Source: World Network of Religious Futurists

Dr. Richard Kirby
New Horizons in Educational Ethics
By Rev. Richard S. Kirby, Ph.D., June 24, 1999

This address was originally delievered to the Seattle Pacific University conference on the Social and Moral Fabric of Education, October 4th, 1997.


In thinking about the moral fabric of education in society, I have been drawn to the possibilities of systematic ethics in the Great Tradition. Classical ethics seems to me to be one appropriate way to advance our grasp of the social fabric of education. Indeed, I wish to present moral reflection as a profound power for social innovation. Thus, I offer an account of ethical imagination and science as a source of civilization building.

Thus, I am choosing as my arena for sustained thought or reflection the extant paradigms possibilities for educational ethics. I also hope to make a case for a paradigm shift, and in this way to place educational ethics within the possibilities of Kuhn's famous paradigm shift analyses in his seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [2nd ed., 1970].

My goal is to provide some fresh perspectives on educational ethics by using the 'horizon analysis' technique which I learned from the theology of Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner, the late Jesuit theologians. My purpose is to establish that educational ethics can be, and already is, an arena for ethical innovation as well as for ethical historiography.

In analyzing horizons we not only determine the scope of our knowledge and so approximate towards completeness of it, but also open up new vistas of thought.

Horizon analysis is also well suited to the search for the Supreme Good with which ethics is finally concerned. For we can easily trivialize ethics by diminishing it to a search for minor infractions and their punishments. Let us rather learn to view educational ethics as a search for the Final End, the Highest Good, of every school and its curriculum, and every student, teacher and school employee or stakeholder.

The Horizon of Ethical reflection

If we are to seek completeness in our subject, we need to look at the farthest reaches of ethical reflection in space, time and love. How stands the whole project of Ethics, sub specie aeternitatis?

We are perhaps, as ethicists, rarely called to account for our work. It does happen - but rarely. This is partly because ethics is seen as a closed, finished and almost antiquarian subject. It is not considered, usually, as a science, and therefore is not expected to be progressive or cumulative. Its empiricism is minimal, partly because it is considered a finished subject [we use Aristotle's Ethics but not his Biology] and partly, perhaps for fear of being accused of being "situation ethicists."

Furthermore, scientists and philosophers such as Bronowski & Bertrand Russell respectively play off science and ethics as inhabiting different worlds, the is and the ought. Frankly, I regard such analyses as shallow. Contemporary philosophy of science and epistemology is sufficiently far advanced for us to know that so-called objective science is an act of perceptual constructivism, an act of epistemological choice, an economic act with opportunity cost.

The distinction between value-based ethics and value-free science is no longer tenable, as we see from critical theory and a number of other sources. Instead, what we see is man as an agent and executant of radical and incessant choice, in the construction of reality (Berger and Luckmann) and in the construction of both science and society. Consequently (and I must telescope the argument here from syllogism to enthymeme), we have in every sense an ethic of creativity, imagination, freedom and choice.

Ethical and moral reflection point necessarily to the hierarchy of 'good''s, and thence to the Supreme Good, to the Absolute, the Tao, to the Logos, to Almighty God. Ethics has as its permanent horizon the infinite, the unlimited, the unconditioned, the eternal, the boundless. The grammar of excellence is the logic of perfection: what is good must seek what is better, what is best.

The Horizon of Accountability

I propose that ethics learn from business as well as teach it. In the short space I have here, I would ask ethicists to call themselves to accountability as carefully and rigorously as they call people in business, public, scientific and private life.

Just how GOOD are our ethics, and how exemplary our ethicists, as compared with say our baseball teams or teachers?

For ethics to have a sense of public accountability would immensely help its stature and its maturity. We can seek to develop a calculus of its effectiveness, and better tools to compare different ethical systems.

The Horizons of Intelligence and Innovation

Intelligence in all its varieties is a major horizon of ethics. But let us seek an intelligent ethics, as well as intelligent schools; our new paradigm gives us the chance to define in a new way moral intelligence, with its inevitable ascent to divine intelligence.

