virtue insight

conversations on character



The Virtuous Poker Player: Is There Such a Thing?

The Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson, once said, ‘Poker actually isn’t about winning or losing; poker is about making the right decision.’ In my opinion, this is a very versatile saying. For example, if you were to substitute the word poker for life, you would have a quote worthy of an inspirational fridge magnet. Such is the nature of poker. It is a brooding, philosophical game; a microcosm of the peaks and troughs of life. This is why so much poker terminology permeates our language… it’s the fall of the cardswhen the chips are down… I’m going all in… Even Voltaire employed the poker/life metaphor in his writing, ‘Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.’

I find it interesting that poker is so often used as a vehicle to deliver life advice in spite of commonly being understood to be a vice. Certainly vices are present in poker; greed, envy and pride being the most obvious; but as Shakespeare said: ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ With this in mind, the rest of this blog post hopes to give ground to the idea that poker could in fact, in part, promote virtuousness and good character by exploring its relationship with the virtues of wisdom, temperance, justice and humanity.


In his vindication of Martial Arts as a means of becoming more virtuous (The Way to Virtue in Sport), Allan Bäck acknowledged that ‘People—even philosophers—often claim that practicing a sport improves moral character’ and that even ‘Plato advocated education of the body as well as of the mind: gumnastike as well as mousike.’ Now you’re not going to achieve a six-pack playing poker but I would argue that, like sports, games like poker can constitute an education of the mind, i.e. cultivate intellectual virtues.

In order to learn a game like poker you are going to need, or need to develop, a love of learning and curiosity, two of the five character strengths that comprise the virtue of wisdom according to the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. For beginners, just the rules of play can be difficult to grasp, and beyond this there are the endless annals of poker strategy in print and online. The successful player has to be interested, engaged and willing to learn. They will need to develop the grit and resilience expected of any serious sports player.

Judgement and perspective, also constituents of wisdom, are essential for the developing poker player. In my experience of playing poker, it is those players that develop a sense of entitlement that are those quickest to stagnate. This stagnation can lead to bitterness and cruelty (online poker comment boxes are a treasure trove of profanity, usually players mourning themselves and cursing others.) It takes an open-mind and a rational perspective in order to prosper as a poker player.

As Michael Austin writes in his article Sports and Moral Development, ‘A child learns how to play soccer by imitating those who are good at the sport. Similarly, a child can learn how to be virtuous by imitating those who are morally good.’ Just as football has its goodies and baddies, its role models and bad examples, so does poker. Fortunately, the game of poker has a vibrant community of players and tutors that encourage, through discussion and training, what Austin calls the ‘proper habits of the practice’.


In the film Rounders (a film that is generally acknowledged as the greatest poker film of modern times) – Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), in an argument with his non-poker-playing girlfriend, exclaims, ‘Why does this still seem like gambling to you? Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker every year?’ The point Mike is trying to make is that, though poker is fundamentally a game of chance, the player has the potential to put the odds in their favour. Thus the game becomes not solely about luck, but also a contest of skill.

Any poker strategy guide worth its salt advocates strict bankroll management. It is arguably the most important part of poker strategy and based on temperance. Bankroll management essentially requires you to have the prudence and self-regulation to play only at a level financially viable to you. You keep your poker bankroll divorced from the rest of your finances and you only ever play with a small fraction of it at a time. Doing so should hopefully mean that your losses are small enough not to affect you mentally and financially and also that you will be able to outlast any periods of negative variability.

Interestingly, the reason why Mike McDermott is in such hot water with his girlfriend is because at the start of the film he was a victim of his own intemperance, losing everything on a single hand of poker. This is why actively practicing the virtues is so important if you are going to play poker. Despite what Mike McDermott tells his girlfriend, poker is a game of chance, it is gambling, and gambling can be, and in many cases is, insidious. For those poker players who struggle to exercise control over gambling, the right decision would be to not play at all, or to play without the involvement of money, purely for the love of the game.

