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What is Virtue? A Talk with Professor Christian B. Miller

“I have no desire to be president for example. But in that one aspect, I’m motivated or inspired to have my character better reflect [Lincoln’s] character. Not bring him down to my level but bring my character up to his level.”

Dr. Christian B. Miller is the A.C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University, where he focuses on contemporary ethics and religion. He has served as director of The Character Project, one of the world’s largest research ventures into character and virtue.  His current research analyzes the cross between psychology and philosophy. Last year, he published a book on the subject called The Character Gap: How Good Are We? On July 31st, Professor Miller spoke with Merion West’s Erich Prince about his new book, modern applications of virtue, and philosophy’s intersection with psychology.

To start off, could you talk about the process of writing The Character Gap? How did you decide that this was the project you wanted to take on?

I am a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, where I’ve been for fifteen years. About ten years ago, I shifted gears in my research, from some other topics in ethics, to more of a focus on character. Then for quite a while, I was doing more academic research on character. In other words, I was reading academic journals and books, and trying to add my own contributions to the mix, which eventually led to the publication of two books on the topic of character with Oxford University Press.

But after a while, I came to think it would be a shame if all this work was just gathering dust in the academic world. So I said to myself, wouldn’t it be good to try and take some of these ideas that I’ve been working on for so many years, and see if they might be of interest to a larger audience? This evolved into a plan to write a short book with no academic jargon and no philosophical machinery in it. Instead, it would hopefully provide a fresh discussion of character with plenty of anecdotes, examples, and empirical studies. Thus The Character Gap: How Good Are We? was born. It tries to make the topic of character interesting to a wide audience, to motivate people to explore their own characters, and to ultimately inspire us all to become better people.

I guess there’s a little bit of a trend to that. I remember reading a few years ago this book by Roberts, What Adam Smith Can Teach Us About Life, and I suppose there’s a little bit of an effort of getting out a lot of these philosophical ideas to a more general population. There’s Nigel Warburton’s Philosophy Bites Back and The New York Times “The Stone” Section. Is this a trend that’s going on in the world of academic philosophers—saying let’s get our ideas not just in academic journals but in front of as many people as possible.

I think it’s fair to say that compared to ten years ago, there has been a real surge of interest in public philosophy, in taking the work that’s going on in the academic world of philosophy and trying to bring it to a larger audience. I’m all for it. What philosophers are talking about is, I believe, often of great interest and importance to human beings in general. So whether we wrestle with questions about the meaning of life, or the existence of God, or the foundations of morality, it would be a real shame if philosophers just kept that discussion amongst themselves in their academic journals with their technical writing that’s inaccessible to much of the rest of the world. When philosophers advance interesting and important new arguments, then provided they can be made accessible to non-specialists, let’s try and get them out there and have everyone engage with them and see how well they hold up to critical scrutiny.

So is one of the goals of philosophy in your mind, and maybe particularly ethics, to help people practically live better lives?

It is. Not to say that philosophers are the only ones who can do that, or that they have any kind of special expertise in this area. In fact, it is not clear that philosophers on average are any better people than the rest of us. But I do think they have some valuable contributions to make.

For me personally, when I am thinking about the topic of character, I am not thinking of it as part of an academic game or exercise I am going through. What I am ultimately searching for are ideas which can better inform our paths to developing a good character. Most people, I think, care about things like honesty, compassion, courage, and justice. These are different character traits, different virtues. And philosophers might be able to make some contribution in thinking carefully about what it means to, say, be an honest person. Just helping us gain greater clarity about what honesty involves or what justice involves or what compassion involves is already to take a big step forward. Furthermore, by drawing on the empirical literature, philosophers can articulate what steps we might take—concrete practical steps—to approach these virtues better, to get closer to what an honest or just person is like.

Thus I think philosophers have a number of things to say on the topic of character which are of interest to the public at large and are helpful and practical and can really make a difference.

So there are generally three camps in ethics today, as I understand it. We have deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics, and it can certainly be a contentious debate at times among the three. I remember this one passage from Keynes in which he criticizes utilitarianism by saying, “I do now regard [utilitarianism] as the worm which has been gnawing at the insides of modern civilization and is responsible for its present moral decay.” But now virtue ethics has had a recent resurgence. One criticism that is often levied against virtue ethics is: what happens when different societies or different groups define virtue differently?

