Conceptualizing moral literacy
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Purpose – The purpose of this research is to provide an overview of the fundamental elements of
moral literacy. Moral literacy involves three basic components: ethics sensitivity; ethical reasoning
skills; and moral imagination. It is the contention of the author that though math and reading literacy
is highly valued by the American educational system, moral literacy is extremely undervalued and
Design/methodology/approach – In this study the author uses her vast knowledge of moral
literacy to break the subject matter into specific and defined sub-categories. She then explains each
sub-category explicitly using real-life examples to assist the reader in understanding the gravity and
meaning behind each separate facet of moral literacy.
Findings – Moral literacy is a skill that must be crafted and honed by students, and with the aid of
teachers who are well-versed in moral subject matter. It is a complex and multifaceted skill set that is
interconnected and must therefore be learned completely in order to be used properly. Teaching
students about moral literacy is truly necessary if schools wish to produce productive and responsible
Originality/value – The study furthers our understanding of moral literacy and how it can play an
absolutely vital role in our educational system. The paper not only explains what moral literacy is on a
theoretical level, but it puts that theory into specific examples so that the reader can more clearly
understand the benefits of acting in a morally literate fashion.
Keywords Ethics, Imagination, Communities, Social values
Paper type Research paper
Christine Pelton, a biology teacher at Piper High School near Kansas City, discovered
that almost twenty percent of her students had plagiarized their semester projects
(CNN Student News). Two Hartford Union High School students were charged last
October with making a bomb threat causing the high school to be evacuated and
classes cancelled (Benson, 2006). Roy Espiritu and Cameron Johnston died from
drowning when the car Espiritu was driving skidded out of control and crashed
through a sea wall into Elliott Bay. Seventeen year old Espiritu had just left a party
where he was seen drinking (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2006).
The children and teens in our public schools face an increasingly complex array of
ethical situations. When made angry by the bullying of peers, how should they
respond? When they are faced with a looming deadline, is it ever acceptable to
purchase answers to a problem or buy the basic research for a term paper from the vast
array of internet sites, like Google Answers, set up to provide such services? If a student
suspects that a friend has an eating disorder, what should he do? If a teen sees that a
friend who has been drinking plans to drive while under the influence, how should she
respond? What if a sophomore finds out that a classmate cheated on a test; should she
tell anyone? An eighth-grader sees a good friend buying drugs behind the middle
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The author’s on thispaper has been greatly enriched by very helpful comments from Paul Begley
and an anonymous reviewer.
Journal of Educational
Vol. 45 No. 4, 2007
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
school playground; what should he do? These and a myriad of small and large ethical
decisions face our children and teens on a regular basis both inside and outside the
We see our public schools as a place where our children are to receive an education
in those skills they need to lead a responsible and rewarding life. A recent US
Department of Education report Answering the Challenge of a Changing World:
Strengthening Education for the 21st Century explains that education is key to
innovation, to “creating a more productive, prosperous, mobile and healthy society”.
The report underscores the importance of literacy in the areas of reading, science and
mathematics, and foreign languages. The report argues that “innovating and
improving education is critical not only to America’s financial security but also to our
national security”. Literacy is thus seen as the best way to sustain the American
quality and way of life. Programs like Reading First, Math Now, the High School
Reform Initiative, the American Competitiveness Initiative, the National Security
Language Initiative and many other programs, including No Child Left Behind, are all
designed to develop and ensure literacy for all students in the USA, but nowhere in any
of these reports is moral literacy mentioned.
The absence of moral literacy is a glaring omission from our national efforts to
strengthen education. US Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, referring to the
High School Reform Initiative, explains that enhanced education is not just an
“education issue”. It is also an economic issue, a civic issue, a social issue, and a
national security issue”. If we have learned anything at all from the economic impact of
the ethics violations of companies like Enron (Brewer and Hansen, 2004) or the social
and civic impacts of the recent Congressional ethics violations (Feldmann, 2006), we
should certainly have learned that to fully answer the challenge of a changing world,
we cannot ignore the essential role of moral literacy in our children’s education.
