A Review of The Character Gap: How Good Are We? by Christian B. Miller (Oxford University Press, 2018, 276pp)

The main thesis of this book is that most people are neither virtuous nor vicious: With a few notable exceptions at each end of the spectrum, we cannot be counted on to be either good or evil. That claim is at once plausible and controversial enough to be interesting. I for one believe it to be true. It has large implications for people who work primarily with people to help them become better people.

Indeed, supporting it requires an interdisciplinary approach combining philosophy, religion, and the social sciences—especially experimental psychology. That’s just the sort of project beloved of the John Templeton Foundation, which directly and indirectly funded the writing of the book. Even attempting such an approach, as Miller does, calls for a breadth and flexibility of mind that is often lacking both in the academic world—where specializations are normally pursued in virtual silos, isolated from each other—and in today’s ideologically polarized popular media. A philosophy professor at Wake Forest University, Miller exhibits those intellectual virtues in abundance. Just reading and thinking with him encourages their development in the reader. His clear, breezy, relatively informal prose style makes the book eminently readable too.

That’s not to say the book lacks flaws. But I’ll save that mostly for the end.

What is Character?

The first of the book’s three parts, entitled “What is Character and Why Is it Important?”, is the most important conceptually. Surprisingly for a philosopher, Miller spends little time on the first question. He sums up his answer thus: “Your character includes your own unique collection of characteristics or traits that are centrally important to who you are and how you act” (p. 7). Since he doesn’t say what else character includes, we can take that as his definition of what character is.

Given his scope, Miller is concerned only with character traits that are morally significant: the virtues and their opposites, the vices. Since most likely readers of his book need no convincing that being a “good” or virtuous person is important, at least to strive for, it seems to me that Miller spends an inordinate amount of time (Chapter 3) trying to convince us of it. In fact, how he goes about it sets him up for a serious difficulty I shall later describe.

To appreciate his main thesis, though, one must carefully understand how he defines the concept of virtue. It’s tempting—especially for Catholics who have been steeped in the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas—to assume we’ve already got a handle on all that. Indeed Miller only once mentions, in passing, the “four cardinal virtues” beloved of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. But even in his own terms, the matter involves careful thought all the same. It is no more a simple matter than a light one.

According to Miller, being a person of good character, a virtuous person, entails meeting a rather stringent set of criteria. He takes no strong stand on Aristotle’s thesis of the “unity of the virtues,” according to which if you’ve got one virtue you’ve got them all and if you lack one you lack them all. He only notes tersely that “most philosophers” today reject said thesis. His key point is that to have a virtue to any degree at all, one must not only be disposed to do what’s right when occasions for relevant choice arise; one must also act rightly, for the right reason(s), consistently over time. He spends a good deal of time elaborating on that with examples.

Being an honest person, for example, obviously entails refraining from lying, cheating, and breaking promises. But that’s not enough for the virtue of honesty. For any number of morally secondary or even extraneous considerations might motivate one to refrain from dishonest acts: e.g., not wanting to get caught and penalized, maintaining a good reputation for practical purposes, or just feeling good about oneself, even at others’ expense. If one or more of those considerations form one’s chief motivation, then if and when they are absent, one can’t be counted on to act honestly. As the late, influential moral psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg would have put it, that’s a rather low level of moral development. In general, acquiring real virtue means that it becomes one’s default setting to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. To be a person of good character, a virtuous person, is to be the sort of person who habitually so acts.

Now I do have difficulty with the idea that habitually doing morally pertinent things simply because they’re the right things to do is necessary for virtue. (I grant that, theoretically at least, it is sufficient for virtue.) I don’t think people are naturally capable of being that pure. I don’t think they were meant to be or ought to be. But such quibbles aside, notice that once virtue is defined as Miller defines it, it’s not all that hard to devise experimental tests for determining just how “virtuous” people in general are. In fact, there’s a considerable peer-reviewed literature reporting just such tests and their findings. In prior works he cites in his preface and footnotes, Miller has both contributed to that literature and synthesized it extensively. I found his mastery of the subject impressive, especially for a person whose core discipline is not experimental psychology.

Deferential to Authority

But the findings themselves, which take up most of Part II, aren’t all that encouraging. As has been well known since the famous Milgram experiment—whose findings have been substantively replicated in other, ethically less questionable contexts—most people are so deferential to authority that they will often do quite harmful things they also believe to be wrong if personally ordered by an authority. Aside from that, most people cannot be counted on to act rightly without reinforcing but morally extraneous motives. As if that weren’t enough, environmental factors of which the actors are sometimes unaware, and which sometimes seem trivial or irrelevant even to actors aware of them, influence their moral choices to a statistically significant degree. I found some of Miller’s examples of the last rather amusing.

But the news isn’t all bad. Consider two findings.

One is that what I’ve called “morally extraneous” considerations seem just as likely to influence moral choice for ill as for good. Thus when people do act wrongly, or perhaps just in a way that isn’t admirable, it’s rarely because they want to do so for its own sake or the sheer pleasure of it. Often it isn’t even because they’re acting on a mistaken belief about what morality requires. What motivates them to act badly often seems good to them—such as obedience to authority and myriad other values. The science just confirms ancient wisdom: When we sin, it’s usually because we believe ourselves to be pursuing or securing some good. And usually we are; we’re just seeking goods in the wrong order or in a wrong sort of way. Such misfires often result either from want of reflection or feeble rationalization. Both are typical of inchoate or weak character. Even though culpably malformed consciences do exist—a topic Miller does not broach, which is a weakness of his approach—research confirms that actual malice is far less common than heedlessness or weakness, even when the sins or crimes are serious.

