virtue insight

conversations on character

Ethical Consumption and the Challenges of the Virtuous Shopper

There was public disquiet when a BBC investigation revealed exploited child refugees from war-torn Syria were being used to make clothes for major British stores.

The “sweatshop” factories in Turkey were reportedly using children as young as 15 to work 12 hours a days, ironing garments for sale. Some workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals, without adequate protection, during the spraying of jeans.

One of the high street chains at the centre of the exposé insisted ethical trading was “fundamental” to its practices and said suppliers were required to comply with its principles relating to global sourcing, which includes the treatment of employees. The notion of ethical consumption has become increasingly important as it represents “an expression of the individual’s moral judgment in his or her purchase behaviour”.

The story last October was the latest in a series of scandals to hit the clothing trade, the reputations of electronics firms also being tarnished by links to child labour, including Apple’s supply chain in China. This hugely emotive issue goes to the heart of the fierce debate about ethical consumption and ethical shopping.

I happen to come from China, which has been hit by allegations of child labour, and it would appear that, from a UK perspective at least, two moral philosophical approaches are observed in relation to the controversy.

There is the deontological approach, which considers if an action is based on the right principles; and there is consequentialism, which looks at the best consequences, or outcomes, of an action.

If one follows the rule-based deontological approach, consumers are advised to boycott products made by child labour because the exploitation of young people per se is wrong. However, consequentialists argue that boycotting “unethical” clothes effectively puts children out of work and cuts off a vital source of family income, the cash being required for food and shelter. Working in a sweatshop, as abhorrent as it seems, is arguably preferable to starvation and destitution.

But what if a third approach is possible? This, I believe, is where virtue ethics comes in and throws a welcome light on the controversy surrounding ethical consumption.

A virtue ethics approach asks important questions such as: “What kind of person/consumer do I want to become?” The emphasis is on exercising the virtues and advancing human flourishing.

In the case of child labour, a virtue ethics approach appreciates the need for compassion and generosity as well as the context of the action or event. Rather than being directed by rigid deontological rules or consequential outcomes, virtue ethics allows the consumer to be sympathetic to the child worker’s predicament. In this case, an instant boycott of the clothing is less likely to be advocated.

However, this does not mean a virtue ethics approach will continue to encourage the practice of child labour without further action. It does not give carte blanche to exploitation and child endangerment.

On the contrary, a virtue ethics approach locates the child labour situation within the wider social context and views the purchase action as part of the overall life. It recognizes the merits of ethical consumption as well as the limits of it; it seeks to understand the cause of the issues from an institutional level as well the specific context; and it strives to investigate the best possible solution from a fundamental perspective.

Crucially, the virtue ethics approach is non-judgemental; and it is motivated by love, patience and tolerance.

A virtue ethics approach considers the complexity of ethical consumption, the causes of child labour and involves an appreciation of people as human beings with human characteristics. It allows us to see that ethical consumption cannot be reduced to simple rules or a calculation of consequences.

Recently, my mother, who lives in Beijing, visited me in Birmingham and bought me a bag. The gift cost £110, a lot of money. What if the bag was made from child labour but my mother did not know this?

For me, the bag symbolises her love for me. I used to bring my lunch to work in a shopping bag that cost £2 and my mother said: “It doesn’t suit your professional image now. You work for The Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham. You are a research fellow. You need to maintain a professional standard.” I told her I had lots of bags and did not need another one, but she insisted.

Now if you take a deontological approach, the bag is a waste of money because I don’t really need one. If you look at consequentialism, it is probably bad for the environment.

But if you look beyond that as a human person, this bag is from my mum, who flew all the way from China to England and wanted to give me a gift. It reminds me of her every day I use it. I feel warmth in my heart. That is love. Deontology and consequentialism do not have the capacity to appreciate such love.

Virtue ethics “understands” my mum’s heart. This was an act of selfless love – she wouldn’t spend so much money on herself on a bag and it shows her understanding of my work role and her respect.

Now when I think about the contentious issue of child labour and visualise the three moral philosophies, I see three images. On the left is the judge who makes a ruling based on unbending law and regulations. On the right, I see the image of a Chinese mother whose young son works in a factory miles from their village – she has deep wrinkles but there is hope in her eyes.