Justice and Humanity

Poker is a game that promotes sophisticated decision making. Players who do not exercise temperance and wisdom will quickly find themselves exiled to the spectator’s rail. But the virtuous character strengths developed through playing poker also have other applications; poker can develop a practical wisdom (phronesis) that can contribute to societal flourishing. Thus, to borrow from Allan Bäck, ‘it purports to be a serious part of life—and to transcend contests’. Raising for Effective Giving is a charity founded by poker players that uses a poker philosophy to maximise their philanthropy. As World Champion, Martin Jacobson, is quoted as saying on their website:

“Contributing to charity in any way, shape or form is really important for me and I have found REG to be the superior option. Their rational strategy to effective giving is something I can relate to because I use the same approach to maximize my potential as a professional poker player.”

Considering this, the versatile sentiment of ol’ Texas Dolly, Doyle Brunson, can even be applied to the character strengths of social intelligence, kindness, fairness and citizenship, strengths comprising the virtues of justice and humanity: ‘Poker actually isn’t about winning or losing; poker is about making the right decision.’

Vice or Virtue?

In this blog I have proffered that poker players who exercise the virtuous character strengths of wisdom and temperance are the most likely to succeed, and presented a shining example of charitable action taken by poker players (of which there are many), but is this enough to claim that poker itself, on the whole, is virtuous? You could argue that the game of poker is a morally neutral construct and it is each individual’s interaction with the game which is virtuous or not. However, poker is a zero numbers game, which means for every win there has to be a loss of the same amount. The circumstances of the game therefore directly promote the vices of greed and envy: greed because in order to win you must engage rapaciously in the pursuit of material possessions and envy because that which you covet is your neighbour’s chips. So is the gentrification the game has enjoyed in recent years merely a virtuous veneer atop a cankered core? Tell Shakespeare I am still thinking about it…

Richard Hughes is Research Administrator at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues


Flourishing From the Margins – Marginalised Young People with Purpose

The newly published Flourishing From the Margins research report published yesterday (October 26th) provides a rich and comprehensive dataset for the study of character development in marginalised young people. The literature review that began the study found a gap in the research of marginalised, and sometimes NEET, young people, with a dearth of studies considering how a focus on character development can assist with counteracting the causes of educational marginalisation.

Such causes are many and varied, so it is important not to see character as a ‘fix’ for young people perceived to be without, or lacking in, something that those who are flourishing in education have already acquired. The approach that this project took was one that very much encouraged the young people participating in the research to speak for themselves, with the research acting as a medium through which young people could develop a ‘voice’.

Accessing the character development of the participants through two key concepts was important to bring the language of character to the participants, and specifically into the non-mainstream educational space. The key concepts used in this study were the Aristotelian idea of living a ‘good life’, not just for personal gain and acquisition, but for societal as well as individual flourishing, and the idea of finding or developing a moral purpose to one’s life. The idea of purpose was rooted very much in the work of Bill Damon, whose work in the US with the Youth Purpose Project very much informed the early discussions and developments in this project.

What became apparent through the course of the data collection, particularly with regards to Stage Two and the trial of an educational intervention for young people engaging in non-mainstream provision, was that where participants may not have been able to speak confidently in the language of character before the intervention, that did not diminish their abilities to talk about their ambitions and purpose for what they wanted to achieve, and what they felt it meant to live a ‘good life’.

Participants were clear on their ambitions, what career path they wanted to follow, and what they needed to do to get there. This is best exemplified in the film created as part of the project, and which is available to view below. One quote picked up on a poster in a Pupil Referral Unit read ‘one bad chapter is not the whole story.’ This project sought to support young people from marginalised backgrounds write not only the next chapter of their own stories, but draft the rest of their stories.

Aidan Thompson, Director of Strategy and Integration, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Developing Character Skills in Schools – A Teacher’s Response

The teaching profession’s reaction to the recent publication of the Department of Education’s (DfE) report Developing Character Skills in Schools can best be described as mixed. The survey, the DfE’s first foray into the field of empirical research on character education provision, was completed by 880 education institutes, and the report has produced some interesting findings with some clear next steps for character education provision.

