Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development?
©2005 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

reedited 7/2/09

Need moral education be indoctrination?

This question is not quite the right one for the motive that prompts its asking. Moreover, it looks away from a bias it does express in a manner that is, philosophically, almost disingenuous. Treating this question is much like arguing God's omnipotence when what is at issue is His very existence. Of course, one might consider the question of his omnipotence as merely an intellectual exercise, setting aside questions of existence and pertinent problems of belief and commitment. But there is a real risk that, however disinterested the participant in such an exercise, she will inadvertently make some assumptions about God's existence and its nature, that, remaining unexamined, will bias later argument about the more basic issue.

The concern about the role of indoctrination in moral education is least parochially expressed by asking whether particular forms of education tend to disincline, or even incapacitate, one from engaging in particular modes of justificatory behavior. With the term "justificatory behavior" I mean to comprehend what almost anyone might conceive as acts of reason‑giving: from the most subtle argument to "Because I feel like it" to even, "Because our leader says so!"

Whether a particular belief has adherents may well depend upon whether people receive --perhaps, even, are subjected to -- a particular form of education. Different, possibly conflicting doctrines may rest upon the same kinds of values and be expounded with the same kind of justificatory behavior.

Secular indoctrination is as possible as sectarian religious indoctrination.[1] One might avoid a casual charge of indoctrination by merely avoiding inculcating a particular doctrine, but nonetheless practice a form of education which inclines those at whom it is directed to accept and promote whatever principles they acquire in a particular manner, be it doctrinaire or critically rational.

Does Moral Development Parallel Cognitive Development?

Michael Schleifer,[2] has argued that moral development parallels cognitive development. His is a message of hope: whatever we do to promote cognitive development in a child will, in natural course of events, promote the child's moral development. Despite my complete sympathy with many of what I believe to be the values assumed by Schleifer in that essay -- no doubt (I flatter myself) shared also by Kohlberg, Piaget and Dewey --, I must play Devil's advocate, perhaps only to exorcise my chagrin that Nature remains so steadfastly neutral on issues on which I am myself so vehemently partisan.

And what is the good news from the empirical front? "... the scientific theory of why people factually do move upward from stage to stage and why they factually do prefer a higher stage is broadly the same as a normative theory of why people should prefer a higher stage to another. "[3] "Everything that a teacher does, then, to enhance formal operational thought is also, by the same token, enhancing the development of principled morality. ... "[4] "Linking moral education to the development of rational capacities of human beings makes the legitimacy of moral education no more -- but no less -- than the legitimacy of teaching the causal principle or the conservation of material things."[5]

What is this scientific theory that offers so much promise to those of us who have long resigned ourselves to the risks of flatly avowing that the unexamined life is not worth living? It is that in the development of mathematical and physical concepts, the child must progress in an invariant order and that the cognitive capacities essential to the "more adequate ways of handling subject matter"[6] are similarly essential for the development of morality.

A Counterexample

Suppose one were to argue thus: the scientific theory as to why the muscles in the human body do develop to higher and higher stages -- in mass and definition with weight‑training and the consumption of anabolic steroids ‑‑ and why such a higher stage is factually preferred, is broadly the same as a normative theory, an aesthetic of physical development, of why people should prefer a higher stage to another. Everything that a teacher does to enhance the definition and mass of student muscle is also, by the same token, enhancing the development of a principled aesthetic. Linking aesthetic education to the development of physical capacities of human beings makes the legitimacy of aesthetic education no more -- but no less -- than the legitimacy of teaching pectoral expansion or deltoid development.

Surely the facts about muscular development would not compel us to any such aesthetic and yet, how muscles develop is considerably less controversial than how one develops cognitively. And by what warrant is change development, or one stage higher than another?

Is Change Necessarily Development?

Let's perform a simple thought‑experiment lest the mere statement of obvious answers appear to be the bald assertion of a partisan position. We are observing some phenomenon through time four aspects of which we -- for reasons of interest, or whatever -- have selected out to be recorded. Four symbols will be used to indicate that a datum of a particular type has been observed: *, @, $, and &. The results of our observations is a data-chain that looks like this:


Have we witnessed development or degeneration or what? Clearly, an answer to this question will depend as much upon how we deal with the data as upon the data itself.

By "development" we will mean the following (I think this captures much of what is generally meant by the term): increasing monotonicity, i.e. a comparison of the data‑chain segment by segment will reveal that the number of instances of data of a given type appearing in a given segment is greater than or equal to the number of instances appearing in an earlier comparable segment. Degeneration is decreasing monotonicity, i.e. a segment by segment comparison shows a decreasing or equal number of instances.[7] Uniform distribution or irregular change counts as neither.

