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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 42

Can Morals be Taught in Secular Schools? [Delivered 24th April, 1878]

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Can Morals be Taught in Secular Schools?

By The Hon. Robert Stout, M.H.R.

Dunedin: Printed at the "Daily Times" Office, Rattray Street. MMCCCLXXVIII.

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Can Morals be Taught in Secular Schools?

The teacher has to deal with practical questions. No doubt proper practice presupposes a correct theory and a definite aim. But whether the teacher has a theory or has even pictured to himself the goal for which he has to strive or not, be must act. In putting this query, can morals be taught in secular schools? I am asking a practical question, and one that demands a solution. The people in this Colony have pretty well agreed that religion cannot be taught in public schools. The question is, however, being asked, now that you have excluded religion—can you teach morals? Let me define my terms, for oft disputes are occasioned by different meanings being given to the same word. What does one mean by morals? one definition is the science of conduct. George Grote has defined ethics as the science of human dispositions, emotions, desires, and actions in so far as they affect, or are regarded by society as affecting, either the happiness of the individual himself, or the happiness and sentiments of others. While Professor Bain's definition is a department of practice defined by its end—the end being a certain portion of the welfare of human beings living together in society, and its realization obtained through rules of conduct duly enforced. Let us take morality as conduct in society. Of course outside of society there could be no morality—for the term implies duties and actions from one person towards another, or towards the whole. Now as Bain has said that the realization is obtained through rules duly enforced, there is at once a division in moral actions. One class is differentiated from another. There is one kind that the State or political Government enforces—whilst there is another class that the State does not interfere with. The Stale enjoins and prohibits certain acts. It has a code of rules—it has laws, and if these are infringed it punishes the law breaker. It also classifies the offence and offender—one kind of breach is termed a crime, another a wrong—and punishment follows. I mention this to show that it may be taken as admitted that there need be little difficulty in teaching one great branch of morality. What is that? it may be asked. I reply, obedience to the laws of the State; and there can be a sufficient sanction pointed out—viz., the State's punishment. But obedience to the State's laws would not of itself constitute morality. There are duties to be performed and precepts to be obeyed, that the State neither requires nor teaches. To comprehend these other moral rules, regarding which no one can be said to be entirely ignorant, and to obtain an understanding of the difficulties that have been raised about the teachings of morals, we must appreciate the different aspects in which moral action is viewed. It is not enough for men to debate what rules of conduct should be observed; great discussion has arisen regarding the origin of morals. Ethical philosophers contend that until the origin is settled the "sanction" can never be found. Stated broadly, there are two great schools of Ethical philosophers—the Intuitionists and the Evolutionists. There are what we might term sub schools of these; but most moral philosophers can be ranged under one or other of the names of Intuitionist or Evolutionist M. Henry Sedgwick in his Method of Ethics has defined Intuition ism as "a system of absolute rules prescribed by God, through conscience, for obeying; which no reason is to be asked or given, except that they are so prescribed." Professor Calderwood, who has in vol.: I. of Mind, criticised Mr Sedgwick's statement of the intuitional position, does not seem to me to invalidate the definition I have just given. His own is not very different It is, "Self evident laws of conduct afford the only rational basis for distinguishing the moral qualities of actions, and self-evident moral laws are intuitively known by men, that is, directly recognised by the reason;" or, as put in another form—"Moral laws are applied by all men, and are recognised as essentially true and authoritative, though their validity has not been determined by personal induction, nor established by experience of past ages, nor by the consensus of opinion page 4 among the more intelligent and civilised nations, but it is self-evident to the reason." The position of the Evolutionists may be put thus: They admit that there are certain things that appear as right or wrong to men without a consideration of the consequences thereof, and that the decision a man may come to on an action may not be determined by his own experience of like actions; hut they say, this categorical imperative of conscience we now Lave is a growth; and Darwin's chap. IV. of "The Descent of Man" gives