Private education: in defence of hypocrisy

eton_2855585b(Photo: Daily Telegraph)

I am a bitter opponent of private education. All my political hackles rise whenever the subject is mentioned.

Yet of my four currently school-aged children, one (‘A’) is educated privately (at a specialist choir school), and another (‘B’, who is dyslexic) will shortly be in private education (at a hip, Indian-cotton swathed, high-fibre, bongo-drumming, holistic school). The two others (‘C’ and ‘D’) are currently in state primary schools. There are two older children too (‘E’ and ‘F’) They were both educated privately, at a fairly traditional school.

How can I live with myself?

One way would be to avert my eyes from the apparently plain discrepancy between my actions and my political convictions. That’s often been my strategy. But I want to attempt some kind of defence – at least in relation to A and B, and lay the ground for a potential defence in relation to C and D, should we choose to educate them privately.

In relation to the older two, E and F, the only defence possible is the ‘Can’t help it’ defence (see below), which isn’t terribly impressive. With hindsight, they’d have been better off, the community at large would have been better off, and my integrity would be less embarrassingly bruised, had they gone to the local comprehensive. I’ve learned a bit since they were schooled.

But what about the others? I’m not going to discuss the merits for the individual children of private v state education. To keep the ethics simple, I’m going to take it as read that the private option confers a benefit on the individual child concerned, and does not involve an individual detriment. I’m also going to assume that the state schools to which the children would have gone would have benefited from their presence and disadvantaged by their absence, and that private education is intrinsically politically (and hence ethically) offensive.

A: The singer

He wanted to go. He begged to be entered for the audition. He was given a scholarship.

The decision in this case was based purely on our respect for A’s autonomy. It was personally painful, and mighty inconvenient.

That respect of course has limits. We wouldn’t respect his autonomous decision to start taking heroin or robbing banks. But a desire to sing Tudor church music fell squarely within the penumbra of acceptability.

Does it follow from our respect for A’s autonomy that we’re neoliberals? And in particular does it follow that it is sufficient justification for our choices about our children’s schooling that those choices are an autonomous expression of our wishes? No on both counts. To frustrate the autonomy of a child is a far more serious thing than to hem the exercise of our autonomy round with caveats. Not least because to do anything to another person is more morally serious than to do it to oneself. Another reason is that almost the whole purpose of A’s education to date has been (we have thought) the facilitation of his autonomy: it has been to allow him to be him. If singing is part of what he is, to deny his identity-affirming wish to sing for several hours a day would be to frustrate the principles that have governed his education (principles which trump our merely political convictions). And it would be prevent him being him: we’d be killing something fundamental to him. That’s morally not much different from murdering or causing serious personal injury.

B: The dyslexic

I’ve written before (here) about B’s extraordinary way of perceiving the world.

That way is totally at odds with the way that, in a state school whose curriculum is designed to produce net contributors to the GDP, he’d be told was normative. There would be strenuous and (on the part of the individual teachers involved, very well-meaning) attempts to make him ‘normal’. If these attempts succeeded, B would be diminished. As in the case of A, we’d be endorsing personal injury.

C and D: The currently State-schooled children

I’m not sure what will happen to them. But let’s assume that we’ll take them out of the state system and send them to join B amongst the bongos. Would that mean that we were ethically bang to rights?

Well, not necessarily. Two defences would then be open to us. The second is available as a fall-back defence in the cases of A and B, and is the only possible defence in the cases of E and F.

It would be possible to articulate, for C and D, an argument, similar to that used for A and B, based on identity truncation. But on the facts it would be disingenuous.

The two seriously arguable defences are below.

Defence 1: Privately educating our children will change (for good) the ethos of society.

There are two ways in which this might happen.

(a)        Protest

The act of pulling them out of the state system might help to provoke an examination (by the State and others) of the reductionist, measurement-obsessed ethos that provoked the withdrawal. (Some chance).

(b)       Producing fighters against the ethos

This sees the school as a revolutionary training camp. It is objectionable to pay to send them there, but the offence is outweighed by the good that C and D, so trained, will do to undermine the system that made that decision necessary. I find it rather convincing. But then I would, wouldn’t I?

Defence 2: Ethical automatism: I can’t help favouring those close to me, and so I’m not culpable in doing so

Where the utilitarian calculus says that actions X and Y produce identical results in terms of overall benefit (or avoidance of detriment), we are consistently much more reluctant to perform action X than action Y where X involves hurting someone who is physically close to us, and action Y does not. The classic example is the ‘fat man’ variant of the trolley problem. (See here for a good outline and discussion of the various variants). Almost everyone would pull the lever, killing one person distantly in order to save five. Few would push the fat man in front of the train to save five. Similarly with Peter Singer’s child drowning in the pond. We’d all happily jump in the pond to save her, ruining our suit. Far fewer of us make donations totaling the value of that ruined suit to save the life of an invisible child in Africa.

What is going on in these sorts of situations is of course extremely complex and much discussed. I observe here only: (a) the fact that this is how people react; and (b) the fact that a parent is likely to feel warmer towards a child than towards a fat man – the altruistic warmth being fuelled, no doubt, by kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

The fat man and related examples are traditionally adduced by cold-hearted utilitarians to show the incoherence of our intuitions. I think that there is a powerful argument against incoherence, but cannot make it here. My only point is that, incoherent or not, I’m inescapably in thrall to my intuitions, or parental love, or whatever you want to call it. And if I can’t escape from them, isn’t it hard to condemn me?