The data‑chain is not "naturally" segmented; and whether or not we "see" development or not will depend upon how we segment it.

If we cut, (cut), the chain in half, e.g.

@@&@*$@@&&@@*$$*&@@$$*&*@ (cut) *@@$&$*@*$@*$*&&*@*&*&$**

and tally each type in each segment we get the following (the two numbers indicating their respective segments):


5, 10


10, 5


5, 5


5, 5

On the basis of the asterisks we can say that development has taken place. On the basis of the @‑symbols we can say that degeneration has taken place. But the segmenting is crucial, for if we cut the chain into ten equal lengths, e.g.

@@&@* (cut)  $@@&& (cut)  @@*$$ (cut) *&@@$ (cut) $*&*@ (cut)  *@@$& (cut) $*@*$   (cut)  @*$*& (cut)  &*@*&  (cut) *&$**

our talley looks like this:


1, 0, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3


3, 2, 2, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 0


0, 1 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 0, 1


1, 2, 0, 1, 1, 1, 0, 1, 2, 1

Neither development nor degeneration "occurs". The neatest segmentation is into lengths of ten symbols, e.g.

@@&@*$@@&& (cut) @@*$$*&@@$ (cut) $*&*@*@@$&(cut) $*@*$@*$*&(cut)&*@*&*&$**

from which we get


1, 2, 3, 4, 5


5, 4, 3, 2, 1


1, 3, 2, 3, 1


3, 1, 2, 1, 3

The reader may wonder which phenomenon the data manifest: development or degeneration, or neither? This is to misunderstand how developmental tests are developed. It is on the assumption of development that we select that particular subtest -- here talley-*, which manifests development in this particular case, and we then assume that the application of talley‑* to other data chains gives us a measure of development.

Thus, for example, assuming that scores on an I.Q. test increase with age (which increase we compensate for in other ways so as to maintain I.Q. constant within limits), we would, as practicing psychologists, reject the scores of any test as an indicator of I.Q. if these scores showed no such increase. Confronted with data of the type of our chain, we may rationally take a pluralistic position, so to speak, and allow that in some aspects development in others, degeneration or even, no change has taken place. To argue that some other kind of development correlates uniquely with development of the kind we have established is not to make an empirical claim, for uniqueness can be established only by theoretical constraint.

About the Evidence

The results of research are mixed. Both Piaget's claim that the direction of development is invariant and his assumption that there are generalized cognitive structures have been counterindicated. Nor need cognitive development proceed in one direction but may "regress" depending upon social factors.[8]

Other theorists allow that people may develop different "cognitive styles" which suit them for their particular social milieu. Rather than being indicative of general cognitive structures, what Piaget terms "syncretism" and "centration" are manifestations of conceptual skills, more or less developed, which may be exercised differentially, depending upon circumstances in which one finds oneself.[9] Ironically enough, it might be that those most free of the "cognitive incapacities"[10] of syncretism and centration may well be typified by what is popularly known as the "organization man", able to quibble away his personal responsibility and who engages his intellect mainly to rationalize his, or his organization's deviance from common decency.[11]

But all of this is to my mind heavily speculative, despite some evidential basis and may turn out in the long run to be false or impossibly confused. In any case, it is not clear that the evidence is anything but tenuously related to the conceptual moral issues, and Schleifer's admonition that philosophers wishing to debate the conceptual issues involved in reintroducing moral education "must come to grips with psychological theory and evidence" [12]is less than compelling. 'What he characterizes as the "dogma which isolates conceptual and empirical issues"[13] remains, it appears, untouched by the considerations he has to offer.

Morality as Subject Matter

Underlying Kohlberg's thesis -- and Schleifer's remarks -- is the not too subtle presumption that there are "natural lines of fracture"[14] against which the distinctions introduced by theory can be judged. Surely there is something by which they rule out alternatives in writing of "relevant cues," "the environment" [15] "more adequate ways of handling subject matter."[16] Does contact with the world lead a child "gradually to classify objects in terms of a causal relationship"?[17] Do the concepts of English, say, function as variables in causal relations?[18]

Schleifer would have it that there is no way to separate out factual and evaluative considerations: Kohlberg's theory emphasizes certain formal criteria (differentiation and integration) defining a more mature structure. But it is this very notion of structure which puts the rabbit in the hat.

