Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Deal W. Hudson

2/26/2014 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (

Dr. Hudson, we're not laughing at you. We think all this talk about virtue and goodness is just a sham

During my first year of teaching, I would spend two nights a week at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and two nights at the Phillips Correctional Facility in Buford, GA. I had to pass through considerably more steel gates at the penitentiary than in Buford, where the only obstruction was a high wall topped with barbed wire.  It wasn\'t too long before I found out those walls were not high enough to stop bags of drugs being thrown over every evening. 


By Deal W. Hudson

Catholic Online (

2/26/2014 (1 year ago)

Published in U.S.

Keywords: instruction, education, teaching, prison, beauty, classics, urgy, love, relationships, priesthood, culture, enthsuiasm, renewal, reform, Catholic Culture, prison, Phillips Correctional Facility, classrooms, Deal W. Hudson

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - During my first year of teaching, I would spend two nights a week at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and two nights at the Phillips Correctional Facility in Buford, GA. I had to pass through considerably more steel gates at the penitentiary than in Buford, where the only obstruction was a high wall topped with barbed wire. 

It wasn't too long before I found out those walls were not high enough to stop bags of drugs being thrown over every evening. 

My class of ten state inmates met in the weight room. I sat on the bench press, my students on folding chairs in front of the iron bars.  It was a cozy setting if a bit on the minimalist side.  Nine of my students were African-American; one was a young, white man named Llewellyen with floppy blond hair, an angular nose, and a smirk that made him look like a refuge from a Flannery O'Connor short story.

The course was Ethics, the assigned texts were Aristotle's Ethics and the Treatise on Happiness by St. Thomas Aquinas.  These two books, plus the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius would become important in my eventual entry into the Catholic Church four years later.  But perhaps just as important, was the day I realized all my students were laughing at me behind my back.

The first class meeting was rather perfunctory, mostly a time devoted to sizing me up with me trying to act like it was perfectly natural to be teaching ethics in a state prison weight room.  When I handed the students their texts, they glanced at each other with sly grins and flipped through the pages as if they were cards about to be dealt.  I didn't think much of it; we all felt awkward, and both the topic and the setting did nothing but underscore how out of place we all felt.

I began the next class with the concept of virtue, discussing the basic notion of good and bad moral habits and classifying those habits according to the actions they governed such as justice, temperance, and courage.  As the two-hour class came to a close the snickers, which had at first been muted, became more and more audible even to me with a hearing loss. So, I just blurted out with a smile, "Ok, what are you guys laughing about?" No one wanted to tell me. I then proceeded to ask each inmate one by one if he would tell me the reason for the laughter, until I came to Llewellyn who sat at my far left. 

I knew that he liked to be called "Lew," so I pleaded with him, "Come on, Lew, let me in on the joke - it's going to be a long semester if somebody doesn't tell me what's going on!" Lew decided to show me mercy. "Dr. Hudson, we're not laughing at you. We think all this talk about virtue and goodness is just a sham."  He went on to tell me, as the rest of the students nodded, that the only reason people talk about morality is that they want to appear to others as a "good" or "virtuous" person. People, he explained, need to look that way in order to be successful in life, earn money, and gain respect. 

"Are you telling me that there is absolutely no reason to study ethics other than preparing yourself to deceive other people into believing you are a good man?" I asked. "Exactly," Lew said, and then some of the other students chimed in.  I was stunned.  As I look back now, perhaps it was my naiveté, my youth, or my inexperience that made this message such a surprise.  I realized then that there were such people as Lew described, but to say the only reason to learn ethics was to fool other people surprised me.

I listened to the inmates until our class time was over and left telling them I was going to think it over and come back with a response the next class. In a daze I left the prison, collected my car from the gravel parking lot, and drove the forty minutes home.

Two days later I walked into the weight room, dropped my briefcase on the floor, and said, "I want to tell you a story, then ask you a question, OK?" They nodded and seemed amused that I had remembered my promise to respond to their complaint. The story I told was about a solitary man living on an island in the middle of a large ocean.  The island contained everything he needed to live comfortably - food, water, shade from the sun, moderate weather year round, and an environment so pure he never became ill.  But there were no other people, no animals, and no God. (Needless to say, that last one raised a few eyebrows!)

I asked the inmates if they understood that here was a man living a life where there were absolutely no other "eyes" on him - he did not "appear" to anyone. Therefore, whatever he did or did not do, other people's opinions of him did not matter.  Neither did God's.  Then I asked the question: "One day this man had a sudden urge to take a large rock in one hand and smash it down on his other hand until all the bones were broken. Is that the morally right, the virtuous thing to do? In other words, did the man have any moral relationship to himself, regardless of whether anyone was watching"

I asked for a show of hands. Several hands stayed down, while most of the class thought the man could do anything he wanted to himself, "After all," one said, "he's not hurting anybody else." "But does he have the kind of moral obligation to himself that he has to others, not to hurt himself?" I asked.  Then I saw a light come on in Lew's face, and his hand went up. "I see what you mean, Doc," and he restated my argument with even more clarity than I had presented it. By the time Lew was finished all but a few had changed their minds. Lew had convinced them by using the illustration of drug addiction, namely, that everyone knew it was "bad" to overuse drugs. "Man, you can get really screwed up, you can die, or you can end up in here," and everyone laughed. 