Living an ethical life is an achievement, and one that must be carefully and
continuously cultivated. I thus use the concept of “literacy” here to reflect the fact that
the skills and knowledge specific to making ethical choices in life are learned
capabilities requiring skills in which individuals can be more or less competent. Indeed,
none of us believe that our children’s moral development is something we can take for
granted. We share our values with them and teach them right from wrong. We
encourage our children to develop good character each time we talk with them about
why dishonesty is wrong, try to instill compassion toward people in need, or ask them
to think about how it would feel to be the brunt of another’s teasing as a means to
change their behavior toward their sibling. The phrase “literacy” reflects the fact that
ethical behavior requires complex abilities and skills, but it also is used to emphasize
that the development of these abilities and skills can be and should be enriched
Just as math skills or reading skills can be developed and sharpened far past the
basics of comprehension, so too moral literacy is an ability that is best developed with
careful instruction and practice to develop basics, but that also is enhanced and honed
with additional training and practice. This is not to minimize the role of parents,
family, religious institutions, and community in helping children develop these
important skills. Indeed, just like language fluency, and math and reading literacy,
children first develop the rudiments of these skills at home and in the communities of
which they are a part. Education is seen as reinforcing and enhancing the skills begun
at home, and it is hoped that home and community environments will continue to
support and augment the learning that is happening in the schools.
Moral literacy should be no different than math or reading literacy. Since all of us as
individuals, as professionals, and as citizens will need to make numerous moral
decisions throughout our lifetime, what stronger argument can there be for making
moral literacy a component of our formal educational experience? What better way to
help strengthen education for the twenty-first century? In this essay, I will provide an
overview of the fundamental elements of moral literacy. These involve three basic
components: ethics sensitivity, ethical reasoning skills, and moral imagination (see
While I have, for the purpose of discussion, separated these components of moral
literacy, it is important to realize that all of these abilities interact and mutually
reinforce one another. The development of an understanding of ethical reasoning skills
can serve to heighten ethics sensitivity, and so on. While there is no fixed formula for
the order in which these traits are taught, what is fixed is that moral literacy requires
the development of all three of these competencies. Hence, education for moral literacy
must include them all.
Ethics sensitivity is a key element of moral literacy. It involves at least three major
(1) the ability to determine whether or not a situation involves ethical issues;
(2) awareness of the moral intensity of the ethical situation; and
(3) the ability to identify the moral virtues or values underlying an ethical
situation. These abilities are complex and require training and practice to
The ability to determine whether or not a situation involves ethical issues is crucial to
moral literacy. Students can be taught the various ethical frameworks, can be given a
case study that is identified as involving an ethics violation and be asked to sort
through the process of moral reasoning about the case, but still be unable by
themselves to identify whether or not a situation involves an ethical issue. Without this
ability, students will not only misidentify ethical situations, perhaps thinking they
involve only personal choices – she feels comfortable doing that, but I do not – they
will also be unable to evaluate another’s claim that a situation does or does not involve
an ethical issue. Curriculum that does not include ethics sensitivity, then, is missing an
important element of moral literacy.
Ethics sensitivity is not an inborn talent and given the fact that not all the
communities of which we are a part will live up to the highest ethical standards, one’s
sensitivity can become blunted. For example, practices that have become
The elements of moral
common-place, such as downloading music from the internet, can become so routine
that some youngsters do not even question its acceptability. Cheating to get good
grades is, unfortunately, another instance of the dulling of ethics sensitivity for many
current students. One way to begin to offer students training in recognizing when a
situation involves ethical issues is to work with them to identify virtues, the character
traits seen as emblematic of ethical individuals. Indeed virtue ethics is one major
approach to ethical theory and I will discuss further in the next section.
While ethicists debate whether or not any virtues are universally embraced, for the
purposes of developing moral literacy, providing students with the opportunity to
identify virtues common to their community is an excellent beginning approach.
Students very quickly come up with a list of shared virtues, typically honesty,
compassion, fairness, and courage. They can then see how traits group around a
common or related virtue, for example, a broader virtue like trustworthiness can be
shown to be linked to being honest, being reliable, keeping promises, not betraying
confidences, and so on. While students will not necessarily agree on all virtues, they do
begin to see that they agree on many of the character traits they see as a component of
a moral person. For more advanced curriculum, students can be asked to think about
and study the character traits that are expected in various professions, examining
those that are common to all and those that are more emphasized in some professions
than others (e.g. physical courage for police officers), as well as those expected of
citizens of the USA.
An understanding of the virtues provides students with a good lens to examine
particular situations and determine whether or not they involve ethical issues. For
example, having agreed that honesty and fairness are characteristics of a moral
person, it is easier to see that a case of downloading music involves ethical issues.
