Thursday, 31 October 2013

Philosophy degree - why'd you want to study something useless like that?

Also - it's fascinating.

Heythrop College - my welcome speech for Open day yesterday

Welcome speech

I have been teaching philosophy at Heythrop College for seventeen years. This was my first full-time teaching appointment after leaving Oxford. Unlike many academics keen to climb the career ladder - and who consequently tend to migrate from one institution to another at the beginning of their careers - I have stayed put. I have remained here at Heythrop for my entire career. Why?

The answer lies in what I discovered when I arrived here. I quickly discovered just how unique and valuable an institution Heythrop College is.

We are small, which means that students and staff are known to each other. This is no vast and anonymous academic factory. This is a friendly place populated with familiar faces.

We are also a specialist collegefocussing on just philosophy and theology.

Wander the corridors of Heythrop College and you’ll find people deep in conversations about philosophy and theology. Irrespective of their religious belief - or lack of religious belief – all the students and staff at Heythrop are bound together by shared, deep interested in fundamental questions about reality, morality, and the human condition. Despite our obvious differences, we form a closely-knit intellectual family.

Coming straight from Oxford, I also very much valued Heythrop’s Oxbridge-style one-to-one tutorial system and the opportunity it gives students to really explore a topic with someone who knows it inside out. When the New College of the Humanities was announced, Dominic Lawson wrote in the Guardian newspaper that what the New College was charging 18 thousand pounds a year for was, in essence, the tutorial system offered by Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Lawson said that the Oxbridge tutorial system was "the single most valuable aspect of their educational offering". But Lawson was wrong to claim that the tutorial system is only otherwise available at colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The tutorial system also form a significant part of Heythrop College’s undergraduate programmes.

Heythrop is a hive of intellectual activity and world-class research is being done, but when I arrived soon learned that the staff also have that rare quality: they actually enjoy teaching. And they are skilled at it too.

These two facts - the fact that we offer an Oxbridge style tutorial system, and the fact that staff here really enjoyteaching – show themselves in the results our students achieve. Yes, we are less well-known than, say, Kings College London or University College London, and so we have more modest entry requirements. Nevertheless, our students do exceptionally well in their final exams. In fact, Heythrop actually has been known on occasion to achieve a greater number of first class honours degrees in philosophy than its other, better-known sister colleges.

And of course, if you take your degree at Heythrop, you will be graduating with a degree awarded by the University of London, which is one of the most prestigious and respected universities in the world.

Heythrop is a unique and valuable institution. And philosophy and theology are unique and valuable subjects. Of course these are “challenging times" for humanities degrees.

As a philosopher, I am obviously concerned that, as fees increase and the economy flatlines, prospective students with a passion for philosophy may find themselves drawn by the siren voices of those who say philosophy is an impractical, “head in the clouds” subject of little relevance to real life.

Yet the irony is that, by choosing the subject they love, philosophy students are also choosing one of the most career friendly degrees. The skills it fosters are highly transferable and valued within, for example, the business sector.
In support of this, consider the GRE exam scores of those pursuing fifty different science and humanities degrees in the United States. The GRE exam is sat in the third undergraduate year, and has three parts: verbal, quantitative (mathematical) and analytical. How do philosophers fare?

Out of fifty science and humanities undergraduate degree programmes, philosophy ranks first on the analytic component. No surprise there you might think. You’d expect philosophers to be great analytic thinkers.

But philosophy also ranks first on the verbal component of the GRE exam. It outperforms English, as you see on this graph.

Notice also how well those studying religion do on these tests.

Philosophy also ranks first out of all humanities degrees on the maths component (with only maths-heavy science subjects scoring better).

Philosophy also ranks first out of all fifty degree programmes on the law school entry exam.

Philosophy graduates are smart all-rounders. They possess a wide range of highly transferable skills that employers value. Do spread the word about that, please.

Heythrop is an extraordinary place and it’s time the college received the recognition it deserves. That is something we are now working on vigorously. Heythrop is one of British academia’s best-kept secrets and we are going to ensure that it is a secret no longer.

Next year, this college is, believe it or not, 400 years old. Our 400th anniversary gives us an excellent opportunity to promote and celebrate this college. I very much hope to see many of you here to celebrate our anniversary with us.

If and when you join us, you will discover, as I did, just how unique and valuable an institution Heythrop College truly is.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Sports Illustrated and UNH Law Town Hall on O'Bannon v. NCAA and the Future of College Sports

The University of New Hampshire School of Law and Sports Illustrated proudly invite you to attend A Town Hall on O'Bannon v. NCAA on Tuesday, November 5th from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Room 282, followed by a reception in the Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property.

The Town Hall will examine how a class action lawsuit against the NCAA could radically change college sports as we know it.  Through legal arguments sounding in intellectual property and antitrust, Ed O'Bannon—a former basketball star at UCLA—contends that current and former Division I men's basketball and football players should be paid for their image and likeness on television broadcasts, video games, trading cards, apparel and other commercial ventures.  The Town Hall will also consider related cases, including Sam Keller v. NCAA and Ryan Hart v. Electronic Arts, as well as pending federal legislation in the NCAA Accountability Act.  Collectively, these legal developments could lead to the compensation of college student-athletes and impact their unionization and quasi-employment rights.

The Town Hall will feature some of the most influential and insightful people in college sports:


B.J. Schecter

B.J. Schecter, Executive Editor of Sports Illustrated and Schecter is a sports journalism professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


Charles Grantham

Charles Grantham, former Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). Grantham was an architect of the revenue-sharing business model while protecting the NBA’s greatest asset—its players. Currently, he is a sports business consultant and an Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business and New York University where he teaches at the graduate level on collective bargaining and dispute resolution in professional sports.

