virtue insight

conversations on character


July 2016

Humility as Freedom

When we contemplate a virtue, two big questions that we ask about it are, What is it? and What makes it a virtue, that is, a human excellence? The answers to these questions are intertwined, since what makes a trait a virtue will always depend on what that trait is. In this short piece, I want to focus mostly on what makes humility a virtue, and argue that it is a virtue, in part, because it is a kind of freedom.

But first, let me say a little bit about the preliminary question — what humility is. David Hume says that humility is “a dissatisfaction with ourselves, on account of some defect or infirmity,” and the Oxford English Dictionary agrees when it says that humility is “having a lowly opinion of oneself.” Some people may use the word ‘humility’ in this way, but most of us wouldn’t think that low self-esteem or disliking oneself is a virtue.

One idea that’s popular among philosophers, and perhaps connects a bit with the idea of low self-esteem, is the proposal that humility is a kind of serenity about, or acceptance of, one’s limitations. Such thinkers point out that intellectual humility, for example, is characteristic of good scientists. They’re aware of the difficulty of scientific questions and don’t presumptuously think they know all the answers, or that they have nothing to learn from other scientists who have rival theories.

Such persons are open to criticisms of their views; they’re always ready to learn, and alert to the possibility of making mistakes. This isn’t exactly dissatisfaction with oneself, but it is a contrary and corrective of “self-satisfaction.” And it’s easy to see how this trait, unlike low self-esteem, is a human excellence. Intellectual humility makes a person a better scientist, and acceptance of our limitations in other domains, such as athletics or friendship or some craft, is likely to make for better athletics, friendships, and craftsmanship. We are limited in various ways, and we’ll be better off if we recognize that fact and take it seriously, yet without falling into despair about it. This is one of the fruits of humility that give it the status of a virtue.

But humility may manifest itself in other ways than attentiveness to one’s weaknesses and mistakes. It might enable a person to forsake a high profile job that is less productive of good, and accept a low profile job that involves a greater contribution to the civic good. It might enable somebody to work usefully behind the scenes at a job for which other people get most of the credit. It might enable a person of great talents to exercise those talents in a way that doesn’t show others up to be inferior. So the acceptance of limitations view is probably not an adequately general account of humility.

I think a more encompassing understanding of humility is that it is the absence of what I call the “vices of pride” — such vices as snobbishness, invidious pride and its obverse twin envy, pretentiousness, vanity, arrogance, presumptuousness, self-righteousness, hyper-autonomy, and domination. These vices are various kinds of concern for what I call “self-importance.” For example, vain people seek a kind of empty importance by being admired, feared, or envied by others, or by striking awe into others. My view is that if you’re completely without any of these kinds of concern for self-importance, then you are humble, and if you have a noteworthy dearth of them, then you are unusually humble.

Why think that lacking, or falling short of, these concerns is virtuous? I think it offers many advantages in living a good human life, but I’d like to argue here for just one, and give just one example: humility is a kind of freedom.

Think of the pain and degradation of envy. Someone close to you has an impressive success in some domain that you would like to succeed in. Perhaps she lands a wonderful job, or receives some honor, or has some financial success. And to make the case more challenging, let’s say she kind of rubs it in, talking a little too much about her success and subtly suggesting juxtapositions of it with your own more modest successes. You find yourself feeling bitter about her success and hostile towards her; you wish she weren’t so lucky, or maybe you even wish something bad would happen to her, for once. You see her as a rival, and your defenses are up.

In letting these emotions have sway, you’re morally damaging yourself and your relationship with this person who is close to you. You’re degrading your life and hers by turning what ought to be a matter of celebration for both of you into a nasty contest for individual self-importance. Instead of suffering from envy and degrading yourself and the other into something unworthy of human beings, instead of cutting yourself off from one another in this unspoken defensiveness and isolation, how much better it would be to rejoice together in this person’s success!

In doing so, you would not only avoid your own envy, but would cut through and dissolve and sooth the unworthy invidiousness in the other’s suggestions. You would dissipate the unhealthy and destructive dynamic of envy and invidious pride that covertly pollutes your selves and your relationship.

The dialectic of envy is a bondage and corruption of the human soul and its relationships. As a lack of concern for self-importance, the virtue of humility makes room for love and respect, for happier emotions and genuine soul-to-soul communion and deep friendship. Thus, one of humility’s many functions is to free us to be what we were created to be. Humility is a kind of freedom.

Robert C. Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues; a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy


Reasoning Social Creatures – a psychological approach

During the week of 16th May 2016, the Jubilee Centre was delighted to welcome Blaine Fowers as a Distinguished Visiting Professor for 2016.  Blaine, who is Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Miami, focuses his work on the contributions of Aristotle’s ethics to a richer understanding of research and clinical practices in psychology and of ordinary life.

