Navigating the Semantic Minefield of Promoting Moral Development
by Marvin W. Berkowitz

I am confused about words. I have found the language of moral education to be a semantic minefield. There is no moral GPS to help with such semantic navigation. I have lectured, written, etc. under quite a set of terms. The terminology varies geographically and historically. And there are many overlapping terms used: moral education, values education, character education, civic education, citizenship education, democratic education, moralogy, social-emotional learning, positive psychology, etc. As a doctoral student in developmental psychology, I discovered Kohlbergian moral development. It began a 40-year journey that has had many terminological turning points. For about two decades I walked a straight line under the banner of “moral development and education.” I renounced the “values education” and “values clarification” movements, embracing the Kohlbergian party line that values and virtues were arbitrary and non-universal, a “bag of virtues.” As a devoted member of AME, I almost never missed an annual meeting. I served on the Board of AME for about 15 years, at first informally at the invitation of Kohlberg and eventually more formally through member elections.

Then I began to realize that the field was stagnating, for want of an applied focus. I loved convening with my colleagues (and still do); this was my intellectual family and many of the AME members were my close and long-standing friends (and still are). Then in 1992, I was invited to a meeting in Aspen CO, dubbed a “Youth Values Summit.” At this meeting I discovered that only a couple of months earlier another meeting had occurred in Wisconsin, and the term du jour there was “character.” The Racine meeting was the birth of the Character Education Partnership, which remains the major US character education organization. Both were attempts to start a national movement to support schools that promote values or character development. I realized that these were the “bag of virtues” folks that I and my fellow Kohlbergians had been conceptually denigrating. They were smart and well-intentioned, but did not know much about the psychology of morality in general nor moral reasoning development in particular. However, they really wanted to impact schools and students.

When Bill Gatherer of the Scottish Gordon Cook Foundation attended my AME workshop on moral dilemma discussion methods, he decided that British “values education” needed training in American “moral education.” This led me to dare a major session at the AME conference in New York in 1995, in which the AME and CEP leaders would attempt to find common ground. CEP needed AME’s scholarly base and AME needed CEP’s applied vision. Sadly, it bombed…miserably. There was too large a gap between AME’s scholarly approach and CEP’s atheoretical pragmatic school-based perspective.

So I decided to live in both worlds, and, in accepting my current position, found myself moving from the moral world to the character world, after a brief stop in the values world (Scotland). Some of my colleagues thought that I had experienced a psychiatric breakdown…really. In fact, nothing had changed but the labels. Yet I was repeatedly forced to explain and defend. Reflecting on this, I reached two conclusions about this semantic mess.

First, while there are differences between these fields, in many ways they are like a predominantly overlapping set of Venn diagram circles. The shared space is that all are endeavors to understand, explain, and/or impact the development of pro-social characteristics in children and adolescents. They are fundamentally about socializing each subsequent generation of youth to be contributors to, rather than detractors from, the common good; to nurture justice and caring in the world. In some cases they may focus more on social competencies (e.g., social-emotional learning) or on knowledge of the good (e.g., values and character education) or on socio-moral critical thinking competency (e.g., moral education) or on the knowledge, skills and dispositions of a contributing member of a democratic society (e.g., civic, citizenship or democratic education), but in all cases they are about supporting the positive development of children and adolescents as agents of justice and care.

Conflict between and discomfort with the terms seem inevitable. Science has devolved from a global pursuit of truth to more of a “my theory can beat up your theory” philosophy of science; a kind of scientific imperialism. Certainly individuals and organizations have wedded themselves to specific terms and are reticent to give them up; and so find ways to exaggerate the differences and vilify their conceptual “enemies.”

A deeper reason that the language wars persist and likely will always persist is that this broad field is inherently polarizing. In dealing with morality, ethics, goodness, social justice, and the model of a good person, people of different ideologies will be suspicious of others. This stuff is so important, not just to the world but to our individual identities and psyches, that we balk at the prospect that someone else will meddle with our core commitments and beliefs, and those of our children and communities. So we become paranoid and project our fears onto the terms. And we search for the holy semantic grail; the one word that will unify us all.

