Training virtuous characters

There is a trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Up ahead, there are five people tied up on the tracks. Unable to move and the trolley is headed straight for them. Coincidently, you are in the direct vicinity of the situation, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different track. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. What would you do? Would you do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track? Or would you pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person? Which is the most ethical choice?


In a world that is getting more and more overheated, the use of a decent functioning moral compass is getting every more crucial. In my last blog post, I talked about the course ‘Marvellous Minds’ we designed for my school, The Hyperion Lyceum in Amsterdam. In this course, we confront our students with ethical dilemmas and train their critical thinking through the Socratic method. Our mission: by training critical thinking and globally engaged citizenship we can prepare our children for a uncertain and increasingly complex future.

The trolley problem is a classic in western philosophy. From the trolley dilemma, three major perspectives on ethics can be distinguished. I use this thought experiment to introduce three ‘marvellous minds’: Aristotle, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. I believe we can empower every student with a moral compass, by studying and internalizing precisely these three marvellous m­­inds.

John Stuart Mill represents the ‘utilitarian’ ethical school. For Mill, an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce the reverse of happiness—not just the happiness of the performer of the action but also that of everyone affected by it. Such a theory is in opposition to egoism, the view that a person should pursue his own self-interest, even at the expense of others, and to the other two perspectives, which regards some acts as right or wrong independently of their consequences. Utilitarianism also differs from ethical theories that make the rightness or wrongness of an act dependent upon the motive of the agent; for, according to the Utilitarian, it is possible for the right thing to be done from a bad motive. Mill would have pulled the lever, no questions asked (source:

On the other hand, there is Immanuel Kant, who represents ‘deontological’ ethics. Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon). From this follows his famous categorical imperatives (1) act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law (2) act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end. Kant would have not pulled the lever, because that would imply one would use the person bound on the tracks as a means to an end.

Aristotle, finally, represents the ‘virtuous’ ethical school. Aristotle believes character traits of a person can be trained by phronesis, or ‘moral wisdom’. The person who possesses a virtuous character does the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way. Compassion is one example of a virtue. Compassion is found by closely studying two extremes, for example selfishness and altruism. A virtuous character would have known what to do in the trolley problem, or any other ethical dilemma, because it derives from his character excellence.

From these perspectives, students tackle a number of ethical dilemmas, that range from current affairs to medical ethics. Using the Socratic method, students are challenged to look at the case from three different perspectives. The ultimate goal of this exercise is to train their ability to make ethical decisions in real-life. For this reason, students are also given an assignment where they need to incorporate the three perspectives on ethics in their own life’s. Students keep a ‘philosophical diary’ where they evaluate an ethical decision they make each day, by commenting on the situation from the perspective of Aristotle, Mill and Immanuel Kant. For instance, one girl found herself in a situation where a group of her friends were gossiping quite badly about one of her other friends. Instead of yielding, she stood up to her friend. In her diary, she wrote Kant would have been proud of her!

Imagine what would happen to the world, if it would be composed of virtuous characters who promote compassion and act in such a way that they always treat humanity never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.


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