In the middle, there is a wise man smiling at me and saying in a gentle voice: “Be slow in anger; and abound in steadfast love.”

Dr Yan Huo

Research Fellow

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Character Education in Poland: A Teacher’s Reflections

Contemporary Polish education is at an ideological crossroads, attempting to construct new ways of thinking, and new concepts of education and teaching in line with contemporary understanding of young people’s development.

Since gaining independence in 1989, Poland has been reforming its education system to help young people adapt to the new world order. The changes in pedagogical sciences triggered by the political transformation in Poland have raised many questions, including the issue of character education. For example, do schools have the authority to teach character and impose a system of values on pupils?

An important cause of the difficulties faced by Polish teachers is the lack of unified view on the essence of the human person and educational ideologies. There is some influence from liberalism, moral relativism, hedonism, and utilitarianism on the nature of education. However, without taking a coherent position on understanding the essence of the human person and critiquing the accepted view of the education system, we cannot meaningfully analyse problems of contemporary education.

In order to better understand the potential for character education in Poland, I have identified some pluralistic and competing educational ideologies:

  1. Conservative ideologies. According to these ideologies, educational processes are understood as cultural transmission. In this vision, high positions in the hierarchy of values are taken by tradition, religion, a specific ethical attitude, obedience and a sense of belonging (patriotism). In Poland, a symptom of the domination of this ideology was the introduction of religious education to schools in 1989.
  1. 2. Liberal ideologies. The agent’s subjectivism in making, among other things, free moral choices, dominates in this option. In this ideology, we have to endorse anti-fundamentalism and openness to distinctiveness. Freedom in this ideology is only limited by the agreement not to disturb one another’s freedom. In Poland, such a form of thinking in terms of emancipatory pedagogic is present after the change of the social system.
  1. Social and Postmodern Ideologies. This is basically anti-pedagogy, in which the teacher is an observer, and does not interfere with a student’s self-development; there is no reason why he should interfere with it, if he does not know what is good or bad – this is the main exemplification of this ideology. In the Polish culture, such a form of thinking in education is partly present, particularly in pedagogical and sociological narrations.

Every education reform in Poland has emphasised the consolidation of values at all stages of education. Character education is understood in Poland as the endorsement of learning about nature, culture and society as well as participation in their transformations. It helps pupils achieve comprehensive physical and mental development, the development of their abilities, interests, attitudes and beliefs, as well as the acquisition of relevant professional qualifications. The aim of character education is to prepare a child, and then a young person, for autonomous functioning in the world of values.

Poland has a rich tradition of teaching, and at the centre of the learning process is always the person who, as part of the education process, is taught to distinguish good from evil, and thus enrich his or her experience.

Unfortunately, education reforms in Poland are often purely political. Educational issues and curriculum changes are not consulted with teachers and parents, and are not supported by existing research. An example is the newest education reform, prepared in unnecessary haste, which takes effect in September 2017. The assumptions of the reform are not fully known, and very important decisions have been taken by small teams of educators, commissioned by the National Ministry of Education. What can be seen is that the reform of the education system is geared to conservative ideologies where a pupil needs an authority (a teacher) to show the individual what is good and what is wrong, according to the acknowledged standards, because alone a pupil would stray.

This interpretation might appear to be an educational vision at its most natural, as it appeals to what happened and what turned out to be successful. The school is represented as the institution of fundamentalist thinking, in which teachers are applicators of top-down assumptions. That is why the absolutisation of values dominates in this conception – an assumption that seems to grate with the very idea of character education, at least along the Aristotelian lines suggested by the Jubilee Centre.

We will have to wait a few years to see whether the changes will be for the benefit of young people and affect their character and value system. As a teacher, I remain full of optimism and trust in other teachers and their positive impact on the student. However, there is no sign of a coherent policy of character education making its way into the Polish educational system. Moreover, the recently-introduced curriculum lacks content that would stress the importance of tolerance and acceptance of other nations and cultures – for example, the school literary canon is based on works that promote national values where “the other option” is shown as an anthropological curiosity.