I submit that the identification of moral with cognitive development is a clever political finesse; as such, I am personally in favor of it, for it serves some ends of which I approve. It is another example, however, of how human institutions, e.g. language, knowledge, morality, are treated as inextricable from particular socio‑political ones, e.g. the School, the State, the Church, and become homogenized commodities of the latter, e.g. Standard English, Science, Moral Education. It is easy, say, to treat I.Q. as a natural capacity the measure of which predicts good performances of very general sorts. What is also just as easily overlooked is that these performances occur in the context of particular institutions and derive their significance from them. Thus, commitment to a particular form of social or political institution can be effectively masked as a much less controversial commitment to expanding human capacities, or knowledge

          "What is crucial is the claim that the processes involved in stage transition involve the person's coming to realize that certain modes of thinking are more adequate ways of handling the subject matter. This is true for morality in the same sense as it is for mathematics and physics."[19]


It is as subject matter that mathematics and science are most compatible with indoctrination. Not all mathematics is creative, disciplined abstraction nor is science necessarily untrammeled enquiry. Thus the persistent mention of science and mathematics in the company of moral education is philosophically gratuitous, esteem by association, as it were. The constant presentation of these three as though in contrast to indoctrination insinuates what it would be mistaken to assert, i.e. that it is impossible to be critically rational about what one accepts dogmatically as true.

Now, it may be somewhat unlikely that the practice of critical rationality would flourish to any extent , given widespread practice of indoctrination. On the other hand, the practice of critical rationality is not very widespread in any case, even -- one might despair, especially -- among our own college‑educated.

              Let us reconsider what is involved in the "general version" of moral education according to Schleifer's exposition. Moral education must meet two criteria:

a. it must provide training which enhances general cognitive development, and

b. it must get the child to care.

But to care for what? Schleifer admits that refusing to entertain specific goals can be criticized but he maintains that the charge of indoctrination cannot be held against the general version of moral education. I submit that if, as some evidence indicates, cognitive structures are not generalized or if cognitive development is not cross‑culturally invariant, then there is no general version of moral education to be made out.

Furthermore, if one gets specific about what one means by "caring", then, there is reason to believe that this caring is different from caring about scientific reasoning or logical truth.

A Caring Scale

Let as play amateur psychologist and construct a "caring-scale". Consider, for example, the following list of terms that might be used to describe a person's readiness to act on some given proposition:

1. is unable to

2. feels compelled not to

3. is disgusted by the thought of

4. is disinclined to

5. is unconcerned to

6. is reluctant to

7. is vaguely inclined to

8. wants to

9. would feel ashamed at the mere thought of not

10. feels compelled to

11. is unable not to

The context of substitution is

"John ____________ act(ing) on the consideration that P.",

where P has been gotten by reasoning from some premises, be they mathematical, scientific or moral. Clearly, moral education -- on Schleifer's terms -- is a failure unless a level of caring at least about seven on the list is reached (many might well prefer something near ten.) One would not say, however, that scientific or mathematical education had been a failure because level seven had not been reached. One may care about scientific reasoning or logical truth, but not to act consequent to them does not violate a canon of scientific reasoning or of logic. But morality without caring to is difficult to even conceive, except as subject matter.

The upshot of all this is a reaffirmation of what is hardly novel: one goes from is to ought only via some normative assumption, and, in matters of morality, every man is a partisan. Commonplace though these propositions be, they are important enough to warrant, from time to time, a challenge as strong and well‑sustained as Schleifer's.

Is Indoctrination So Bad?

At the beginning of this essay, the question, "Need moral education be indoctrination?" was characterized as parochial. I suggested that the underlying concern is really whether we ought to train people in any manner which incapacitates or disinclines them from any specific form of justificatory behavior. It would seem uncontroversial to suppose, however, that we cannot avoid disinclining them, at least, from some form of justificatory behavior by whatever kind of training.

But one's inclinations or disinclinations do not excuse one from one's obligations. If we reconsider the list of "levels of readiness to act" given above, we might well wonder what the moral objection to indoctrination is. Unless one wants to claim that indoctrination produces either the inability to act or the inability not to act, the moral concern about it becomes trifling, indeed. One might as well decry individual liberty because its permissibility inclines many to immorality.

