A Moral Assignment

Terrence Moore

May 1, 2003

Human beings learn through imitation. Children learn to talk by mimicking their parents and others around them. They learn to sing by reproducing pitches they hear in music class or on the radio. They learn to think by observing how an older and wiser person draws conclusions from difficult mental puzzles. In all walks of life and in every career imitation is the gateway to mastery and, paradoxically, to independence. The most successful professionals can attribute much of their capacity in their jobs to "mentoring" by one or more teachers, trainers, or supervisors. The same is true of sports and the performing arts. Inner-city boys who play basketball for hours on end dream of being "like Mike." They copy his dunks, his lay-ups, his jump-shots. But did not Mike grow up imitating the likes of Dr. J? Similarly, the seven-time grammy nominee India Arie closely followed Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin in her youth. Jackie Chan owes much of his technique to a careful study of Bruce Lee. The question is whether imitation can be applied to the realm of morals. For not all of us can be famous performers. Yet each of us must perform morally from day to day in order to live responsibly in society.

Perhaps the most successful and popular moralist in our history is Benjamin Franklin. Many of the phrases he collected in his Poor Richards Almanac are still with us. "A penny saved is a penny earned." "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Franklin did not just preach morality to others. He lived according to a strict moral code. In his Autobiography, written so that others might imitate the means he employed to gain affluence, reputation, and happiness, Franklin outlined his moral regime. Franklin did not just try to become "a better person," as the phrase goes today. Rather, he tells us,

It was about this time [Franklin was in his mid-twenties] I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.

To arrive at moral perfection, Franklin created from his vast reading a list of thirteen virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. He then created a chart on which he would mark his violations of these virtues on a daily basis. Franklin figured that the nightly recollection of his faults would enable him to amend them in the future. Further, he would especially concentrate on one virtue per week in an attempt to master it completely. At the end of thirteen weeks, he should have become pretty close to perfect.

Franklin’s example has led me to develop a similar moral assignment for students. After discussing this part of the Autobiography in class, I have students create their own table of virtues. They should choose no fewer than four distinct virtues. They can draw from Franklin’s list, or from the classical virtues (prudence, courage, temperance, justice), Bill Bennett’s Book of Virtues, or the Bible. Then they should define them in their own words and illustrate how those virtues might be manifested. Adolescents may have few chances to display the courage that we equate with military heroism, for instance, but might show courage in resisting peer pressure.

Once students have created a table of virtues and defined them, they should begin monitoring their behavior. Every evening the student should fill out a chart that tracks his observance of the virtues by the day. It is not enough to mark the chart. Rather, the chart should be annotated with numbers and letters. The numbers could indicate faults; letters might show good deeds. On a separate sheet of paper the student should explain in a phrase or two what was done in violation or in support of each virtue. Thus, at the end of a few weeks of this exercise, the student will be able to see the number of faults committed and the number of good deeds performed. It was Aristotle who said that we become virtuous by practicing the virtues. Franklin offers an excellent example of how we might undertake the important self-evaluation that must attend moral practice.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.