Publisher’s Letter: Virtue and Moral Education

Last November, New York Times columnist David Brooks visited campus to speak on his April 2001 article in The Atlantic, “The Organization Kid.” In his original article, Brooks laments students’   inability to communicate using a ”concrete and articulated moral system” – that is a moral language. One important benefit of Brooks’ visit is that it has inspired a renewed conversation among the student body about the status of our moral language as a whole. Obviously, every student has different experiences, but speaking anecdotally, it has been marvelous to have had conversations in these last few weeks with students who have taken some of Brooks’ critiques of the “Organization Kid” culture to heart. Similarly at the Daily Princetonian, opinion pieces have been published recently in an attempt to work through some of the implications of and solutions to Brooks’ observation.

This is excellent and commendable, but not enough. Surely, more important than a robust moral language is a robust moral life. While a moral language is an important step towards moral life, moral education is ultimately a necessary step in the pursuit of a moral life. It is very good for us, as Princeton students, to be able to articulate our moral commitments in clear and useful ways. However, it is far better, and far more important, that we are committed to living good lives, in the holistic sense of the word

In my mind, virtue-language provides an excellent way for us to orient our moral language towards living a moral life. Many moral terms such as “good” seem virtually useless in moral discourse because of the wide variety of meanings the terms may have from person to person. Virtue-terms, such as “honesty” and “integrity” and “humility” can mean different things to different people, to be sure, but this variation seems to be less salient. A moral language of virtue is particularly powerful as it can exist as a bridge between the moral life in theory and the moral life in practice. It is all well and good to tell someone, “You ought to be good;” it is far more useful to outline what it is about justice and compassion and humility which align with the good.

In light of this, I am honored to introduce this issue of the Tory. A number of articles in this issue deal in the language of virtue, both implicitly and explicitly. “The Tree that Pruned Itself,” an allegory written by the late J. Packard Laird ’42 examines the twin virtues of integrity and justice and the interaction of the two as one thinks about the good of the individual in the context of community. Kristen Kruger ‘14 exhorts students on campus to action in the area of Education Reform, highlighting civic engagement as a virtue for Princeton students to cultivate. In our Last Word, Zach Horton ‘15 reminds us of a virtue which is all-too-often forgotten in political and social discourse – the virtue of humility. Horton makes a convincing case that neglecting the virtue of humility prevents us from being apt servants of our nation and our world.

“But just why ought I to be just, or compassionate, or humble, in the first place?” some are almost inevitably asking. There is not room enough in the remaining space for the ethical argument to be made, and academic discussion on this point and related ones goes on vigorously every day. But for the everyday student, it does seem intuitively, that given the choice between being compassionate and cruel; between being just and unjust; between being humble and arrogant, one must always choose the former rather than the latter and cherish the former as virtues and condemn the latter as vices. Furthermore, one ought to be able to give reasons for one’s choices in a clear and articulate manner.

Moral education must be an education in moral articulation towards the purpose of living a good life, and this cannot be achieved solely in reading challenging texts or going to interesting lectures. This is because it must emphasize the practice of virtue in one’s everyday life. None of us intuitively behaves virtuously all the time. Instead, we must be in the business of cultivating virtuous habits, such that kindness and reasonableness and temperance become second-nature. In doing this we become virtuous.


Toni Alimi ‘13

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