The Pink Triangle Trust

Introducing the Humanist Tradition

Leaflet number 9: Education about Ethics – a Gap in the Curriculum

Contemporary ethical issues affect everyone. We all have to make choices about the way we live. To help us make moral ones we need to be aware of the choices available and the assumptions on which they are built. Vague concepts like ‘shared moral values’ give little help and can be distractions.

The educational authorities do not ensure that the necessary background information is given in schools for young people to be able to make informed ethical choices.

The Government forces schools to provide Religious Education at all levels for pupils from the ages of 4½ to 16, but there is no provision in the basic or national curriculum for the study of moral philosophy. Religious Education is built exclusively on theology, and excludes the systematic study of moral philosophy.

Religions are in, philosophies are out! Can this properly be described as education?

The ethical teachings of Isaiah Berlin, Epicurus, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell, to name but a few, are not coherently studied in our schools.

Ask any school leaver!

On What Do We Base Our Moral Values

The questions moral philosophers attempt to answer are what is right or wrong, and what makes it so.

There are two areas to explore – the material, and the incorporeal – in any approach to the subject.

Or as Epicurus expressed it “There are two kinds of enquiry, the one concerned with things, the other with nothing but words.”

This is the first choice we have to make – which approach comes closest to reality as we experience it. We can then decide on the validity of the options on offer from each area.

The Material Choice

On this assumption only atoms and void exist (the fundamental particles of atoms, and void space). It is then necessary to relate moral values to physical phenomena and explain why we should make certain choices and not others. This is done by philosophers in the Humanist tradition.

The Incorporeal Choice

Philosophers (including those calling themselves theologians) who subscribe to this tradition have to provide evidence of the existence of beings beyond the physical world – incorporeal beings such as God, or Ideals as entities – and to relate moral values to them.

Theologians maintain that without religion there is no basis for morals. To do this they have to try to show that:

  1. God is always acting morally whatever He does, or
  2. He never does anything immoral.

Both of these suppositions are disproved by the contents of the Bible or the Koran.

Your Choice

As the basis for making their moral judgements, 58% of older school pupils(*) make the material choice, and reject the incorporeal one.

Nevertheless only the theories of theologians must, by law, be used in our schools as the basis for ethical education and examinations.

(*) A survey of 15,361 British schoolchildren aged 13 to 15 in February 1995 found that one in three are agnostics and a further one in four are atheists, i.e. 58%.

Contemporary Ethical Issues

Personal Issues:

Social Issues:

World Issues:

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Created : Wednesday, 1998-06-24 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :