Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Character Experiment

During the Spring 2015 semester in my introductory ethics courses, I tried something new that I first heard about through my friend Russell DiSilvestro. I suspect this assignment will sound strange to many philosophy professors. I asked the students to complete a project, “The Character Experiment,” in which they would pick 3 virtues to attempt to cultivate over the course of the semester.
“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.


  1. Wow Mike. This is really awesome. I want to try it next time I teach ethics. What a great idea!

  2. I have done something like this with my high school students in Moral Thology class. The assignment involved picking a virtue the student thought they wanted to develop, reading two or three accounts of it (several books out there devoting chapters on specific virtues) and then identifying three specific ways to practice the virtue of their choice. After giving feedback on this, the students practiced the virtue for two weeks. The final part of the assignment was a reflective piece looking at how it went (getting into the habit, doing it), how they felt after doing it, and what they noticed about the others who they lived with because they were practicing this virtue. I got some very perceptive reflections.

  3. This sounds great. Are there any virtues that students seem especially interested in cultivating?

  4. I had a list, but can't locate it. From memory, many wanted to pursue something like self-confidence. Others focused on self-control, patience, and "openness". Several focused on the theological virtue of faith. There was a pretty wide spectrum, and some of the traits they selected might not land on everyone's virtue lists, but the point was to get them to focus on a trait they thought was a virtue, and to try and cultivate it, so I didn't evaluate their selections, just their reflections about the process.


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