Bridging the Character Gap

Part 2: Some more promising strategies.

Posted Sep 30, 2019

How can we become better people? How can we bridge the character gap—the gap between who we are and who we ought to be?

In his book, The Character Gap, Christian Miller discusses a few promising strategies (see this previous post for some that he thinks are less promising). 

First, we should look to moral role models. These can be actual people, living or dead. Think of people, who, while not perfect, offer us an example of a life well-lived, such as Abraham Lincoln and his honesty, or Mother Teresa and her compassion. Fictional characters can serve this function as well. Think of the mercy of the bishop in Les Miserables, who did not turn in Jean Valjean for theft. Or think of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and how that could inspire moral behavior and a paradigm shift about the value of all human beings. Perhaps the effectiveness of a good moral role model can inspire us, give us the emotion of elevation in which we not only admire the role model, but are motivated to emulate her. There are studies supporting the claim that moral role models can have a positive impact on us, though more evidence is needed to show that the impact is deep and long-lasting.

A second strategy for character growth is selecting our situations. This is common sense. We should seek out situations that encourage virtue, and avoid those that tempt us to vice. One problem here is that many things influence us, in ways we don't realize. For example, the smell of cinnamon rolls baking can motivate us to engage in helping behavior! Moreover, there are many situations beyond our control. We need to focus on our own attitudes, and on what we can control, if we are to successfully navigate morally charged situations.

Third, there is the strategy that Miller calls "getting the word out." This involves getting to know ourselves better, in two senses. First, we should seek self-knowledge, getting to know our own desires and inclinations, and how they influence us, as much as this is possible. When am I more apt to lie, or not? When am I more likely to help others, or not? What motivates me to do good? What undermines that motivation

Second, we can learn more about human nature, so we can avoid common pitfalls. For example, if I recall that one lesson of the famous Milgrim experiment is that human beings will often do terrible things if someone they see as a legitimate authority figure tells them to do so, then I can be on the alert when such a figure tells me to do something I think is wrong. If I realize that the pull to obey is a part of human nature that should be resisted, then I am more equipped to stay true to my convictions. 

In conclusion, all of these strategies have some value, both the less promising and the more promising ones. The best approach to character growth will likely include all of them, and more.