Professor Michael McCann

Professor Michael McCann, Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute and a tenured professor at UNH Law, teaching Pro Sports Law, Amateur Sports Law, andSales.  Legal Analyst and Writer at Sports Illustrated &

Alan Milstein

Alan Milstein, Shareholder at Sherman Silverstein in New Jersey, Milstein is one of the nation's leading litigators in both sports and bioethics.  Milstein has litigated on behalf of Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Eddy Curry, Allen Houston, Maurice Clarett & other sports figures.

Professor Alexandra Roberts

Professor Alexandra Roberts, Executive Director of UNH Law's Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property and a professor of entertainment law and trademark law. Roberts is a former intellectual property litigator at Ropes & Gray LLP in Boston and New York.

Marty Scarano

Marty Scarano, University of New Hampshire Athletic Director in his 14th season, National Association of College Directors of Athletics "AD of the Year" in 2007.  During Scarano’s tenure, UNH teams have made 44 NCAA postseason appearances and captured 14 conference titles. Those teams have also achieved one of the best graduation rates among NCAA members.

Sonny Vaccaro

Sonny Vaccaro, Leading advocate for rights of college athletes and an unpaid adviser to Ed O'Bannon's legal team. Founding Chairman of The Roundball Classic and ABCD camp.  While a marketing executive at Nike, Vaccaro signed Michael Jordan to his first major endorsement package.

Come for the enthusiastic discussion and debate; stay for the hors d'œuvre, beverages, and networking opportunities. We hope to see you there!  Please RSVP to

* UNH Law is about an hour drive from Boston and directions can be found here.

** Portions of the town hall will be aired on SI Now, Sports Illustrated's Daily Talk Show.  Other portions will be shown through video provided by UNH Law's Sports and Entertainment Law Institute.

Mike Pouncey Subpoena

A potentially major development in the Aaron Hernandez murder case occurred last night, when Dolphins center Mike Pouncey was served with a grand jury subpoena after the Dolphins played at the Patriots.  The grand jury is investigating a potential scheme involving the same of guns and it may be connected to Hernandez.  On last night, Pete Thamel and Greg Bedard broke the story and I have a legal analysis this morning.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Procompetitive Effects and the Ban on Paying College Athletes

USA Today's Steve Berkowitz wrote on Friday that Judge Wilken denied a motion to dismiss in the O'Bannon litigation.  Here is an excerpt from Berkowitz's article in which he addresses Judge Wilken's remarks concerning whether a ban on athlete pay serves a procompetitive purpose:
Meanwhile, the judge also raised questions about the applicability to this case of the 1984 Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v. Board of Regents, a case that was about control of college football TV rights but the opinion on which included the statement that "in order to preserve the character and quality of the (NCAA's) 'product,' athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class and the like."
The NCAA has relied upon this language in defending its amateurism system and has successfully used it [in] many prior legal cases.
However, Wilken wrote in Friday's ruling that the case "does not stand for the sweeping proposition that student-athletes must be barred, both during their college years and forever thereafter, from receiving any monetary compensation for the commercial use of their names, images, and likenesses.
"Although it is possible that the NCAA's ban on student-athlete pay serves some procompetitive purpose, such as increasing consumer demand for college sports, Plaintiffs' plausible allegations to the contrary must be accepted as true at the pleading stage."
Wilken also wrote that the Supreme Court "never even analyzed the NCAA's ban on student-athlete compensation under the rule of reason nor did it cite any fact findings indicating that this ban is the type of restraint is 'essential if the (NCAA's) product is to be available at all'. More importantly, the Court never examined whether or not the ban on student-athlete compensation actually had a procompetitive effect on the college sports market."
Berkowitz's piece raises a really interesting question.  In sports antitrust cases, the issue concerning procompetitive effects essentially revolves around competitive balance.  Why is there an assumption that a ban on athlete pay increases consumer demand for college sports and/or fosters competitive balance?  

First, while I do believe there are many consumers who do not want athletes to be paid, I have serious doubts whether there is any correlation between consumer demand and athlete pay (or lack thereof).  For starters, the consumer knows there are lots of athletes in big-time college sports who are paid under the table from boosters and various other third parties (unless of course one believes that the number of athletes getting paid is limited to only those who actually get caught).  But more importantly, if the rules were changed to permit athletes to be compensated for their names and images, I don't believe fans and alumni would take the position, "I'm not watching my team play this weekend because I read somewhere that somebody paid our defensive end $1,000 this week for signing some memorabilia."  

But who cares what I think and let's assume for sake of argument that some consumers would not be interested in the product if the athletes were paid more than they are currently.  How much relevance should it have for antitrust purposes?  Is a producer insulated from antitrust liability simply by calling its product "unpaid labor"?  If all of the law firms in the U.S. agreed to restrict the pay of their associates (in the first four years before making partner) to law school tuition reimbursement, would the agreement pass antitrust scrutiny if they marketed their product to the consumer as "cheap associate labor"?  Most would not dispute that a team salary cap violates antitrust law but is the answer different if a sports league calls its product "salary capped labor"?  If the NFL could show that it is losing consumers because they believe the athletes are grossly overpaid, would/should that have any relevance for antitrust purposes if the league put an individual cap on each player's salary?  

