Family Home Evening, Les Miserables, and Teaching Ethics to the Kids
I didn’t grow up doing Family Home Evening. In my small, less-than-orthodox family with a widowed mother and one brother, having a formal night of churchy lessons probably struck my mom as superfluous.
My husband, however, grew up in a large active Mormon family, and FHE was a thing they did regularly. He’s been wanting to be more regular with FHE with our three kids (ages 9 to 15). Usually, I let him plan and carry these out, as I’m less committed to the idea of FHE. But occasionally, I take control. I’ve grown fonder of the idea of FHE ever since I realized that under the FHE label, I could commandeer a half hour or so of everyone’s time and force the whole family to talk about/watch/read what I want to.
A few months ago, I decided we would have a series of lessons based around the movie musical Les Miserables. When I taught Christian ethics at a Catholic women’s college a few years ago, I used the movie to discuss various ethical orientations, so it was a pleasure to pull out the movie again and introduce my kids to it and to some (very basic) ethics.
When I first took a grad class in ethics over a decade ago, I felt totally enlightened. I loved that there were these different ways people went about figuring out what was moral, just, and good. I’ve never been particularly inspired by emphases on goodness and morality stemming from obeying commandments and listening to prophets, which was largely the kind of morality discourse I heard at church. So learning about feminist care ethics, womanist ethics, virtue ethics, liberationist ethics, etc. gave me so many richer ways to think about morality.
Here’s a very brief rundown of talking points and discussion questions I covered as we watched the first half of Les Miserables during 2 or 3 nights consisting of a half hour or so of the movie. I’d frequently pause the movie and ask questions.
- Val Jean’s decision to steal a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister’s starving child. Was that the right ethical decision? Why? Was it right even if it was against the law and against Judeo-Christian notions of commandments? What role does poverty play in a decision like this? How do you decide when to go against laws and commandments?
- Val Jean’s decision to steal the candlesticks from the kind priest. Why did he do that? What was his ethical thinking in that moment? I described this as a moment of despair as he came to realize he was caught in a system that didn’t give him a chance of survival if he played by the rules. At this point, he adopts a law of the jungle kind of morality. He’s been beaten down and mistreated, and his desperate wish for survival leads him to this decision. This is a moment where you can mention liberationist ethics and its commitment to focusing on the poor and their suffering, and in particular, liberationist ethicists’ commitment to paying close attention to context and situation as they work for more just systems and communities.
- The priest’s decision to lie to the police, forgive Val Jean, and send him on his way with the means to survive and build a new life. One can see this kind of ethics as feminist care ethics, where the moral question is not “What is the rule? What is just?” Rather, the moral question is “What does this person in front of me need right now? How should I respond?” Feminist care ethics considers contexts and values relationality. So the priest ignores rules about lying and downplays Val Jean’s stealing. Instead, he lets care ethics drive his decision to give Val Jean a new start. What are the upsides of care ethics? What are the downsides?
- Javert’s obsession with rules and laws. He represents deontological ethics, or rule-based ethics. This kind of ethics is generally less interested in context and more likely to issue universal prescriptions. Javert is so utterly devoted to rules and laws that there is no flexibility, no room for context or situation as he mercilessly pursues Val Jean. What are the upsides of rule-based ethics? What are the downsides?
- Fantine’s story. This is another opportunity to discuss the kinds of desperate decisions people in impoverished situations must make, when they are constrained and don’t have full autonomy. She ultimately becomes a prostitute in order to earn money to keep her child alive. A tragic decision born out of a system where she has no good alternatives and choices. Her agency is limited, and if she obeys the rules (don’t become a prostitute) she and her child will die. Can we blame her for this decision? Did she do the right thing? Again, as feminist and liberationist ethicists would emphasize, context must be taken into account. In her terrible situation, she probably ended up doing the most loving thing she could.
- Val Jean’s decision to reveal himself as the convict and save the man arrested for his crime. I love the song “Who am I?” The last two-thirds of it is classic virtue ethics, which the title of the song points to. Virtue ethics isn’t concerned about rules. Again the main question is not, “What is the rule?” The question is, “What kind of person do I want to be?” His refrain of “Who am I?” focuses on character and integrity, not rules.
- Val Jean’s decision to help Fantine and take care of Cosette. I see this scene and this song, in which he finds Fantine dying, a strong example of care ethics. Javert is obsessed with following the letter of the law and putting Val Jean (and Fantine) behind bars, but Val Jean’s focus is on care, on promising Fantine he’ll take care of her child, on making good on that promise. His morality is centered on doing what Fantine and Cosette need him to do at that moment, and he’s willing to break rules (run from the law) in order to deliver that care.
This only covers the first half or so of the movie. We actually watched the whole movie and found many other moral decisions to discuss – Why do people start revolutions? Is violence ever justified? When? Why does Val Jean save Javert? Why does Javert kill himself?
The musical Les Miserables (I’ve never read the book) has always been powerful for me. The messiness of these decisions, the complexity of them, the impoverished context — and throughout, Val Jean’s determination to try to be a good person and make good on the second chance bought for him by the kind priest — have always struck me as profound and deeply interesting. Far more interesting than simplistic commandments and rules that don’t consider context and don’t consider constraints on autonomy, like poverty, sexism, and racism.
I don’t know what kinds of morality my children will ultimately embrace and adopt. But I hope they are moralities that privilege compassion, care, and integrity. May they remember Val Jean and his example as they forge their paths in life.