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Children and the Development of Ethical Decision-Making

Do you remember being in elementary school, and learning “right” from “wrong”? Maybe you had to stay inside during recess because you were acting up in class, or your teacher made you apologize to Susie for taking her crayons when she wasn’t looking? You may not have known it at the time, but it is through these types of interactions at an early age in which children start learning moral rules.

Do you remember being in elementary school, and learning “right” from “wrong”?  Maybe you had to stay inside during recess because you were acting up in class, or your teacher made you apologize to Susie for taking her crayons when she wasn’t looking? You may not have known it at the time, but it is through these types of interactions at an early age in which children start learning moral rules.

Dr. Sue Knight, of the University of South Australia, has helped take this elementary concept of teaching “right and wrong” to the next level through her work with Primary Ethics, an Australian organization delivering K-6 Ethics classes as an alternative to religious education in New South Wales public schools.

Primary Ethics, formed in 2010, is a not-for-profit organization composed almost entirely of volunteers, managed by a small group of paid staff. Primary Ethics was founded after parents began requesting an alternative to the required weekly hour of special religious education (SRE) in New South Wales public education. Dr. Knight, trained in philosophy and education, is the lead curriculum author for Primary Ethics. The K-6 curriculum consists of age-appropriate lessons on ethical concepts and issues. 

Dr. Knight visited Penn State on Friday, April 24th to present her Keynote address, entitled “After Lipman: A Developmental K-6 Ethics Curriculum” at the 8th Annual Moral Literacy Colloquium.  This talk was part of the Richard B. Lippin Lectureship in Ethics.

In her talk, Knight discussed why it is important to have an ethics curriculum, especially one aimed at primary school children. She began by relating modern societal questions/issues that adults deal with, such as voting and dietary habits.  She asked, “Do voters have an ethical obligation to be educated?” As an American college student, I know I have been told my entire life that it is my “duty” to vote, yet a large portion of people my age don’t vote or even bother to learn about the political issues that directly affect them. Since it is our right as American citizens to vote and elect the leaders of our country, is it wrong or unethical to take that right for granted? Knight also questioned our society’s dietary norms: “Why are we [most Americans and Australians] happy to eat pigs but not dogs?” What are the moral effects of this habit? Is it just a part of our culture? Other societies do support the consumption of animals such as dogs, and some groups don’t support the consumption of any type of meat at all. Does that mean one of these cultures is “wrong”? Knight believes that it is important for us to think about these questions; as she tells us “not just to think, but to think well.”

Knight explained that children start learning moral rules at a very young age. Early on, children give reasons for their judgment, such as, “hitting is wrong, and its wrong to make someone feel sad.” As children grow, moral education becomes more complex, with the understanding of intention, motives, and circumstances, such as, “hitting is wrong, but Anna took Susie’s cookie, so Susie only hit Anna to get even.”  Knight posed the question, “If from the earliest years in the classroom we were to discuss ethical capabilities, might we enhance [students] and make a difference?” This is the goal of Dr. Knight and Primary Ethics—to get kids thinking about ethical issues and developing their moral reasoning so that they may grow into ethical citizens and leaders in the future.

Knight explained the structure of the Primary Ethics Curriculum. All materials are based on three approaches to ethical decision-making, centered around the works of philosophers John Stuart Mill, Kant, and Aristotle, respectively:

  • Consequentialism - “What are the consequences of this action?”
  • Deontology - “Some actions are intrinsically right or wrong.”
  • Virtue Ethics -  “What kind of person should I strive to be?” 

Each year of primary education focuses on a variety of fundamental ethical concepts such as empathy, pride, laziness, selfishness, greed, etc. Students reason through the topics by participating in activities, exercises, and discussions, with the teacher serving as a “co-learner”, as Knight says, rather than an all-knowing source of information.  The curriculum is shaped sequentially so that students can continue building their knowledge bases, utilizing a “community of inquiry” to gain perspectives from their peers.

Still in its trial stages, Knight and the Primary Ethics team hope to gauge participants’ progress and development in order to see the effect that the program has. The curriculum is in an ongoing process of critique and modification.

If you would like to learn more about Dr. Knight and Primary Ethics, visit the Primary Ethics website at www.primaryethics.com.au