Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Character and Obedience

Therapy gives you insight; coaching helps you to build character.

Therapy pretends to cure the mind with new ideas.

Coaching, whether in sports or in business or in life, works to to improve your character.

It’s not so obvious that we understand what character is. Philosopher Iskra Fileva explains her position on the New York Times Opinionator blog:

Ordinarily, we envision character as a set of stable and unified dispositions: we expect the timid employee to be shy on a regular basis, not just on some days, and we picture him as a mellow father, not as a tyrant at home. Since we suppose that characters are unified in these ways, we are almost invariably surprised when it turns out that the different aspects of someone’s personality stand in tension with one another. 

Unfortunately, she is not quite right. Aristotle defined character as habitual behavior. Perhaps Fileva is using disposition as a synonym for behavior, but to my mind the two do not coincide.

You can be disposed to do something without doing it. You might be ill-disposed to decency, but if you make the effort to act decently all the time, then you are improving your character... disposition be damned.

Also, shyness is a personality trait, not a character trait. Your character involves the way you behave toward others. It defines you as an honorable member of a community. Your good character tells people that they can count on you, that your behavior will consistently follow principle.

You can be shy and trustworthy. You can also be gregarious and trustworthy.

If timidity is the opposite of courageous, then timidity would be a character flaw.

If character involves consistent behavior someone who behaves inconsistently has weak character.

Philosophers and psychologists have made much of the question, so I will offer what I consider to be the classical ethical principle: someone who behaves decorously on one day and indecorously on another day is indecorous.

To be a character trait decorum must be habitual.  A person who lacks it lacks character.

If a man is kind and generous toward his children but beats his wife, he has bad character.

Behaving well toward some people and behaving poorly toward others means that your good behavior is not habitual. Thus, it is not you.

It would take hiss forays into the realm of responsible behavior to be an effort to mask his bad character.

On the other hand, no one is perfect. There is no such thing as a human being who does not make mistakes. Good character is not perfect character.

Let’s say that you slip up; you fail to return a text message; you go back on your word; you eat your soup with a fork.

By definition, a singular piece of bad behavior does not undermine your claim to good character.

When you err, you should apologize and vow never to do it again. A person of good character apologizes. A person who does not apologize lacks good character. Anyone who apologizes and keeps making the same mistake also lacks character.

His failure to apologize tells you that his error is characteristic.

We judge a person’s character, first, through our own interactions with the person. Fileva reports that if, in our dealings with a man, he is always responsible and reliable, we are inclined to generalize from the specifics and to believe that he is responsible and reliable.

Since a personal perspective is limited, it does not really prove anything beyond the fact that he is kind to me. Fileva notes that it does not prove that he is kind.

But, how can we discover whether a person possesses good or bad character?  After all, we cannot monitor all of his behavior.

The question is salient and relevant. When a business is looking to hire someone for a job, it needs to know whether the person has good or bad character. In many businesses this is a crucial consideration.

A candidate might make a great impression in an interview. How can the interviewer know whether he is seeing someone who has put on his best face or someone who is behaving as he always does?

Businesses know that they can never know someone’s character to an absolute certainty, but they have devised ways to discern about whether they are seeing a mask or a face.

They might ask a receptionist and an assistant for their impression of the candidate. If the unfailing polite candidate is rude to the receptionist it will count against him.

Or they might invite the candidate to lunch or dinner.

If he is congenial when dealing with the senior management but barks at the busboy, then he lacks good character. If he is glib and articulate but chews with his mouth open then he has an important character flaw.

By now this is fairly well known. If you are being interviewed for a job your character will be tested, often in situations that you cannot foresee.

The best preparation is to show good character in all situations and circumstances. Use good manners when you are eating alone. Be courteous to the dry cleaner. Develop good character traits when no one is watching.

If you do, those traits will become habitual and you will evince them naturally. The more natural they become the less likely you are to lose them under stress.

I was most intrigued by Fileva’s discussion of obedience. You probably know that obedience has gotten a bad name. It has even been banned from marriage vows.