Would an honest person take something that does not belong to her? Is it fair to
enjoy the music that groups have created without compensating them and
providing them the resources needed to continue making music? Students may not
yet have the ability to work through these questions and develop a full analysis of
the situation, but they are better able to “ethics spot” – to identify issues in need
of further analysis.
Training in ethics sensitivity should also be designed to help students develop their
ability to judge the moral intensity of an ethical situation. Moral intensity is often
linked to the seriousness of the harm and/or the urgency of a response or action. For
example, if in a moment of anger, we unjustifiably yell at a friend, we have acted
unethically and should do what we can to ameliorate the situation. But imagine now
that we do so in a context and in such a way that their reputation is seriously damaged.
Here the moral intensity of the situation is higher than in the former instance in that we
have caused far greater harm to the individual.
Sensitivity to the moral intensity of a situation is a crucial skill in that there are
often competing ethical demands. So, for example, a student has promised to tutor a
classmate to help him prepare for a big quiz the next day, but just when he is about to
leave for the meeting, he gets a call from his best friend who really needs to talk
because she has just found out that her parents are getting a divorce. He is caught in
the dilemma having to decide whether or not it would be more acceptable to break his
promise to the classmate, who is likely then not to do as well on the quiz, or to help out
his friend who really needs him. While these situations can be very complex,
attentiveness to the moral intensity of the choices is a key element in making a
Providing students with the ability to weigh the moral intensity of ethical issues
also provides them with a much needed skill they will need in their professional
careers. For example, codes of ethics for engineers include two basic rules which are
frequently in tension, namely, “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the
public” and “Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.” It is often
the moral intensity of the situation that determines the ethical response. Consider the
situation in which an engineer discovers a problem with a waste management plant
and the employer asks that the engineer allow the company to deal with the situation
and not report the problem in order to avoid damaging publicity or unwarranted fears
by the public. If the moral intensity is low, namely, that the problem is minor and is
unlikely to cause harm to the public should it not be dealt with properly, then attending
to the wishes of the client is likely to be the ethically correct response. But if the
engineer judges the moral intensity to be high, namely that the problem is serious and
could result in harm to the public, then the engineer may have to violate the wishes of
the employer to respond ethically in the situation.
The moral intensity of a situation is a complex variable and has to do with a variety
of factors. It is linked to the magnitude of harm that could result from an ethical
violation or conversely the amount of benefit that could result, as well as the likelihood
of those results, but it also has to do with how central the underlying virtues or
principles are to the community or to the individual involved with the decision. The
latter component of moral intensity is particularly salient when communities hold
significantly different beliefs or values. So, for example, in a Buddhist community, the
decision to kill animals for food or other uses has a different moral intensity then this
action typically has in a Protestant community.
Training in ethics sensitivity therefore can not only enable individuals to better
determine the ethically responsible choice in complex situations, it will also serve to
help them understand the basis of ethical disagreements between individuals or
groups. Such conflicts often involve either a disagreement about the values relevant to
the issue and/or a difference of opinion regarding the moral intensity of the problem.
Take the case of clashes between environmentalists and loggers. Environmentalists
and loggers may, for example, disagree about the ethical status of endangered species.
The environmentalists may claim that those species have rights or that humans have a
duty to preserve rare species, and the loggers may deny such claims. But another
possibility is that the loggers may agree with the environmentalists that the species in
question have rights or inherent ethical value, but disagree instead concerning the
moral intensity of the situation. The loggers may point to the harm done to humans
and argue that it is more pressing than that being done to the endangered species.
Training in ethics sensitivity leads to professionals and citizens who are better able
to adjudicate between ethical controversies and who are better able to understand the
reasons why individuals or groups disagree. This is a key ability in many instances,
including cross-cultural contexts in which individuals or groups may hold different
values or have different judgments about the moral intensity of situations. Given that
our global economy is resulting in many more of us interacting with individuals from
different cultures, the development of this ability should be an important component of
any robust education. Possessing this ability can enable an individual to help disputing
groups see that the disagreements between them are actually smaller than they
believed them to be, but it helps, in all cases, to enable disputing groups appreciate the
sources of their disagreements.
As I have demonstrated in this section, the first component of moral literacy, ethics
sensitivity, involves three skills, all of which can be enhanced through including ethics
curriculum in the K-12 setting (see Figure 2).