I believe that education should help young people develop a sense of responsibility and patriotism. A school, as an institution, should provide pupils with every opportunity for their development and prepare them to fulfill the obligations of family and civic life in accordance with the principles of solidarity, democracy, tolerance, justice and freedom.

At the same time, the school ought to make pupils understand the importance of being open to the values of Europe and the rest of the world.

Marcin Gierczyk, Doctor of Social Science in Pedagogy, is a visiting Teaching Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

A Personal Touch Helps Students Navigate the Minefield of Professional Virtues

Digital platforms and online teaching are revolutionising the delivery of educational programmes throughout the higher education sector.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are one of the latest developments and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ own online course on character education has had nearly 20,000 registered learners.

Such platforms allow institutions to engage with new learners in innovative ways and offer flexible approaches to teaching outside face-to-face formats.

However, research being conducted by the Jubilee Centre suggests trainee teachers, medics and lawyers still value traditional teaching sessions when it comes to understanding the complexities and value of virtue-based practice.

We have also discovered that tutors like to be involved with delivering interventions that seek to promote virtue literacy among the next generation of professionals. In fact, some university staff revealed their current programmes do not feature elements relating to ethics, which might surprise the wider public who typically view, and expect, GPs, solicitors and teachers to be role models.

The views of students and tutors towards virtue-based teaching materials was gauged during the Centre’s project Interventions in Trainee and Student Teachers, Lawyers and Doctors. The interventions centre on a course that seeks to enable trainees and early career professionals to understand what it means to be a virtuous professional and serve others in their discipline.

More than 1,400 law, medicine and teaching trainees either experienced or piloted the course and the data, including pre- and post-course surveys, is being processed. The surveys should indicate if the students’ ethical decision-making has become more virtues-based as a result of the interventions.

The courses are profession-specific, so key content relating to ethical dilemmas – a particularly popular element of the interventions – is tailored to practical scenarios that might be confronted on hospital wards, in the courtroom and the classroom. All the courses feature a general introduction to character, virtue ethics and phronesis.

The research team’s expectation was that tutors would send their students a link to the online course and then effectively take a back seat. Discussion boards are built into the programme, so students can engage in online conversations with fellow trainees about ideas and issues as they arise. The course also features animated films to create an immersive atmosphere.

Interestingly, a significant number of tutors said they would like to be more directly involved with delivery of the interventions. Some tutors even asked Jubilee Centre researchers to attend teaching sessions as they felt it enriched the students’ experience and added new perspectives to the understanding of virtue-based practice, a concept with which many trainees were unfamiliar.

The enthusiasm of tutors for face-to-face contact was matched by that of the trainees. Students said they liked the films and the interactive message boards, which allow engagement in anonymous online discussions about the issues. But they still like to be “taught” the course as well and wanted to take a “human” approach to an essentially human concern – the ethical practice of professionals.

It would appear that students and trainees are not confident undertaking a course like this entirely online. They like having an expert in the field alongside them to help them navigate the complex issues of character and virtues. For example, at the University of Leicester’s Medical School, 200 trainees took part in the course in class using iPads and had tutors present to offer assistance.

It is clear from our interviews that students feel the course has opened their eyes to the importance of character and virtues in professional life. One trainee teacher said the course was “massively important in education,” adding: “You need to display qualities that children are going to look up to at the end of the day… they are easily influenced and you need to be professional, but at the same time you need to try and be on their level in a way that they don’t think, ‘Oh, this is just another stuffy old bloke who thinks they’re better than me.’”

Participants also highlighted the value of reflective practice to help them understand that their actions have wider implications for others – for the lawyer and the client, the teacher and the pupil, and the GP and the patient.

Why does any of this matter? Well, ask yourself this: if you are a parent, don’t you want your child’s care and education to be entrust to a teacher you know has good character? Don’t our young people deserve at least that?

Dr Binish Khatoon

Research Fellow

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

When “Thank You” is Not Enough

From an early age, children are encouraged to express gratitude and display thanks towards others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – and mind your Ps and Qs.

There are everyday scenarios that fit nicely into the “please and thank you” template, such as ordering a coffee, being served lunch or having a door held open.

