IN 2009, with a Templeton grant, the philosopher Christian Miller set up “The Character Project” — an interdisciplinary team at Wake Forest University, North Carolina. This book presents some of their findings.
The book draws on several decades of research in experimental psychology. Part 1 sets out the primary case: we care about moral virtues and vices, and recognise the slow process by which these are formed into character traits. Virtuous people are admirable role-models, and make the world a better place. As Part 2 (the research background) demonstrates, however, most of us are not virtuous — at least, not all the time. Most of us are not vicious all the time, either, and yet have a capacity for vice. The truth is that most of us are a mixed bag of traits and conflicted motivations.
Miller describes research that examines our tendencies to help others, or to pass by on the other side; to hurt, or to show compassion; to lie and to cheat, while upholding the virtue of honesty. Interestingly, he does not comment on the virtue or otherwise of researchers who tell lies to their unsuspecting subjects, who leave them alone on some pretext and then observe them through two-way mirrors, or those who arrange tests in which strangers are apparently required to cause hurt to others. Does that count as cheating and dishonesty?
One of the good outcomes could be recognition of the need for deeper honesty about our own flaws, and non-judgemental sensitivity to the struggles of others. There are strategies by which we can nudge one another towards good character-building, and — Miller suggests — religious ritual and accountability within religious communities can contribute to these.
Dr David Atkinson is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark.
The Character Gap: How good are we?
Christian B. Miller
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