Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Modern Teacher’s Public and Private Morality: An Approach Inspired by Philosopher Zehou Li

  • Liuying Flora WeiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_15-1


It makes little sense to exempt teachers from moral responsibility, no matter what era, for “education and teaching are inherently moral enterprises” (Carr 2000, p. 187). Even the most progressive liberals hold moral education by highlighting an unprejudiced approach. However, in existing debates on the morality of teachers, the question has usually been framed in terms of a difference of degree – from maximal moral criteria to minimal moral expectations for teachers. On the former paternalist and maximal viewpoint, explicit commitments are required to certain beliefs and values derived from religious, cultural, or other justified authorities, and, accordingly, teachers are expected to be moral exemplars of these ideals and conduct. In the latter liberal conception, a more vigilant attitude toward any presupposed system of principles is manifest, and, by contrast, a minimal professional ethics is set out for teachers who, on this account, are morally neutral in the classrooms and, beyond their work, free from moral expectations.

As Carr explains (2000), the worst aspect of these two established views of teacher morality – the liberal-minimal and the paternalist-maximal – is that both can become morally insidious, because neither affirms truly the moral responsibility and authority held on the part of the teachers themselves. Whether it is in the paternalist view – to exemplify prescribed virtues or the liberal view – to follow minimal ethical criteria, teachers have never been invited to exercise their moral faculties fully, nor have they been entrusted with personal engagement in intricate moral questions.

Are there any secure ways forward to retrieve modern teachers’ moral autonomy and responsibility? Are there alternatives that go beyond vacillating between the paternalist and the liberal? Rather than an old thinking mired in different degrees of moralities, a new approach to reformulate the question of teachers’ morality as a matter of different categories might be worth exploring. Regarding this new approach to morality, the most influential contemporary Chinese philosopher, Zehou Li, has already laid foundational work. Hence, in what follows, Li’s theory of two categories of moral content will be introduced, including his proposed relationship between them. Then, derived from this differentiation, teachers’ public and private morality in a modern context will be discussed, with suggestions when appropriate, in terms of teacher education and teachers’ self-education.

Zehou Li’s Two Kinds of Morals: Modern Social Morals and Traditional Religious Morals

Li’s conception of modern social morals is in essence a liberal approach to morality. He proposes to prioritize liberal values: “in addition to freedom, equality, independence, human rights, and democracy, it also includes tolerance, compromise, cooperation, mutual respect, equality of opportunity, and value neutrality” (Li et al. 2016, p. 1130). Other associated values he mentions include justice, appreciation of reason, and adherence to public order (including rule of law).

However, unlike Western mainstream liberalism’s metaethical postulation that “individuals are born to be free and equal [at least in participating politics because they can reason],” Li thinks human freedom and equality are acquired by human beings as a whole through the historical process, coming true gradually on a basis of the economic life of modern people (Li et al. 2016, p. 1136, 1128). Influenced by Marx and Engels’ historical materialism, he regards the basic structure of production and economy as the hard core of the society. Hence, he bases his liberal promotion on the maintenance of a modern economic-commercial system (Li et al. 2016, pp. 1116–1117). In all, in order to sustain the current productive mode of the modern economy – since its productivity compared with other alternatives in history has proven capable of raising a large number of people up to good basic standards of prosperity – liberal values fitting with the operation of free trade and the development of creative technologies need to be admitted as morals of the modern society.

With regard to traditional religious morals, Li thinks that these primarily reflect personal beliefs: enabling us to behave as what is counted as a person and to live what is deemed to be a meaningful life. Besides the morality involved in culturally varied conceptions of the good, religious experience, which in Chinese tradition equals the aesthetic state of mind – “merging reason and emotion, self and others, human, and heaven” – also belongs to a private realm (Li 2017, pp. 136–138).

Li usually takes Confucianism as an example of such traditional “religious” morals. Although he does not think Confucianism is a religion (for persuasive arguments, see Li 2017, pp. 129–133), he does think Confucian ethics in the past 2000 years of Chinese history have functioned as religious morals. In consideration of the Confucian contribution to sustaining traditional Chinese society, Li believes parts of its values are useful also for the betterment of the contemporary society. For instance, in contrast with rational and external modern social morals, Li contends that Confucian morals, which prioritize interpersonal relationships such as filial piety toward one’s parents, goodwill toward the young, appreciation of generational order, and respect for one’s teachers, can be used to balance and supplement the implementation of abstract principles highlighted in the public realm (Li et al. 2016, p. 1099). However, Li also asserts that liberal notions embodied in social morals should be paramount and that religious morals merely provide “regulative and properly constitutive principles” (Li et al. 2016, p. 1133). Hence, Li regards traditional religious morals as optional extras for people to choose, unlike social morals which people must adopt to the extent that they live in the society.

