Sunday, May 11, 2008

Do We Lack Character?

Larry More writes:

Dear Tom,

I want to bring to your attention I book that I think you will find useful and interesting. It is entitled Lack of Character by John Doris, 2002. The author is a philosopher of ethics, and main theme of the book is that character (in what we speak of as "moral character") does not exist in the way that we tend to believe, and therefore character ethics is a rather different enterprise than we usually assume, which he goes on to discuss.

Doris thoroughly reviews and discusses the social psychology research which has repeatedly evidenced that there is little empirical justification for our assuming any internal, temporal, or cross-situational consistency to behavior (as is implied, if not required, by our usual notions of moral character).

As a psychologist, I remember well the furor that was created in 1968 when persistent findings of low trait-behavior correlations and negligible cross-situational consistency resulted in suggestions that there was no central personality structure. The urgency around this issue lasted over 10 years, and was never really resolved; the field just passed it by. It seems to me that this response was in some sense the same one that is now arising around naturalism, determinism, retribution, will-power, responsibility, and so on. Doris does no more than touch in passing on the philosophical issue of determinism vs. free will (a page on compatibilism) and talks about supernaturalism not at all. Nevertheless, I am thinking that his emphasis on situational influences on (determinants of) behavior mark this book as naturalistic in orientation.

Although he doesn't seem to realize the importance of this direction, Doris' text actually touches on where we get our assumptions of a powerful single, coherent central self determining our actions. He points to substantial research regarding how children develop their conceptions of persons through their life-span; and even contrasts conceptions developed in other (less individualistic) cultures. Surely our notions of contra-causal free-will, the primacy of person over situation and the focus on individual responsibility raised to the level of metaphysical principle, our readiness to justify reflexive emotional reactions with judgmental cognitive categorizations, and to unwittingly engage in punitive retributive practices, -- etc -- all of these have such a developmental history. It strikes me that this is a sort of Foucauldian genealogical project, but there is a good bit of child-development research that bears on it. Showing how these concepts are embedded in a culturally-local developmental history that we (around here) share in common, does not of course directly challenge the "objective truth" of these points, but it surely would undermine and soften our reflexive attachment to them by offering (like I think Foucault's work did in its field) another direction of understanding.

Anyway, Doris' book is written in a thoughtful and somewhat informal, personable style even though it is fairly heavily annotated and referenced. Although it doesn’t take sides in the freedom-determinism wars, it seems to me that it straddles both psychology and philosophy in a way similar to materials on Naturalism.Org, so I figured you would find it of interest.


About the contributor: Larry More is psychotherapist in the Philadelphia area with a masters in counseling from the University of Georgia. He has worked over 15 years in the substance abuse area with a family-therapy orientation, and has conducted a more generalized practice in the last 15. Since the 70's, his main intellectual interest has been in the topic of "the self," with a masters thesis focused on the notion that no such self exists. If so, what, then, is therapy ?


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