We took a break, and I walked out into the hall to the water cooler. Lew was waiting for me by the door as I walked back to class.  "Hey Doc," he said, "how much money do you make? Can I ask you that?" When I told him I was making $10,000 that year his jaw dropped. "You're kidding, and you're a doctor?" I explained teaching was what I had always wanted to do, and it was a start.  Lew stopped me, "Doc, I can help you make an extra couple of grand every month."  "Really," I said. Lew explained that since I was around college students all I needed to do was pass along some of his "junk" and I could easily make the extra money.  "You mean drugs," I asked?  Lew had to stifle his laughter, "Yeah, yeah, of course."  I paused a moment, "Lew, I can't do that." "Why," he asked, "I'm sure you need the money."  "It's just wrong, Lew, but thanks for caring about me."  And we went back into the classroom. 

During the second hour of class, as I tried to restart a discussion on Aristotle's view of happiness, I noticed several of my students' eyes had changed - they were teary and red, but it wasn't from crying.  "Are you guys, Ok?" I asked, only to see them look at each other and chuckle.  "What did I miss this time?" Lew came to my rescue again, "Doc, junk gets thrown into this place every night, that's how we survive." Then I realized half of my students had gotten high during the break. "Let's go back to Aristotle's explanation of good and bad moral habits," I said, and the class could hardly contain their laughter.

It was those student inmates who taught me, as a teacher, always to listen, to listen for whatever it is the student needs for understanding. In this case, it was a notion more fundamental than Aristotle's Ethics: Is there a reason to be good to yourself?

© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.


Pope Francis: end world hunger through 'Prayer and Action'

Copywriter 2015 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for October 2015
That human trafficking, the modern form of slavery, may be eradicated.
Evangelization: That with a missionary spirit the Christian communities of Asia may announce the Gospel to those who are still awaiting it.


More U.S.

Oregon shooting hero still in recovery: Donations for his medical expenses surpass $700,000 Watch

Image of Chris Mintz.


Chris Mintz left a happy birthday message for his nonverbal autistic son on Thursday before going to his classes at the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Later, he reportedly set off fire alarms as a gunman opened fire. Mintz charged the shooter, was ... continue reading

Two farmers in Michigan unearth woolly mammoth remains Watch

Image of Because of the tight harvest schedule, the farmers gave researchers a single day to unearth the find. Excavators worked intently last week until sundown.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Two farmers in Michigan made a momentous find while they dug a drainage ditch. The remains of a woolly mammoth, enormous tusks intact, was unearthed. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - James Bristle of Lima Township was digging in a soybean field early last week ... continue reading

President Obama shares how Pope Francis's visit to the U.S. makes him want to be better Watch

Image of President Obama with Pope Francis during the pontiffs visit to the U.S.


It has been a week since Pope Francis' historical visit to the U.S. However, his presence and inspiration continues to linger as President Obama revealed he wants to become better after his meeting with the Pope. WASHINGTON D.C. (Catholic Online) - The pope is back in ... continue reading

HURRICANE FALLOUT: At least four people killed in East Coast flooding Watch

Image of All-time rainfall records in both South Carolina and the southern Appalachians are being sorely tested with the new rainfall.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Hurricane Joaquin made quick work of the Carolinas this weekend; flooding has been reported there, and heavy rainfall was reported from the nation's southeast to New England. At least four people were killed because of flooding. The Weather Bureau says that the ... continue reading

Ten Commandments to be removed from capitol grounds Watch

Image of


The Capitol Preservation Commission in Oklahoma, who is responsible for managing the placement of artwork on public property, has voted to remove a Ten Commandments monument from its capitol grounds. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Reuters reported the Preservation ... continue reading

Rumored co-recipients of next Nobel Peace Prize criticized: one responsible for hundreds of American soldiers' deaths in Iraq Watch

Image of Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are rumored to be co-recipients of 2016's Nobel Peace Prize (Laurent Gillieron/EPA).


Secretary of State John Kerry is rumored to be receiving a Nobel Peace Prize after finalizing the Iranian nuclear deal due to his close relationship with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif.  LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Kerry's efforts to seal the nuclear ... continue reading

SHOOTERS LAST WORDS TO VICTIM: You're going to see God in one second Watch

Image of Survivors embrace and pray in the aftermath of the shooting which left 9 people and the shooter dead.

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

The nation continues to mourn the mass shooting of nine students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Although the shooter's motive remains a mystery, religion may have been a factor in the killings. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Officials have ... continue reading

Heroic teacher warned classrooms to evacuate during the Oregon college shooting Watch

Image of Oregon shooting aftermath


A shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg left 10 people dead with one teacher shot in the head by a gunman described only to be in his 20's. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Terrifying and traumatic stories were shared by the survivors of the recent open ... continue reading

Christian Targets: College shooting leaves at least 10 dead Watch

Image of Victims were rushed to a nearby hospital (Roseburg News).

By Kenya Sinclair (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced a school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon on Thursday, which left at least ten people dead. Reports have come forward that the shooter was targeting Christian students. ROSEBURG, OREGON (Catholic ... continue reading

Did Pope Francis succeed in stopping an execution? Man skirts the death penalty for the fourth time in a row Watch

Image of Richard Glossip escapes the death penalty yet again.

By Kenya Sinclair (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Richard Glossip escaped the death penalty at the last minute once again, this time due to questions about lethal injection protocols. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Hours before Glossip's sentence NBC News announced a letter sent from Pope Francis asking Glossip's ... continue reading

All U.S. News


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Jonah 3:1-10
1 The word of Yahweh was addressed to Jonah a second ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 130:1-2, 3-4, 7-8
1 [Song of Ascents] From the depths I call to you, ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 10:38-42
38 In the course of their journey he came to a ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 6th, 2015 Image

St. Bruno
October 6: Bruno was born in Cologne of the prominent Hartenfaust family. ... Read More