virtue insight

conversations on character


May 2016

You’re hired! Now what do you think about the ethics of business and finance?

The business world is frequently rocked by allegations of greed, excessive pay and scandals involving dodgy products and services.

Yet careers in the sector are some of the most keenly sought by graduates. In the UK, Business and Administration Studies was the most popular higher education subject for 2015-16 according to UCAS, ahead of Creative Arts and Design, Biological Sciences and subjects allied to Medicine. In the US, the world’s biggest economy, business degrees rule the roost.

Applications to business schools appear to be unaffected by examples of corporate skulduggery. Recent reports suggest Volkswagen is willing to buy back some of the 600,000 diesel cars it fitted with emission test “cheat” devices and compensate owners more than $1 billion. Time will tell if the German carmaker’s sales are dented by a scandal that followed in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and Lehman Brothers.

Despite these cases, the public retains its appetite for a voyeuristic diet served up by entrepreneur-based TV show. Audience ratings for “Dragons’ Den” and “The Apprentice” – the latter famously fronted by presidential hopeful Donald Trump in the States – remain robust.

It therefore seems timely to delve into the ethical mindset of the students and alumni charged with driving the wheels of industry. What do the next generation of senior managers and boardroom executives think about the roles of character and virtues in the fields of business and finance?

Do they draw on virtue-based reasoning to navigate industry’s moral maze?

Are business schools part of the solution when it comes to seeking ethical clarity in corporate life – or are they part of the problem?

Such questions will be examined in the Jubilee Centre’s Virtuous Character in Business and Finance project, which aims to influence and inform business ethics education in the UK. The project will examine the ethical commitment of business students and experienced professionals and discover if business ethics education prepares people for modern workplace dilemmas.

Researchers will look at three specific groups: first-year undergraduates at the beginning of their studies; final-year students about to graduate; and alumni with at least five years’ work experience.

Typically, the undergraduates will be studying courses such as business management, accountancy, logistics, and hospitality and tourism management. They will be asked to respond to six business-based ethical dilemmas, answer questions about their own character traits and outline the traits they believe an ideal professional should display.

We have also chosen to conduct semi-structured interviews with a number of respondents. The format will provide more nuanced responses and allow researchers to gain a better understanding of the conditions under which virtue can be enacted. The sessions will allow us to explore participants’ motivations for pursuing a career in business or finance, their conceptions of a well-lived life, and how the two issues relate to each other.

There will also be a smaller number of interviews with business school academics to establish if, and why, there have been perceived changes in character strengths and how character and the virtues informs their teaching.

The study should throw new light on the ethical motivations and behaviours espoused by business schools, which as institutions are responsible for training recruits for a vast array of occupations.

By their nature, the professions of teaching and medicine are perceived as being ethically good. Teachers and doctors serve the common good of society. Conversely, one of the reasons it has been hard for business schools to establish themselves as professional schools is that people are not willing to recognise business as a profession. That means it is harder to make a case for business serving the common good, especially when it is mired in scandal, the hoodwinking of customers and fat-cat pay rows.

The logic of capitalism is such that maximising long-term owner value is written into the structure of most companies. But good, virtuous people will not purse that aim at all costs. They are also interested in personal good and personal flourishing. What is interesting is how people in business mitigate these competing demands.

The Centre hopes the project will allow business and finance to rediscover their true vocation – to serve the wider interests of society. In order to achieve this, there may need to be changes in the way business school students and alumni understand character and their conduct as professionals.

Dr Matthew Sinnicks, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues


Young People’s Role Models: Miley Cyrus or Mother Teresa?

Role-modelling, especially of the kind that moral philosophers, moral psychologists and moral educationists define as learning from moral exemplars or exemplarity, has been achieving renewed prominence.

The reasons for this development are probably varied, but it seems likely that they stem from declining trust in the ability of pure reasoning principles to enact lasting changes in the moral make-up of young people. The most sustained and enduring interest in the topic can perhaps be seen among character educationists, especially of the Aristotelian kind (Kristjánsson, 2007; Annas, 2011; Sanderse, 2013), as moral role-modelling constitutes a time-honoured staple of Aristotelian methods for cultivating character.

Furthermore, psychologists such as Bill Damon and Anne Colby are reviving what they call “exemplar methodology” (2015), and philosopher Linda Zagzebski is developing a whole new moral theory of exemplarism (2013). Even a recent self-help bestseller (Brooks, 2015) draws on the lives of high moral achievers in the past and encourages moderns to follow suit.

The dark side of this interest in “exemplarism” is the continued fear of parents and educators that young people are (increasingly) identifying with, idolising and emulating the “wrong” sort of role models. A recent poll highlights Miley Cyrus as the latest bane of parents.

