Book Club: The Character Gap, 1, What is character and why is it important?

Time to start a new book in our general philosophy book club (as distinct from our Stoic book club). For the next three installments we are going to discuss Christian Miller’s The Character Gap. Miller is the A.C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and the Director of the Character Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. He is the author of over 75 papers as well as two books with Oxford University Press, Moral Character: An Empirical Theory (2013) and Character and Moral Psychology (2014). He is also the editor or co-editor of Essays in the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press), Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology (Oxford University Press), and several other volumes.

The official book descriptions reads as follows: we like to think of ourselves, our friends, and our families as decent people. We may not be saints, but we are still honest, relatively kind, and mostly trustworthy. Miller argues here that we are badly mistaken in thinking this. Hundreds of recent studies in psychology tell a different story: that we all have serious character flaws that prevent us from being as good as we think we are - and that we do not even recognize that these flaws exist. But neither are most of us cruel or dishonest. Instead, Miller argues, we are a mixed bag. On the one hand, most of us in a group of bystanders will do nothing as someone cries out for help in an emergency. Yet it is also true that there will be many times when we will selflessly come to the aid of a complete stranger - and resist the urge to lie, cheat, or steal even if we could get away with it. Much depends on cues in our social environment. Miller uses this recent psychological literature to explain what the notion of “character” really means today, and how we can use this new understanding to develop a character better in sync with the kind of people we want to be.

The volume is organized in three parts: What is character and why is it important? (chapters 1 and 2), What does our character actually look like today? (chapters 3-7), and What can we do to improve our characters? (chapters 8-10). This essay is devoted to the first section, comprising the first two chapters.

Miller begins by asking us to consider someone we truly like and respect (say, a good friend), and then compare her to someone we truly despise (say, Joseph Stalin). If we were to describe these two people, to explain why we like or dislike them, what would we say? We would describe their character. Your friend may be trustworthy and kind. Stalin, by contrast, was cruel, heartless, insensitive, brutal, and ruthless.

Of course “character” indicates a lot of other aspects of our personality, not just the morally salient ones (e.g., one can be an introvert or an extrovert), but Miller’s book focuses on the moral dimension only. He proceeds by reminding his readers that ever since Plato and Aristotle moral character traits have been organized into two opposing groups: virtues and vices. As is well known, the Platonic cardinal virtues, inherited by the Stoics, are practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Miller refers us to Dante’s Inferno - one of the best books of the world’s literature - for a survey of the relevant vices. The first point that comes across here is that, despite some cultural variation, the major virtues and vices appear to be pretty much human universals, stable reference points for our moral compass, regardless of where and when we are born.

Next, Miller turns to a bit of a close up examination of what a virtue is and how we can tell if a person is virtuous. Take compassion, for instance. If our imaginary friend Beth performs one compassionate action - say, making a donation to a charity - that’s not enough to conclude that she is a compassionate person. She could have done that single thing for a number of reasons, from winning a bet with a friend to showing off. Moreover, much hinges on how she performs the action: with proper humility, or by way of ostentatious behavior?

Miller suggests that what we need to establish is a pattern of virtuous behavior under a wide range of circumstances before we can feel comfortable to say that Beth is, in fact, a compassionate person.

“The compassionate person’s central goal when helping another person is to do what is good for that person, rather than what is personally beneficial. At the same time, she may also find happiness for herself in the process of helping, even profound depths of joy.” (p. 23)

An important point here is that if motivations enter into the picture, then it will be very difficult to establish whether a person is virtuous or not, since we usually can only observe behaviors, without access to the internal mental states of people, and therefore to the motives behind their actions. Besides, some of those motives may be opaque to the people themselves. Introspection is a notoriously tricky business.

Nevertheless, once established, a virtuous character tends to be stable. If your friend is trustworthy, she will be so for extended periods of time and under a variety of specific circumstances.

