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May 2017

Aggression and Morality in Adolescents

It is often claimed that the world in which we live is full of cruelty, ruthlessness and violence. Media reports on violence among students often paint a bleak picture of teachers and the school environment struggling to cope with manifestations of aggression among young people. It was such a news story, which reported on an incident in a school in Poland recently, which prompted me to examine and reflect on this topic. In the incident, two girls beat their schoolmate in front of other students outside the school building – interestingly, none of the students watching intervened, most observers cheered on the aggressive girls, whilst the rest filmed the violence on their phones. I deliberately use italics here to emphasise the point that acts of violent aggression, contrary to accepted views, are not solely restricted to the male domain. Nevertheless, the issue of aggression, from a gender perspective at least, is not the subject under discussion here.

Something I have discovered, through working at the Jubilee Centre, is that wilful aggression and lack of a moral compass can be associated with each other. Therefore, a question arises as to whether the girl’s behaviour in the media report can be traced to the absence of internalised moral norms that trigger aggression against another human being.

Aggression is in direct opposition to values such as building interpersonal relationships or respecting the natural right of everyone to self-determination. Interestingly, in recent years more attention has been devoted to examining the relationship between moral thinking and aggressive affirmation, raising the question of whether a link exists between a tendency towards aggressive behaviour and the level of moral development.

Today, there are many theories that attempt to explain aggressive behaviour. These can be reduced to three main theoretical assumptions:

  • The theory of instinct, which presents aggression as an innate behaviour, determined by the biological need to unleash aggressive energy.
  • The frustration-aggression theory, which maintains that all aggression is the result of frustration, and that all frustration is prone to aggression.
  • The social learning theory, which states that aggression is the result of learning through instrumental conditioning and modelling.

The social learning theory is very interesting. An important factor in the development of aggression  may be the amount of violence that children and young people are exposed to on television, which acts as a model of behaviour. Unfortunately, even in many cartoons aimed at young children, there is already more aggression than love, and the constant exposure of the child to acts of beating and killing, which are presented on television, may lead to an indifference towards human suffering and to moral distortion.

Moreover, in the case of aggressive young people, the problem may also lie within the family environment. For example, in one case, where parents were asked by the media as to why their child behaved in a particular way, they responded by giving them the ‘middle finger’. Such conduct is demonstrative of some parents’ attitude and lack of concern towards their child’s aggressive behaviour.

Returning again to the interesting relationship between morality and aggressive behaviour, it’s particularly noteworthy to mention those theories explaining aggression as a result of specific characteristics in the processing of social information – which is related to the development of moral thinking. It is believed that experiencing unfriendly relationships in the social and family environment during childhood may lead to the development of a perception of the world as hostile and threatening to the individual (Krahe, 2005), which, in turn, can lead to aggressive behaviour.  As Emma Palmer (2003) points out, moral reasoning can be one of the elements in which to understand aggressive behaviours, and a lack of moral understanding would surely contribute to a dam of ubiquitous aggression among the adolescent.

Reverting to  the previously-posed question about whether a lack of internalised moral norms may allow for aggression against another person, there is certainly evidence to support the claim that a link exists between the tendency for aggressive behaviour and the level of moral development. However, we do need to be cautious here; as Stanislaw Wojtowicz emphasises, ‘It is not always easy to distinguish situations in which morality makes us not choose aggression from the situations when we refrain from using it for economic reasons’.

Therefore, the world in which we live creates the need to provide moral backbone to young people through both formal and informal teaching. In other words, for educators to demonstrate and explain, through proper instruction and example, what is right and what is wrong. This does not mean that they must be experts on moral development, but through their well-methodically chosen methods of conduct, the student should be able to develop the ability to exercise certain attitudes and moral values. Moreover, the teacher should be competent in this vision of building and articulating an ethos in a school where confidence, respect and empathy are the key prerequisites for stimulating moral development. Moral development, in this perspective, constitutes the basic building block of human development, which is capable of counteracting wilful aggression. Moreover, in the Jubilee Centre we work on the Aristotelian assumption that the ideal moral development has to do with the cultivation of a virtuous character.

Krahe (2005) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ab.20070/full

Plamer (2003) http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0306624X05281907

Marcin Gierczyk is a Teaching Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Encouraging Virtuous Living Through Poetry

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words
– Robert Frost

In this blog post, I wish to describe my proposed PhD project that I’m undertaking as of this coming autumn. I’d like to begin by briefly explaining the concept of character education, before describing the elements of poetry that are conducive to increasing virtue literacy. Finally, I’ll address, in light of my discussion, whether character education is something that can be taught or caught.

Character education is based on the ideal that certain qualities or character traits can, and should be, developed to a positive effect within the school system. The idea of character education is grounded on the theory that students can be assisted or guided into understanding and wanting to acquire such virtues. Building on the work already carried out by the Jubilee Centre, my PhD research will look to develop interventions in schools that enable teachers to build on the qualities or virtues in question, in their own teaching.

The focus of my forthcoming PhD research is centred on character education through literature. Using stories and narratives as a conduit for teaching virtue literacy is not a new thing. The Knightly Virtues project carried out by the Jubilee Centre successfully utilised classic stories about knights and the chivalric code, in order to increase virtue literacy in 9 to 11 year olds, particularly around the virtues of gratitude, self-discipline, love, service, humility, courage and justice.  Where my research departs from this, however, is that it will take a starting point in poetry.

The students will be taught poetry as (A) a craft, (B) an art, and most importantly (C) as a source of moral reflection. This will entail reading and writing poetry, as well as philosophical discussion and contemplation, which I intend to carry out in the following manner:

1. The students will be given creative writing exercises. The purpose of this is twofold. They will learn to experience the creative aspect of poetry and to trust themselves as having a poetic voice.

2. The students will learn to trust the group when they address poetry in an intersubjective environment, both by opening up themselves to others and by welcoming the poetic voice expressed by others. For instance, when a poem is read aloud, the teacher can ask each student to write down one word on a piece of paper, to express what emotion they might be feeling after hearing the poem. The teacher then writes everything on the whiteboard and, if appropriate, asks some of the students to elaborate on their chosen word. This can be a source for philosophical discussions. It’s also appropriate to read song lyrics, watch music videos, anything that the students can relate with (maybe watch a film like Dead Poets Society, for instance, if the age group is suitable).

3. The students will engage in philosophical discussions about what they read and write. The aim of this is to understand and express the subject matter of the poem in moral or philosophical terms. This will provide the students with a tool for critical thinking.

The elements of poetry that are conducive to increasing virtue literacy, to name a few, are:

  • it induces the imagination, which, in turn, awakens the moral imagination
  • it fosters ethical reflection, helping students to develop the cognitive side of their character
  • it provides the students with a tool for recognising and acknowledging their feelings and emotions
  • it gives the students an effective technique in measuring the aforementioned emotions against ethical concepts, vices and virtues, etc.

Although stories can trigger similar effects, poetry has a unique capacity to unify the pupils’ perspectives and experiences through symbols or language. When engaged with poetry, one enters a region of thought and emotions. When applied to an intellectual process in the face of whatever emotions it may stir, a poem can teach one something about oneself.

My proposed PhD project ultimately seeks to encourage virtuous living through the use of poetry but it does beg one final question; can character education be caught or taught? In reference to what I’ve said and how I view the study of poetry, I’d say that character education through poetry is first and foremost a very rich and creative way for students to connect with, and make sense of their emotions. But, as I’ve described, it helps if this takes place within a group of trust, and, of course, with constructive guidance. In other words, character education can, and should, be taught. But it is also caught, so to speak, by youngsters when their elders, be it their teachers, parents or role-models, set a good example.

Kristian Guttesen is a teacher, about to begin his PhD studies in the Jubilee Centre on poetry and character education.