For example in our interview with Tamler Sommers earlier this month, we discussed how different societies might have different conceptions of honor. In some societies around the world there are things like honor killing of women if they’re involved in certain sexual activities that their family finds objectionable. How do we deal with some of these challenges of different groups and different communities having different definitions of what it means to be virtuous?

That’s a great question. So I think there are a number of different issues here. First, we need to start at the very foundations of morality. What stand are we going to take on the question of “Is there an objective morality, or is morality relative?” That’s independent of talking about character or virtue for the moment. What’s our broad outlook about ethics in general?

If we are relativists, then we believe that morality is created by the individual or by the culture, and one person’s morality is equally valid to another person’s morality. Then we just embrace the diversity. We say, ok if I understand honesty this way and someone else understands honesty that way, that’s just fine for me and fine for the other person, and there’s no further discussion to be had.

I, like the vast majority of philosophers, don’t accept a relativist position. I hold an objectivist position, which means that there is an objective morality governing all human beings, a morality which human beings themselves did not create. In other words, there’s an independent source to morality outside of human construction or invention. Whether that source is grounded in a divine being or whether there’s an objective morality that just exists on its own, like the laws of nature just exist on their own, is a debate for another time. But like I said, there’s an overwhelming number of philosophers that think there’s more to morality than just ordinary human opinion.

So let’s go with the objective morality approach for the moment. Unfortunately, that doesn’t sort out everything about virtue specifically. Next, we need to tackle two further debates. First, what does our list of virtues involve? And then secondly, what does a particular virtue involve? Let’s take them one by one.

When we’re thinking of our list of virtues, what belongs on the list and what does not? There can be contentious debates about that. Is the list made up of twenty-four virtues, say, or is it made up of thirty-two virtues? More specifically, does humility belong on the list of virtues? Well, some people would say it’s a virtue and others would say it’s a vice. There’s controversy about that. Chastity would be another example. So there’s that discussion to be had.

Then there’s still further discussion to be had about what a particular virtue requires us to do, even if you agree it’s a virtue. So take something like honesty. I think that’s a pretty easy one to get people to agree that it’s a virtue.

The anthropologist Roy Rappaport argued that one of the only universals across human society that is very bad is making a promise and then breaking it. That is something that from New Guinea to Europe to everywhere throughout history is a very fundamental human no-no.

Right. That makes a lot of sense to me. I think we may be able to add stealing of certain kinds to the list, lying of certain kinds, and cheating of certain kinds. Even if we are on board with honesty being a virtue and dishonesty being a vice, the point here is that there will still be some controversy about specific cases or specific situations. White lies, for example, are they morally permissible or not?

Certainly some very common criticisms of Kantian moral theory.

Exactly. Hence to sum up what I’ve been saying, there are several sources of disagreement here. One is about the foundations of morality and whether it’s objective or not. Secondly, there is disagreement about what the list of virtues is going to look like. What belongs on the list and what doesn’t? And then thirdly, for any particular virtue, there is disagreement about what it requires you to do or would lead you to do in a given situation.

Now there’s no way we’re going to try and resolve all that together in this interview! But for my purposes in writing a trade book – a book for a popular audience – my approach was to try to avoid as many academic debates as possible and try to hone in on areas of agreement. So I look at the trait of honesty as opposed to chastity. I look at cases of honesty where it’s pretty clear that this is what the honest person would do, as opposed to cases where there are disagreements about how to answer that question. I think there are lots of areas of agreement about what honesty involves, plus plenty of agreement about honesty being a virtue to begin with. What I’m hoping for is this – let’s just try and make some significant progress in our characters where we agree. Let’s start there and get better at doing the right thing—the honest thing—and then later we can worry about the disagreements.

Consider the case of cheating on a test when you know it’s wrong to do so and yet you can make some money for each correct answer you supposedly get right. People say it’s clearly morally wrong to do this, and yet studies find that overwhelmingly participants are willing to cheat anyway for the monetary benefits if they think they can get away with it. So let’s focus on cases like that, and try to build a more honest character.

In your book, you cite this idea of virtuous lives being admirable and inspiring. Can you talk a little bit more about what that means, and what the frame of reference is? I remember from Adam Smith that there’s this idea of the impartial spectator: a person removed from the fray, looking down and saying what you’re doing is good or bad. Is it similar to that, or are you imagining a different frame of reference?

The context for this part of the book is that, having already talked about what character is in Part One, and then having talked in Part Two about what our character actually looks like empirically speaking, in the final third of the book I discuss strategies for improving character. In other words, how can we become better at bridging this “character gap” between our actual character and the character I think we should have?

