Raising Good Citizens

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The debate about raising good citizens is muddied. Young people are either encouraged to invent the truth or told to more or less uncritically accept what authorities tell them. There is, in fact, a third alternative: a Liberal approach.



What is the best way to raise good citizens – individuals who will do the right thing in even the most challenging circumstances (like those who worked to save Jews during the Holocaust, even at great risk to themselves)? How can we best protect society against drifting into bigotry, xenophobia, and fascism?

In my book, The War For Children’s Minds, I distinguish two very different approaches to moral and religious education, explaining how a failure to make this distinction clear generates some dangerous confusion.


Authoritarian vs Liberal Approaches

By an Authoritarian approach (with a capital ‘A’), I mean one that emphasises the importance of raising young people to defer to authority on moral and religious matters. They should be informed about what’s true by those best placed to know – the moral experts. These experts might be religious – perhaps The Pope, your local Imam, or a Rabbi. But atheist societies can be Authoritarian too. Under a totalitarian communist regime, the relevant Authority might be your local Communist party official.

By a Liberal (with a capital ‘L’) approach, I mean one that emphasises the importance of individuals thinking for themselves and making their own judgements rather than deferring to authority. Liberals stress the importance of moral autonomy.

Societies can be more or less Liberal or Authoritarian in their approach to raising new citizens, of course. There’s a sliding scale, like so:


At the extreme right end of the scale are brutally Authoritarian regimes obsessed with policing not just behaviour but thought too. The European Holy Inquisition would torture and execute people for failing to believe what they were told. Under Stalin and Mao, such thought crimes were similarly punished.

Notice that this scale concerns freedom of thought and expression, not freedom of behaviour. Clearly, thought and action aren’t the same. In the UK, driving at more than 70mph is illegal. Still, citizens are free to think and even argue that we should be allowed to drive faster. A Liberal school, in my sense, can be quite firm regarding behaviour, insisting on a uniform, strict attendance, and so on. But if it encourages pupils to think for themselves about moral issues, including whether the behavioural rules imposed on them are just, then it remains a very Liberal school. ‘Liberal’ does not mean anarchist.

The Liberal approach has roots in an intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment. Diderot and d’Alembert, two key Enlightenment thinkers, defined the Enlightened thinker as one who, “trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds dares to think for himself.”

Authoritarian vs. Liberal Educational Techniques

How will an Authoritarian school educate its pupils about moral and religious matters? It will tell pupils what they ought to believe. It will tend to discourage independent critical thought, particularly about fundamentals. Authoritarians treat pupils largely as passive receptacles, pouring beliefs in and waiting for them to set. If ‘critical thinking’ is allowed, it’s only permitted to go so far (anticipating and defending the beliefs against criticism, for example).

How will a Liberal school educate its pupils on morality and religion? It will emphasise the importance of pupils making their own judgements. They are told: don’t just passively accept; think for yourself.

A liberal school will have an ethos, of course. It might even be a religious school. A Liberal Christian school can inform pupils about Christian values and beliefs, say, and explain why the school embraces them, without insisting that pupils should more or less uncritically embrace them too. The same goes for Liberal values. A Liberal approach can, and I think, should include encouraging pupils to think critically about whether and why a Liberal approach is, in fact, the best.

What about Authoritarian methods of moral and religious education? At their heart lie techniques that include:


Reward and punishment

Control of information and censorship

Peer pressure

Emotional manipulation

Under a totalitarian political regime, for example, each day may begin with a repetition of political mantras. Pupils expressing the correct views are rewarded; those expressing the wrong views are punished or at least frowned upon. Pupils are exposed only to approved books and thinkers. Texts contradicting the key tenets of the regime are removed from libraries. Pupils are rarely permitted to interact with those from other political systems. Portraits of political leaders smile down from classroom walls, while imagery of the supposed horrors of alternative political regimes features in frightening murals.

An interesting feature of these techniques is they’re just as effective whether the beliefs being instilled are true or false. They empower ‘educators’ and disempower ‘pupils’, who are treated as just another bit of the causally manipulatable world.

At the heart of the Liberal approach, on the other hand, is a reliance on the use of reason to persuade. Of course, we all want young people to believe certain things, such as that torturing animals for fun is wrong. But a Liberal approach involves making a reasoned case for that belief. And, unlike the belief-shaping techniques favoured by Authoritarians, reason is a double-edged sword. Reason doesn’t automatically favour the views of the ‘educator’ over those of the ‘pupil’; it simply favours the truth.

