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In the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas gave the Catholic tradition and through it the world arguably the most comprehensive development of the great Greek philosophical interest in virtues.

A virtue is defined in Catholic thought as, “…an habitual disposition to do the good.” They are habits. Habits of mind, habits of action and they have some very interesting possibilities for what we are doing in Catholic schools. Recently, Being Catholic was lucky enough to learn of the amazing work being done in this area by Melbourne Catholic teacher and Deputy Principal David Williams.

In 2009 I had the opportunity to participate in an Australian Government Quality Teacher Program through Independent Schools Victoria. The course focused on ICT (Web 2.0) and the integration of pedagogy. At the time I was Head of Middle School at ICA Casey College and leading the Thinking Principle in the development of the College’s pedagogy.

In 2010 I was invited to be a part of a ‘Cutting Edge-Ucators’ group through Independent Schools Victoria to continue the work from the previous year. For some time I had been considering how to use the cardinal virtues as a framework for a decision making process and also as a reflection process to evaluate the decisions of others.

After reading various research articles on thinking skills it was obvious that in order for students to engage in deep higher order thinking they needed to possess a certain degree of emotional intelligence. There are numerous programs to develop social skills, habits of mind or positive dispositions. However, I believed students needed more than just strategies; they needed to understand the need to think and act in a particular way that would make them happy because of what they are as human persons made in the image of God. As such, certain actions and habits of mind will bring them peace, joy and happiness and others will not.

Prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance are known as the chief moral virtues. They are also known as cardinal virtues. These virtues are called cardinal virtues because they are like hinges on which hang all the other moral virtues and values that make up our whole moral life. The word ‘cardinal’ is derived from the Latin word ‘cardio’ meaning hinge.

Aristotle saw virtues as habits of acting or dispositions that could be developed to conduct oneself in appropriate ways in response to specific situations. St Thomas Aquinas believed the powers of the intellect were the origins or principles of human action and that they could be used effectively or ineffectively. Like Aristotle, he understood that repeatedly using the powers of the intellect well would enable individuals to establish virtuous decision making as a habit over time.

Both Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas in their writings described the intellectual virtue of practical reasoning as a means to discern and make effective choices that enable individuals to lead a happy life. The Roman philosopher, Cicero saw the four cardinal virtues as civic virtues that were personal habits necessary for social harmony. This is particularly interesting given the increasing breakdown in some aspects of society and culture. In essence, when enough people stop acting virtuously, when they lose the habits of right thinking and right action, sooner or later this will play out in a whole culture.

With this in mind I established a WordPress blog as a platform to engage students in discussions using the cardinal virtues as a structure for decision-making. I established specific scenarios for students to consider and respond to by posting comments on the blog.

This created rich and deep discussions not only online but also back in the classroom.

Unfortunately, ICA Casey College went into voluntary administration at the end of 2010. I hope to continue trialing this work in my new position as Deputy Principal of St Therese’s School. Such a focus on decision-making is critically needed not only in Catholic schools but all schools today, as our children face a barrage of media and social influences that powerfully shape the development of young minds.


David Williams graduated from Mazenod College in Melbourne and completed a Diploma of Teaching and a Graduate Diploma of Education at Deakin University. In recent years he has been Head of Middle School at ICA Casey College and is currently Deputy Principal at St Therese’s Primary School. He is married with nine children.


Some Important Links

Further Reading

  • Thomas Aquanis on the Cardinal virtues by Christopher Kaczor & Thomas Sherman S.J. – Sapientia Press
  • Unearthing Your Ten Talents by Kevin Vost – Sophia Press

Forum Questions:

  1. Could the development of values based decision making foster a sense of purpose within students to guide them towards unearthing their talents and the actualization of their potentialities?
  2. Right decision making is dependent upon an individual’s disposition. What are the values or virtues that need to be fostered within students to develop the disposition required for good conduct and decision making? Would this assist in the recognition of true happiness?