In my post I’m going to fast forward to Chapter 5 since Chapter 4 involves more ground-setting. I am sympathetic to the Taylor/Williams critique of Morality that Higgins continues to advance in this chapter. With that critique in hand, Higgins is able to show us that questions surrounding the aims of education and the practice of teaching become richer topics conceived of ethically than they are under a narrower conception of morality. However, I take issue with one of the underlying thesis that Higgins advances in this chapter. He argues that the focus on morality, to the exclusion of ethics, is at the core of why teaching is often seen as a helping profession that requires self-abnegating sacrifice from its practitioners, which leads to teacher burn-out. It is not obvious that a Kantian line, which seems to be Higgins’ paradigm for a morality focused view, doesn’t have the resources to explain what has gone wrong in the case of the caricatured burn-out teacher at the center of this chapter without putting the blame on the teacher’s shoulders.
It is true that for Kant actions’ moral worth resides in them being done from the motive of duty. However, less uncharitable readings of Kant, allow that other motives could come into play just as long as duty is the primary motive for which the action was done. Therefore, as long as the teacher would act from the motive of duty even when she wasn’t enjoying teaching, that doesn’t mean that, most of the time, she can’t act from the motive of duty and enjoy teaching. For Kantians what matters is that the joy the teacher takes from teaching is not her primary motive for engaging in actions she is duty bound to engage in. Though, notice that for Kant it isn’t wrong if joy is her primary motive, rather it deprives her action of moral worth though it might still be valuable in some other way.
In any case, what appears to be missing from Higgins’ version of Kant is that Kant’s theory stresses not only that one should show respect for others as ends in themselves but that this is something that all rational beings owe to each other. Moral relationships are reciprocal. This suggests one way of understanding what was gone wrong in the case of burn-out teachers. They are not being treated with respect by those they serve—students, parents, and the wider community. It is a difficult question, over which much ink has been spilt, what a Kantian ought to say our duties are to those who fail to live up to theirs, but the Kantian can identify the malfunction of the burn-out teacher as problematic. The locus of blame, however, is not the teacher; it is the teacher’s community which is failing to live up to duties they owe the teacher.
Furthermore, this line of thought is not only available to the Kantian as a defense, but has, I think, some merit, and brings us back to Higgins’ discussion of external goods. Often what fails for the overworked teacher is not that he or she is not seeing her profession as enriching her life in a eudemonic sense, though that might be an issue for some, but that the institutions in which she teaches and the community at large do not afford him the appropriate respect by providing the necessary external goods to facilitate the development of his practice. It is because the teacher is serving his students that he deserves respect and it is often we who fail to show it. I think there is something to Higgins’ idea of the self-abnegating educator present in our popular culture, but I don’t think this stems from a focus on morality to the exclusion of ethics as much as a misunderstanding of the reciprocal nature of duties.