The Character Gap
By Christian Miller
New York: Oxford University Press, 2018
The Character Gap tells us we are far worse judges of character than we fancy ourselves to be, and that our own lack of character trips up our judgements of others. This is a timely reminder of judicial fallibility in the light of the recent courtroom events involving Cardinal George Pell.
We can end up justifying almost anything when our own character is flawed or when we have preconceived views. Miller writes, ‘So long as we continue to assume that people are honest, or cruel, or compassionate, or selfish, we are going to continue to make mistakes about their character.’
The book is the fruit of Templeton Foundation funded research led by Christian B. Miller, who holds the AC Reid Chair of Philosophy at Wake University. It summarises several years of work by an extended team and admirably aligns a virtue-based character view with current and recent research in behavioural psychology, offering suggestions for what each of us can do to close the character gap between our own mediocrity and true virtue.
Miller writes: ‘It is incredibly hard to develop a good character, and the obstacles in our way are significant. There are no easy solutions, quick fixes, or magical pills to take.’ Drawing on empirical data from psychological research, Miller argues that categories of virtues and vices are simplistic and fail to reflect the imperfect realities of our characters. Nevertheless Miller upholds the importance of good character and of the possibility of developing character and virtue.
He offers four reasons to strive to be virtuous: ‘virtuous lives are admirable and inspiring’; ‘good character typically makes the world a better place’; virtue seems to fulfil human beings in a way that vice cannot (or as Miller puts it ‘God wants us to become good people’); and a good character can be rewarding’.
Miller’s insights into the importance of intention are particularly valuable. He highlights experiments that show how vice imitates virtue… he argues that a vicious person may do a good deed, but do it because others are watching. Hypocrisy is rife and we easily fail to see this in our own actions. He insists: ‘Don’t be so quick to judge’. He urges us to be reluctant to form opinions about character until we know the motivation behind the action.
Placing great store on evidence-based conclusions, Miller delves into behavioural studies of helping, harming, lying and cheating in order to draw character conclusions.
He concludes, ‘Most people today do not have the virtue of compassion’. They may be shamed into helping, but a better long-term result can be obtained by encouraging empathy with the person in need. On aggression, he builds on Milgram’s famous demonstration that most of us will hurt others if we are told to do so or are reassured by the complicity of others. Miller shows that such aggression will be seriously exacerbated if the perpetrators themselves have suffered previous maltreatment, been exposed to images of violence and weapons, and that even background noise, heat, odours, crowded spaces, and higher ozone levels can increase aggression.
How little we understand ourselves.
We don’t score well on honesty either. Studies suggest that we will lie in about of a third of our daily encounters, and lie even more frequently to our mothers! Most of these small and big lies serve to further our own self-interest, yet we are significantly unaware of all this. Self-reports on our own lying are lower than impartial evaluations.
And of course many of us cheat — there is an ‘epidemic of cheating’ at universities. The good news is that explicit instruction about ‘honour codes’ of honesty or about the Ten Commandments significantly reduces cheating. Parents take note.
Miller proposes various approaches to help us develop virtue in ourselves or in the children for whom we are responsible: allowing consequences to play out, giving explicit positive reinforcement, nudging towards virtuous actions, encouraging the emulation of others, and being mindful of the situations and of our own tendencies.
I do think how much better this book could be.
Despite the positives, there are significant shortcomings in the approach it adopts. At the foundation it offers a simplistic understanding of virtue. Experimental psychology tends to treat character as a black box. Crude virtue-based approaches treat virtues as a long wish-list of traits. This book blends both approaches.
There is no reference to the decisive elaboration on Aristotle’s doctrine of virtue that was offered by Aquinas. He clarified the psychological basis of the four overarching domains of positive habits, known from the time of Socrates as the cardinal virtues. An appreciation of this understanding of cardinal virtues allows incisive correlation of virtue theory to human experience.
In Aquinas’ account, temperance and fortitude are established habits of rational management of our appetitive desires… for pleasure and for challenging goals. Through these two most fundamental cardinal virtues we have the wherewithal to seek pleasure only to the extent it is good for us, and to put up with pain for a good reason. Aquinas also understands that rationality requires a habit of loving wisely, which is justice, and a habit of living in reality, and basing our goals on truth, and this is prudence.
Aquinas holds, with flawless reasoning, that all truly human natural activity falls under these four desires and operations. It is a pity that Miller seems unaware of the power of this analysis.
As a consequence Miller’s reflections on empathy, compassion, religion, deceiving others, self-interest, etc, appear untethered and random and arbitrary. One wonders where they should fit into a flourishing human personality. But for Aquinas, these are constant inescapable duties to others and are all manifestations of justice. In fact, Aquinas held, again with very sound reasoning, to what is known as the ‘unity of the virtues’. Justice must be present, along with the other three cardinal virtues, in every one of our actions. Justice is this important, yet the book fails to acknowledge this overarching significance.
Such an appreciation of the cardinal virtues may also be readily demonstrated by an understanding of what is happening in the brain when, as embodied creatures, we manage pleasure and pain responses, pay attention to others, and seek truth. Human beings and human brains are not black boxes. Knowing how a dictionary works helps us communicate. Knowing how the brain works, helps us improve ourselves.
How much this book would benefit from a chapter tying all these aspects together! When experimental psychology is informed by an understanding of the neural bases of virtue and Thomistic rational psychology, the unity of the virtues becomes evident and even more meaningful conclusions can be obtained. Miller would then find it far easier to demonstrate that human beings are fulfilled through love of others, and through truth (including religious truth that Miller introduces as an appendix chapter).
Ultimately these shortcomings serve to highlight the need of experimental psychology, with its fragmented snapshot approach, for a comprehensive underpinning rational anthropology.
After 15 years as a high school English teacher, and similar time as principal of two schools, Andy Mullins wrote a doctorate in moral philosophy investigating the relationship between virtue and neural development. He is an occasional contributor to MercatorNet.