A victory for secular ethics

I have been following a small controversy which has raged this year in New South Wales. It involves the teaching of ethics in school classes.

Well, a bit more complicated than that (why should anyone oppose the teaching of ethics). This year 10 NSW schools ran a trial project of ethics classes developed by Professor of Philosophy Philip Cam  for the St James Ethics Centre. In the trial schools it was introduced as a voluntary alternative to the religious scripture classes. (These classes are similar to those run in many New Zealand schools where the school is closed for the duration and volunteer religious teachers come in to instruct children, with their parents permission).

Secular ethics popular

Controversy arose due to opposition by several prominent religious spokespersons and religious activist groups. They felt there was an understanding with the government that there would be no competition offered to their scripture classes by any other form of education. This had been used to reject non-religious alternatives in the past. And non-attending children were forced to read in school libraries or the back of the scripture class, or even to clean the playground. Proponents of the scripture classes were shocked to find that many parents preferred to consent to ethics class and the scripture class enrollments plummeted in many cases.

Despite petitions and campaigns by Christian groups the trial went ahead, was successful and got a generally positive response from parents, schools and the official assessment. Now the state government has approved introduction of ethics classes, starting in the first term next year. They will be offered under the system used for the trial, using volunteers as teachers (see Ethics right, refusal wrong for state schools, and Ethics classes to start next year).

Religious opposition

Opposition from some religious groups is expected to continue and these classes may also be opposed by the opposition coalition. I have been amazed at how disingenuous many of the arguments against secular ethics classes have been. Some are hones enough to express concern at the effect of market forces (decline in enrollments for their classes). But others have complained because  running classes at tlhe same time “deny” ethics to children of religious parents. Or they object that ethics should be taught in normal class time, and hence be available to all.

Some of the protesters have objected to the philosophical nature of the ethics classes. They believe kids should be taught what is right and wrong, not trained to solve problems for themselves. And so on. Some have even insisted that the class content should be vetted by religious experts! The old lie that religions are the authority when it comes to ethics.

So this little controversy is bound to continue. And the state’s deciosion could even be reversed – especially if there were a change of government.

But meanwhile I think ethics classes are great for kids. I suspect they really enjoy the opportunity to discuss and solve ethical questions.


Of course this situation is far from ideal. Ethics should be part of the normal school curriculum. But of course comparative religion and beliefs should be too. All children should have an opportunity for proper education in these subjects. However, religious groups oppose this, preferring to impose religion instruction, rather than teaching about religion and other life stances. They also want control.

A very narrow attitude. Surely it is best for our children to have the opportunity to consider the best information in these subjects, to appreciate the fact that different beliefs exist in a pluralist society, and to learn how to behave as responsible and autonomous moral agents. Religious instruction doesn’t help this.

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