virtue insight

conversations on character


January 2017

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.


Chocolate cheesecake, parenting dilemmas and Donald Trump – why Aristotle matters in 2017

Professor Howard Curzer was a keynote speaker at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ annual conference at Oriel College, Oxford. Here, as Donald Trump is finally inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, Prof Curzer, of Texas Tech University, talks to journalist Richard McComb about the role of Aristotle in a “post-truth” world.

Why is Aristotle relevant today?

It’s a cliché, but everybody knows we need more ethics in the world. Aristotle’s view is that we ought to try to create better people, not better rules. I think there is substantial agreement about that.

One of the most interesting and controversial claims that Aristotle makes is that there are different sorts of value that are incommensurable. Think about physical safety, that’s one kind of value. Sensual pleasure is another value and money is another and justice is also a value.

A natural desire would be to find a common denominator and adjudicate potential conflicts. But Aristotle says that is doomed – there is no common denominator. And so it is not sufficient to just try to be good. You have to be good with respect to safety, sensual pleasure, money and justice and it is possible to fail at some of these and not others.

So you’ve got to be good at all of them?

That would be ideal. But most of us are courageous but intemperate. Or temperate but cowardly. We get some but not all of these things right. That’s an important insight that is missing from some other moral theories. You listen to certain religious traditions or Kantians or Utilitarians and they have got a reductionist picture – everything is all about one kind of good: “If you get that, you’re ok. And if you don’t get that, you’ve had it.” That sounds good on paper, but Aristotle says, “If you look around, real people are just not that way.”

But how can you be all those things? How can you be courageous and compassionate? How do you do it? Is it a secret?

It’s not a secret, it’s just hard. We all know, in a certain sense, how to do it. If you have been a parent you know how you do it with your kids – you talk to them about this, and you talk to them about that, and you talk to them about the other thing. But Aristotle says talking is not enough. You’ve got to build good habits.

If you go to the parenting sections of bookstores, you find books on how to raise a good child. They fall nicely into two kinds. There is the kind that says you have to talk your child through dilemmas, talk about their life, what’s going on at school. Period. Intellect will do it.

Aristotle says, “No, no, no.” There are plenty of us who know what the right thing to do is and yet we don’t do it. We all know that that second piece of chocolate cheesecake is not for us – and we take it any way.

Aristotle says, “Sure, you have got to talk to your kids but you also have to build good habits of action and of desire and of passion.” That’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be quick and there is going to be a lot of backsliding.

Or if you think about how to deal with alcoholics or criminals. How do you get them to become good? Well, talk is just not enough. I teach an ethics class. I think it helps. But I don’t think it makes people morally good to just listen to me and get the answers right.

So if talk isn’t enough, how do you make a difference with, say, a criminal?

Now I’m not a correctional officer, so what I am going to say may sound simplistic and naïve. But I suppose you would give them manageable steps. See if they can get through a day or a week without committing a crime. Hopefully, after a while it gets easier. Of course “a while” may be a long time, maybe years. Then you set more ambitious goals. That might include not committing a crime and doing something kind. It could just be a kind word.

What you are doing here is building habits. It might not even be an action. It might be seeing if you can think a good thought about somebody. That’s more of an Aristotelian picture.

So returning to the books on parenting, there are books that talk about building habits of courage, for example. You take your kid to the park and you say, “Try to climb on that jungle gym.” Your daughter says, “But I’m scared, Daddy.” And you say, “Well, I’ll stand under you.” She climbs on the jungle gym. She does it a couple of times – and she doesn’t need you to stand under her because she has built up a little bit of a habit of courage.

In your own country, a new President is stepping up to the plate. Donald Trump would seem to the antithesis of what we have been talking about with regards to Aristotelian virtue.

I am sure Trump has some virtues – and some vices – like everybody else.

But do you think the billionaire businessman’s election to high office makes some of these issues more pertinent or important?

Activism has always been important but it is going to become more important. In a government dominated by one party, activism is the way people can exercise whatever power they have. Republicans now hold all three branches of government and most state government, so how do people who are opposed to government policy make their views known and have any influence? I think it is through activism – staging marches, calling up senators, and so on.

I think a lot more people need to become activists. An activist is a role and there are certain virtues that go with that role. To be a soldier, it is particularly important to be courageous. We all need a little courage but soldiers really need courage. Activists need certain things too and I think one of think one of the things academics ought to do is work out the virtues activists need and work out how we persuade people to become activists. That’s one thing we ought to do in a Trump world.

Aristotle doesn’t talk about activism explicitly but he does talk about the idea that virtues correspond to a role. He talks about a good citizen and the relationship between a good citizen and a good person. One of the things he says is that a good citizen is the same as a good person only in a good state.