So, if you want people to believe the Antarctic is populated by crab people or that the Earth’s core is made of cheese, it’s best not to rely on reason, as it’s likely to expose their falsity. Far better to rely on repetition, peer pressure, and so on. Educators unwilling to risk pupils revealing they’re mistaken will prefer to rely on these other ‘educational’ techniques.

Over the last half-century, many Western societies have become increasingly Liberal. Before the 1960s, most schools in the UK were reasonably Authoritarian in their approach to moral and religious education. A colleague of mine tells me that when she merely asked why the Catholic Church took the position it did on contraception, she was immediately sent to the headmistress, who asked her why she was obsessed with sex.

That approach was not unusual. Pupils were told to passively and uncritically accept what they were told by those in authority. By contrast, many (though certainly not all) UK schools now encourage a questioning, critical attitude towards moral and religious matters. Room is made for debate and discussion. Some schools have philosophy sessions in which pupils are encouraged to think critically and independently about fundamental moral and other questions.

The Liberal approach has roots in an intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment. Diderot and d’Alembert, two key Enlightenment thinkers, defined the Enlightened thinker as one who, “trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds dares to think for himself.”

The philosopher Kant described Enlightenment as: “emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason!”[i]

I believe this increasingly Liberal approach to moral and religious education has been a good thing (though if you want to know my arguments for that view, you’ll have to read my book The War For Children’s Minds). However, many social and religious conservatives disagree. They believe we went too far in the Liberal direction, with increasingly dire consequences. Here I focus on what is probably the most popular criticism of the Liberal approach – that it has promoted relativism that has, in turn, created a moral malaise that threatens the very fabric of Western civilisation.


The Threat of Relativism

Many social and religious conservatives believe Western civilisation is under threat because of something called ‘relativism’. Relativism is the view that there is no objective truth. Rather, truth is relative to individuals or communities.

Some truths do appear to be relative. Consider witchitee grubs – giant larvae that are eaten alive. There are cultures in which witchitee grubs are considered tasty snacks. But I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Herecontestants usually take a different view. They think they’re disgusting. The former glamour model Katy Price described the experience of eating a witchitee grubs as ‘worse than childbirth’. So what’s the truth about witchitee grubs – are they tasty, or are they disgusting?

The truth, of course, is that there is no Truth with a capital ‘T’. For those who think eating wichitee grubs is disgusting, it is. For those who find them tasty, they are. The truth is whatever we perceive or believe it to be, which can vary from culture to culture or individual to individual. Truth is relative.

Relativism does seem plausible when it comes to truths about deliciousness and disgustingness. But it’s possible to take a relativist position on other truths too. For example, you could be a moral relativist, insisting there’s no objective truth about what’s morally right or wrong. You could insist that moral truth is relative to particular cultures or communities. What’s morally ‘right’ for Westerners is wrong for other cultures, and vice versa, and there’s no fact of the matter as to who’s actually correct.

At the extreme, the relativist might insist all truths are relative, so if a culture believed the moon is made of cheese, they’d be right (though, as Plato pointed out, this sort of ‘global’ relativism is paradoxical: if all truths are relative, then so is the truth that all truths are relative).

As I mentioned, many social and religious conservatives believe that the West is suffering a moral malaise brought about by the spread of moral relativism. Here are a few examples.

UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks blames the rise of relativism, and especially Kant’s Enlightenment and the 1960s, for a current moral crisis:

“According to Kant…[t]o do something … because of habit or custom or even Divine Command, is to accept an external authority over the one sovereign territory that is truly our own: our own choices. The moral being for Kant is, by definition, an autonomous being, a person who accepts no other authority than the self. By the 1960s, this was beginning to gain hold as an educational orthodoxy.”[ii]

Sacks adds that to teach that ‘[t]he moral being is a person that accepts no other authority than the self’ requires ‘relativism on the part of the teacher.’[iii]

The result of embracing this Liberal approach, says Sacks, was to

“set a timebomb ticking which would eventually explode the moral framework into fragments. The human cost has been colossal, most visibly in terms of marriage and the family. There has been a proliferation of one-parent families, deserted wives and neglected and abused children. But the cost has been far wider in terms of the loss of authority, institutions in crisis, and what Durkheim calls ‘anomie’, the loss of a public sense of moral order.”[iv]

Many other religious conservatives agree. Archbishop George Carey says:

“[Beware the dangers of] of moral relativism and privatised morality. There is a widespread tendency to view what is good and right as a matter of private taste and individual opinion only. Under this tendency, God is banished to the realm of the private hobby, and religion becomes a particular activity for those who happen to have a taste for it.”[v]

Notice Carey says ‘taste for it’ – a bit like having a taste for witchitee grubs. Even Pope Benedict XVI warned:

“We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”[vi]

Relativism, they insist, makes morality nothing more than a matter of personal taste or preference.

