Philosophy

The best books on Moral Character

recommended by Christian B Miller

Why do apparently 'good' people sometimes behave deplorably? Christian B Miller, professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, selects five books that explore the subject of moral character and warns us to be cautious of making inferences about the underlying motives of others – and ourselves.

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  • 1

    The Nicomachean Ethics
    by Aristotle

  • 2

    Les Misérables
    by Victor Hugo

  • 3

    The Brothers Karamazov
    by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • 4

    Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification
    by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman

  • 5

    The Little Engine That Could
    by Watty Piper

Why do apparently 'good' people sometimes behave deplorably? Christian B Miller, professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, selects five books that explore the subject of moral character and warns us to be cautious of making inferences about the underlying motives of others – and ourselves.

Christian B Miller

Christian B Miller is the A C Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and philosophy director of the Beacon Project (moralbeacons.org).
His main areas of research are meta-ethics, moral psychology, moral character, action theory, and philosophy of religion. He is the author of three books: Moral Character: An Empirical Theory (2013), Character and Moral Psychology (2014), and The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (2017), all published by Oxford University Press.

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What is moral character?

Our moral character is how we are disposed to think, feel, and act when it comes to moral matters. So, for example, a person’s moral character might lead him to think about ways he can cheat from his company and not get caught. Another person’s moral character might lead her to donate to a number of charities which focus on famine relief.

Moral character traits comes in two main varieties. There are the moral virtues such as honesty, compassion, and justice. A deeply honest person, for instance, is expected to usually avoid cheating, lying, and stealing, and to do this for the right reasons and motives across a wide variety of situations including the courtroom, office, and bar. There are also the moral vices such as dishonesty, cruelty, and injustice. I’m sure we can come up with examples of how those work.

In my own research, I tend to focus on the moral traits, but it is important to stress that they are just one aspect of our multi-faceted characters. Curiosity, cleverness, open-mindedness, and warmth are all traits of character, but they do not fall squarely under the heading of morality.

What’s the difference between moral behaviour and moral character?

Great question. There is a big difference. Suppose there are police officers hanging around a grocery store, and you watch Jones do his shopping, pay for everything in his cart, and not steal anything from the store. His behaviour is morally blameless; from afar it looks like he is an honest person. But of course we can’t jump to that conclusion. For all we know about Jones, he could be a serial thief who only refrains this one time because he knows the police are watching. Good behaviour typically does not guarantee good moral character.

So there is more to being virtuous than good moral behaviour – and the same is true for the vices as well. Here is another example. A friend might be visiting you in the hospital. Suppose, though, that she is really there only to not feel guilty, or to get rewards in the afterlife, or to seek out your praise. Then these would not be virtuous motives for the visit. They are self-centred, with the focus being on how she can use the visit merely as a means to benefit herself in some way. But a compassionate person is motivated by the good of others, regardless of whether she benefits in the process or not.

The lesson from both of these examples is that good behaviour is a necessary component of good moral character. But it is not all there is. Virtuous motives and reasons are also required too. And likely other things as well.

It seems proven time and time again that apparently ‘good’ people are capable of terrible things. Is it possible to accurately judge another person’s moral character?

I agree with this observation about apparently ‘good’ people, and indeed it is a major theme in my new book The Character Gap. I don’t think, though, that we should go so far as to say that it is not possible to accurately judge other people’s moral character. The lesson for me is that we should be much more cautious in the judgments we tend to make.

Given what I said before about motivation, it follows that we should already be very cautious. Even when we see people acting admirably, unless we can make a reasonable inference about their underlying motives, we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions about what their character is like.