Academics keep producing findings indicating that these fears are unfounded; most young people nowadays, as ever, cite – admittedly not Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela – their parents and relatives as role models (see Kristjánsson, 2007, chap. 7; Sanderse, 2013). Nevertheless, it might be unwise to rule out this concern completely.

Another worry is that little if any consensus has been reached on how best exemplar methodology works in classroom contexts; there is simply insufficient empirical evidence available on the effectiveness of different strategies.

Apart from those concerns about how exemplar methodology might be abused, or not optimally used, more general misgivings exist about its shortcomings. Those misgivings come in three different types.

One concerns the way in which exemplar learning stands in danger of degenerating into mere hero-worship and uncritical grovelling at the feet of the presumed exemplars. Contemporary character educationists agree that an imitation–conditioning model is not the ideal to aim at, except perhaps with very young children, and that it must gradually be replaced with critical reason-informed and reason-guided engagement (Kristjánsson, 2007, chap. 7; Annas, 2011; Sanderse, 2013).

For even if the immediate source of motivation remains as the admiration for a particular exemplar (be it the student’s current teacher/parent/mentor, or a sage from the past), the ultimate source must be something other than simply a desire to “imitate a hero”. It is up to character educationists, however, to explain how this shift of motivation can be elicited and sustained in students.

The second objection concerns the threat of moral inertia, where the moral exemplars are seen as standing so high above the learner that idolising them becomes disempowering and dispiriting, rather than empowering and uplifting. Sports psychology is replete with stories of people who gave up because they realised that they could never reach the same heights as Olympic winners; how can we avoid the same effect taking hold in moral education?

The third objection concerns moral over-stretching, where the learner tries to follow in the footsteps of a role model, but not being as sure-footed, may end up in unfamiliar circumstances where, rather than virtue progressing, vice breaks forth with redoubled ardour because the learner falls to temptations that the advanced role model (such as a Nelson Mandela or a Mother Teresa) could overcome.

As said before, too little is known about the best ways to stimulate proper role modelling in classroom contexts. In the Jubilee Centre, we have one PhD student working on this issue and other researchers are giving it serious thought. We will keep you updated on our progress, but any comments from readers would be much appreciated at this stage.

Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Further readings:

Annas, J. (2011). Intelligent virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brooks, D. (2015). The road to character. London: Allen Lane.

Damon, W., & Colby, A. (2015). The power of ideals: The real story of moral choice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kristjánsson, K. (2007). Aristotle, emotions and education. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Sanderse, W. (2013). The meaning of role modelling in moral and character education. Journal of Moral Education, 42(1), 28–42.

Zagzebski, L. (2013). Moral exemplars in theory and practice. Theory and Research in Education, 11(2), 193–206.

Character Education: it’s a game of two halves

The clock is ticking down to full time and the score is locked at 1-1. Suddenly, the opposition goalkeeper falls to the ground injured and the ball is crossed to you inside the penalty area. The net is gaping. What do you do?

No foul has been committed and if you shoot there is a good chance you will score – and seal a last-gasp victory for your team. Your fans will adore you.

When such an opportunity presented itself to Premier League star Paolo di Canio, the West Ham striker confounded expectations. Instead of shooting, Di Canio caught the ball and brought the referee’s attention to Everton’s stricken goalkeeper, Paul Gerrard, who was writhing in agony having dislocated a knee.

The Italian’s actions were arguably all the more remarkable due to his chequered playing history. Di Canio was banned for 11 games for throwing a referee to the ground, but on this occasion the player was rewarded with a FIFA Fair Play award for outstanding sportsmanship.

The character and virtues (or lack of them) of footballers are never far from the headlines; the culmination of this year’s Premier League campaign, mired by allegations of unsporting behaviour, is no different.

What are we to make of Jamie Vardy, the talismanic striker for title-winning Leicester City, everyone’s second favourite team this season?

The England player was sent off after picking up a second yellow card, for diving, against West Ham. His furious reaction, including jabbing a finger at the referee, saw his one-match ban extended to two at a crucial time of the season.

Vardy’s on-field commitment has not been in doubt this season and he has displayed laudable virtues of resilience, focus and service, working tirelessly for his club and its fans.

But in that one game against West Ham, the player’s actions illustrated what can go wrong when virtues clash. What happens when ambition, the strong desire to do or achieve something successfully, clashes with the virtues of integrity and honesty? In Vardy’s case, the conflagration led to him diving (at least in the ref’s eyes) – and a red card.

Vardy’s remonstration with the referee, following the red card, led to his suspension being extended to two games. He did not, therefore, play in Leicester’s, then, crucial home win versus Swansea, or the draw with Manchester United. At the time of receiving the suspension, there was a distinct threat that his absence could derail Leicester’s tilt at the title. Ultimately, though, this was unfounded, and Leicester were crowned champions with Tottenham failing to beat Chelsea; Vardy leading the players’ celebrations at his own house.

