Conceptualizing moral literacy

Publication Date10 July 2007
Date10 July 2007
AuthorNancy Tuana
Conceptualizing moral literacy
Nancy Tuana
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA
Purpose – The purpose of this research is to provide an overview of the fundamental elements of
moral literacy. Moral literacy involves three basic components: ethics sensitivity; ethical reasoning
skills; and moral imagination. It is the contention of the author that though math and reading literacy
is highly valued by the American educational system, moral literacy is extremely undervalued and
Design/methodology/approach – In this study the author uses her vast knowledge of moral
literacy to break the subject matter into specific and defined sub-categories. She then explains each
sub-category explicitly using real-life examples to assist the reader in understanding the gravity and
meaning behind each separate facet of moral literacy.
Findings – Moral literacy is a skill that must be crafted and honed by students, and with the aid of
teachers who are well-versed in moral subject matter. It is a complex and multifaceted skill set that is
interconnected and must therefore be learned completely in order to be used properly. Teaching
students about moral literacy is truly necessary if schools wish to produce productive and responsible
Originality/value – The study furthers our understanding of moral literacy and how it can play an
absolutely vital role in our educational system. The paper not only explains what moral literacy is on a
theoretical level, but it puts that theory into specific examples so that the reader can more clearly
understand the benefits of acting in a morally literate fashion.
Keywords Ethics, Imagination,Communities, Social values
Paper type Research paper
Christine Pelton, a biology teacher at Piper High School near Kansas City, discovered
that almost twenty percent of her students had plagiarized their semester projects
(CNN Student News). Two Hartford Union High School students were charged last
October with making a bomb threat causing the high school to be evacuated and
classes cancelled (Benson, 2006). Roy Espiritu and Cameron Johnston died from
drowning when the car Espiritu was driving skidded out of control and crashed
through a sea wall into Elliott Bay. Seventeen year old Espiritu had just left a party
where he was seen drinking (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2006).
The children and teens in our public schools face an increasingly complex array of
ethical situations. When made angry by the bullying of peers, how should they
respond? When they are faced with a looming deadline, is it ever acceptable to
purchase answers to a problem or buy the basic research for a term paper from the vast
array of internet sites, like Google Answers, set up to provide such services? If a student
suspects that a friend has an eating disorder, what should he do? If a teen sees that a
friend who has been drinking plans to drive while under the influence, ho w should she
respond? What if a sophomore finds out that a classmate cheated on a test; should she
tell anyone? An eighth-grader sees a good friend buying drugs behind the middle
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
The author’s on this paper has been greatly enriched by very helpful comments from Paul Begley
and an anonymous reviewer.
Journal of Educational
Vol. 45 No. 4, 2007
pp. 364-378
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/09578230710762409

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