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What good are you?

A Fortnightly Review


Christian B. Miller
The Character Gap: How Good Are We?

Oxford University Press, 2018 | pp xvii+276 | $21.95 £16.49


CHRISTIAN MILLER’S BOOK comes in a series called ‘Philosophy in Action, Small Books about Big Ideas’. It is a small book, written in an easy, almost conversational style, with a fair amount of personal and anecdotal material. It is about more than one big idea. It is also about action in a general sense, specifically about being and becoming virtuous. But is it philosophy?

Of course, in a general sense it does deal with philosophical matters and philosophical arguments are touched on, if lightly. But, strangely perhaps, the bulk of the book, and indeed its burden, consists of summaries of psychological experiments, from Milgram onwards, designed to throw light on actual moral behaviour. And Miller is at pains to emphasise that the various proposals he makes for closing the character gap as he calls it — that is, transforming us from what we actually are to what might think we ought to be — should all be supported empirically.

How far, I wondered, are these artificial set-ups, based on experiments in some US departments of psychology, valid indications of what actually goes on in the human heart?

“”There is nothing wrong with Miller’s approach, if that is what one wants. Personally, though, I wearied hearing about yet another psychological experiment from some US university department of psychology, designed to elicit the conditions under which a group of subjects and control groups did or did not do the supposedly virtuous thing in some contrived situation. How far, I wondered, are these artificial set-ups valid indications of what actually goes on in the human heart? I would also have liked a bit more, if we are going empirical, about refutability. The studies cited by Miller all point in a particular way in each case, but their design may prompt that conclusion: would a similar study, framed in a slightly different way, yield a different conclusion? How far, in sort, have the studies survived severe testing? How far have the researchers specified ways in which their findings might be refuted? Not knowing this, or being told about the testing that might actually have been done, makes reading Miller’s book a bit like reading a piece on some recent data in a magazine like The Economist or The New Scientist, more keen on the newsworthiness of the item than on its scientific rigour.

That being said, if what one wants is a digest of recent psychological work on character and virtue, then there is no problem with Miller’s approach. And his overall position seems sensible. We are neither good nor bad, but a mixture of both. We, or most of us, are not as good as we might think we are – we lie and cheat more, for example, than we might like to admit. But we are not wholly bad, in that we do or can acknowledge what is right, and we can feel shame when we are made aware of our failings. So while we are not virtuous (Miller takes a strong line on consistency in behaviour before we can say we are virtuous in any respect), we are not vicious either. There is, then, in most of us a character gap, between what we are and what we should be, and the question Miller poses is how we might close that gap.

Somewhat tentatively he proposes a number of strategies. These include doing nothing, but just letting experience and wisdom grow, apparently not as useless as it might seem; labelling the non-virtuous as virtuous and nudging, both of which Miller is doubtful about in that each may involve deception of a sort; encountering good role models in life or literature; avoiding occasions of sin; and getting to know our own desires, all of which Miller has some time for.

In his final chapter, and bravely, Miller writes of the increase in virtue that may go along with living a Christian life. He singles out the effects of prayer and ritual, the practice of confession, tithing and the Christian community itself, all as contributing to virtuous behaviour and the development of virtuous people. He is quite persuasive as far as he goes here, though it was hardly necessary for him to go into empirical studies showing or purporting to show that in the main churchgoers in the US do better in all sorts of moral ways than non-churchgoers, or to rehearse the old arguments about the comparative evils wreaked by religious people and atheists. No doubt many Christians are good people (though some good Christians can be rather narrow and mean-spirited in other ways); but the practices in question should be looked at in terms of the goods that are intrinsic to them. Miller himself is rather cautious about his empirical claims here: is Christianity the cause of the relevant virtues, or is it that some of the people who have these virtues are prone to practice Christianity?

Furthermore, a point surely relevant to Miller’s overall thesis, most Christians would hold that there is original sin, which means that without grace we are bound to fail, whatever good we aspire to and however hard we try. Miller does not spend enough time talking about original sin (indeed, no time; it is not mentioned). Whether we are religious or not, we have to recognize (in a phrase believed of Geoffrey Hill) ‘the imperfection that marks all human effort, especially where it aims to avoid it.’ ‘Especially’ is key, but Miller shows little sign of recognizing the predicament we humans find ourselves in, and which that word highlights.

Shame, particularly of a public sort, can then be powerful in the development of character, as Aristotle realized. But so too, and rightly, can be guilt…

Nor does he say anything like enough about the roles, positive and negative, that should be played by guilt and shame in the development of a virtuous character. Indeed he actually misdescribes guilt on page 59, saying that it is a matter of what we feel when we ‘go against the standards we have set for our behaviour’. That is not guilt, it is shame, and only a part of the shame we should feel at times, when we go against the standards others have, and may correctly have, set for our behaviour, so it is not just a question of standards we have set for ourselves. Shame, particularly of a public sort, can then be powerful in the development of character, as Aristotle realized. But so too, and rightly, can be guilt, when we recognize that we have failed to do what we ought to do, or do what we ought not to have done, in both cases when the ought in question refers to a moral law objectively there, outside us; again a powerful factor in people seeing what is right, and coming to do what is right, but not considered in any depth by Miller.

Nor does he say nearly enough about Aristotle. Aristotle, who wrote as well about virtue as anyone, insists on the way that virtue depends on habits, and very largely on habits acquired in one’s upbringing, before one can begin to reason. If one is brought up rightly, then one’s love of the virtues, along with an appropriate sense of honour and its countervailing shame, will enable one to reason well about morality. Otherwise, if one is not already attracted to virtue, in moral matters one is in danger of reasoning cleverly, but badly, and also of acting badly and without shame. This, of course, leaves a problem with those not brought up well, which perhaps Aristotle does not attend to enough. Can someone not well brought up ever reason well about morality, or, more important come to love the good? The Christian hope would be that in all of us, original sin notwithstanding, there will always be glimmerings of the good, and I imagine that Miller would share this hope. Nevertheless, Aristotle is surely right in seeing upbringing and the acquisition of a sense of shame as critical in any discussion of the character gap, and here Miller leaves far too much unsaid.

Anthony O’Hear OBE is professor of philosophy at the University of Buckingham, director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, editor of the journal Philosophy, and a philosopher with a special interest in education. Among his most recent books: History of Philosophy: Twentieth-Century Perspectives (as editor), Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia (with Natasha O’Hear) and The Great Books: A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature. He is also co-editor emeritus of The Fortnightly Review, and a visiting professor in The Chavagnes Studium. An archive of his Fortnightly work is here.

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