Swapping the pitch for the classroom, the Jubilee Centre aims to help pupils navigate their way through this complex terrain of moral virtue with a new programme called Teaching Character Through The Primary Curriculum. A comprehensive package of engaging learning resources, due to be launched soon, is designed for Year 6 pupils, aged 10-11, as they stand on the cusp of progressing to secondary education.

The lesson plans, which look at specific virtues, are in line with the Centre’s promotion of character education in schools and are intended to help the children make a smoother transition to secondary school by developing their practical wisdom, or phronesis.

The programme draws on the Centre’s extensive Knightly Virtues research and draws on the requirement, expressed by parents, teachers and schools, to “teach basic moral virtues to pupils such as honesty, self-control, fairness and respect, while fostering behaviour associated with such virtues.”

Self-contained lessons on key curriculum subjects focus on a primary virtue and several secondary virtues. For PE, pupils look at athletics and sport, including dilemmas drawn from football. Integrity, a key moral virtue, is the main topic of the lesson, but pupils will also touch on issues relating to honesty, courage and service.

One of the “what would you do?” moral dilemmas for class discussion is as follows:

“You are playing football and you go to head the ball, and it accidently hits your hand and goes into the goal. The referee didn’t see your hand and the goal is given.”

The temptation would be to punch the air in celebration and return to your half of the pitch for the game to restart. You might even be in line to pocket a bonus for scoring a goal. But is this the sort of behaviour we want our young people to emulate?

In fact, this lesson scenario is drawn from real life and relates to Germany’s all-time leading goalscorer Miloslav Klose. The World Cup winner, then playing in Italy for Lazio, went to head the ball for a goal but it touched his hand on the way into the net.

The referee awarded a goal, but Klose then ran to the referee and told him the ball had struck his hand. The goal was disallowed – and Klose’s team went on to lose 3-0 to Napoli, for whom Edinson Cavani scored a hat-trick.

The headlines the following day were not about Cavani’s goals. It was Klose’s name and selfless deed that dominated reports and YouTube traffic.

The Teaching Character Through The Primary Curriculum programme aims to highlight such dilemmas, using real life situations, providing young people with the skills they need to reflect and make wise choices.

After all, winning isn’t everything. It’s how you take part.

Michael Fullard, Teaching Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Soldiers of character in the modern British Army

More than two decades of major military engagements and the changing face of warfare have created a unique set of challenges for the British Army.

The Gulf War and lengthy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have put huge demands on frontline troops and their leaders. Soldiers’ roles can change rapidly as fighting units switch from combat operations and take on responsibility for humanitarian intervention.

The nature of the “enemy” has undergone a radical transformation: in the era of asymmetric warfare, soldiers must contend with both conventional forces and insurgents, whose arsenal includes improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. Battlefields are not clearly defined and encompass towns and villages where families and children live.

Public perceptions of military discipline and behaviour may have been damaged by moral failures exhibited by international forces including Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were tortured by US forces, and the killing of 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women and children by US marines at Haditha, Iraq.

The British Army has not escaped untainted and was affected by fall-out from the case of Iraqi hotel worker Baha Mousa, who died in custody following ill treatment by soldiers in Basra.

It is against this complex, shifting backdrop that the Jubilee Centre is conducting an unprecedented study into the moral character of the British soldier. The research project, Soldiers of Character, is both timely and justified and will focus on the ethical judgment and character strengths of junior officers.

Our team of Birmingham-based researchers will pilot new methods to assess ethical reasoning and character strengths and will explore the extent to which junior officers display and aspire to the attitudes and personal characteristics set out in the Army Values and Standards Guide.

According to the guide, standards are “the authoritative yardstick that define how we behave and on which we judge and measure that behaviour.” Values are “the moral principles – the intangible character and spirit – that should guide and develop us into the sort of people we should be.” The guide lists six values: courage; discipline; respect for others; integrity; loyalty; and selfless commitment.

Our project will investigate a broader range of character strengths. Not only that, we will ask junior officers how their own leaders and non-commissioned soldiers display the organisation’s values and standards.

We are focusing on junior officers because they will provide the nation’s future generals; they also occupy a unique vantage point in the chain of command, looking both up and down the ranks.

In total, we plan to survey 225 officers, with different levels of experience, from second lieutenants to captains. We will also examine the attitudes of officer cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

All the officers, drawn from different areas of Army service, will be asked to respond to four moral dilemmas. Three are battlefield dilemmas, one of which features a captured prisoner, and the fourth is a non-operational dilemma that relates to a barracks-based scenario.

The soldiers, both men and women, will also be required to report on their own character strengths by completing a questionnaire. The 24 questions focus on characteristics including honesty, perseverance and courage.