Second, on the issue of competitive balance, the irony is that college football arguably has much less competitive balance than professional football where the athletes are paid competitive wages.  Unlike professional football, college football has "dynasties" and "powerhouses".  For a college sport that supposedly has competitive balance, why are Alabama's football fans leaving so many empty seats in the stadium

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Baseball rules, again

One year after benefiting from a bizarre and controversial (although I believe correct) Infield Fly call in the NL WIld Card, the St. Louis Cardinals won Game 3 of the World Series on an obstruction call on the Red Sox third baseman (video embedded). Although early reaction (at least outside the Red Sox clubhouse) seems to approve of the call, this one will remain a point of contention, both because it occurred in the World Series and because it allowed the game-winning run to score (officially, it was scored an error on the third baseman who obstructed).

Rule 2.00 of the Official Baseball Rules defines "Obstruction" as "act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner." A Comment to the rule provides that a fielder can occupy space when "in the act of fielding a ball," but once he has attempted to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the act. Thus, if a player dives at a ball and continues to lie on the ground after it is passed him and delays the runner's progress, "he very likely has obstructed the runner." The rule has no intent requirement; impeding the runner, even unintentionally, constitutes obstruction. Under R. 7.06(b), the umpire can "impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction;" typically, that is the base he would have been entitled to without the obstruction.

Here is video of the umpires' press conference, which can best be described as a judicial opinion issued from the bench, explaining a decision. A couple of themes emerge that, I think, support the call. First, intent does not matter, only the result. Even if (as here) it is almost unfair because the play happened too quickly for the fielder to do anything to get out of the way. Second, while the internet is talking about the Sox third baseman's legs going up in the air, the umpires insisted that it was not the legs, but the fielder's body that created the obstruction. Third, it did not matter that the runner was inside the foul line when he tripped over the fielder (one ump said he was right on the chalk, the video suggests he was inside the line), a point the Red Sox players kept repeating in interviews; a runner can "make his own baseline" by picking the most direct path to the next base.

As expected, some players (Sox starter Jake Peavy was one) complained about the game ending on the umpire's call and the umpire "deciding" the game, a reflection of what Mitch Berman has called "temporal variance" in enforcement of sports rules. That argument seems especially incoherent in this context. After all, the Cardinals could just as easily argue that the play was important precisely because the Cardinals had a chance to score the game-winning run and the Sox were preventing him from doing so.

Anyway, obstruction now will be the word of the rest of this Series.

Schooled: The Price of College Sports

Need something to do before you head out Trick-or-Treating on Halloween?  Swing by Harvard Law Schools as The Committee on Sports & Entertainment Law hosts a panel discussion about the business of college sports.

Friday, 25 October 2013

THE 'YOU CAN'T PROVE IT EITHER WAY" MOVE A bit from draft for my DK book Companion Guide to Philosophy

(this was cut down in published version)

Reasonableness comes in degrees (B heading)

INTRO: Beliefs can be more or less reasonable. There is, if you like, a scale of reasonableness on which beliefs may be located. Unfortunately, that reasonableness is a matter of degree is often overlooked. It’s sometimes assumed that if neither a belief A, nor its denial B, are conclusively “proved”, then the two beliefs must be more or less equally reasonable or unreasonable. As we will see, this assumption is false.

MAIN TEXT. Some beliefs are very reasonable indeed. It’s reasonable for me to believe that the orange on the table in front of me exists, because I can see it there. It’s also reasonable for me to believe that the tree outside my house still exists, because it was there when I last looked, and I have no reason to suppose anyone has removed it in the meantime. And it is reasonable for me to believe that Japan exists, despite the fact that I have never actually been there. I possess an enormous amount of evidence that Japan exists, and hardly any evidence to suggest it doesn’t.
            Of course, despite being highly reasonable, these beliefs could still conceivably turn out to be false. Perhaps the orange I seem to see before me is an hallucination. Perhaps the tree in my garden has secretly been removed by pranksters. In the film The Truman Show, there is a conspiracy to dupe the main character into thinking he is living his life out in the real world when in fact everything around him is part of a carefully managed TV set. Even those he believes to be his closest relatives are, in truth, merely actors. Perhaps I am the unwitting victim of a similar complex conspiracy to make me believe Japan exists when in fact it doesn’t.
            So let’s acknowledge I might be mistaken in holding these beliefs. Certainly, I cannot prove them beyond all doubt. But of course, this is not to say these beliefs aren’t eminently reasonable. They clearly are. They lie towards the top of the scale of reasonableness.
            At the bottom of the scale lies the belief that faeries and goblins exist. This is a very unreasonable thing to believe. There’s no good evidence these tiny folk exist and plenty of evidence that they are fictional. Still, it does remain a remote possibility that these fairy-tale folk exist. We can’t prove beyond all doubt that they don’t.
            Around the middle of the scale of reasonableness lie beliefs which are neither highly reasonable nor highly unreasonable. Take the belief that there are intelligent life forms living somewhere out there in the universe. True, we have no direct evidence of any such extra-terrestrial intelligence. On the other hand, we know that intelligent life has evolved on this planet, and we also know that there are countless other similar planets out there. So it’s not particularly improbable that there is intelligence out there somewhere.
Beliefs can change their position on this scale over time. A few decades ago, belief in electrons was fairly reasonable. Given the additional scientific evidence that’s since been discovered, it is now very reasonable. At one time belief that the world is flat was perhaps not so unreasonable. It’s now very unreasonable indeed.
The scale may also vary from one person to the next. It’s very reasonable for me to believe there is an orange on the table in front of me, because I can see it there. Perhaps it’s not quite so reasonable for you to believe there’s an orange there. After all, you can’t see the orange. You simply have to take my word for it.
Of course, it’s contentious where some beliefs lie. Take belief in the existence of God, for example. Some consider belief God is no more reasonable than belief in fairies. Others believe it is fairly reasonable – at least as reasonable as, say, belief in extra-terrestrial intelligence. Those who claim to have had direct experience of God, or who think miracles and so on constitute fairly good evidence that God exists, may place belief fairly high up on the scale (even while acknowledging that their belief is not “proved”).

