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Happy New Year to all my readers!

Happy New Year to all my readers!

Matthew Taylor posts on Demos' report on character. Whilst he is generally welcoming of it, he raises some questions . First, he asks whether character capabilities always come as a bundle, so that having one means having all the others. Second, he asks whether it is really a good thing to possess  such capabilities if they might do nothing more than support a complacent and self-interested middle-class lifestyle.

In response to the first question, it would seem that character capabilities do come as a bundle. The writers of the Demos report define character as application (sticking at things, being able to focus and concentrate), self-regulation (regulating one's emotions) and empathy. It would be hard to exercise application if one was constantly distracted by powerful emotional surges. Similarly, empathising with others depends on one's own emotions not continuously dominating. And the other way round: not being distracted by one's own emotions unduly requires learning how to empathise with others and focus one's attention.

The second question is whether character capabilities are necessarily good to possess - what about the individual who overcomes terrible experiences to become a brave person who does great things despite his or her initial circumstances? My response here is that people like this are probably the exception rather than the rule, and policy is about the many not the few.

Nevertheless, there is definitely a problem with a morally evacuated sense of character - one where the capabilities are simply skills that enhance (narrowly conceived) life chances. As Matthew Taylor says it is important to think of character in social terms. This means that developing it should not only enable autonomy, but also responsibility to others. But again, I feel that these characteristics go together - to be autonomous (to be able to run one's own life) consists in possessing a socially acquired repertoire of skills that are sustained through continued social support. But it also depends on being able to see where one's responsibilities lie so that one can get on with others, sustain friendships, be a good neighbour and so on. If one cannot get along with others in this way, one will not be much good at navigating different social terrain, and thus not that good at directing one's life. Similarly, being responsible to others depends in part on being able to successfully run one's own life. If one cannot, one cannot very easily motivate oneself to be there for one's friends, neighbours, family and colleagues.

There are of course lots of shades of grey where autonomy and responsibility drift apart a little. Someone might be great at supporting others but rubbish at directing their own careers and thinking about their own well-being. And someone can be responsible to others in a self-serving and instrumental way - being seen as a 'good person' only for self-gain.

Ultimately I think character capabilities should be viewed as a core set of skills all should have the chance to possess. Beyond that, the more substantive morality that guards against people employing character capabilities to be complacent and self-serving is best left to the implicit social norms we understand and pass on to one another. So while I agree with Philip Blond and Edward Skidelsky that character must ultimately be guided by a substantive morality, I don't think such a morality should be pursued or promoted by policy-makers (and I certainly don't agree with Blond's quasi-medievelist moral order). Let people keep passing on and adjusting variations of the morality we all broadly share for themselves, making sure policy-makers do not have too much influence on the ever-evolving patchwork of habits, practices and institutions that store it.

To promote character in this way is not to indulge in egregious social engineering - people are simply not that one-dimensional. If a schoolkid at Mossbourne Academy in Hackney learns character capabilities at school, he or she is not now paternalistically shaped into some middle class ideal of a person. He or she has simply learnt a new set of skills. What lifestyle he or she chooses is now more open, including completely rejecting middle class values. So character education should be about enabling people to be more autonomous and responsible, not making them be autonomous and responsible in a particular way. The way people employ the skills they learn will depend on the web of morality and norms they inherit, and their own reaction to that web. Let's leave that bit to them.


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