Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Being who you are

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about character. It’s a topic that I reflect on often, both when I am teaching ethics—by far my favorite class to teach—and, generally, when thinking about morality. After all, I spent a lot of time training in philosophy, so I ought to put it to some use.
But one of the most interesting issues when it comes to thinking about character is the way that people tend to talk about what they do when they have done something that they regret, feel guilty, ashamed or embarrassed about. For instance, several semesters ago, I caught a student cheating on an exam. The student was upset, understandably so. And, apart from all the other things he said, he begged for mercy with the claim, “That’s not who I am.”
He had done something that people sometimes describe as acting out of character, i.e., doing something that is outside the parameters of what they would normally do, something uncharacteristic. And, so, he wanted me to know that he was acting out of character, that his character is who he really is, and what he had done had not been a reflection of that core of his being.
Now, there are some strange things about this sort of claim. In the first place, this raises the obvious question, “Well, who was it, who did this thing that was not the real you?” It wasn’t the devil or some being foreign to you, it was you, even if you don’t much like yourself for having done it.
In the second, when philosophers and regular old everyday people first worried about character, they didn’t worry about it as some static, abstract thing, which someone acted according to in some instances and not according to in some other instances. Rather, they thought of it as that thing out of which one’s actions flow. It is one’s character, they might have said, that causes someone to act in a certain way, that informs one’s responses to certain situations, that leads to certain actions. So, in a sense, there is no action that could be out of character in the sense my student was aching toward with his claim that it wasn’t the real him or the core of his being that acted in the way that he did.
There is something sort of right about this claim, nonetheless, but also something dangerous about it.
The part that’s dangerous is the part that needs to be addressed first. Because, when we claim that it wasn’t really in our character to act a certain way, we excuse ourselves from responsibility for the action and we also remove from our mind the fact that we are in danger of committing this sort of act again in the future. For instance, if I think that it isn’t in my character to cheat, then I am more likely to allow myself to get into situations where cheating is a real possibility. I might think that there is no real temptation for me, so there is no reason to avoid what moral theologians call(ed) the near occasions of sin. So, I don’t worry when I can see my classmate’s exam, since I am not the sort of person who could look off of it anyway. Moreover, I am more likely to look down on people who commit the very sin that I am so certain I could never commit, since it isn’t in my character. It’s this very sort of thinking that made experiments like those carried out by Elijah Milgram so troubling. In his experiments, subjects who thought that they had morally impeccable characters were nonetheless willing to increase the voltage and continue shocking another psychological subject even to the point where that subject was unconscious and beyond. Here, then, is the wisdom behind the old saw, “There but for the grace of God do I”; within us there are many possibilities for wrongdoing that we would rather not face.
The part that’s right is the fact about ourselves when we act wrongly that underlies a sense of shame. When I say or judge or think that I am not the sort of person who could do something, what I am saying, in a way, is that my ideal picture of myself is not of someone who could do that. That’s a good thing to think, but it’s very different from not being that sort of person. And, it reflects well on one’s character that they wish that they were a different sort of person and it is an important step towards being that sort of person, but it’s being that sort of person that ultimately matters the most. In matters of character, it’s action that speak. Words are inconsequential.


topak said...

Hiya Ty (I'm still lurking out here - how are ya?),

Isn't part of character the goal in who you both wish to be, based on role models in life, but also how you wish to be perceived, by those who's opions of you matter?

Actions take us there but words reinforce that goal. Saying things certainly won't make them true, but as an exercise in belief that we can each overcome our (often self-imposed) limitations, and getting the buy-in and support of our peers. Lacking that peer support, any action to improve our characters will go un-noticed or un-reinforced, and then we are left alone with the knowledge that while we're a good person, but the rest of the world (or immediate peer group) considers us different and less than.

My point is that sometimes the words make the reality because they shape the perceptions we are bound by.

Tyler said...

I agree--and I tried to sort of say this--that what we wish to be and what we say about ourselves helps us to change ourselves and become a certain sort of person. And, of course, insofar as saying what we believe is an action itself, it reflects our character, too. So, if, having kicked the baby across the room, I then say that I shouldn't have done that, that reflects (a little) better on my character than if I did it and said nothing about it. But, when my words and actions come apart, it doesn't make sense to put more weight on the words than on the actions, at least if that means denying responsibility for the actions.
I'm hanging in there, how have you been?

John said...

I have always found the “under normal circumstances” defense to be an odd one, because what people always mean by “under normal circumstances” is “if I hadn’t really wanted to do what I did.” I recognize the role that duress and external perturbation can play in one’s decision making process – I couldn’t lift the back end of a Miata above my head normally, but with a little PCP it might me an option, or perhaps a little more relevantly, I wouldn’t normally shoot someone, but if he were threatening my family I probably would. However, test anxiety is not PCP, nor is it a threatening attacker. Strength of character, I believe, is arrived at by identifying the factors that make us do what we don’t want to want to do, and learning to deal with or avoid them. The problem with this is that it means that true strength of character cannot be arrived at without first violating one’s own moral code. The upside is that mandates forgiveness, both of others, and of ourselves.

topak said...

On the subject of character, Ty, what do you think of people who are friendly in social in a public forum, but distant and non-responsive in private? Should one just write them off as defective, disagreeable persons who we pass by in life and just leave it at that? Or is it worthwhile to keep trying to reach out into the emptiness to see what takes hold?