While ethics sensitivity is not sufficient for the full development of moral literacy, it
is a necessary and essential component. If our students cannot determine whether or
not a situation involves an ethical issue or weigh the moral intensity of the issue, they
will not be able to react responsibly. However, educators cannot stop here; the next step
is the development of ethical reasoning skills, the second component of moral literacy.
Ethical reasoning skills
Ethical reasoning skills also involve at least three different abilities. They involve:
(1) an understanding of the various ethical frameworks;
(2) the ability to identify and assess the validity of facts relevant to the ethical
situation, as well as assessing any inferences from such facts; and
(3) the ability to identify and assess the values that an individual or group holds to
be relevant to the ethical issue under consideration (see Figure 3).
Ethicists frequently make a threefold division of ethical frameworks: utilitarian or
consequentialist; deontological or duty-based thinking; and virtue ethics. More recently
feminist ethicists have argued for a fourth ethical framework, namely care ethics.
While any comprehensive examination of ethical theorizing would cover the detailed
structure, the strengths and weaknesses, the historical articulations, and the major
modifications of each framework, such an approach is not required to enable students
to understand that they need to develop moral literacy.
An integrated ethical model is an excellent way to offer students training in the
ethical frameworks. Certainly those wishing more sophisticated training may wish to
pursue the history of ethical theory, but just as math literacy does not require number
theory, moral literacy can be developed without this historical understanding.
The components of ethics
The components of ethical
Furthermore, although the different ethical theories are often presented as if they were
competing ethical frameworks, in fact they are not inherently incompatible.
An integrated approach to ethical reasoning includes the basic components of each
of the traditional approaches to ethics. It helps students understand the relevance of the
consequences of actions, the nature of duties and corresponding rights, the importance
of attention to the interests and needs of individuals as well as the ethical import of
certain types of relationships. It also continues the attention to virtue and values
initiated in the curriculum on ethical sensitivity.
Consider the utilitarian component of an integrated curriculum. It asks that students
reflect on the consequences of actions, a utilitarian approach, and provides them with
the skills needed to think about which type of consequences matter. Students can be
given exercises that help them think about the meaning of the principle “greatest good
for the greatest number”. They can reflect on the meaning of the term “good” and
develop skills in thinking about various types of consequences (local v. global, present
v. future, etc.). As they develop their skills they can begin to think about how to deal
with issues of uncertainty concerning consequences of actions. As may be clear from
the examples I have discussed, this type of curricular module will link back to earlier
discussions of the moral intensity of ethical situations since these are features that
contribute to moral intensity.
The notion of the good is a particularly complex component of utilitarian
frameworks. Whether defined as “happiness” or “utility,” there is seldom agreement on
the meanings of the terms when individuals are asked to unpack them. Conversations
designed to investigate the meaning of happiness will often uncover various intrinsic
goods, such as knowledge, health, liberty, friendship, or love. As students realize that
not everyone agrees on what will best promote happiness, they come to see the
complexity of this seemingly simple principle of acting so as to bring about the
Many of our contemporary economic and environmental issues provide an excellent
context for thinking about the scale of consequences. Global warming, for example,
raises the issue of our responsibility to future generations since the impact of
greenhouse gas emissions will be far less severe for current generations. And issues
concerning species extinction or ecosystem degradation raise the question of whether
consequences to nonhuman animals should be considered morally relevant. Such
examples can also be used to provide students with the ability to think about the
implications of consequences being uncertain. In addition, it can introduce them to
notions such as the precautionary principle, which argues that if an action has a high
probability of leading to serious harm, the burden of proof concerning the safety of the
action should fall on those wishing to engage in the action.
Another important skill that students need is the ability to sort through the
relationship between consequences of actions and intentions. For example, students
would be provided with case studies designed to think about the relationship between
ethical responsibility for the consequences of actions and the intention of actors. So, if
one student intended to help their lab partner by putting the finishing touches on their
experiment and accidentally slipped and ruined the experiment, we would not hold the
student responsible for the consequences of their actions. Indeed, this is exactly the
type of instance where a teacher will provide the lab team extra time to redo the
experiment or some other compensation, but if a student intentionally ruined the
experiment in order to cause the lab partner to get a bad grade, she would be held
responsible for her actions.
