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Mind the Gap

By: Alexander Khan
September 13, 2019

n The Character Gap, Christian B. Miller seeks to burst our bubble and show us who we really are. “Our hearts are not morally pure,” he writes, “but they are not morally corrupt either. Rather, they are a messy blend of good and evil.” As he explains, character involves not simply the actions we take, but also our motivations. A person of good character must be acting morally, and “be doing so for the right reasons.” In order to understand our complex character, we must recognize that there is a gap between who we are and who we want to be. Only then can we begin to improve.

For those unconvinced that such a gap exists—for those who believe that they act morally and for all the right reasons—Miller, a Wake Forest philosophy professor and director of the Templeton Foundation’s Character Project, responds with a mountain of empirical evidence. He takes the reader through the major psychological studies done in the United States on the subject of character, exploring four major facets of morality—the propensity to help, to harm, to lie, and to cheat—and makes the case that Americans are not moral. Although test subjects in many studies often took advantage of situations to cheat or steal, Miller shows that Americans are not vicious either, since in many other situations, “most people have a tremendous capacity for good in their hearts.” The inescapable conclusion is that “For most of us, we will behave admirably in some situations and then turn around and behave deplorably in other situations.”

Because we are not as virtuous as we believe ourselves to be, Miller lays out six strategies for changing habits and choices in order to improve our character and close the gap. These strategies range from doing nothing to undertaking a critical examination of our desires. Taken alone, however, no single strategy is enough. “The best approach,” he counsels, “will likely be a sophisticated, multifaceted one where all of the [strategies]… matter.” In the book’s final chapter, he looks to Christianity, arguing that prayer, confession, and tithing alters one’s conception of life and habituates one to act in a better way.

Although Miller presents a compelling look at the state of our characters today, he only hints at the more important question: has man’s character always been this way, or has it degenerated over time? Finding an answer to this, it would seem, holds the key to understanding the source of our moral failure.

One plausible answer is that although moral character may never have been perfect, people’s characters may have been better in earlier decades of American life when community and its social connections were more robust. One of Miller’s findings—which he calls “striking” and “remarkable”—is that people have a tremendous capacity for empathy, one that is motivated purely by altruism. Because empathy is based entirely on one person’s connection to another, it is quite probable that when community life is stronger, our empathy is greater. Thus, when individuals have strong connections not merely to their family members, but to their friends, neighbors, people in their neighborhoods, and a whole host of others who make up the life of a local community, they are more empathetic. This applies to other aspects of character as well. People, it seems, are more honest, helpful, and generally virtuous towards those they live with, care about, and know. Vital and vibrant community life trains and motivates people to live morally because each community member’s actions are focused on those with whom they interact every day. The fellowship of community, it seems, is essential to morality and to bridging the character gap.

In a 1983 interview, Senator Barry Goldwater, when asked how he would like to be remembered, said simply, “I’d like to be remembered as an honest man, as one who tried his best.” Unlike Goldwater, most people today are failing to lead lives of character. While we would like to think of ourselves as good, Christian Miller helps us to see that there is a large gap between who we are and who we want to be. Realizing this difference exists is the first step to strengthening our communities and improving our personal lives.