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Open-mindedness and Judgment: A Character Strength on the Fence

written by Aren Cohen 12 March 2015

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

Author’s note: I will be back tomorrow with the rest of the story, includign an examination of open-mindness and judgment in movies like Selma.

At some point, I became aware of the notion that “One man’s hero is another man’s terrorist.” In graduate school, the professor most interested in studying this strange dichotomy was Jonathan Haidt. In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he makes the controversial statement that the “turn away from character ethics to quandary ethics has turned moral education away from virtues and toward moral reasoning.” His assertion captures my attention.

Can character, rather than quandary, ethics help answer the puzzle of what qualifies a terrorist or a hero?

If we accept the notion that studying the virtues that make up character is more effective than using logic and reason to solve either specific or general ethical dilemmas, how can we put this into practice establishing our own moral behavior and conveying ethics to children?

More than any other strength listed in Seligman and Peterson’s VIA strengths, does the dual natured character strength, Open-Mindedness and/or Judgment, help us balance between emotion and logic to find answers to moral questions, and shape our collective future?

Haidt’s discussion of types of ethics falls in a chapter called The Felicity of Virtue. By examining the history of virtue, Haidt notes that Immanuel Kant and other philosophers made a critical shift when they began to examine questions of right and wrong from the point of view of logic and law rather than emotion and behavior. This shift created an ethical system based on thoughts and questions (hence quandary ethics) and moved Western society away from morality based upon virtue to a moral system based upon reason.

A large part of positive psychology, particularly the work of Seligman and Peterson, has been a reexamination of character strengths and virtues. The twenty-four strengths they catalogued as essential tools for human flourishing herald a return to character rather than question based morality. Within the framework of positive psychology, being moral is most often to behave with compassion or wisdom and to exercise creativity and curiosity, at least in service of the greater good.

A Character Strength on the Fence
The character strength of Open-mindedness or Judgment becomes a sticky one precisely because it straddles a boundary between character and questioning ethics. Open-mindedness seems to stem from compassion and a sense of tolerance and receptivity. It is open mindedness that allows us to even consider that our “terrorist” could be someone else’s “hero.”

Conversely, judgment implies logic and rationality (killing people is wrong), as well as a determination that one option is superior to another (9-11 was wrong, the story of an American Sniper in the Iraq war is justified and/or acceptable).

How do we successfully exercise judgment, or behave open-mindedly? Are our determinations of what is considered “ethical” best when we operate in the realm of emotion, or are we better served when our prefrontal cortex is hard at work doing calculus to help us judge what is right in others and ourselves?

Building Open-mindedness and Judgment

My students, ranging in age from 7 to 18, must learn how to build their sense of right and wrong themselves. However, there are moments when I can influence their thinking, and bring to light the virtue of Open-Mindedness or Judgment. When I see them behaving in ways that are virtuous, I commend them. Over the years I have often let students know that I recognize their creativity, humor, curiosity, or kindness. These positive labels have stuck, and three or four years later, it is gratifying to see the kids continue to exhibit the same traits.

While many of the other VIA strengths are easy to identify and celebrate in students, open-mindedness and judgment are more challenging. Often I find myself commending my students for their “good judgment,” when they report their own behavior to me, usually when they announce that they opted to study rather than engage in the temptation of texting with friends or watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on their iPads. This type of judgment is extremely personal, and is specifically related to their behaviors. In these situations, kids quickly understand how their choices affect their personal outcomes.

However, letting students explore the ideas of “open-mindedness” and “judgment” in a broader sense is usually the stuff of history class, as we reflect upon our past and see what lessons we can learn. Recently Lizzy, a tenth grader, has been reading selections of primary sources and historians writing in the 19th and 20th Centuries about three topics: Science, Race, and Nationalism. The Science readings are 19th Century writings that are interpretations of Darwin’s theory of evolution and “Survival of the Fittest.” They demonstrate how Europeans applied Darwin’s hypotheses about the Animal Kingdom to the human race to establish superiority and inferiority between groups of people. These ideas affected how Race was perceived, fueling both Western colonization and Nationalism.

Perhaps there is no topic more ripe for an investigation of “open-mindedness” and judgment” than this one. In a world increasingly globalized, the pseudoscience of human evolutionary biology as described in the 19th Century must be evaluated on a scale of open-mindedness and judgment.

Using Darwin to describe human “adaptation” and “fitness” brought humanity a whole set of unpleasant problems. I reminded my student that all of this was the lead up to World War II, and then needed to slow Lizzy down in that moment. I helped her to see what she was reading in term of open-mindedness and judgment, and to contextualize it in her own world. What fascinates me is the corruption of science and how it was used to support base tribalism. In the historical period my tenth grader was studying, tribalism superseded a sense of common humanity. In talking it through and pondering it, she needs to find where her moral compass lands when she applies her open-mindedness and judgment to her studies of the period.

Drawing Emotional Connections

Part of my job, I often find, is to help students draw emotional connections to the information they are learning. As they discuss these topics in the classroom, I suspect the conversation is geared more towards Kant than Seligman and Peterson. While Kant might have enjoyed the intellectual challenge of human “survival of the fittest,” it seems to me that dispassionate logic is not an opportune way to teach children morality. Equally, how do I make this history feel relevant for her?

As luck would have it, I had come across a paper by Maya Sen and Omar Wasow called Race as a ‘Bundle of Sticks’: Designs that Estimate Effects of Seemingly Immutable Characteristics. Lizzy has grown up with a President who is of mixed race parentage, and I suspect plenty of her peers share heterogeneous backgrounds. As Lizzy struggles with Darwin’s historical legacy within human history, shouldn’t she also look at it in a modern context that helps her identify and bring emotional attachment, rather than historical detachment?

Lizzy understood from the article title that Sen and Wasow are now suggesting the opposite of her 19th Century readings. Race is no longer fixed, and cannot (or should not) be used to establish hierarchies of human superiority. With world events as they are, we must help children find explanations for difficult questions, landing in the realm of moral education.

I hope my addition to Lizzy’s curriculum helped her find an emotional connection that allows her to employ both open-mindeness and judgment as she studies momentous historical events. Are these lessons more powerful and lasting if we employ character rather than quandary ethics? Can these the difficult moments present opportunities for learning about the murkiness of open-mindedness and judgment as a virtue?



Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, M. & Wasow, O. (In Press, 2016.) Race as a ‘bundle Of sticks’: Designs that estimate effects Of seemingly immutable characteristics. Annual Review Of Political Science 19.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Jonathan Haidt courtesy of wikimedia
Immanuel Kant painting courtesy of Wikimedia
The fence courtesy of Randy McRoberts
Bundle of sticks courtesy of gcaserotti
Evolutionary tree courtesy of enric archivell

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