This type of exploration also helps students see that there are instances where they
may not have been intending harm, but where they will be held responsible for their
actions. This is a perfect instance, for example, to raise the issue of driving while under
the influence to help high school students understand that there are actions for which
they will be held responsible regardless of their intentions. In this way our schools can
help our teens understand the reason why it is so ethically problematic to drink and
drive, and thereby help them fully understand and reinforce the legal sanctions. In this
case, augmenting moral literacy can go hand-in-hand with anti-drinking or drug
campaigns like DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education).
A deontological or duty-based ethical framework focuses on duties and rights as the
grounding of ethics. According to this framework, actions are ethical not because of the
consequences of so acting, but because there is a duty to so act. Such a framework also
attends to the intentions behind actions and argues that they are ethically relevant. In
this instance, and unlike focusing solely on the consequences of actions, students learn
that even if their actions resulted in good consequences, if their intention was bad, the
action is unethical. Take the instance of a student who is hoping to harm the odds of a
classmate winning the election for class president by using email to send out pictures
she shot during gym class, but the pictures end up being very popular and actually
helped him win the election. In this case, although the consequences of the action
actually benefited the classmate, a duty-based framework would argue that since the
intentions were in violation of our duty to be fair and respectful, the action was
unethical. Combining attention to consequences with attention to duty reinforces the
importance of the role of a person’s intention in acting. Although intention alone will
often not resolve the ethical acceptability of an action, it is often an important element
in determining whether or not an action is in fact ethically acceptable.
A duty-based approach also provides students with the opportunity to understand
the concept of rights and to examine what are held to be fundamental rights, rights
enjoyed by individuals in virtue of being human and regardless of their particular
citizenship or any other particular such as religion, ethnicity, or sex. Rights such as life,
liberty, and security of persons are taken to be fundamental human rights. Given
that the United States Declaration of Independence embraces the existence of three
inalienable human rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – moral literacy
is also an important tool for understanding the founding of our country and a key
element of the vision of our democracy.
Care ethics differs from the principle-based ethics of utilitarianism (act so as to
bring about the greatest amount of good) and of duty-based ethics (act so as to best
protect and respect the rights of all involved). It is a richly situated ethics that argues
that humans are embedded in a complex network of relationships in which caring
relationship is unique. Thus what is the ethically acceptable action in one relationship
may not be the right action in all similar cases. Unlike a duty-based ethic where our
particular relationships are seen as ethically irrelevant, care ethicists argue that we
have greater responsibilities to those for whom we care, and thus, care ethics includes
the belief that partiality is an ethical good. Furthermore, rather than the emotional
detachment often encouraged by duty-based or utilitarian frameworks, care ethics
embraces the emotions as an important component of ethical behavior. In contrast to
consequences per se or duty, a care ethics views the specific needs and interests of
individuals as key to ethical behavior.
A caring relationship is one in which an individual is both attentive to the specific
needs and interests of another, as well as acting to advance them. It is also seen as an
interactive relationship in which the one caring attends to the responses of the one
cared for and modifies their efforts to care based on how the other responds to their
actions. Because of these features, care ethics holds communication to be a key
component of ethical behavior. It is through verbal and nonverbal communication that
we come to understand the particular needs and desires of those we care for and
develop mutual trust, which in turn strengthens the relationship.
Care ethicists have noted that many of our relationships are not between equals but
rather between individuals in very different positions – parent/child, doctor/patient,
teacher/student. Based on this, care ethicists have argued that our ethical frameworks
would be best constructed not from contract models which often assume relatively
equally positioned individuals or theories that deny the inevitability of human
interdependency, but rather from models that recognize the range of relationships
1984). Acknowledging the centrality and ever-changing nature of dependency to human
life, then demands a reassessment of issues of equity and justice that takes both
dependency and the complex natures of care relationships seriously.
A virtue ethics framework is based on the view that ethical actions are those based
on moral character and a fundamental attention to the type of person we should strive
to be and how to live. A virtue ethics framework focuses on the development of one’s
character, not on particular actions. So for example, someone who is honest would not
avoid plagiarizing not because they do not want to get caught cheating, but because it
would be in fundamental conflict with their basic values; such an action would be a
violation of what they hold dear, namely honesty. And this disposition would apply to
other realms – deceiving their parents, lying to their friends, etc. Even in cases where it
might be difficult to tell the truth or where it’s against one’s interests to do so, the
virtuous person would not be tempted to lie.
