Ethics and religious education
This guide is written to introduce the place of ethics in the religious education curriculum. It provides information on moral teachings of religions and also on religious and/or philosophical ethics. This guide is not about children’s moral development although there are many links with that area.
PART 1 TERMINOLOGY
The term ethics is used in different ways and some distinguish between morality and ethics, one term referring to societal norms and the other to personal behaviour. However there is little consistency about this distinction and for practical purposes the phrase ethics is used in this guide in the way that it is in the RE curriculum - ethics refers to religious and philosophical approaches to moral decision making and ideas of what constitutes the good, and particular issues of a personal, social or scientific nature which attract significant debate and dispute. In RE this is divided between systems of ethics (or theory), based either in religious teachings or philosophical theories and the application of these systems to particular issues (applied or practical ethics).
Ethics encompasses rules, principles, virtues and ideas about right and wrong, the good life, and what it is to be a good person.
Philosophical ethics might be used to describe ethical systems which do not have a major religious component, although there is considerable overlap with certain Christian ethical systems making this term a loose designation. Briefly it includes Ancient ethics (Plato and Aristotle), the ethics of Utilitarianism, Logical Positivism (Emotivism and subjectivism), Intuitionism and Prescriptivism. Some forms of Natural Law, Virtue Theory and Conscience also could be included.
This term is commonly used to describe specification that cover both religious and philosophical ethics but it might more accurately be used to refer to approaches to ethical thinking which are usually inspired by spiritual traditions and dependent to some degree on aspects of the belief system. It may also describe philosophical approaches to moral thinking favoured by a religious tradition.
For example, Christian ethics encompasses the moral teachings of different churches and the Bible, and a number of ethical systems that are closely linked in some way. These include Natural Moral Law, some ideas of Conscience, Virtue Theory and Situation Ethics. There is considerable plurality within Christian ethics, both in how the ethical systems work, and also in what different churches teach.
Some religious ethical approaches may be shared by religious traditions. For example, there are traditions of Virtue Theory in Sikhism and Buddhism.
Ethics in the curriculum
Ethics, morality, or the way someone conducts themselves is an important aspect of religious life and those who follow defined philosophical approaches to life or worldviews. All religious traditions offer principles or rules, and sometimes systems for living out daily lives. For some, the ethical dimension is a most important part of being religious and so it rightfully has a prominent position throughout the RE curriculum. In early key stages children will explore ideas of right and wrong and different stories and examples of moral living. Later in Key Stage 4 and 16+ levels ethics, it commonly constitutes modules in GCSE programmes and GCE AS/A2 level courses. At this stage it may be studied within the framework of one or two religions (eg. Christian Ethics or Muslim Ethics) or within the framework of religious ethics as a whole which includes philosophical ethics.
At AS and A2, ethics is usually of a philosophical kind along with a prominent Christian dimension. There are also specifications which include ethical approaches from the principal religions.
Ethics in the study of religions
Ethics, morals, values and attitudes capture an essential part of religious life, and are vital factors in life leading to discussion and disagreement over a whole range of issues. For 'religious' is sometimes seen as synonymous with being 'moral', and not to be religious is to renounce morality. For others religion and morality are separate things. There are also those who are opposed to religion and hold that being religious is the very opposite of being moral.
Within religion, accounts of the place of ethics varies, from those who see it principally as the application of theology, and therefore of secondary importance, and those who see it as a fundamental primary aspect of theology itself. Accounts of spirituality are sometimes seen in terms of being apart from the world, and sometimes in terms of being fully engaged with the moral dimension of the world.
For RE, ethics offers a fascinating opportunity to explore commonalities and differences in who people of different world views both approach life’s social and moral problems, and how they act in those situations.
Public interest in ethics
Public interest in ethics is evident from the frequency of ethical items that appear in the news in all areas of personal and social life including:
- in science in areas of new and emerging technologies such as genetic engineering and embryo research
- the start and end of life with recent public debates about changes to legislation affecting euthanasia and abortion legislation
- global and environmental ethics including questions about the legitimacy of recent and current conflicts and global emissions policy,
- and a very considerable interest in ethics in business and the role of business practices in precipitating the economic down turn
PART 2: APPROACHES TO TEACHING ETHICS
Using stories in moral decision making
One of the most common approaches to examining moral problems is through stories which exemplify good moral behaviour, or pinpoint moral mistakes. This is common in religious traditions which frequently have such stories within their sacred texts. Stories can also be constructed, or drawn from other sources in literature or news media to present a particular viewpoint. They might illustrate a certain person's behaviour, or be left open to use a tool for deciding what to do. Stories are opportunities to test rules, virtues, or principles that come from religious and/or philosophical sources. They provide creative imaginary constructs which pupils can enter into bringing different sets of ethical tools with them.
Examining and evaluating ethical theories
As well as applying moral principles to situations, the principles themselves may be evaluated. Are they consistent with other religious teachings? Do they fit an understanding of the world?
