Deconstructing ‘Moral’ Education and its Relevance for Our Times

Moral education is a much contested terrain; nevertheless it is a theme that has captured the attention of educationists from the beginning of time. In the contemporary situation it becomes crucial for us to redefine its meaning, and innovate it to suit the challenges of the present times. The article that follows shows us the path by throwing light on this interesting and compelling theme.

Nivedita Dwivedi is working in the field of education. She has completed MA in Elementary Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. 

My work place is just a 15minute drive away from my residence. I commute daily by my personal car. Considering that I normally enjoy driving, this short drive should not even register in my mind as something out of the ordinary. But unfortunately, every ordinary has somehow found a way to get the prefix of extra attached to it.
This half-an-hour drive has increasingly taken the shape of an ordeal for me. To explain why, let me narrate a personal experience. While returning home from some place one day at about 9.00-10.00 PM at night, I encountered a red signal and stopped my car, waiting for it to go green. No other vehicle bothered to stop and all the vehicles were conveniently passing by.

One of the vehicles, with a few youngsters in it, blaring loud music, unfortunately got stuck behind my vehicle and started honking profusely. Unfortunately for them, I didn’t move and consequently they also had to wait for the signal to turn green to cross it. As soon as the signal turned green, they immediately and angrily overtook my car but did-not cross it till the time they had hurled choicest of abuses at me. This incident and many more similar incidents of road rage, sometimes even resulting in people hitting each other, got me thinking about the reasons such behavior.
Apart from this particular incident, there are numerous other things which get me to think on the reasons behind them. I am generally a regular newspaper reader and like to keep myself abreast of the happenings around the nation and the world. Certain newspaper reports leave behind a strong impression on me and get me thinking. For instance, the wash-out of the recent monsoon session of Parliament without any constructive work done got me thinking on the alternative scenarios that could have occurred and why only this scenario materialized? It got me thinking on whether what happened was desirable and whether it was what should have happened? Were there other possibilities that could have resulted in some other outcomes?
Similarly, when there are brutal crimes committed and the perpetrators don’t even have second thoughts on the nature of the acts committed by them, it gets me to think whether this is something that is desirable for the individual or the society?

Why do those individuals behave the way they do? Was it possible that some alternative behavior could have been extracted out of them? What are the factors that influence a person’s thoughts and actions? What role does the society have in shaping those thoughts and actions? Is education in any way related to shaping of thoughts and actions? Does education have any role in building virtues/morals/ ethics? (For my purpose, I will use these terms interchangeably in this paper). Is it at all essential to build these into an individual or he/she can be left alone to acquire these through his/her own experiences with life?
These are some of the questions that I want to engage with, and through my paper, I want to arrive at some sort of a conclusion that satisfies my curiosity.

What is meant by moral education? The first obstacle in dealing with ‘moral education’ is the very definition and scope of this term. This field of enquiry has been widely studied and commented upon, but without a concurrence on a single and concrete definition of the term that can be used to define the scope of this term at all times and at all places. Oxford dictionary defines ‘moral’ as ‚concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour. It also says that it is ‘concerned with or derived from the code of behaviour that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society’. This second definition would mean that morals could be taken to mean certain codes of conduct or behaviours that are generally acceptable or are sanctioned in a particular society. This would mean that moral education would be the teaching of the socially accepted code of behaviour, and would vary from one society to the other, for example, rational thinking meaning the ability to think based on reason and logic, might be considered as an integral virtue in one society, and hence proposed to be cultivated in all the individuals of the society.

However, in some other society, submission to authority or obedience may be considered as a sacrosanct virtue and hence, the society might consider it desirable to be cultivated in all individuals. This kind of society-imposed moral education, however has an element of authoritarianism and coercion. It does not leave room for an individual to decide what is right and wrong, based on his/her own judgements. For these reasons, for me, it would not qualify as something desirable as an aim of education to be widely imparted to pupils. On the other hand, if we take morality to mean as something ‘concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour’, we could make a case for it to be desirable as an aim of education.

I will try to arrive at the reason for desirability of this aim, through a process of negation. Let us assume that a particular society is not interested in what kind of behaviour the individuals of that society indulge in. This would be the case only if the behaviour of individuals has an impact only on that particular individual and does-not affect the society/other individuals who are a part of the society. This might be true for certain actions/behaviours of an individual but can certainly not be true for all actions or behaviours.

