In New South Wales, Australia, classes on secular ethics have been offered to some students as an alternative to religious studies since 2010. A programme called ‘Primary Ethics’ is now taught to around 20,000 students in more than 300 schools. It introduces discussion of moral issues in a systematic way and provides an educational experience for students who were previously not provided with a taught alternative.
Should schools, particularly government schools, teach ethics? Or does doing so violate an important principle of government neutrality on matters moral and spiritual?
What is secular ethics?
It is only very recently that it has been thought appropriate to teach ethics in government schools. One plausible explanation for this is that traditionally ethics was conceived of as a set of sacred rules and admonitions. Out of a desire for religious neutrality, government schools shied away from teaching ethics.
The idea, however, that ethics must be religious, is wrong. For thousands of years philosophers have developed the field of secular ethics. Secular ethics doesn’t depend on the idea that God doesn’t exist, but instead is focused on providing reasons for ethical positions that are not religiously dependent (but may still be compatible with religious views).
Secular ethics is unavoidable. For instance, even if we believe in God’s existence, religious texts are typically incomplete, and sometimes contradictory, on moral questions. To take a biblical example, should a childless widow marry her deceased husband’s brother? Leviticus (xx, 21) says ‘no’, while Deuteronomy (xxv, 5) says ‘yes’. Arbitrating between the two requires something more than religious authority.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.