Telling Stories: Using Cinema for Character Education Part I

The art of cinema is the art of telling stories. For thousands of years we have used the persuasive power of stories to build cultures, imbed morals and to understand what it is to be human. From Jesus’ parables to Grimm’s fairy tales, stories resonate with us on a far deeper level than rhetoric.

Today, stories have become a central part of character education and there is a long-standing tradition of regarding literature as conducive to the teaching of character. Research by the Jubilee Centre in our Knightly Virtues project has already demonstrated the positive effects on virtue literacy that adapted stories from classical literature can have, in terms of helping educate Key Stage 2 pupils about the qualities of virtuous character. The Centre is also investigating how poetry can also be used in similar ways with Key Stage 3 pupils and an affiliated PhD student is beginning to look at the character-cultivating properties of painting and sculpture.

As a self-confessed cinephile, I would argue that cinema, and in particular popular Hollywood cinema, also deserves further consideration as a conduit for teaching character. Cinema is now our primary medium for storytelling and in our digital age our access to films has never been greater.  Using film as an aid for teaching character is not a new idea and resources are available, however, more light could be shone on this, particularly into the effectiveness of using film for improving virtue literacy. Whilst there is no denying that Hollywood film is produced primarily for the purpose of mass entertainment, I would assert that  a close reading of many popular films, particularly when done so through a character education lens, can show that cinema has a greater capacity for moral self-reflection and critique than one might imagine. If students are taught the methods in which to critically evaluate and reflect on the nature of virtuous character, then popular cinema can be edifying as well as entertaining.

As the dominant visual culture, cinema is incredibly persuasive. Film theorists have long understood films to be socially constructed, ideologically driven, coded texts. Over the course of the last hundred years cinema has helped reinforce prevailing cultural norms and legitimised dominant institutions and social values such as patriarchy, capitalism and class. Equally of course, cinema has also been used to critique those existing structures.

Whilst mainstream cinema is ideological and therefore unavoidably political, research has shown that like other narrative forms it is also psychologically transportive. By this I mean the process through which the reader (or spectator in this case) is emotionally immersed into the world of the narrative to such an extent that their beliefs and attitudes are changed. An engrossing story has the potential to temporarily remove us from the reality of the physical world and takes us into the fictional world of the story. A consequence of this, according to research, means that narrative transportation is likely to create strong feelings towards story characters; the experience or beliefs of those characters may then have an enhanced influence on the reader’s beliefs.

Processing films this way means that the stories we watch in the cinema have the power to connect with us and possibly change our beliefs in a far greater way than any other narrative form. This may be because cinema is a great communicator, it is fast, effortless and absorbing in a way that the written word just can’t be or indeed need be. Cinema has the capability to mirror the forms of people’s lives, or at least the form needed for us to find those lives meaningful in a context that is familiar and that we understand. Even the struggles and dilemmas of anthropomorphised creatures in animated films become identifiable with our own experiences, even when they don’t necessarily match our everyday existence.

Like the great authors, the skillful filmmaker has the power to create the kind of quality stories and compelling and believable characters that can move us, shape our perceptions and make us think differently about the world.

This emotional investment has great implications for character education. It is important that we continue to explore new methods in which to help young people develop moral values and a sense of civic responsibility, and cinema offers a wonderful opportunity to observe and discuss moral dilemmas in interesting and engaging ways that are easily relatable.

There is no shortage of appropriate films for a younger audience that embody and reinforce virtuous themes such as courage, honesty and temperance through characterisation and plot. In the Disney film Frozen, for example, the actions of the central character Elsa, and her decision to ostracise herself from the community so that she is free to wield her powers, has severe implications for the people of her kingdom. It is not until she learns self-control over her powers that she finds happiness and the world is put right again. In the forthcoming second part of this blog I would like to provide further specific examples of how such character virtues are transposed in popular films.