Society is a collection of individuals and is built by the interactions of those individuals among themselves. Hence, we can establish that under no scenario can a society be completely unmindful of the behaviours of the individuals forming a part of it, because at least a subset of those behaviours will definitely affect the society. As a result, it would definitely be concerned with the kind of actions/behaviours its members are indulging in. The National Curricular Framework also recognizes ‘basic concerns of education’ as ‘to enable children to make sense of life and develop their potential, to define and pursue a purpose and recognize the right of others to do the same’ (Aims of Education, NCF, 2005). A prerequisite for developing a sense of life, developing and realizing one’s potential, defining a purpose for oneself and equally importantly recognizing others’ rights to do the same would require the development of an ability in an individual to define rights and wrongs for himself/ herself, reason based on these rights and wrongs, make judgements according to them and finally act according to them. Having established the desirability of the development/inculcation of ‘principles of right and wrong behaviour’ in the individuals of a society, there are a number of further questions that arise. What are these ‘principles of right and wrong behaviour’? Is there a set of such principles? If yes, who decides these? Can they be taught? Are they acquired? If they can be taught, what is the right way of teaching them? Should there be a separate curriculum designed to teach them? Can there be such a curriculum acceptable to all? If at all, a set of such principles cannot even be built, then how can these be imparted? I will now engage with these multifarious doubts in my essay below.
Moral education taught or acquired? The foremost question that can be raised when discussing this topic is whether morals can be taught as a part of the formal education system, meaning schools, colleges etc., or are they acquired during the course of life? At a cursory glance, it might appear that morals, ethics and virtues are acquired as we go through life’s experiences. Family, society etc. have a major role in shaping an individual’s morality. I agree with this proposition that certain things are acquired by observation, through day-to-day experiences and through interactions with one’s family, friends and the society in general. But I would also like to convey the point that schools and the education system are not only a part, but a very important part of the society. If they are not the only place where morality of an individual can be developed, then it is also not true that schools don’t have anything to do with the moral growth and development of an individual. Anthony O’ Hear tries to explain this point in the following words, ‚new applications of morality and further discussion of moral questions will arise necessarily both in school life and in subjects studied at school. This last point means that moral matters cannot be avoided in school, even if it was thought desirable that they should be. Morality is intrinsic both to the conduct of teachers and teaching, and, in various ways, to the content of the various subjects being taught‛ (O’Hear, p. 175). This also leads us to the question of whether values can be taught or are they acquired. I would like to suggest here that according to me, it is not one or the other, but a combination of both. Even the subjects that we study in school have a moral aspect attached to them.

To teach a student about Gandhi’s life and works, it will become necessary for the teacher to talk about his beliefs. Hence, even if a teacher is not holding a class on non-violence, for example, yet it will become imperative for him/her to talk about the concept of nonviolence and how it was integral to Gandhi’s personality. Herein, again talking about non-violence is not the same as teaching it, but what can be done is to have a discussion on violence and nonviolence by engaging the students and soliciting their viewpoints. The teacher here has the most important role of a guide, who is trying to engage with the students and develop their thoughts, discussing the pros and cons of the positions being taken by them and in the process making them think and develop the horizons of their minds. It gets very important for the teacher here to not force his/her viewpoints on the students, but to help them develop their own. This, I would call a process of teaching. On the other hand, morals, values and ethics are also a part of the personality of an individual.

Hence, in the outward manifestation of an individual’s personality, in his/her daily interactions, behaviours etc., there will always be an imprint of a person’s value base. In school settings also, teachers and students interact with each-other. A teacher not only imparts curricular knowledge to the students but also continuously leaves an imprint on the minds of the students through his/her behaviour. The students observe every aspect of a teacher’s behaviour and develop impressions based on those observations. Hence, the student is continuously acquiring certain values through observation. The development process for a student will involve an interaction of the taught and the acquired. The path will be smooth to the extent there is harmony between the taught and the acquired. More the discrepancy between the two, more will be the conflict in the minds of the student, thereby hindering his/her development. The role of the teacher here acquires a great significance in maximizing the harmony and minimizing the conflict. Hence, schools and teachers play a complementary role to the role of family, friends and society in shaping the morality of an individual. Content of ‘moral education’ in schools When we talk of ‘moral education’ with respect to schools, a common and legitimate concern arises as to what shall be the content of ‘moral education’ if it is to be imparted in schools. Various doubts have been raised at the teaching of ‘moral education’ in schools and the challenges therein. ‚For Ryle, for instance, lessons in morality face several insurmountable challenges. First, the idea of teaching anything involves the passing on of expertise.

However, any notion of moral expertise seems deeply dubious. If such expertise did exist we would expect, as Ryle says, for it to be institutionalized and for there to exist lecturers in honesty and professors in courage. A related point concerns assessment. If education must involve assessment then so must moral education‛ (Winch & Gingell, 2008, p. 134). But this argument would be valid only if we consider moral education as a separate body of knowledge to be imparted as other subjects like Physics, Mathematics etc. But I am not advocating for a separate subject to be included on ‘moral education’. In the position paper of National Focus Group on ‘Education for Peace’, they have distinguished ‘peace education’ from ‘education for peace’ as follows: ‚Education for peace, as distinguished from peace education, acknowledges the goal of promoting a culture of peace as the purpose shaping the enterprise of education‛ (Position Paper by National Focus Group on Education for Peace, 2006). Similarly, I am not talking about ‘moral education’ as a separate subject but an education that enables an individual to think, reflect and reason, to decide the right and wrong for himself and herself and to act according to these. It also implies a tolerance for the opinions and viewpoints of others, an ability to ‘agree to disagree’, to be able to live in peace and harmony within diversity of opinions.