illustrations of how the moral sense grows, and how to men in one stage of development a different answer is given by the reason to that given in another stage. The development of conscience is thus described:—First, there is a growth of social instincts. This is seen, it is said, in many animals. Then living in society presupposes a limitation of conduct. Hence rules, hence a moral sense, hence intuitions. In proof of his position, Darwin shows that other animals, besides men, exhibit sympathy, courage, kindness, one might say magnanimity and benevolence. I am not at present, however, concerned as to which school is right, and I need not therefore dwell on the arguments advanced by the disputants. There is also closely connected with this search after the origin of morals another question that divides philosophers—what is the sanction for a moral act? Why ought I to be virtuous? The Intuitionists have a ready reply: You must obey conscience. The Utilitarians say that you must judge of the consequences of the act. Bain puts two sanctions—external, internal. (a) The External—1. Hope of favour or fear of displeasure from men or society. 2. Hope of favour or fear of displeasure from the Ruler of the Universe, (b) The Internal.—A feeling in the mind. A pain more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in a properly cultivated moral nature rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility. "The binding force, however, is the mass of feeling to be broken through in order to violate our standard of right, ana which, if we do violate that standard, will have to he afterwards encountered as remorse"—so that the Utilitarians admit a conscience, and the sanctions that the Intuitionists say exist; but they found their morality on what might be termed the moral sense of humanity, and its decisions as affecting men. Now I have pointed out the differences of opinion that exist, in order to lead up to what I shall shortly contend—viz., that the theories so diverse need not affect the practical question we have to solve. And I may just add that there are some men like Sedgwick, who have, after their search, come to the conclusion that it has been for naught. At the close of his treatise he says. "Nor has it appeared very difficult to marshal our common judgments both of goodness and of rightness into a system under this principle without impairing our confidence in the substantial veracity of common sense, and all particular moral sentiments, and special sympathies fall easily into their places as auxiliaries to the two supreme coincident impulses, universal benevolence, and the desire to do what is right as such. . . . But the fundamental opposition between the principle of rational egoism and that on which such a system of duty is constructed, only comes out more sharp and clear after the reconciliation between the other methods. Hence the whole system of our beliefs as to the intrinsic reasonableness of conduct must fall, without a hypothesis unverifiable by experience reconciling the individual with the universal reason; without a belief, in some form or other, that the moral order that we see imperfectly realised in this actual world is yet actually perfect. If we reject this belief, we may perhaps still find in the non-moral universe an adequate object for the speculative reason, capable of being in some sense ultimately understood. But the cosmos of duty is thus really reduced to a chaos, and the prolonged effort of the human intellect to frame a perfect ideal of rational conduct is seen to have been fore doomed to inevitable failure." Is the teacher to remain quiescent until all the diverse schools of ethical thought agree? If he is, I am afraid he will await an impossible event. Must he delay until the science of ethics has been placed on as sure a foundation as geometry? I do not think so. He cannot wait if he would. His school must be moral or immoral. Day by day rules of conduct must be observed. How then, as a practical man, must a teacher approach this question? Morality consists of rules. There must be guidance for conduct, whatever the origin of conscience or the moral sense may be, whether it is analysable or indecomposable, a growth, or a thing planted in man by Deity, there are certain rules of conduct which all recognise, and which I may say must be recognised. There are certain immutable principles. Now what are these? First, we must start with this postulate: Man is a social being, and for his existence as such rules are required; indeed, without some such rules life is impossible. If in the tribe murder, robbery, theft, violence, were permitted, the tribe would soon be extinguished. Hence, amidst savage and semi-savage tribes it is not allowable to kill one of one's own tribe. There is a moral code even in this. In fact the most savage recognise two things: (1) A distinction between actions—some are good, others bad; or, to use another phrase, some are right, others wrong. (2) And that this distinction must be enforced. Then there is also recognised this: that certain actions are voluntary, and that each man's consciousness is similar to his neighbours'—in fact, that Nature is uniform.

