The Quebec Superior Court handed down a decision last week attempting to resolve a dispute between the Quebec government and a Jesuit Catholic school. Loyola High School in Montreal challenged a provincially required ethics course on religious grounds. With the decision it won the right to teach its own brand of ethics to its students.
When I first learned of the case my first impression was to side with the school. Having had some experience myself with Jesuit schools and Catholic ethics I realized that the students could do worse. Despite the historical baggage associated with Catholic education and Jesuits they are renowned for turning out some exceptional free-thinkers.
Even though I most certainly do not agree with them, Catholic ethics (which places your own happiness after that of others) at the very least are part of a philosophical system including a defined metaphysics (the universe exists and was created by a hominid-shaped God), epistemology (divine revelation, and a set of carefully selected gospels interpreted by an infallible Pope), politics (socialist), and esthetics (which I can only describe as grim).
The Quebec ethics course, called “Ethics and Religious Culture” on the other hand stands alone from any cohesive philosophical system. It is a curriculum of floating abstractions in an otherwise philosophic vacuum. From the Quebec government’s website:
The Ethics and Religious Culture program will allow your child to:
- acquire or consolidate, if applicable, an understanding of how all individuals are equal in terms of right and dignity
- learn to reflect on issues
- explore, depending on his/her age, different ways in which Québec’s religious heritage is present in his/her immediate or broader environment
- learn about elements of other religious traditions present in Québec
- grow and develop in a society in which different values and beliefs coexist
Your child will learn to:
- carefully reflect on aspects of certain social realities and subjects such as justice, happiness, laws and rules
- ask himself or herself questions such as: What value should guide people in their relationships in society? What are the characteristics of acceptable and unacceptable behavior? How can these behaviours be recognized?
In effect the curriculum sets moral relativistic values for the students and then requires them to accept the potentially contrary values in others. It places as the context for the student’s values, society (which is more politics than it is truly ethics). It sets out to prevent students from passing judgment on the beliefs and ethics of others. It discourages the students from thinking critically about religions, cultures and behaviours that are different than their own.
The government of Quebec fails to understand with this curriculum that, morality must be chosen not forced. One must choose his own hierarchy of values and then act to preserve those values. This is acting ethically. One does not have to act socially or in a social context to act ethically. If the teacher, the bureaucrat or the politician chooses some egalitarian value for the student they are not allowing the student to begin the first step in acting ethically…choosing your OWN values, not having them imposed on you.
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that cannot be considered alone. It has to be preceded by both metaphysics and epistemology. The Ethics and Religious Culture Program is devoid (as least to my eyes) of any discussion of either philosophic study. This is by design. If they were to precede their discussion on ethics by a discussion on epistemology they would reveal their belief that the universe is unknowable and therefore all viewpoints are valid. An absurd notion which flies in the face of all that we know to be true.
Taught in proper philosophical context the government’s curriculum would fall apart and be dismissed by the students as soon as they were old enough to voice their own opinions without fear of ridicule and a failing grade. In much the same way that many students of religious schools reject the ethical instruction of their teachers once they are allowed to develop and explore their own system of philosophy.
The fact that the curriculum begins in grade one and continues to grade 11 belies the government’s ulterior motive…indoctrination. The very idea that a government could impose a set of its values on minds which have yet to grasp how to read is Orwellian. The Superior Court Judge Gerard Dugre said that not only did Quebec violate Loyola’s religious freedoms by insisting it teach the secular course, but also it went about it in a “totalitarian” manner. She went on to say that the government showed “Inquisition-like” intolerance in the way it imposed the ethics course on the private school.
The irony is there for anyone to see.
(Originally broadcast on Just Right #157, June 24, 2010.)