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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Moral Education - Herbert Spencer

Mises Daily: Tuesday, August 06, 2013 by Herbert Spencer

[As reprinted in Left and Right, Spring 1966, edited by Murray N. Rothbard.

Rothbard’s Editorial Note: Education is a perennially important and controversial subject, especially in a country as child-centered as the United States. 

Within libertarian ranks, an unlimited diversity of viewpoint prevails, ranging from rigorous traditionalists to ultra-progressives. Among the numerous libertarians in the Los Angeles area, a controversy is now raging between the Cardin and Montessori methods of education. We believe that the views of Herbert Spencer, the great nineteenth-century English social philosopher, can provide a much-needed but totally neglected contribution toward a rational solution to many of these disputes, a solution grounded on education in cause-and-effect. The following article is condensed from the chapter on “Moral Education” in Herbert Spencer’s Education: Intellectual, Moral and Physical (A. L. Burt Company, n.d.).]

While it is seen that for the purpose of gaining a livelihood, an elaborate preparation is needed, it appears to be thought that for the bringing up of children, no preparation whatever is needed. In the absence of this preparation, the management of children, and more especially the moral management, is lamentably bad. Parents either never think about the matter at all, or else their conclusions are crude, and inconsistent. In most cases, and especially on the part of mothers, the treatment adopted on every occasion is that which the impulse of the moment prompts: it springs not from any reasoned-out conviction as to what will most conduce to the child’s welfare, but merely expresses the passing parental feelings, whether good or ill; and varies from hour to hour as these feelings vary. Or if these blind dictates of passion are supplemented by any definite doctrines and methods, they are those that have been handed down from the past, or those suggested by the remembrances of childhood, or those adopted from nurses and servants — methods devised not by the enlightenment, but by the ignorance of the time. 

Let us go on to consider the true aims and methods of moral education. When a child falls or runs its head against the table, it suffers a pain, the remembrance of which tends to make it more careful for the future; and by an occasional repetition of like experiences, it is eventually disciplined into a proper guidance of its movements. If it lays hold of the fire-bars, thrusts its finger into the candle-flame, or spills boiling water on any part of its skin, the resulting burn or scald is a lesson not easily forgotten.

Now in these and like cases, Nature illustrates to us in the simplest way, the true theory and practice of moral discipline. Observe, in the first place, that in bodily injuries and their penalties we have misconduct and its consequences reduced to their simplest forms.

Though according to their popular acceptations, right and wrong are words scarcely applicable to actions that have none but direct bodily effects; yet whoever considers the matter will see that such actions must be as much classifiable under these heads as any other actions. Note, in the second place, the character of the punishments by which these physical transgressions are prevented. Punishments, we call them, in the absence of a better word; for they are not punishments in the literal sense. They are not artificial and unnecessary inflictions of pain; but are simply the beneficent checks to actions that are essentially at variance with bodily welfare — checks in the absence of which life would quickly be destroyed by bodily injuries. It is the peculiarity of these penalties, if we must so call them, that they are nothing more than the unavoidable consequences of the deeds which they follow; they are nothing more than the inevitable reactions entailed by the child’s actions. 

Let it be further borne in mind that these painful reactions are proportionate to the degree in which the organic laws have been transgressed. A slight accident brings a slight pain, a more serious one, a greater pain. When a child tumbles over the doorstep, it is not ordained that it shall suffer in excess of the amount necessary, with the view of making it still more cautious than the necessary suffering will make it. But from its daily experience it is left to learn the greater or less penalties of greater or less errors, and to behave accordingly. And then mark, lastly, that these natural reactions which follow the child’s wrong actions, are constant, direct, unhesitating, and not to be escaped. No threats: but a silent, rigorous performance.
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