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March 2017

Ethical Consumption and the Challenges of the Virtuous Shopper

There was public disquiet when a BBC investigation revealed exploited child refugees from war-torn Syria were being used to make clothes for major British stores.

The “sweatshop” factories in Turkey were reportedly using children as young as 15 to work 12 hours a days, ironing garments for sale. Some workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals, without adequate protection, during the spraying of jeans.

One of the high street chains at the centre of the exposé insisted ethical trading was “fundamental” to its practices and said suppliers were required to comply with its principles relating to global sourcing, which includes the treatment of employees. The notion of ethical consumption has become increasingly important as it represents “an expression of the individual’s moral judgment in his or her purchase behaviour”.

The story last October was the latest in a series of scandals to hit the clothing trade, the reputations of electronics firms also being tarnished by links to child labour, including Apple’s supply chain in China. This hugely emotive issue goes to the heart of the fierce debate about ethical consumption and ethical shopping.

I happen to come from China, which has been hit by allegations of child labour, and it would appear that, from a UK perspective at least, two moral philosophical approaches are observed in relation to the controversy.

There is the deontological approach, which considers if an action is based on the right principles; and there is consequentialism, which looks at the best consequences, or outcomes, of an action.

If one follows the rule-based deontological approach, consumers are advised to boycott products made by child labour because the exploitation of young people per se is wrong. However, consequentialists argue that boycotting “unethical” clothes effectively puts children out of work and cuts off a vital source of family income, the cash being required for food and shelter. Working in a sweatshop, as abhorrent as it seems, is arguably preferable to starvation and destitution.

But what if a third approach is possible? This, I believe, is where virtue ethics comes in and throws a welcome light on the controversy surrounding ethical consumption.

A virtue ethics approach asks important questions such as: “What kind of person/consumer do I want to become?” The emphasis is on exercising the virtues and advancing human flourishing.

In the case of child labour, a virtue ethics approach appreciates the need for compassion and generosity as well as the context of the action or event. Rather than being directed by rigid deontological rules or consequential outcomes, virtue ethics allows the consumer to be sympathetic to the child worker’s predicament. In this case, an instant boycott of the clothing is less likely to be advocated.

However, this does not mean a virtue ethics approach will continue to encourage the practice of child labour without further action. It does not give carte blanche to exploitation and child endangerment.

On the contrary, a virtue ethics approach locates the child labour situation within the wider social context and views the purchase action as part of the overall life. It recognizes the merits of ethical consumption as well as the limits of it; it seeks to understand the cause of the issues from an institutional level as well the specific context; and it strives to investigate the best possible solution from a fundamental perspective.

Crucially, the virtue ethics approach is non-judgemental; and it is motivated by love, patience and tolerance.

A virtue ethics approach considers the complexity of ethical consumption, the causes of child labour and involves an appreciation of people as human beings with human characteristics. It allows us to see that ethical consumption cannot be reduced to simple rules or a calculation of consequences.

Recently, my mother, who lives in Beijing, visited me in Birmingham and bought me a bag. The gift cost £110, a lot of money. What if the bag was made from child labour but my mother did not know this?

For me, the bag symbolises her love for me. I used to bring my lunch to work in a shopping bag that cost £2 and my mother said: “It doesn’t suit your professional image now. You work for The Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham. You are a research fellow. You need to maintain a professional standard.” I told her I had lots of bags and did not need another one, but she insisted.

Now if you take a deontological approach, the bag is a waste of money because I don’t really need one. If you look at consequentialism, it is probably bad for the environment.

But if you look beyond that as a human person, this bag is from my mum, who flew all the way from China to England and wanted to give me a gift. It reminds me of her every day I use it. I feel warmth in my heart. That is love. Deontology and consequentialism do not have the capacity to appreciate such love.

Virtue ethics “understands” my mum’s heart. This was an act of selfless love – she wouldn’t spend so much money on herself on a bag and it shows her understanding of my work role and her respect.

Now when I think about the contentious issue of child labour and visualise the three moral philosophies, I see three images. On the left is the judge who makes a ruling based on unbending law and regulations. On the right, I see the image of a Chinese mother whose young son works in a factory miles from their village – she has deep wrinkles but there is hope in her eyes.

In the middle, there is a wise man smiling at me and saying in a gentle voice: “Be slow in anger; and abound in steadfast love.”

Dr Yan Huo

Research Fellow

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Character Education in Poland: A Teacher’s Reflections

Contemporary Polish education is at an ideological crossroads, attempting to construct new ways of thinking, and new concepts of education and teaching in line with contemporary understanding of young people’s development.

Since gaining independence in 1989, Poland has been reforming its education system to help young people adapt to the new world order. The changes in pedagogical sciences triggered by the political transformation in Poland have raised many questions, including the issue of character education. For example, do schools have the authority to teach character and impose a system of values on pupils?

An important cause of the difficulties faced by Polish teachers is the lack of unified view on the essence of the human person and educational ideologies. There is some influence from liberalism, moral relativism, hedonism, and utilitarianism on the nature of education. However, without taking a coherent position on understanding the essence of the human person and critiquing the accepted view of the education system, we cannot meaningfully analyse problems of contemporary education.

