bits from bob....

How Can Christian Education Teach Moral Autonomy?

by Robert J. Young
©, 2003, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

In Number in Preschool and Kindergarten (NAEYC, 1992), Constance Kamii summarizes Jean Piaget's concept of how morality is derived from a healthy autonomy (The Moral Judgment of the Child, 1932). Autonomy means "being governed by oneself" with the opposite being heterono my, "being governed by someone else." Every person determines moral sensibility through either internally or externally derived values.

A friend, a member of the church who is a college professor at a state university, tells a story which illustrates this distinction. Since a majority of his students know of his work with and involvement in the church, he was questioned one day after class by a big, burly football player.

In this case, heteronomously defined guidelines had been taught concerning dancing, but apparently training had not provided an autonomous morality which could adequately decide matters where no specific guidelines had been externally imposed.

Piaget's research asked children to choose which of two lies was worse. He found that autonomous people consider lies bad independently of whether one is caught or not. Kamii's illustration from the Watergate coverup points to Elliott Richardson as an example of an autonomous morality. He refused to obey Nixon and resigned his position. The other players in the coverup illustrate the morality of heteronomy, for they told lies and did as they were instructed, even though they knew it to be wrong.

This principle of morality, distinguishing moral autonomy and moral heteronomy, suggests a framework for evaluating church work and activities--especially preaching, teaching, and develop mental tasks such as youth ministry and teaching or training programs. According to Kamii, intellectual autonomy and heteronomy correspond to moral autonomy and heteronomy. While all babies are born helpless and heteronomous, individuals ideally become increasingly autonomous and less heteronomous as they grow older. That is, the more one effectively governs self, the less one desires to be governed by others. Piaget (To Understand is to Invent, 1948) found that most adults do not develop ideally, but tend willingly to sacrifice autonomy for heteronomy. Peer pressures and outside influences significantly color decisions, and most adults are willing for that to occur. We often want to know what others think before we make decisions, even in moral matters.

The important question for those involved in spiritual development--parents, Bible school teachers, youth workers, and preachers--is, "What causes individuals to become morally autonomous or morally heteronomous?" Kamii cites two factors which have the opposite effects one might expect.

While most adults tend to think that punishing children will assist in their development, punishment and reward--verbal, nonverbal, or physical--actually discourage autonomy and contribute to heteronomy. Punishment usually leads to risk calculation, blind conformity, or revolt. Punishment seldom focuses on what is right, but usually on what is wrong. Often punishment models problem solving through anger. Punishment encourages a moral heteronomy which looks to the authority figure before making a decision. What parent has not experienced a child wanting to know what the parent thinks before making a choice? Teachers in Bible classes have seen the faces of students searching for a clue as to what the teacher thinks before answering a question. Youth ministries which set the agenda, plan the activities, and give the (pat?) answers to doctrinal discussions often discourage youth who would construct their own faith. In Westerhoff's faith development model--faith progressively experienced, affiliative, searching, and owned--the search is called off by heteronomous definitions of faith and authentic faith ownership never occurs. Without faith ownership, children are unlikely to think constructively about relevant factors in deciding a moral course of action. Nor is the problem limited to youth ministry. Ministers and elders are prone to the same error in working with adult Christians. Independent thought is often discouraged. Questions may be ignored. Autonomy is not to be equated with license, but rather with the ability to take relevant factors into account in deciding the best course of action for all concerned. If the task of deciding is always done for me, my own abilities are short-circuited and remain undeveloped. The exclusive consideration of one's own viewpoint can never be moral, nor genuinely autonomous. This surfaces a second factor.

The exchange of viewpoints contributes to autonomy. Such exchanges make us think about believability and the morality of honesty. Mutual respect is essential in the development of autonomy. Respect for my point of view contributes to my respect for the viewpoints of others. I become more aware of a world larger than my own, and must honestly struggle with why others think as they do. Here one must distinguish understanding others from being guided by others. The latter is heteronomy, but the former encourages autonomy.

Piaget's theory of moral development is that moral values are best constructed internally rather than being absorbed from outside influences. Our college girl's morality was apparently formed largely from specific, external instructions. Kamii's belief that moral autonomy corresponds to intellectual autonomy and moral heteronomy to intellectual heteronomy focuses the implications for preaching and teaching.

While those we teach in the pew, and those we would teach evangelistically, may absorb knowledge for a time [heteronomy], people are not passive vessels designed merely to hold the information poured into their heads. Knowledge must be coordinated with other information and ultimately with experience. With an effective model of information gathering (Bible study), people can figure out for themselves the impact or result and make appropriate applications. This intellectual autonomy--the ability to make decisions which consider all of the information and all of those involved--should be encouraged. Such autonomy, properly understood, can never be confused with selfishness nor license.

Genuine intellectual autonomy processes information from a variety of sources, cross- referencing logically related bits and pieces, and creatively constructs a viewpoint. This kind of information usage demands recognition, not recall. Most can remember an occasion when we memorized items only to pass a test and promptly forgot them. Such heteronomous efforts come from our obedient conformity.

If the ability to think logically is a part of autonomy, the work of McKinnon and Renner (American Journal of Physics 39 [1971]: 1047-52) which found only 25% of college freshmen capable of such thinking is frightening. Another study by Schwebel (The Journal of Psychology 91 [1975]: 133-41) found the number to be only 20%. If we could measure independent, logical thought in Bible study or as one considers spiritual matters, I believe the percentage would likely be even lower.

It is time for us to ask not only "what" we know, but "why" we know, and "how" we know. It is time for our preaching and Bible school teaching to move from an exclusive focus on "what" we believe to demonstrate "how" God's Word validates the "what." How does the Bible guide us when there is no word-for-word "thou shalt" or "thou shalt not"? Can we equip our youth with a moral and spiritual autonomy that makes valid choices in life's situations--that expresses a vibrant, living faith? Should not our goal be to develop adults who are not "tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine," and who do not ask frequently, "What do we believe about this?" Each individual Christian should be encouraged to know "what I believe about this, and what I must do as a result."

I admit such will challenge the church, but I suggest such is at the heart of the Restoration plea for the "priesthood of believers." Not everyone will line up. There will be disagreements which threaten and challenge. Indoctrination will be cast by the wayside as an unworkable teaching strategy. Expositors of God's Word will be called upon to authentically struggle with the text of Scripture and its message for our day. The pew will demand integrity from those who treat the text. If such moves us from our comfort zone, perhaps we are closer to biblical truth than every before.

One day we will all stand before God's throne. On that day, each will stand autonomously. Each one will be responsible for her or his morality, each will be responsible for his or her thinking. It is not too soon to teach adults--and children--that lesson. Let us encourage one another to know what we believe, and why!

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Last updated November 1, 2003.