virtue insight

conversations on character


June 2016

Saluting military courage on the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme

In the war to end all wars, it was the battle to end all battles.

The date the offensive began, 1 July, was etched on to the collective memory for generations. Now 100 years have elapsed and other battles and place names associated with extraordinary British military endeavour have become engrained in the popular consciousness, from Dunkirk and Arnhem to Goose Green and Helmand Province.

Yet arguably no other battle, from a British perspective, matches the awful resonance of the Somme. The first day of the battle, which began at “zero hour” 7.30am as whistles were blown up and down the line, remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. In a small patch of Northern France, there were more than 57,000 casualties – a number that roughly equates to a town the size of Kidderminster – of which 19,240 died.

Walter Hutchinson, a stretcher-bearer in the 10th Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment, recorded the events in his diary. He said of July 1:

German shells was dropping all around … We hadn’t gone far up the trench before we came across three of our own lads lying dead. Their heads had been badly damaged by a shell.

 We had to go scrambling over the poor fellows – in and out, in and out. It was one of the most awful sights I’d ever witnessed.

 Then the order came down to dump everything and fix bayonets, you have got to fight for it lads. We obeyed the order like men…

Mass Army stand-offs of this kind are no more. For the British Army, a small professional, all-volunteer force has replaced the inexperienced conscripts of the Somme. On the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle, it is right that we should honour the fallen and recognise their sacrifice. The futility, or otherwise, of the engagement, which lasted 141 days and incurred 419,654 Commonwealth casualties, we will leave to the military historians and strategists.

What is not in dispute is the fact that the Somme reminds us of the timeless features that comprise the character of the British soldier and it is right that we should celebrate the virtues of combat on this day of national remembrance.

Clearly, Private Hutchinson’s reference to obeying the order to fight ‘like men’ may jar in light of today’s mixed-gender composition of the Army. But the soldier is referring to a quality equally available to female soldiers – namely, military courage.

For Aristotle, true courage is a dispositional capacity to find balance between an excess of rashness and a deficit of cowardice towards a worthy cause. Military courage involves steadfastness in the face of death on the battlefield, and war offers opportunity to express this virtue that is worthwhile in its own right.

Courage is one of the Army’s core values, as outlined in Developing Leaders, A British Army Guide, written on behalf of Commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

The guide makes a distinction between moral courage (the ‘preparedness to “do the right thing” and make the hard decision’) and physical courage (exemplified by ‘tenacity, self-control, the will to win and resilience to endure sustained danger, hardship and privation’).

Army leaders have to accept the same dangers as their subordinates and ‘fear’ in combat is ‘inescapable’. Leaders, however, must overcome fear and give ‘individual consideration to its effect on their subordinates.’

Fear, if you like, goes with the territory. It is how soldiers deal with fear that makes the difference. The guide quotes an anonymous squadron leader, who served in Afghanistan, as saying: ‘At times I was afraid. I made no bones about it, particularly when talking to the soldiers after the event, because there is no shame in it. The shame lies in not being able to conquer it.’

It is perhaps our common humanity with the soldier, and the fact that there are limits to military courage, that forges the type of respect we feel towards the troops who were obliterated at the Battle of the Somme. If we were in their shoes, how would we behave as the barrage rained down? Would we fail, or would we cope? Would we embrace fear and still be able to act?

There is a pertinent sub-section in the Army guide titled ‘Know Your People’, which reinforces the fact that there are limits to courage:

Stress can be contained, concealed or delayed, but every man has his limit. Under conditions of constant stress, reaching breaking point is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Indeed Lord Moran, a medical officer on the Western Front in the First World War, recalled the psychological effects of sustained bombardment:

When the shelling became heavier we got down to the bottom of the trench waiting, listening. We heard a shell that seemed by its rising shriek to be coming near. Then there was a shattering noise… a cloud of fumes, and a great shower of earth and blood and human remains.

 As the fumes drifted away I had just time to notice that the man on my right had disappeared and that the trench where he had stood was now only a mound of freshly turned earth, when another angry shriek ended in another rending explosion… At the time I do not think I was much frightened… But it took its toll later… In the trenches a man’s will power was his capital and he was always spending, so that wise and thrifty company officers watched the expenditure of every penny lest their men went bankrupt. When their capital was done, they were finished.

