Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
Divided We Stand

WILLIAM J. BENNETT (1995), The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories

How do we learn good character? Aristotle argued that we must begin with good “habits,” meaning not mindless behavioral conditioning, but patterns of increasingly intelligent choice guided by attachment and love. A child is initiated into good choices, in the first place, through the love and the gratitude of family attachments. But as age brings greater independence and the need for greater critical discernment, a central role will be played by paradigmatic examples of virtue, and those examples will be given in poems, stories, and dramas. Reflecting on these examples, often in the company of the parent, the child becomes increasingly adept at identifying real life situations that call for courage or friendliness or justice or generosity. And the fact that the child learns to associate these examples with intense love for the parent lends them a radiance that exercises, in later life, a special power.

William Bennett thinks that Aristotle is correct. He also believes that the project of forming good character can and should be undertaken in a democracy independently of political debate about the issues that divide us. Despite the many vexing issues that separate us, he argues, we can agree in a general way about the traits of character that distinguish a good person and a good citizen; and it should not be greatly controversial to say that these traits ought to include compassion, self-discipline, courage, honesty, perseverance, responsibility, the capacity for friendship, some sort of faith in goodness. And if we focus on the cultivation of these common traits, we will do better at the deliberative resolution of the divisive questions—better, for example, than if moral instruction is left entirely to religious or ethnic traditions that seem to differ about the fundamentals of morality.

In order to form character in this democratically shared way, Bennett continues, we must recover paradigms that we once shared as a nation, before the triviality of television absorbed most of our children’s attention,

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