virtue insight

conversations on character

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


Take the First Step to Happiness – and Get Over Yourself!

Philosopher Candace Vogler, of the University of Chicago, is a principal investigator in a project grappling with virtue, happiness and the meaning of life. 

Prof Vogler is seeking to establish if self-transcendence – the sense that life is part of a bigger good – helps to make the cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of profound human fulfillment. 

A keynote speaker at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ annual conference at Oriel College, Oxford, Prof Vogler speaks to journalist Richard McComb about the project.

Why do some people who have everything one could wish for – a successful job, beautiful home, loving partner and healthy children – feel there is a big empty hole in their lives?

And why do other people with similar lives, or with lives lacking some of these features, feel happy?

Candace Vogler believes the key to the riddle may lie with self-transcendence, that spiritual dimension of human life in which individuals feel connected to a greater good.

Prof Vogler’s 28-month network project, due to finish in November 2017, is comprised of an inter-disciplinary team of scholars including psychologists, philosophers and religious thinkers. Its members are seeking to establish if self-transcendence “helps to make ordinary cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of deep happiness and meaning in human life.”

Participating in a greater good could mean campaigning for a cause, such as environmentalism, or following a faith. Self-transcendence might be achieved via participation in a large, generational family. As Vogler says, “The good you enjoy is partly made possible by the struggles, work and effort of people who came before you. Your hope is to carry something forward in the future, maybe something that is good in a way you can’t yet imagine. You identify so strongly with family that they become a part of you.”

As part of the project, professionals working in diverse field, from cognitive neuroscience to Islamic studies, come together with ‘work in progress’ which is shaped by shared questions. During week-long sessions in the winter and late spring, the scholars discuss their work in a dynamic, creative atmosphere. “The collaboration happens at the point the work is taking shape,” says Vogler.

Updates and insights are disseminated via the project’s blog, The Virtue Blog, public lectures and media interviews. A capstone conference takes place at the University of Chicago in October, which will be free and open to the public.

At a time of socio-political upheaval and uncertainty, both in Europe and the United States, it is perhaps not surprising that public interest has focused on the project’s pursuit of happiness.

Prof Vogler is wonderfully candid in her responses when asked about the secret of happiness.

“Stage one is, ‘Get over yourself!’” she says. “Don’t worry so much about self-actualisation, self-expression, self-development, self-this, self-that.

“See if you can break the fascination of your own ego for a little bit. See if you can turn your attention to something that is genuinely self-transcendent, that connects you to a world bigger than your intimate circle – and engage there. That is likely to be where you will develop in virtue and character. Your character develops when you get opportunities that are expressive and productive of goods bigger than you are.

“Do you engage at the soup kitchen a couple of times a week because you know you are supposed to be charitable? No, you volunteer at the soup kitchen by opening yourself up to the possibility that you could be drawn out of yourself rather than affirmed in a sense of your own goodness. The self-transcendence provides the context in which virtue is at home.”

Prof Vogler has little time for self-righteous navel-gazing, adding: “You don’t have a beautiful soul if it’s useless to everyone around you. You don’t have a beautiful soul if you can’t be bothered to think about how to engage more effectively in the world that you find yourself in, not just for the sake of your own success but for the sake of contributing to what is good in that world and helping it struggle against what is bad.”

Character Education in Spain: Problems and Potential

One of the developing trends in education, internationally, over the last few years, has been the renewed attention to the moral dimensions of education, and more specifically, to character education. Spain is slowly starting to refocus its interest in the sphere of character education; however, it is happening more slowly than in other countries such as the USA or UK. The reasons for this reluctance have deep sociohistorical roots, and I cannot possibly analyse all of them in detail here.  However, I will focus on two of the most significant issues before finally exploring the potential for character education in Spain in the immediate future.

We should begin by referring back to Spain’s history during the twentieth century; the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Franco regime and the Spanish Constitution that gave place to democracy in 1978. Despite the amount of time past, almost four decades, the conflict between the two sides is still kept alive in many different ambits of Spanish society, and some wounds have yet to heal. This can be seen in the educational context, where we have witnessed a lack of focus on moral issues, not only in educational laws, but in the writings of many scholars and the educational projects of many schools; and not just public schools, but also religious schools. For many, the concept of moral education has been considered too close to indoctrination, and the word virtue has lost its true meaning, in the classical sense, and is perceived only in its religious dimension, and thus rejected; being interpreted as a move towards secularisation on the one hand, and modernity, laicity and democracy, on the other.

The second issue cannot be viewed in isolation from the first, and within the sociohistorical context, the two are very much interrelated.  Despite the constitutional agreement, since the beginning of Spain’s democracy, several educational laws have been alternatively approved by left and right parties, which have failed to reach a basic consensus on education that avoided ideological confrontation and allowed coexistence. Article 27 of the Spanish Constitution establishes both the right to education and the freedom of teaching; these have been interpreted in different ways, and have either emphasised one or the other. This has produced, in some cases, zero sum games, where accepting one automatically suppresses the other.

As a solution, Spain passed a paradigmatic law, the Ley Orgánica de Educación (LOE), which in 2006 included citizenship education as a compulsory subject for every school. This received a lot of criticism from some influential quarters of the Spanish population due to its mandatory focus on character and its ideological and legalist dimensions. However, this can be seen from two perspectives, which in fact provides us with two faces of the same coin. Whilst it was an important moment that again placed on the table certain moral aspects of education, it was at the same time a lost opportunity. This is because a new education proposal with axiological character did not foster a consensus but instead continued to perpetuate those old social conflicts.