While being a virtuous person is certainly an aim, virtue ethics recognizes the
importance of developing virtues and choosing wisely the people and institutions that we
interact with so that this development is heightened or at least not hampered. I would
argue, for example, that the “cheat codes” that our teens use to move to the next level in
their video and computer games can easily hamper theirabilitytofully develop the virtue
of honesty and integrity. The “cheat codes” that get one so easily to the next level can
habituate acceptance of “just a little bit of cheating” on the test to get that needed “A.”
This is the same reason that parents worry so about the friendships their children
develop, trying to ensure that they are “hanging out with a good group of kids.” They are
worried that spending time with children who think it is alright to cheat or to drink or to
lie will habituate and normalize such behavior in their own children.
While each of the above stresses a different approach to ethics, an integrated
approach in which students are taught to consider all of these aspects of ethical
decision making provides them with the richest framework todetermine what is ethical
in a particular situation. Furthermore, it is often the case that there is a convergence of
the frameworks where, regardless of the approach, all lead to the same interpretation of
the situation. Bringing together the resources of all of these frameworks within the
educational context provides students with a rich conceptual and practical context for
I would thus argue that a robust approach to moral literacy asks that once students
have identified an ethical issue, they think through the appropriate response by
considering questions like the following:
. What would be the likely consequences in acting in this way? Have I anticipated
the effects of this decision on all who are involved?
. What duties are relevant to this situation and which rights should I be attentive
to? If I put myself in the position of any of the other individuals involved, would I
see the action as just?
. What would a virtuous person do? What kind of person would I be if I acted in
this way? Does this decision uphold my basic moral values and have I been
attentive to and respectful of the values of others involved?
. Does my decision nurture good relationships and address the particular needs
and interests of those relationships? Do certain individuals or groups have a
greater stake in the outcome either because we have special obligations to them
or because they have greater needs?
Assessing facts and values
While the above set of questions provides a good template to offer to students as they
develop their ethical reasoning skills, there are two additional skills required for moral
literacy, namely, assessing facts and assessing values. Moral literacy is only
complete if one is able to both determine whether or not a situation involves ethical
issues and identify the values underlying that situation, as well as having the skills
needed to identify the morally correct choice in that situation, or in the cases of
complex moral dilemmas, determine which choices are morally unacceptable and
which are morally preferable. While the ethical frameworks provide a basis for
determining the morally correct choice, they are not sufficient for they have to be
appropriately applied to the situation and doing that requires other skills.
Ethical reasoning skills also include critical reasoning skills, for a faulty argument
in support of an ethical stance or an ethical judgment based on faulty evidence is an
unacceptable foundation for making an ethical decision. Although it may seem
commonsensical, teaching moral literacy includes reminding students that they must
start with as robust an understanding of the situation as possible. An assessment of
the ethical acceptability of, say, stem cell research, cannot begin without an
understanding of the relevant facts, for an ethical assessment is flawed if it is based on
a faulty grasp of the subject matter. Thus an important step in developing moral
literacy is to understand the importance of developing a rich understanding of the
issue. Ethical reasoning involves evaluating one’s own and other’s beliefs to ensure
that she or he has a firm grasp of all of the facts relevant to the ethical issue or, at a
minimum, knows which facts are uncertain. Furthermore, moral literacy includes not
only identifying the relevant facts, but making sound inferences from those facts.
While these skills are not unique to moral literacy, they are a part of moral literacy, just
as math literacy is a part of scientific literacy. Unfortunately, far too many ethical
disagreements are in fact merely disagreements about the relevant facts or appropriate
inferences from those facts. Moral literacy, then, must be seen as strongly linked to the
skills of critical reasoning. Hence, the inclusion of moral literacy within our K-12
curriculum will augment and be reinforced by efforts to teach critical reasoning.
Moral literacy also includes assessing values. While ethics sensitivity includes the
ability to identify which values are at stake in an ethical problem, ethical reasoning
skills builds upon this skill to provide students the ability to assess those values.
Ethical reasoning skills enables one to develop a clear understanding of all of the
values relevant to the ethical issue, evaluate the relevance of posited values and weed
out those that are extraneous or only weakly connected to the issue at hand, and
identify and remove biases.
Moral literacy includes the ability to assess what is held to be valuable in a context.