Whilst the DfE have not launched the report with any degree of fanfare, the report’s publication has still caught the attention of teachers and education stakeholders. Reaction to the report can be categorised into three distinct responses: 1. A positive reaction from such stakeholders as the Jubilee Centre; acknowledging a genuine increase in character education provision within English schools; 2. An apprehensive reaction (TES, Schools Week) highlighting positive gains, but putting more focus on the fact that there is still work that needs to be done for character to be fully embedded across curricula and integrated in school ethos; 3. A negative reaction; with some teachers using social media to argue that character education is the responsibility of parents, and that this is just another ‘fad’ to fit into an already overwhelmed and over-crowded curriculum.

The findings of the report suggest that reactions 1 and 2 both have some merit, and can perhaps be seen as 2 sides of the same coin. As a profession, we should not get carried away with such positive statistics as 89% of schools do use subject lessons to develop character traits, just as we should not despair when we read that one in six (17%) of schools say that they have a formalised plan or policy in place for character education provision. Both previous and current research conducted by the Jubilee Centre has shown that interest in, and provision for effective character education is on the rise with all stakeholders, but that there is still a long way to go before it is fully embedded into the majority of UK schools. The often contradictory findings within the DfE report – 97% of schools are seeking to promote desirable character traits among their students, whilst only 54 % of schools are familiar with the term ‘character education’ – show that in the current climate, the primary aim of anyone actively seeking to champion character education in schools should be to ensure that teachers are familiar with the term, what it means, and what meaningful character education provision entails. Character education can look very different between schools, with no single blueprint model prescribed by the Jubilee Centre, other than that the overriding principle behind it must be universal. In the Jubilee Centre’s A Framework for Character Education in Schools, character education is described as the ‘explicit and implicit educational activities that help young people develop positive personal strengths called virtues’, and that ‘character education is about helping students grasp what is ethically important in situations and how to act for the right reasons, such that they become more autonomous and reflective in practice of virtue.’ Once more schools become aware, and take ownership of this definition – the Framework has already been distributed to all English secondary schools, and will soon be disseminated to primary schools – school leaders will be able to plan and put policies in place to specifically develop the character traits of their pupils, explicitly and implicitly across their school communities.

The third reaction to the DfE report, I am sure, is not aimed at criticising character education per se, but at the profession as a whole, and situation teachers perceive themselves to be in. An increased workload, new government assessments, and budget cuts have left many within the profession frustrated and angry. The idea of introducing a ‘new’ component to an already-creaking workload will inevitably be met by detractors, but this is where the misunderstanding of character education is most evident. Character education is not a new ‘fad’ suddenly dropped upon us by the government; it has been a part of teaching for centuries and, when properly thought out, is the backbone of education. We teachers all want to develop the next Pulitzer Prize winner, the next great mathematician, or the next Olympic gold medallist, but these individuals will be the exceptions, and when we dig deeper, at the heart of good teaching is the desire to develop every individual so that they can become thriving members of society. This is the goal of character education. It is not a new subject to be squeezed into a 30 minute slot on a Friday afternoon. It permeates all lessons, all subjects, and the whole school community through implicit and explicit means. It is not only the responsibility of parents to ensure that their children grow up to be flourishing individuals, but it is our role as teachers to ensure character education is actively sought in schools, so this development can continue there.

The Developing Character Skills in Schools report shows that there are lots of positive things happening in schools, but it also highlights that now is not the time to sit back and be content with what has already been achieved. There is still a lot to be done so we must continue to make more teachers and schools aware of the benefits that a formal focus on character education can have, not just in terms of attainment and employability, but recognising, as the DfE do, that making a positive contribution to society is a good in itself.

