Academic journal article Journal of Character Education

THE FAMILY AS MORAL CENTER: An Evolutionary Hermeneutic of Virtue in Family Studies

Academic journal article Journal of Character Education

THE FAMILY AS MORAL CENTER: An Evolutionary Hermeneutic of Virtue in Family Studies

Article excerpt

Moral development fosters virtue, character, and a sensitivity to know when and how to act. Families serve as crucibles for moral development. They are expected to develop moral strength in their members by instilling virtuous character, but what does this mean for contemporary families? The purpose of this paper is to promote the use of virtue ethics as a means of moral education in family life. A definition of virtue and virtue ethics is presented in order to clarify the meaning of these concepts. An evolutionary hermeneutic is then presented as a basis for considering the cardinal virtues as basic content for moral education in the family context.

The social nature of human existence is expressed through ongoing interpersonal interaction. The need to belong provides a powerful motivation for individuals to nurture close connections with others such as those evident in family relationships (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Reis, Collins, & Berscheid, 2000). Yet, people are not inherently competent in establishing relationships. They must learn how to interact with others, and how to develop and maintain relationships (Saunders, 1990; Thompson, 1988). Intimate relationships necessitate the recognition of rights and responsibilities that must be protected and regulated for people to live together in harmony. However, for people to act in a manner that respects these rights and responsibilities requires the development of moral sense. Moral development fosters virtue, character, and a sensitivity to know when and how to act (Walker & Pitts, 1998). Moral action is thus the concrete manifestation of virtue and character. The traits or qualities that make it possible for people to live well among others are constitutive of virtue.

Virtue is part of the fabric of everyday life. It is woven into the entire web of moment-by-moment living. The "topography of the moral ecology" in which humans exist is directed at efforts to discover and live the good life; that is, a healthy, socially useful and fully developed life. The values and goods inherent in this moral ecology present reasons for moral action (Brinkmann, 2004). Yet, the key question is how people realize such a life. Although most individuals have figuratively been given lists of acts that they should never do, they receive little guidance about whom they should be or how they should act to become better people. Families are expected to convey this knowledge; that is, the domestic sphere is one of the most influential domains in which individuals learn (or fail to learn) to be moral.

The family as moral center is a particularly apt metaphor because it provides a fundamental environment in which the moral potential of children can be cultivated. Most children reside and mature in familial settings where the sense of virtue and formation of character reinforces the moral lifestyles essential for a civil society. Such instruction must begin in early childhood and be reinforced consistently over time. This idea is not new. Hauerwas (1985) also referred to families as "schools of character." Virtue and character are nurtured in a formative community like the family rather than deduced through autonomous reasoning (Sandage & Hill, 2001). Thus, families serve as crucibles for moral development.

Virtue refers to a disposition to lead a good life by identifying choices and behavior that promote human well-being. It provides standards for conduct that makes life go well for people. Virtue is not only necessary for proper actions but also indicative of good character. Hence, virtuous people not only make better citizens but the best family members, because they are capable of not letting their own wishes lead to actions that are detrimental to family members, other individuals, or their community.

Virtues are widely regarded by the general public as important aspects of interpersonal relationships, even though scholars in the empirical sciences have not accorded them prominent attention (Fowers & Tjeltveit, 2003). …

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