, is even more egregious at the pedagogical level than at the theoretical level. Since character education is being taught in the schools, it devolves upon boards of education and state legislatures to say what the content of the programs shall be. Hunter cites the following list of values laid down by the General Assembly of Virginia: "(i) trustworthiness, including honesty, integrity, reliability, and loyalty; (ii) respect, including the precepts of the Golden Rule, tolerance, and courtesy; (iii) responsibility, including accountability, diligence, perseverance, and self-control; (iv) fairness, including justice and freedom from prejudice; (v) caring, including kindness, empathy, compassion, consideration, generosity, and charity; and (vi) citizenship, including concern for the common good, respect for authority and the law, and community-mindedness" (p. 209). Because there is no indication of what constitutes essence and what mere detail, nor any indication of how the values should be concretized and integrated, the list simply states a grab-bag of values that no one could possibly act on.

The preceding two criticisms of today's moral education in "objective values" lead Hunter to a third. Lacking an objective base, and a consistent set of virtues and values, the neoclassical approach and the communitarian approach retreat in practice to the psychological approach. Their touchstone for moral reasoning is: What will make you feel good? Hunter quotes testimony from Nancy Van Gulick of the Character Counts! Coalition. "She spoke fervently for the objectivity of values and the need to communicate solid moral content to children. 'We have to make them conscious of right and wrong,' she insisted. In the same breath, however, she declared that 'we have to make them committed to doing right, meaning it feels good to do right. Teach them that it feels good to do right. When you help the little old lady across the street, that feels good'" (p. 127).


At this point, the advocates of "objective" moral education might say to Hunter: "You deplore the decline in morality. You attack the personal subjectivism of the psychological regime. And yet you insist that no philosophically objective morality exists. So, what exactly is your answer?" At its simplest, Hunter's solution is to embrace a combination of intersub-jectivity and cultural diversity.

Believing that there exists no objective morality, Hunter thinks that the only possible alternative to personal whim is socially agreed upon norms. This retreat from personal subjectivism to social subjectivism is familiar in the history of philosophy, and particularly in twentieth-century philosophy. And it does not distinguish Hunter from either of his two targets, as he recognizes. The communitarians, of course, are explicit intersubjectivists, but Hunter makes a good case that even neoclassicists use intersubjectivity as a back-up for their more usual natural-law approach. Thus, Hunter quotes Matthew Josephson, founder of Character Counts!, as saying "No one seriously questions the virtue of virtues, or doubts that honesty is better than dishonesty, fairness is better than unfairness, kindness is better than cruelty, and moral courage is superior to cowardice and expediency" (p. 212). Even if this were true (which it is not), it would be philosophically irrelevant: the absence of doubters is a fact about a group and its beliefs; the absence of doubters proves nothing about objectivity--and Hunter is tough-minded enough to face the fact.

So is Hunter a communitarian? Yes, of a sort. But he draws apart from that school over the issue raised by his second criticism. Most communitarians try to be all-inclusive. By contrast, Hunter says that, when it comes to concrete judgments rather than high-level abstractions, Americans disagree vehemently about morality. Under the circumstances, he concludes, the tactic of relying on communities to maintain moral norms can work only if the communities do not attempt to be inclusive.

And how does Hunter avoid the third criticism he makes against the neoclassical and communitarian approach: that in practice they revert to a feel-good morality. Well, that charge he avoids easily. The judgmental communities he envisions do not support their strictures with appeals to what makes a person feel good. Their norms would be justified within the community's moral framework, and the framework itself offered on a take-it-or leave-it basis. Thus, a philosopher in a Roman Catholic community might explain to a follower why on the Catholic understanding he should honor his contracts, be faithful to his wife, or defend his country. But if his interlocutor replies, "Yes, but why should I accept the Catholic approach to morality," the philosopher must say: "Ultimately, you are right. There is no philosophical reason for you to adopt our approach. But this is the approach of our community, and if you don't like it you must go elsewhere or suffer the opprobrium." Hunter believes that morality and character can be restored in America only if we provide a political framework for the peaceful coexistence of such judgmental communities.