But there are also occasions that fall outside the norm, situations that surprise us, perplex us and leave us embarrassed. What are we to do when we are confronted with unexpected acts of kindness?

A friend found herself in such a position during her morning commute into Snow Hill station in Birmingham city centre. It was the chilly depth of a recent cold snap and the office worker – let us call her Sarah – was cursing herself for not having her gloves. The previous day, she left a glove from her favourite pair on the train. She realised just as she was getting off but did not have time to return to the carriage and look for it as the train was preparing to depart.

Twenty-four hours later, Sarah’s train was slowing down to pull into Snow Hill and Sarah got up from her seat. As she got into the slow-moving queue heading towards the train door, she felt someone tug her arm.

Looking back, Sarah saw a dishevelled, unshaven man in an old coat. He was carrying an old supermarket plastic bag and was wearing fingerless gloves. She thought he looked homeless.

The man tried to speak to Sarah but made no sense. She thought he might be drunk, and worried that she was being accosted, she said nothing, turned away in embarrassment and headed towards the door of the carriage.

She walked a few more paces and was close to stepping down to the platform when she was tapped on the shoulder. Fearing the worst, Sarah turned and was confronted by the same man. Again, he made no sense as he tried to speak but this time Sarah realised he had a bad stutter.

Despite her very English discomfort, she held his gaze and realised he was saying: “Your glove. Your glove.”

As the words formed, the man reached down into his tatty bag and withdrew Sarah’s lost glove. He must have seen her the previous day, spotted she had left her glove on her seat, picked it up and kept it with a view to returning it.

Grateful for the stranger’s kindness and slightly ashamed of her own behaviour, and the assumptions she had made, Sarah did the only thing she could do – and said: “Thank you.”

She had never seen the man before, and has not since.

Later that day, as she recounted the story, Sarah said she wished she could have done more than utter two simple words. She had considered giving the man some money, as she thought he was homeless, but decided her action could have been patronising. What if he took offence? Would she offer a “normal” person a cash reward?

She kept repeating: “Thank you wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t enough.”

Evidently, saying “thank you” was inadequate to convey Sarah’s feelings and her sense of gratitude towards a man who, despite facing his own daily trials, had gone out of his way to help someone who to all intents and purposes looked like the model of a successful young professional.

I suspect part of Sarah’s reaction was wound up in the guilt she felt for assuming her fellow passenger on life’s journey into Birmingham was a drunk, a vagrant and possibly a “weirdo.”

In fact, the man might have been all of these things, and none of them. And that, I suppose, is the point. Gratitude cuts across social status and it defies prejudice, awkwardness and isolation.

And if gratitude is the parent of all virtues, as well as being the greatest, it may well be that a stranger on a train can teach us all an important lesson. In our troubled times, we ignore it at our peril.

Richard McComb


Take the First Step to Happiness – and Get Over Yourself!

Philosopher Candace Vogler, of the University of Chicago, is a principal investigator in a project grappling with virtue, happiness and the meaning of life. 

Prof Vogler is seeking to establish if self-transcendence – the sense that life is part of a bigger good – helps to make the cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of profound human fulfillment. 

A keynote speaker at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ annual conference at Oriel College, Oxford, Prof Vogler speaks to journalist Richard McComb about the project.

Why do some people who have everything one could wish for – a successful job, beautiful home, loving partner and healthy children – feel there is a big empty hole in their lives?

And why do other people with similar lives, or with lives lacking some of these features, feel happy?

Candace Vogler believes the key to the riddle may lie with self-transcendence, that spiritual dimension of human life in which individuals feel connected to a greater good.

Prof Vogler’s 28-month network project, due to finish in November 2017, is comprised of an inter-disciplinary team of scholars including psychologists, philosophers and religious thinkers. Its members are seeking to establish if self-transcendence “helps to make ordinary cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of deep happiness and meaning in human life.”

Participating in a greater good could mean campaigning for a cause, such as environmentalism, or following a faith. Self-transcendence might be achieved via participation in a large, generational family. As Vogler says, “The good you enjoy is partly made possible by the struggles, work and effort of people who came before you. Your hope is to carry something forward in the future, maybe something that is good in a way you can’t yet imagine. You identify so strongly with family that they become a part of you.”

