As an A Level Ethics teacher I have taught Sixth Formers about the deontology of Immanuel Kant for many years. I can’t say it’s my favourite part of the course but taught it, I have. Deontology is a theory that puts duty at the heart of ethical concern – to do the right thing is to do one’s duty and one’s duty can be known through the Categorical Imperative. That is, we know something is our duty if it would be followed by any fully rational being in the same circumstances.
One of the challenges of teaching this as an ethical theory to young people has been to enable them to understand the acceptance of the concept of duty. Their grandparents were familiar with this – the duty to fight for ‘King and Country’, the duty to fulfill their indisovable marriage vows, the duty to fulfill their roles as husband/wife/mother/father. People of previous generations were steeped in their sense of duty. I learnt only recently that Rudyard Kipling, that bastion of all things empire, made several appeals to the Ministry of War in order to enable his son Jack to fulfill his duty to go to war despite having been rejected for commission as a result of his poor eyesight. However, as a rule, recent generations of young people have been less accepting of the duties ascribed to them – they would not fight for a cause in which they do not believe, they have challenged the notion of traditional roles for men and women and at the same time rejected the duties associated with those roles. We have tended to talk more of rights and self fulfillment in recent years and I for one am pleased the balance has shifted. Men and women no longer feel the need to stay in loveless marriages out of a sense of duty, there is, I believe rightly, a greater emphasis on individual fulfillment & personal conscience. However, like all debates many would say the pendulum has swung too far and there has been not enough consideration of duty in recent times – people have been too focused on their own, instant gratification at the expense of their wider responsibilities.
This year the discussion with my Sixth Form ethics class about what we mean by duties and what duties we have, which took place in the very first week of lockdown and therefore as part of an online lesson, was was different – instead of the long tortuous road to accepting that we have some duties my students were quick to declare that we ‘have a duty to stay at home’. This has led to me reflecting that the current situation with COVID-19 has, I believe, resulted in all of us considering our duties as a greater priority. The nation has acknowledged its duty to protect & value the NHS and frontline workers by staying at home and showing our appreciation on a Thursday evening. Individuals have responded to their duty to care for neighbours and the vulnerable – the 750,000 NHS volunteers are testament to this.
Schools are no different and we too feel a strong sense of duty in the current situation. A duty of course to our students – to provide the very best education and pastoral support that we can in these challenging circumstances. Of course as teachers we have a duty to stay true to our educational values despite the demand from some quarters to bow to pressure – there are some who would like us to run a virtual school day, with real time online lessons throughout the day – this would not be healthy for students or indeed staff and therefore we have, I believe, a duty to resist. This demonstrates one of the key problems with a duty based ethics – how do we resolve situations when duties conflict – as a teacher my duty is to my students but as a parent of poorly children I have a duty to care for them also. These are very real conflicts that thousands of workers are facing every day at the current time.
One of the ways in which the Dixie feels it can and must respond to the current situation is by remaining open for the children of key workers. Of course it would be simpler and cheaper for us to close the school site entirely but we feel strongly that supporting our parents to work on the frontline of response to COVID-19 is absolutely our duty and we are proud to fulfill it. It is also as a result of our sense of duty that we are planning on being open for five weeks of what would usually be the summer holiday to offer childcare to our parents – hopefully by then the national situation will be improving and parents will be able to return to their businesses and workplaces; we will do what we can to support them.
Economics and ethics are uncomfortable bedfellows but are undoubtedly interlinked and the economic impact of this crisis cannot be underestimated. Again here, the Dixie is very conscious of its duties. Fundamentally, always to provide the very best value for money that we possibly can; we are a charity and as such have a responsibility to allocate the funds generated fairly, wisely and with prudence. Following on from this is a duty to maintain our business for current and future students of the Dixie; we’re biased but we do believe that we offer young people something very special. There really is a Dixie Difference, and it is vital to us that the Dixie is here when COVID-19 is a distant memory. In the meantime however, we recognise that the current situation is unprecedented and results in real hardship for many families; we were clear it was our duty to reduce costs as far as possible and take advantage of all government assistance in order to offer the greatest possible reduction to the summer term fees in recognition of the difficulties families are facing, as well as the unavoidable impact on the children’s experience this coming term.
Many people have reflected that the current national crisis brings out starkly people’s individual personality types – as one who sits squarely in the optimist camp it is no surprise that I find myself looking for the positives amongst this tragedy and for me one such positive is sure to be a host of new analogies and examples to use when teaching about Kant’s duty based ethics!
C Young, Deputy Head, Senior School