The “You can’t prove it either way” move

Having set up the scale of reasonableness, let’s now look at a common mistake people make when assessing the reasonableness of a belief.
Sometimes, when someone has been given very good grounds for supposing a belief B belief is false, they respond by saying “But you can’t prove B is false, can you? B might be true!” They think this shows belief B is still pretty reasonable – perhaps even as reasonable as the belief that B is false.
Here is an example. Suppose you have just provided Ted with excellent grounds for supposing his belief that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden is false. Ted responds “But you can’t prove there are no faeries down there, can you?”, as if that showed that his belief is, after all, pretty reasonable – perhaps even as reasonable as yours.  Now perhaps you can’t prove beyond all doubt that there are no faeries. It’s just possible that you’re mistaken. Still, it’s hardly likely, given the evidence. On the available evidence, Ted’s belief remains downright silly.
Here’s a philosophical example. Even if we cannot conclusively prove either that God does exist or that he doesn’t, it doesn’t follow that the belief that God exists is just as reasonable or unreasonable as the belief that he doesn’t. It might still be the case that there are very good grounds for supposing God exists, and little reason to suppose he doesn’t. In which case it is far more reasonable to believe in God than it is to deny his existence. Conversely, there might be powerful evidence God doesn’t exist, and little reason to suppose he does. In which case atheism may be far more reasonable. We should not allow the fact that neither belief can be conclusively proved to obscure the fact that one belief might not be far more reasonable than the other.
Unfortunately, theists sometimes respond to atheist arguments by pointing out the atheist has not conclusively proved there is no God, as if that showed belief in God must be fairly reasonable after all. Actually, even if the atheist can’t conclusively prove there is no God, they might still succeed in showing that belief in God is very unreasonable indeed – perhaps even as unreasonable as belief in fairies.
Pointing out the absence of “proof” against a belief does not show that the belief is, after all, at least fairly reasonable.

IMAGE OF A RECTANGLE, LEFT HALF RED MIDDLE HALF WHITE AND RIGHT HALF GREEN. IN LEFT-HAND RED HALF PUT “DISPROVED” IN RIGHT HAND GREEN HALF, PUT “PROVED” IN MIDDLE BOX PUT “NEITHER PROVED NOR DISPROVED”. Caption: Rather than arranging beliefs on the scale of reasonableness, we might sort them instead into the three boxes “proved, “disproved” and “neither proved nor disproved”. We may then lose sight of the fact that the beliefs in the middle box may still differ dramatically in terms of their reasonableness.

The ambiguity of “proved” People often talk about a belief being “proved”, “not proved”, “disproved”, and so on. But what does “proved” mean here? It can mean a variety of things, including:

Proved beyond all possible doubt
Proved beyond reasonable doubt
Shown to be certain
Shown to be almost certainly true
Shown to be very probably true

Notice that people often talk of “scientific proof” despite the fact that most, perhaps all, scientific claims are open to at least some doubt.
When using the term “prove” it is important to be clear what you mean. Take for example, the claim that we cannot “prove” God exists. It might be true we can’t “prove” beyond all possible doubt God exists. But then perhaps we can still “prove” God exists in the sense we can still show his existence to be extremely probable, or to be at least beyond reasonable doubt. Conversely, even if we can’t “prove” beyond all doubt God does not exist, it doesn’t follow that we can’t show his existence to be extremely improbable. We should not allow loose use of the word “proved” to obscure these facts.

IMAGE OF GOD. Caption: Where should we place “God exists” on the scale of reasonableness? Indeed, should belief in God appear on the scale at all (but if it doesn’t appear on the scale, why not?)

NB. Nothing I say here should be taken to commit me to evidentialism - the view that a belief is reasonably held only if it is supported by evidence. Evidentialism is probably false. See here.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Suffolk Law School Panel on College Athletics

Suffolk Law School will be hosting a panel discussion on October 24th titled "Compensation, Commercialization, and Labor Issues in NCAA Division I Sports."  Panelists will discuss the fact that big time college sports = big business.  Experts will discuss a myriad of issues facing the NCAA including compensation for student-athletes, the O'Bannon lawsuit involving EA Sports, and the investigation investigation into Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel's alleged acceptance of money for autographed memorabilia.

Scheduled speakers include:

* Moderator: Brian McLaughlin, Vice President, Symmetry
* Jay W. Fee, Of Counsel, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP; Adjunct Law Faculty, Suffolk University Law School
* Nancy H. Lyons, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Compliance/SWA, Boston University
* Lisa P. Masteralexis, Head of the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, Isenberg School of Management at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
* Warren K. Zola, Assistant Dean for Graduate Programs; Adjunct Faculty, Carroll School of Management, Boston College

It's not to late to attend by registering here.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

My book The War For Children's Minds

My book The War For Children's Minds.

PHILIP PULLMAN SAYS: 'The War for Children's Minds is a brilliantly clear and convincingly argued defence of liberalism in moral education. Stephen Law examines and demolishes all the arguments in favour of authoritarian ways of teaching, and shows that in spite of the insistence of popular commentators from the religious right, a liberal and rational examination and discussion of moral questions does not lead to relativism and the decay of ethical behaviour, but can in fact be the best defence against them. This book won't be read by popular journalists: they will attack it without reading it. But it should be read by every teacher, every parent, and every politician. What's more, it should form the subject for discussion in every church, synagogue, mosque, and religious youth group. It's one of the most engaging as well as one of the most necessary books that I've ever read in the field of moral education.' 

