Secular ethics classes a success in Oz

I reported a while back that ten public schools in New South Wales, a state where by law the students have a weekly hour of “special religious education” (SRE), were trying out classes in secular ethics as an opt-in alternative. I noted, many Christians didn’t like this at all—they claimed the classes drew people away from Jesus.  Too bad, because the government has just deemed the experiment a success.  You can download the 101-page government-commissioned report at the site (check out Appendix 2).

Reading the report, the education minister concluded that “The independent evaluation found high levels of engagement among students when discussing ethical issues and that it enabled them to discuss and understand the principles of ethical decision-making.  It also found that the course met the aim of introducing students to the language and nature of ethics and ethical issues.”

In response to “criticisms from religious groups” (p. 14), the report notes dryly:

In evaluating the course materials an effort has been made to consider the philosophical background and the pedagogical approach on which the course is based. The field of Moral Philosophy has a two and a half thousand- year history and a logically rigorous methodology; the ethical inquiry approach has been employed widely for three decades by philosophers concerned to introduce philosophy (including ethics and logic) to the broader community. These are philosophers who decry relativism.

The report concludes:

The call for a secular ethics-based complement to SRE in NSW schools is not without precedent, and there is evidence here that secular ethics and SRE can exist respectfully side by side. In this evaluation an attempt has been made to assess the extent to which the ten week ethics pilot provides an appropriate model for an ethics-based complement to Scripture, and to do so on the basis of rational argument and empirical evidence. Further decisions rest with the Minister.

Go Minister!  One small step for Australia, one great leap for mankind.

h/t: Russell Blackford at Metamagician

13 Comments

  1. Eric MacDonald
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    This is not only a great success story of secular morality. It is a great success story for education. It means, as I have always claimed, that ethics is something that can and should be taught, that it has a teachable methodology, and that it does not depend on religious belief. While there are of course disagreements amongst moral philosophers, there is a enormous degree of consensus too. As someone who used to teach moral education to teachers, and despaired of ever convincing education departments that this is an important aspect of every child’s education, this is a significant development. Hopefully, jurisdictions that do not have a religious instruction component in the curriculum will, notwithstanding, adopt something like the Australian model for moral education.

    • steve oberski
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      I would argue that not only does ethics not depend on religious belief, religious belief is antithetical to ethics, given that religious belief mandates certain behaviours based on revelation, dogma and authority.

      Even more hopefully, jurisdictions that do have a religious instruction component will abandon them in favour of a more rational approach to teaching ethics.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted October 22, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Well said, Eric and Steve. Ethics courses like this should be taught in all schools.

  2. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    The field of Moral Philosophy has a two and a half thousand- year history and a logically rigorous methodology

    I’d say that’s a bit of an overstatement. Otherwise you’d have to explain the rampant lack of agreement in the field.

  3. ambulocetacean
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    The churches down here will continue to fight against ethics classes tooth and nail.

    It’s a disgrace that they’re even allowed to proselytise in government schools in the first place.

    What’s worse is that on top of the religious indoctrination classes, our atheist prime minister has pledged $222 million ($USD parity now) to employ chaplains in government schools. Instead of teachers, nurses or properly qualified counsellors.

    She also threw away another $1.5 million to celebrate Mary MacKillop’s canonisation. It makes me sick.

    • Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Well I have a softer spot for St Mother Mary of the Cross McKillop since learning that she was briefly excommunicated for exposing a paedophile priest. But it was rather galling that that was brought in by Papa Ratzo as part of the grounds for her Sainthood.

      • sLUCIDITy
        Posted October 24, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        Am I correct in my belief that she only raised the issue in-house and NOT with the authorities?

        If so, she was just as despicable as every other employee of that evil corporation.

  4. Anonym
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Ethics is the bane of religion.

  5. MadScientist
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Ooo – that’ll have (some of) the religious screaming – after all, they teach that you can’t be moral without a god.

  6. efrique
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    The (very Catholic and US born) Premier had already said if the report came back like this she would implement it.

    This is the same Premier who recently gave a speech in support of gay couples being able to adopt – before a vote which passed a bill on it.

    Too bad she won’t be premier much longer.

  7. Simon
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    The last comment that in the end the final decision rests with The Minister will be the decider is these classes continue.
    The current NSW Minister for Education is currently holding a marginal seat with a strong prospect of being beaten at the next State election in March 2011.
    If so, then the new Liberal Minister will have to decide to continue or drop these classes.
    In fact, the current Minister has ruled out replacing scripture with ethics classes, …”New South Wales Education Minister Verity Firth says ethics classes will not replace scripture if they go ahead in the state’s public schools next year”, (Taken from ABC Local Radio http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/10/20/3043155.htm?site=newcastle).

    This result will of course please & give heart to the wackaloon Xian fundies like Fred Nile in the NSW Parliament & elsewhere.

    But all is good because Australia has a new saint for only $1.5 mill of taxpayers money, yippee!!

  8. Martin
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    It is my understanding that Ethics will be on an opt-in(or RI opt-out)basis only, so scripture classes are not gone.But it is good to have an alternative now.Because what those religious kooks fear most is that children learn about all the religious flavors out there, and might just see them for what they are, variations of one stone-age superstition and mythology theme, that is utterly useless as a guide for ethics or morality in the year 2010.

  9. Dawn Oz
    Posted October 22, 2010 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    It is a win for us in Oz which helps take the sting out of the federally government funded pastoral counsellors which are in schools. The Federal government in chasing one percent of the vote, has kept the previous conservative government’s initiative, in lieu of increasing trained psychology positions. Thankfully, we are a much more secular nation than the US, however we have a vociferous ignorant religious rump.


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