Polarised debate that pits moral responsibility against social conditions is creating a “damaging impasse”

Does a focus on character and virtues mean that social conditions do not matter? Since joining the Jubilee Centre, I have often been challenged by friends, colleagues, and even Michael Portillo, when I appeared as an expert witness on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, to justify the whole concept of character – let alone virtue.

So how do I respond to these challenges? In an educational context, that’s fairly easy. I argue what seems to me to be a no-brainer – that surely education is inherently all about character; that decades of policy that defined the purposes of education within narrow human capital terms have left a hollowed out perspective where success is judged in quantities of qualifications rather than the contribution children can make to our society.

This is not about indoctrination, this is about growing people who understand their moral commitment to their fellow humans, that share a vision of flourishing, even when they have never heard of Aristotle, and who want to see a better world.

However, that still leaves the charge that by focusing on individual traits, qualities or virtues we are letting society off the hook, we are blaming individuals who are victims of structural forces for not being resilient enough, for lacking the “correct” moral compass.

So what is the balance between social conditions and individual moral responsibility? I think there needs to be more dialogue between the philosophers and die-hard virtue ethicists on the one hand, and the sociologists and culture theorists on the other. Surely it is not one or the other. The reality is both matter.

Of course, people need to hold good quality traits like honesty, kindness and courage, but they also need to live in conditions that nurture and encourage those traits.

Reading up for a project on Character and Values in Marginalised Young People, I am acutely aware of the challenges many young people face growing up in an age of uncertainty and economic austerity. In such a world, if there are not strong “conversion factors,” such as family, education, access to culture and so on, the lure of alternative voices, which may appear to offer the guidance and nurture that is lacking, may be too strong to resist.

In such a case, does the fault lie with the young person who succumbs to those influences, with a society that has allowed those conditions to develop, or with the individual voices who are, ultimately, exploiting vulnerable people for their own ends? Of course, the answer is a bit of all three.

We can’t use poverty and poor social conditions as an excuse for selfish or criminal activity, but we can acknowledge the responsibility of a society for creating conditions that have allowed young people to grow up with distorted and anti-social vices. It is surely time to stop the damaging impasse.

Too often, I have heard virtue ethicists discuss virtue as if in a bubble, as if society and social conditions did not even exist, never mind influencing individuals. At the same time, I am a little weary of people who seem to think that any discussion of individual moral character is in some way letting society off the hook and simply blaming the helpless and the downtrodden. It’s time for a more mature debate.

Dr Sandra Cooke, Director of Partnerships, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

One thought on “Polarised debate that pits moral responsibility against social conditions is creating a “damaging impasse”

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  1. Thanks for this Sandra. I have been exploring the idea of both/and in terms of what can often be polarised arguments, from a more theological-ish perspective. It’s been influenced by my understanding of the judeo-christian tradition, and how the jewish perspective was often one of both/and rather than either/or. A few years ago completed an MSc in Addiction Psychology and Counsellling where I wrote an essay on Character Strengths and Virtues (from the positive psychology movement) applied to the treatment of addiction. I’m currently working for a OUt4Good, a supported housing project for young offenders aged 18-25, and our national umbrella charity Worth Unlimited is exploring how we might integrate building Character Strengths and Virtues across the charity. THanks again for this helpful and clear introduction.


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