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This question now gives us a further reason to be cautious. As we know from classic studies in psychology — which have sadly been played out in the real world — you can put seemingly ‘normal’ or ‘good’ people in certain unfamiliar situations and find that they behave deplorably. Thus in the most famous of the Milgram studies from the 1960s, the majority of participants giving a test to a learner would turn a shock dial all the way up to the lethal level under pressure from an authority figure. Similarly in the bystander effect studies from the 1960s and 70s, when a stranger was with them who didn’t do anything to help, participants tended to not do anything to help in various emergencies, such as hearing someone break a bone, get a serious electric shock, or be bullied. These were, and still are, very surprising results, and are not in line with how we tend to predict most people would act.

But three things can still be said in favour of our judgments of moral character. First, they seem to be more accurate the better we know someone. Studies back this up. My wife, for instance, knows all about my character flaws. Secondly, in light of the psychological research, we can start changing our assumptions about how good people are, and come to understand what they are likely to do in situations where there is pressure to obey an authority figure or where strangers are not doing anything to help. So this research can help us improve the accuracy of our judgments. And finally, with cases of repeated bad behaviour in particular, negative judgments of moral character seem quite reasonable. Take, for instance, judgments about Harvey Weinstein or Larry Nassar. In the financial world, Ken Lay or Bernie Madoff could be used to make the same point.

You mentioned virtues and vices – perhaps that brings us to your first book choice, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Does Aristotle still have something relevant to say on moral character in the modern age?

Just about everyone I know who works on character would say yes. This is apparent most of all in my field of philosophy. For many years, ethics was dominated by two influential traditions: Kantian ethics with its emphasis on rules, and utilitarianism with its emphasis on good consequences. Around the 1970s there was increasing discontent among philosophers with these two approaches. Rather than develop a completely novel approach, though, there was a call for a return to the emphasis on character and virtue that one finds in the writings of Plato and especially Aristotle. Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, James Wallace, and Alastair MacIntyre were some of these influential voices. This movement culminated in what I consider to be the leading expression of an Aristotelian approach to ethics, namely Rosalind Hursthouse’s book On Virtue Ethics, published in 1999. Today virtue ethics is taken very seriously by most philosophers and has established itself as a legitimate third option to Kantian ethics and utilitarianism.

But Aristotle’s influence extends far more broadly today than just philosophical ethics. Writings about character in other fields, such as religion and literature, often wrestle with his ideas. The same is true with books on character for more popular audiences, such as Thomas Lickona’s Character Matters, David Brooks’s The Road to Character, and Tom Morris’s If Aristotle Ran General Motors.

Having said this, writers will differ as to which parts of Aristotle’s Ethics they think are relevant today and which parts are not. Speaking just for myself, let me mention a few which I think are still important. One is that being virtuous is central to our human flourishing – what he called eudaimonia. Another is that being virtuous is not just a matter of behaving well but also of acting for the right reasons and motives, as we already discussed earlier. A third is that habituation and practice are crucial to becoming a better person. You can’t flip a switch and make yourself virtuous overnight. There is also the idea that in addition to moral virtues, there are intellectual virtues, such as wisdom and understanding, and we should pay attention to both of them. Sorry, I am just mentioning things that come to mind, rather than presenting them in any kind of logical progression.

“Virtue ethics has established itself as a legitimate third option to Kantian ethics and utilitarianism”

I can think of two more ideas at the moment. One is that weakness of will is a major obstacle to becoming a virtuous person, and we need to understand how it works and what can be done to overcome it. We have all been there, I trust — I know I shouldn’t do something, but I give in to temptation and do it anyway. And the last idea I want to mention is that, according to Aristotle, it is hard to become virtuous, and hard to become vicious too. The character of most people is somewhere in the middle. This has been a central theme of my own work, and I think that contemporary psychology has actually vindicated Aristotle here.

At the same time, there are some of Aristotle’s ideas about character that find little support anymore. For instance, he held that in order to have one virtue like honesty, you have to have all of them. This famous “doctrine of the unity of the virtues” is hard to accept.

This meaning something along the lines of: the virtues mutually imply each other. Could it not be the case that ‘virtuousness’ is one, overarching character trait, that one either has or doesn’t have?