By using films to encourage discussion around moral dilemmas, we can provide young people with unique and exciting opportunities for intellectual and moral growth. Cinema provides us with an invaluable opportunity to see the world differently through the eyes of the film protagonist. The kind of problems or difficult situations they face, the values they demonstrate, and the actions they take show us how human character reveals itself in recognisable contexts, which in turn invites us to ask questions about what sort of person we ourselves might aspire to be …even if the protagonist we identify with is a talking toy or a princess with magical powers.

Mathew Butcher, Communications and Web Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Do Flawed Super Heroes or Saints Make the Best Moral Exemplars for Young People?

The role of moral exemplars in character education is often neglected, despite the fact that pointing to models of virtue is an effective way of reminding us of the kind of person we wish to be.

It is common to hear teachers tell pupils to “be yourself, don’t copy anyone!”, making emulation sound like poor behaviour.

Nevertheless, ordinary experience suggests we cannot help but admire some people and we long to imitate them. This is why educating through exemplars has always played a fundamental role in teaching, where the educator refers to historical, mythical or current exemplars to attract the novice’s interest.

Encountering a moral exemplar, in person or through narratives, elicits admiration and can be of the utmost moral significance, capable of changing our lives in significant ways. As philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch would have said, morality is not primarily a matter of struggling to act well, but above all it is about having a strong attachment towards the right people and taking inspiration from them.

Thus, the real point is this: who can we count on as genuine moral exemplars? Is it saints, who are supposed to possess all the virtues? Or is it heroes, who display one or more virtues to an exceptional degree but are imperfect in other respects?

Figures such as St Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Jesus and Mother Teresa are often cited as examples of saintly moral morality; whereas lists of heroes might include Robin Hood, Oskar Schindler, Marie Sklodowska Curie and Leopold Socha. In other words, the question is this: is it legitimate to point a child’s attention to imperfect models, or should we limit ourselves to models of supposed perfection?

Saints are arguably superior to heroes. When faced with heroes, novices risk admiring the non-virtuous traits of say Batman or Sherlock Holmes. Saints, of course, are admirable in all respects.

However, heroes are also fundamental for virtue education. The fact heroes excel in a limited number of virtues makes it easier for novices to identify their exemplar traits. Additionally, this makes novices more likely to imitate them as virtuous heroes come close to our imperfect condition as they exhibit non-virtuous traits. A hero’s possession of moral faults may persuade novices that moral exemplarity is not out of reach, and is “close” to them in a psychological sense.

In both kinds of exemplarity, a good educational strategy points to exemplars who are close to young people in an experiential sense. It highlights ordinary “heroes” and “saints” worthy of imitation among relatives, friends and teachers. The fact they are unlikely to become famous should not prevent us from trying to follow their moral path.

The strategy has its risks. Take the example of a child who improperly admires people close to them in the experiential sense, like the son or daughter who considers the criminal deeds of a mother or father as morally exemplary and tries to imitate the parent.

Exemplar-based accounts of character education can tackle this problem by suggesting the educator presents the pupil with alternatives, i.e. authentic, moral exemplars to admire and imitate. In felicitous cases, an encounter with alternative and worthy-of-emulation exemplars provides the pupil with the motivation they would otherwise lack to revise their objects of admiration.

The path towards admiring virtuous exemplars is not always direct; there may be subtle twists and turns. It is reasonable to expect the pupil will be challenged by the fact that alternative models have been presented to them, and engage in an enriching dialogue with the educator about the differences between these figures and the “vicious” exemplars they admire. The chances of revising an attachment to bad exemplars are much higher if the pupil can engage with the story of virtuous exemplars, rather than simply being told to abandon admiration of vicious models.

Communities that adopt exemplar-based accounts of education can benefit from its sensitivity to “ordinary” exemplars: identifying exemplars in small groups can strengthen personal bonds and enrich mutual trust among members of a community through shared admiration of a particular exemplar. It can also encourage the exemplar’s deeper engagement with the moral goals of those who admire him or her.

  • Moral exemplarity and related issues will be discussed at Aretai – Center on Virtues 2nd annual conference, in Genoa, Italy, October 5-6. For more information, visit the conference website.