Philosophers have reasoned that people have done dreadful things in the name of obeying or following orders. Therefore, obedience is morally dubious.

True, Nazi officials tried to defend their actions on the grounds that they were obeying orders, but it is also true that the soldiers who defeated the Third Reich were obeying orders.

They were not expressing their unique individuality creatively.

Fileva offers this analysis:

… the tendency to obey, while in one sense an aspect of character, is in another sense a sign of the lack of character. For think about what we mean when we say that someone “has no character”: we mean just that he can be led in any direction and pressured to do all sorts of things. It would be a poor defense of the existence of his character if we said that really, his deeper tendency to obey united the seemingly incongruent bits of his behavior. To lack character is to lack principles, to fail to be, as it were, internally motivated.

I agree, someone who can be easily influenced lacks character. Someone who is unprincipled also lacks character.

A person who is easily influenced and pressured surely lacks principles. You might say that he is obeying his whims or the people who he wants to impress, but no one should ever believe that this is what constitutes obedience.

People who have character follow principles, not people. They certainly do not follow their whims or their bliss.

And, that requires obedience. Following a rule means obeying its dictates, despite all of the temptations to obey the whims of another person.

Obviously, there are good principles and bad principles. Character would be meaningless if you were not responsible for choosing which rules you obey.

When you keep your word you are obeying a principle, the one that tells you to be trustworthy in all things.

Fileva writes:

Unity in character is an achievement. And we have a better chance of attaining it if we take it to be a goal, rather than an existing state of affairs.  If we want pronouncements like “Up the Republic!” and “Sweetheart!” to really mean something, we’d better take these pronouncements as commitments to live up to, not as expressions of who we already are. When I declare I will be faithful to you, there is, strictly speaking, something wishful about my declaration. I do not know from where I shall get the strength to do as I promise. It is certainly not the case that I possess a “faithfulness” property that can guarantee my success. But this is not a pessimistic conclusion. For there is nothing that guarantees failure either; my past failures, in particular, do not. And would you really prefer that my success be guaranteed? I would conjecture that the answer is “no.” The power of my declaration lies, for you, precisely in that I make a promise that I can keep only if I make an effort. Nothing about my character can ensure success. There is inevitable precariousness in human interaction that stems from the very way in which we are built. But perhaps this is just what, in our dealings with one another, gives both our success and our failure to live up to our commitments real meaning.

There is a slight confusion here. Making a commitment to a cause is similar to giving your word to another person, but the two are not exactly the same. Good character has much more to do with the latter than the former. 

Fileva says correctly that giving your word does not express who you are but should count as a commitment or promise.

She is incorrect to assert that a commitment is a wish.

If you tell your child that you are going to pick him up from school this afternoon you are not expressing a wish. You are committing to an action, and you are saying that, if you are not in a coma, you will be there. There should be no separation between what you say you will do and what you do.

If you tell your lover or your spouse that you will be faithful, you had best be expressing more than a wish. No one is going to redefine his or her life as a function of wishful thinking.

Fileva says that she does not know where she will get the strength to do as she promises, but I would recommend that she find it in a sense of duty. Or better, of obedience to the principle of duty. That means that once she makes a commitment she is duty-bound to obey it, regardless of her wishes and desires.

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

We got "good character", "bad character", "weak character", and "perfect(ly good) character". Even the simplest "giving and keeping your word" while offer a worthy principle leaves open how long and how dependable do you have to be to stay good? If I pledge loyalty, and I find that loyalty was misplaced, then apparently I move from good character to bad character to renegociate? But then perhaps there's a hierarchy of principles, so character as loyalty to truth might be higher than loyalty to persons, or only sometimes in degrees, given we are persons who also fail to recognize truth, and yet need loyalty despite our failings?

The topic reminds me of Kipling's letter to his son, on how to be a be man, full of grand vision and principle. But he doesn't even deal with "character", but does define principles to measure ones self up to, standing alone by ones own standards, not allowing others to define you.