“The purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would be of no benefit to us.”Prior to describing and giving them the assignment, we read Greg Bassham’s “Virtue-Centered Approaches to Education: Prospects and Pitfalls,” Virtues in Action, Michael W. Austin, ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 11-22. This set the stage and offered a rationale for completing this type of experiment, recognizing some of its potential strengths and weaknesses. We also read James Gould, “Becoming Good: The Role of Spiritual Practice,” Philosophical Practice 1, no. 3 (2005): 135–47, to offer a framework and some practical suggestions. And we discussed the relevance of the experiment to the theories and issues we studied over the course of the semester.
My hope was that experiment would benefit my students personally, now and in the future. My more limited hope was that by completing the assignments related to the experiment, they would at least get a better grasp of virtue ethics and the connections between character and daily life.
Rather than saying a lot about the experience, here is a description of the aims and purpose of the assignment. I’d be interested if others have tried anything like this, and what the results were. Overall, the student reaction was positive. Several said they didn’t initially like the idea, but ended up getting into it over the semester.
A key component of making this a successful exercise is giving them maximal freedom with respect to the intellectual and/or moral virtues they select. I gave them a link with a list of virtues/traits to consider, and we discussed others in class.
I will try this again, with some minor revisions. But overall I was happy with how it went. I felt a little awkward at the beginning of the semester when discussing the assignment, but I’m convinced that studying ethics should at least sometimes include opportunities for students to grow in the moral domain of life.