As part of the project, professionals working in diverse field, from cognitive neuroscience to Islamic studies, come together with ‘work in progress’ which is shaped by shared questions. During week-long sessions in the winter and late spring, the scholars discuss their work in a dynamic, creative atmosphere. “The collaboration happens at the point the work is taking shape,” says Vogler.

Updates and insights are disseminated via the project’s blog, The Virtue Blog, public lectures and media interviews. A capstone conference takes place at the University of Chicago in October, which will be free and open to the public.

At a time of socio-political upheaval and uncertainty, both in Europe and the United States, it is perhaps not surprising that public interest has focused on the project’s pursuit of happiness.

Prof Vogler is wonderfully candid in her responses when asked about the secret of happiness.

“Stage one is, ‘Get over yourself!’” she says. “Don’t worry so much about self-actualisation, self-expression, self-development, self-this, self-that.

“See if you can break the fascination of your own ego for a little bit. See if you can turn your attention to something that is genuinely self-transcendent, that connects you to a world bigger than your intimate circle – and engage there. That is likely to be where you will develop in virtue and character. Your character develops when you get opportunities that are expressive and productive of goods bigger than you are.

“Do you engage at the soup kitchen a couple of times a week because you know you are supposed to be charitable? No, you volunteer at the soup kitchen by opening yourself up to the possibility that you could be drawn out of yourself rather than affirmed in a sense of your own goodness. The self-transcendence provides the context in which virtue is at home.”

Prof Vogler has little time for self-righteous navel-gazing, adding: “You don’t have a beautiful soul if it’s useless to everyone around you. You don’t have a beautiful soul if you can’t be bothered to think about how to engage more effectively in the world that you find yourself in, not just for the sake of your own success but for the sake of contributing to what is good in that world and helping it struggle against what is bad.”

Character Education in Spain: Problems and Potential

One of the developing trends in education, internationally, over the last few years, has been the renewed attention to the moral dimensions of education, and more specifically, to character education. Spain is slowly starting to refocus its interest in the sphere of character education; however, it is happening more slowly than in other countries such as the USA or UK. The reasons for this reluctance have deep sociohistorical roots, and I cannot possibly analyse all of them in detail here.  However, I will focus on two of the most significant issues before finally exploring the potential for character education in Spain in the immediate future.

We should begin by referring back to Spain’s history during the twentieth century; the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Franco regime and the Spanish Constitution that gave place to democracy in 1978. Despite the amount of time past, almost four decades, the conflict between the two sides is still kept alive in many different ambits of Spanish society, and some wounds have yet to heal. This can be seen in the educational context, where we have witnessed a lack of focus on moral issues, not only in educational laws, but in the writings of many scholars and the educational projects of many schools; and not just public schools, but also religious schools. For many, the concept of moral education has been considered too close to indoctrination, and the word virtue has lost its true meaning, in the classical sense, and is perceived only in its religious dimension, and thus rejected; being interpreted as a move towards secularisation on the one hand, and modernity, laicity and democracy, on the other.

The second issue cannot be viewed in isolation from the first, and within the sociohistorical context, the two are very much interrelated.  Despite the constitutional agreement, since the beginning of Spain’s democracy, several educational laws have been alternatively approved by left and right parties, which have failed to reach a basic consensus on education that avoided ideological confrontation and allowed coexistence. Article 27 of the Spanish Constitution establishes both the right to education and the freedom of teaching; these have been interpreted in different ways, and have either emphasised one or the other. This has produced, in some cases, zero sum games, where accepting one automatically suppresses the other.

As a solution, Spain passed a paradigmatic law, the Ley Orgánica de Educación (LOE), which in 2006 included citizenship education as a compulsory subject for every school. This received a lot of criticism from some influential quarters of the Spanish population due to its mandatory focus on character and its ideological and legalist dimensions. However, this can be seen from two perspectives, which in fact provides us with two faces of the same coin. Whilst it was an important moment that again placed on the table certain moral aspects of education, it was at the same time a lost opportunity. This is because a new education proposal with axiological character did not foster a consensus but instead continued to perpetuate those old social conflicts.