Obviously there is much in Hunter's analysis that Objectivists will dispute and much in his solution that they will dislike. For example, Objectivists will reject Hunter's key premise: "Every notable attempt since the Enlightenment to construct a rational foundation for an objective morality has been built out of nonrational premises, premises that any rational person might reasonably deny."

So, does Hunter have anything to teach us about moral education? I believe he does.

His first lesson is just the importance of disproving his assertion that morality cannot be objectively established by philosophy. It is not good enough to say, as Christina Hoff Sommers does: "Is there really such a thing as moral knowledge? The reply to that is an emphatic 'Yes.' Have we not learned a thing or two over the past several thousand years of civilization. To pretend we know nothing about basic decency, about human rights, about vice and virtue, is fatuous or disingenuous" (p. 108, quoting "Teaching the Virtues," The Public Interest, Spring 1993). That is the equivalent of Dr. Johnson's kicking a stone to refute Bishop George Berkeley's idealism. Logically, it proved nothing and consequently it was impotent to stop the decline of philosophy. Objectivism needs academics and other scholars who can put the philosophy's ethical derivation on a sound basis, employing demonstrably valid arguments and empirically verified premises. Until such a derivation is accomplished and distributed, Objectivism will be seen (quite rightly) as just one more vision of the world, and one that dissents from much that the neoclassicists believe we have learned "over the past several thousand years of civilization"--regarding selfishness and sacrifice, to take only one example.

Hunter's second lesson comes from his attack on inclusiveness. His particular target is C.S. Lewis's Tao, defined as what one gets when one lumps together "the traditional moralities of East and West, the pagan, and the Jew." By the time the neoclassicists have removed from the world's religions and philosophies everything that is specific to them, nothing is left but platitudes too vague to be instructional. And that is why the moral education program of the neoclassical approach retreats to the same feel-good standard as the psychological approach.

Hunter's point, which I think is correct, is that a morality must be concrete if it is to guide a person's behavior effectively. The principal reason is that, ethically, one is always judge in his own case, and therefore it is one of morality's most important jobs to sustain a person when short-range temptation runs contrary to long-range principle. To serve that purpose, a morality must speak plainly, in terms so precise that its strictures are difficult to misinterpret or evade.

The lesson for Objectivists, then, is two-fold. First, they must establish an extensive, consistent, and properly ordered hierarchy of values and virtues based on the goal of one's life and the standard of human nature. Secondly, they must concretize those values and virtues in ways that take account of particular historical and cultural contexts, both literal and symbolic. That, evidently, is a job that will have to be done with great sensitivity, and it is a job that will have to be done many times and in many places.

This second lesson points to a third bit of wisdom that I believe can be gleaned from Hunter: Just as a morality must be concrete to be useful, so too must it be buttressed by external support. Typically, Objectivists call such support "visibility" and think of it as coming from art and friends. But support from those sources is so fragmentary and occasional that it may still leave one feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Moreover, the art and friends that a person chooses are likely to provide chiefly positive feedback; they are less likely to make visible the hard truths one so often needs to focus on.

What is required, then, is another form of visibility, one that is a more constant force than art or friends and one that is as ready to condemn as to affirm. But this, according to Hunter, is exactly what one gets from living in a community of like-minded people, which means (I would say) people who share one's evaluative standards both in their abstract formulation and in their concrete application to individuals, behavior, artworks, and symbols. It is in the context of such a community and the visibility it generates that a person is most likely to behave as his philosophy dictates, not so much because others will make evasion costly but simply because the community's shared philosophy comes to seem so natural, so inevitable, so "of course."

But if this is true, the lesson for Objectivists is unfortunately discouraging. For it is not clear, first, that Objectivists constitute a body of like-minded individuals in the sense described above. And, even if they do, it is not clear how a group so small and scattered might constitute itself into a morally reinforcing community. But to identify a difficulty is the first step in overcoming it.

This article was originally published in the March 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

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