CHURCH TIMES SAYS '...this volume has a hugely significant contribution to make. It is also highly readable, and provides a useful pocket guide to current philosophical thinking - a sort of religious Bill Bryson.'

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Olympic speech at 45

Today (Wednesday, October 16) is the 45th anniversary of the Tommie Smith/John Carlos Black Power salute on the medal stand following the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The third person on the stand is Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist, who supported Smith and Carlos by giving them his gloves and standing at attention while wearing a badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. And while Smith and Carlos are generally regarded as heroes who took a stand, 45 years ago they were vilified and expelled from the games.

Of course, gay rights have become an issue for the 2014 Winter Olymics in Sochi, Russia, given recent legislation prohibiting gay-rights "propaganda" and public displays of homosexuality or support for homosexuality. And the International Olympic Committee has repeatedly and publicly reminded athletes of IOC regulations requiring respect for the home country and its laws--in other words, athlete protests of these laws will not be tolerated.

In other words, the "Olympic Ideal" of free expression has not evolved much in 45 years.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Sports Law Contract Issues Raised by Bird Attack?

Deadspin has an amusing link to a New York Times article on San Antonio's successful retention of foreign talent.  Evidently, an intern was sent to Argentina to deliver Manu Ginobli's new contract (nice work, if you can get it!), and was attacked by a bird while resting at a public fountain.  In the aftermath of the bird's reckless misconduct, Ginobli's contract had gone missing.

Paper for conference this weekend in Graz, Austria

Here's a short paper that is adapted from parts of my book The War For Children's Minds. Title taken from the event, which is focused on Philosophy for Children. Austrian Centre for Philosophy with Children and Youth. Details here. Apologies for font issues (I can't solve them)

Do the individual and his or her rights disappear behind the over-emphasis on cultural identity?

Stephen Law

My approach to this question will be to look at two arguments for restricting young people’s freedom of thought and expression on the grounds that this is necessary if they are to develop a robust cultural and moral identity.

I favour what I call a Liberal approach to moral and religious education. By a Liberal approach, I mean an approach that emphasises the importance of encouraging young people to think independently and make their own judgements on these important matters. A Liberal approach lies at the opposite end of the scale to what I term an Authoritarian approach, which encourages an attitude of deference to some external authority. According to Authoritarians, young people should be raised to realize that what is right or wrong, religiously true or false, is not for them to judge – they should defer to those who know.

Traditional moral religious education has often been Authoritarian, with an emphasis placed on policing both behaviour and thought. A colleague who was educated in the 1960’s in a strict Catholic school tells me that, even today, a half-century later, she still feels guilty if she dares to question a Catholic belief, despite the fact that she gave up religious belief decades ago. However, it’s not just religious traditionalists who can be Authoritarian. Totalitarian atheist regimes have been no less obsessed with restricting freedom of thought and expression.

Today’s Western societies are fairly Liberal, certainly compared with the past. We’re free to make our own judgements about which religion if any is true. We are also free to make our own moral judgements. Of course, we’re not free to do whatever we want. We’re not free to drive at 150mph down the motorway, but we are entirely free to believe, and publicly express the view that, we should be free to do so. It’s freedom of thought and expression with respect to moral and religious questions that Liberals defend, not an anarchistic freedom to do whatever we want.

Modern Liberal thought draws on, and is historically at least partly rooted in that period of our intellectual history known as, the Enlightenment. The French intellectuals Diderot and d’Alembert define the Enlightenment thinker as one who,

trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself.[i]

Daring to think for yourself is a core Enlightenment value. In 1784 Kant wrote a short magazine article entitled “What is Enlightenment?” Kant, not normally known for his brevity, came up with one of the most quoted characterizations:

[Enlightenment is the] 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![ii]

“Sapere” and “Aude” are, not uncoincidentally, the names of two philosophy for children organizations. Philosophy for children is very much an Enlightened, Liberal idea, and in arguing that children should be raised to be autonomous, independent critical thinkers, proponents of P4C are promoters of a core Enlightenment value.

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about that value, particularly in the classroom. Some social and religious conservatives believe that to encourage children to think independently and make their ownjudgements is to sow the seeds of disaster. They argue that, without some religious Authority in the classroom to which children are encouraged to defer, children are cast perilously adrift. They insist that, in the absence of some external Authority, morality boils down to nothing more than individual, subjective preference and choice. Every point of view becomes as “correct” as every other. So a Liberal approach – which removes external Authority from the classroom – is a recipe for moral decay and catastrophe.

Those who take this view are, in my view, muddled. In my book The War For Children’s Minds I tackle a range of arguments offered by those critical of a Liberal approach to moral and religious education. Here I explain the failings of just two amongst many particular lines of argument. Both involve the thought that development of a robust cultural and moral identity requires more or less uncritical acceptance of certain cultural norms and values, at least early on, and that a P4C approach is therefore likely to be culturally and morally destructive.

1: The Character Building Argument

How do we become good? One popular answer emphasizes the importance of building character by instilling good habits. It runs as follows.

Being good and living well are skills, just like, say, being able to ride a bike or play the piano. And skills are primarily acquired, not through thinking, but by doing. Just as we can’t intellectually work out how to ride a bike, then hop aboard and confidently cycle off in style, so neither can we intellectually figure out how to be good and then immediately proceed to behave well. If we want people to behave well, we have to drill into them the right behavioural dispositions. It’s in having such dispositions that having “good character” consists, and it’s on instilling those dispositions that “character education” focuses.