Students often say that what is valuable about getting an education is that it will
enable them to make a lot of money when they grow up, but this value is often in
competition with, for example, the value of education enhancing an individual’s
appreciation of great literature. In the former case, students are likely to see doing what
they have to do to get a good grade (and only that much) as sufficient, while in the
latter case the focus is on what is learned. While assessing values is not easy and often
not clear-cut, it is a crucial skill that can be developed with practice.
Identifying unwarranted biases or values is another key element of ethical
reasoning skills. This component of ethical reasoning is difficult to master given that
prejudices often result in the widespread acceptance of false beliefs or unsound values,
thereby making it difficult to even see that a belief or value must be questioned. It is
this aspect of ethical reasoning that is perhaps the most difficult, but also very
important since prejudice can lead to unethical behavior. Since students’ curriculum
includes the study of the history of various prejudices, e.g. the Holocaust, the
Trans-Atlantic slave trade, etc., teachers can use these resources to enable students to
begin to think about the components of prejudice – stereotypes, discriminatory
treatment, poor weighing of values, and so on. Instances of prejudicial action against
individuals provides a basis for considering the categories that students use to
understand people or the world – gender categories, racial categories, or even the
division between humans and other animals – and allows them to think about how
prejudice has in the past led to unethical actions. In this way, students are provided
with tools that will help them avoid the harm of prejudice in their own actions.
While there are many complex ethical situations in which decisions about what is
the best action or which are the most relevant values are very complex and where there
will be a lot of disagreement between individuals, it is also the case that even with the
most complex ethical issues, there are some choices that are either clearly wrong or at
least more difficult to defend. Furthermore, there is value in understanding how
differences in values, even if not resolved, can lead to very different decisions about
what is ethically acceptable and provide insight into the reasons why people from very
different cultures or religions disagree about seemingly fundamental issues.
The final component of moral literacy is the cultivation of children’s and teens’ moral
imagination. In his book by this title, Mark Johnson (1993) referred to moral
imagination as the “ability to imaginatively discern various possibilities for acting in a
given situation and to envision the potential help and harm that are likely to result
from a given situation”. The moral imagination refers to the blend of affective and
rational processes that contribute to the imagination. Imaginative processes are not
simply rational – either deductive or inductive – but neither are they irrational.
Rather, they blend reason and emotion through attending to what is taken for granted,
what is left out of a situation, how possibilities could be otherwise envisioned.
The moral imagination is difficult to teach, but is central to an individual becoming
an ethical agent. Simply because one can identify that a situation involves an ethical
issue and be able to employ ethical reasoning skills to provide an analysis of what
would be a good or bad action in the context, does not mean that they experience the
action as ethical or feel any personal investment in the situation or in trying to respond
ethically. Moral agency requires a rich and affective commitment to being ethical. The
moral imagination is a key component of this commitment to being ethical.
The moral imagination includes a wealth of abilities. It includes empathy for the
feelings and desires of others, efforts to imagine ourselves in the situation of another,
imagination aimed at “thinking outside of the box” and considering creative
alternatives, the ability to develop an aesthetic attunement to the complexities of the
situation, a robust appreciation of the humanity of others, the ability to develop trust
and be able to act in ways that are and are perceived as helpful, an appreciation of the
suffering and joys of others even when they are quite different from our own, a
sensitivity to nonverbal cues that help us better understand others and the situations
they are in, and a personal “ownership” and habituation of ethical behavior that
includes a felt sense of responsibility for our actions, the desire to cultivate virtuous
habits, as well as what Bell Hooks (1990, p. 27) referred to as a “yearning” for justice.
While moral imagination is not easy to teach and cannot be taught in any formulaic
fashion, there are many techniques that help cultivate the moral imagination. The most
common pedagogical technique is the use of narratives and stories. Part of the reason
we ask our children to read books like The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird,
or Cry the Beloved Country is not only to teach them about a particular historical
period, but because in imaginatively putting themselves in another’s position through
the process of reading, children experience the harm that can result from prejudice, get
a sense of what it feels like to be treated unjustly, and so on. They experience all
aspects of the moral imagination.
The moral imagination is fundamental to appreciating that we are ethical agents.
The lived experience of being an ethical agent involves not just a rational acceptance of
the belief that we are responsible for the consequences of our behavior, but owning and
experiencing that responsibility.
