Bridging the Character Gap

Part 1: Some less promising strategies

Posted Sep 28, 2019

Oxford University Press
Source: Oxford University Press

There is a gap between who we are, and who we can be. This is one of the main conclusions of Christian Miller's book, The Character Gap. Most of us are not virtuous, but neither are we vicious. We have mixed characters. What can we do to bridge the character gap in our own lives? What can we do to make progress, to improve our character?

Miller discusses several strategies that are less promising.

First, we can do nothing. We can just hope over time that we become better people, but fail to intentionally do anything to make this a reality. This seems silly. It is not how things work in other realms of life, so why think it might work here? Generally, however, consider that people in their forties are more conscientious than college students—sometimes the demands of life can bring about change. The flow of life can make a difference. As we gain professional, personal, and family responsibilities, we grow into them. But generally, excellence is a product of intentional, persistent, sustained focus and effort. Virtues are acquired habits; it takes time and effort to develop these habits.

A second strategy is virtue labeling. Studies show that labeling a group as “cooperative” or “competitive” can lead to the group exhibiting that behavior. Similar results have been found when labeling people as “generous” or not. They later behaved in ways that reflected this label. If you tell your students they are honest, your players they are determined, then that's the kind of behavior they'll perform. However, it is not clear that this works with virtue over the long haul. Moreover, motives matter for genuine virtue. It doesn’t look like proper motives are in play here. Rather, we find a mere response to what someone says about us, not a settled disposition.

Third, there is the strategy of nudging people towards virtue. For example, when a company automatically enrolls new employees in retirement accounts and requires them to fill out a form to opt out, they are more likely to be financially responsible and contribute to their long-term financial security. Another example is related to the goal of quitting smoking. I can set up a special bank account, and contribute the amount I would normally spend on cigarettes over a 6 month period. After 6 months, if I pass a test showing I haven't smoked, I get the money back. If I fail, it is donated to charity. Again, we don’t know the long-term effects on one's character that such nudging has. In addition, the question of motives arises again. These might be good acts, but do they reveal or form good character? And we might worry about who is doing the nudging, in some cases. Do we want to cede control of our lives to others in this way?

Miller is less optimistic about the above strategies for character growth. In my next post, we'll discuss strategies that he thinks are more promising. There is hope for those who want to bridge the character gap.