A good citizen in a totalitarian dictatorship will inform on his parents, undermine resistance and be a good totalitarian toady, not a good person. In order to be a good member of an institution, do you have to be a bad person? In order to be a good Trump voter, do you have to be a bad person? We can ask the same of any administration and I think it is a good question.

I am not a Trump supporter, but I would say that in order to be a good Trump supporter you have to have a mistaken theory of justice. You have to think that the big threats in the economic sphere are threats from government. Whereas I think the threats come from extremely powerful, private individuals and corporations. These perspectives go with different theories of justice. If you think that the big threat is from government, then the theory of justice says you should try to reduce government, reduce its scope, hinder it from operating, cut the budget, cut regulation and cut taxes. That is a very rough approximation of what the Trump people want.

Whereas if you think the big threat is coming from unscrupulous corporations and unscrupulous, powerful individuals then what you want to do is build up government as a bulwark against that – more regulations, larger budgets.

Conversely, in the social sphere, Trump supporters think the big threat is private individuals with problematic lifestyles, so they favour increased government pressure on such individuals. But I think the big threat is government restriction of individual life-choices, so I favour reduced government intrusion into the social sphere.

How does Aristotelian thinking come into that?

He doesn’t take a stand on those questions but he does say you need a theory of justice. What’s more, your theory of justice should apply to a number of different spheres in life.

So where do you think he would stand on building a wall between the USA and Mexico?

I don’t think Aristotle has a view on walls as border control mechanisms. But I think the appeal of the wall for Trump supporters is not just that it reduces illegal immigration, but that it reduces immigration of Hispanics. It is racist symbolism. Aristotle, himself, had racist views, but all contemporary Aristotelians repudiate those views. So if I am right about the racist symbolism of Trump’s wall, contemporary Aristotelians would oppose it.

New nurses face the challenges of ward-based virtue training

Preliminary findings of the Virtuous Practice in Nursing research project conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues point to concerns among early-career nurses who are on the verge of completing their initial three-year training. Many final year students who were about to qualify feel inadequately equipped to deal with the complex ethical dilemmas they may face on busy NHS wards, according to the initial findings.

Interviews conducted with several final-year students (early & mid 2016), many of whom will now be practising staff nurses, suggest they are concerned about the pressures of balancing the needs of patients with the demands of hospital management.

In contrast, some nurses told researchers they have received good training regarding the holistic side of patient care, but the findings point to an apparently mixed picture of professional training in relation to character and role-specific moral virtues.

Despite a series of high-profile scandals, including appalling levels of care uncovered by a public inquiry at Stafford Hospital, public perceptions of nurses are good. The recently published 2016 Ipsos Mori Veracity Index concluded nurses are the most trustworthy professionals, higher placed than doctors. (There are no prizes for guessing politicians are bottom of the league table.)

However, interviews conducted with nurses as part of the Jubilee Centre project suggest there are deep-seated anxieties when it comes to fulfilling the role of moral exemplars and satisfying the ethical demands expected of nursing professionals.

The research data is still in the process of being gathered and the views of hundreds of trainee and qualified nurses will have been sought by the end of January. The final report will provide a unique snapshot of the place of virtues and values in the modern-day NHS and shed new light on the practical application of ward-based ethics and how this might enhance good nursing practice.

Three cohorts are being questioned as part of the project: first-year undergraduates; final-year undergraduates; and nurses with at least five years’ experience.

All of the anonymous participants answer a questionnaire that requires them to reflect on their own character strengths. They have to select six attributes from a list of 24 and put them in rank order. They are also asked to pick six character strengths from the same list that they think apply to the ‘ideal’ nurse.

As part of the questionnaire, nurses are also asked to respond to a series of practical and topical dilemmas, one of which relates to a nurse/patient relationship on social media.

Ten per cent of the participants in each cohort also take part in interviews touching on the importance of character strengths, their views on being a good nurse and the barriers, if any, to being a good nurse. The nurses are also asked to comment on professional guidelines and the Nursing & Midwifery Council code of conduct. Do the codes, for example, capture what it means to be a good nurse today? Could the guidelines be improved? And what conflicts have nurses identified between personal values and professional guidance?

Participants are also asked how professional education and training could be improved.

It is clear that some nurses feel well prepared following university-based training, but some feel overwhelmed by the prospect of facing their first day at work. They are concerned about decision-making on behalf of patients and acting as patients’ advocates. Nurses get theory-based teaching but they feel there is not enough scenario-based teaching. All the nurses spoken to as part of the study commented on this.