 Comradeship is often considered the best military reason to fight. Love among comrades is a vital source of morale, fighting spirit and comfort, a bond that motivates, illustrated copiously and elegantly in much war poetry.

In the military context, courage is linked to other traits of virtuous behaviour, not least dignity and purpose. In this sense, we are reminded of the celebrated eve of battle speech given by Colonel Tim Collins to 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq in 2003. Colonel Collins told his troops:

We go to liberate, not to conquer… if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory… If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death…

Edgbaston, where the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is based at the University of Birmingham, has its own unique links to war. Today, the city’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital is home to the tri-service Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and provides specialist care to members of the armed forces. The facility is less than a mile from the Great Hall at the University of Birmingham, which served as the base for 1st Southern General Hospital during the First World War. By the end of 1914, more than 600 patients were being treated in the hall.

The visible and invisible wounds of modern soldiers show that the costs of war continue to be high for individuals. Paradoxically, war needs to be conducted with love, compassion and respect. Good soldiers need to be good people and societies have a responsibility to their soldiers who fight on their behalf. Soldiers need to know that when abhorrent methods are necessary they are being executed legitimately and according to existing laws for good purpose.

A century on from the Battle of the Somme, British soldiers’ military virtues of courage, comradeship and loyalty continue to be identified as being as worthy of admiration as they ever were.

Dr David Walker, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues   

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is undertaking a ground-breaking research project with the British Army, titled Soldiers of Character. Findings will be published in late 2017.

Picture courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library


Virtue ethics and the modern-day nurse

A staff nurse enjoys working on a ward for the elderly but ongoing changes to the hospital regime means she has less time to spend with patients.

There are fewer nurses on duty, she grows increasingly frustrated, stops enjoying her job and is worried that patient care is being comprised. The nurse’s worst fears are realised when an elderly man dies without anyone at his bedside to offer comfort.

Far from promising to address recruitment, managers insist staff will have to cope with reduced numbers on the wards if they are to hit their financial targets.

The nurse faces two stark options. She can accept the new policies and try to work as effectively as possible. Or she could speak to her matron – and go to senior management if matters do not improve.

The scenario is one of the moral dilemmas being presented to student nurses and qualified nurses during an investigation into the ethics of the profession being conducted by the Jubilee Centre. The project, Virtuous Practice in Nursing, seeks to throw a spotlight on the role of virtues and values in training the next generation of professionals.

The project is timely, coinciding with well-documented NHS scandals, public disquiet about standards of hospital care and a troubled picture of recruitment and retention of trainee nurses.

Indeed, the moral dilemma focusing on elderly patient care could have been plucked from the real-life caseload examined by inquiry into Stafford Hospital, where there were hundreds more deaths than would have been expected.

At Stafford, cutting costs and chasing targets at the expense of care led to examples of patients drinking from flower vases because they were so dehydrated. Nurses who tried to raise widespread concerns were not supported – and were allegedly told to falsify waiting times.

The lack of care and dignity offered to patients at Stafford sparked a national debate into the standards expected on hospital wards. Part of that discussion has taken place against the backdrop of a nurse training system that sees one in five recruits drop out before they qualify. It costs at least £70,000 to train a nurse, so the cumulative financial loss to the taxpayer, let alone the repercussions for patient care, is significant.

People will choose to walk away from the profession for any number of reasons, but the fact remains that the NHS is losing good trainees who would have become excellent nurses. Students often have a clear picture of what makes an ideal nurse but by the end of their training the picture may have become blurred. It is important that we find out why.

Nursing, like other professions, is also governed by a rule-and-code set of standards but through our research we hope to identify ways in which virtuous behaviours and conduct can inform best practice in the nursing profession. This may, at future junctures, include developing teaching materials and advising on the design of teaching courses.

We plan to question three specific groups of 750 nurses, namely undergraduates, final-year students and experienced professionals with at least five years’ experience. All participants will complete the same 20-minute questionnaire and 25 nurses in each cohort will take part in semi-structured interviews from which we hope to gain more detailed responses.

So far we have surveyed third-year students at the University of Birmingham, the University of Dundee and Buckinghamshire New University. The trainees are just months away from joining wards as newly-qualified staff nurses and are going to face one of the biggest challenges of their careers. One day you are a student, the next you are in charge of patients.