In order to better understand the potential for character education in Poland, I have identified some pluralistic and competing educational ideologies:

  1. Conservative ideologies. According to these ideologies, educational processes are understood as cultural transmission. In this vision, high positions in the hierarchy of values are taken by tradition, religion, a specific ethical attitude, obedience and a sense of belonging (patriotism). In Poland, a symptom of the domination of this ideology was the introduction of religious education to schools in 1989.
  1. 2. Liberal ideologies. The agent’s subjectivism in making, among other things, free moral choices, dominates in this option. In this ideology, we have to endorse anti-fundamentalism and openness to distinctiveness. Freedom in this ideology is only limited by the agreement not to disturb one another’s freedom. In Poland, such a form of thinking in terms of emancipatory pedagogic is present after the change of the social system.
  1. Social and Postmodern Ideologies. This is basically anti-pedagogy, in which the teacher is an observer, and does not interfere with a student’s self-development; there is no reason why he should interfere with it, if he does not know what is good or bad – this is the main exemplification of this ideology. In the Polish culture, such a form of thinking in education is partly present, particularly in pedagogical and sociological narrations.

Every education reform in Poland has emphasised the consolidation of values at all stages of education. Character education is understood in Poland as the endorsement of learning about nature, culture and society as well as participation in their transformations. It helps pupils achieve comprehensive physical and mental development, the development of their abilities, interests, attitudes and beliefs, as well as the acquisition of relevant professional qualifications. The aim of character education is to prepare a child, and then a young person, for autonomous functioning in the world of values.

Poland has a rich tradition of teaching, and at the centre of the learning process is always the person who, as part of the education process, is taught to distinguish good from evil, and thus enrich his or her experience.

Unfortunately, education reforms in Poland are often purely political. Educational issues and curriculum changes are not consulted with teachers and parents, and are not supported by existing research. An example is the newest education reform, prepared in unnecessary haste, which takes effect in September 2017. The assumptions of the reform are not fully known, and very important decisions have been taken by small teams of educators, commissioned by the National Ministry of Education. What can be seen is that the reform of the education system is geared to conservative ideologies where a pupil needs an authority (a teacher) to show the individual what is good and what is wrong, according to the acknowledged standards, because alone a pupil would stray.

This interpretation might appear to be an educational vision at its most natural, as it appeals to what happened and what turned out to be successful. The school is represented as the institution of fundamentalist thinking, in which teachers are applicators of top-down assumptions. That is why the absolutisation of values dominates in this conception – an assumption that seems to grate with the very idea of character education, at least along the Aristotelian lines suggested by the Jubilee Centre.

We will have to wait a few years to see whether the changes will be for the benefit of young people and affect their character and value system. As a teacher, I remain full of optimism and trust in other teachers and their positive impact on the student. However, there is no sign of a coherent policy of character education making its way into the Polish educational system. Moreover, the recently-introduced curriculum lacks content that would stress the importance of tolerance and acceptance of other nations and cultures – for example, the school literary canon is based on works that promote national values where “the other option” is shown as an anthropological curiosity.

I believe that education should help young people develop a sense of responsibility and patriotism. A school, as an institution, should provide pupils with every opportunity for their development and prepare them to fulfill the obligations of family and civic life in accordance with the principles of solidarity, democracy, tolerance, justice and freedom.

At the same time, the school ought to make pupils understand the importance of being open to the values of Europe and the rest of the world.

Marcin Gierczyk, Doctor of Social Science in Pedagogy, is a visiting Teaching Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

A Personal Touch Helps Students Navigate the Minefield of Professional Virtues

Digital platforms and online teaching are revolutionising the delivery of educational programmes throughout the higher education sector.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are one of the latest developments and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ own online course on character education has had nearly 20,000 registered learners.

Such platforms allow institutions to engage with new learners in innovative ways and offer flexible approaches to teaching outside face-to-face formats.

However, research being conducted by the Jubilee Centre suggests trainee teachers, medics and lawyers still value traditional teaching sessions when it comes to understanding the complexities and value of virtue-based practice.

We have also discovered that tutors like to be involved with delivering interventions that seek to promote virtue literacy among the next generation of professionals. In fact, some university staff revealed their current programmes do not feature elements relating to ethics, which might surprise the wider public who typically view, and expect, GPs, solicitors and teachers to be role models.

The views of students and tutors towards virtue-based teaching materials was gauged during the Centre’s project Interventions in Trainee and Student Teachers, Lawyers and Doctors. The interventions centre on a course that seeks to enable trainees and early career professionals to understand what it means to be a virtuous professional and serve others in their discipline.

More than 1,400 law, medicine and teaching trainees either experienced or piloted the course and the data, including pre- and post-course surveys, is being processed. The surveys should indicate if the students’ ethical decision-making has become more virtues-based as a result of the interventions.

