Paradoxes & Praxis: The 21st Century Imperative for Educational Foundations


Education is not simply teaching or learning; it is ethics. We may think ethics and education as those particular moments that require ethical insight or decisions. In doing so, we fail to notice the ways pedagogy and ethics are similar, and how pedagogy is a form of ethics. Lipman, Sharp and Oscanyan (1980) state,

The aim of ethical inquiry … is an open-ended, sustained conversation of the values, standards, and practices by which we live, discussed openly and publicly so as to take all points of view and all facts into account. (p. #)

But, we cannot answer this question of ethics by identifying what we value or prefer. Ethics is not about an individual or a group’s preference. Neither is ethics a form of appraisal that classifies some things as good and others as not good. We propose that indoctrination is antithetical to both education and ethics, and that ethics is not a thing. Furthermore, valuing, preferring, appraising are too easily completed to be forms of ethics.

Ethics is something we do, or attempt to do, but we cannot complete. Freire (CITE) claims that “[b]ecause we are unfinished, because we can choose to be unethical, we are ethical” (p. #). Likewise, education is not completed by an individual or humanity; we are always unfinished pedagogical projects. Even in the face of unethical actions, we find ethics; just as in the absence of formal education we find knowing humans. While individuals and individual groups may have specific views about education, education is never limited to an individual opinion. Ethics and education are parallel in these ways.

Ethics is the effort to understand moral conduct and inquire into what behaviors are in accord with justice. This form of inquiry seeks to uncover and discover options and to critically assess the options—what happens if we choose this? Does it mean we cannot do that?—Because ethics is a way to expand moral imagination and possibilities with critical inquiry, we cannot identify ethics in what exists. In other words, ethics is about what ought to be, and may not exist in what is. To quote Lipman, Sharp and Oscanyan (1980), “Is is not the same as ought” and “ought cannot follow from is” (p. #). Thus, ethics is not a factual claim. 

Every ethical claim begins with an assumption that we cannot prove.

Furthermore, these initial assumptions are arbitrary even though they  may seem logical given a particular context such as culture. While ethical arguments are non-descriptive, they do endeavor to explore what would follow given particular assumptions and premises. While many theories of ethics exist, we will focus on two paradoxical theories: 

consequentialism and deontology.

Consequentialism seeks the consequence or end result that will offer the maximum benefit for the most people. Deontology seeks to treat each individual as an end thus respecting each individual. Both are concerned with means and ends. Theoretically, deontology treats individuals (people) as ends in themselves, not using any individual or group as means to a greater end or to benefit others. Reversing this maxim, consequentialist theory seeks the best end even if a minority must serve as means to this end. 

Consequentialism turns to objectivity, logic, and empiricism to ensure the general social welfare by calculating what Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill call utility. Utility is a theoretical calculation of the total pleasure minus total pain to measure the best for the most. Some forms of consequentialism seem logical—sending some to war, imprisoning or executing criminals, expelling a disruptive student.

Concerned with respect for each individual, deontologists view people as rational, moral and free; deserving and able to make their own choices. Nevertheless, such ethicists do not want people doing whatever they want whenever they want. Like the consequentialists, they are interested in the general social welfare. Immanuel Kant (1785), for example, stated, “So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law.” This categorical imperative demands contemplation of a potential action—imagine that others do the same, indeed everyone will do the same. If the result of everyone doing so in every place is not good, then the action is not ethical. In other words, we could not equally respect people if some people can do what others cannot. One of the most well known examples of deontology is the golden rule. Indeed so many versions of this rule exist that we need to call them the Golden Rules. A few examples follow:

Both theoretical positions, consequentialism and deontology, seek a form of greater good, but one seeks to accomplish this greater good for the majority (consequentialism) and the other through equally respected individuals (deontology). Both stances pose challenges and difficulties. We often find pleasure (at least in the West) expressing our individuality and doing things denied others. Additionally, if we take deontology to its extreme, ethics becomes so individualized it would be impossible on any collective level. As for consequentialism, if followed to its logical terminus, it could justify abhorrent behavior that benefits some at the expense of others. 

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