The first promising strategy I seize upon has to do with moral exemplars, moral heroes, moral saints, and the like. What I have in mind here is something like the following: when we look to someone who’s an exemplar of virtue, whether that’s Mother Teresa or Abraham Lincoln or Confucius or Gandhi or whoever your preferred choice might be, two things often happen. The first is that we admire the person for his or her character. But that’s not enough to affect change by itself because, after all, I admire how well the U.S. curling team did in the Olympics, but that hasn’t had any tangible impact on my life.

Fortunately the second stage is emulation. My admiring of Abraham Lincoln’s honesty can give rise to a desire to become more like Abraham Lincoln with respect to his honesty. I have no desire to be President of the United States. But with respect to his honesty, I’m inspired to have my character better reflect his character. I don’t want to bring his character down to my level, but rather bring my character up to his level.

That’s an example involving a famous historical role model, and I think such role models can be important. But I wouldn’t want to limit role models or moral exemplars just to people like Abraham Lincoln. They can be fictional characters as well. We can be inspired by reading about, say, the Bishop in Les Misérables, or about the Good Samaritan in the New Testament. They can also be people who are very much a part of our community today, real-world people who are not famous in any normal sense. Someone who is our neighbor down the street, or someone who cleans our building at night, or whatnot. These more tangible, real-world people, in fact, have been found to have the greatest impact on average when they are the ones serving as exemplars in leading people to behave better.

Are they more relatable?

Exactly. More relatable, more tangible, easier to see that what they’re doing can be something that I can do too. More practical in that sense.

My neighbor can do this, so maybe I can do it too.

That’s right. And then also more repeatable in the sense that they’re usually there as part of our day to day life, as opposed to having to remind ourselves to think about Lincoln or about Confucius, who are long dead and gone.

What is the bearing of current research in psychology on the discipline of philosophy? Jonathan Haidt, for example, wrote The Righteous Mind, which came out in 2012. There’s also Paul Bloom and his book Just Babies. These books sometimes portray moral philosophy by grounding it in findings in psychology. How does that intersect with the more virtue center approach?

So there’s a lot to be said about the implications of psychology for philosophy in general. There are interesting implications for philosophy of mind, for example, as a result of neuroscientific research. To take another example, there are interesting implications for philosophical thinking about moral responsibility which arise from psychological research on addiction. But to hone in specifically on matters of character and virtue, here’s how I see that going.

Philosophers and psychologists each have distinct but complementary roles to play. Philosophers don’t have at their fingertips the empirical data necessary to say much of anything about how people’s actual character is today or at any other point in history. Are people by and large good or bad or somewhere in-between? Virtuous, vicious, or the like? Answering those questions typically involves collecting some empirical data of a certain kind and then evaluating it. On the flip side, psychologists qua psychologists can’t engage in moral evaluation. They can collect a whole bunch of data, but to then say that this person is acting virtuously or viciously or doing something honest or dishonest is to step outside of their role as a psychologist and instead become an ethicist.

There’s a nice way, though, that the two disciplines can work together. The philosopher can try to discover the correct moral standards, such as those required to be an honest person. Then the psychologist can do lots of relevant studies to see whether people lie or don’t lie, cheat or don’t cheat, steal or don’t steal, and the like. Finally, we can put the moral standards from the philosopher together with the empirical data from the psychologist. We can thereby arrive at a conclusion about how most people are actually doing today.

We get that conclusion about people’s character by drawing on philosophy and psychology jointly. We can take it a step further though. As I’ve talked about in the book and in our discussion today, I don’t want to just stop with a conclusion about how most people are actually doing. I want to think about strategies for improvement. How can we do better? In my own life, how can I become a better person? Given that the data seems to imply I’m likely not a virtuous person, what steps can I take to become better? Here again, philosophers and psychologists can work together. Philosophers can come up with some standards of what it looks like to be a virtuous person, as well as some suggestions about how to try and bridge the gap and become more virtuous. Then the psychologists can actually do the testing. Does this strategy work well or does this other strategy work better? Let’s have a control group, let’s have an experimental group, and let’s implement the strategy for the experimental group, compare the results to the control group, and see if there’s any significant improvement of character over time.

So this is the way I conceive of these two disciplines being distinct, but also capable of working hand in hand to try and think about how our character actually is and how it can be improved too.

Christian, thank you for joining us today.

Thanks so much. I really enjoyed it.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.