The concerns are summed up by a third-year student who said: ‘… they teach us to be very professional, which I completely understand because being a nurse is a profession. But also on the other side they should show us that you’re working with people and you are a human as well. So sometimes you should open up… not breaking the rules but putting your values into practice.’

These issues go to the heart of the nurse-patient relationship and they reflect the tremendous pressure practitioners face, whether they are newly-qualified or established in their careers. Nurses are expected to conform to extremely high standards when it comes to patient care, trust and clinical efficiency. As soon as a nurse puts on a uniform, they are expected to conform to the Florence Nightingale ideal, being compassionate, virtuous and looking at patients in terms of holistic care.

It is hoped that the Jubilee Centre’s report will lead to a better understanding of the conflicts between a rule-and-code approach to moral practice and the application of phronesis, or practical moral wisdom, in our hospitals – and that can only help the training of nurses and the delivery of high standards of patient care.

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

If you are interested in participating in this national study please click on the link below which will take you directly to the survey:

Have we thrown the parents out with the bathwater?

When my son was little, his aunt sent him a VHS tape of a TV character; Barney the purple dinosaur.  At the end was an “educational” message from Sandy Duncan, a celebrity attached to the series: “And remember kids, real friends come and go but imaginary friends are forever.”  I almost put my foot through the TV screen.  I only mention this here as an example of how far off we typically are from identifying what really influences positive development in children, including character and virtues.  In my book, You can’t teach through a rat, I devote an entire chapter to how far off educators often are in identifying the most powerful positive influences on child development.  One of my favorite thought experiments with teachers is to ask them to privately identify one of their own character strengths and then reflect on its source, “How did you come to be that kind of person?”  I have done this dozens of times with groups all around the world.  No one has ever said their character came from a curriculum, a lesson, a public recognition, a character award, a song, or a book.  Never.  Not once.  What do they say?  Almost uniformly, their parents as role models of the character strength.

This reinforces that parenting is the single most powerful influence on a child’s character.  The research on this is clear.  We have identified five key parenting strategies that influence the character development of children, and we call them DENIM.  The D stands for Demandingness, which means setting high expectations.  They need to be realistic, consistent, and supported (no sink or swim here).  The E is for Empowerment, which means to authentically make space in family discourse for children’s perspectives and voices to matter; for them to be democratic partners where appropriate.  The N is for Nurturance, which means that kids need to know that they are loved.  The I is Induction, which is a form of sending evaluative messages (both praise and reprimand) that focus on justifying the evaluation with an emphasis on the consequences of the child’s behavior for another’s feelings.  And the M, of course, is for Modeling; being the character you want to see in your children.

Yet another critical way parents can influence children’s development (and in this case learning as well) is through positive involvement in the child’s education.  While this gets a bit complex, the general lesson to be learned from the research is that parent involvement in schooling has the potential to significantly enhance the child’s academic success and character and virtue development.  In fact, the vast majority of effective character education programs include parental involvement as an element.  Research shows that the impact of parental involvement is most positive when parents have high aspirations and expectations for their children’s success.  It is worth noting that schools can help parents hold such expectations and should intentionally do so.  Research also says that parents need to know the language of schooling, both generally and specific to the school or even particular classroom.  Lastly, parent involvement is most impactful if it is active.  When parents are actively involved in helping children learn, ideally through supplemental or participatory teaching, the impact is greatest.  Just showing up at events is not enough.

Character education initiatives are no different than other aspects of school in that they often fall short of the mark.  They don’t help parents see how good their children can be.  They don’t help parents learn the language of character and the virtues.  And they don’t find ways for parents to be active partners in character education.  More typically they treat parents as an audience to be informed (in the loop) or perhaps as deficient “clients” who need the school to help them too.  Ideally they should respect the parents for what they can bring to the table and enlist them as authentic partners.

Even when schools want to do this, one final obstacle is that parents often are unmotivated to be involved.  There are four key motivational blocks.  Parents may not understand that this is important.  Second, they may not feel competent to participate in schooling.  Many parents are intimidated by schools and educators.  Third, they may not feel welcome at school.  Schools often think they have an “open door” policy but it sure doesn’t feel that way to the parents.  Fourth, even when the school is welcoming, the children may send messages to their parents that contradict this.  Once kids approach adolescence, they not only don’t want their parents at school, they don’t want anyone to know they even have parents.  Schools need to identify and tackle each of these motivational obstacles if they want to avoid throwing the power of parents out with the bathwater.

Dr. Marvin W. Berkowitz, Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor of Character Education, Co-Director, Center for Character and Citizenship, University of Missouri-St. Louis

A full Insight Paper titled ‘Involving Parents for Good‘ by Drs. Marvin Berkowitz and Melinda Bier is available on the Jubilee Centre Website.

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