If one sees cognitive training as having indoctrinatory effects, one need not oppose all forms of education for this reason. Merely dismounting from one's high horse about indoctrination will do. The question ‑‑ it seems ‑‑ is not whether, but what we shall indoctrinate. It is sheer Romanticism to search for specific goals for moral education by looking at general developmental tendencies. One would suppose that even the binding of feet can be done in a manner which takes into consideration the natural tendencies of growth.

Indoctrination at the University

But we are entertaining ourselves with side issues: God's omnipotence rather than His existence. There is something overwrought about the academician's concern that indoctrinatory techniques will be brought into primary or secondary education under the aegis of moral education. I suspect that only too many of us would be delighted if some research would lay to rest a rather general suspicion that some of the most effective and socially important indoctrination goes on in the University itself in the name of Liberal Education.

But maybe the word "indoctrination" is too harsh. No one "really" intends to inculcate those beliefs which so many students acquire so firmly with so little critical reflection in the process. Such beliefs are those which provide the foundations of the various disciplines to which the student is exposed in, say, survey or introductory courses which comprise the bulk of his "liberal education". These beliefs are unshakeable because the student is (encouraged to become) enamoured of the theories for which they are logically prerequisite. What critical reflection on the foundations of these theories he is exposed to -- perhaps as a graduate student in the field with too much at stake to be less than orthodox -- seldom digs deeply at the assumptions upon which his mentors' dissertations are based.[20]

Many circumstances other than personal inclination, -- I would prefer to believe -- militate against rectifying this situation, even when one realizes the indoctrinatory effects of one's instruction. Critical reflection upon the foundations of one's discipline is, in practice, not so widely encouraged as one might like to believe. It may be less than prudent. The University does not force the hemlock on its philosophers. Rather, it offers them rewards for being "relevant" and "effective." Intellectually, the results may well be the same.



[1] See Rozycki "Religion, Intelligent Design & The Public Schools" Also, Personal Liberation Through Education:
do public school-religious school differences matter?

[2] Michael Schleifer "Moral Education and Indoctrination" Ethics, 86,2, 154-163

[3] Schleifer, 156.

[4] Schleifer, 159.

[5] Schleifer, 159.

[6] Schleifer, 156.

[7] I have put "or equal to" in these formulations so that they accord with certain mathematical usage. Theoretically, therefore, a uniformly distributed data‑type could be considered degeneration just as well as development. To maintain our intuitions about development and degeneration, however, we will exclude this special case from being an example of either.

[8] . Cf. Patricia Teague Ashton, "Cross-Cultural Piagetian Research: An Experimental Perspective", Harvard Educational Review, 45, 4, 475 ‑ 506 (November 1975).

[9] Ashton, ibid. 490. See also Rosalie A. Cohen, "Conceptual Styles, Culture Conflict, and Nonverbal Tests of Intelligence", American Anthropologist, 71 , 5, 828‑856.

[10] Schleifer , op. cit. 157

[11] I indulge myself here an extrapolation from Cohen after having submitted her to Piaget's Procrustean bed.

[12] Schleifer op. cit. 155.

[13] Schleifer op. cit. 155.

[14] I don't think it requires a peculiarly fine philosophical sensitivity to catch the normative import of Schleiffer's comment (his footnote seven, p. 157, ibid.) on training children to focus on "relevent" cues. Relevent to what? The making of a desired distinction?

[15] B. F. Skinner, "The Generic Nature of the Concepts of Stimulus and Response", The Journal of General Psychology, 197.5, 12, 40 ‑65. 15. My italics. Kohlberg quoted in Schleifer , op. .cit. See also Rozycki, "A Critical Review of B.F. Skinner's Philosophy."

[16] Ibid. 156. Those who believe that subject matters have an intrinsic structure tend to talk this way. But see J. Hullett, "Which Structure?", Educational Theory, 24,1, 68‑72 (Winter 1974). Also I think that comments by Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970) bear on this and on other matters under dispute here. I would take it from Kuhn that it is the paradigms of normal science that structure subject matter; as these change, so, the structures.

[17] My italics. Kohlberg, quoted in Schleiffer. Other developmental theories have the own philosophical problems: e. g. L. S. Vygotsky in Thought and Language (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1962) would have it that conceptual development leads up to the acquisition of "true concepts": ones for which there are necessary and sufficient conditions of application. One achieves maturity only in succeeding at what Meno failed! See E. G. Rozycki, The Philosophical Foundations of Human Cognition at

[18] See Rozycki, "The Functional Analysis of Behavior"

[19] Schleifer, 156.

[20] See Rozycki, "Is Psychology Appropriate for Teacher Education?"