In his The Principles of Psychology, the philosopher William James emphasizes how important good habits are to living well. He begins with a comical illustration of the force of habit:

There is a story, which is credible enough, though it may not be true, of a practical joker, who, seeing a discharged veteran carrying home his dinner, suddenly called out, 'Attention!' whereupon the man instantly brought his hands down, and lost his mutton and potatoes in the gutter. The drill had been thorough, and its effects had become embodied in the man's nervous structure.”[iii]

James believes that, just as soldiers are drilled to obey commands to the point where doing so becomes automatic and unthinking, so we should similarly drill ourselves in behaving in ways advantageous to us.

The great thing… in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemyFor this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can... The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.[iv]

James believes that it’s by repetitive drilling from a young age that good character is developed. If we want to behave well, the mere desire or intention to act well is not enough. We must instill the right habits, so that good behaviour becomes unthinking and automatic.

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one's sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one's character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.[v]

James argues that unless the right habits are ingrained early on, the fabric of society is under threat. Habit is “the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance”[vi].

Aristotle, like James, also emphasizes the importance of instilling good habits. Aristotle believes children will not spontaneously develop such virtuous character traits as honesty, integrity, generosity, fortitude, perseverance and orderliness. Their nature, to begin with, is to do whatever they feel like doing. They are led by their own immediate desires. It’s only through training that they will acquire the habit of behaving virtuously.

However, unlike James, what Aristotle is after is not mindless, automatic behaviour. As Sarah Broadie, the author of Ethics With Aristotle explains, Aristotle’s view is that

[f]orming a habit is connected with repetition, but where what is repeated are (for example) just acts, habituation cannot be a mindless process, and the habit (once formed) of acting justly cannot be blind in its operations, since one needs intelligence to see why different things are just in different circumstances. So far as habit plays a part, it is not that of autopilot…[vii]

What we should get into the habit of doing is reflecting and applying our intelligence in order to arrive at the right judgement, and then acting upon it. This is not something we can do unthinkingly.

According to Aristotle, by getting into the habit of behaving well, so that it becomes second nature to us, we are able to learn two valuable lessons.

First, we learn that behaving in these ways is good. This is not something that can be figured out purely in a purely intellectual way. We need personal experience of what living virtuously is like before we’re in a position to appreciate that this is how we ought to behave. And we are only able to have that experience if we have been disciplined and habituated into acting well by some an external authority. It’s only by being forced into the habit of behaving thus that we’re able to recognise for ourselves that this is how we should live.

Second, having been properly trained, we’re released from the grip of our own immediate desires, and so able to live that way.  So it seems an individual trained in the way Aristotle recommends acquires both a kind of knowledge and a kind of freedom that the child left to his or her own devices will never attain.

Character education
There’s much intuitive plausibility to character education and the view that habit has a key role to play in moral education. According to character education, key is to ensure good habits to be reliably passed down from generation to generation, as part of a cultural tradition. But then shouldn’t moral education, focus not, as Liberals, suppose, on thinking and reasoning, but rather oningraining those important traditional cultural and moral habits?

That moral education should be rooted in the instilling of good habits is an increasingly popular point of view. Numerous books have been written to help parents and schools build character, including best-sellers like Character Matters – How To Help Our Children Develop Good Judgement, Integrity, And Other Essential Virtues, Character Building – A Guide For Parents And Teachers.

In the U.S., character-building has caught the popular imagination. Many see it as the cure for the so-called “moral malaise”. Thomas Lickona, for example, says that:

The premise of the character education movement is that the disturbing behaviours that bombard us daily – violence, greed, corruption, incivility, drug abuse, sexual immorality, and a poor work ethic – have a common core: the absence of good character. Educating for character, unlike piecemeal reforms, goes beneath the symptoms to the root of these problems. It therefore offers the best hope of improvement in all these areas.[viii]

Indeed, character education has been a focus of both the Democrat and Republican parties. George Bush’s plan for education, No Child Left Behind, specifically funded character education. Character education has, according to one proponent, Kevin Ryan, become the “new moral education”.

The new moral education is not a fad. Instead, it is a break with the faddism that characterized much of the moral education of the Sixties and the Seventies … [T]he new moral education is really quite old; indeed, it is deeply rooted in classical thinking about education. [Some of it] comes straight from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle said that a man becomes virtuous by performing virtuous acts; he becomes kind by doing kind acts; he becomes brave by doing brave acts. A school that institutes a community service program is merely operationalizing Aristotle.[ix]

Proponents suggest there’s growing evidence that character-building programs are effective.[x]Character education is increasingly seen, not as an optional extra that might be added to the curriculum, but as the framework within which good teaching takes place. Here’s Hal Urban, a high school teacher, testifying to the power of character education to transform a school:

I’ve had the good fortune to visit schools all over the country that have character education programs in place. The first word that pops into my mind when I visit them is “clean”. I see clean campuses and buildings, hear clean language, and see kids dressed cleanly and neatly. I see courtesy being practiced by everyone – students, teachers, administrators, custodians, and cafeteria workers. Most important, I see teaching and learning going on in an atmosphere that is caring, positive, and productive.[xi]

But if character education is the way forward, doesn’t that mean abandoning the Liberal approach? Surely that approach, with its emphasis on individual autonomy and the use of reason, should be replaced by character education, which places the emphasis where it should be – not thinking but on doing. Surely we need to cultivate good habits precisely so that individuals don’t have to start thinking about what to do.

