The Character Gap: How Good Are We?

Review by Sean Hadley

Think of someone you would say has a “good character.” What qualities come to mind? Are they taller than you? Do they share your sense of humor? Perhaps you are considering an entirely different range of traits? Despite whatever background a person has, the discussion about character tends to center around morality, or to use an older word, virtue. For Aristotle, this meant looking into how “virtue will be further manifest . . . if we contemplate what sort of thing its nature is.” Virtues, then, are not merely social norms inculcated into individuals; an individual’s nature fully expresses itself through the exercise of the virtues.

“So why are people so bad?” Surely the news, social media, and our experiences suggest that very few of us are virtuous, perhaps none of us. And yet people consider themselves to be “good” for the most part. What gives? Christian B. Miller sets out to examine this phenomenon in The Character Gap: How Good Are We? Miller, a philosopher who has written about morality and psychology, relies on sociological studies to construct a basic argument about the average person’s character. Spoiler: we are not very good.

To clarify, Miller uses “morals” and “character” in a way similar to Aristotle's use of “virtue”: “Character traits . . . are what someone’s moral fiber is really all about.” Miller is not out to supply an overarching theory of morality but is situating his examination within the broader tradition of the virtues. He makes it clear that though opinions may vary, his research concentrates on those “relatively uncontroversial examples of virtues and vices.” Miller chooses Helping, Harming, Lying, and Cheating as his primary examples, though there are variations under each heading. Miller sets his sights on the view that people are basically good, except for those few bad apples like serial killers and our political opponents. He states quite plainly: “Most people do not in fact have any virtues, and most people do not in fact have any vices.” If that is the case, then what is going on when we talk about character? Miller starts to answer this question through case studies.

The Character Gap relies on a panoply of empirical studies to support the overall premise. Miller attempts to show, through controlled experiments, that the standard understandings of “good” and “bad” people are rarely as straightforward as we think. For instance, individuals seem to be more inclined to help out a stranger if asked outside a public restroom (demonstrating Miller’s embarrassment-relief model) than if they are asked whilst exiting a hallway. You might think that asking for help outside of a public restroom would negatively affect how someone responds, but the studies reveal the opposite. The more embarrassed a person is in the moment, the more likely they seem to be willing to help out a total stranger.

Likewise, an individual is more likely to harm another person if they can reasonably shift the blame onto someone else (the displacement of responsibility model) such as an experimenter giving them the instructions to injure another member of the experiment. But even in such instances, some people flatly refuse to harm someone else, regardless of the authority in the room. Collectively, all of Miller’s examples do little to answer the question “Are people basically good?” and instead demonstrate that individuals are complex creatures who respond differently in different situations. But Miller does not reserve judgement. Since “most of us are not virtuous,” we need to take steps towards becoming the kind of person we thought we already were.

Miller spends the final third of the book exploring various approaches to just that. He uses five questions to determine the value of the strategies explored in this portion of the book:

  • Is the strategy supported by empirical studies?

  • Would the strategy . . . actually improve our behavior?

  • Would the effects of the strategy be long-lasting or quickly fade away?

  • Is the strategy realistic for most of us to adopt given our busy lives?

  • Does the question seem morally questionable in certain ways . . . ?

With this in mind, he then ranks strategies by how likely they are to form virtue in an individual. For example, doing nothing other than hoping for the best or treating someone else as virtuous even if they are not both rank as “less promising.” Choosing a virtuous role model and exercising selectivity in the moral situations we find ourselves in rank as showing “more promise.” And if all else fails, there is always religion. Sort of. Miller actually places quite a bit of value on the idea that religious experience promotes virtue while fitting well with the evidence collected throughout the book. While Miller understands that none of these strategies will solve the problem of evil in the world, he ends the book with a note of hope: “May the coming years shed new light on the darkest recesses of our hearts. May they inspire us to replace that darkness with a better character.” Indeed.

Miller’s book is fascinating. If the evidence holds true, you are not as good as you think you are. In fact, you are also not as bad as you might think. This is what the studies suggest, at least. And the idea of “empirical evidence” features heavily throughout the book. It is worth looking more critically at some of the limitations of such studies. For instance, the average participant group size hovers around the fifteen to twenty range. So, in these instances, the general character of humanity is assessed on the behavior of around forty people (when a control group and an experiment group are both used). Such small numbers should raise eyebrows when someone makes over-generalizations about the basic virtues of humanity. There are too many variables in life, both concerning circumstances and individual choices, to rely upon such small studies to firmly grasp the inner workings of a person’s morality.

However, there is something worth commending in Miller’s ideas. What if character is something more than isolated actions? C.S. Lewis explains it nicely: “There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man. . . . a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character.”

Character, or virtue, is best understood as a way of life. Thus, someone who does not possess the virtue of compassion or of honesty will not tend toward acts of compassion or truth-telling. Miller’s contention is that no one has these virtues, but that everyone can do something about it. He is not only restating the Biblical declaration, “There is no one righteous, not even one.”

In The Character Gap, Christian Miller challenges the religious and irreligious to reevaluate their perceptions of the virtues. But it is not a neutral proposition. Miller’s final point focuses on the Christian teachings about the Holy Spirit. For the Christian, the “human and divine cooperation on the path to becoming people of good character” is crucial. Such doctrines provide a unique insight into character development and serve as a fitting end to his work. May we take his advice to heart, then go and do likewise.

Sean C. Hadley teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School and is a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books Honor College. He has written book reviews and essays for publications such as the Journal of Faith and the Academy and the Journal of Baptist Theology & Ministry. Additionally, he has given talks on topics related to American literature and Christian education. Sean and his wife, Sarah, have three sons, and a daughter.