The Character Gap: How Good are We?
Christian B. Miller
When you pick up The Character Gap and see a picture of Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler on the dust jacket, you might expect the author is going to sort the good guys from the bad guys. Once you start reading, however, you realize that far from helping you point the finger at anyone else or create another hero, the author, Christian Miller, is inviting you to look inward.
This is a book written by the Director of the Character Project, which is being funded by the Templeton Foundation, and involves researchers around the world who are addressing basic questions about how people make moral choices. Gathering a wide range of findings together into an elaborate view of human behavior, the team of the Character Project is addressing one of the big questions: how good (or not) are we?
A book by a philosopher, summarizing highly technical research and putting forth the case for why developing character is a good thing, might sound like a heavy read. In this instance it isn’t. The writing is light-hearted and engaging. The author’s style feels like a good conversation with a friend. He writes “Wait, didn’t I just mention a bunch of studies….” or “This is just an opinion I have about….” or “Perhaps you disagree.” These and many other comments remind readers that we haven’t drifted out of the mind of the author. He wants us there with him to explore the big questions. He wants us to look at ourselves.
Nearly half of The Character Gap is a review of behavioral research accumulated over the last fifty years. Some of it is familiar. Millions of college psychology students have read about studies of Bystander Intervention that explore who helps in an emergency. In article after article journalists have shocked the public with accounts of the Milgram experiments in which participants were willing to deliver intense shocks to other participants for wrong answers, even after the instrument panel told them the shocks they were giving could be lethal.
Miller has moved beyond these studies to other less well known ones to consider choices people make about helping others or ignoring them, about telling the truth or lying, and about breaking rules or keeping them. Assembling these findings into a picture of character, Miller concludes that most of us are virtuous sometimes but not always, that we are conscientious about some virtues while we neglect others, and that our moral behavior isn’t consistent in every situation and across time. Morally speaking, Miller suggests, most of us are a mixture of the best and the worst.
If we begin reading his book, thinking we are included in a cadre of highly moral and consistent persons, Miller gives us ample reason to reconsider. Although he reminds us that we are morally mixed characters, he is not writing to condemn us. Rather he invites us to consider how we might “bridge the gap between our actual selves and the moral people we should become.”
The approach used in The Character Gap differs in some significant ways from the methods of researchers who study human behavior. Miller is a philosopher. “Those are the facts as I see them,” he writes. “Now comes the value judgment…. It is unfortunate that our characters are this way…. Excellence of character, or being virtuous, is what we should all strive for.” Miller does not bind himself to the rules of moral neutrality that limit behavioral scientists. He is not compelled by the intellectual codes of courtesy that pressure us to accept that everyone’s choice is as worthy as everyone else’s. Miller thinks some choices are better than others. No doubt that is why Adolf Hitler appears on the cover of the book.
Miller also does not allow himself to be hemmed in by the procedural agnositicism of science. Some of what is learned from religion, and some of what is shaped in the social assemblies of religious practice, Miller insists, contributes to bridging the character gap. He appeals to statistical data about domestic violence, crime prevention, health, life satisfaction, and charity as these are correlated with habits of religious practice. Religion appears to be a positive influence.
Remember that early on in his book Miller makes a clear case that most individuals are morally mixed. In considering the impact of religion on behavior, Miller does not hide from the fact that dreadful things have been done in the name of religion, and he does not attempt to aggrandize religious people. Religion does not exempt its participants from the character gap. On the contrary, after establishing early on in his book that he is willing to let evidence speak for itself, Miller makes the case that religion and its institutions, though not perfect, offer ways to bridge the moral character gap.
It is fair, of course, to challenge any writer who relies heavily on “empirical” science. How good is the science? Can studies be replicated? Attempts to repeat studies in Psychology have been far less successful than studies in Chemistry, for example. Apparently humans are less predictable than atoms. Can we generalize findings about single factors sifted from complex situations? Researchers count on everything but the factor being measured to be random, but consider how our sense of safety in public spaces has changed in the last twenty years. Do studies of helping behavior conducted in the 1970s cobble together well with studies from the present if they involve perceptions of danger?
How reliable are findings gleaned in artificially constructed laboratory settings? Much of the early research was done with college students fulfilling course requirements by volunteering to participate in studies being conducted in Psychology Department laboratories. Some of the early studies of honesty and cheating were conducted using protocols that included deceiving the participants. Do scientists live by different moral rules than their subjects? How well did those settings reflect the real world? How do researchers’ own motives shape their findings? What Miller has said about character can also be said about the human sciences. It’s a mixed bag.
Even if Miller is naïve about the reliability of science, his own motives carry him through, because he isn’t writing primarily for scientists. He is writing for teachers, preachers, civic leaders, parents, and all the rest of us who ask questions about virtue and vice, about character and failures of character. He is writing for people who follow the news and go to the voting booth. He is engaging us in reflection, not offering us dogma. His own words in the last paragraph of his book say it well:
May the coming years shed new light on the darkest recesses of our hearts. May they inspire us to replace the darkness with a better character. And may they provide us with greater insight into how to go about doing so.
Mary VanderGoot has a PhD in Psychology from Princeton University. She has been a Professor of Psychology and a Therapist. She is the author of After Freedom: How Boomers Pursued Freedom, Questioned Virtue, and Still Search for Meaning (Cascade Books, 2012).