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What is “moral education”?

Assuming we more or less know what education is, try defining “moral.” The education ministry’s website takes a stab at it: “A heart-and-mind (kokoro) that values life, a heart-and-mind that is considerate toward others…”

That’s unimpeachable as far as it goes, but once the platitudes are dispensed with we inevitably reach a point where people, countries, philosophies and religions diverge, morally speaking, without one party being demonstrably good and the other demonstrably bad. That’s when moral education gets tricky. How do you teach one morality without being unfair to others? Or, alternatively, how do you teach a universal morality without in effect teaching nothing at all?

Last month, an advisory body to the education ministry recommended that moral education be taught as a formal subject, as it was before and during World War II, and even for a time after it, until 1958, after which it continued to be taught, but informally, without grades or official textbooks. The change, if it comes about, would turn moral ed into a course like any other, like math or science or history, in which kids studying from government-approved textbooks earn grades that had better be good if they’re to get ahead in life.

What’s the problem? Well, the current government led by the Liberal Democratic Party under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes a highly moralistic stance toward national and international affairs. Abe, his ministers and his top aides are patriots. They consider patriotism moral — more moral than truth, if the two should chance to conflict. Some of them visit the war-glorifying Yasukuni Shrine. Some deny the worst abuses of Japan’s wartime militarism, encourage extreme nationalists in their hostile and threatening behavior toward minorities and neighboring countries, undermine press freedom — all in the name of patriotism and therefore morality.

The education ministry website’s definition of moral education makes no mention of patriotism; all the same, parents who may have heard from their parents and grandparents about wartime moral education and its glorification of the militarist state can be forgiven a twinge of uneasiness.

It’s important, the ministry website says, for children to be taught the distinction between right and wrong. Few would disagree — but is the distinction always obvious? Is it in fact moral to love one’s country, or was Samuel Johnson right in declaring patriotism “the last refuge of a scoundrel”?

Sometimes things are clearer. Bullying, for example, is a persistent school problem. It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously arguing that bullying is right. It must be wrong, therefore, and children should be taught, if possible, not to be bullies. Or murderers. The horror is still fresh in our minds of the fatal random stabbing in Saitama Prefecture last month of a young woman by a young man who allegedly told police he “just wanted to kill anyone.” Not even his lawyer is likely to argue that such a crime is right or good. The suspect himself probably wouldn’t. Such luridly extreme episodes seem to prove that however elusive a definition may be, or whatever ambiguity may attend less extreme cases, there is such a thing as right and wrong, on some of whose points we can all agree.

A moral education curriculum confined to those points, however, would be very short and very elementary. It would hardly keep active young minds challenged from elementary school through junior high. To be credible, a moral education curriculum would have to grapple with the emergent moralities of the times — same-sex marriage, for instance, which Japan, almost alone among the advanced nations, has yet to address at all seriously; or “death with dignity,” which is likewise taboo. What would a government-approved textbook say about those issues?

Would it address the subject of dogs? Should it? Why? The vast majority of Japanese would agree: dogs are adorable, lovable “companion animals,” “members of the family”; anyone here proposing a feast of dog meat would risk being hounded out of respectable society with outrage and curses; and yet some people in some countries consume dog meat with the same moral complacency with which Japanese eat beef, pork or chicken — and why not, after all? Would moral education condemn dog-eaters as immoral, or urge dog lovers to be respectfully tolerant of other cultures?

And what of whales and dolphins? Concerning dogs, Japan’s official morality is in harmony with a global moral majority, for whatever that’s worth. Worldwide condemnation of its whale hunts and dolphin roundups, however, has Japan on the defensive, an edgy stance that says, essentially, “We have our own morality.” Is that moral? Can’t anyone say that, about anything not specifically banned by law? Is morality, then, simply a matter of obeying the letter of the law? That too would leave a moral education curriculum little to teach over eight or nine years.

The whale-and-dolphin controversy is usually covered from the clashing points of view of, on the one hand, cruelty toward sentient and intelligent animals, and, on the other hand, the moral equivalence between eating whale meat and eating any other kind of meat (dogs excepted). Shukan Post magazine, in September, introduced a fresh perspective: the use of dolphins as weapons of war.

We don’t hear much about that, but Shukan Post claims both the U.S. and the Soviet Union experimented with weaponizing dolphins during the Cold War. Dolphins have gifts that make them useful — sonar for the detection of underwater mines, and an ability to dive to depths of 300 meters; attach bombs to them and set them loose against enemy subs — why not? Nothing practical came of the experiments at the time, but Shukan Post says the U.S. used dolphins in mine-clearing operations in both the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

Then the magazine makes this interesting allegation: that both Ukraine and Russia, at war with each other for a good part of this year, weaponized imported Japanese dolphins captured in the infamous annual hunt at Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. Spokespersons from both countries refused to comment, but the magazine cites as fact the export from Taiji in 2013 of 20 dolphins to Ukraine and 15 to Russia. Neither country has any history of dolphin cuisine, nor does either have enough aquarium space to accommodate that many dolphins — which cost, incidentally, roughly ¥4.5 million each.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Carolyn Kennedy tweeted in January: “Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of (Taiji) drive hunt dolphin killing. USG (U.S. government) opposes drive hunt fisheries.”

“Perhaps,” suggests Shukan Post, noting American support for Ukraine, “Ambassador Kennedy should not be averting her eyes from this other example of ‘inhumane’ behavior.”

But if weaponized dolphins can save human lives — what then? Moral questions are endless. Good luck to the bureaucrats who end up designing the curriculum, and to the kids who will be shaped by it.

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

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