I have said that even savage and semi- page 5 savage tribes recognise moral distinctions. Of course there are some acts they consider right that we deem wrong. But amongst them even kindness, justice, and truth are valued. And if we think upon the past, we find amongst people of different civilisations, of diverse religious beliefs, of various races, and having dissimilar environments, certain things always extolled. Now, this is of importance, for if we discover independent of even Christian civilisation, the highest virtue, the noblest conduct inculcated, can a teacher have any difficulty in saying that these moral rules are not the offshoot of any particular religious be lief? Let me cite some of the things taught by people net influenced by our Christian civilisation, I find a Buddhist, 250 B.C., giving these things as excellencies (Conway's Sacred Anthology, pp. 12 13) "To serve the wise and not the foolish, and to honour those worthy of honour"; these are excellencies. "To dwell in the neighbourhood of the good, to bear the remembrance of good deeds, and to have a soul filled with right desires"; these are excellencies. "To have knowledge of truth, to be instructed in science, to have a disciplined mind, and pleasant speech"; these are excellencies. To honour father and mother, to provide for wife and child, and to follow a blameless vocation"; these are excellencies. "To be charitable, act virtuously, be helpful to relatives, and to lead an innocent life"; these Are excellencies. "To be pure, temperate, and persevering in good deeds;" these are excellencies. "Humility, reverence, contentment, gratitude, attentiveness to religious instruction;" these are excellencies. "To be gentle, to be patient under reproof, at due seasons to converse with the religious;" these are excellencies. "Self-restraint and chastity, the knowledge of the great principles, and the hope of the eternal repose;" these are excellencies. "To have a mind unshaken by prosperity or adversity, inaccessible to sorrow, secure and tranquil;" there are excellencies. "They that do these things are invincible; on every side they walk in safety; they attain the perfect good." These are the words of a disciple of Buddha, and they inculcate what we may term the highest morality. Take an example from China—Kwanyin. This is what he says:—"Never will I seek, nor receive private individual salvation—never enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the universal redemption of every creature throughout all worlds. Until ail are delivered, never will I leave the world of sin, sorrow, and struggle, but will remain where I am." Does this not show two of the highest virtues—sympathy and self-sacrifice? Mencius—a Chinese sage—thus defines divine nobility:—"Benevolence, justice, fidelity, and truth, and to delight in virtue without weariness, constitute divine nobility." Then take this Chinese definition of purity:—"Practising no evil way. Advancing in the exercise of virtue. Purifying both mind and will. The man who guards his mouth with virtuous motive, and cleanses both his mind and will, permits his body to engage in nothing wrong. This is the triple purification—Scrupulously avoiding all wicked actions, reverently performing all virtuous ones, purifying this intention from all selfish ends. This is the doctrine of all the enlightened." Here is a passage from what has been called "The Iliad of of the East" Thus spake Rama:—"Virtue is a service man owes himself; and though there were no Heaven, nor any God to rule the world, it were not less the binding law of life. It is a man's privilege to know the right and follow it Betray and persecute me, brother men! Pour out your rage on me, oh malignant devils! Smile or watch my agony with cold disdain, ye blissful gods! Earth, hell, heaven, combine your might to crush me, I will still hold fast to ray inheritance! My strength is nothing—time can shake and cripple it; my youth is transient—already grief has withered up my days; my heart—alas! it seems well nigh broken now! Anguish may crush it utterly, and life may fail; but even so, my soul, that has not tripped, shall triumph, and dying, give the lie to soulless Destiny, that dares to boast itself man's master." A few more extracts must suffice for illustrations. One of the most important virtues is truthfulness. Hear what a Hindu writer says:—"He whose mind and life are free from deceit has a dwelling in the hearts of all men. Is it asked, 'what is truth?' It is the speaking of words that are without the least degree of evil to others. He who speaks the truth with all his heart is superior to those who make gifts and practise austerities. If a man abstain from falsehood, though he practise no other virtue, it shall be well with him. Truth will lead to every virtue. Purity of body comes by water, purity of mind by truthfulness. The lamp of truth is a lamp of the wise." Another writer, writing 1200 B.C., says there are two things requisite—to be true, and to do no evil to any creature. And Confucius's summary of the rules of life is thus given: "Is there one word which may serve as a rule for one's life? Confucius answered, is not Reciprocity such a word? What you do not wish done to yourself do not to others." This was uttered 500 years before Christ Do not all these extracts prove that in societies there must be rules for guidance, and that the great men of the past were at one in inculcating what we term virtue? Morality must have existed wherever man existed. No doubt in many details there was much difference of decision and diversity of action. One writer on sociology, Herbert Spencer, tells us that some things at first ceremonial, afterwards became enforceable by law, and ultimately were page 6 deemed morally obligatory. Non-attendance at a ceremony was thus, after a lapse of time, considered an immoral act. But underlying all these differences there has always been a distinction between right and wrong, and a recognition of the claims of society on the individual. Now each child must become, nay, is, a member of a social and political organisation, and must be fitted for the performance of his duties as such. If he is not so fitted somewhere or somehow he will experience the truth of that doctrine which Evolutionists have taught us, the survival of the fittest, and Society may be put to the expense of punishing him. We start then with two things:—1st, The existence of a moral sense and of moral rules. 2nd, The need of the child being fitted for the performance of social duties. I have already mentioned that there is one division of the rules of conduct that the State enforces. Civilisation would end were murder and robbery, or violence, and all that we call crime not punished and prohibited. No one denies this, and I suppose no teacher would hesitate to train his pupils not to commit crime. The question will arise, How is he to train them? I do not think that question is very difficult to answer. If one go to a theatre, or attend a public meeting and watch the audience closely, he will see how much the most obdurate is moved by the tragedy or the story of a wrong done. Watch the audience during some pathetic play. See the tears of sympathy that the actor evokes. See the indications of detestation that the bad character in the play brings forth, and how some high sounding platitude on goodness receives rounds of applause. Now amongst children, even imperfectly trained, the same feelings exist, and can be evoked, though not perhaps in the same intensity. Before, however, the teacher can train children to appreciate goodness, or to learn the A B C, or to do any work, there must be discipline, order. The existence of order is of itself a moral training. Under it may be included many of the highest social virtues. Order implies obedience, It implies self restraint, self sacrifice for the good of others—for society. It is the basis of the State. That must be inculcated, and that of itself is the highest moral training children can get. Then there is another thing which the teacher must teach, and that is truthfulness. That lies at the foundation of the tone of a school. And what does not this virtue include? Truthfulness means accurate observation; it is the education the man of science requires. Accuracy and care practised in reporting, not only the doings of schoolfellows, but in observing things. That is the foundation or, which a scientific training rests. This virtue of truthfulness is often underrated; indeed, the question has been put, is it wise to always speak the truth? Professor Clifford in one of his essays thus replies:—"Truth is a thing to be shouted from the housetops, not to be whispered over rose water after dinner when the ladies are gone away." I need not point out how much that is untrue is spoken or suggested. No doubt false narration often arises from inaccurate observation. But one may act an untruth in the representation of feelings and in the utterance of beliefs; and where cloaking of opinion exists the moral sense is necessarily weakened. I mention this merely to show what may be included under the term truthfulness. I do cot require to urge that children should be trained to regard truth in all things as something which no expediency ought ever to permit them to tamper with, for if truth is tampered with the conscience is seared.

