The Vickys: can you be paternalist without being patronising?

by | May 20, 2012

Two news stories caught my eye this weekend. Firstly, the British government wants to launch a voucher scheme so every parent can take parenting classes from a range of providers. One of them is called the Parenting Gym, and is owned by Octavius Black, the millionaire school-chum of David Cameron’s, who made his fortune through Mind Gym, a corporate well-being consultancy.

The other story was that the Templeton Foundation has given a multi-million-pound grant to Birmingham University to set up a Jubilee Values and Character Centre. The press release says:

How does the power of good character transform and shape the future of society? What would be the wider social, cultural and moral impact of a more grateful Britain?  What personal virtues should ground public service?  How can fostering character traits like hope and optimism be help working towards a better British society? The Centre will initiate a national consultation on a proposed curriculum policy for character building in schools, and will run a 10-year project at Birmingham called ‘Gratitude Britain’.

These are the two latest trumpet-blasts from a movement which has been dubbed the New Paternalism. The phrase originally appeared from Nudge psychologists like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who call their nudge policy interventions ‘libertarian paternalism’. They want to nudge people in pro-social directions without them realising it (hence it’s ‘libertarian’ – because the citizens are so dumb they don’t realise they’re being guided).

But there are other New Paternalists who are much bolder. They want to instil good values in the citizenry, create good habits, foster good character. They are similar to Victorian paternalists like Matthew Arnold, but they take his lofty Hellenic philosophy and try to put it on a firm evidence base, to create a science of resilience, optimism and other ‘character strengths’.

I call this movement the Vickys, after the tribe in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a steam-punk novel about a future society that has fragmented into a collection of tribes or ‘phyles’, each with their own culture and moral code – including a Nation of Islam tribe, a neo-Confucian tribe, and the Vickys, who are cyber-engineers and who follow Victorian customs. Basically, success in this society is all about what phyle has accepted you. Your character depends on your moral culture. The book tells the story of how the leader of the Vickys hires a nano-engineer to code an interactive ‘gentleman’s primer’ to cultivate the character of his niece – except it gets stolen and discovered by a street orphan, who subsequently rises to the top of her society.

The Vickys include Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychologists, who have got enormous backing from Templeton for their research into character strengths and resilience training, and who launched a $125 million course in resilience-training for the US Army. Like Stephenson’s Vickys, they want to create a computer-automated course in moral education – an app for character. The Vickys also include  include self-control psychologists like Roy Baumeister, and champions of ‘social and moral capital’ like Jonathan Haidt and Robert Puttnam.

In the UK, the Vickys include Wellington headmaster Anthony Seldon and his new colleague, the young former policy advisor James O’Shaughnessy, who has gone back to Wellington to set up a chain of Wellington academies; Matthew Taylor of the RSA; Matthew Grist and Jen Lexmond of Demos; the Young Foundation; David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine; Danny Kruger, another former Tory advisor who now runs a charity for former prison inmates; Lord Richard Layard of the LSE; and, more speculatively, Alain de Botton, whose more recent writings have called for a shift beyond liberalism and back to a more interventionist paternalism.

Anthony Seldon described the New Paternalist ethos in the Telegraph this week. He wrote:

Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age. A society that is not grounded in deep values, that doesn’t know who its heroes are and that lacks a commitment to the common good, is one that is failing. Such we have become… The riots in British cities in August 2011 were the catalyst for the creation [of the new Jubilee Centre for Character and Values]. As the fires subsided, a call was heard across the nation for a renewed emphasis on communal values and ethical teaching, which would discourage such events happening again. It is an indictment of us all that such a centre should ever need to have been established…The development of a sense of gratitude among people in Britain will be at the heart of the work. The character strengths it will advocate are self-restraint, hard work, resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, modesty, empathy, kindness and good manners. Old-fashioned values, maybe. Some will sneer, and ridicule them as middle class or “public school”. But these are eternal values, as advocated by Aristotle and countless thinkers since.

I am interested in this movement, and attracted to some aspects of it. My new book is about the contemporary fusion of virtue ethics with empirical psychology, and how this new fusion is being spread by public policy in schools, the army and beyond to foster character, resilience, eudaimonia and other such ideals. I got into the scene when Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped me overcome depression in my early 20s, and I then found out how much CBT owed to ancient Greek philosophy. I’m a huge fan of Greek philosophy and its practical therapeutic use today, so a part of me loves the renaissance of virtue ethics in modern policy.

But we have to be aware of the ideological and political context of these efforts in mass character education. It can all too easily seem like rich people telling poor people to buck up and be a bit more moral. It can ignore the economic and environmental context and how that dynamically feeds into character. I’m not saying character is entirely caused by economic context. But it’s certainly a factor – Aristotle himself knew that. He insisted eudaimonia was as much made up of external factors like wealth and the kind of society you live in. If you’re too poor or your society is too unequal, he warned, it would be very difficult for you to achieve eudaimonia or for your society to find the ‘common good’.