It would imply developing an ability of selfintrospection and an ability to engage with diverse ideas, in the process also subjecting one’s own ideas and opinions to test. It also implies the development of an ability to recognize an individual’s liberty over his/her own thoughts and actions, as long as they do-not affect others. Mill emphasizes the importance of this liberty in his work ‘On Liberty’ (Mill, 1859). The recognition of this liberty would enable an individual to be able to live in harmony with diverging and even conflicting viewpoints, without feeling the need to force one’s own opinions on others. However, the liberty to hold opinions needs to be accompanied with a responsibility, that of subjecting those opinions to the rigor and turmoil of being debated and discussed, lest they turn into static entities (op.cit). This is the spirit that needs to be developed and inculcated through creating an atmosphere of engagement, discussions, constant generation of new ideas and refinement of the existing ones. Schools and teachers have an indispensable role to play in this, along with families and the society.

Another fear while talking about ‘morality’ with respect to schools is the fear that this might lead to ‘indoctrination’. Barrow and Woods talk about the necessary conditions which are required to be fulfilled for the taught to qualify as indoctrinated (Barrow & Woods, 1988). Teachers need to guard themselves in that they don’t come out as forcing their opinions on the students but enabling them to develop their own by bringing out all the facets of the topic under discussion. This will of course involve age-specific strategies to be used by a teacher, at the same time making sure not to stifle the curiosity of the students or force them to blindly believe in something. For example if the an attitude of appreciating the viewpoint of others is to be developed in the students, it need not be forced as something which is desirable, without explaining to the students why it is thought to be essential and what could happen in a scenario where people refuse to even listen to each-other. The students should then be left to judge for themselves the need for developing this ability and whether they would like to incorporate it in their personalities. This will be an age-specific process. At a young age, students might not be able to grasp the abstract arguments in the debate, so they can be encouraged to speak to and listen to each-other, without going into the abstractness of it, but as and when they develop the requisite maturity, all points (for and against) should be opened before them, to enable them to make an informed decision. This ‘stage-specific approach’ is also suggested by the National Focus group in ‚Education for Peace‛ (Position Paper by National Focus Group on Education for Peace, 2006).

The discussion on content of ‚moral education‛ also poses a question whether there exist certain ‘core values’ that can be universally accepted as essential for the complete and all-rounded personality development of an individual. For the society to exist and progress, it is essential that the individuals comprising the society are able to live together in peace and harmony. Every society will have its share of disagreements and differences, but these differences will not be able to shake the edifice of the society, if its individuals recognize the inevitability of these differences and are able to co-exist despite these. The National Focus Group on ‘Education for Peace’ proposes the concept of peace as the all-powerful aim towards which the education system should be geared. It explains ‘Education for Peace’ as, ‚Education for peace is holistic. It embraces the physical, emotional, intellectual, and social growth of children within a framework of human values. Recognizing peace as holistic carries two major implications for education for peace.

(a) Peace involves all aspects and dimensions of human existence in an inter -dependent way. Only those who are at peace with themselves can be at peace with others and develop the sensitivity it takes to be just and caring towards nature. Spiritual and psychological peace is neither stable nor viable without social, economic, and ecological peace. (b) Peace implies reciprocity. Values like love, freedom, and peace can be had only by giving them to others. Peace for oneself that excludes peace for others is a dangerous illusion.

Education for Peace, hence, has a two-fold purpose:

(a) to empower individuals to choose the path of peace rather than the path of violence; and
(b) to enabling them to be peacemakers rather than the consumers of peace. Education for peace is, in this sense, an essential component of holistic basic education that aims at the comprehensive development of persons‛ (op.cit, pp 4-5).
The fostering of the spirit of peaceful coexistence, the ability to listen to and understand each-other, the ability to empathize, the ability to discern between right and wrong is the aim that is being looked at. A lot here depends on the pedagogical style. The concepts which are thought desirable like love, respect for all humanity, tolerance etc. need not be imparted or propagated, without explaining their desirability. If there are conflicting viewpoints, they need not be squashed out rightly but discussed and debated. In my view, Education for Peace shall be sustainable only if it is accompanied by Education for the development of thinking and rational individuals, who have the ability and the intent to decide what is right and wrong for themselves and act accordingly. It is also important that the beliefs and value systems according to which they decide to live do not acquire the characteristic of being static and closed.

