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New Year's resolutions

To discuss the ethics of New Year’s resolutions.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5

Aims

To discuss the ethics of New Year’s resolutions.

Preparation and materials

  • Download some suitable music for the reflection.
  • You need two readers.

Assembly

Reader 1

As another year draws to a close, we enter a time of reflection and concern; wondering what the new year will bring and how we can improve upon the last one. New Year’s resolutions will be made and forgotten. But why is this so? Why is it so hard to maintain a pact with ourselves, which will inevitably lead to us being happier and generally better in the long term?

Reader 2

Perhaps our own account of morality is to blame. Most ideas of morality involve putting the needs of others before self. Thus being good is difficult, involving a strong act of will-power over and above our own desires. This is certainly evident in Christian ideas of ethics, whose golden rule is to ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’ The goal is to have ourselves become a tool in others’ happiness, the ideal being that then we will become uniquely happy ourselves. 

Reader 1

But why should others be so important? You are, after all, an individual who deserves as much out of life as anyone else. The ancient Chinese proverb that we will spend 80 per cent of our lives dissatisfied is quite frankly unacceptable in the modern world. We have a great deal of freedom: to choose what products to buy, who shall rule us, what you will do with your life, etc. These freedoms, coupled with the greater riches and security of modern Europe, contrast greatly with the hard life of the ancient Chinese.

Reader 2

So it is a matter of choice whether or not you commit yourself to a new start for a new year. If you don’t make a resolution, you’re not a bad person. This stands in contrast to morality, in which someone who rejects its rules is seen as an immoral person. It is implied from this that new year’s resolutions are less serious than ordinary ethical choices, since they have no real repercussions. This is a problem: what should be a sincere pact for the improvement of ourselves and the situation of others becomes something done for its own sake. And a philosopher would reply that a moral decision made for its own reasons is arbitrary, and misses the fundamental aims of an ethical life.

Reader 1

The great philosopher Aristotle argued that we should spend our lives aiming at a sense of eudemonia, which is a sense of rational enlightenment caused by living our life according to virtues. There is much to be learnt from Aristotle: morality requires a regular act of will, which should be spread over a long period of time. Moreover, this concept of morality offers rewards at the end: eudemonia is described as the highest form of happiness.

Reader 2

Perhaps a new year’s resolution is misguided: a year is, after all, an arbitrary distinction between periods of time. What would be really valuable would be a resolution to live our lives virtuously and rationally, as much an act of self-improvement as of moral righteousness.

Time for reflection

Play some music: perhaps something by Enya or ‘Fragile’ by Sting.

In the quiet, let’s think about our personal resolutions.

Can you remember those from last year?

Did you achieve them?

 

(Pause)

Now let’s consider what we might resolve to do next year,

what we’d like to achieve.

It may be getting into college or university, leaving home.

It may be a personal best, such as an achievement in sports.

How could you make a resolution that will positively affect the lives of others?

What could you do that will have a long-lasting effect not just on your lives, but on the future of others too?

(Pause)

Prayer

This is the prayer of St Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

Hymn

‘Make me a channel of your peace’ (Hymns Old and New, 499)

Publication date: December 2008   (Vol.10 No.12)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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