A similar analysis applies to the vices. Unvirtuous people are not easy to detect from single instances or narrow circumstances. For instance, maybe someone gets a kick out of inflicting pain on animals, but he will likely abstain from doing so to the neighbor’s dog, for fear of being caught. He may, therefore, develop a good reputation, even though his character is vicious. That’s why H. Jackson Brown said that:

“Character is what we do when we think no one is looking.” (p. 27)

This, of course, is what happens distressingly often with politicians: they can fool a lot of people for a long time, though occasionally we catch them doing something “out of character,” which, turns out, is actually revelatory of their true character.

Miller briefly discusses the notion of the unity of virtues, the idea that all virtues are intimately connected to each other, and that, for instance, one cannot be courageous but unjust. He seems to make some pretty basic mistakes here. To begin with, he attributes the doctrine to Aristotle, when in fact it has its origin in Socrates. Second, and more importantly, he doesn’t seem to be aware that the ancient Greco-Romans defined the pertinent virtues using built-in moral components, so that “courage,” for instance, isn’t the generic willingness to face danger, but rather the propensity to stand up and do the right (moral) thing. Defined that way, one may more easily appreciate why Socrates thought that courage and justice go hand in hand.

But Miller tells us that he is going to adopt a rather radical view:

“I believe that most people do not in fact have any virtues, and most people do not in fact have any vices. Something else is going on in our characters, something that until very recently has not been appreciated much at all.” (p. 30)

Unfortunately, he is going to postpone an explanation until later in the book, so for now I will simply note my initial, tentative, disagreement and plan to return to the issue once we get further details.

The second chapter of the book addresses the obvious question underlying the entire discussion: why bother to be good in the first place? Miller begins his treatment by way of three examples: the story of Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer worker who helped a group of persecuted Jews survive for more than a year in the underground city of Lvov; the well known account of how young Abraham Lincoln was so honest in his dealings with others that he deservedly began to be referred to as “honest Abe”; and the case of Dr. Paul Farmer, the tireless founder of Partners in Health, an organization that began its charitable work in Haiti and later expanded to several other troubled spots in the world.

Why did Socha, Lincoln and Farmer did what they did? Miller considers a number of possibilities. The first one is that virtuous lives are admirable and inspiring, so the first reason to be virtuous is an emotional one: doing good deeds not only inspires awe in others, but elevates our own spirit and gives meaning to our life. This is not at all pollyannaish, there is good empirical evidence from social psychology that it is the case.

Second reason: good character typically makes the world a much better place. The argument here is rather straightforward:

“Think about all the good that compassionate people have done in the world, and contrast this with all the harm caused by those full of cruelty and hate. What world would you rather live in?” (p. 45)

Third reason: god wants us to become good people. This one, of course, has a lot of traction around the world. But not with me, so I will skip it, just like I will skip the very last chapter in the book, which deals with improving our character by way of divine assistance. Feel free, of course, to delve into those parts of the book on your own. (Here too, though, Miller plays fast and lose with ideas and historical developments: Confucianism, contra his belief, really doesn’t qualify as a religion, but is more properly characterized as a philosophy of life belonging to the class of virtue ethics, like Aristotelianism or Stoicism.)

Fourth reason: a good character can be rewarding. What Miller means here is not just that it feels good to be virtuous (although it does), but that virtue has a number of positive side effects on our lives. For instance, a virtuous person is not tempted to cheat on his spouse, or on taxes, thus avoiding both a costly divorce and the possibility of jail. There is even research that apparently shows that company executives who are characterized by higher levels of moral integrity are better for the bottom line of their corporations.

If this doesn’t really sound like virtue to you, Miller is aware of the problem, and suggests that these benefits should not be the main reason why someone acts virtuously, but that they are nice side effects of a virtuous life. He uses the analogy of driving a car from place A to place B. To reach my destination is the actual goal, but if it is a nice day I can still enjoy the breeze while driving. I don’t get into the car in order to feel the breeze.

(next: what does our character actually look like today?)

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