Moral and Ethical Development in a Democratic Society

"Moral and Ethical Development in a Democratic Society" (Lecture at the 1974 Educational Testing Service conference), printed in Moral Development (Princeton, NJ: ETS, 1975).


Properly understood, authority is to be distinguished from power, which is the capacity to coerce. In the case of authority, power is not experienced as coercive because it is infused, however dimly, with a moral intention that corresponds to the moral sentiments and moral ideals of those who are subject to this power. Education, in its only
significant sense, is such an exercise in legitimate authority. When educators say that they don’t know what their moral intention is, that they don’t know what kinds of human beings they are trying to create, they have surrendered all claim to legitimate authority. Moral development, as now conceived in our schools of education, is never associated
with ultimate mental intentions. (That would be authoritarian.) As a result, what we call moral development can easily give rise to moral deprivation—a hunger of the soul for moral meanings—which is far more devastating and dangerous than physical hunger. In the end, this hunger of the soul will satisfy itself by gratefully submitting to any passing pseudoauthority. But where on earth, in this bewildered age, are our educators going to discover this moral authority without which authentic education is impossible? Who is going to answer questions about the meaning of our individual and collective lives? I recognize both the cogency and poignancy of this lament: Ours is indeed a bewildered age. I would say this: If you have no sense of moral authority, if you have no sovereign ideas about moral purpose, you ought not to be educators. There are many technocratic professions in which, for all practical purposes, the knowledge of means suffices, but education is not one of them. An educator who cannot give at least a tentative, minimally coherent reply to the question, “Education for what?” and who cannot at least point to the kinds of persons a good education is supposed to produce, is simply in the wrong line of work. It is my impression that, in fact, most educators, being sincerely committed to the educational enterprise, are in the right kind of work. Most do know more than they feel free to admit about the aim of education to achieve this freedom as one of the major purposes of education reform today.

Hoover Institution [pdf]