Jeffrey Lebowski

Rich people tend to attribute their success entirely to their character, as if they simply have the right values, and poor people are poor because they don’t.  Very rich people like Sir John Templeton or Andrew Carnegie love to think they became incredibly wealthy because they worked out the primal ‘laws of the universe’ – and then they go around giving money to people like Napoleon Hill or Birmingham University to prove it. They insist that anyone can become as rich as them, they just need to follow these basic cosmic laws. It’s the philosophy of Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire values-preacher in the Coen Brothers’ film. This laissez-faire / law of attraction philosophy goes down fairly well in America, because some millionaires like Carnegie really were self-made men – although look closer and you’ll see that an awful lot of America’s billionaires had the benefit of going to Yale or Harvard, like Templeton, Gates, Zuckerberg and others.

In the UK, it’s a lot harder to sell this emphasis on values and character, because we have a much more obviously class-ridden society, which is still to some extent disproportionately run by the 7%  who went to private schools. And almost all of the New Paternalists went to private school. It becomes hard to sell, basically, when a privileged clique insists that the riots are purely a question of bad values. It’s easier to have values like optimism when you grow up in an environment that tells you from the start that you are special, an environment that is filled with opportunities to develop your talents, that rewards effort, that creates the expectation of success, that gives you a sense from the start that you can influence your society. To create such an environment takes money (an average of £15,000 per pupil a year in independent schools, as opposed to £6,000 a year in the other 93% of the country).

On the other hand, if you grow up in a deprived inner city environment that is physically ugly, crowded, where crime pays (at least in the short-term), where there’s never enough money, where the government is seen as an intrusion and threat, where your school tells you to rein in your expectations, where you are constantly immersed in a media that celebrates everything you don’t have, that’s going to affect your values. As Jerome Kagan, the great neuro-psychologist, recently put it, the best prediction for depression is poverty. (On the other hand, growing up in a tougher environment may very well give you more resilience than a more protected environment. It may also give you a sense of indignation, quite different from the gratitude the Templeton Foundation wants to foster, that drives you to change your society).

So I think that if you want to sell values / character education, you need to be aware of this problem. You need to be aware of the dynamic interplay between environment and values, rather than focusing exclusively on the one or the other. And you need to ask yourself: what is the connection between values and character education, and politics – or between the cultivation of a good character, and the cultivation of a good society? In the service of what political ideology are you teaching values? And you can’t say ‘character has nothing to do with politics’. That in itself is a political, libertarian, laissez faire response.

I worry (and I’m not the only one) that a character education course that emphasizes optimism and gratitude is going to be laissez faire and in the service of the status quo. The emphasis on public service can also be quite laissez faire. It’s a public school ethos dedicated to serving Queen and Country – serving, rather than trying to reform the country. However, character education is not necessarily in the service of the status quo. There’s also a great tradition of values education on the Left, which tries to train young people both to engage with their society and change it – like the Joseph Rowntree Trust, for example.

Ideally, character education would not drill young people in any one ideology, whether that be laissez-faire capitalism or Quaker reformism. It would give them the capacity to critically reflect on all such values, to be aware of their flaws, to try and choose the best path for themselves. It wouldn’t ignore politics (we’re trying to create good citizens after all) but it wouldn’t become mindless propaganda either. That sort of nuanced approach is not easy. It takes money and leisure – and the sort of confident teacher who thrives on challenging feedback from their well-informed students. That’s why Aristotle thought philosophy could only the pursuit of propertied gentlemen.

West Point cadets

There’s a danger, again, of a class divide in our approach to values education. Take the US Army, which has long tried to teach values and character. The officer class study Hellenic philosophy at West Point, as part of the Cadet Leader Development Studies course. They get the opportunity and leisure to consider and reflect on values in a manner worthy of autonomous sovereign agents (or gentlemen). The privates, meanwhile, get drilled in resilient thinking by Martin Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness course. Their spiritual fitness is evaluated by a computer questionnaire and given an automatic score. There is no leisure to reflect on or criticise the values in which they are drilled. You couldn’t have an entire army of autonomous philosophers, could you? That has to be confined to the officer class.

Are we prepared, as a society, to try and create a society of autonomous citizens capable of critical and reflective thought? Or is that just for the officer class, while the foot-soldiers get drilled in unquestioned good habits?

I’ll end with a quote from Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, where Nell, the young orphan, learns the meaning of intelligence:

[Nell says:] “The Vickys have an elaborate code of morals and conduct. It grew out of the moral squalor of an earlier generation, just as the original Victorians were preceded by the Georgians and the Regency. The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code– but their children believe it for entirely different reasons.”

They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”

Yes. Some of them never challenge it– they grow up to be smallminded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel– as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”

“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”

Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded – they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”


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    Jules Evans is a freelance journalist and writer, who covers two main areas: philosophy and psychology (for publications including The Times, Psychologies, New Statesman and his website, Philosophy for Life), and emerging markets (for publications including The Spectator, Economist, Times, Euromoney and Financial News).

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