Philosophy Book Club: The Character Gap, 3, What can we do to improve our characters?

There is a lot of talk these days about ethics and building character. Which is why I have been so keenly interested in Christian Miller’s The Character Gap, a science-based examination of what character is and how it works. (part I of my discussion is here, part II here) Besides, the whole framework of Stoicism, and virtue ethics more generally, is predicated on the notion that we can improve our character, so this is highly relevant to whoever adopts that particular approach as a compass to navigate life.

Having discussed what character is (part I), and having shown that there is a gap between where most people are and where they would like to be (part II), the last third of Miller’s book is devoted to the most practical question of them all: how do we improve our character? The discussion comprises three chapters: what doesn’t seem to work, what does seem to work, and the special case of “divine” assistance. I have written at the beginning of this series that I was going to skip that last chapter, since I don’t find the whole notion of divine assistance very meaningful, but after having read it, I will in fact devote to it the next and last entry in this series (spoiler alert: I think that one is by far the weakest of Miller’s chapters).

So, first off, what doesn’t seem to work, when the goal is to improve our character? Three strategies: do nothing, virtue labeling, and nudging.

You may not be surprised to find out that doing nothing (first strategy) doesn’t help, but in fact that conclusion is not as obvious as it may at first appear. The idea is that we improve naturally, while aging, simply because we accumulate life experiences and mature in the process. Indeed, there is some empirical evidence that traits like conscientiousness do change and get better with age. The problem is that, at the same time, the older we get the more we get set in our ways, with the chances of real improvement getting smaller and smaller. More generally, we have pretty good evidence from a number of other domains that one hardly achieves excellence at something by not actively working at it, and since we begin life with a fairly large gap between where our characters are and where they should be, doing nothing doesn’t seem a good way to go.

The second strategy that doesn’t work very well is virtue labeling, where we go around referring to people as honest, conscientious, and so forth, even when they are not, hoping that being labeled in a certain way will prompt them to improve in that direction. In other words, you treat adults as is the current fashion of treating children, i.e., condescendingly. Since I’m not convinced this is a good idea even where children are concerned, I wasn’t surprised to find out that it doesn’t work very well with adults either. 

That said, Miller does mention a few studies showing that virtue labeling has an effect (most of them, interestingly, carried out on children). For instance, back in ‘75, researchers divided a group of fifth graders into three groups: some they labeled “tidy,” a second group was asked to be tidy, and a third group served as control. Only kids in the first group displayed a tidier behavior. The problem is that there are very few such studies, and that they are often about non-moral traits, like tidiness, or competitiveness. Also, when virtue labeling seems to work, we have no evidence that it does so in the long run. 

And there is a more subtle problem, which has concerned Miller from the onset: are people’s characters actually improving, or are they simply responding to the labeling, feeling ashamed if they didn’t live up to it? The difference is important, because character is about motivations, and shame or embarrassment are not morally salient, as instrumentally effective as they may be. Oh, one more thing: it should be disturbing that we can get people to improve their behavior only by lying to them, which is what labeling does. Sure, if you are the kind of person who thinks that the ends justifies the means, you’ll likely see no problem here. But both Miller and I feel rather uncomfortable about this approach. Here is Miller’s comment:

My goal is supposed to be the noble one of contributing to [someone] becoming a better person in the long run. To achieve that goal, though, I am supposed to get [them] to believe something about [themselves] that I know is not true, and do this in a way that sounds genuine and heartfelt. In other words, I am to come across as sincere in thinking [they are] honest, thereby enabling [them] to trust me and believe it [themselves]. A clever ruse on my part that can sound morally repugnant—hypocritical, deceptive, manipulative, and a violation of someone’s autonomy. (p. 146)

The last strategy that turns out to be problematic is nudging. You’ve probably heard of this, as a number of governments and private companies have increasingly employed it in the last few years, after the advice of a number of behavioral economists. If you are a man, you also have seen the most famous example of nudging: the fly in the urinal. Turns out that most men are, shall we say absent minded when they urinate in a public facility, but they become far less messy if they are given a target to “hit” in the form of the image of a fly conveniently located inside the urinal. Yes, people are strange indeed. 