Blaine recorded a blog on ‘Reasoning Social Creatures – a psychological approach’, in which he describes his 20 years of work in the area of Aristotelian virtue ethics, from a psychological perspective.

During his visit he had the opportunity to meet with the Centre’s researchers to discuss projects and delivered a seminar titled ‘How Can Humans Flourish as Dependent, Vulnerable Creatures? The Necessity of Virtue‘ as part of the Centre’s bi-weekly seminar series. The paper is available to view here. Blaine has also written for the Centre’s Insight Series; the paper titled ‘The Accidental Virtue Scholar’ is available to view here.

Prof. Blaine Fowers, University of Miami

The virtues and vices of social media sites

More than half of UK parents think social media sites like Facebook and Twitter hamper the moral development of their children, according to a poll for The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues based at the University of Birmingham.

The survey also found that 40% of parents are concerned or extremely concerned about the negative impact of social media on young people.

The Parent Poll provides a unique insight into parental social media use, the perceived daily habits of their children and widespread anxieties about the influence of online networks in 2016.

Other key findings include:

  • Only 15% of parents agree that social media supports/enhances a young person’s character.
  • Anger, arrogance, ignorance, bad judgment and hatred are the top negative character traits, or vices, reported by parents on social media sites.
  • Almost three-quarters (72%) of respondents who use social media, however, believe they see content containing a positive moral message at least once a day.
  • The ‘Character Strengths’ that are seen to be promoted most regularly on social media sites are humour, appreciation of beauty, creativity, love, courage and kindness.

The Parent Poll was commissioned as part of the Jubilee Centre’s project on the Influence of Parents and the Media, which is looking at the impact of social media on young people’s moral character, in particular with regard to empathy and honesty.

The UK-wide poll questioned 1,738 parents of children aged 11 to 17. The average age of the respondents was 40 and the majority work in senior and middle management. Parents were asked about their own experience and use of social media sites and to estimate that of their children.

Some 93% of parents use at least one social media site, the most popular being: Facebook (83%); YouTube (48%); Twitter (41%); Instagram (28%); Google+ (20%); Snapchat (18%).

The most popular sites are broadly the same as those used by young people in the poll, although use of the instant messaging service Snapchat is higher among children (38% compared with 18% of adults in this sample).

Interestingly, parents acknowledge that 64% of 11 and 12-year-olds use Facebook in violation of its age restriction. Facebook requires users to be at least 13 before they can create an account[1].

There are similar findings for Snapchat (30%) and Instagram (35%), which also have age restrictions of 13.

It’s not all bad news…

Whilst the negative effects of social media sites are well publicised, the potential positive impact of these sites seem to be given less attention. The results of this poll, however, suggest that it’s not all bad.

There appears to be some cause for optimism in that 72% of respondents who use social media believe they see content with a positive moral message at least once a day[2].

This figure is higher than the percentage who regularly see negative moral messages, suggesting that social media is not just an environment for vice.

The poll asked parents to consider an “A to Z” of character strengths[3], from “Appreciation of beauty” to “Zest,” and to say which of these positive character traits they see promoted regularly (“at least once a month”) on social media sites.

The top five character strengths were: humour (52%); appreciation of beauty (51%); creativity (44%); love (39%); and courage (39%). Prudence (7%), judgment (10%) and leadership (12%) were some of the lowest ranking traits.

But there is some bad news…

When the same parents were asked to name the character strengths they thought were lacking on social media, forgiveness and self-control topped the bill on 24%, followed by honesty (21%), fairness (20%) and humility (18%).

A bleaker picture emerges when respondents were questioned about the negative character traits, or vices, they see on social media sites (“at least once a month”). The top vice is anger/hostility, reported by 60% of parents. It is followed by arrogance (51%); ignorance (43%); bad judgment (41%); and hatred (36%). Vanity, commonly perceived to be a major negative character trait in the “selfie” generation, was a relatively lowly ninth (30%) on the league table of social media vices.

In terms of the implications of these negative moral messages, when asked if social media hinders/undermines a young person’s character or moral development, 55% of respondents agreed – and one in 10 strongly agreed. These figures suggest that the influence of social media on young people is a genuine, and strong, concern for parents.

Interestingly, when conversely asked whether social media enhances/ supports a young person’s character or moral development, only 5% (or 91 out of 1738 parents) strongly agreed.

The poll suggests parents may need to pause and self-reflect before criticising the amount of time their children spend on social media. In fact, there is a medium-strong correlation between parents’ use of social networking sites and children’s use.

A third of parents (33%) are on social media for up to two hours a day – virtually the same as children (35%), according to the poll. Almost a fifth of adults (17%) admit using social networking sites up to four hours a day, compared with 22% of children.

At the extreme end, 6% of parents are on social networking sites for more than seven hours on a typical day. That compares with 8% of children.