A third part of the project will involve semi-structured interviews with 40 officers with different levels of experience. The interviews will be conducted confidentially.

The project is being carried out with the full co-operation of the Army’s high command and forms part of the Jubilee Centre’s wider inquiry into the nature of virtue in public life.

We hope to gain a better understanding of how virtues are experienced by junior officers. The British Army officer is a key upholder of ethical and moral standards but is his, or her, character equipped to deal with today’s hybrid military threats and changing moral landscape? And, to what extent do soldiers accept that desired Army characters and virtues should transfer across professional and personal lives?

It may, of course, be pertinent to ask why the British Army needs to display moral character. After all, don’t we just need fighters who win battles and crush the enemy, whatever the human cost?

Indeed some may wrongly argue that a successful military force needs soldiers who are ruthless and persistent with strong leadership qualities. How soldiers behave over and beyond those values is no concern of the Army and wider society.

Fortunately, this is not the majority view. A good soldier, a soldier of character, also needs to be a good person in a more general sense. The moral authority to be a soldier – the authority to defend, invade and where necessary kill – comes from the fact that the military acts for the good of society.

Ultimately, the Army relies on good teamwork; and effective relations between soldiers relies on good character. You are not going to sustain good teamwork if individuals do not possess good character.
Dr. David Walker, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

The Ripple Effects of Classroom Compassion and Gratitude

Cultivating good character among school children is widely regarded, at the very least, as a worthwhile goal.

We want young people to take decisions, in their public and private lives, for the right reasons. We want them to go out into the world and live flourishing lives that champion the virtues, not vices.

In many respects, the odds are stacked against both pupils and the education professionals tasked with helping to provide them with the skills they need. Our largely individualistic culture, accompanied by the erosion of social bonds, has left many people feeling disconnected, isolated and lonely. It is often said we inhabit an increasingly narcissistic age where the focus is inward not outward, self-regarding rather than caring for others.

But what if a teacher’s lesson plan promoting one virtue could have the effect of producing an incremental increase in a different virtue?

New research being undertaken by the Jubilee Centre is seeking to establish just that, looking at the links between compassion and gratitude.

In the first empirical examination of its type, we will be seeking to find out if a programme of classroom activities promoting compassion has the side effect of increasing gratitude and vice versa. In this respect, we will be breaking new ground.

The study, an extension of the Jubilee Centre’s An Attitude for Gratitude project, published in 2015, will involve Year 7 and Year 8 pupils (11 to 13-year-olds). A pilot study is underway and the full-scale project is scheduled for launch in September 2016.

A series of five-week teaching programmes, or interventions, will be completed in each participating school. One class will focus on activities promoting gratitude, one will target compassion and there will be a third control group.

The classroom tasks include short, form-time activities of 10-15 minutes’ duration including discussions, mind maps, simple writing exercises and periods of reflection designed to encourage caring and warmth. Longer tasks involving story workbooks and letter writing require more time and are ideal for PHSE lessons, English or drama.

Pupils will complete a questionnaire both before and after the teaching programmes. One element of the questionnaire includes the ground-breaking Multiple-Component Gratitude Measure, which measures people’s grateful feelings, their thoughts about gratitude and their self-reported grateful behaviours. This measure has yet to be trialled on a youth population.

The questionnaire will also tap into elements of empathy (the psychological capacity thought to underlie the virtue of compassion), student well-being and persistence.

By comparing the responses, we hope to find out if the virtues of gratitude and compassion are mutually sustaining and, more specifically, does promoting compassion in lessons create a ripple effect for gratitude, and is the same true of gratitude’s effect on compassion?

It should be stressed that the questionnaire is effectively a “thermometer” to gauge children’s reactions to the classroom activities and it is most definitely not an assessment of skill or a test. We want the pupils to enjoy the programme, not feel like they are sitting an exam.

We hope the research builds up our common human life by promoting reflection on the virtues that connect us to other people. Through gratitude we are able to appreciate the contribution other people make to our lives, building social bonds and stimulating us to contribute to the lives of others. Similarly, by promoting compassion in schools we will help to create responsible, caring and connected citizens.

The project meets a growing need for a greater sense of community in our society and will make an impact individually and collectively. A greater sense of connection to and responsibility for others will ultimately foster better mental health and wellbeing and a means of rediscovering ways we can help others.

Educators are in a privileged position to encourage and help foster virtues in others. I was most proud of the school report I received aged eight in which Mr Metcalf said my sense of fair play was “exemplary.” It has stuck with me in a way marks out of 10 never did.

Education should not be purely about achievement. It should also encompass nurturing important personal qualities and strengths, like compassion and gratitude. At the end of the day, our research findings are important, but the main point is that we want children to become better citizens.

Dr Liz Gulliford, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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