Dare we say we have a profoundly, maximally intelligent educational ethics? If not, let us fashion one.

I would suggest that we consider innovation as a species of the genus intelligence. Innovation is the extreme, the genius, both of intelligence and creativity: in this way it harmonizes the two approaches to reality of the brain's two hemispheres, the logical and the creative. Can we not have an innovative ethics as well as an ethic of innovation? The we need to be comfortable with process and change. If we are not comfortable with innovation in educational ethics - and is not God the One Who makes all things new? - then perhaps we can meditate on the closing lines of a famous poem:

----"At last he rose and twitched his mantle blue,
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new'"
- John Milton, Lycidas
The Horizon of Excellence

The Journal of Business Ethics tells us that the managerial philosophy of Total Quality Management is 'just what the ethicist ordered'. The pursuit of Excellence is a goal common to education and ethics alike. The pursuit of excellence sounds strangely like page 1 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: the search for the highest or supreme good. Moral growth is the necessary concomitant of true ethical searching.

This implies a new public image for ethics: not simply as an arena of failure (which Ethics Committees promote positive ethical achievement and exploration, rather than fear and anticipate failure?) Consider that the only item the World Wide Web offered me on 'Educational Ethics' or School Ethics was the following:


After hearing concerns from a teachers' association that a proposed ethics policy for teachers and other employees infringed on First Amendment rights and equated professionalism with loyalty to management, the Montgomery County school administration has agreed to try a rewrite.

School Board members, too, said the draft ethics statement - presented during the summer - needed more work.

Board member Donald Lacy suggested showing the draft to all division employees, not just teachers. Christiansburg member David Moore suggested streamlining the four-page document into a short and more general statement on ethics.

Montgomery County Education Association President B.J. Mullins, a teacher at Harding Elementary School, said her group felt two sections - one of which said employees "shall refrain from . . . negative idle gossip regarding the function of the division" - went too far beyond the National Education Association's recommended ethics policy.

The draft, she said, inappropriately linked adherence to the ethics of a profession with loyalty to an employer.

Superintendent Herman Bartlett said the intent was to prepare the school system to move toward a more site-based management scheme, where teachers would have more of a role in decision making and thus more responsibility. The ethics policy, he said, would more clearly define how employees and the employer should interact

end excerpt

How sad to see ethics defined as a restrictive rather than an illuminative influence!

The task ahead for educational ethics is to consider the nature of excellence not only in education, but in ethics itself.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

What is the ethics of the ethicist, if I may adapt this ancient plea for a policing of the police.

The time has come for a sustained act of critical self-reflection by the ethical community.

What would be more or less excellent for ethical research?

What is the highest good for ethicists qua ethicists?

Sir Richard Livingstone, in his Greek Ideals and Modern Life, speaks of the ancient Greeks' pursuit of Arete, the virtue appropriate to any given activity. We seek as educational ethicists to know the Arete of educational ethics.

The Horizon of Aesthetics

A poem being worth a thousand words, let me read you one which tells the story well.

"Come, let me read the oft-read tale again,
The story of that Oxford scholar poor,
Of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain,
Who, tired of knocking at Preferment's door,
One summer morn forsook
His Friends, and went to learn the gypsy lore,
And roam'd the world with that wild brotherhood...

For early didst thou leave the world, with powers
Fresh, undiverted to the world without,
Firm to their mark, not spent on other things;
Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt,
Which much to have tried, in much been baffled, brings.
O life unlike to ours! ... Thou waitest for the spark from Heaven..."

- Matthew Arnold, The Scholar-Gypsy

Matthew Arnold, 1822-88, was the famous son of a famous father, Arnold of Rugby, Thomas Arnold, DD, (1795- 1842), Headmaster of Rugby school, a reformer of private education and inspiration of the novel Tom Brown's Schooldays. I want only to say that great educational art such as Hughes's book and the life of the Arnolds is a part of the ethics of education. For ethics and aesthetics cannot long be separated.