No matter how much practical experience or leadership training nurses have had, there comes a time when they have to rise to the challenge in real life. A lot depends on their training and the support of mentors. Although there is an ethics element to nurse training, insufficient attention may be paid to helping professionals to cultivate their role-relevant virtues. We hope to fill that gap with this project, with real benefits for nurses and patients.

Part of the survey asks trainees and new nurses to reflect on their own character strengths. They are required to choose six from a list of 24, putting them in rank order. The list is an A to Z of the virtues, from “Appreciation of beauty/excellence” to “Zest.”

Participants are also asked to think about the attributes they believe make an ideal nurse, again selecting six from 24. So is honesty more important than love? Does humour matter? And what of perseverance, gratitude and teamwork?

The results will provide a snapshot of nurses’ virtuous self-conception and how this differs, if it does, from their image of a good and virtuous nurse.

The research should reveal a comprehensive picture of what helps or hinders nurses from displaying virtuous practice amid the competing demands of modern-day life on the wards.

Jinu Varghese, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Is Grit the Magic Elixir of Good Character?

MacArthur-prize ‘genius’ Angela Duckworth has published her long awaited first book, GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Scriber, 2016). Previously, Duckworth’s co-authored 2007 academic paper on the topic has been cited 1,157 times, according to Google Scholar, and her six-minute Ted Talk from 2013 on the subject of grit has been watched more than 8.4 million times.

The new book has been receiving copious attention and raving reviews, especially in the popular media. Judging from those, grit is the best thing since sliced bread, and realising its potential to transform lives marks a true epiphany in the field of character studies. Notably, there have also been some scathing reviews from academics who accuse Duckworth of conservatism, anti-egalitarianism and even racism.

As often the truth lies, in our view, somewhere in between those extreme reactions. The research on grit is interesting, but there is so far too little of it. Hence, Duckworth’s conceptualisations, the empirical work underlying those conceptualisations and, in particular, the developmental and educational implications she draws from her work are all under-developed and premature. The jury is still out – and is likely to be so for a while yet – on whether grit is the new magic elixir of good character or just another snake-oil.

The fundamental thesis about grit is simple. It is a trait of character more powerful than IQ or talent in predicting life satisfaction and life success. The ‘plodders’ (p. 21) can tread where the luminaries stumble, just if they have enough grit. Those who come to this book expecting a deep philosophical argument, or summaries of extensive psychological and educational research, will be disappointed.

GRIT is, after all, not a scholarly work but one written in the style of self-help books, with generous helpings of ‘just-so’ stories about Duckworth herself and her family and friends, and also various other ‘grit paragons’ from whom we are prompted to take our cue. Readers must begin by ploughing through numerous stories of this kind and wait until Chapter 3 for any show of an argument. Duckworth seems insensitive to worries that have been expressed about the potential of paragon-and-role-model education to disempower rather than empower, and to produce grovelling, uncritical hero-worship.

There are many other and more substantive worries, however, lurking in the background, and when we read through the book, we were concerned by Duckworth’s lack of attention to many of those.

Partly this lack can be explained by the nature of the readership at which the book is pitched: enlightened members of the general public rather than academics. Partly it may be traceable to Duckworth’s self-confessed dislike of confrontations and conflict (p. 130). There is precious little of the gladiatorial mind-set in Duckworth that revels in anticipating objections, chewing on counter-examples and spurting out fiery retorts. Rather, Duckworth prefers the tone of the charismatic educator who draws the audience in with an uncomplicated, buoyant message.

In a review essay that has been posted on the Jubilee Centre’s Insight Series, we explore our worries in some detail. We hope readers take time to read through this essay and reflect critically on the pros and cons of Duckworth’s conceptualisations.

Despite all our misgivings, we do not think that GRIT has been written in vain. It provides considerable food for thought and suggests exciting venues for future research. It also does well in reminding us of the proverbial truth of how far sheer determination can take you in life even if the odds are stacked against you. We particularly appreciate pages 273–274 in the book, where Duckworth talks about the limited scope of grit and the need for a moral compass. If Duckworth had started, rather than ended, with the content of those pages, and used it as a springboard of her argumentation, the core message of the book would have been much more persuasive.