The attack sketched out in the preceding paragraph commits the fallacy known as false dilemma. It insists we choose between two alternatives that are, in fact, entirely compatible. We can have both character education and a Liberal approach. Indeed, note that, unlike William James, Aristotle actually emphasizes the importance of thinking in combination with doing.

Certainly, the Liberal approach doesn’t rule out character education. But it’s consistent with the instilling of good habits.  We can enforce good behaviour even while at the same time encouraging a critical, questioning attitude. We can say that, while we expect students to behave in certain ways, we certainly don’t wish them to swallow whatever we say blindly and uncritically.

So a Liberal approach to moral education is consistent with character education. Indeed, it requiresit, for at least two reasons:
             (i) A Liberal, P4C approach can only work within a fairly disciplined environment where children have gotten into the habit of listening to different points of view, calmly and carefully considering them, and so on. So it seems a Liberal, P4C approach does inevitably need to be paired with something like character education.
(ii) One of the virtues we should be promoting is that of thinking critically and independently and getting individuals to take seriously their responsibility for making moral judgements. But, to be effective, this is something we need, not just to tell them about, but to get them into the habit of doing, so that it too becomes second nature. In which case an effective Liberal moral education must inevitably involve an element of character education.

So, yes, the Liberal approach needs to be paired with character education. But the reverse is also true: character education needs to be paired with a Liberal approach.

One obvious potential problem with “character education” is that it can be used to ingrain not just noble and virtuous attitudes, but also racist and sexist attitudes too. Suppose we ingrain in our young the habit of treating women as domestic serfs. If our offspring are raised to treat women in this way, without much exposure to critical thinking, no doubt they will find the belief that a woman’s place is behind the sink “obvious” and will in turn pass it onto their children. In this way, such “obvious” beliefs as that women should stay in the home and that Jews are untrustworthy will merrily cascade down the generations without ever being effectively challenged. The “character” each generation develops will be sexist and racist.

An important safeguard against this potential problem is to add a further habit to the list of habits character education should aim to instil: the habit of thinking carefully and critically about our own beliefs and attitudes. I stress this needs to be a habit, a habit introduced fairly early on. If it’s introduction is delayed until those sexist and racist beliefs and attitudes have got themselves fully ingrained in the child’s character, it will then be very difficult to get them out again.

So, far from being in opposition, character education and the kind of Liberal approach to moral education advocated in this book actually complement one another.

Many proponents of character education are clear it’s compatible, and should be paired, with the fostering of independent critical thought. But not all. For some, “character education” is a useful banner under which they want the opportunity to drill the young into mindlessly accepting their own religious and moral beliefs. They are looking to instil specifically religioushabits, to get them firmly ingrained in children while their intellects are switched firmly off.  Advocates of character education are aware of such divisions within their ranks. Take for example, this quote taken from an article at the character education website

What is character education? This is a highly controversial issue, and depends largely on your desired outcome. Many people believe that simply getting kids to do what they’re told is character education. This idea often leads to an imposed set of rules and a system of rewards and punishments that produce temporary and limited behavioral changes, but they do little or nothing to affect the underlying character of the children. There are others who argue that our aim should be to develop independent thinkers who are committed to moral principals in their lives, and who are likely to do the right thing even under challenging circumstances. That requires a somewhat different approach.[xii]

It does require a different approach – a Liberal approach. So I think we should say yes to character education, but let’s be clear that it needs to be Liberal in nature – and that it is entirely compatible with the approach advocated by P4C.

2. MacIntyre and the unavoidability of tradition

Another objection to the view that morality can be given a wholly rational, tradition-free foundation is that reason is itself dependent upon tradition. The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre argues that it’s not possible for an individual to conjure morality out of thin air, independently of any tradition. Indeed, according to MacIntyre, whatever forms of reasoning we employ are themselves born of and dependent upon tradition. So it’s impossible to do what Kant attempted to do: apply reason on an individually, independently of any tradition.

[A]ll reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought.[xiii]

There is no possibility of the my “stepping outside” of all tradition and thinking from a tradition-free perspective, for what I am

is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition.[xiv]

But if Kant is wrong to suppose reason can be applied independently of all tradition (because every application of reason is inevitably rooted in some tradition or other), doesn’t that, in effect, spell doom for the Liberal approach recommended here? For isn’t the Liberal approach all about individuals applying reason for themselves, independently of any tradition?

No, it isn’t. Liberalism does not involve defending the view that reason alone can conjure up morality all by itself. What Liberals defend is the view that children, and indeed, adults, should be encouraged and trained to think critically about the tradition in which they find themselves. Pointing out that reason cannot be applied independently of all tradition does nothing to undermine this point. In fact, MacIntyre himself agrees that “[n]othing can claim exemption from reflective critique”.[xv]In applying reason, we may look to and draw upon a tradition. MacIntyre may even be right that we have to. But that’s not to establish that we should be encouraged, at any stage, blindly and unquestioningly to accept our tradition’s cultural religious, moral values.[xvi]

Of course, not every defender of Authority-based moral education wants to turn us into unthinking Jamesian automata blindly treading whatever path tradition lays down. That’s true of former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, for example. Still, while he is not recommending complete, blind, unswerving loyalty to whatever tradition dictates, it’s clear that Sacks and others believe the young should, in the first instance, adopt an attitude of deference to what they both call “external authority” on moral questions.

