The nature of character

This is the part two I promised I’d write yesterday. Part one had to do with morality and how it seems to be culturally determined and socially enforced.

Professor Emer O’Hagan’s talk last night was titled “Do We Lack Moral Character?” but she said little about morality specifically. Her lecture focused much more on the definition of character and the debate that goes on in terms of whether our character traits are inherent (aka “global”) or if they are determined more by situational stimuli (local).

She started by outlining the situationist argument which is basically the theory that one’s character traits rely mostly on what we’re doing and what’s happening around us. She mentioned a few studies done in the past that seem to lean towards this idea, one of which being Milgrim’s obedience study.

It was set up to make people think they were participating in a completely different study where they had to ask another person questions and shock that person any time the response was incorrect. The “learner” wasn’t actually hooked up to anything dangerous. He was one of the researchers and left in another room to play the recording that sounded like someone being tortured to death by increased levels of shocking.

What Milgrim and his team discovered was that people will follow orders no matter what the end result. Some required more prompting than others, but ultimately many listened to the authority in the lab coat and continued administering the shocks, even after the screaming stopped. Not that they were happy to comply, of course. Most of them found it very distressing and wrong but the need to obey in that situation still took precedence over compassion or integrity.

Someone else mentioned the Stanford prison experiments. I piped up about what I thought I knew about that one once O’Hagan admitted she wasn’t too familiar with it, but I got facts wrongs. I hate getting facts wrong, so I’ll make sure they’re right here. Philip Zimbardo invited some students to participate in a role playing experiment where some of the boys would be guards at a prison they made in the basement, and the rest would act as the prisoners. They were told at the beginning that they could quit at any time, but once the game got going, everyone got so involved in their roles that the majority forgot that part. Zimbardo hoped to run his prison for 2 weeks but had to pull the plug before the first week was up. He was also caught up in the prison aspect and ceased to be an objective observer.

O’Hagan mentioned several other studies that tried to track compassion (would theology students off to speak about the Good Samaritan be one if they were in a hurry?) and honesty (in the 1920s, children were checked in a variety of situations to see how many would lie or cheat) and helpfulness (finding a dime in a phone booth radically increased likelihood that they’d help a person pick up the stuff they dropped outside the phone booth). She wasn’t coming down on the side of the situationists on this topic, though. She preferred the opposing approach, that character is the property of a life, not a moment.

During the Q&A, one of the people in the audience suggested that incentives need to be considered. Are people generous because it comes to them naturally, or do they just want the tax break? Are people helpful because they genuinely want to help, or are they avoiding guilt trips/wanting to impress someone? How much do expectations and chance of reward come into play? Can social policy/prisons/cities be designed to promote good character traits, and should they be?

It was also mentioned that making character assumptions about someone can be a grievous error since it often leads to misunderstandings and disappointments. If people are going to be sorted by particular traits they appear to possess, people might overlook other flaws of character that should also be taken into consideration if we really want to understand someone’s motives. We should also be more up front about our own motivations and our limitations as well.

By and large, it made for an interesting discussion and I haven’t hit on half of what got said. More about the study of moral character can be found here, including history and the role luck plays in all of this.

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