What's the use of ethical philosophy? The role of ethical theory in special educational needs

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This article examines the relevance of modern moral philosophy to education, with particular reference to special educational needs. Where moral philosophers explore the tension between utilitarian and deontological reasoning, they often consider the balance between the rights of the individual and the benefits or costs for the majority. I argue that the debate is predicated on a false dichotomy between minority and majority which is best overcome by a return to virtue ethics. In exploring this ethical debate, I draw on a case study from Australia of a student excluded from mainstream education on the basis that inclusion will not serve the greater good of the majority of students. My intention here is not to offer practical guidance in the complex day-to-day deliberations of educators dealing with issues of inclusion, but to elaborate the structure of the present thinking about inclusion. It is hoped that an appreciation of the deeper basis of ethical reasoning will itself lead to a greater recognition of the need for exploring the ethical grounds of teaching and learning. I will argue that any dichotomy between the utilitarian happiness of the many and the deontological commitment to the rights of the individual is based on a misconception of human identity. The false choice between the many and the one rests upon the assumption that morality is fundamentally about restricting personal preferences in favour of the good of the majority, that there exists a fundamental conflict between what is good for the individual and what is good for society as a whole. This will lead me to argue that we need to reinterpret human identity as constituted by its social relations and that this reorientation is best achieved by reference to virtue ethics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)536-547
Number of pages12
JournalEuropean Journal of Special Needs Education
Issue number4
Early online date3 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2014


  • moral philosophy
  • inclusion
  • utilitarianism
  • deontology
  • virtue ethics


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