I want to finish by briefly doing three things: 1. Explain why relativism can certainly seem attractive, and 2. Explain why Liberals like myself need not and, in fact, should not be relativists. 3. Explain why Sacks and many other critics of a Liberal approach are guilty of conflating two entirely different things: Liberalism and relativism.


Relativism Can Seem Attractive But Should Be Rejected

Some find relativism attractive because they dislike Authoritarianism, and relativism seems to offer a liberal, tolerant alternative. Certainly, Western societies have often been highly intolerant of alternative perspectives, brutally imposing their own moral views and failing to realise that there can be much to learn from other cultures. Many moral relativists rightly condemn this.

However, if you want to acknowledge that the West has often been morally mistaken, you should rejectrelativism. For relativism makes individuals and societies morally infallible. If the West thinks it is morally acceptable to enslave foreigners, then they’re right. Relativism also means that if people believe they should be highly intolerant, they’re right. Westerners made no mistake in thinking their brutal intolerance was morally acceptable.

Further, most moral relativists think if some Corporation considers it morally acceptable to cut down a rainforest and barbeque its inhabitants, then it’s deeply morally mistaken. Yet relativism entails it’s notmistaken. Also, notice that the kind of non-judgementalism that often accompanies relativism – the kind that insists you shouldn’t judge those with different moral perspectives, is inconsistent – for in saying you shouldn’t judge, it judges you.


The Authoritarism-or-Relativism Myth

So I agree with Authoritarians that there are good reasons to reject that sort of moral relativism. Authoritarians’ mistake is to conflate relativism with the Liberal approach to moral and religious education I outlined earlier. In fact, it takes only a moment’s thought to realise Liberalism and relativism are actually opposed, given that the Liberal thinks that by applying our intelligence, we can discover, or at least get closer to, the truth. If moral relativism were true, there would be no point in thinking critically about moral issues because the view you arrived at after careful thought could not be any more true than the one you started with.

To suppose individuals should try to figure out for themselves what’s true is obviously not to suppose that the truth is whatever they believe it to be. Scientists are committed to the view that they should apply their own intelligence and make their own judgements, subjecting theories to critical scrutiny. That obviously doesn’t mean scientists are committed to the view that scientific truth is relative – that they’re scientifically infallible because the truth is whatever they believe it to be. Clearly, that is not the case.

So when Jonathan Sacks insists encouraging children to think for themselves and make their own judgements about morality and religion, rather than defer to (e.g. his own) Authority, requires ‘relativism on the part of the teacher’, he’s just mistaken. In fact, he is promoting a myth: that we must, in effect, choose between relativism or Authoritarianism.

Interestingly, relativists often promote the same myth. They recognise Liberals are typically committed to there being moral truths we can discover and that the application of reason can help us discover these truths. But then relativists suppose that this must amount to Authoritarianism, that Liberals want to force young people to accept the views ‘reason’ supposedly dictates. Again, this is just a muddle.

In short, the debate about how to raise good citizens is muddied – and, I would argue, dominated – by a myth. It’s widely supposed that our choice is between (i) encouraging young people to believe that moral truth is whatever they believe it to be – they ‘invent’ what’s true, and (ii) encouraging – perhaps even forcing – young people to more or less uncritically accept what Authority tells them. There is, in fact, a third alternative: a Liberal approach.




I. Kant, E. ‘An Answer to The Question: What is Enlightenment?’ 1784. Available at donelan.faculty.writing.ucsb.edu/enlight.html

II.  Sacks, J. The Politics of Hope (Jonathan Cape, 1997) p. 176.

III.  Ibid.

IV. Sacks, J. Faith in The Future (Mercer University Press [reprint edition] 2001). p52.

V. House of Lords, Hansard 5th July 1996. publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199596/ldhansrd/vo960705/text/60705-01.htm

VI. Sermon, 18th April 2005. Reported in The Guardian: www.theguardian.com/world/2005/apr/19/catholicism.religion4


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