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The Character Gap by Christian B. Miller

Massimo Pigliucci is frank about human character.

None of us are quite as good as we think. This isn’t just my pessimistic opinion about the human race; it’s the result of systematic research on character in modern psychology.

This gap between opinion and reality is the focus of Christian Miller’s book The Character Gap: How Good Are We? Miller is the A.C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and the Director of the Character Project, a Templeton-funded multidisciplinary study of academic resources, so he is well positioned to write about character, from both a philosophical and an empirical perspective.

His book is organized into three parts: What is character and why is it important? (Chapters 1 and 2); What does our character actually look like? (Chapters 3-7); and, What can we do to improve our characters? (Chapters 8-10). 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 explain why we like or dislike these people, what would we say? We would describe their character as people. Your friend will be trustworthy and kind. Stalin, by contrast, was cruel, heartless, insensitive, brutal, and ruthless. In other words, we would describe the difference in terms of their virtues and vices. Miller then undergoes 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 friend Beth performs one compassionate action – say, making a donation to a charity – that’s not enough to conclude that she’s a compassionate person. She could have done that one thing for a number of reasons, besides simply being compassionate. Moreover, much hinges on how she performs the action: with proper humility, or ostentatiously?

However, the book is about empirical evidence more than hypothetical situations. The psychological evidence about human character martialed by Miller is decidedly mixed – which is his main point. Miller calls his generic human being Frank. Frank is the aggregate of all the subjects of the psychological studies Miller has reviewed. Frank is one of the 76% of people who voluntarily help a stranger out of empathy for their predicament. He is also unwilling to cheat if he is reminded of his values; and that holds even when no one’s watching. Then again, Frank is a victim of the bystander effect: if someone’s in need of assistance, he won’t help if he is surrounded by people who are also not helping. Miller’s main explanation for the bystander effect is not that Frank has now suddenly turned into a callous person. Rather, 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 misread the situation.

Overall, the studies considered here by Miller show that Frank’s character – and hence the character of most of us – is erratic. Sometimes we behave admirably, at other times despicably. Moreover, our behavior is extremely sensitive to our surroundings, often in ways that we don’t consciously recognize. It turns out that people are more likely to help strangers if they’ve just passed a bakery from which the warm and pleasant odor of bread is emanating! This particular effect is strong: those who had not encountered fresh bread were helpful only 22% (males) and 17% (females) of the time, while bakery-triggered subjects helped 45% and 61% of the time respectively.

Near the end of the book Miller gets to possibly the most important consideration: Given these facts about the character gap, how do we narrow it? He discusses a number of approaches that don’t seem to work, including virtue labelling, where we go around referring to people as honest, conscientious, and so forth, even when they are not, hoping that being labelled in a certain way will prompt them to improve. Nudging, sometimes referred to as ‘libertarian paternalism’ (which sounds rather oxymoronic), also doesn’t have a lot of empirical evidence in its favor when it comes to character traits. Yes, having a fly depicted in the right place in public urinals really does reduce the amount of, ahem, spillage, by patrons. But we have no evidence that nudging works in the long run, particularly when it comes to moral behavior.

What, then, does help improve our characters? Miller proposes three strategies:

1) The use of moral role models; the conscious selecting of situations; and ‘getting the word out’. People have used moral role models since ancient Greece and Rome, and it turns out they were right. Thinking of Socrates, Jesus or your grandma, for instance, looking over your shoulders, does improve your behavior.

2) Situation selection is another strategy. If a flirtatious married colleague invites 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.

3) The third and final strategy that has good empirical backing is that of getting to know who we are and what makes us tick. ‘Know thyself’, as the Oracle at Delphi used to say. It’s a question of mindfulness, in the sense of paying attention to what we do and how we respond to situations, with the goal of improving our character little by little.

I have some misgivings about the very last chapter, which is focused on the religious approach to improving character. Of course people can and do ask God for help in moral matters; but Miller does not seem to take seriously enough the notion that God’s place in life is also often as simply moral role model – making the religious approach a variation of a strategy he’s already discussed.

That said, The Character Gap presents a fascinating combined philosophical and empirical approach that is a must-read for anyone interested in becoming a better person. And who isn’t?

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2020

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (2nd Ed, University of Chicago Press). He blogs at massimopigliucci.com.

The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, by Christian B. Miller, Oxford University Press, 2017, 296pp, $16.99 hb, ISBN: 9780190264222

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