The Character Gap: Understanding Our Moral Mediocrity

Christian Miller’s scientific approach to understanding moral character is impressive, and it allows him to reach a public that is inclined only to trust the empirical. Yet this method severely restricts the conclusions Miller feels justified to make.

In The Character Gap, Christian Miller—a moral philosopher at Wake Forest University and director of the Character Project—has written a brisk, elegant account of the nature of human moral character. Miller defends the classical account of virtuous action: to be virtuous, one must have the habit that enables him or her to act in the right way, in the right circumstance, with the right motivation. But he quickly moves beyond this.

Miller’s real task is to describe and popularize what the actual moral character of most human beings looks like, so we can learn the necessary steps to become virtuous. His method, explicitly scientific, is to use empirical data from a host of psychological studies. The data are then analyzed to make empirically verifiable, philosophical conclusions about our moral character. This method allows Miller to make a range of fascinating observations about specific features of our moral character. However, Miller’s approach raises a question: does this method suffice for helping us become virtuous and deepening our moral understanding?

Understanding Moral Character

Miller’s targets are two understandings of moral character prevalent in popular culture. The first is that we are all good people. The wrongheadedness of this conception was made painfully clear by the recent deaths of a young American couple who quit their jobs to cycle around the world. Despite believing that “Evil is a make-believe concept” and that “By and large, humans are kind,” the couple was killed by the Islamic State in Tajikistan.

The second understanding is that humans are all evil, a position that draws much support from popular psychology. For example, the mythology around the Stanford prison experiments purportedly shows that those in positions of power are rapidly corrupted, inflicting greater and greater harm on those beneath them. While the prison experiments were a sham—the participants were instructed to play the part of either an abusive guard or a quivering prisoner—the more rigorous Milgram experiments, in which participants were encouraged to administer greater and greater electric shocks to a subject who failed to answer test questions correctly, offer material for a similar conclusion. A journey into the human psyche is a journey into the heart of an immense darkness; we appear to be bad people.

Both these conceptions of moral character are false. Miller contends that our actions are “all over the map”; we behave “admirably in some situations” and “deplorably in others.” His argument is that “most people do not in fact have any virtues, and most people do not in fact have any vices.” While we currently are not bad people, we are currently not good people either. We need to learn how to bridge the gap—the “character gap”—between our present character, which is neither good nor bad, and the virtuous character for which we should strive.

How can we be concurrently neither good nor bad? According to Miller, many of our actions do not qualify as virtuous or vicious, because they lack virtuous or vicious motivations.

Miller offers a series of interpretations of psychological studies with respect to several moral characteristics, such as helping, lying, and cheating. One of the most interesting is his interpretation of what the Milgram studies reveal about our propensity to harm others. Eschewing the standard conclusion that studies demonstrate a human propensity to cruelty, Miller notes that the participant’s decision to inflict greater pain is prompted by an inclination to obey authority figures. This is troubling, but it also suggests humans are not motivated by a desire to harm others; we are not actually vicious. In lesser-known components of the Milgram studies, when there were no prompts from the experimenter, the participants were remarkably gentle. Even the participants who obeyed their orders to inflict greater pain were disturbed by the experience. Miller reasons that a vicious person would not be disturbed, concluding that these studies show that most human beings do not have a desire to act cruelly, nor are they comfortable with such cruel actions. While we do not have the virtue of proper restraint, we also do not have the vice of cruelty.

Bridging the Gap Between Mediocrity and Virtue

Miller’s empirical data vindicate a basic lesson taught in the Aristotelian tradition of moral inquiry. We do not begin with virtues: they are acquired habits. Developing the virtues demands that we expend the time and effort.

To bridge the character gap, Miller endorses some strategies. We can develop virtues by identifying and emulating moral role models, avoiding situations where we might be more easily inclined to act viciously, and learning about situations where psychological traits—like a propensity for obedience—might be hindering us from acting virtuously. Imitating Pascal, Miller argues that we have nothing to lose by religious practice, and only the virtues to gain: religious practice correlates with less criminal activity, better results in education, health benefits, more charitable giving, and improved overall well-being. To let Pascal speak: “Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful.” Christian religious practice, Miller notes, has an advantage here, since Christian doctrine teaches that God sanctifies Christians through the Holy Spirit. As long as we are seeking to do his will and keep his commandments, God is helping us improve our character.

The Limitations of the Scientific Method

Miller’s case is impressively yet plainly made and deserves the wide readership it seeks. He is very careful to restrict his theoretical and practical conclusions to those drawn directly from empirical data. However, the chief limitation of Miller’s book is that he is too careful. His method restricts the conclusions he feels justified to make.

This limitation is most evident in how Miller handles “some less promising strategies” for developing the virtues. He selects three:

  • “Doing nothing”: because the data suggest that certain situations and new environments—like the demands of work or family life—incentivize us to act more virtuously, we wait for those situations and environments to present themselves;
  • “Virtue labelling”: because the data suggest that labeling other people with a positive trait helps them act more according to that positive trait, we label people with a virtue so that they become more virtuous;
  • Nudges”: we alter “people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

While Miller offers interesting philosophical evaluations of some problems in these strategies, he hinders his evaluation by focusing on whether these strategies are empirically verifiable through psychological tests. Noting that the tests offer insufficient proof, he refrains from making definite practical conclusions on the merits of these strategies.

Nevertheless, all these strategies have widespread popularity. One thinks of the pervasive aversion to criticism in education—from primary through post-secondary education. Then there is the culturally mainstream view that character development is something that we can address later in our lives (“thirty is the new twenty!”). We therefore can put off the hard effort of building character for present pleasures. One thinks too of the popularity of “libertarian paternalism,” despite its clear tensions with liberal values. As all these ideas risk damaging rather than building character, a book intended for a popular audience should judge present fashions severely. Instead, Miller endorses the possibility of empirical studies that could justify these strategies: “My hope is that, at some point in the future, we can come up with some useful ones that pass the tests.”

Miller’s curious optimism about our capacity to undertake these kinds of studies, paired with his decision to constrain himself to the domain of the scientific method, leaves unaddressed the deeper question: are philosophical conclusions about character only justifiable if they can be verified empirically? Scientism, another theoretical conception with widespread public acceptance, would say “yes.” According to one formulation, scientism argues that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything.” But not all theorizing can result in conclusions capable of empirical verification through replication. Recognizing the descriptive limits of scientific methodology is essential to challenging the presuppositions of scientism, ensuring more profound philosophy.

By relying on empirical studies, Miller’s book can reach a public inclined to put exclusive trust in this approach, and communicate important philosophical truths. But the drawback is that Miller mounts his defense of virtue to a public held captive by the picture of scientism. To gain a more profound understanding of reality, we must consider other forms of rational inquiry and what they conclude regarding the development of virtues. The hard work of justifying the virtues to a public that has lost sight of their importance can begin with an empirical theory of moral character, but it must not end there.

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