Articulating values ina relativist world
By Paul Regan

At an entrance to Piccadilly Underground station in London there is a plaque that reads:





TRUTH          <   WISDOM


The words are arresting and confidently placed in such a way that they purport to express eternal and transcendent values. Superficially they appear so certain of themselves that they seem unarguable, even beyond criticism. And yet, upon reflection, you or I might want to rearrange the equation, or to substitute other words. We might even experience a sense of unease that we no longer totally agree with our initial impression.


The value challenge

And therein lies the central problem of values and values-driven discourse, which we encounter every day in one guise or another. They differ from facts in one crucial respect. Factual propositions can normally be verified or falsified and are therefore meaningful because they lend themselves to objective proofs, which we are rationally bound to acknowledge even if we disagree. Agreement or disagreement over values, on the other hand, however strongly held, are harder to justify because they can be more about our subjective likes and dislikes or cultural ties than about proofs and truths. Consequently, we are more likely to disagree about values often without knowing why we disagree. According to the modern ‘emotivism’ interpretation of ethics, facts can be expressed as propositions, which can then be proved either logically or empirically, (or both) to be right or wrong. But values are expressions of approval or disapproval and are therefore not open to objective proof. The ‘emotivist’ warns us to beware of language that wraps up mere prejudice in the guise of truth. Going further back, the eighteenth-century philosopher, David Hume, famously wrote that we cannot and should not try to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and should learn to tell the difference between them, and in so doing, accept that our ethical viewpoints differ simply because we are expressing subjective desires and feelings rather than reason or judgements.


There is, of course, an opposing view, defended, among other things, by theories including moral realism and moral cognitivism, which hold that there do indeed exist moral truths expressible as moral facts that apply at all times and in all places. Accordingly, we can and do use a fact about the world to derive a value because values do have an objective reality, just as tables and trees do.


Differing opinions

However, whichever moral theory we find the most appealing, experience reminds us that we often encounter conflict as soon as we confront value differences. Most of us muddle along though life knowing that these conflicts will arise but do little to articulate the reasons behind them. It is for this reason that a little moral philosophy may lend a hand in identifying different moral stances and perspectives. School leaders, on the front line in the battle for values, should not be afraid to call on it as an essential guide to the way through the maze of contradictions that values discussion can create. Our hotchpotch of ethical premises must be first unravelled, and if necessary, partly discarded, if we wish to build up, like Socrates, a well-defined set of moral terms to provide us with the confidence to act morally and to defend our actions. 


Very few international school leaders would argue against the notion that education is about the promotion of certain values as well as certain facts. School mission statements and policies drip with ethical references about what is right and good and about how good consequences evolve from right actions. In defining the ideal student, ethics is invoked to apply to a whole range of ideal characteristics, ranging from open-mindedness and curiosity to compassion and tolerance. Aristotle’s Golden Mean, which advises against extreme positions and in favour of temperance and balance, has been rebranded in many international schools as the IB Learner Profile, for example, and emerges in one form or another in numerous similar standard formulations of what defines a good student in other international academic jurisdictions.


Preparing for reflection

All schools have reason to reflect on their values from time to time and leaders might do well to take a meta-ethical approach to their discussions before embarking on the details of what is considered in their schools to be the right attitudes, behaviours and actions. In so doing, they can take their students on an exciting intellectual journey with far-reaching implications for their personal futures as rational responsible citizens. For instance, who of us can really be sure whether we are approaching an applied ethical issue (say abortion or euthanasia) as a deontologist or a utilitarian? Put simply, the former will primarily affirm that the ends do not justify the means, while the latter will define what is right in terms of the good it achieves overall. Who of us believes, like the ancient Greeks, that ethical behaviours can be divided into those that are mere conventions (and therefore mortal) and those that are gifts from the Gods or Nature (and therefore immortal)? Is the moral law an imperative that only reason can unlock or a convenience for survival that can be learnt by rote?


Of course, I am not arguing against the need for unambiguous statements that can assist and encourage students to think and act responsibly and in accordance with local school conventions and, more broadly, the agreed norms of an international education. Rather, I am recommending that schools do not pass up the opportunity to exploit the gains to be made by analysing how and why these statements and expectations are derived. I make this recommendation for the following reasons:


  • Students are more likely to develop a reliable and defensible ethical perspective if they can also locate and understand their own premises for holding it.

  • They are also more likely to be able to engage constructively with other ethical perspectives and to approach ethical issues with greater confidence and lucidity.

  • They will be more inclined to accept and take ownership of school rules if they can appreciate the reasoning behind them.


There is a tendency towards box-ticking in many schools and school groups when it comes to assessing values for the institution and the students and staff who study and teach there. But it does not have to be like this. The German philosopher Emmanuel Kant wrote that “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” If we agree with that (and it is hard to disagree with it) then values education should carry an equal importance in schools to science, since how we behave and think must be at least as important as what we know.


School leaders who intend to carry out a review of school values or who simply wish to reinforce existing values through the school curriculum might do well to consider the following:

  • Begin by taking a meta-ethical approach. Ask the following questions: what are values for? How are they useful? Why do people of the same culture take different ethical premises and perspectives?

  • Set some real-world scenarios for group discussion that compel the participants to make difficult choices on the margin and to justify and explain them. The scenarios should stretch the imagination and challenge assumptions about what is good and what is right.

  • Study some of the great ethicists for their core messages and compare them. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, and Aquinas have not lost their relevance today.

  • Look for the areas of common agreement and use these to inform your school-based values and rules.

  • Avoid box-ticking. Stick to a core message that is easy for the students to accept and for the staff to link to their own subjects and assessment.

  • Make the explicit connection between moral action, critical thinking and knowledge, and reinforce the connection in all school activities.

Paul Regan is the former principal of Oaktree International School in Kolkata India and was founding head of UWC Mostar, the twelfth United World College. He can be contacted directly on LinkedIn:

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