An integrated approach to moral literacy
It should be clear from this analysis that moral literacy is a complex ability that we
develop and improve over a lifetime. To bring together into one framework all the
components of moral literacy I have mentioned in this short paper, consider the
following enlarged diagram of an integrated approach to moral literacy (see Figure 4).
This diagram illustrates all the components that are a part of this important literacy
and offers a “worksheet” for approaching an ethical decision. While there is no correct
place to begin this process or move through the steps, providing our students with
such a model helps them see all that goes into making a choice of how to act in any one
of the complex ethical situations with which I opened this essay. Using this diagram,
teachers can assist students in working through case studies of the types of situations
they are likely to face in their life. Students will learn that responding to ethical
situations requires a complex set of skills, and will come to appreciate the need to take
time to work through their decisions about ethical issues when this is possible, but also
to “practice” this skill for those instances when we have to make a decision quickly.
Education of this sort provides students the opportunity to develop the skills they need
to be ethical professionals and responsible citizens of a just society.
Moral literacy involves a multifaceted set of skills that can and should be enhanced
through education.Just likereading andmath literacy,whilewecertainly hopethat moral
literacy is developed and reinforced in out-of-school contexts, a critical component of our
children’s education should be to ensure that they have the opportunity to strengthen
these skills and refine these abilities as they grow and mature.
I am delighted to partner with the scholars who are part of this special issue of
Journal of Educational Administration to offer insights on how we can best integrate
moral literacy within the contexts of our educational settings. And I am pleased to be
part of a project designed to inspire the moral imagination of a new generation of
teachers. Thanks to the insights and hard work of scholars like these, I can imagine
that the next time the US Department of Education publishes a report on how we might
best strengthen education for the twenty-first century they will include another
literacy, moral literacy, as an essential component of any effort to innovate education
and answer the challenge of a changing world.
1. See, for example, Carr and Steutel, 1999; Darwall, 2003: Foot, 1978; Hurka, 2001; Hursthouse,
1999; MacIntyre, 1984; and Swanton, 2003.
2. This approach to moral literacy is sometimes labeled character education. However, given
the complex history of this term and the various meanings ascribed to it (Howard et al.,
2004), a comparison of the approach to moral literacy outlined in this essay to character
education would require a separate essay. I would, however, say that any approach to
character education that involves transmitting or instilling preselected values would not be
consistent with the approach I advocate. This said, I recognize that the term character
education covers a far broader range of approaches to ethics education.
3. Utilitarianism is often traced to John Stuart Mill’s (2002) Utilitarianism. Deontological or
duty based ethics is see as originally articulated by Immanuel Kant (2002); see for example
his Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals. Virtue ethics has been traced back to Aristotle’s
(2002) The Nicomachean Ethics. And credit for care ethics is often traced to the work of
Nel Noddings (1984), particularly Caring.
4. It is commonly assumed that theories like duty-based ethics or utilitarianism that are based on
rational decision-making are incompatible with those, like a care ethic, which are seen as based
on appeal to emotion or to sentiment. But many contemporary theorists are explicitly denying
such incompatibility, for example R.M. Hare (1997) in the case of deontological ethics and
utilitarianism and Virginia Held (2005) in the case of ethics of duty or justice and ethics of care.
5. These are the three rights delineated in the United Nations (1948) Universal Declaration of
6. Care ethics includes Baier, 1991; Gilligan, 1982; Held, 1993; Kittay, 1999; Noddings, 1984;
Ruddick, 1989; and Tronto, 1993.
7. For the purposes of this paper I will assume a distinction between empirical facts and moral
values. I do realize that this distinction is controversial. Some would argue that relevant values
are facts in the senseof being objective and verifiable. Otherswould argue that what is taken to
be factual is itself a function of the values that we embrace. While I do not wish to deny these
complexities,forthepurposesof articulatingthisframework,I believeitissufficient toembrace
the typical folk theoretical distinction between facts about the world and normative values.
8. I do not want to claim that moral literacy entails always being able to accurately determine the
one correct answer to all ethical issues. It is a hallmark of ethical dilemmas that choices are
complex, and aspects of the situation are unclear or there are competing ethical values. Just as
scientific literacy does not entail knowing the answers to all scientific questions, moral literacy
provides one the skills needed to act responsibly even when faced with an ethical dilemma
where it is difficult or even impossible to accurately determine the single most ethical response.
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