Unless you’re a nostalgic Gen-Xer or a parent of a small child, you probably haven’t given much thought to the Care Bears. But since their debut in 1981, they’ve popped up everywhere. Although they were originally characters created for a line of greeting cards, the Care Bears have since appeared in a TV series, two TV specials, five feature films, several music albums, a video game, and a comic book series. Books in which they’ve appeared have sold over 45 million copies.

They are also, as philosopher Brandon Watson explains, one of our era’s most influential (albeit fictional) group of virtue ethicists.

Whenever I teach virtue ethics, I tell my students that one can see the strengths of virtue ethics in the Care Bears — as well as the things usually criticized. For the Care Bears are virtue ethicists. Each Care Bear, and later each Care Bear cousin, reflects an aspect of the virtuous life, or of institutions or practices that contribute to, or have to be negotiated in, virtuous life. Tenderheart Bear represents sympathy, Friend Bear friendship, Cheer Bear good cheer, Grumpy Bear commiseration, Funshine Bear goodnatured play, Love-A-Lot Bear love, Champ Bear sportsmanship; we get things more indirectly with Bedtime Bear, as Care-A-Lot’s night watchbear, makes sure people get a good night’s sleep so that they can do good things during the day, Wish Bear helps people work towards making wishes come true, Good Luck Bear helps people take advantage of opportunities, Secret Bear looks after secrets among friends (hence the close link to Friend Bear), etc. The virtues are all related to the kinds of sentiments people express by greeting cards and they are heavily directed to the lives of children, in which birthdays and bedtimes (for instance) are major things and not knowing how to deal with someone who is grumpy, or feeling grumpy oneself, can really seem like it ruins your life. But it’s all virtue related. A lot of it comes from the fact that greeting cards get their entire raison d’etre from the importance of communication, and particularly communication of feelings, for maintaining good human relationships.

I always go on to say in class that the Care Bears, like all good virtue ethicists, are cute, cuddly, and preachy; unlike most virtue ethicists, however, they drive cloud cars and shoot rainbows out of symbols on their tummy. That’s a highly classified level of virtue technology even Aristotle never managed to discover.

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