Moral Character in the City | Netherhall House

Moral character today is said by academics to be at its most dynamic for many decades. It has become increasingly common for people to fluctuate between virtuous and immoral behaviour, when, in past generations, people instead leaned more in one direction or the other. Why is this the case? Understanding and resolving this issue is a matter of great importance. For this reason, my current social research aims to find practical solutions to contemporary society’s lack of virtue-bias in behaviour, specifically in the context of London.

Of course, the culture, politics and religious-beliefs (or non-belief) of each individual person influences their conception of the virtues. This makes it hard to reach conclusive resolutions in my research. Nevertheless, I believe that it is still necessary to attempt to find ways to improve behavioural norms in London which hopefully can in turn help bring about an improved world.

Despite the difficulty of finding common conceptions of the virtues held by all Londoners, a preliminary definition can be discerned through the works of different researchers, which is necessary to understand if we are to offer the possibility of improving society’s moral character. Firstly, as defined by Roccas et al. (2009), virtues are to be understood as a set of values that are inherently positive and hierarchical. Secondly, the virtues include concepts such as compassion, acceptance and inquisitiveness. This classification is inspired by analyses of the desired positive effects of secular mindfulness on practitioners, in research by Bishop et al. (2004) and Campos et al. (2016).

One persistent area of analyses for this research concerns the built environment. A recent methodology I have developed consists of walking through central London from Euston Square station into the heart of the city in an attempt to visually investigate how the spectrum between virtuous and immoral behaviour appears physically. However, so far, I have been unsuccessful in clearly establishing the negative characteristics of London’s urban environment.

A good example of a positive urban environment, probably designed to promote the virtues, is Queen Square Park and Garden area. The park is a modest 134m in length and 32m wide, with significant buildings surrounding it. These buildings include a few university neurological research centres which are advertised as being a part of University College London, one building belonging to the Wellcome Trust’s imaging research centre, another is a resource centre for alternative and complementary medicine, which stands alongside a NHS hospital for the care of patients treated with these methods and, finally, there is an adult learning centre just south of the Queen Square Park and Garden.

As is evident from this example, virtue-centred organisations often form into conglomerations that are very visible to the public. But while the virtues are often made visible in the built environment, it is more difficult to see negative behaviour embedded in the built environment. Partly this is because of the difficulty of deciding what exactly immoral behaviour is in the context of an entire city, considering the large numbers of people and their different views on what behaviour is to be deemed good. Furthermore, buildings containing large organisations made up of many people can be morally dynamic because they have such a large number of moral actors. Individually these actors may well carry out virtuous deeds as well as immoral acts daily and this combination ‘camouflages’ overall the built environment’s morality from an outside viewer.

Despite these difficulties, I hope to continue this research into the future in the hope that further leads and interesting conclusions will be found.

by Myles O’Brien



BISHOP, S. R., LAU, M., SHAPIRO, S., CARLSON, L., ANDERSON, N. D., CARMODY, J., SEGAL, Z. V., ABBEY, S., SPECA, M., VELTING, D. & DEVINS, G. 2004. Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230-241.

CAMPOS, D., CEBOLLA, A., QUERO, S., BRETÓN-LÓPEZ, J., BOTELLA, C., SOLER, J., GARCÍA-CAMPAYO, J., DEMARZO, M. & BAÑOS, R. M. 2016. Meditation and happiness: Mindfulness and self-compassion may mediate the meditation–happiness relationship. Personality and Individual Differences, 93, 80-85.

ROCCAS, S., SAGIV, L., SHIROM, A., SHRAGA, O., FOWERS, B. J., WEINSTEIN, N., RYAN, R. M. & EBBERWEIN, C. A. 2009. V. The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology. Wiley-Blackwell.