I have stated that the teacher must maintain order, and insist on truth being spoken. Order and truth are necessary if the school is to succeed. If they are absent not only will morals not be taught, but the rudiments of knowledge cannot be imparted. The teacher should also train his pupils to sympathy. To do this the methods are various, and amongst children it is easy to evoke sympathy, and were my paper on the methods of teaching I could point out different means that could be employed to attain this end. The method of teaching morals would, however, require to be treated in a separate paper. I have assumed that moral training can be given, and the objection against it being obtainable in secular schools I shall presently notice. If the teacher succeed in making his pupils orderly, truth speaking, and sympathetic, and kindly to all, I imagine that as children they will be moral, for I do not know any rule of conduct that could not be brought under one or other of the three heads of Order, Truth, and Sympathy. In moral training it is necessary that the teacher be an example to his pupils; teaching them a moral catechism. Punishing them for disorder or untruthfulness will not avail. To them example is everything. No doubt home influence will often counteract school training. But if the teacher is a living expositor of his teachings, his influence will be incalculable. In fact, living the life is the best method of teaching morality. St. Paul saw this, and hence he wrote, "Be ye living epistles." If one finds a school where the moral tone is low, one may at once conclude that the teacher has either shamefully neglected his duly, or that he himself has not acted up to a high moral standard. Let me now briefly glance at an objection that had been raised against the teaching of morals in secular schools. This is what may be termed the question of a "sanction." It is said that unless there is an answer given to the question, Why should I be virtuous? and this answer shows a law-giver who will reward or punish actions, there is no basis for morality, and it cannot be taught. A moral writer who wrote more than a century ago has answered page 7 this objection. He showed that if religion is necessary to morality, no one can be moral who is not religious. But there are men who may be deemed irreligious and yet they are moral. Therefore, religion is not necessary to morality, though morality may be necessary to religion. Now, I do not deny but that there are some men to whom the fear of consequences here and hereafter acts as a potent motive, keeping them in a straight path. Some are so constituted. Of them it may be said—