Ethical theories themselves are typically examined at AS and A2 level through a study of the authors’ accounts which tend to be summarised in the resources. Examining the theories entails a judgement about the assumptions underpinning the theory, including any views about human nature and the practicality of applying the theory to moral dilemmas which might be tested through real moral dilemmas and hypothetical ones.
In practical terms there is rich vein of TV and radio programmes on moral dilemmas and RE teachers will often construct sometimes imaginary and implausible (eg the balloon dilemma), and other times hypothetical yet plausible situations for testing theories (e.g. deciding who gets the last of the medicine in a field hospital in a war-torn country).
Examining ethical issues
Ethical issues vary considerably and almost always require considerable specialist knowledge to support any judgement. For example bioethical moral issues require a degree of scientific understanding. Studying ethics draws on knowledge from the disciplines that examine the features of those situations, be it science, geography, history or other subjects. Exploring ethical issues depends on a degree of intra-disciplinary knowledge and that knowledge is not always value free itself. This is particularly evident in areas involving the nature of the person and personhood, for instance in questions of life before birth (abortion, IVF, embryo research) and the end of life (euthanasia, assisted suicide). For RE teaching this means a degree of competence in how to use and draw on other knowledge sources.
The community of Philosophical Enquiry
The theory and practice of the community of philosophical enquiry (P4C) has become popular over the past 40 years and can be used to facilitate students’ exploration of ethical concerns. The focus on questioning and dialogue provide an opportunity to develop student thinking and debate. Note that in recent years, this approach has received some criticism for being “therapeutic” in nature or too distant from theological or spiritual approaches to learning and knowledge itself.
PART 3: RESOURCES
There is now a strong range of books and online resources supporting teachers and students of RE. Some are generic and others orientated at specific exam board specifications. What follows is a brief selection.
Further reading on philosophy for children
- Bowles, M (2008) Philosophy for children, Featherstone Education Ltd.
- Fisher, R (1997) Games for thinking, Nash Pollock Publishing
- Fisher, R (1996) Stories for thinking, Nash Pollock Publishing
- Law, S (2009) Really Really Big Questions, Kingfisher
- Stanley, S & Bowkett, S (2004) But Why? Teacher’s manual: Developing Philosophical Thinking in the Classroom, Network Education Press
Ethics books for Secondary RE
- Blaylock , L. etc al. (2005) Green Issues in Religion, RE Today
- Blaylock , L. etc al. (2004) Relationships, Self, Other and God, RE Today
- Bowie, R (2009)GCSE Religious Studies: Christianity: Ethics Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham
- Bowie, R (2009) GCSE Religious Studies: Roman Catholicism: Ethics Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham
- Mackley, J (2002) Codes for Living, RE Today
- Rivett, R (2005) Religion, Justice and Equality, RE Today
- Johnson, (2000) What the Churches say about Moral and Social Issues, RE Today
Ethics books for AS/A2 Level
- Bowie, R (2009) A2 Ethics for AQA Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham
- Bowie, R (2008) AS Ethics for AQA Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham
- Bowie, R (2004) Ethical Studies (second edition) Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham
- Bowie, R (2004) AS Philosophy and Religious Ethics for OCR Study Guide Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham
- Palmer, M (2005) Moral Problems, Lutterworth Press
- Palmer, M (2005) Moral Problems in Medicine, Lutterworth Press
- Vardy, P (1992) The Puzzle of Ethics, Fount
Ethics books for Higher Education
- Coward. H et al (1989) Hindu Ethics: purity, abortion and euthanasia, SUNY Press
- Crook , R (1990) An Introduction to Christian Ethics, Prentice Hall
- Denny, J (2008) Muslim Medical Ethics: From Theory to Practice, University of South Carolina Press
- Glover, J (1990) Causing Death and Saving Lives, Penguin
- Keown, Damien (2005) Buddhist Ethics: a very short introduction, OUP
- Mackie, J.L (1990) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin
- MacIntyre A (2002) A Short History of Ethics, Routledge
- Newman, L (2004) An Introduction to Jewish Ethics, Prentice Hall
- Schweiker, William (ed.) (2005) The Blackwell companion to Religious Ethics, Blackwells
- Singer, P (1994) Ethics (Oxford Readers) OUP
- Singer, P (1994) Practical Ethics, Oxford, OUP
- Singer, P (1993) The Blackwell Companion to Ethics, Blackwells
- Williams, B (2006) Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Routledge
- Bowie, R (2004) Teaching tolerance in citizenship, an induction pack for new tutors of Citizenship in ITE (www.Citized.info, Citized)
- Bowie, R (2007) Exploring Ethical Theories Part 1, REOnline, www.reonline.org.uk/ks5/reo_a_textone.php?166
- Bowie, R (2007) Exploring Ethical Theories, Part 2, REOnline, www.reonline.org.uk/ks5/reo_a_textone.php?167
- Bowie, R (2008) Four Questions to ask Ethical Theories, REOnline, Your text to link here...www.reonline.org.uk/ks5/reo_a_textone.php?255