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  • Writer's pictureStephan Collina


I've been fascinated by the result of our lack of moral education ever since I was a philosophy student, and probably even before. How do we make judgments of right and wrong? And what educational framework exists for us to consider moral problems?

If you read or listen to educators who have studied the subject, they will tell you that children learn morality not through their formal education, but from observation. In other words, by watching the actions and listening to the opinions of those around them - most obviously their family and friends but also their teachers or the media programs they watch. Of course, what people say and what they do are very different, so children learn from watching this divergence too. A father's "Don't hit your classmates" instruction is a very clear morally-based statement, easily understood by a child. But if that child later sees the same father abusing his mother, he learns two completely different lessons: "It's OK to hit people provided you're not found out," or, more generally, "It's OK to say one thing but do another."

For those who slavishly follow a prescriptive religion, our world-view and thus our judgments of right and wrong actions are largely determined for us, even though we rarely follow them. Worse, those religions that begin as statements of love, kindness and tolerance of our fellow humans have historically been misinterpreted and mistranslated by those with selfish personal agendas, to the point where their original meaning has been entirely subverted or lost. Historically and obviously this has been true for most major religions. As a framework for making reliable moral judgments they are therefore largely if not entirely unreliable, even if the religion's adherents believe they are.

For those who do not follow a prescriptive religion, the dilemma is greater. Philosophers have argued for millennia over whether or not certain actions are obviously or necessarily good or bad, and offered arguments such as the "greater good" or the "greater happiness of the majority" prove this is so. None are very convincing.

So are we left with the possibility that there is no formal basis for making moral judgements? I do not believe so. If one accepts three premises: (a) humans are social animals and need to live in groups to thrive both physically and mentally, (b) our individual and collective physical and mental evolution are desirable, and (c) a healthy planet is our home and (to all realistic intents and purposes) our boundary, then may be possible to build an argument that certain actions will always be wrong.

How practical such a framework will be in practice is of course highly problematic. even so, it is worth an attempt. Achieving a result will not come from individual authors, but from a collective effort: one that recognises that (a) all individuals would gain from an education that considers multiple forms of moral frameworks, (b) collective, democratically-derived, educated opinions are useful determinants, and (c) that artificial intelligences may be able to consider more factors than we in making specific judgments based upon the precepts derived from (a) and (b).

Some research into these possibilities is being conducted with theoretically and practically. As we evolve into ever greater dependency upon technology and probably implanted technologies, dissemination and understanding of the results of this research will be vital in overcoming the prejudice and biases that exist in our global political and economic systems, system which have evolved to deal with conflict but necessarily tend to lead towards rather than resolve conflict.

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