Original Research - Special Collection: Ethics education and social justice

‘When Great Tao vanished, we got “Goodness and Morality”’

Douglas G. Lawrie
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 76, No 1 | a5823 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v76i1.5823 | © 2020 Douglas G. Lawrie | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 26 September 2019 | Published: 15 June 2020

About the author(s)

Douglas G. Lawrie, Department of Religion and Theology, Faculty of Arts, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa


Modules in ethics have become astonishingly popular at the University of the Western Cape. This could reflect students’ concern about morality, but the saying by Lafargue in Tao te ching in the title suggests that moral discourse flourishes when moral behaviour is languishing. This article reflects on some 15 years of teaching ethical theory to third-year students. Three trends are identified: (1) Students’ responses to the theories are unpredictable and surprising. Nietzsche and Kant are very popular, although some modern ‘contextual’ theories draw less support. (2) Students who can be extremely moralistic in class are sometimes amoral in their practices and offhand pronouncements. (3) Students are hampered by their poor conceptual skills and rely excessively on memorising. The last two trends raise questions about our teaching of ethics and the ethics of our teaching. Although many students embrace character-based theories, to some ‘a good character’ apparently means ‘what makes me feel good about myself’ and to others ‘what makes me look good to my group’. Thus, they effectively embrace either individual relativism or group relativism, which is understandable when theories are presented without the backing of at least a rudimentary philosophical anthropology. Questions of indoctrination become acute in the teaching of ethics. Are we, in the name of moral formation, teaching students to parrot current dogmas presented without arguments? If so, our practice may be both morally dubious and counterproductive. The best students rebel against such manipulation. The article calls for more reflection on how and to what ends we teach ethics.


Teaching ethics; Indoctrination; Moral discourse; Philosophical anthropology; Tao te ching


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