I have no problem talking about whether someone is ‘virtuous’ overall, where this is a function of whether they have or do not have the individual virtues like courage, temperance, and fortitude. It would be a pretty high standard to meet, I suspect, since having just one of the vices or some other serious character blemish would keep you from being virtuous. I don’t see how you could be virtuous overall, and have the vice of dishonesty, for instance.

To complicate things just a bit, individual virtues come in degrees. Someone can be honest, say, but not as honest as Abraham Lincoln. So presumably ‘virtuousness’ would come in degrees too. And so there would be a threshold below which one’s character would not count as virtuous at all, but above which there is a whole spectrum of degrees of being virtuous.

An important question in my own research has been whether most people are – as a matter of fact – virtuous or not. I look to carefully conducted experiments in psychology for answers, experiments that specifically involve morally relevant situations. I then draw my conclusions based on what hundreds of such studies collectively indicate. As I summarise in The Character Gap, the emerging picture is one of mixed character, not virtuousness. Or so I say. There are just too many situations where participants have acted in ways that don’t fit with the behaviour of a virtuous person.

Let’s turn to your next choice, a classic work of fiction: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. What made you choose this book?

First I should say that there are so many incredible works of fiction that engage with issues of moral character. The writings of Dante, Jane Austen, and George Eliot, for instance, would all be great choices as well!

I went with Les Misérables because it so vividly illustrates two ideas about character which are central to my thinking. The first is that our characters can change over time. If we struggle with dishonesty, or lust, or pride, we do not have to always struggle. We see this in the case of Jean Valjean. There is a key moment in the book when change in his moral character is set into motion, a moment which also illustrates the second idea, namely that role models can be powerful sources of character change. When Valjean is caught stealing from the bishop and is brought before him by the gendarmes, the bishop does something we rarely see in life. He forgives Valjean. By making up a story for the gendarmes about how he had given Valjean the silver and by chastising Valjean for not taking the candlesticks too which were also supposed to be a gift, the bishop is able to get Valjean released. As I read the book, with this powerful display of forgiveness and compassion, Valjean’s life – and especially his moral character – is transformed.

But of even greater importance to me is the impact this scene can have on us the reader. I know that in my own case I was deeply moved by what the bishop did, even though he was a fictional character. I saw something beautiful there, and wanted to have it in my own life too.

Can you tell me a bit more about role models?

There has been a lot of research recently on the impact of good role models, and two emotions are thought to play a big role. The first is admiration. I deeply admired the bishop’s act of forgiveness. But that is not enough to effect change in me. After all, I also admired what the US men’s curling team did in winning the Olympic gold medal. But that hasn’t changed my life in any way.

Along with my admiration for the bishop came feelings of emulation. I wanted to be more like the bishop, not in every way of course – I have no desire to become a bishop, for instance! – but when it came to matters of compassion and forgiveness. Although I might not have thought about it in those terms, I wanted my character to more closely resemble his character. And I suspect I am not the only reader who has felt that way.

“Admiration and emulation work slowly and gradually on our characters over time”

Good role models might not act so dramatically or have such an immediate impact on us as the bishop’s forgiveness did on Jean Valjean. But admiration and emulation can also work slowly and gradually on our characters over time.

Your next book choice is another work of fiction. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s considered a philosophical novel, dealing with such themes as ethics and free will. How does it illuminate the concept of moral character?

I should first confess that The Brothers Karamazov is my favorite work of literature, so I am sure it would end up on a number of different ‘best books’ lists. In the case of moral character, I don’t think it is a stretch to include it here, for at least two reasons. The first is that the moral character of the three brothers is so central to the novel itself. Dmitri, for instance, exhibits intemperance and impulsiveness. Ivan is deeply thoughtful but also marred by pride. Alyosha models faith, hope, and charity. Importantly, though, none of them is just a two-dimensional crude representation of a particular virtue or vice. They are all complex characters who evolve over the course of the novel and sometimes act contrary to their dominant tendencies. Dmitri struggles to resist some temptations, for instance, and sometimes Alyosha experiences doubt. Just as with the rest of us, they have both good and bad sides to their characters, even if they might be closer to the virtue or vice ends of the spectrum.