Professor James Arthur, Director, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Professor Steve Thoma, Professor of Moral Psychology and Psychometrics, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and University of Alabama

Frankly, it’s phronesis: ethical insights from an outsider

First, a health warning for ethicists: I am not an ethicist.

Second, it gets worse, a lot worse: I am a journalist.

According to measures of moral credibility, my profession ranks marginally above cold-callers for accident claim firms and hedge fund managers.

Journalism and ethics have had, for want of a better phrase, a bad press of late. Illegal phone-tapping, corrupt payments to officials and the vilification of individuals in wholly appalling circumstances (I am thinking of the treatment of Madeleine McCann’s parents) have not reflected well on the Fourth Estate.

A profession whose fundamental role is to shine a light in awkward, uncomfortable places has found itself squirming under the spotlight; it has not been an edifying spectacle.

Big questions focusing on conduct, accountability and responsibility have been asked and, in truth, the industry is some way off clarifying the new ethical terrain. The rules of media engagement remain muddled. Take the old-fashioned “death knock,” a rite of passage for trainee reporters which entails calling at the home of a bereaved family to ask about the death of a loved one, typically in hugely distressing circumstances. Are such practices now deemed off limits? When does the quest for information and truth become an infringement of privacy?

It was with some relief that I discovered my profession is not alone in facing difficult, seemingly intractable, challenges. In fact, the penny dropped within a few seconds of casting my eye over the programme for the Jubilee Centre’s recent “Character and Virtues in the Professions” conference. You think it is hard being a hack? Try being a nurse.

Nursing was just one of the professions highlighted at the conference. It was fascinating to hear Andrea Hughes, in one of the seminar sessions, report her findings about acute care nurses’ perceptions of so-called bad practice. For just as there are practitioner cock-ups in newspapers, the area of the media in which I have worked predominantly, so there are cock-ups in nursing. Some of the causes are similar (lack of diligence, ethical drift, plain laziness) but the outcomes, generally, are far more serious in hospitals and clinics, where lives are potentially at risk.

Hughes related how the NHS paid out more than £8 billion in negligence claims between 2008-2015 due to medical mistakes. “How many hospitals could you build if you didn’t have to spend that?” she asked delegates. (Birmingham’s new Queen Elizabeth Hospital cost £545 million – so the answer is: “Quite a few.”)

Having experienced newsroom meltdowns, I was interested to hear about the parallel reactions of nurses to bad practice, the reluctance and uncertainty about challenging mistakes and, in particular, the trepidations of challenging senior members of staff.

What I had not appreciated was the personal effect of bad practice on nurses, including feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame. It is suggested that ethical education has an important role to play in stopping professionals being placed in the invidious position of having to turn whistle-blower. Because once the whistle is blown, in a sense it is too late; and in the sphere of critical care, time, or the lack of it, is a crucial factor in patient outcomes. If a reporter is late, he or she may commit the cardinal sin of missing a deadline; if a nurse fails to act with sufficient haste and diligence, the results can prove fatal.

Notions of guilt and shame also featured prominently in a compelling presentation by Georgetown philosophy professor Nancy Sherman, whose book Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers is a must-read for anyone who works in, or is interested in, the psychological trauma experienced by military personnel.

In recent years, 2.6 million US troops have been sent to war, numbers not since seen Vietnam; the soldiers have 4 million “military-connected kids.” Sherman argues that conventional treatments alone are inadequate to deal with the moral dimension of psychological injury: the guilt and shame (recurrent themes in the professions); resentment and indignation; and the feeling of being responsible for doing wrong, or being wronged.

In one of the presentation’s harrowing battlefield examples, Sherman recounted the case of Major Jeffrey Hall, who saw members of an innocent family killed by crossfire in Baghdad. Hall liaised with the surviving family members but bureaucratic incompetence meant it took more than a month for the bodies to be returned for burial. The bodies had not been embalmed and were unrecognisable.

Hall was given just $750 to present to the family as “solace” money for the tragedy. The uncle threw the cash in the dirt. When the major fulfilled the grieving relatives’ final request to obtain death certificates, the paperwork was stamped in bold red: “ENEMY.”

Hall’s moral injury left him feeling suicidal. “My injury has everything to do with betrayal,” he said. Sherman told delegates: “He had the sense that he lost his goodness.”