Dr Blaire Morgan, co-principal investigator, said: “The Parent Poll is an opinion poll, not in-depth research. However, it will help to motivate the rest of our study into how social media use affects young people’s attitudes and behaviours with regards to moral values. We are particularly keen to gauge the impact of social media on young people’s experience of empathy and honesty.

“The project is due to report in November 2017 and we hope to produce evidence-based recommendations on social media use for parents and schools. The poll demonstrates a clear need for this research and highlights high levels of anxiety about the impact of social media networks on the character development of young people.

“There are some surprising findings in the poll, not the least the low level of agreement that social media can enhance or support a young person’s character or moral development. Whilst parents acknowledged that positive character strengths, including moral virtues such as love, courage and kindness, are promoted through social networking sites, they were reluctant to agree that these sites could have a positive impact on their child’s character.

“The Jubilee Centre’s ‘parents and media project’ seeks to explore the relationship between social media and virtues in more depth, and hopefully offer a more constructive outlook on how social media might impact on a person’s character and moral values. Social media is not going away, so by learning more about this relationship we should be able to maximise the benefits of social media use and avoid the pitfalls.”

[1] Parents’ knowledge of the age limit was not assessed so it is unclear as to whether parents knowingly allowed their children to use this site.

[2] Please note that the questions on character strengths/vices on social media were only asked to parents who used social media on a daily basis; this was 1598 parents in total.

[3] 24 Character Strengths – Peterson & Seligman (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Definitions of these character strengths were offered for clarity.


Profile: Dr Blaire Morgan, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Blaire’s fascination with psychology began at school and led to her studying a BSc in Psychology at the University of Birmingham. After graduating in 2009, she subsequently completed a PhD in cognitive psychology at the University.

Blaire, originally from Alsager, Cheshire, joined the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham in 2012, where she works as a Research Fellow.

She says: “Working at the Jubilee Centre was a new challenge for me and I like the fact the research impacts on people’s lives and links with education. You can see real-world impact with the work of the Jubilee Centre and that is what drives me. I am able to work alongside, and learn from, other academics because of the Centre’s multi-disciplinary ethos. There are educationalists, philosophers, sociologists and psychologists.”

Blaire previously worked on the An Attitude for Gratitude project, which involved 10,000 participants and examined how gratitude is understood, experienced and valued in the UK. The methods from this project have recently been replicated in Australia, funded by a grant from the Society for Educational Studies; this replication has allowed for a cross-cultural comparison of gratitude.

The An Attitude for Gratitude project also led to the development of the Multi-Component Gratitude Measure, a world first, which allowed the Centre to test gratitude-related conceptions, behaviours, emotions and attitudes alongside one another.

Blaire is now working on one of the Centre’s second wave of projects, looking at the Influence of Parents and the Media. She is particularly interested in how virtue and values can be measured.

She said: “You cannot assess virtue by just looking at one dimension, such as emotions. You have to look at emotions, cognitions, attitudes and behaviours, and that viewpoint is what underpins our gratitude measure and what is informing this current study too.”

The project will look at the impact of social media on the moral character of young people and devise guidelines to be adopted by parents and schools in relation to the use of sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. To find out more, or get involved, please visit our webpage


In Search of Universal Truth: the role of character education in bringing people together

Of all ways in which the vote for Brexit has shone a light on the state of our society, one finding is both clear and profound: Britain is becoming a more heterogeneous country, both culturally and economically, with fewer shared values, a suspicion of elites, and a weakening national identity.

This phenomenon is not limited to the UK. The picture is true to varying degrees across the Western world, as governments and societies struggle to adapt to economic globalisation and large scale movements of people. In his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, Charles Murray describes the situation in the US, where the notion that there is a set of life experiences and mores that are commonly shared by all sections of society – which Murray considers to be the keystone of the great American experiment – is in rapid decline.

But what has this got to do with character education? Well, let me give you an example from my own work with Floreat Education, a multi-Academy trust I founded. We work in a mixed area of West London, with large numbers of families for whom English is an additional language and with high levels of religious observation. The main centres of community life are the Gurdwaras, Temples, Mosques and non-conformist Churches, but there are very few secular venues where people from a range of backgrounds can gather.

Floreat has been active in the community for two years, attempting to launch a new primary school, and have been staggered by the lack of interaction between the different communities. This isn’t a case of black vs white, or indigenous vs immigrant. Nothing so straightforward. Rather, it is a case of people living parallel lives where there is strong bonding within communities but very little bridging between them.

One of the few secular institutions that can cater for all groups is a community school, and this is where the focus on character virtue development can be transformative. In speaking to a range of parents, we found very high levels of interest in the idea that a true education should, as well as pursuing academic goals, be concerned with the moral development of young people.

Many parents look to Church and faith schools for this very reason, but as followers of the Jubilee Centre will know one does not need to have faith to believe that character matters.