The relationship between these two kinds of morals, in accordance with Li’s conception, thus becomes clear. First, modern social morals occupy a dominant position, while traditional religious morals play a supplementary role in improving modern institutions. Secondly, if modern social morals are characterized by rationality, then traditional religious morals are more marked by emotion. Thirdly, to amplify this differentiation, Li further contends that social morals are a matter of right/wrong, while religious morality is concerned with goodness/badness. For Li, the attempt to writ large the difference bears a particular concern for the current Chinese society to strengthen rational awareness by shedding light on factual rightness/wrongness and by consigning judgment of good/bad into a broader historical view with emotional attachments (Li et al. 2016, pp. 1126–1127). Nevertheless, no matter how public morality and private morality theoretically differentiate from each other in terms of priority and characteristics, in practice they are interrelated and complementary, which constitutes the fourth point in Li’s analysis.

To aid readers’ understanding of the foregoing theoretical discussion, Li takes terrorism as an example to explain why “religiously seems moral” terrorism (especially where terrorists exemplify a high level of “free will” to sacrifice themselves) is absolutely wrong in terms of social morals (e.g., violating respect for persons including oneself and others) and therefore ought to be suppressed. Additionally, he uses the example of a professional fireman to illustrate the alignment of occupational duties with social morals; when at work, the fireman must rescue people in a fire, while after work, he is not obligated to engage in any such rescue, and it becomes a matter of his personal goodness if he does (Li 2017 pp. 249–272). Through these real-life examples, Li demonstrates how the division he proposes is necessary for making moral understanding accessible and how social morals are supreme, while private morality is personal but complementary to an intact moral understanding.

Teachers’ Public Morality and Private Morality

Extending Li’s theory of two kinds of morals and his illustrative example of the professional fireman into the profession of the teacher – if the moral logic in the social realm is one of the “must,” what kind of public morality should teachers follow? What will be the characteristics? Likewise, if the moral logic associated with traditional religious morals as Li conceives them above is one of the “might,” then with what forms of private morality should teachers be equipped? How is the teacher capable of making private moral decisions while not falling into subjectivism and relativism?

To begin with, according to Li’s theory of modern social morals, the teacher as a person living in the modern society should comply with liberal values which essentially suit wider industrial and economic production. In relation to public morals in educational work, the best reference is teachers’ codes of professional ethics. Socialist countries like China are without exception moving in this direction; see its suggested core socialist values, 8 out of 12 of which are liberal, prosperity and democracy of the country; freedom, equality, justice, and the rule of law in society; and integrity and friendship of citizens (People.cn 2013-12-24), and see its Guidance for Teachers’ Professional Development (Document Teacher [2012]1, Ministry of Education of People’s Republic of China), which similarly demonstrates these concerns.

Thus, teachers can lay the intellectual grounds for their public morality by immersing themselves in the philosophical study of liberal principles such as “democracy,” “freedom,” “equality,” and “fraternity” (found in analytic philosophy of education in the 1960–1970s, for instance, by R.S. Peters and R.S. Downie). Meanwhile, to prevent the dangers of indoctrination, cognitive-constructivist activities for nuanced understanding of these complex values are also highly recommended. For example, take Kohlbergian dilemma resolution as a cognitive strategy which deepens the discrimination of complicated ethical ideas in the promotion of teachers’ public morality. Briefly, the teacher in the modern public morals is expected to be a well-educated bearer of these recognized liberal values.

As a second point, in line with Li’s utilitarian viewpoint assumed in the idea of social morals (remember that discourse of “productivity”), teachers who comply with public morals should at the same time be “able teachers,” discharging their jobs as competent educators. Usually when we consider the issue of the effectiveness and efficiency of education, we are concerned about achieving ends with effective means; but there should be more concern about the desirability of both ends and means, including achieving desirable ends with less efficient means (either in terms of time or resources invested). This multifold deliberation between ends and means in education is a vital characteristic of publicly morally able teachers. In one word, it is “goodness” in the light of public morality if a teacher “teaches well.”

To consider the private realm of morality on the part of teachers, let us start with Li’s thinking on culturally diverse traditions. In spaciously and temporally varied cultures, there are historical sets of ethics and practices for thousands of generations before us to follow, expressing their nature as persons. For example, the Christian tradition offers a discipline for the person to prepare him or herself for a future life; and in Confucian ethics, it is an obligation to live within secular interpersonal relationships (especially with relatives and acquaintances) for one’s human becoming. So modern teachers, be they born in China or in a Christian community, although they now have no duty to comply with Christian or Confucian ethics to realize their significance as persons, are very welcome to participate in traditional Christian or Confucian practice for their personal cultivation.

