Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Higgins' Good Life of Teaching: The Self-abnegating Teacher

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.


  1. Thanks for articulating one of the main things I've been thinking about while trying to make my way through the book, Jennifer. I would like to say a lot more about this, but I left my copy of the book on a plane over the weekend and despair of getting it back.

    The reconstruction of William's argument about assumptions in contemporary moral theory in Chapter One would only barely be applicable to Kant.

    Sure, morality for Kant might not include all of what Higgins wants to call "ethics", but that doesn't mean Kantian agents are ignorant about the importance of ground projects or the good of, say, teaching. Pursuit of these goods is welcome in a Kantian framework as long as we respect our general moral duties along the way.

  2. Adam, I'm glad to hear that someone else had the same worry about Higgins' way of carving up the debate. Looking forward to your post.

  3. Chris Panza, who is apparently having technical difficulties in replying, asked me to post this:

    Jen -

    With all due respect to my good friend Adam, I don't think that will satisfy Higgins. Although it may be the case that the community does not respect the ground project of the teacher, Higgins will reject the claim that this is the way in which the ethical status of the ground project must be understood (if at all). In fact, he's explicitly rejecting that kind of Kantian reductionism.

    Moreover, I think his point is that Kant's way of taking ground projects "seriously" still subordinates them to obligations. Higgins wants to argue not just that ground projects are important to us, but that they are the center of ethical life. Kant has to reject that - and that's Higgins' problem.

    (Adam here: Of course, Chris might be right about how Higgins would react, but I really don't have any problem with thinking that ground projects could be the center of life, as long as they are morally responsible ground projects and conducted within the bounds of our obligations to others. Korsgaard, in particular, shows us how Kantian ethics are perfectly compatible with taking desires and ground projects seriously. But let's not take them too seriously. We don't want the pedagogical equivalent of mad scientists running around.)

  4. Thank you Adam & Chris. I want to be clear that I don't reject the critique of Kantian ethics that Williams/MacIntyre level and which Higgins endorses. What I do reject is the claim that the self-abnegating teacher is a result of a Kantian understanding of the teacher's situation, or a view that sees duty and obligation as the central normative concepts. I think the argument for that claim depends on a Strawman version of Kant but, as Adam notes, there are Kantian views out there that take grounding projects seriously. Furthermore, I think ignoring the role that duties and respect play in the situation of the self-abnegating teacher misses an important dimension of the situation of quite a few teachers.

  5. Jen -

    I'm not sure it's a strawman. I can see a person saying "Kant can fix the self-abnegating teacher by suggesting that you have a duty to cultivate some (permissible) ground project or other, while also tossing in the extra point that other agents are committed to respecting those ends (and everything that such respect would entail). I can even see a person saying that this would lead the teacher to cease to be self-abnegating. The problem is that Higgins would reply (or I think he would) that this is still abnegation, since it derives the value of ground projects (i.e. life) from obligation. So I think a Kantian response addresses the problem by changing the question.

    Your further point makes sense, though - I'm sure that there are indeed duties and respect that are ignored in the abnegating case. I suppose Higgins might even agree. But I think he'll draw a line at saying that addressing those issues answers his fundamental concern.

    Or at least that's how I would see it, but I could be wrong here!

  6. Chris,

    I think you make an excellent point regarding the derivative nature of the ground projects. However, I think that even if we grant that, there is much about the current status of the teacher's image that stems from a failure of members of the community to recognize their duties and obligations to the teacher. And I do think that that is a fundamental concern.


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