Sacks, for example, says that before we can properly criticise a practice, we need to set foot within it, “finding our way round it from the inside”. This, says Sacks,

presupposes distinctive attitudes: authority, obedience, discipline, persistence and self-control. …There is a stage at which we put these rules to the test. We assert our independence, we challenge, ask for explanations, occasionally rebel and try other ways of doing things. Eventually we reach an equilibrium… For the most part…we stay within the world as we have inherited it….capable now of self-critical reflection on its strengths and weaknesses, perhaps working to change it from within, but recognizing that its rules are not a constraint but the very possibility of shared experiences and relationship and communication… autonomy takes place withina tradition.[xvii]

So Sacks acknowledges the importance, in a mature citizen, of a critical, reflective stance towards his or her own tradition. But he emphasizes we must first be fully immersed in that tradition. And he stresses the importance of deference to Authority in the earlier stages of assimilation. Sacks believes

autonomy – the capacity to act and choose in the consciousness of alternatives – is a late stage in moral development… It is not where it begins.[xviii]

What Sacks means by “a late stage” is unclear. At what point Sacks is willing to let individuals adopt a more reflective, critical stance towards their own tradition? At eleven? At fifteen? At twenty five? It’s hard to say. In fact it’s not clear whether reflective, critical examination of the tradition in which you are brought up is something Sacks is at any stage be willing to encourage. He acknowledges only that it spontaneously happens at some “late stage”.

So while Sacks is prepared to tolerate some freedom of thought and expression at some unspecified point in the individual’s development, it’s clear he wants moral education to be much more Authority-based than it currently is (or at least as it is outside the more conservative religious schools). He believes more emphasis should be placed on more-or-less uncritical deference to Authority than it should on independent critical thought (at least until some “late stage”).

My question is: why is more-or-less blind, uncritical acceptance of the pronouncements of Authority required at any stage?

Sacks cites MacIntyre in support of his Authoritarian stance on moral and religious education. But MacIntyre’s plausible point that reason is inevitably rooted in tradition – that it cannot be applied independently of any tradition – does not require that individuals should be discouraged from applying their own powers of reason once they are able. And it’s clear from studies that children are remarkably adept at applying their critical faculties to moral questions from very early on. Some immersion in a tradition may be required before their critical faculties can be properly engaged. But once they are engaged, once the child is striving to engage them, once they are beginning actively to question and explore (which comes very naturally to them), what is the case for actively suppressing their application to moral and religious beliefs? Particularly until, as Sacks puts it, some “late stage”? For if Sacks wants to restrict the child’s ability to think and question until some “late stage”, he is going to have to actively suppress this natural tendency.

What Sacks tries to extract from MacIntyre’s point about tradition looks suspiciously like an open-ended invitation for him to shut down the critical faculties of young people long enough to get them heavily religiously indoctrinated. Sacks leaves the door open for years and years of religious programming at the hands of some moral Authority, sending new citizens out into the moral world intellectually armed with little more than a tokenistic, last-minute bit of critical reflection grudgingly tolerated at some “late stage”.

If that’s what Sacks is after, he’s going to need a much better argument to justify it. MacIntyre’s plausible point about the impossibility of applying reason independently of any tradition does not support it.

Children, surely, have a right not to have their bodies stunted, crippled or mutilated in the name of certain cultural religious, moral or aesthetic traditions and values – such as the Chinese practice of foot-binding or the cultural practice of female circumcision. I believe children have a similar right not to have their minds crippled and stunted in the name of certain cultural, religious and moral traditions. I would argue that they have a right to freedom of thought and expression. They also have a right to a quality of education that will give them the skills they’ll need if they are to be able to distinguish facts from myths and spot intellectual snakeoil when they come across it. These rights are trampled if cultural and religious identity is used to justify enforcing conformity of belief and suppressing potential dissent.

We’ve looked at two particular lines of argument used to justify restricting children’s freedom to think critically and independently about the cultural, religious, moral, and other values and traditions with which they are raised. The first argument draws on the philosophy of Aristotle and emphasises the importance of instilling good habits in children.  The second draws on the work of e.g. philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre and turns on the thought that morality cannot be thought up by an individual from scratch, independently of any tradition. While neither argument is cogent, both are popular amongst critics of a Liberal, P4C based approach to moral and religious education. Liberals should be prepared to encounter them.

[i]Quoted in Phillips, All Must Have Prizes(London: Warner Books, 1998), p. 190. My italics.
[ii]Immanuel Kant, quoted in the entry on “Enlightenment” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
[iii]William James, The Principles of Psychology, chpt. 4, on-line at, p.121
[iv]Ibid, p. 122.
[v]Ibid, p. 125.
[vi]Ibid, p. 121.
[vii]Sarah Broadie, Ethics With Aristotle(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) p. 109
[viii]Thomas Lickona, Character Matters(New York: Touchstone, 2004) p. xxiii
[ix]Kevin Ryan, “The New Moral Education”, available on-line at:
[x]See, for example, B. David Brooks, “Increasing Test Scores and Character Education - The Natural Connection”, available on-line at:
[xi]Quoted in Thomas Lickona, Character Matters (New York: Touchstone, 2004) page xxvi.
[xiii]Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue 2ndedition (London: Duckworth, 1985) p.222
[xiv]Ibid, p. 221.
[xv]John Horton and Susan Mendus (eds.) After MacIntyre (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press,  1994) p. 289.
[xvi]By the way, I am not suggesting that MacIntyre thinks otherwise. While MacIntyre is a well-known critic of “liberalism”, it’s less clear to me to what extent he would wish to be critical of Liberalism-with-a-capital-L. See the appendix to this chapter.
[xvii]Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Hope(London: Jonathan Cape, 1997) pp. 176-7.
[xviii]Ibid, p. 177.