To illustrate further, a nullifidian Chinese who teaches, let’s say in the UK, indeed cultivates his/her life if he/she engages in a Bible class every Friday evening (right at the beginning of private weekends), for the purposes of cooling down his/her mind with traditional stories from a contrasting culture, being intellectually open-minded, enjoying friendship, and being spiritually relaxed among amiable people. In addition, approaching the Bible via a second language contains another educative rationale for this practice, i.e., experiencing and cultivating cross-cultural and bi/multilingual thinking. Similarly, it benefits the Chinese teachers working in China if they enjoy round-table or tea-table gatherings, either with their parents, siblings, or teachers who once taught them and classmates who joined a study journey. If the Bible practice suggested above belongs to an intercultural dimension affecting the human subject, then the Chinese gathering embodies its educational significance through an intergenerational and interpersonal retrieval of one’s past. Because those meetings with family members and former teachers and classmates (who are all witnesses of one’s former days) conceivably encompass a reflective capacity to facilitate one’s future improvement. It is therefore clear that practice and culture in different traditions, of which modern teachers “might” take a “taste” without obligation, could be useful for their refinement as persons, i.e., their growth of private morality. Along with Li’s theoretical extrapolation, these cultural practices cultivating the teachers’ own being as persons can aid in the performance of their public lives.

Indeed, private morality is essentially concerned with refining oneself and cultivating the life force of the individual (Li 2017, p. 143). Like the previous conceptual point of “being able in teaching” required in teachers’ public morality, the conceptual criterion of “the care of being a person” is fundamental for morality to be legitimate in a private sense. After all, it is through caring about oneself as a person that we discover whether our self-referring morality is reliable. Especially, unlike fire workers, teachers who are inherently involved in a moral enterprise, once qualified to teach, ought to be entrusted with a self-conscious awareness of themselves as persons. Conversely, the individual, who does not care about his/her being as a person (i.e., does not have ultimate concern for their own life) in responsible ways, is not qualified to be a teacher, owing to the lack of a private morality. This is also an instance where the demarcation of private morality can aid in the implementation of public morals in education by excluding from the teacher talent pool those who do not care for the project of their own human becoming.

To understand further such “caring” required by private morality – aside from the “optional” ways of refining oneself offered by established traditions – Li’s prior point of religious experience in the form of aesthetic experience is illuminating. This relates to one of the two kinds of moral ability implicated in Li’s thinking.

For illustrating purposes, we deal with the other kind of moral ability at first. It is related to a combination of Kant’s first and third principles – human beings themselves are capable of universal legislation and of acting in accordance with it. In this context, it is more appropriate to apply this rational moral psychology to the realm of public morality, wherein teachers can be seen to esteem the moral laws – that is, the principles of justice, freedom, equality, and other associated modern social morals. As Kant explains himself in just such a context, “the more often he reflects upon them, the ever-renewed admiration and awe he is filled with.” In a nutshell, teachers in the public world will the above social morals as universal laws, with the dominated rationality that “whoever occupies my place does the same.”

Returning to the realm of private morality, it is more concerned with moral ability in the poetic sense, in contrast to the self-restraining one mentioned above. Using Li’s terminology, private morality in the aesthetic sense is a result of rationality dissolved into emotionality (rather than the reverse, see Li 2017, p. 136). This emotion-oriented moral ability, transcending cognition and volition and moving into sensuous freedom, is an aesthetic experience, especially the satisfaction of the soul. The central mental process is underpinned by the weighing of “regrets” on the spiritual plane just as “harms” are weighted in material and psychological terms (Li et al. 2016, pp. 1093–1094). Just as tremendous strength is demanded in the exercise of rational free will, it is by no means an easy task to discern the aesthetic intent and the less regretful states of mind to which it can give rise. However, it is because of such aesthetic quality of being least regret corroborated even with hindsight that the heart’s aesthetic willingness, once discerned, discloses a rational ground no less convincing than that implied in the mind’s universal-moral legislation. Hence, these deep self-discerned experiences are communicable to and even recognizable to others who might hold different positions. Even though another person who then understands might not take the same course of action, this difference does no harm to the original person’s aesthetic willingness because this uniqueness is inherent in realizing private morality.

On the other hand, since the arts (poetry, music, etc.) are typically results of the private, contemplative, and creative use of reason and imagination, aesthetic education becomes another promising vehicle for teachers in developing their private moral ability – especially an ability to discern “aesthetic willingness” (merging reason and emotion, as well as weighing spiritually), to secure “less regretful” experiences, with the acknowledgment that the less regret indicates more moral good.


In reconsidering the issue of the modern teacher’s morality, philosopher Zehou Li’s theory of two morals has been drawn upon to enable us to explore contemporary teachers’ public morality and private morality. As seen through his lens, a cognitive-philosophical approach to public morals is proposed, combined with an aesthetic-cultural approach to cultivating teachers’ private moral ability. Morally able teachers are not only able to will modern social morals as universal laws and act accordingly but also become competent in attaining “less regretful” states with their poetic-aesthetic sensibility across time and space. Furthermore, a conceptual requisite of “teaching well” is implied in the realm of teachers’ public morality, while a conceptual criterion of teacher’s private morality – a serious concern for oneself and one’s life – is a baseline for qualified teacher candidates. This supplementary sense of private morality also permits multiple moral possibilities to emerge for teachers, since there are different yet equally responsible ways to care one’s being as a person.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of GlasgowGlasgowUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Liz Jackson
    • 1
  • Janet Orchard
  • Cong Lin
  1. 1.University of Hong KongHong KongChina