The case against character

Gustavo Dore's portrait of Immanuel Kant composing his "Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten," as Johann Gottlieb Fitche looks on.

Gustavo Dore's portrait of Immanuel Kant composing his "Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten," as Johann Gottlieb Fitche looks on.

I’ve mentioned several times in this space that I believe there is no substance to “the self.” I can think of no better analogy to it than a fictional character, the protagonist of a narrative the brain tells itself to winnow the data it is inundated with into something manageable. This winnowing necessarily omits some vital information, even about the mind’s own function. It overplays some trends and downplays others, usually to make itself look better than it is. (Once the individual believes the lie of excellence it has made, it can more readily convince others, too, of its excellence.) Contrawise, a depressive might downplay accomplishments and virtues as a means of rationalizing the low moods they feel, which may have begun prior to the recognition of any of any malady, shortcoming, or crisis. I proffer these examples to illustrate the statement: We are capable of a broader range of good and bad behavior than we believe ourselves capable of at any given moment. The Socratic imperative “Know thyself!” is impossible. At least, it is impossible to have a complete account of oneself; self-deception comes to easily. Even if we do come across every relevant true statement about our character over our lifespan, we won’t believe all of them at one time. If we are to be realistic, “Seek thyself tirelessly! But do not trust [s]he tells you!” is our command. Or, even more aptly, “Know thyselves!”

I find more support in the recent work of Kwame Anthony Appiah. According to Jeremy Waldron, writing in The New York Times Review of Books, Appiah is working to defeat the Quixotic campaign of Kant to understand ethics without reference to psychology:

Virtue theorists believe that the disposition to act and react courageously or honestly is deeply entrenched in a person’s character. As Appiah describes their position, a virtue is supposed to be something that “goes all the way down,” enmeshing itself with other aspects of character, equally admirable, and affecting what a person wants out of life, her conception of happiness, and her view of other people.

Are there such virtues? Well, the psychologists that Appiah has read report that character traits do not exhibit the “cross-situational stability” that virtue presupposes. He cites a study of ten thousand American schoolchildren in the 1920s, which showed that they were willing to lie and cheat in school and at play in ways that did not correlate with any measurable personality traits. It is not that the children cheated whenever they could get away with it; they cheated sometimes and in some settings (when they could get away with it) and not other times or in other settings (when they could get away with it). “The child who wouldn’t break the rules at home, even when it seemed nobody was looking, was no less likely [than other children] to cheat on an exam at school.” There was none of the consistent and comprehensive honesty, “all the way down,” that virtue ethics seems to presuppose.

This seems to be true for other virtues too: helpfulness or charity, for example. With respect to them, studies cited by Appiah show that people act in ways that seem vulnerable to odd and unseemly differences in circumstance. If you accidentally drop your papers outside a phone booth, the best predictor of whether people will help you pick them up is whether they have just discovered a dime in the phone’s coin-return slot: six out of seven of the dime-finders will help as opposed to one in twenty-five of everyone else. If you need change for a dollar, stand outside a bakery: the warm smell of fresh-baked bread makes a huge difference to the kindness of strangers. The beneficiaries will probably say of anyone who came to their assistance, “What a helpful person,” little suspecting that tomorrow when the bakery is shut down and there is nary a dime in the phone booth, the selfsame person will be as mean-spirited as everyone else.

Update: Quite by chance, Andrew Sullivan posts an interview with consciousness researcher Thomas Metzinger that gets a point of my first paragraph (on the utility of the self-concept as a model of behavioral expectations) better than I could:

[I]n general of course it’s good for an animal to have a model of its own body. How fast can I run? Should I pick a fight with this guy? Or better not? How far can I jump to the next branch? How heavy am I? What are my collision properties? That was important. So I think bodily self models have been on this planet for a long time.

The next invention was emotions, to know what is in your own interest and in the interest of your offspring, to have the experience of being…I guess, bonding, you say in English, to other conscious selves.


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