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Virtue Ethics: An Ethical Development Program for High School Youth

About the Author

Jessica York is the director of the Faith Development office of the Unitarian Universalist Association. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, she previously served the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham as director of religious education for several years before joining UUA staff as the Youth Programs Director in 2007. She is an Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education trainer for the elementary level and has taught in public elementary schools with a focus on special needs and hearing impaired children. A former theater stage manager, Jessica has owned and consulted to programs providing theater arts education for children. She holds a B.A. in biology from Yale University and has done graduate work in fine arts at Tulane University. Her other Tapestry of Faith program includes Signs of Our Faith.

Judith A. Frediani is the the Developmental Editor for this program.

The Program

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. — Marcus Aurelius

We make hundreds of decisions every day. Some are small. Some are life changing, although we may not know their significance when we make them. This program's premise—in the words of the Buddha, recited in every workshop Opening—is that "our thoughts and actions become habits and our habits shape our character." We have some control over our character. We can shape the person we want to be by making intentional, thoughtful decisions.

In Workshop 1, youth explore how we make decisions. Subsequent workshops each present a virtue commonly considered ethical. Participants question what they have been taught about each virtue, how the virtue operates in the real world, and whether and how they might practice it. In each workshop, the youth practice ethical decision making in response to hypothetical situations and stories they share from their own experiences.

The virtues presented in this program were selected, from a large number one might cultivate, to provide a gateway into ethical decision making and character development. It is hoped that youth will use these virtues throughout their lives.


This program will:

  • Build capacity to identify messages received from media, family, religion, peers, and society about specific virtues, and to discern how to apply these virtues in real life
  • Demonstrate the healthy practice of virtues
  • Explore personal experiences relevant to a variety of virtues
  • Engage group processing of a variety of ethical dilemmas
  • Invite a grappling with ethical choices that pit one virtue or belief against another deeply held value
  • Encourage participants to lead intentional, ethical lives.


No particular background is needed to lead Virtue Ethics. Leaders should bring an open mind and an open heart. They should be ready to support youth to decide for themselves if and how they wish to practice virtues in their lives.

Look for leaders who are flexible and can stay calm and non-judgmental when youth share from personal experience. Leaders should understand their role as mandated reporters (see Before You Start). If the youth have had previous, positive experiences with a leader, that is a plus.

Youth Leadership

Because these workshops follow a standard template, it would be possible for youth to co-lead this program with adults. You could begin the program without a youth co-leader, and after presenting a few workshops ask if anyone would like to volunteer to assist in leading activities. Adult leaders often have more time and resources for preparation, so consider keeping those responsibilities yourself. If you decide to explore additional virtues not included in these workshops, seek topic suggestions from youth. Invite anyone who suggests a topic to help you plan and lead the workshop.


Virtue Ethics is designed for use with high school-age youth. All youth do not arrive at each developmental stage at the same time, yet knowing what to expect overall from fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds can be helpful, especially for first-time leaders. In her book, Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), Tracey Hurd discusses typical developmental characteristics of older youth:

  • practices increased cognitive skills
  • expresses growing interest in abstract values and moral principles
  • engages in moral relativism
  • becomes less egocentric and more interested in the larger society
  • struggles with gender and sexual identities
  • continues to develop ethnic or racial identity
  • needs to belong and have a sense of self worth
  • demonstrates empathy
  • conceptualizes religion as an outside authority that can be questioned
  • questions faith, sometimes leading to deeper ownership of personal faith or disillusionment
  • deepens or attenuates religious or spiritual identity
  • explores sexuality
  • navigates greater risks relating to alcohol, drug use, and unsafe sexual activity
  • sustains the personal fable that "it couldn't happen to me"
  • considers friendships and peers important, with some shifting of alliances.

Integrating All Participants

No one should be excluded from this program or its activities by real or perceived physical or other limitations. Inclusiveness sometimes requires adaptation; you may need to modify an activity or use an alternate activity to fully include youth with a range of physical and cognitive abilities and learning styles.

Take note of activities that might pose difficulties for youth who are differently abled. All spaces, indoor and outdoor, need to be accessible to anyone who might be in the group. Check the width of doorways and aisles, the height of tables, and the terrain of outdoor landscapes. When you will invite youth to write on posted newsprint, meet in small groups, gather around a centering table, or otherwise move about the space, make sure everyone can move as you are requesting, or adapt the activity. Strategize how you will include youth with sight or hearing limitations when an activity relies on these senses.

When possible, arrange volunteers to read aloud before a workshop and give them the written material in advance. Allow youth the opportunity to pass on any roles that require reading. Be prepared to support young people who wish to read, but need assistance.

Find out about participants' medical conditions and allergies, particularly to food. Make sure all your youth can eat the food you plan to use for an activity, or change the food.

Always be ready to do what is needed to keep the workshops safe for any participant who needs assistance or accommodation to ask for and receive it.

A helpful resource book is Sally Patton's Welcoming Children with Special Needs. The congregation's religious educator is another resource for making workshops as accessible and inclusive as possible.


An adolescent’s notion of family expands to include their close friends, while the home family remains a touchstone. This curriculum is designed to include the family and friends of participants as well as your wider faith community. Two features engage these important people in the program’s themes and ideas:

  1. Each workshop provides a Taking It Home handout with ideas for youth to lead conversations and activities with their friends and family. Collect the email addresses of participants’ parents/caregivers so you can send them the Taking It Home section after each workshop.
  2. Each workshop offers a Faith in Action activity. Most of these engage congregational leaders and/or parents/caregivers to interact with the youth about the topics the youth are exploring.

About the Author

Jessica York

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