Now the default position of a good journalist is to be sceptical about everything – and then be sceptical some more. Academics are no exception. So I have been raining scepticism on the subject of character and virtues and confronting the idea that it is possible to teach character and virtues. In my quest for understanding, I have been getting to grips with Aristotelian virtues, deontology and consequentialist theories. Please do not test me yet. My phronesis, frankly, is flaky. But I am working on it. Resilience is my guiding light.

And as I work on it, I am starting to see the huge benefits – for individuals, organisations, stakeholders and society at large – of raising awareness of, and putting into practice, the fundamental workings of what we might, in Major Hall’s words, call goodness.

The Jubilee Centre’s important work, of which the conference was a snapshot, crosses so many personal and professional fields in ways I had not appreciated or imagined. And that, I guess, is the point, albeit the starting point.

Richard McComb, Freelance Journalist

The pursuit of power: does virtue or vice lead to political success?

Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima, the first by a serving US president since the nuclear bombing, prompted reflections on Harry Truman, who ordered the attack.

Truman became a senator a little over a decade before he assumed control of the Oval Office following Roosevelt’s death. The Democrat’s meteoric rise left him well placed to comment on the vagaries of political success and the challenges of climbing the greasy pole.

“In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still,” said Truman. “Progress occurs when courageous, skilful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

But are courage and skill enough to triumph in the US political system, or in any other? Or do the black arts of political skulduggery and spin play a more important role in seizing and maintaining power?

It is a debate we can expect to see played out as the increasingly likely Clinton-Trump race for the White House hots up.

A recent feature in “Scientific American,” highlighted in The Jubilee Centre’s ‘Research and Policy Digest’ (no. 40), looks at virtue and vice in relation to political influence and leadership.[1]

The article looks at a study of 151 US senators, conducted by the University of California, which suggested that politicians displaying virtuous behaviour tend to be more successful at obtaining co-sponsorship of bills – and thus political influence – than those exhibiting behaviour indicative of vice or psychopathy.

Such a study is particularly relevant to the projects the Jubilee Centre has undertaken on the role of virtues in the professions as well as the Centre’s mission to examine the role of virtue and character in contemporary society.

Two hypotheses of political influence are highlighted in the study[2]. The first, labelled the “virtue hypothesis,” follows the philosophy of Aristotle; and the second, the “vice hypothesis,” follows the philosophy of Machiavelli.

The virtue hypothesis suggests political influence is gained through the development of virtues such as humility, courage and gratitude, which Aristotle believed would create effective political leaders of productive, harmonious societies.

The second suggests power is gained through manipulation, deceit, and force, with sheer possession of power the principal objective. Indeed, Machiavelli believed kindness was a sign of weakness, which opponents could use to their advantage.

Traits thought to indicate virtue (such as positive expressions, remarks about solution and compromise) and vice (a lack of emotion, frequent use of the pronoun “I”) were examined through an analysis of 60-second video footage. The footage showed each senator reading a similar speech, ultimately finding that those exhibiting more virtuous behaviours wielded more political influence.

It is important, however, to highlight some limitations of the study’s methodology – particularly the difficulties stemming from the indirect measurement of virtue used, the determination of all “political influence” using just the signifier of co-sponsorship of bills, and contextual factors affecting the results.

In attempting to assess whether participants were actually acting virtuously, it is very difficult to ascertain whether the senators’ behaviours exhibited evidence of underlying moral character, or whether the politicians being observed were acting instrumentally – primarily with their career or other interests in mind.

Nevertheless, such studies are very welcome. Whilst Machiavelli’s influence on contemporary political science is apparent, especially in models of analysis focused on rational choice and electoral competition, less work has been done to assess how evidence of virtuous traits in political leaders can deliver success and influence.

Such work is particularly pertinent given the creeping polarisation of politics evident in the USA and Western Europe. Whilst this trend has certainly seen the emergence of a number of distinctly Machiavellian leaders and campaigns, it remains to be seen whether virtue or vice will triumph in the current political climate.

Joseph Ward, Research Assistant/Impact Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues



[2] ten Brinke, et al. (2015) ‘Virtues, Vices, and Political Influence in the US Senate’, Psychological Science (Nov 2015) pp. 1-9.

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