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8 Responses to Private education: in defence of hypocrisy

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thank you, Charles, for your post, which provokes some personal reactions that may not be too coherent. But here goes ….

    First, I would like to take issue with your final phrase : “My only point is that…I’m inescapably in thrall to my intuitions, or parental love…. And if I can’t escape from them, isn’t it hard to condemn me?”
    I happen to disagree with you, but I have neither the right, nor the power nor the inclination to “condemn” you. If philosophy should at least help to answer the question “how should I live?”, it will not get far by condemning…..
    Secondly, imagine that your topic was not private education but tax avoidance, would you not attempt similar (weak, as you acknowledge) defences ?
    * one of my children is special : he needs more attention (therefore the money I can leave him has higher overall utility than if I paid taxes)
    * another is an artist : he needs independence to pursue his dream
    * the others may be able to benefit society through philanthropy or other beneficial uses of their money once they are adults
    * etc etc

    Which leads to a more general point : the only effective way to fight tax avoidance is for all governments to have the same tax regimes. The only effective way to avoid your “hypocrisy” dilemma is to make it impossible for someone to benefit from a private education.
    Many methods could be used to achieve this, but moral condemnation is no more likely to succeed than the moral outrage over the Panama papers….
    So sleep well, Charles, you’ll still get your “OK, generally good guy” label at the Golden Gate. Can one ask for more ?

    • Charles Foster says:

      Anthony: many thanks as always for very pertinent points.
      As to your general point: I’d say that the only really effective way to avoid my dilemma is to make it unnecessary for someone to benefit from a private education. This would, in effect, make it impossible to benefit from a private education, since private education, in such a world, would confer no benefit. This could be done in two ways: (1) make state education at least as good as anything on offer in the private sector. (2) (my preferred option): change society so that the toxic attitudes that promulgate particularly well in the private sector are denigrated rather than applauded.
      As to the tax avoidance analogy: no, it’s not the same. Communitaranism is the ruling principle, to which there can only be a few caveats. I’ve suggested a few. I wouldn’t excuse tax avoidance, bank robbery etc, on exactly the same grounds that I would endorse much redistribution of wealth.

  • David H. says:

    I’m not sure why this is called a defense of hypocrisy. How is it not just a defense of private schools? If it is a defense of hypocrisy, it surely needs an argument for why other children ought to be deprived of the opportunities that your children are taking advantage of.

  • Charles Foster says:

    David H: thank you. It is not a defence of private schools because, as I think the post makes clear, I am opposed (a) to almost all private schools and (b) to most arguments that are used to justify sending children even to those schools whose existence can be justified. The post is headed ‘in defence of hypocrisy’ because I’m a hypocrite and the post is an attempt at self-justification. I have no argument ‘for why other children ought to be deprived of the opportunities that [my] children are taking advantage of.’ There is no such argument: of course those other children should not be deprived of those opportunities.

    • David H. says:

      Then I misunderstood your argument. I thought you were intending to defend the hypocrisy, which is to say: make a case for why a hypocritical attitude is the *right* attitude. The first part of your comment seems to say that you instead wanted to simply observe that on this issue, you are being a hypocrite. OK, that’s less interesting, but it is still some sort of a “defense of hypocrisy”. But then it looks like you it all back once again, and say “those other children should not be deprived of those [private schooling] opportunities” which can only be taken as an endorsement of the universal availability of private schools. So all that boils down to: “I don’t endorse private schooling, but also, I endorse private schooling. But from my endorsement of private schooling for my kids and others, please don’t take me to be endorsing private schooling for anyone, because I absolutely don’t.” I don’t think the right word for describing that pair of beliefs is “hypocrisy”.

  • Richard Powell says:

    It’s a minor point but re “(2) (my preferred option): change society so that the skills that are taught particularly well in the private sector are denigrated rather than applauded” – it would seem to follow that singing Tudor church music should be denigrated rather than applauded, along with lots of other cultural, sporting and academic skills. But if you really thought this, which I doubt, you would presumably (because of your respect for his autonomy) still send your son to the choir school, so he could master skills for people to sneer at. (I suspect your real target may have been the self-assurance often attributed to the products of private schools, but that is not how it came across.)

  • Charles Foster says:

    Richard: many thanks. You’re of course quite right. I’ll amend.

  • Ian says:

    There seems to be a need to define private schooling to enable an appreciation of the scale of the question rather than agonizing over the personal morality regarding imposing ones own views upon others.


    Is private schooling:

    tutoring by a parent of their own children attending public school;
    craftsmen teaching their children their skills;
    a religious organisation teaching its religion at a place of worship;
    paid for tutoring intended to enable a pupil to catch up with their peer group;
    a person progressing a personal interest during their own time which is supplemented by private tuition;
    a student paying, or contributing towards their own higher eduction;
    any schooling that the state is unwilling or unable to pay for?

    To avoid even broader issues the precise subject content of any schooling has been avoided.

    Accepting the character and views of any learners will be affected, whose views should determine the situations which could be seen as private schooling without intruding upon each persons own idea of assuring suitable future benefits?


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