Secondly, as you noted, there are a host of deep philosophical questions at work in the book, questions about, say, the existence of God, the nature of morality without God, and the role of free will. These all tie into moral character as well. To take just one issue, if there is no divine realm whatsoever and if this life is all we have, then Ivan raises the question of whether there is any objective standard of moral right and wrong. That would include an objective standard for virtue and vice too. This also raises questions about the point of trying to become a better person in this life, and about whether there is as much motivation to do so as there is from a religious perspective. Also on the table is whether someone like Ivan can become a virtuous person, or whether a religious outlook is necessary for virtue.

Now I think there are important things that could be said from a secular perspective in defense of an objective morality and living a virtuous life. My only point here is that The Brothers Karamazov succeeds in raising these and many other big questions.

Thanks. Your next choice is very different: Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues. This is a handbook that intends to classify 24 particular ‘character strengths,’ divided among six broader categories it calls ‘virtues.’ How did they approach this, and what significance does the approach have?

First let me say why I shifted gears from Dostoevsky to contemporary psychology. My thought in putting together this list was to pick some central fields – like philosophy, literature and, in this case, psychology – and try to choose the best one or two books I could in those fields. That’s different, and I think more manageable for me, than trying to come up with a top five across the board.

Even though I am a philosopher, much of my work on character draws heavily from psychology, and I spent years leading The Character Project which tried to foster interdisciplinary work between the two fields. When it comes to books in psychology, of which there are not many, since it is such an article-driven field, Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues has been extremely influential. It was published in 2004, and was key to launching the entire positive psychology movement. Today that movement has a major journal, a leading institute, the VIA Institute, and hundreds of publications coming out every year. It’s impact has been felt in majors ways in education and health too, among other fields. Much of the work today continues to be informed by the 2004 book.

“There can be controversy over whether a given character trait is a virtue or not. For instance, humility has had something of a chequered past in the West”

The key to the framework Peterson and Seligman provided is the list of 24 character strengths, which I would normally call virtues. It includes traits like kindness, fairness and hope. In order to come up with their list, they drew upon the help of over 50 experts on character, and poured over the writings of religions and philosophies worldwide. They even included the traits one finds in Hallmark greeting cards and Pokémon characters! Then, using 10 different criteria they devised, they were able to cut down their huge list of character traits to this list of 24. It has become something of a standard taxonomy for studying character ever since.

One reason why it is especially helpful is that there can sometimes be controversy over whether a given character trait is a virtue, or as they would say, ‘character strength,’ or not. For instance, humility has had something of a chequered past in the West, with Aristotle not much of a fan and Christianity quite the opposite. Given the scholarship that went into producing the list of 24 character strengths, there is a strong case for at least taking each of them seriously.

Having said this, I don’t want to give the impression that their framework is perfect. In fact, I have a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology arguing for some pretty serious revisions to the whole thing. But that doesn’t take away from the immense influence that Peterson and Seligman’s book has had.

Are Peterson and Seligman suggesting that these are subjective qualities, and are a conceptual way of thinking about personalities? Or do they mean these are discrete, measurable traits like intelligence?

The second option. In fact, Peterson, Seligman, and their collaborators came up with a survey measure for all 24 character strengths, the VIA-IS. It has ten items for researchers to use in measuring each strength, so 240 total items. Either this entire survey or shorter variations of it have been widely employed for years by researchers in positive psychology. One area of interest has been to see what correlations exist between how people rate themselves on a given character strength, and other important variables like subjective well-being, mood, health, exercise, criminal behaviour, and so forth.

And are our scores in these qualities or strengths something that we can improve upon through training?