It doesn’t exist. It never will exist, because it is not the words that are flawed. Rather it is our discomfort with the domain. So I have decided that I don’t care if you call it character or values or morality or something else. All I care about is that we look to what valid science and philosophy can tell us about how to make a just and caring world by nurturing the positive development of our youth. Call it what you will. Just do it and do it wisely and well. That is the character and value of moral education.


Marvin W. Berkowitz is the Co-Director of the Center for Character and Citizenship, and the Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor of Character Education, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Opinions expressed in these Op Ed pieces are solely those of the author and not intended to represent AME. AME chooses to publish pieces that will foster discussion on issues related to moral psychology, philosophy, development, and education.

3 thoughts on “Navigating the Semantic Minefield of Promoting Moral Development
by Marvin W. Berkowitz

  1. A good summary, Marvin. Yet it’s not surprising to me that we have reached this sort of impasse in applied ethics and education. The “values education” world is one place, and the “character education” world is entirely another. They don’t share a common story about where values/virtues come from, what they are, or what compels us to practice them.

    The problem, it seems to me, is that when we jumped from the (apparently interminably vexed) field of theoretical ethics to the applied level, we did so on grounds of prudence — i.e. that, as you put it, “the field was stagnating for lack of a focus,” (and perhaps out of a sincere interest in the welfare of young people as well) — rather than on grounds of having actually resolved the deep issues. “Values” and “virtues” are rationalized from entirely different assumptions about morality and human teleology. We knew that, but could not fix it, so we jumped to a new level in order to keep going forward.

    Unfortunately, conflicts buried in this way would not stay dead. As soon as we started to talk on the applied level, proponents of the values and virtues camps (and for that matter, the relativism, pragmatism, political interest and other camps) immediately began to intuit that certain of their core assumptions would come under threat if the other camp were allowed to “win” too much. So they could not stay quiet, and began to argue again. From the perspective of any one camp this perhaps looked argumentative and petty; but from the perspective of other camps, there were still important issues at stake, issues that would be buried if Character Education or any other single paradigm were allowed to dominate.

    I don’t suspect we will ever get a harmonious coexisting, let alone a happy co-working, until those core issues have been settled. The arguments will simply persist, but on the applied level rather than the theoretical. The disadvantage to this situation, of course, is that we cannot actually resolve the issues if we stay on the applied level, because there the core assumptions are experienced as tacit not declared, and are thus not open for inspection and conversation. Hence our inchoate “discomfort with the domain,” as you put it.

    I share your sense of practical urgency to do applied level work; but I don’t think we can skip the discussion about the world views that rationalize the paradigms and generate the practices, because such conflicts cannot be resolved on the applied level. We’ve still got too much important work to do on the theoretical level.

  2. Marvin,
    I was unaware that such pieces were being e-published on the AME website. I recall our unanimous AME Board vote sometime between 1988 and 1990 that the AME president would attempt to publish in major newspapers at least one op-ed per year taking a position on a current social issue. I don’t think that ever happened. I want to re-read your piece again on paper, but I can say now that I completely agree with you that what many of us were and are so passionate about has remained somewhere in the caves of the ivory tower, and has not grown and developed the way I naively thought it would when I was one Kohlberg’s last grad students. One thing that really bothers me, and might address part of your concern, is that I have not found one “popular” book, that is, a book written for a curious, interested, educated audience–those NOT in moral development, dev psych. or any of the related fields you mentioned–on moral development as well know it. I don’t understand this at all. Any decent writer in AME could do this. Why hasn’t this happened, or have I missed titles on the NYT non-fiction best seller’s list? Of course, the same can be said of cognitive development. I decided to try something like this. I am attempting to write such a book on developmental conceptions of the good life, my own research area. It has been really challenging. I have been working on it off and on for years, but I am finally making progress. Meanwhile, I think such a book on moral development is much more important. There are hundreds of books on values and character, most of which are not (yet) supported by empirical research. Why do you think this hasn’t happened? And what do you think of the idea?

  3. Important essay Marvin. I especially like the last sentence.

    The key point, as you suggest, is that in such an important domain, we too often take sides quickly out of a need to preserve what we have ‘constructed’ over a life of moral meaning making. We need to understand more fully what types of language and semantic triggers keep us from communicating deeply and creating common ground for moral/character education.

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