The Character Gap

The distance between who we are and who we could become.

Posted Jan 25, 2018

c/o Oxford University Press
Source: c/o Oxford University Press

Talk of character will not go away. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle focused on it. Medieval philosophers and theologians were concerned about it. In the past 60 years, there has been a revival of interest in philosophy, theology, and, more recently, psychology as well. Schools have character-development programs. Numerous organizations seek to encourage the cultivation of character in sports. Many religious groups and organizations include a focus on developing character as part of what it means to be religious or spiritual.

Christian Miller, a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University, has written an excellent small book about the big idea of character. The Character Gap is an insightful and wonderful book. The book is based on some of his own scholarship on character, as well as the findings of a good deal of psychological research concerning it. In it, Miller offers much food for thought for those interested in what character is, what our character is, and how to develop it. He argues that our character is a mixed bag. We have the potential to do great good, but great evil as well. Most of us, at the core, are a mix of good and evil. There is a gap, a character gap, between who we are and who we should be.

The book is made up of three parts. Part I discusses what character is and why it matters. Part II discusses the gap that exists between who we are and who we ought to be, by examining several empirical studies related to lying, helping, harming, and cheating. The final part of the book offers some ideas about how to improve our character.

One of the interesting claims in the book is that we are mistaken when we describe human beings using virtue and vice terms. As Miller puts it, "Most of us do not in fact have any virtues, and most people do not in fact have any vices (p. 20)." Few of us are in fact compassionate, generous, and humble, in the sense that we have this trait across many domains in life and in a stable manner. Fortunately, the same is true of most of us with respect to cruelty, dishonesty, and egoistic pride.

After discussing several of the reasons people have for being good, Miller goes on to discuss who we actually are, i.e. what character looks like in most of us today. There are many fascinating findings in this section. For example, the environmental cues that impact our behavior include such seemingly irrelevant things as a particular smell, room temperature, and background noise. There are troubling things here as well, such as our willingness to inflict terrible cruelty on others when we are pressured to do so by an authority figure. But there is good to be found here as well. Miller draws several lessons from these findings. For example:

  • Most of us will behave admirably in some situations, and then deplorably in others.
  • Our environment has an impact on our moral behavior, in ways we fail to realize.
  • We are motivated not only by self-interest, but by a variety of other things as well.

In part III, Miller considers several strategies for character improvement, and argues that some are more promising than others. The more effective strategies include:

  1. Having good moral role models.
  2. Doing what we can to avoid situations that may elicit immoral behavior.
  3. Seeking out situations that will motivate and inspire us to do what is right.
  4. Acquiring knowledge of our particular moral tendencies and being mindful of them as we seek to be good and do what is right.

Finally, the book concludes with a brief discussion of the potential role of divine assistance related to character development. Readers, whether or not they have religious commitments, should find this discussion of character development within the Christian tradition of interest. The discussion of the roles of religious rituals and practices, the social dimensions of religious communities that can encourage good character, and the activity of the Holy Spirit serves as a nice primer on character development within one religious tradition.

If you are interested in learning about character, the often-praised but rarely understood idea, as well as implementing some strategies in your own life and encouraging growth in the lives of others, then you should read this book.

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