June 29, 2009

Dilemmas and Moral Reasoning

Category: Education,Ethics :: Permalink

In Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, William Kilpatrick criticizes both “Values Clarification” and the more sophisticated “dilemma” approach to moral education developed by Lawrence Kohlberg.  In the latter approach, the teacher presents students with a moral dilemma and then encourages the students to debate and discuss what they would do if they were in such a situation.

Here’s one of Kohlberg’s favorite dilemmas: “Your wife suffers from an incurable and potentially terminal disease for which she must take regular doses of a very expensive medicine.  The medicine is manufactured by a single company, and you have exhausted all of your financial resources in past purchases of the medicine.”  Now, should you let your wife die or should you attempt to steal the drug to save her life?

Interestingly, when Kohlberg presented this dilemma to a bunch of prisoners, the discussion did not go the way he expected:

The convicts were unperplexed.  To a man, and without hesitation, they said, “Steal it.”  “But why,” Larry Kohlberg asked them, “would you do that?”  Laughing, they answered, “Because we steal things.  We wanna know why the stupid husband didn’t steal it in the first place” (cited p. 87).

I had heard about this approach before but hadn’t thought much about it.  Kilpatrick’s treatment of it is helpful.  He points out that “the decision whether or not to steal is only a dilemma for those who already think stealing is wrong” (p. 87).  And that is part of the problem with this “dilemma” approach to moral education.   It presupposes that the students are already committed to being people who want to do the right thing.  But if they don’t care to do what’s right, if they think that it’s okay to lie or cheat or steal or commit adultery, the “dilemma” is no dilemma at all.

Moreover, as Kilpatrick points out, dilemmas are not the best way to teach students morality.  Difficult dilemmas can engage students’ imaginations and lead to lots of discussion and even disagreement.  The result may be an entertaining class (and even popular teachers), but the result is not moral education.  Why not?  Because most of the decisions we have to make in life are not difficult moral dilemmas:

The danger in focusing on problematic dilemmas such as these is that a student may begin to think that all of morality is similarly problematic.  After being faced with quandary after quandary of the type that would stump Middle East negotiators, students will conclude that right and wrong are anybody’s guess.  They will gain the impression, as Cornell professor Richard Baer has pointed out, “that almost everything in ethics is either vague or controversial…” (p. 85).

Furthermore, the “dilemma” and discussion approach does not provide students with guidance.  As a result, it gives the impression that there are no right and wrong answers, not only to the particular dilemma being discussed but to all moral questions.  The answers given by the Bible (or, for that matter, by a student’s parents) are accorded no more weight than the answers given by a kid who wants to be controversial or who wants to justify his own rebellion or whatever.

That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong to talk about a moral dilemma.  But, as Kilpatrick’s discussion of this approach suggests, such discussion ought to take place in the context of a commitment to rigiht morals, to moral guidance, to (though Kilpatrick doesn’t say it outright) the Bible as the standard.  Commitment to Scripture doesn’t free us from all moral dilemmas, of course, but it does provide a context in which we can evaluate the various options.

Furthermore, it would seem, dilemmas shouldn’t be the primary focus, lest the students focus on rare exceptions instead of on the choices they must make every day.  As Kilpatrick says,

Before students begin to think about the qualifications, exceptions, and fine points that surround difficult cases they will seldom or never face, they need to build the kind of character that will allow them to act well in the very clear-cut situations they face daily (p. 88).

Posted by John Barach @ 4:15 pm | Discuss (0)

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