Nevertheless, despite these problems, we can say that never before have we had such an opportunity to promote moral education in Spain, and therefore, character education. Whilst there is a general dissatisfaction with the use of education as a political football, it seems that some initiatives are being developed to reach a minimum consensus that avoids past legislative swing and promotes respect for these two constitutionals principles. Whilst the failed citizenship education has highlighted the difficulty, if not the impossibility of reaching a consensus, it does not mean that education with an explicit moral dimension should be rejected outright. We should continue to look for a new way that could be adopted to accommodate different sensibilities, taking into account the number of mainly religious schools, but not limited to Catholic schools, according to the Spanish Constitution.

Within this new framework, character education could be a valuable option because of its versatility in different contexts, its attention to intellectual, social and individual aspects, and its important theoretical basis that avoids being reduced to a new educational fad, and susceptible to ideological manipulation. But this very much depends on us.

Dr. Juan Fuentes is an Assistant Professor in the Theory and History of Education Department at Complutense University of Madrid. Juan is on a scholarship from the Spanish Government and is working at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Can a Habit of Service Help to Build a ‘Shared Society?’

The value of engaging young people in positive social action has been working its way up the political agenda for some time.

An independent review into youth social action launched by former Prime Minister David Cameron led to the #iwill campaign, which aims to harness the creativity, energy and talents of 10 to 20-year-olds for the benefit of participants and their local communities. The National Citizen Service, which encourages young people to work on community projects, is set to receive permanent statutory status thanks to a Bill passing through Parliament with Government support.

As part of her plans to create a “great meritocracy,” Mr Cameron’s successor Theresa May unveiled an £80 million funding allocation for youth projects in England just months after entering Downing Street last year. The grants, to be distributed via the #iwill Fund and the Youth Investment Fund, form part of the new Tory administration’s “determination to build a country that works for everyone” so that “young people can go as far as their talents allow, regardless of their backgrounds.”

Delivering the Charity Commission’s annual lecture, Mrs May outlined her vision for a “shared society” that “respects the bonds that we share as a union of people and nations. The bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions.”

But having galvanised young people, how do groups, policymakers and practitioners encourage longer-term commitments so that individuals view activities such as volunteering, fundraising and campaigning as something more than a one-off?

The question goes to the heart of a ground-breaking project led by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Focusing on the civic virtue of service, the study, thought to be the first of its kind, seeks to investigate and understand what constitutes a habit of service for young people.

By looking at the idea of habit, researchers hope to understand how young people who have already made a commitment to service sustain that habit. How does meaningful social action become an embedded part of life rather than a flash in the pan?

The Centre’s final report aims to enhance theoretical understanding about the habit of service and inform policy and practice to boost young people’s participation in actions that benefit others. At the same time, the study dovetails with the Jubilee Centre’s wider investigation into how “schools, youth social action providers and other organisations build character virtues in order to transform lives and contribute to a flourishing society.”

The Centre has worked with the #iwill campaign since 2014 and has already revealed that youth social action providers believe the character development of participants is central to their work. In seeking to understand what makes a habit of service, this new investigation uses two complementary research methods: an online questionnaire completed by more than 4,500 16 to 20-year-olds (a far larger sample than previous studies relating to habit) and detailed life history interviews. The survey participants have been recruited with the help of youth action providers and schools and colleges with a track record of social action provision. In total, 12 organisations, schools, colleges and groups have been involved including vInspired and the National Citizen Service.

Meaningful social action is defined by the #iwill campaign as activity in which young people participate “at least every few months, or in a one-off activity lasting more than a day, and recognising the benefits it had for themselves and for the community or cause they were helping.”

Researchers hypothesised that a habit of service involves a young person both participating in social action in the past 12 months and intending to participate in future. The activity or service is part of their character and is encouraged and role-modelled by family and friends.

The scope of youth social action activities is wide, including those involving, for example: education providers (schools, colleges and universities); apprenticeships or jobs; local communities; places of worship; clubs and groups; family and friends; and individual activities. The activities could range from a sponsored event and campaigning to mentoring, volunteering with a charity or supporting an elderly neighbour.

The study will seek to highlight which virtues young people with a habit of service most strongly identify with.

Following completion and analysis of the questionnaire and interviews, the Centre will consult with youth service providers to develop a “best practice” guide to inform future policy and promote the value of inspiring and developing a habit of service among young people.

As one young interviewee put it, being involved in service has “just developed me so much as a person … it’s given me purpose to do something with my life, and to do something that I care about”. This research will inform practitioners and policymakers to support more young people to find their own purpose, developing their character and helping others at the same time.

Emma Taylor-Collins, Research Associate                                                                                   Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Developing Children into Good People

In this Vlog, Professor Marvin W Berkowitz, Professor of Character Education at University of Missouri – St Louis, talks about the drawbacks of taking a purely pedagogical approach to Character Education.  If the aim of Character Education is to develop children into good people, then Professor Burkowitz suggests that we need to adopt more sociological and psychological strategies within Character Education in order to develop more holistically good people.

Professor Marvin W. Berkowitz is the inaugural Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor of Character Education, and Co-Director of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and University of Missouri President’s Thomas Jefferson Professor. His scholarly focus and expertise is in character education and development, moral development, and prevention of risky behaviours.

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:

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