The fear o' he'l's a hangman's whip
To hand the wretch in order.

There are, however, others over whom the fear of punishment or the hope of reward exercises very little, if any, conscious influence. To do evil would be revolting to them, and some very strong motive would be requited to make them swerve from the path of virtue. Again, the motives that influence men are as various as the idiosyncracies of humanity. To one posthumous fame is all in all. He lives, as it were, in view of the future judgment that his successors will pass on his acts. Others look to an approving conscience as their sufficient sanction. While to many the approval of their fellows is an ample incentive to good conduct But what, I have all these things to do with teaching of children? It is admitted by almost all that the mysteries of religion children cannot understand. The term "sanction" even they could not comprehend, and though some vague terror, such as we see caused by foolish nursery tales of a blackfellow coming, might overshadow their minds, and induce right conduct, yet this feeling of terror is not conducive to true morality. Indeed one moralist argues that to found moral action on a fear of punishment is to destroy virtue. And I need not point out the absurdity of attempting to define to school children the different ethical positions of our numerous moral philosophers. No one perusing philosophical works can be blind to the fact that almost all moralists fail to appreciate the position of their opponents. And are young boys and girls to be launched upon this horizonless ocean of polemic morality? If so, I am afraid that no morals could be taught to children. But we have seen that no school can exist without moral training. No society can exist without laws. In a school order must be enforced, truthfulness and sympathy inculcated, and children thus trained. Then religion as a distinct branch may be left to other instructors. Indeed if a child is made to practise morality, right conduct will become a habit, and that acquired, he will not need to search for the sanction or the why or wherefore of his conduct. And after all is it not on virtue becoming a habit that all who hope to see moral progress must rely? Indeed it is assumed that in teaching morals a habit will be created that will make wrong conduct more and more difficult. Just as in teaching writing the school-master knows that the muscles must be trained, and that after a while they will act unconsciously in forming letters. At first the strokes are irregular, the pothooks straggling; but after many trials and much practice the writing will become even and in line. So in piano playing, the time arrives when the player has not to consider what keys of the piano to touch. And all that is termed intellectual training starts with the assumption that after long practice things are done unconsciously and without effort that at first required great application. We see this in learning languages, in solving geometrical problems, and in all our varied intellectual pursuits. Work chat once cost effort is afterwards done unconsciously. So must we rely on the practice of good—of right action. We must so train the moral sense that the doing of a right action requires no consideration ana no searching for a sanction or reason. We look upon him as the most skilled musician whose piano-playing is done without effort We regard him as the ablest linguist who has not to search for words nor rack his memory for the grammatical construction of his sentences. And must we not esteem him the most moral who does good unconsciously, and to whom the doing of an evil act becomes almost an impossibility? But indeed no teacher could teach anything if he had to explain to his pupils the basis of his teaching. What would be thought of a teacher teaching arithmetic to seven or eight year olds, by beginning a disquisition on necessary truth, or of a teacher beginning the teaching of the alphabet by a lecture on the science of language? Well, to begin moral training by examining the foundation of morals would be as wise a proceeding. Now the bringing in of religion into moral teaching is only necessary for this:—It gives the sanction, it is said; or it is urged by some that it adds to moral training the pathos and embellishments of moral actions. We need not quarrel with such a statement If teachers so succeed that all their pupils love good and shun evil, there can be a little delay afforded in finding the sanction and getting the flower of morality. To those who argue that faith—religious faith—and morality are inseparable, I can only again make the reply I have already made, that in humanity they are found apart I might, however, if I chose, prove by a comparison of criminal statistics that religious faith is not always sufficient to produce right action. Religious up-bringing—the inculcation of religious dogmas—has not been sufficient in the past to induce mankind to act morally. Indeed, I think it will be admitted that a history of the race viewed in its moral aspect will show that with knowledge morality has grown. Ignorance and vice have been more nearly allied than religion and virtue. And on what is the wel- page 8 fare of the race to depend? Is it not on knowledge and on moral training. The theory of children being kept little asses, and made at the same time little saints, has fallen as low as its author fell in Royal power. We must regard the teacher, then, not only as an imparter of knowledge and a developer of intellectual faculties, but as a moral trainer. To his care the well being of society is committed. For we believe that the advice of the Hebrew sage will have still to be followed, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." To accomplish this training, moral rules will have to be enforced. And these are numerous. From Confucius's doctrine of Reciprocity—"What you do not wish done to yourself, do not to others"; to Jesus's summary of the law, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you even so to them, for this is the law and the prophets"—Matt. vii. 12; to James's "pure religion and undefiled before the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep one's self unspotted from the world"; to Kant's, "so act that your action may form a law for humanity"; to Comte's, "live for others, live without concealment"; we may even come to Professor Clifford's, "put yourself in the place of others." Do not all these maxims enforce the practice of virtue—enjoin self-sacrifice for humanity? And if children obeyed them, might we not hope for the dawn of a brighter day for our race, when not only knowledge would be diffused, but the moral tone of our society would be raised, and its many foul blots wiped away. And with such moral advance the necessity of asking the question? Can morals be taught in our secular schools, would be recognised as useless as it we were now to ask, Can schoolmasters teach the A B C to their pupils?