Floreat’s mission is to bring the practice of character virtue development into mainstream secular schools. We base our approach on the 24 traits identified by Seligman and Peterson in Character Strengths and Virtues, and it is providing a rallying flag around which parents from a range of backgrounds can gather.

This is more than simply a souped-up version of British Values; rather, it is the idea that there are universal truths about how to live well with other people, and that those truths have been recognised by all major cultures and religions in time and space.

Putting an explicit and purposeful attempt to develop good character at the centre of school life (and you can find out more about our programme here) can act as a powerful integrative force, in three ways. First, it draws its content from many sources, and is therefore relevant to the pupils studying it, whatever their background. Second, it shows them that truth can come in many forms and from many directions, and that people should be open-minded and curious enough to look for it in anyone.

Finally, it paints a vision of the good life, a flourishing life, in which true virtue is achieved by being active in the world and living a life of meaning and purpose in the service to others. And if we are to rebuild trust in our increasingly diverse society, what could be more important?

Lord James O’Shaughnessy is a Senior Fellow in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. He is also Founder and Senior Adviser at Floreat Education.

Virtue Training: it’s just what the trainee doctor – and the teacher and the lawyer – ordered

Teachers, lawyers and doctors are expected to be beyond reproach when it comes to their conduct and ethical behaviour.

We entrusted them with some of our most precious gifts and possessions: teachers help to nurture our children and act in loco parentis; solicitors and barristers safeguard our personal assets and legal rights; and medics are responsible for our well-being, health and, quite possibly, our lives.

Individual members of the professions, regardless of seniority, are guided by prescribed codes of conduct and must adhere to rules and regulations in their day-to-day lives. Additionally, we also expect teachers, lawyers and medics to be role models. They should be “upstanding” and reliable

But how do young and inexperienced new professionals learn how to become the virtuous practitioners that society expects? How do trainees in their late teens and early 20s become equipped to manage their actions, behaviours and thoughts in the interests of pupils, legal clients and patients – as well as for their own benefit as flourishing human beings?

Crucially, previous research conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has revealed limited scope in the training programmes of student teachers, lawyers and doctors to examine and nurture virtues such as compassion, self-discipline, gratitude and honesty. It is perhaps a staggering omission.

All of the professions in the public and private sectors have rules and regulations and codes of conduct, but this is not enough to prepare trainees for the ethical and moral dilemmas they will face in the classroom, the courtroom or the hospital ward. Indeed, “rookie” professionals may find there is literally nowhere to go if an individual scenario does not fit into a rigidly defined framework of right and wrong.

It is the belief of the Jubilee Centre that virtues training can play an important role in guiding trainees and new professionals in such challenging circumstances. To address this learning deficit, the Centre is developing new online courses to promote virtue-based practice among students in these three key employment areas. Our teaching interventions are central to a new research project that is designed to extend professional knowledge and enactment of phronesis, or practical moral wisdom.

Using e-learning strategies, and in consultation with senior professionals in education, law and medicine, we have developed flexible and practical courses that inform students about virtue ethics as they start out on their careers.

The courses assume the students have limited or negligible knowledge of the themes and require them to engage as active, critical participants. The learning units include introductions from professionals and researchers in the relevant professions, presentations, activities and the consideration of role models.

The difficult challenges posed by ethical dilemmas form an important part of all the courses. By harnessing practical wisdom, virtue ethics maintains that we can improve our decision-making and make better choices. The courses’ ethical dilemmas, some of which are animated to help to bring them to life, allow trainees to test and reflect on their own reactions in everyday workplace scenarios.

For example, one of the medical dilemmas looks at the case of a patient who is HIV positive. The woman does not want her GP to disclose her condition to anyone, including her husband. The husband then makes a separate appointment with the same doctor and announces he is considering having a vasectomy as he no longer wishes to use condoms for birth control. What should the GP do?

There is no right or wrong answer to the dilemmas. Rather the scenarios and the course in general are designed to get trainees to reflect on their own professions, behaviour and decision-making. We want them to look at their own character because character goes everywhere with you and informs every decision you take.

As part of the course, trainees are also able to instigate conversations with their tutors or other students via anonymous online discussion boards.

Through the teaching interventions, we hope to encourage educators and trainers to create conditions in which the professional development of the virtues is given a higher priority.

Following rigorous trials and tests, the research will produce a new set of practical, free teaching resources that will help inform and guide the next generation of industry professionals. The courses are being designed so they can also be used by staff already working in relevant bodies organisations, such as NHS trusts.

The success of the interventions will be measured by examining the extent to which students and professionals become more virtue literate and work in the interests of both individuals and society at large motivated by virtues such as gratitude, compassion, courage and humility. We hope the teaching interventions will reinvigorate this neglected field of professional practice and guide new professionals throughout their careers.

Dr Binish Khatoon, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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