Positive psychologists would tend to say yes. Our characters are not fixed in stone. They are malleable, although change is slow and gradual and it may take months if not years in order for people to show significant improvement. To the extent that the VIA-IS is a good measure of character strengths, then it should be able to track these changes over time. And keep in mind that change can happen in either direction, so people can gradually become worse, morally speaking, too.

One of the most interesting and important areas of empirical research on character today, I believe, has to do with designing interventions to try to move people’s characters in a more positive direction. For instance, there has been some work done on how gratitude journals, where you record what you are thankful for in your life, can increase one’s degree of gratitude. I would love to see a lot more work done on designing very practical initiatives to foster character improvement.

Can you tell me briefly about the aims of positive psychology?

I am not an expert on positive psychology, but I think it is fair to say that at the turn of the century, Seligman, Peterson, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, and others thought psychology was overly concerned with problems, diseases, and flaws. In the process, it was neglecting other areas of human concern that deeply mattered to people, such as virtue, happiness, flow, psychological health, flourishing, purpose, and meaning. Positive psychologists, from what I understand, don’t want to downplay the importance of research on things like neuroticism or depression, but they also want to see more work being done in these other, more positive areas as well.

Let’s move onto your final book. The Little Engine That Could. The original version of this classic children’s story was published in 1930. Why did you pick this book?

Again, I want to emphasise that my approach has been to think about some different fields and genres, and try to pick a top book or books on moral character from each. For my last choice, I was thinking about children’s literature, science fiction, and fantasy. Ordinarily I probably would have said The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings. But I have three young children, so we are not there yet. Instead, I chose The Little Engine That Could because it is one of our family favourites, and because it is all about moral character.

At the beginning of the story, a little train is on its way to deliver toys and food to the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain, an example of kindness and generosity. But then the train breaks down, and the dolls and toys ask for help from other trains that come by. Sadly, they get turned down again and again. The Shiny New Engine says he is way too fancy to pull the likes of them, an example of elitism and arrogance. The Freight Engine says no because he is too important to help dolls and toys, an example of pride. The Rusty Old Engine is much too tired to even try, an example of defeatism. The dolls and toys are about to lose hope, when along comes the little blue engine. She has never done a big job like this before. But she is powerfully moved by the hearts of the dolls and toys, and by the thought of the children on the other side of the mountain not receiving the delivery. So while telling herself, “I think I can, I think I can,” she successfully wills herself up the mountain, and everyone is overjoyed.

Here we see many virtues on display. Empathy, compassion, and kindness for other people. Hope that she can accomplish a very difficult task. Courage to overcome her fears. Fortitude, self-reliance, and determination to finish the job and not give up. Gratitude for what the little blue engine has done. Character is everywhere in the story.

As it must be in life too. I wonder: what strengths do you see yourself as exhibiting, and which are you working on? How have you personally put some of the lessons of the texts we have discussed into practice?

I’d be nervous talking about my character strengths. I’m not sure I have many – any? – and my own theory in The Character Gap predicts that I don’t have any either! Weaknesses are easier. I struggle with pride, for instance, and with comparing myself to others and judging people unfairly. I could use a lot more courage in my character too.

Coming back to our earlier discussion, role models have had a big role to play in shaping my own moral character, and they have helped me to work on these areas of weakness in particular. These models include fictional examples like Victor Hugo’s bishop. They include historical examples like Jesus, Lincoln, and Tubman. They include prominent examples from today, like Paul Farmer. And of course they include people close to my life, such as my family and closest friends. I admire and strive to emulate all these people, and in the process they show me that I have a long way to go.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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Christian B Miller

Christian B Miller is the A C Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and philosophy director of the Beacon Project (moralbeacons.org).
His main areas of research are meta-ethics, moral psychology, moral character, action theory, and philosophy of religion. He is the author of three books: Moral Character: An Empirical Theory (2013), Character and Moral Psychology (2014), and The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (2017), all published by Oxford University Press.