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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Teaching Morality-absolutism or relativism?

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One of the main criticism of atheists and secular humanists is that we have no moral compass. Their claim often revolves around the fact that we are often moral relativists and that morality, at least for them, has to be absolute. While I do feel that there are some moral principles that would be considered "absolute", in many respects, all morality HAS to be relative. Wikipedia defines moral relativism as: the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.

Can morality be both absolute AND relative? I think it can. Certain things like murder seem to considered universally wrong, but there are other things that have changed in "wrongness" according to social, cultural, historical and personal circumstances. In fact, I'd say that murder is even subject to that. For example, under Sharia law a woman can be murdered for many transgressions. However, I think that for the most part, there are things that violate human values and for all practical purposes are universal. On the other hand, there are things such as homosexuality that are considered by many, especially the religious, to be morally wrong, but by others, such as most secular humanists, to be perfectly acceptable.

How, then, do we teach morality to our children? I think the answer is teaching moral reasoning. Dale McGowan, in his blog The Meming of Life, has an excellent post on teaching moral reasoning to children.

I think that teaching rules to children certainly has a benefit, but if a child only learns the rules, how do they make moral/ethical decisions in situations where they haven't been taught a rule that covers it? Teaching moral reasoning, on the other hand, gives them the tools they need to figure things out for themselves, and that is far more valuable than teaching them a limited set of rules.

We've been working with the Love and Logic system, which I think has enormous potential for teaching moral reasoning. At the core of the system is setting boundaries and consequences in such a way that you give your children the opportunity to learn behavioral lessons not based on rules, but based on consequences. Doing it this way teaches them, in a loving and empathetic way, how to figure out correct behavior for themselves. We've only taken a few classes, but the tools we've learned have been very helpful, and I can see a ton of potential for not only handling parenting issues. but for teaching moral reasoning.