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.

  1. 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?

 

  1. 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.
  1. 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?

 

  1. 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?
  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Caroline

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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21 Responses

  1. Fairy says:

    The first time I ever heard of this story was from my mother. She came home from Relief Society having studied Victor Hugo’s book in her Cultural Refinement Class (or whatever it was called then), and was so inspired that she sat us all down and told us the whole story. Why oh why don’t they have classes like that in RS nowadays.

    • Caroline says:

      I’ve heard so many good things about those old Relief Society classes, how they would read great literature or plays and have good discussions. That does sound wonderful — and an opportunity for richer moral discourses to emerge.

    • LHCA says:

      Why? Because correlation. Because we need to study and restudy men’s teachings and perspectives. Because RS was subsumed.

  2. Clay Cook says:

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing! I tinnk a class in ethics would be a could thing to add to our crriculum. With the CFM OT sudy this year I have been trying to look deep into these origin stoies and I think the idea of care ethics vs justice ethics might offer an interesting analysis of the so called wise choice theory of Eves decision. There just might be more to the “fall” than we realize Juliie M Smith has an excellant article in Fleeing the Garding:Reading Genesis 2-3 called Paradoxes in Paradise that offers a place to start and I think applying ethics theory might offer some enlightnment. So much to think about!

    • Caroline says:

      Clay, I love the idea of applying ethics frameworks to studying the Old Testament, and in particular to Eve’s choice. And I’ll look for Julie Smith’s article. Thanks!

  3. Beth Young says:

    Brilliant! Brava! I just have no words for how much I love this, and I’m never short of words.

  4. Holly Miller says:

    Thanks, Caroline. I’m going to follow your example and use this with my family.

    • Caroline says:

      Terrific! I hope it goes well. I think it was a really memorable experience for my kids, who live in quite the bubble and haven’t thought deeply about poverty and despair and decision making in such contexts.

  5. BJ Hawkins says:

    Great observations Caroline. I encourage you to find time to read the book. The musical and movie are wonderful, but there are portions of Hugo’s masterwork that border on scripture to me. There are sections that are a bit of a slog (and it helps if you find a version with footnotes to explain French history and context), but I promise you it’s worth the effort. From time to time I still pull my well-worn copy off the shelf and re-read my favorite chapters. I especially love the Bishop and how Hugo spends the first fifty or so pages of the novel describing the Bishop, who reminds me of Pope Francis. When the Bishop gives the candlesticks to Jean Valjean and rescues him from a lifetime in prison, the act is believable because Hugo has given us a glimpse into the Bishop’s character and his approach to Christianity. “Jean Valjean staggered backward as the policemen let him go. ‘My friend,’ the Bishop went on, ‘before you go, you must take your candlesticks.’ He went to the mantel to fetch the two candlesticks, which he gave to Jean Valjean. The poor man trembled in every limb. He accepted the candlesticks in a daze. ‘Now go in peace,’ said the Bishop. Then he turned to the policemen and said, ‘Gentlemen, you may leave us. They did so. The Bishop walked over to Jean Valjean and said quietly, Never forget that you have promised me to use this money in order to become an honest man. Jean Valjean stood silent. The Bishop added in a solemn tone, ‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong to evil no longer; you now belong to good. I have rescued your soul. I set it free from black thoughts and the spirit of destruction and I place it in the hands of God.” I think this is exactly how Christ’s sacrifice for us works. We’ve all fallen short and continue to fall short, even those of us who wear the official uniform to church each week and look down our noses at the unwashed vagrants we see on our streets. As Hugo’s Bishop showed us, and as I have discovered from having served a weekly meal to a group of homeless and food insecure brothers and sisters for the past few years at a local Lutheran church, there is more of Christ in that process and act than there is in any talk or sermon I have ever heard. Read Les Miz!

    • Caroline says:

      BJ Hawkins, I really should make an effort to read the book — and I’m especially interested now that I know there are 50 pages of backstory on the Bishop. Thanks for including that awesome quote! And I love your line here: “there is more of Christ in that process and act [feeding the homeless] than there is in any talk or sermon I have ever heard.”

  6. Katie Rich says:

    There’s so much to be gained just by watching this musical, but I love your intentional use of it to teach ethics to your children in a way they can see and understand.

    • Caroline says:

      Thanks! It was a pretty awesome few nights of FHE, I must say. If you have ideas of movies like this that have great moral content that I can use in future FHE’s, let me know. 🙂

  7. Di says:

    I love this – have been fortunate to see Les Mis on stage three times and have also seen the movie. It’s a very rich and compelling story. I can’t say how many times in RS or SS I’ve felt compelled to bring up the fact that in our comfort it’s so much easier to always be honest or do the ‘right’ thing. Most of us haven’t encountered extreme hunger or lack of basic freedoms and rights. We can only wonder what we might be compelled to do in extreme circumstances and to ponder the ethics and humanity of it.

  8. Kristin says:

    My husband and I read aloud Les Mis our first summer married. I echo BJs thoughts on the bishop. The book talks about how the silver and especially the candlesticks were the only vanity the bishop had and gives as a self sacrifice. So powerfully done in the book.

    The first time I learned the story of Les Mis I was 7 and my mom had the video of the songs performed on stage. My brother had the CD and it quickly became my favorite. But while I’ve read, watched and sung Les Mis, I have never taken a course on ethics. I could say that my own code of ethics has been formed by my love of the musical, and grateful to know the different schools of thought shown therein. Now I need to go learn the ethics to put words to the feelings the music gives me!

    • Caroline says:

      I also found Les Mis when I was young, but probably closer to 12 or so. And it was formative for me as well. Taking a class on ethics was so illuminating for me. It was actually on Christian ethics and I just loved all the various approaches within a Christian context.

  9. Erin says:

    Would you be willing to share your full outline of questions and ethics systems for further study of Les Miserables? This would be really helpful for my own personal study.

    • Caroline says:

      I would, but I actually don’t have anything formally written out. I had formal powerpoints for introducing these types of ethical systems to the students, but nothing formally written out connecting the ethical systems to Les Mis. Sorry!

  10. Tina says:

    I love Les Miserables! I read the book as a part of high school French class. My daughter took an online film class – Film School 4 Teens – during the summer of 2020 when everything was cancelled and the movie was one I watched with her as part of the class. I hadn’t seen the Hugh Jackman/Anne Hathaway version since it was in the theater and I loved watching it again and having many ethics discussions afterwards with my teen.

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