On moral education

Nigel Biggar outlines the danger of reducing public discussion to utility and apparent neutrality. 



Nigel Biggar outlines the danger of reducing public discussion to utility and apparent neutrality. 

The danger of suppressing metaphysical commitments of any kind, and reducing public discussion to kind of questions of utility and management, is … the biggest danger I think is that we cut ourselves off at the knees, because every society has values and norms built into it. Human society cannot function without them. The ideology that tells us that in public we need to put moral considerations aside and operate on some kind of neutral territory – I think it’s impossible. 

So what happens is that these metaphysical commitments, these religious commitments, these moral commitments, they do carry on operating, we just don’t talk about them. And that can mean we become less able to structure our society in a moral fashion. I’m thinking right now, for example, of the role of universities in the moral formation of students. Some years ago we had this awful financial crisis. Many graduates from this university at that time in the ’90s and the ’00s were flocking into the City of London to earn exorbitant salaries working for banks, and of course some bankers almost brought the economy of the Western and the world to its knees. And I asked myself, did the bankers who emanated from this university, were they any better morally formed, were they wiser, more prudent than their fellows? Do we have any reason to suppose that was the case? I think the answer’s no. So what were we doing, or what were we not doing? And I began to reflect upon how we educate our students, and it seems to me, actually, much of the time we do expect students to develop certain intellectual virtues. So when I’m studying a text that really annoys me, I’ve got to be fair to it, I’ve got even to be charitable to it, I’ve got to construe it in the best way possible and then I can critique it. So fairness and charity in the academic setting. 

But of course, these virtues aren’t simply academic. They also qualify the way I relate to other citizens and other people. So I think in fact we do form our people morally, for academic purposes, but indirectly for the wider social good – but we can’t talk about it. Because Victorians did that kind of thing, we don’t do it. Well, we do do it, we don’t talk about it, therefore we’re less good at it. And sometimes we don’t do it at all.