Nevertheless, despite these problems, we can say that never before have we had such an opportunity to promote moral education in Spain, and therefore, character education. Whilst there is a general dissatisfaction with the use of education as a political football, it seems that some initiatives are being developed to reach a minimum consensus that avoids past legislative swing and promotes respect for these two constitutionals principles. Whilst the failed citizenship education has highlighted the difficulty, if not the impossibility of reaching a consensus, it does not mean that education with an explicit moral dimension should be rejected outright. We should continue to look for a new way that could be adopted to accommodate different sensibilities, taking into account the number of mainly religious schools, but not limited to Catholic schools, according to the Spanish Constitution.

Within this new framework, character education could be a valuable option because of its versatility in different contexts, its attention to intellectual, social and individual aspects, and its important theoretical basis that avoids being reduced to a new educational fad, and susceptible to ideological manipulation. But this very much depends on us.

Dr. Juan Fuentes is an Assistant Professor in the Theory and History of Education Department at Complutense University of Madrid. Juan is on a scholarship from the Spanish Government and is working at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Can a Habit of Service Help to Build a ‘Shared Society?’

The value of engaging young people in positive social action has been working its way up the political agenda for some time.

An independent review into youth social action launched by former Prime Minister David Cameron led to the #iwill campaign, which aims to harness the creativity, energy and talents of 10 to 20-year-olds for the benefit of participants and their local communities. The National Citizen Service, which encourages young people to work on community projects, is set to receive permanent statutory status thanks to a Bill passing through Parliament with Government support.

As part of her plans to create a “great meritocracy,” Mr Cameron’s successor Theresa May unveiled an £80 million funding allocation for youth projects in England just months after entering Downing Street last year. The grants, to be distributed via the #iwill Fund and the Youth Investment Fund, form part of the new Tory administration’s “determination to build a country that works for everyone” so that “young people can go as far as their talents allow, regardless of their backgrounds.”

Delivering the Charity Commission’s annual lecture, Mrs May outlined her vision for a “shared society” that “respects the bonds that we share as a union of people and nations. The bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions.”

But having galvanised young people, how do groups, policymakers and practitioners encourage longer-term commitments so that individuals view activities such as volunteering, fundraising and campaigning as something more than a one-off?

The question goes to the heart of a ground-breaking project led by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Focusing on the civic virtue of service, the study, thought to be the first of its kind, seeks to investigate and understand what constitutes a habit of service for young people.

By looking at the idea of habit, researchers hope to understand how young people who have already made a commitment to service sustain that habit. How does meaningful social action become an embedded part of life rather than a flash in the pan?

The Centre’s final report aims to enhance theoretical understanding about the habit of service and inform policy and practice to boost young people’s participation in actions that benefit others. At the same time, the study dovetails with the Jubilee Centre’s wider investigation into how “schools, youth social action providers and other organisations build character virtues in order to transform lives and contribute to a flourishing society.”

The Centre has worked with the #iwill campaign since 2014 and has already revealed that youth social action providers believe the character development of participants is central to their work. In seeking to understand what makes a habit of service, this new investigation uses two complementary research methods: an online questionnaire completed by more than 4,500 16 to 20-year-olds (a far larger sample than previous studies relating to habit) and detailed life history interviews. The survey participants have been recruited with the help of youth action providers and schools and colleges with a track record of social action provision. In total, 12 organisations, schools, colleges and groups have been involved including vInspired and the National Citizen Service.

Meaningful social action is defined by the #iwill campaign as activity in which young people participate “at least every few months, or in a one-off activity lasting more than a day, and recognising the benefits it had for themselves and for the community or cause they were helping.”

Researchers hypothesised that a habit of service involves a young person both participating in social action in the past 12 months and intending to participate in future. The activity or service is part of their character and is encouraged and role-modelled by family and friends.

The scope of youth social action activities is wide, including those involving, for example: education providers (schools, colleges and universities); apprenticeships or jobs; local communities; places of worship; clubs and groups; family and friends; and individual activities. The activities could range from a sponsored event and campaigning to mentoring, volunteering with a charity or supporting an elderly neighbour.

The study will seek to highlight which virtues young people with a habit of service most strongly identify with.