Hence, the development of the abilities to challenge and be challenged, to discuss, debate and refine ideas, thoughts and viewpoints continuously, to listen and be heard, to reflect and introspect, is essential for the growth and development of a society as well as an individual. Integration of ‘moral education’ in school curriculum For this section, I would like to borrow from the work of Tyler. Tyler has given useful suggestions for effective curriculum design, in his book ‚Basic principles of curriculum and instruction‛ (Tyler, 1949). According to him, the first important step is to formulate the objectives that need to be fulfilled through the teaching of a particular subject. He states that ‘the most useful form for stating objectives is to express them in terms which identify both the kind of behavior to be developed in the student and the content or area of life in which the behavior is to operate’ (op.cit, pp 46-47). Tyler here illustrates the use of a two-dimensional chart in stating objectives for a high school course in Biological Science. As he states, one of the objectives of a course on biological science could be to develop ‘social rather than selfish attitudes in this area’ (op.cit p 48). For example, if the teacher is imparting knowledge of ‘genetics’, it would require him/her to talk about the social implications of developments in this field, social connections of the same, and assist the development of a desire in the student to aid those developments in this area, that contribute to social welfare. Thus, moral aspects of the subject matter can be converted into specific and concrete objectives and translated into practice.

Motivation for an individual to act morally After all of the above, let us assume that an individual understands the importance of ‘moral behavior’, has complete knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, according to his/her value judgments in a particular situation, but still decides to do the wrong thing. This might happen in two cases. In the first case, there might arise a scenario wherein a person is pulled in opposite directions by conflicting moralities. For instance, let us assume there is an individual who ardently believes that supporting corruption is wrong in whatsoever manner. He has followed this principle throughout his life. Now, a situation arises, where his father needs urgent medical attention, otherwise it might even prove fatal and there is only one hospital where he can be admitted. He reaches the hospital but finds out that the hospital authorities refuse to admit his father till the time they are given some extra money. What does he do in the above situation? If he chooses to pay the extra money to save his father’s life, has he indulged in immoral behavior? There may be other options like paying money at that instant, and then reporting to the police later, and so on and so forth, but that is beside the point. The point I am trying to make here is that an individual might be faced with grave dilemmas in his/her lifetime, where he/she does-not know what is right and wrong, what is moral and what is immoral. In such situations, I feel the individual is the best judge for himself/herself.
One should be able to justify one’s actions to one’s own conscience. I believe that a person can cheat the entire world, act falsely and even justify it in front of the world, but will never be able to cheat one’s own conscience. In the second case, a person might fully understand the difference between right and wrong but might consciously choose to behave wrongly. This might happen if the individual perceives the benefits of behaving wrongly are more than for behaving rightly. This might develop into a habit and consequently the person’s value base might itself weaken with time. So, how can a person be motivated to act rightly and not just know what is right? This would essentially come with the development of a feeling of empathy. Anthony O’ Hear has talked eloquently about this in his paper on ‘Moral Education’ (O’Hear). The development of moral principles is not enough, but a moral insight and sensibility needs to be developed. As O’ Hear explains, ‘the sense of sympathy which is at the bottom of moral behavior is fundamentally an other regarding sense, a realization that the feelings and views of others should be taken into account’ (op.cit, p183).
In a nutshell, it means the development of an ability to empathize with the feelings of others and act as one would want others to act towards oneself.


To summarize the above paper, I have attempted to arrive at a definition of the ‘moral education’ that I am talking about, how it is a combination of teaching and acquisition, what should be its content and how it can be inculcated in the school curriculum. I have also, towards the end, presented my views on how an individual can be motivated to not only ‘know’ right from wrong, but also act on that knowledge.


Aims of Education, NCF, 2005. (2005).
National Curriculum Framework. Barrow, & Woods. (1988).
Indoctrination. In Barrow, & Woods, An Introduction to Philosophy of Education (pp. 204-212).
Mill, J. S. (1859). On Liberty. O’Hear, A. (n.d.). Moral Education.
In A. O’Hear, Philosophy of Education, Major Themes in the Analytic Tradition, Vol IV: Problems of Content and Practices (pp. 175-186). (2006).
Position Paper by National Focus Group on Education for Peace. New Delhi: Publication Department, NCERT. Tyler, R. W. (1949).
What Educational Purposes should the school seek to Attain? In R. W. Tyler, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (pp. 3-62).
Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Winch, C., & Gingell, J. (2008). Moral Education.
In C. Winch, & J. Gingell, Philosophy of Education, The Key Concepts, Second Edition (pp. 133136). USA and Canada: Routledge.

This article is published in The New Leam, SEPTEMBER 2017 Issue( Vol .3 No.27 – 28) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at

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