Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Virtue Ethics: An Ethical Development Program for High School Youth

Alternate Activity 3: The Charioteer

Part of Virtue Ethics

Activity time: 20 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Copy the handout for all participants.
  • Read the Description of Activity and familiarize yourself with the spoken material so you can present it to the group in your own words.

Description of Activity

Distribute Handout 1, Ethical Theories Chart.

Tell the group that throughout time, many different theories have been put forward concerning how we make ethical decisions and a few are detailed on this chart.

Have volunteers read the chart.

Invite someone to put forward a simple ethical dilemma. If none is forthcoming, suggest this one: You are going to visit someone in a retirement home. On the steps, you find a $10 bill. What do you do?

Ask participants to answer the question and supply their reasoning using the different ethical theories in the chart.

Say, in your own words:

David Starr Jordan said, "Wisdom is knowing what to do next. Virtue is doing it." Jordan, born in 1851, was an accomplished and successful scholar, teacher, and author. He was one of the first to teach evolution at American universities. His study and cataloging of fish species is legendary. He was a prolific author, with dozens of books published and was at one time the best-selling author of Beacon Press, a UU publishing company. At the age of 34, he became president of Indiana University, making him the youngest university president ever appointed. Later, he was appointed president of Stanford University. High schools and scientific prizes are named after him. He was a charter member of the Sierra Club, president of the National Education Association (NEA), and an honorary associate of the Smithsonian Institute, which offered him positions he declined because he believed he could do more good working in education. Jordan was also a vocal peace activist, serving as director of the World Peace Foundation and receiving the Herman Peace Prize for the best educational plan for preserving world peace. His call for an end to war is viewed by many as a virtuous act. Do you agree or disagree?

David Starr Jordan was also a eugenicist. Eugenics, as defined on the website, is "the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics)." One of David Starr Jordan's primary criticisms of war was that it eliminated the strongest and most fit members of a society, and thus weakened the gene pool. He was a founding member of a eugenics organization that promoted compulsory sterilization of the less fit members of society (though he himself did not advocate for this) and he wrote The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races through Survival of the Unfit in 1902. It was published by the American Unitarian Association. In fact, his parents were Universalists and he was a friend and colleague of many UUs. Does this surprise you? Disappoint you? Is any organization or individual always right or virtuous? What do you think about that?

Today, many people would not find his position on eugenics virtuous. However, eugenics-based on misinterpretation of Darwin and evolutionary theory-was popular among American scholars in the late nineteenth century and among Americans in general in the early twentieth century. Ivy League universities and other colleges taught courses in eugenics. Eugenic beliefs in the fit versus the unfit in society were used as an argument to create laws supporting segregation, immigration restriction, and forced sterilization so that a person could not physically reproduce. Though eugenics became unpopular after Nazi Germany's effort to create a super Aryan race, you can still find traces of this way of thinking among white supremacist groups and in other places. In 2011, North Carolina became the first state to consider reparations to victims of forced sterilizations, which were legal in 33 states for much of the twentieth century. Most of the people forced to be sterilized were declared unfit because of mental or physical disability, poverty, criminal records, or race or ethnicity.

During its popularity, proponents of eugenics would have thought that trying to improve the gene pool of the human race was a virtuous act. This raises a number of questions: How timeless are virtues? Does what we call virtuous behavior depend on the time, the place, and other environmental factors? Does the fact that we do not always act virtuously, or the fact that virtues may not be eternal, negate their usefulness as tools to help us shape our own character and live our daily lives?

This program is based upon what is commonly called "virtue ethics." It corresponds to the Aristotelianism column on the chart in the handout. It is one way of thinking about ethical decision making. As the chart demonstrates, it is not the only way. Aristotle's ideas about ethics and virtuous living are similar to the ideas of Confucius in ancient China; the entire religion of Confucianism is based upon ethical decision making.

Some of Aristotle's ideas about virtue ethics are outdated. For example, he likened the brain during decision making to a chariot. The horses were our emotions, which are base, animalistic things, wanting to run wild and unfettered. Thankfully, the chariot has a charioteer to keep things under control. The charioteer is reason. Aristotle saw decision making as a struggle between reason and emotions. The best decisions were made when reason was in total control. You can also envision this as a battle between the heart and the head. Where else have you heard the heart/head dichotomy used to distinguish two different ways of being? Have you heard the term "bleeding heart liberal?" Does this phrase-used derisively by conservatives-imply that some liberals are ruled by the heart instead of the brain? And that this is not a good thing?

We know from our story about modern brain science that this is a false analogy. Both the emotions and reason are used when we make decisions and some decisions are best made by the emotional part of the brain. Does the fact that Aristotle's charioteer theory is wrong negate the usefulness of virtue ethics?

Aristotle's charioteer and the eugenics movement in the United States are two examples that illustrate how complex ethical decision-making can be. During our program, we will wrestle with complexities. I can promise you, we will not always get it right. Yet, I believe trying to consciously make virtuous, ethical decisions is better than the alternatives: Leaving it up to chance, or letting others make our decisions for us.

What do you think? What value do you see in using virtues as a tool to make ethical decisions?