The Horizon of Finance

There is an old Jesuit saying that everything begins in metaphysics and ends in politics. That needs to be updated, perhaps, to the dictum that everything begins with money and ends in the media. Certainly, power grows not out of the barrel of a gun but out of the bank accounts of the wealthy. And perhaps it is not entirely inappropriate, as James Robertson helps us to see in his book Future Wealth, that ethics, like Elijah of old against the prophets of Baal, needs to demonstrate its power in the corridors of power. An ethic which shows that goodness pays is indeed good news. I teach this to my students in the following Einsteinian idiom: The Excellent is the Ethical is the Economic.

Therefore, let the nascent community of professional educational ethicists advance from medico-financial ethics to the ethics of educational finance as a positive science.

A call for documents on the subject of educational finance on the World Wide Web through the Excite Search Engine, gave us some of the data shown in the Appendix. It is a more potent subject than educational ethics! And the Financing of Public Education in an Era of Change appears as a topic awaiting its ethicists and its ethics. Here is our opportunity.

The Horizon of Health

Educational ethics, being a search for the Supreme Good, is a search for holiness, and therefore for wholeness, and so to health. Here educational ethics meets medico-financial ethics - the latter a new field at the University of Washington. And - should not ALL our schools be 'schools of health'?

The Horizon of the United Nations

Educational ethics, in our global village, is intrinsically international. Let us see what this means. The horizon of every nation is all other nations. With global teleconferencing and distance learning it is really true that every human being is potentially a student of any teacher sooner or later, if all lectures are taped, as is now possible. Furthermore, the ethical codes of all nations belong to the whole world, literally and symbolically, of educational ethics. The United Nations and UNICEF, UNESCO and international educational associations provide resources to allow those common educational ethics to be shared. The United Nations University Millennium Project has called for a decade-long study of the moral and ethical concerns of the human family as among the most intractable and neglected of human issues.

The Horizon of Science: a horizon of Pedagogy

Pedagogy seems to be similar to William James's view of psychology: an infant science. If we can allow ourselves to see each classroom experience as an experiment, because a new thing, ion experimental social psychology, we will move towards a new horizon of educational and pedagogical science. Therefore philosophy of science is an important subject for educational ethics.

The Horizon of Technology

It is a commonplace of academic discussions, indeed almost a platitude, that technology changes education. The verdict is not yet in on computers in the classroom, but it can hardly be denied that the world of emergent technologies is important for educational ethics as well as education. Thus our colleague at the World Future Society, Dave Robertson of, has established a program to create an ongoing Internet ethics presence which he calls nethics. The ethics of Internet education will be a part of this. Many opportunities and hazards must be clearly identified and dealt with.

Conclusion: The horizons of Theology and the schools of the 21st century

Philosophy of education is a highly developed research field and indeed an industry. Theology of education is a newer field but a growing one. It points us to transcendental ideals for schools and every aspect of their life; and it points us to the ways by which those ideals can be realized, in the community of the Ideal, namely the mystical Body.

Theology of education implies the definition and creation of Schools of transcendental excellence - amid the lived life of an educational ethics of superlative, infinite, consummative excellence.

If every theological statement is really a call to community, than I think it is clear that there lies before us in the wake of this conference a splendid opportunity to re-articulate the field of educational ethics as a progressive, intelligent science, whose mission is to heed God's new Word about the moral excellence of the schools and students and teachers of tomorrow. A new day is dawning for education, if it can strive for moral excellence while maintaining the clarity of thought which we associate with business, science and engineering, without sacrificing the splendid imagination of the artist which helps design our schools as places of the heart where students and teachers in concert learn to follow the calling of God, from glory unto glory.

Educational ethics is a nascent community of international stature whose time has come. It is a community of rigorous, imaginative moral reflection which has been born here.

Religionless Christianity, as Bonhoeffer; conceived it, provides a medium of thought by which sacred and secular educational ideals can be harmonized. This is the task of educational ethics. The process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead helps us to accept change as much as substance as a cardinal concept of ethics. Indeed, the movement from process to vector goes further and provides for us the impetus and the conceptual apparatus to launch moral acceleration as a power of the soul as we design our schools and academies ever more in harmony with the leading of the Divine Spirit.

© 1998-2008 by World Network of Religious Futurists.

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