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Shaping Character & Instilling Ethos through Institutions

Shaping Character & Instilling Ethos through Institutions

About this Workstream

Today many British institutions have lost not only public trust, but also their ethos, sense of purpose and their traditional sustaining culture. The NHS has been implicated in massive scandals of appalling care and resultant cover-ups. The journalistic profession has undergone moral collapse, threatening the lives and dignity of those subject to their malpractice. The Police have been hit by the revelations of systemic incompetence and corruption. Trade unions have become lobby groups of static self-interest.


The teaching profession is now deeply confused as to its purpose and function. Churches and their priests are no longer respected, sometimes with good reason. Politicians, despite our low expectations, continue to surprise us with their latest scandal or expenses claim, and trust in government has plunged to a historic low. The moral crises of the last 15 years have fragmented our shared sense of values and culture. This situation driven by institutional failure, loss of political authority and confusion as to rights and responsibilities, has left many of us proud of little that we share in common. We regularly denounce our history without knowing or thinking what would have triumphed if we had not. We have lost a general and a specific idealism. For how can we know the good if we do not believe in it.

We need, in resistance to all of the above, to recover and renew habitual practices of virtue that allow us to know and recognise the good.

From the family to community, locality and then nation and world: the habits of virtue continue to be learned and strengthened in the context of wider social relationships. Institutions are crucial in establishing recognition, knowledge and practice of the good. Without institutions that teach the ‘objective goods’ by which all can flourish, we will only ever teach self-interest which will eventually diminish and harm us all. And this is not some vague flourish of words, bad behaviour comes with real economic costs. For example in a period of just five years ten of the world’s leading banks have racked up fines and other costs of poor conduct totalling some £150 billion. In contrast to institutions where virtue is instilled and practised, such as our most successful schools, hospitals and businesses, we glimpse the very best attributes of our society. Institutions with a strong shared ethos not only survive but thrive over the long term. Renewed habitual practices of virtue of doing what is right and doing what is in the wider interest are developed collegially, this needs to be the core purpose of all our civil, financial and public institutions. The importance of our institutions will therefore be as centres that foster the strengthening of virtue and support the discernment of purpose and excellence in their members.

Institutional life begins at home. Crucial in this regard is the human family – an institution designed to fight poverty and combat personal estrangement. The family is the basic social building block of any stable polity. To deny this is to condemn most people to loneliness and permanent isolation, as happiness is a good rarely secured by oneself alone. The family is the first unit where an ethos of virtue can become established. We therefore need to both revere families as the primary source of learning and character formation, and offer support especially in times of struggle and difficulty so that family breakdown can be prevented or mitigated.

Similarly local communal and social relations are vital to link personal with public goods, learning to honour other people for acting well allows us to create public recognition of the praiseworthy and the worthwhile. In a like manner companies and businesses that wish to succeed need to engender an ethos of excellence and service around what they produce rather than pursuing ends (such as profit) that are different from their means. Produce the right product with the highest degree of excellence and expertise you can and then profit and return will follow, whereas pursue profit regardless of what you produce and failure and collapse are just around the corner.
The need for shared public goods is most clearly demonstrated in our democratic institutions from the local to European level which are facing unprecedented crises of public confidence. The sense of disenfranchisement is only too apparent in recent election results and turnout. This is not merely a crisis of democratic deficit but a fundamental lack of a clearly articulated and understood common purpose. We need to see, alongside the decentralisation of political power and authority, the renewal of our political institutions by establishing a strong culture of shared public goods, aimed at and practised by the public institutions we fund through taxation.
We all at base know the good and recognise the good, we have simply forgotten its practice and so do not know how to bring it about in our lives. The recovery of shared goals, common practice and institutions that believe in, inculcate and advocate common goods is we contend, vital to all our futures.

We believe not only that this is what the British people need but also what they deeply desire and would vote for.