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Deliberate Moral Introspection: A Sense of Humanity Through Humility

The following article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of Saint David's Magazine

“Humility, that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.”(1)

I’m at Saturday soccer in my children’s township league. The day is a bit dreary. I’m with several parents watching my son’s team play another. He was purple playing yellow. Standing next to me is Gordon, an affable, pretty intense kind of a guy, slightly older than I.

I’ve seen him before, we’ve had a chat once or twice, as dads do at games. Gordon’s son Jack is also playing. He is big, fast, aggressive, good with the ball—an object he tenaciously holds on to whenever he has it, which is almost all the time. Jack rarely passes. We are more than half way through the season and after weeks of this dominance, other boys on the team have become visibly sullen. Many of their parents have too, but no one wants to be the one who says something. In contrast, Gordon seems either unaware or unaffected by this resentment: he is quite pumped; his son scores so many of the goals.

As this is getting to be a bit much, I consider saying something to Gordon or to the coach. Before I can do anything, Gordon confides in me, almost conspiratorially that “someone has complained to the coach about Jack’s domination.” Gordon then proceeds to tell me he does not take it lightly, but Jack struggles in school. “I’m not going to talk to him about it,” Gordon tells me. “Soccer is his life; it’s the only place he shines.”(2)

Parenting is a moral task. By extension, in loco parentis, teaching is too.

There can be a strong pull for us as parents to focus almost exclusively on the happiness of our children. However, we can’t always be the fixer or the problem solver in their lives. The principle of being the parent or teacher of a child who is a good person is more important than how much he likes “me” or how happy he is in any given moment.

In contrast, if we make happiness the goal of our parenting and by extension our teaching, we can actually inhibit the development of the essential “moral” core in the humanity of our children. Ultimately, an emphasis on happiness for its own sake can come at the expense of developing in our children a sense of responsibility to the “other.”

My friend Gordon is going too far. He is so focused on promoting Jack’s happiness that he is failing to help Jack develop a basic capacity to tune into other children. He is losing an opportunity to help Jack better connect with peers; to cultivate meaningful, reciprocal relationships.

Without some degree of moral awareness, or moral motivation, contentment and self-satisfaction can breed indifference. This is what is happening with Jack — despite his well-intended dad’s best efforts. As parents and teachers our job is to keep it real. To help our sons seek the truth.

Learning how to truly think, to seek truth, requires the development of a set of Intellectual Virtues: love of truth, honesty, fair mindedness, perseverance, courage, good listening, empathy, wisdom, and humility. (3)

These are virtues that can’t be developed outside some kind of moral framework. At Saint David’s, we use the teachings of the Catholic faith as a framework to help cultivate a disciplined “morally informed” mind, but it can be any religion or philosophy that speaks to a set of higher ideals. Whether on the sports field or in the classroom these intellectual virtues help us help our sons focus more on their inner moral lives as they navigate the sometimes complex road of life — giving them a framework for thinking that challenges them constantly to question their own action and behavior. As parents and educators intent on helping them aspire to be good men, we must look for opportunities to teach them, in addition to the widely referenced cardinal and theological virtues, intellectual virtues such as:

Love of Truth:  It’s not only about answering the question correctly; but also seeking the truth. This is especially important today. Bias saturates the airwaves, overtly and subtly, and we tend to watch and read that which reinforces our point of view, or our parents’ point of view. To teach our boys to seek the truth we must have them question, dig, explore broadly, and develop an argument for an opposing view. It is important to help them learn too, that the truth is not always pretty. It is why we so often avoid it, and it’s also why we go with what is consonant to what we feel.

But the truth is absolute. We must learn to find it and face it; learn how to balance our own perceptions of the world — often informed by our biases — with those of others. Quite often our boys may perceive themselves as telling the truth, but do not realize their own bias therefore limiting their sense of the truth. Facing the bias, truly entertaining alternate viewpoints, is critical to an educated mind. Gordon wasn’t doing this.

