Virtue and the Four Types of Character

Is psychology finally opening up to the moral?

Posted Jun 11, 2013

In its quest to be scientific, psychology has, for much of its existence, banished concepts like virtue and evaluative notions about character and living the good life. Instead, the field has generally attempted to utilize terms like personality and framed its constructs in terms of objective, observable patterns. And psychopathology was medicalized, such that disorders were reconceptualized to be not about the moral character of the individual, but instead a consequence of broken biology. Of course, that has always been fuzzy thinking. When someone is diagnosed as having an antisocial personality, aren’t we basically saying they have a troubled moral character?

In his excellent book, Virtue and Psychology (APA Books, 2005), Blaine Fowers challenges the field to consider concepts like virtue and to embrace the complexity associated with what it means to live a more virtuous life and how we can promote it. I believe that Fowers is absolutely correct in his argument that the field of human psychology has been misguided in its massive reluctance to examine the moral and to generate investigations and make claims about what is the good life. Its avoidance has been out of its desire to be scientific, with the general sentiment being that only facts can be objective, whereas values are inherently subjective and thus not the proper domain of science. Although the fact-value distinction is crucial in understanding knowledge, it is a complete fallacy that facts and values can remain completely isolated in the human sciences. Why? There are many reasons, but the most basic and easy to see is that humans use facts about themselves to generate conceptions about their actions that have obvious value-based implications.

Consider, for example, the seemingly value-neutral claim that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance.” Let us suspend for a moment the idea that this is a specious claim, and assume it is a reasonable one. On the surface, it seems like a value-neutral statement, grounded in very objective concepts like neurons and neurotransmitters. But the problem regarding values rears its head immediately because this “fact” is then used by people to justify actions and legitimize claims. Now, the individual is not to blame for their depression and they should not be held me responsible for it. Does that make for a better society? Is it OK if an abused wife stays with her abusive husband because she attributes her depression to a chemical imbalance? Without getting into claims about who is responsible for depression, the point here is that because humans use facts about themselves to justify their actions and identifies, there is no way to generate value neutral human sciences. Fowers wants us to realize that impossibility and embrace both the complexity and the potential of systematically studying ethical concepts like virtue. An ethic brought into the light is far more enlightened than an implicit ethic driving the system.

Being virtuous means aligning one’s self with “the good” or with what is good. Although it is, of course, the case that the ultimate answer to what is good is very complex, it also is the case that the basic answers are often very simple. Just ask any five year old about what kinds of actions are good and what kinds are not, and you will likely be reminded that we humans have a deep moral sense that transcends what we are socialized to believe. And I do think we can make progress on defining “the good.” In my work, for example, I have argued that the good can be effectively characterized by the intersection and overlap of dignity, well-being, and integrity and that we ought to be that which enhances these elements.

Although there were many important insights in Fowers book, the one that I found to be most interesting and useful was his reciting of Aristotle’s four kinds of character. The four character types emerge from the combination of the two dimensions of moral duty and one’s personal inclinations. Moral duty refers to acting toward what is good, whereas the latter refers to the emotional inclination to act on one’s desires. The four kinds of character that emerge are as follows:

1. The Continent Character is one who has selfish, amoral, or immoral desires, but exhibits control over them in the service of acting morally. For example, a man in a committed relationship who lusts after another woman but inhibits acting on those feelings because the betrayal of his wife goes against the good would be acting as a continent character. Interestingly, Kant believed that the moral and the personal inclinations were inevitably in conflict and the times when an individual suppressed his desires and acted morally were examples of the highest good.

2. The Incontinent Character knows what the right or virtuous thing is to do, but does not have the self-control to live by his morals. Continuing with the example above, this would be an individual who would know that it was wrong to betray his wife and have a casual affair, but would give into his desires, perhaps feeling guilty afterwards.

3. The Vicious Character, in contrast, feels no conflict between inclinations and moral duty because he has no moral sense of the good. Such individuals simply act on their own selfish inclinations, as these are seen as what is valuable. Continuing with the above example, a vicious character would cheat on his wife with no guilt and simply work to solve the problem of her finding out about it so that it would not inconvenience him.

4. The Virtuous Character also feels no conflict between emotional inclinations and moral duty. Why? Because the virtuous character has trained his emotional system to be aligned with his moral inclinations. In short, at a deep emotional level, the virtuous character wants to do the good. While such a character might indeed have sexual feelings for another, he would feel pride and connection in acting in a loyal, trustworthy manner and the very thought of cheating or acting immorally is deeply aversive for the virtuous character. In contrast to Kant, Aristotle believed that the virtuous character represented the highest ideal.

It is important to note here that individuals will certainly not always be one or another character. I, for example, can clearly identify situations or episodes when I have been virtuous (i.e., I genuinely wanted and acted toward the good), continent (wanted something immoral, but controlled myself), and incontinent (known it was the wrong thing to do, but did it anyway). I would imagine most others feel the same way.  

I found this categorical system extremely helpful and it was striking to me that, in all my exposure to psychology, this was the first time I had seen it. The practical implications are highly significant and rather straightforward. Consider, for example, that one can systematically build a virtuous character orientation by fostering positive feelings of self-love when one is oriented toward the good. Indeed, I would argue that we could perhaps see this as the central goal of socialization. Yet, it is essentially absent in human psychology. It is sad that human psychology, in its aversion to saying anything moral, has neglected such basic insights. But with Fowers and others pointing the way, perhaps that will change in the not too distant future and psychology can have a much more impactful message for how to life the good life.