Michael Fullard (QTS), Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

New DfE Report on Developing Character Skills Acknowledges the Importance of a Moral Compass

It is gratifying for us working in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues to see how the newly-published Summary Report by the Department for Education on ‘Developing Character Skills in Schools’ (August, 2017) cites our work repeatedly as providing leading theoretical insights into character education in UK schools. Kudos for work well done is always to be welcomed and cherished. However, more important than any ‘symbolic capital’ or ‘impact evidence’ gained by this report is its substantive content, and how well it aligns with Jubilee Centre conceptualisations.

There has been a tendency in Whitehall and Westminster to understand ‘character’ and ‘character education’ quite narrowly and instrumentally – often modelling it on controversial US approaches that aim at ‘fixing individual kids’ by providing them with performative skills to enhance educational achievement and general ‘success’ in life. So while lip service has increasingly been paid in UK political circles to the development of the character of the whole child, it has been difficult to translate it into anything amounting the neo-Aristotelian emphasis highlighted by the Jubilee Centre on the intrinsic value of good character and how it cannot be untethered from the internalisation of moral virtues. Notably missing from previous DfE documents has also been any explicit conceptualisation of what ‘development’ means psychologically or educationally in the context of policies on the development of character skills.

It is, therefore, a cause for great relief to witness the new document’s careful outlining of what character education is, what it aims for, and how it can be enacted through policy and practice on the ground. Many of the designators chosen in this report will be music to the ears of neo-Aristotelian sympathisers. Talk of ‘well-rounded, grounded citizens’, their ideal ‘contribution to society’, and their ‘social and emotional’ as well as their performative skills takes us well beyond the narrow focus on grade attainment and employability that we have come to expect from official policy documents in the past. The crowning glory of this document is its insistence on the need to ‘instil pupils with a moral compass…in understanding and interacting with other people’. This is a leaf taken straight out of the Jubilee Centre book – but again it is not the provenance of the argument that matters but its substantive content. For anyone who thinks that character development is about more than just self-confidence, communication skills, grit and resilience, this focus on the need for a ‘moral compass’ will strike a chord. The aim of character education cannot just boil down to the need to cultivate the resilience of the repeat offender. We must ask not only what character is, but also what it is for.

The new report makes it abundantly clear that while the extrinsic benefits of character education for improving academic attainment and employability matter, what justifies such education in the end is the cultivation of traits that help children make a positive contribution to UK society by their flourishing both as individuals and as citizens.

While the report contains a lot of useful conceptualisations – ‘GPSs’ for educators and parents lost in the labyrinth of confusing terminologies – it also offers significant statistical data about school approaches to character education. On a positive note, 97% of UK schools surveyed seek to promote desirable character traits among their pupils. On a more negative note, perhaps, only 54% were familiar with the term ‘character education’. Command of terminology is not as important, however, as good intentions – and there seems to be no shortage of the latter in UK schools.

Given that almost half of schools are not familiar with the relevant core concepts and conceptualisations means that there is considerable work left to do for the Jubilee Centre and other promoters of character development – the flourishing of the whole child – in UK schools. However, the new report paves the way for significant progress in this area, driven by an explicit policy agenda that can now also be backed up by our new Framework, giving schools an easy access to the vocabulary needed to talk more productively about the goals that they already aspire to seek.


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

Gender Differences in Ethical Dilemmas

Throughout the ages there have been debates about gender differences in ethical decision making, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Freud. These arguments generally centre on the different ways men and woman make judgments when faced with a moral dilemma.

Freud claims (1999, p. 237) that ‘in women the measure of what is ethically normal is different than in men. Their superego is never so unyielding, so impersonal, and as independent of its emotional sources as it is required from men’.

However, Carol Gilligan reversed that perspective and asked whether it is actually women that notice something that men cannot see. She claimed men think abstractedly, believe in logic and their own strength, whilst women think more instinctively and intuitively; that women concentrate less on understanding the laws and rules, and attempt to better understand the responsibility for others in certain specific conditions. Whereas men feel responsible for stopping aggression and the will to dominate, women take a more caring approach, which is related to the belief that ‘others are counting on you’.  The question of the moral and ethical subject leads us to the question of difference between the genders.

