Harrison Middleton University, USA
Would it be worth it to study moral states of character, and the actions needed to develop positive character traits within a school curriculum? Could a nation of individuals who are filled with “more virtue” be created? If anything, the possibility of having citizens who are more self reflective and content is worth the attempt.
Keywords: Morals, Behaviour, Education Reform
From an early age people are taught what is right and what is wrong. Based on what is heard the individual modifies his/her behaviour to fit into society and what is learned translates into action and habits that follow into adulthood. Where does civilization pick up the majority of its habits? In all likelihood most habits come from family, friends and the education system. Plato (1993) discusses in Timaeus, “that which is beyond the range of a man’s education he finds hard to carry out in action and still harder adequately to represent in language” (p.443). This idea appears significant because how can society form virtuous habits if they are beyond its’ education? If the masses do not know what is considered virtuous then the general public cannot speak about it or practice it. Merriam Webster’s dictionary (2005), defines virtue as “conformity to standard of right and a particular moral excellence” (p. 1397). That is the standard of “right”? Habit is defined as a manner of conducting oneself, the prevailing disposition of character and a behaviour pattern acquired by frequent repetition. Conduct implies behaviour and action.
What is considered virtuous seems to be suited to the place and time because what is considered a virtue now may be different from three hundred years ago. Virtue in relation to morals and doing what is right does have a universal quality that transcends time. Lucretius (1993) mentions a valuable notion related to virtue and moral, “The greatest wealth, is living modestly, Serene, content with little.”(p.72). He goes on to say that there is enough modesty to go around. What a different outlook on life and character to be satisfied with having little compared to never having enough.
Acts considered not virtuous or immoral are killing, stealing or lying. In addition are those character traits which are either naturally inherent or developed through habit, such as being anti-social, lazy, mean, greedy and unable to control one’s vices. These negative habits unfortunately require a concerted effort to stop them once engrained in an individual. A child may be reprimanded for being anti-social or greedy, yet an adult with those same traits is largely ignored. This is unfortunate, as a greedy/anti-social/lazy or means adult may have a severe negative impact on society, especially once that individual rises to power. The effects can be devastating in denying the masses equal rights or not distributing collective funds appropriately. Mill (1993) reflects that our dispositions are full of moral vice such as being cruel or abasing others. These characteristics lead to "a bad and odious moral character" (p.304). Mill further suggests that we should have a way of policing these elements in our dispositions as they have been around from the beginning of time and do no good, continuing generation after generation. While the “vice police” may be entertaining, it seems hardly plausible. Yet if there is a great awareness from an early age about repulsive characteristics and the results of having them imbedded in character, at least people would be able to recognize a negative feature in them that is budding.
Aristotle (1993) believes virtues are “made perfect by habit” (p.348). Habits, whether just or unjust, add up and all of these transactions lead us to be virtuous or not. Aristotle further believes that activities give rise to certain “states of character” and that these activities form in early youth make a significant difference (p.349). It can be understood that a habit that is nourished in youth again and again could be heavily ingrained in that particular individual’s psyche and how that habit follows the adult throughout his or her life. This habit could be something as simple as putting your coat away or washing your hands to being advanced in creativity. There is a real need for a methodology to reverse the effects of negative habits. Can years of negative habits be replaced by positive ones? Some individuals are well aware of their negative habits and are not certain how to change them, while others are not even aware of their negative character traits. Habits have a neutral tone to them, yet addiction implies vice. Addictions are detrimental whereas habits could fall into a moral or immoral.
William James (1993) warns the youth that they are making a living hell by “habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way” and they are not aware that they are “walking bundles of habits” (p.83). He further points out that on a molecular level human nerve cells and the very fiber of people’s being stores these habits, making an easy groove for them to continue again and again. This warning he emphasizes is that, once a habit has begun, it becomes easier to continue. James uses the example of a drunkard and a saint. Someone becomes a drunkard through a series of drinks just as a saint becomes a saint through a series of moral acts. A significant message that can be gleaned from these authors is to make virtuous acts habitual.
Aquinas (1993) says, regarding the intention of law, that it "aims at leading a man to virtue" (p.261). Many current laws have severe punishments for stealing or murder so they serve as a deterrent to immoral behaviour. Yet, for the other behaviours such as abasing others or being lazy, it is usually up to the family to police the individual. As it can be acknowledged that some are not taught to treat others kindly or to be diligent workers, would it be reasonable to request this from the education system? Would it be worth it to study moral states of character, and the actions needed to develop positive character traits within a school curriculum? Could a nation of individuals who are filled with “more virtue” be created? If anything, the possibility of having citizens who are more self reflective and content is worth the attempt. Darwin (1993) points out that moral beings have the capability of reflection on past actions and disapproving or approving of some. Darwin believes our moral senses are a great feature that sets man apart from animals, and “habits gained in early youth and strengthened during our whole lives” become almost instinctual.(pgs.319 and 592). In light of this information, which areas could be expanded to discourage those habits in early youth that have led to odious moral characters and encourage those virtuous moral characters? Perhaps children absorb a great deal of their habits from their parents, some of these habits virtuous and others odious. The same can be said for habits we absorb from friends and from different social environments, such as work or school. Society itself is responsible for the formation of habits as well, by encouraging a collective understanding of proper public behavior.
The impact of having virtuous habits in the classroom could be immense, because an individual would be empowered to consciously make the right choices before a detrimental habit has formed. For example, in many schools children are taught to share food or toys. They learn how to share and hopefully carry this habit into adulthood. Another example that can be observed in America versus another country is waiting in lines. Children are socialized to wait their turn from an early age. They line up by their classroom to enter and exit. They also wait in lines at the lunch room. This same habit is used in adulthood when waiting in line at the bank or grocery store. In some countries there are no lines and people have to fight to get service. If virtuous habits were expanded to include self management of anger in childhood, it could mean managers and leaders who are skilled in problem solving in adulthood.
