Book Club: The Character Gap, 2, The way we actually are

There seems to be a gap between how good we would like to be (or even think we are) and the real us. That’s the thesis of the second part of Christian Miller’s The Character Gap, which we are discussing in this ongoing philosophy book club. Miller devotes four chapters to documenting - plenty of psychological experiments in hand - how we are doing neither horribly nor particularly well in four areas related to our character: helping, harming others, lying, and cheating. The specific anecdotes and relevant research are interesting and well worth reading, but I’m going to focus here on the general findings from part II of the book.

The evidence martialed by Miller is decidedly mixed, which is his main point. He calls his generic human being - the aggregate of all the experiments he has examined - Frank. Frank is in the company of 76% of people when he voluntarily helps someone he has never met before, out of empathy for the stranger’s predicament. He is also unwilling to cheat if he is reminded of his values, and that holds even when no one is watching.

Then again, Frank is a common victim of the bystander effect: if someone is in need of assistance he won’t help if he is surrounded by people who are not helping. Miller’s main explanation for this is not that Frank has now suddenly turned into a vicious person. He is simply unsure of what to do, and does not want to risk the embarrassment of standing out, especially if it turns out that he has somehow misread the situation.

Overall, the studies considered by Miller show that Frank - and hence most of us - is all over the map: sometimes he behaves admirably, at other times despicably. Moreover, these changes are extremely sensitive to our surroundings, often in ways that we don’t consciously appreciate. Setting aside the bystander effect, it turns out that people are more likely to help strangers if they just passed a bakery from which a warm and pleasant odor of bread or pastries is emanating! This particular effect is strong, with controls helping 22% (males) and 17% (females) of the times, while bakery-triggered subjects help 45% and 61% of the times respectively.

This also means another somewhat disturbing thing: we often don’t know our own motivations for helping or not helping. We are usually not conscious of the bystander or bakery effects, and if we do or do not act on a given occasion, and are then asked about why we did or didn’t, we are likely to come up with reasons that have, in fact, little to do with the actual causal web.

More generally, Miller argues that we behave as a result of a mix of attitudes, which include egoistic ones, when we are concerned about feeling or looking better in front of others; duties, when we help others out of a sense of responsibility, but not genuine care; and true altruism, when our concern really does lie primarily with the other person.

Those are the bases on which Miller concludes that we should rarely talk about people having a generous or a vicious character, because actual people oscillate between generosity and viciousness, depending on the circumstances. Most of us, like Frank, fall somewhere in the (dynamic) middle. This means that when we meet someone we should not make assumptions about her character, other than the statistically safe one that it’s probably a mixed bag. As Miller puts it:

Rather than having the virtues or vices, most of us have a whole bunch of different likes and dislikes, feelings and emotions, beliefs and values, convictions and commitments, some of which are morally admirable and some of which are not. (p. 132)

He points out that we have a natural tendency to infer character from individual actions, but since actions can take different moral valence depending on the circumstances, such an inference (from “she donated money to a charity” to “she is a generous person”) is dangerous.

That said, we don’t behave randomly either. Indeed, our behavior is very reliably predictable under similar circumstances:

How aggressive Frank is when he is in one of these situations (for instance, the bar) is very similar to how aggressive he is the next time he is in the same situation (the bar a week later). This is true despite the fact that Frank behaves so differently from one situation (the bar) to the next (when he is cut off in traffic). (p. 135)

Practically speaking, then, we should lower our expectations of people’s moral character. Conversely, those expectations should be raised under the right environmental circumstances: moral reminders, inducements for enhanced empathy, or good smelling bread.

(next time: what can we do to improve our characters?)

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