There are a number of other examples, from incentives to enroll in retirement plans to organ donations (basically, you switch the default: rather than wait for someone to actively enroll in a given program, people are enrolled automatically unless they ask to opt out). This “libertarian paternalism” (an oxymoron?) takes advantage of the irrationality of aspects of human psychology, but of course can be prone to nefarious use, depending on the motivations of the government agency or private company. Miller also points out that here too we have no evidence that nudging works in the long run, particularly, again, when it comes to morally salient behavior. Moreover, here too the issue of motivation rises its ugly head:

I wouldn’t be changing for a virtuous reason. It isn’t because [say] I have come to appreciate the harm I might be causing with my angry words, the hurt feelings or damaged relationships. It is because I don’t want to have to be warned again. The reason is egoistic, not virtuous. (p. 153)

What, then, does seem to work in order to improve our characters? Three strategies: the use of moral role models, conscious selecting of situations, and “getting the word out.”

Interestingly, adopting role models after whom to pattern one’s behavior seems to be an effective way to improve our character, and of course the motivation here is just fine: we want to become better persons. Role models can be people we know (your grandfather, for instance), people we know of (Nelson Mandela), or even fictional entities (Spider-Man, in my case). Just like the Stoics advised us to do. In fact, Miller cites the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

When you are about to meet someone, especially someone who seems to be distinguished, put to yourself the question, ‘What would Socrates or Zeno have done in these circumstances?’ and you will not be at a loss as to how to deal with the occasion. (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 33.12-13)

There are good studies showing the efficacy of role models. One of my favorite, mentioned by Miller, concerns blood donations. Researchers have discovered that when a role model signed up for a donation, 18 out of 20 other people signed up as well. Without a role model, the number of people who signed up to donate was zero.

The second strategy that works well is one based on the idea of purposely seeking out situations that inspire us to do well, while actively avoiding those that may go against our ethics. Miller’s example is that of a flirtatious colleague who invited you to a secluded dinner. Just don’t go. Instead, make sure you never see her without other people around, thus diminishing the temptation to engage in an ethically questionable affair. Conversely, seeking out inspiring situations also includes seeking the company of people who we judge to have a better character than ours, so that we can learn by associating ourselves with them.

The Stoics were on target here as well, as they suggested precisely these two ways to implement the situational strategy, as we may call it:

Just as he who tries to be rid of an old love must avoid every reminder of the person once held dear (for nothing grows again so easily as love), similarly, he who would lay aside his desire for all the things which he used to crave so passionately, must turn away both eyes and ears from the objects which he has abandoned. The emotions soon return to the attack. (Seneca, Letters LXIX.3)


Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler. (Seneca, Letters XI.10)

Modern economists refer to this notion of seeking positive situations and avoiding negative ones as “pre-commitment strategies,” and there is good evidence that they work. The more general notion is to actively shape our behavior by way of modifying the environment in which we operate. And since we are doing the work, not anonymous “nudging” agents, we are not only doing something efficacious, but also for the right reason.

The last strategy that has good empirical backing is that of getting the word out with ourselves, so to speak. It really means getting to know who we are and what makes us tick. This is a question of mindfulness in the sense of paying attention to what we do and how we respond to situations, again with the goal of improving our character step by step. The empirical evidence is that we can even educate ourselves in order to counter non-conscious responses, such as the bystander effect. You may recall that this is the situation where we tend not to act if someone is in distress in case there are other inactive people around us, likely because we don’t want to misread the situation and embarrass ourselves. One study shows that people help in only 27% of the cases when the bystander effect is at play. However, if they are educated beforehand about the effect and pay attention to the situations they are in, the helpful response jumps to 67%.

Here too the Stoics were way ahead of their time, as they practiced a type of mindfulness known as prosoché, which works pretty much along the lines just described:

Very little is needed for everything to be upset and ruined, only a slight lapse in reason. It’s much easier for a mariner to wreck his ship than it is for him to keep it sailing safely; all he has to do is head a little more upwind and disaster is instantaneous. In fact, he does not have to do anything: a momentary loss of attention will produce the same result. (Epictetus, Discourses IV.3,4-5)

These two chapters (nn. 8 and 9) of Miller’s book were most satisfying, not just because they confirmed the brilliant insightfulness of ancient Stoicism (and, similarly, of Buddhism as well as other religious-philosophical traditions), but because they clearly address, in a nuanced way, the stuff that does and does not work if the goal is to become better human beings. Not at all a minor thing to get from any book, and worth the cover price in itself.

I was, however, not at all impressed, and indeed positively turned off, by the last chapter of the book, where Miller talks about improving our character via divine, specifically Christian, assistance. I will devote the last entry in this series to as balanced a criticism as I can muster of that chapter.

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