Following completion and analysis of the questionnaire and interviews, the Centre will consult with youth service providers to develop a “best practice” guide to inform future policy and promote the value of inspiring and developing a habit of service among young people.

As one young interviewee put it, being involved in service has “just developed me so much as a person … it’s given me purpose to do something with my life, and to do something that I care about”. This research will inform practitioners and policymakers to support more young people to find their own purpose, developing their character and helping others at the same time.

Emma Taylor-Collins, Research Associate                                                                                   Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Developing Children into Good People

In this Vlog, Professor Marvin W Berkowitz, Professor of Character Education at University of Missouri – St Louis, talks about the drawbacks of taking a purely pedagogical approach to Character Education.  If the aim of Character Education is to develop children into good people, then Professor Burkowitz suggests that we need to adopt more sociological and psychological strategies within Character Education in order to develop more holistically good people.

Professor Marvin W. Berkowitz is the inaugural Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor of Character Education, and Co-Director of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and University of Missouri President’s Thomas Jefferson Professor. His scholarly focus and expertise is in character education and development, moral development, and prevention of risky behaviours.

Why Character is Important in the United States Army

On my first day of Army Basic Training back in 1998, my senior drill sergeant had us all in formation.  We had just finished doing somewhere in the region of 10,000 press-ups and he said to us in a very calm, slow, and steady voice, “Privates… there are three things you have to do in order to be successful in the Army”.  He held up his first finger in the air and proceeded to add an additional finger as he ticked off each point of success, “Do what you’re told.  Do what you’re told.  Do what you are damn well told”.

Fast forward a few years. As a young Non-Commissioned Officer, I frequently took initiative to do things.  As I saw it, my changes improved the situation, the time, the effort, or the money involved with the task given to me.  On more than one occasion, I was told that the Army did not need free thinkers and that I should just follow the rules and the mission would be accomplished.

Is following the rules such a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  Rules are everywhere.  There are rules for driving.  There are rules in sports.  There are even rules at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Rules come in all shapes and sizes.  We have the Cadet Honor Code at West Point and we have Rules of Engagement (ROE) in combat zones.  More generally, we have the Just War theory to engender rules.  We must have mechanisms in place to enforce rules.  To enforce rules in the Army, we have the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

These rules serve a purpose.  As my drill sergeant in basic training would point out, rules are used to impose and enforce discipline.  The Army’s hallmark has been its discipline.  But is that enough?  In my view, just having rules is inadequate. It is insufficient for the Army to be concerned only with disciplined leaders and soldiers.  It can, and must, work towards improving the moral character of its future leaders and develop them into moral agents so that they choose to make moral decisions and not just follow rules.

From time-to-time, most of us are guilty of breaking a rule.  Occasionally I exceed the speed limit while driving.  Whilst this example of rule breaking might not relegate me to the status of a bad person, there are plenty of examples of broken rules leading to unethical behavior.  In the not too distant past, members of the United States Army have broken rules that have resulted in moral failures and human rights abuses. Imagine incidents such as the torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib Prison, to the slaughter of people in the Iraqi village of Hadditha. From the U.S. airstrike that killed an estimated 90 Afghan civilians in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, to U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales who wounded six people and killed 16 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  Ten of the 16 killed were children.  Sometimes unethical behavior is not an act of commission, but rather an act of omission.  Sometimes we fail to do the right thing.  In an effort to maintain good relations with Afghan police and militia, senior Army officers even instructed U.S. military personnel to ignore Afghan soldiers sexually abusing young boys, even on U.S. bases, because “it is part of their culture.”

These horrific war crimes of commission and omission reflect poorly on the Army.  While soldiers will break rules, if we are an Army of character, these types of moral transgressions will reduce.  The Army now takes into account this fact, more systematically than before, by striving to develop character in their officers, soldiers, and cadets.  As in other areas of professional practice, more and more people, are starting to realise that merely following the rules is not enough. Character education is essential for the profession of arms so that soldiers do not just follow the rules, but act ethically because it is line with their character.  This is why character is not only important in the U.S. Army – and in deed in any well-functioning army – but essential.

U.S. Army Major Scott Parsons is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  He recently spent a week visiting the Jubilee Centre.

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