The courses are profession-specific, so key content relating to ethical dilemmas – a particularly popular element of the interventions – is tailored to practical scenarios that might be confronted on hospital wards, in the courtroom and the classroom. All the courses feature a general introduction to character, virtue ethics and phronesis.

The research team’s expectation was that tutors would send their students a link to the online course and then effectively take a back seat. Discussion boards are built into the programme, so students can engage in online conversations with fellow trainees about ideas and issues as they arise. The course also features animated films to create an immersive atmosphere.

Interestingly, a significant number of tutors said they would like to be more directly involved with delivery of the interventions. Some tutors even asked Jubilee Centre researchers to attend teaching sessions as they felt it enriched the students’ experience and added new perspectives to the understanding of virtue-based practice, a concept with which many trainees were unfamiliar.

The enthusiasm of tutors for face-to-face contact was matched by that of the trainees. Students said they liked the films and the interactive message boards, which allow engagement in anonymous online discussions about the issues. But they still like to be “taught” the course as well and wanted to take a “human” approach to an essentially human concern – the ethical practice of professionals.

It would appear that students and trainees are not confident undertaking a course like this entirely online. They like having an expert in the field alongside them to help them navigate the complex issues of character and virtues. For example, at the University of Leicester’s Medical School, 200 trainees took part in the course in class using iPads and had tutors present to offer assistance.

It is clear from our interviews that students feel the course has opened their eyes to the importance of character and virtues in professional life. One trainee teacher said the course was “massively important in education,” adding: “You need to display qualities that children are going to look up to at the end of the day… they are easily influenced and you need to be professional, but at the same time you need to try and be on their level in a way that they don’t think, ‘Oh, this is just another stuffy old bloke who thinks they’re better than me.’”

Participants also highlighted the value of reflective practice to help them understand that their actions have wider implications for others – for the lawyer and the client, the teacher and the pupil, and the GP and the patient.

Why does any of this matter? Well, ask yourself this: if you are a parent, don’t you want your child’s care and education to be entrust to a teacher you know has good character? Don’t our young people deserve at least that?

Dr Binish Khatoon

Research Fellow

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

When “Thank You” is Not Enough

From an early age, children are encouraged to express gratitude and display thanks towards others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – and mind your Ps and Qs.

There are everyday scenarios that fit nicely into the “please and thank you” template, such as ordering a coffee, being served lunch or having a door held open.

But there are also occasions that fall outside the norm, situations that surprise us, perplex us and leave us embarrassed. What are we to do when we are confronted with unexpected acts of kindness?

A friend found herself in such a position during her morning commute into Snow Hill station in Birmingham city centre. It was the chilly depth of a recent cold snap and the office worker – let us call her Sarah – was cursing herself for not having her gloves. The previous day, she left a glove from her favourite pair on the train. She realised just as she was getting off but did not have time to return to the carriage and look for it as the train was preparing to depart.

Twenty-four hours later, Sarah’s train was slowing down to pull into Snow Hill and Sarah got up from her seat. As she got into the slow-moving queue heading towards the train door, she felt someone tug her arm.

Looking back, Sarah saw a dishevelled, unshaven man in an old coat. He was carrying an old supermarket plastic bag and was wearing fingerless gloves. She thought he looked homeless.

The man tried to speak to Sarah but made no sense. She thought he might be drunk, and worried that she was being accosted, she said nothing, turned away in embarrassment and headed towards the door of the carriage.

She walked a few more paces and was close to stepping down to the platform when she was tapped on the shoulder. Fearing the worst, Sarah turned and was confronted by the same man. Again, he made no sense as he tried to speak but this time Sarah realised he had a bad stutter.

Despite her very English discomfort, she held his gaze and realised he was saying: “Your glove. Your glove.”

As the words formed, the man reached down into his tatty bag and withdrew Sarah’s lost glove. He must have seen her the previous day, spotted she had left her glove on her seat, picked it up and kept it with a view to returning it.

Grateful for the stranger’s kindness and slightly ashamed of her own behaviour, and the assumptions she had made, Sarah did the only thing she could do – and said: “Thank you.”

She had never seen the man before, and has not since.

Later that day, as she recounted the story, Sarah said she wished she could have done more than utter two simple words. She had considered giving the man some money, as she thought he was homeless, but decided her action could have been patronising. What if he took offence? Would she offer a “normal” person a cash reward?

She kept repeating: “Thank you wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t enough.”

Evidently, saying “thank you” was inadequate to convey Sarah’s feelings and her sense of gratitude towards a man who, despite facing his own daily trials, had gone out of his way to help someone who to all intents and purposes looked like the model of a successful young professional.

I suspect part of Sarah’s reaction was wound up in the guilt she felt for assuming her fellow passenger on life’s journey into Birmingham was a drunk, a vagrant and possibly a “weirdo.”

In fact, the man might have been all of these things, and none of them. And that, I suppose, is the point. Gratitude cuts across social status and it defies prejudice, awkwardness and isolation.

And if gratitude is the parent of all virtues, as well as being the greatest, it may well be that a stranger on a train can teach us all an important lesson. In our troubled times, we ignore it at our peril.

Richard McComb

Journalist

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