Michel Croce is Early Stage Marie Curie Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh, and Maria Silvia Vaccarezza is Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Classics, Philosophy and History, University of Genoa.

Michel and Maria are also Fellow Researchers at Aretai – Center on Virtues, a partner centre of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Three Conceptions of Integrity and Two Important Questions

The virtue of integrity used to be the darling of virtue ethicists and character educators in the 1980s and 1990s, but for some reason it seems to have fallen out of favour. I return to that apparent ‘fall from grace’ at the end of the blog.

During the halcyon days of integrity, three broad conceptions prevailed. The first conception understands integrity in terms of coherence between words and actions, or what we could simply call behavioural consistency. A person of integrity both talks the talk and walks the walk. We would call this ‘coherence between principles and action’; an example of which would be, say, proper promise-keeping, which involves consistency between an espoused value (encapsulated by the promise) and an actual displayed value (in keeping it). Integrity of this kind is meant to act as a safety valve against hypocrisy and dishonesty.

The second, and slightly more demanding, conception of integrity demands motivational wholeness of the person. What is required here – in what is perhaps the most typically endorsed modern conception – is not only coherence between espoused and exhibited values but also motivational unity (‘self-integration’); that is, unity (and even mutual support) between the various psychological drivers eliciting action. Theorists used to talk about this feature in terms of ‘internal coherence’ or of ‘a reflexively established and endorsed life plan with a deliberate pattern’. A common phrase homing in on a crucial contour of integrity, on this conception, is ‘authenticity’ or ‘being true to oneself’. Yet, because authenticity seems attainable in default of any strong commitments (i.e. being authentic to one’s own non-committal attitude or to an attitude only grounded in fleeting expediency), various writers foreground the need for the person of integrity to ‘stand for something’, where that ‘something’ refers to principles and values that are substantively rich and worthy of spirited defence. The judgement that the value for which the person of integrity stands is non-shallow and non-artificial must not only be made by the person herself for herself, but also seem recognisable and plausible to any ‘reasonable person’. The opposite of the integrated person here is one who is fragmented, disintegrated, or simply soft and rudderless.

The third broad conception of integrity may seem to some to be merely an implication of the first and second, but others would see it as going beyond the first two in terms of demandingness. On this conception, integrity refers to a specific psycho-moral faculty that secures the non-betrayal of our deepest commitments, especially in times of adversity, and renders us uncompromising at exactly the points where we are most tempted to compromise, for instance in light of utilitarian reasoning about promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘clean-hands’ understanding of integrity, or the one that prevents us from having ‘one thought too many’ when we should categorically draw a line in the sand.  This third conception seems to presuppose that integrity will not normally be called upon except in situations of extreme moral challenge in which temptations to succumb to utilitarian maximisation threaten to undermine the core of our psycho-moral identity.

There is a science-fiction parable which illustrates this thought nicely. It is about an alien who feeds on the humiliation of human beings by letting them do things they would otherwise never have done. Surprised why he has never been targeted by the alien, the protagonist in the story is given the explanation that he is an ‘immune’: a person who cannot be humiliated in this way because there is nothing that he would not have done, under some possible circumstances, anyway. The upshot of the story is, obviously, that the protagonist is the only person among the alien’s potential victims who is completely lacking in the virtue of integrity (on the third conception).

Here are finally two questions for readers. Why has integrity fallen out of favour of late? Is it because we live in a post-integrity, post-truth world where even philosophers and educators have given up on the hope of helping people to integrate their lives in a virtuous way? The second question is aimed at admirers of Aristotelian virtue ethics and character education. Why is there no specific virtue of integrity in Aristotle’s system? There are obviously related virtues, like truthfulness (as a moral virtue) and phronesis or practical wisdom (as an intellectual virtue), but none that is typically translated as ‘integrity’. Does this mean that this presumed virtue is actually surplus to requirements in a cogent and coherent system of the virtues – or was Aristotle just mistaken?

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson is Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

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