The other encouraging finding is that sometimes, ordinary people whom we wouldn’t call saints really do act in a gratuitously altruistic or compassionate manner toward complete strangers, i.e. without morally extraneous motivations, and at some cost to themselves. Of course that’s no more common, perhaps less common, than acting in a gratuitously selfish manner. Many of us have heard stories, and Miller recounts the scientific data, about people ignoring strangers who are clearly in grave physical distress. But that very human moral ambiguity only supports Miller’s main thesis.

Improving the Character Gap

Part III consists in describing and evaluating various strategies for improving character. Miller concludes that, while some have had limited success and seem “promising,” none are clearly reliable and more research is called for. That might seem pedestrian, and for the most part it is. But I was intrigued by his attitude toward religious motivation and strategy, chiefly Christian. That takes up Chapter 10, the concluding one of the book. And it helps generate the chief problem I have with his approach.

He notes, correctly, that “the picture of our character outlined in the New Testament seems to fit quite comfortably with the research findings from psychology we have seen in this book” (p. 222). At the same time, there are “…powerful reasons, both self-interested and not, for Christians to care about the fact that their character falls far short of what it should be” (p. 224). So Miller considers two sets of means toward character improvement: “rituals and practices,” including prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; and the “social dimensions” of Christian life, which include “support” systems, “role models,” and “church discipline.” As one would expect, he goes on to inquire as to how much “empirical support” (p. 233) there is for the effectiveness of such means. Summarizing quite a large body of research, he concludes that there’s ample support for the claim that being religious, in a specifically Christian sense, correlates significantly with many positive behaviors and outcomes.

But Miller admits the “significant limitation” of such studies: Correlation does not equal causation. From a strictly scientific point of view, we cannot rule out the possibility that it’s not religious practice and association per se that causes the positive behaviors and outcomes, but rather that some other factor(s) cause(s) both being religious and the good things that tend to go with it. And even if being religious does casually contribute to the positive behaviors and outcomes, that’s an extraneous reason for being religious—just as it is for being virtuous, at least by Miller’s definition of virtue.

Then there’s all the historically harmful behavior of religious zealots and neurotics, including Christian ones. So if we’re going to look to religion for character improvement, we need a factor beyond those considered so far.

The Hidden Factor

Miller more-or-less finds it: sanctification by the Holy Spirit, in part through the religious practices and associations already described. He thus conceives of sanctification synergistically, not monergistically, which as a Catholic I can only approve. He even admits that the process of sanctification can extend indefinitely into the next life; the Catholic word for that is “purgatory,” though the word does not appear in the body of the text. Of course one cannot empirically measure sanctification in that sense—only what faith assumes are its results. Believers won’t be troubled by that, but it doesn’t fit well with what Miller had been doing in the rest of the book. Sanctification is not a “strategy” for becoming good. An improved character is but a byproduct of sanctification (or what Eastern Christians call ‘theosis’).

In that vein, something about Miller’s whole approach left me dissatisfied. Let’s start with the philosophical problem I sense.

Chapter 2’s title is: “Why Bother Developing a Good Character?”. That’s logically equivalent to asking: “Why be consistently moral?” Miller answers it with four theses: virtuous lives are “admirable and inspiring”; good character “makes the world a better place”; “God wants us to be good people”; and “a good character can be rewarding.” But the first two theses, though true, don’t do much to motivate people who aren’t already well on the way to developing a good character. They express what good-people-in-the-making already care about, not what people on the wrong path are likely to care about, even if they “should.” The third thesis will matter only to people who are ethical monotheists of some sort–most likely, devout believers of some particular religious tradition within that broad genus. All three theses amount to little more than preaching to the choir. And the last, of course, seems morally extraneous.

Nor, even apart from their actual content, does giving such reasons fit well with Miller’s claim that the virtuous person is one who habitually does the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. His is a rather Kantian view: What’s morally praiseworthy is doing one’s duty for duty’s sake, full stop, regardless of anything else it might lead to. Hence the saying: “Virtue is its own reward.” Miller tries to mitigate that rather dour outlook by noting, in both Chapter 2 and Chapter 10, that “happiness” in the sense of generally good feeling and palpable rewards is often, perhaps even typically, a “byproduct” of becoming a morally virtuous person. But of course one gets the byproduct—on terms that make it worth having, that is–only by caring about the main thing whether or not one also gets the byproduct. That is why giving morally extraneous reasons for being moral generally doesn’t work and can easily become unseemly.

This problem reflects the well-known tension in moral philosophy between “deontological” and “teleological” systems of morality. Some thinkers in the natural-law tradition have devised sophisticated arguments for resolving that tension. But Miller does not discuss them.

The same tension is also evident in a paradox of the Christian life. We can’t help wanting all the goodies: both earthly and heavenly rewards. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes it’s even a spur to virtue. But one gets all the goodies worth having only if one cares far less about getting them all than about consistently doing what we ought to do regardless: obeying God. That’s living the Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection. Perhaps Miller has had, or will have, more to say about that elsewhere.