How can negative habits, be replaced with positive ones? Bacon criticizes Aristotle for not having taught the manner of super inducing habits asking what good it does to know that habits lead us to virtue or vice without knowing the process of acquiring habits. People learn through imitating others and when they are too young to judge, others judge for them in terms of defining. Some habits appear to naturally be absorbed without society being able to consciously choose, a person may see others smoking and go along with it, and it may eventually follow as a vice. What can be said of habits we are warned about from an early age but still choose them. Smoking for example is a vice that is discouraged and promoted in society, resulting in mixed messages. The school system and health system say do not smoke you could die. The advertising and movie industries say smoking is it beautiful. These contradictory elements probably play out in the mind of youth deciding whether to try it out or not. Smoking is portrayed as being deadly but glamorous?
Do the actions of family have more weight than society or school? Do friends have a significant influence? Who has the most influence in affecting character building habits? Bacon (1993) also includes Seneca’s “Successful villainy is called virtue” philosophy to illustrate the ways in which young mens’ judgments could be corrupt. (p.79) This idea of successful villainy labeled as virtue is an ideology revered by old men as well. One can easily see this in the current political climate of dictators who rule over the masses and hoard billions of dollars, believing they are “virtuous”. Similarly immoral acts are often labeled as virtuous, such as when justifying war. This leads to recognition of the importance of defining virtue and what exactly are its parameters. Virtue is the sum of right habits. These right habits are partially defined within an era and place, but also consist of characteristics that will always be accepted. These may be the early values we learn and carry into our adult life such as sharing, working hard, being clean, being fair, modest and content with what we have, praising others, being friendly, generous, preserving life and telling the truth. What is the manner of super inducing these habits in our youth? How can we super induce these habits when vice has taken over? A new moral development program within the curriculum of schools could assist society in the goal of enhancing virtue. It would need to be a well developed mechanism that teaches how to develop virtuous habits and how to transform vices. Such a program may help one to be better equipped to prevent vice. In addition, the seeds of virtue would be entrenched and ready to grow once we reach adulthood.
Traditionally the moral role may have been filled by religion which, due to the variety of cultures and people, it is left out of the current educational environment. Schools do teach morality and virtue to a degree, but in more of an indirect implied way. For example, if a student is caught lying then he/she may be given detention. Yet society does not systematically learn about liars and the habit of lying and telling the truth. People do not learn about what happens if an individual has a habit of being mean and how that affects work and family relationships. If children had the chance to know about adult character flaws, maybe they would consciously choose to develop positive, virtuous habits and prevent a negative habit from forming. Also, if adults had an awareness of common vices and the way in which they develop, they may learn how to modify them and decide to take another route instead of continuing on the same path. If the answer for the masses is in the control of education, then they would have the knowledge to change their habits into the direction of virtue.
A direction for further study may be to see if people who are truly happy and content, are also virtuous. It appears that individuals laden with vice or negative character states have darker dispositions yet this has not been proven substantially. People who are content happy and virtuous should be studied to provide evidence of what traits are needed to form a positive disposition, especially instructive would be to study individuals who used to be cruel then turned kind, or people who were lazy then became hard workers, because this knowledge could be applied in order to transform elements in society that may contribute to a negative life experience. It is unrealistic to think that there can be an end to vice or negative traits. They could be reduced if people had knowledge though, awareness itself may be a step in the right direction.
Kant (1993) mentions how humanity’s inclinations are “sources of want” and are “far from having absolute worth” and that we should focus on being free from them. (p.271). If he is referring to our desires relating to vice or our insatiable need to consume goods, then society would first have to know that these inclinations themselves are not virtuous. Again, this relates to definition and mixed messages. Businesses say buy more, people need many shoes, and people do not have enough. This may fuel inclinations because want in itself may arouse feelings of emptiness.
What would a curriculum formed with the goal of teaching virtue look like? It should be comprised of a committee of individuals who have been well known to be virtuous and content with life. These individuals would create the curriculum; they also would have to be somewhat of an accurate reflection of society in terms of age, gender and race. Their aims would be to establish bundles of habits that are positive in order to institute virtuous character states. These habits could include hands on activities that through practice would lead to desirable states of character. What is unknown is what qualities are missing that must be taught? A simple skill like being organized may prove invaluable as this skill can be carried virtually anywhere. Students could have hands on activities to teach on how to organize their living space, their time or even their thinking. Yet, in order to create a strong curriculum a committee would have to base its goals on research and the identification of what gaps that need to be filled. These gaps may change depending on the school environment itself.
Aristotle 2.(1993). Nicomachean Ethics.Great Books of the Western World(Book. 8, pp. 348-349). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Aquinas.(1993). Summa Theologica.Great Books of the Western World(Book. 18, p. 261). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Bacon.(1993). Advancement of Learning.Great Books of the Western World(Book. 28, p. 79). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Darwin.(1993). The Descent of Man.Great Books of the Western World(Book. 49, p. 319 and 592). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
James.(1993). Principals of Psychology.Great Books of the Western World(Book. 53, p. 83). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Kant.(1993). The Metaphysics of Morals.Great Books of the Western World(Book. 39, p. 271). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Lucretius.(1993). The Way Things Are Book 5.Great Books of the Western World(Book. 11, p.72). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Mill.(1993). On Liberty: Society and the Individual.Great Books of the Western World(Book. 40, pp. 304-305). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Plato. (1993). Timaeus.Great Books of the Western World(Book. 6, pp. 442-443). Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary. (2005). (p. 1397).Springfield: Merriam Webster.