Character: skill or virtue?

Sunday 21 October, 3.15pm until 4.45pm, Garden Room

‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man.’ So claimed Jesuit leader Ignatius Loyola. A recent Demos report agreed the early years are ‘the critical ones’, making parents the ‘primary character builders in society’. And the report this year by the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel called on schools to demonstrate how they are building pupils’ characters. There has been a resurgence of interest in ‘character’ and how it is formed, particularly in behavioural science – for example, how to stimulate the ‘forgiveness instinct’ by creating the right environment - and psychology. Is there really a crisis of character today? If not, why do so many think there is?

Character traditionally was seen as a matter of possessing virtues such as courage and wisdom. For Aristotle, in particular, excellence of character rested on the ability to make the right choice, determined by practical reason, between two extremes. Today it is often defined in terms of ‘capabilities’ like resilience, optimism, stoicism, altruism, emotional regulation and so on. Nevertheless, sceptics argue none of these can be taught, but are the outcome of moral choices, life experience, or are simply ‘virtues’.  Yet, encouraged by positive psychologists, even religious groups like the American Templeton Foundation are turning to positive psychology and neuroscience for more robust evidence about how to develop character in schools.

If science can help us teach character in this way though, even make our characters for us, does it take away our responsibility for the type of people we are, the lives we choose to lead? If being responsible is a key element of character, might it be the case that character is actually formed in adult life, after childhood? Should society even be in the business of assessing us as individuals, analysing what character deficiencies we might have? Are schools teaching character in fact practising indoctrination? Or is trying to assist the formation of our character with the latest science no more problematic than toning our muscles in the gym – the equivalent of a moral workout? Is it maybe even necessary in modern societies so riven by moral relativism that no grounds for agreement, other than scientific, exist?

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Ruth Gledhill
religion correspondent, The Times; journalism tutor, City University

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Kristján Kristjánsson
professor, character education and virtue ethics, Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, University of Birmingham

Ian Morris
head of wellbeing, Wellington College

Kathryn Ecclestone
professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)

Produced by
Kathryn Ecclestone professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)
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