Therefore, one may concede that there is something that women cannot perceive or achieve; that there’s something that only men can see and attain. Recently gender studies have become a highly diversified branch of knowledge on the subject, or in other words, gender studies pose a different way of questioning the status quo of the knowledge. Hence these questions are philosophical, marked by criticism, reject the obvious, search for the foundations of the knowledge, and become an aversion to superstitions.

Taking into account these considerations, at the Jubilee Centre we have attempted to explore the differences in ethical dilemmas among female and male teachers, doctors, and lawyers by way of a second analysis – in a prior study of ‘Virtues and Values in the Professions’.

So how is this related to Character Education? The answer is simple. On the one hand, the more we understand about the relationship of gender on decision making in ethical dilemmas, the better chance we have to design interventions that improve ethical awareness among those professions in professional education – especially considering the key role that teachers, doctors and lawyers play in the progress of a society.

On the other hand, despite the importance of understanding its relevance in professional practice, there has not been enough research into virtue ethics thus far. It is obvious that in modern practice it is necessary to be more than just competent; one must prove one’s moral and ethical nature as well (The Jubilee Centre, 2016).

Ethical standards are a hallmark of those professions. An important question is what factors affect the ethical choices made by them. Past research suggests that factors such as gender, educational level, age, and work experience may be related to the development of a person’s ethical standards (Nikoomaram, et. al, 2013). Duncut claims (2007) that ethical reasoning and decisions are impacted by a person’s place of employment, work experience, demographic, characteristics of age, gender, and ethnicity. Furthermore, gender and age combined, can also have an effect on ethical decision making (Chiu, Spindel, 2010). Likewise, after controlling for cultural background – gender, age, and home/work influences were also found to be significant predictors of ethical behaviour and decisions (Perryer, Jordan, 2002).

We have also conducted our own investigations into the effects of gender on ethical decision-making; and asked participants to choose a course of action and provide reasons for their choice. The purpose of our analysis was not to evaluate who behaved more ethically; male or female, but to see if there were any differences in the process of resolving ethical dilemmas among representatives of the three analysed professions.

In our initial findings, we have discovered that our research supports the results of earlier studies, which signal that there are gender differences in ethical decision-making (eg. Tilley, 2010, Becker, Ulstad, 2007) and that males are more likely to break the rules than females (McCabe, et. al, 2006) particularly in the case of doctors and lawyers. Furthermore, we also found that female teachers prioritised the moral theories of character (virtue ethics) and consequences (utilitarian) over rules (deontological) when making a decision.

We hope that we will be able to present more findings soon, as this study works to better understand ethical decision making between the sexes across the three major professions.

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

Living a Flourishing Life

In this vlog,  philosopher Julia Annas discusses the concept of Aristotelian flourishing and examines what exactly does it mean to live a flourishing life?  Talking about the necessary conditions of what it is to flourish, Julia asserts that money and success are not necessarily the key components to lead a flourishing life.

Julia Annas is a professor of philosophy  at the University of Arizona.  She concentrates on the study of ancient Greek philosophy, including Ethics, Psychology and Epistemology. Her current research interests are in Platonic ethics. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992 and is the founder and former editor of the annual journal, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy.

‘What Would it Take For Society to Truly Flourish?’

The Jubilee Centre has just launched its new animated introductory film, produced by Handshake Studios. The film introduces viewers to the Jubilee Centre’s approach to character and virtues and asks the question ‘what would it take for society to truly flourish?’

The Head, the Heart and the Hand

In this vlog, Professor Thomas Lickona discusses the teaching of character education to children and the challenges that teachers face. Drawing on his own experiences, Professor Lickona uses the story of one troubled boy to illustrate how a service to others can have a positively transformative effect on the behaviour and outlook of young people.

Professor Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and Professor of Education at the State University of New York at Cortland. He currently directs the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and is a frequent consultant to schools on character education.

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)

Plamer (2003)

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

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