Honesty:  It starts with teaching boys how to be honest with themselves. Boys who are honest with themselves understand that there are limits to their knowledge and that the realities of the world aren’t always what they seem.

Fair Mindedness:  For boys to be able to listen to arguments they must accept that other viewpoints have validity. This requires a certain intellectual discipline, flexibility, and a cognitive willingness to keep the mind open. Parents and teachers of “the good” must constantly look for opportunities to do this with their boys.

Perseverance:  No matter a boy’s ability, he needs to know it takes a certain amount of effort and work in order to think and learn. You’re only learning when you’re struggling. If it’s easy, you’re not learning; you already know it. In educational circles we refer to this as “the zone of proximal development.”

Courage:  A boy with intellectual courage will speak up in periods of dissent and take the risk to question and venture into new and unfamiliar territory. He will lend himself to another person and will see the value of standing up for another. We must find opportunities to encourage and promote courage, especially with respect to teasing and bullying — both unavoidable aspects of growing up.

Good Listening:  “It is the mark of an educated mind,” Aristotle wrote, “to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” I think this says it all in regards to good listening. There are not many examples of this in our popular culture and it has all but disappeared from our political discourse. Some would argue this inability to entertain a thought without accepting it is even creeping into our higher education and other spheres of intellectual and higher level public speak, yet it is the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy.

Empathy, including perspective taking:  It’s important to help our sons learn to walk in another man’s shoes. We should look for every opportunity to teach our boys to take the third person perspective by modeling it, practicing it, and doing it with them. A great question when playing Monday morning quarterback, after the dust has settled from an argument or challenge: “Being your best self, how would you handle it?”

Wisdom:  It is the understanding of the relative importance of different virtues and the ability to keep them in balance. It’s impossible to have everything or to do everything—that’s the very definition of a moral dilemma. We must demonstrate this whenever we can, by engaging in exercises that model weighing the better of two not so great outcomes.

Humility:  An appreciation for the other, a mutual respect that is held at the core of one’s being, humility is the essential ingredient for moral growth.

It is an understated gift of grace, a de-emphasis on the “I” and the “me.” It’s what we are ultimately looking to cultivate in a Saint David’s boy. It’s the cultivation of a sense of humility that enables us to develop an appreciation for a sense of humanity.

I am reminded of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, when he says, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” For our boys to aspire to be good, they must recognize they have a responsibility to a larger, more important universal sense of humanity—a responsibility to those who have lived before and for those who have yet to live, for those less fortunate, in need, or for those being persecuted. They are a part of something much bigger and much more important than themselves.

The cultivation of humility can enable our sons to develop an appreciation for this sense of humanity. This is what we are trying to teach our sons when our mission calls upon us as parents and teachers to foster and cultivate “the moral” in “deliberate moral introspection.”

The self becomes stronger by being known, not praised. As champions of the mission of this school, we must help our boys recognize that how we feel or how we think isn’t enough; above all else stand the ideals we hold ourselves to, the values we immerse ourselves in, how we want to be seen. We want to add through education a values layer to how our boys see themselves — to develop in them a sense of right and wrong, not only between themselves, but within themselves. The virtues — whether cardinal, theological, or intellectual — the values and morals we instill are another code to the way our boys experience and conduct themselves over time.

We must take the time to know our sons, not just praise them. We have to resist the fundamental human urge to be Gordons.

By David O'Halloran, Headmaster, Saint David's School


1.    Thomas More in Gould, H. and Hessenmueller, E. (1904). “Best Thoughts of Best Thinkers.” Cleveland: Best Thoughts Pub. Co.

2.    Story inspired by Weissbourd, Richard. (2009). “The Parents We Mean to Be.” Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt: New York, whose experience reminded me of one I had.

3.    Intellectual virtues are drawn in part from: Chronicle of Higher Education, “What Learning How to Think Really Means.” Barry Schwartz, June 18, 2015.


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