Educating for moral competence
Implications for teaching
“This exposition of six competences is not intended as an exhaustive enumeration of desirable attributes and dispositions for practitioners in a democratic polity. For one thing, it highlights moral qualities, which are only a subset of the attributes that practitioners need to be effective agents in the world. Even then, a more complete list would include fidelity to empirical data, commitment to social justice, accountability, participatory inclusiveness, appreciation of the imperatives of loyalty, and so on. Whatever one’s favorite candidates for this list, Selznick correctly observes: “Moral competence is a variable attribute of persons, institutions, and communities.” [The Moral Commonwealth 33] So, we need toconsider: How is moral competence developed and sustained?
The question is partly about professional education and partly about the design of ongoing institutions. Since I have spent my mature years in teaching professional ethics to senior public servants from countries around the world, in these closing remarks I will say a few words about what I believe I have learned about effective pedagogy.
Following Dewey, I have come to believe that ethical inquiry, when it is practical, begins not with an abstract ideal or an intellectual puzzle but an existential situation, a problem in need of remedy. It grows, as Dewey says, “out of actual social tensions, needs, ‘troubles,’” guided by the imperative to bring about a more desirable state of affairs. Thus, the connection between inquiry and practice “is intrinsic, not external.” (Logic 499) When inquiry becomes detached from problems in need of remedy, it encourages unending disputation, adding intellectual uncertainty to
practical disorder. What’s needed is the rigor that comes from working up a diagnosis adequate to bringing about effective reconstruction in the world.
(…) As Nietzsche might have said, the ultimate test of a philosophy of practice is whether practitioners can live by it, in their concrete existence. The requirement of concreteness, however, puts the teacher of ethics in a peculiar position, since the teacher does not make real decisions or solve real problems. Being at a distance means the teacher of ethics is not confronted with certain ineluctable features of decision making, including the necessity to act and the contingencies of effective action. The farther removed the teacher is from actual problem solving, the more abstract the discussion of ethics becomes. How then can the teacher of ethics be of any use to practitioners? The answer, I believe, is that the teacher is helpful only if adopting the point of view of practitioners, and engaging in a pedagogy that attends to the full panoply of factors involved in decision making in the world, including the special features and challenges that come with action in the public realm. Only thick descriptions of situations and close analysis of them is adequate to understanding the skills that practitioners need and how they are (or should be) exercised” (p. 14)