Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The return of "good character"

The latest issue of Prospect magazine features a thought-provoking, free article by Richard Reeves (director of the Demos think tank) on the old-fashioned concept of "good character" and its importance for a successful society.

Reeves says good character is made up of three parts: "a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one's own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification." (Of course, everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a good character. Reeves quotes the first headmaster of Stowe school, JF Roxburgh, as saying his goal was to turn out boys who would be "acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.")

Reeves' three parts to a good character will be familiar to psychologists. The first is what psychologists call "self-efficacy" - belief in your own ability to achieve something. Shelves of evidence show how important self-belief is for success. Reeves' second aspect - "taking responsibility for one's own actions" - is easy to aim for but much harder to put into practice thanks to the effects of cognitive-dissonance. Psychologically it is extremely hard for us to recognise when we've behaved wrongly or made bad decisions (check out "mistakes were made but not by me" for more on this). Reeve's third aspect of a good character is also well known to psychologists who have built up plenty of evidence showing that self-discipline and self-regulation are vital to success, and may even be more important than intelligence in that regard.

As Reeves explains, the notion that there is such a thing as good characters gets politically delicate because of (probably unfounded) claims that bad characters cause poverty and because of evidence showing that poverty causes bad characters. Look away for a second and you find yourself in the territory of blaming poor people for their lot. And you're effectively saying that some people are better than others.

This is harsh if you believe that people can't change. But if you recognise that people can change and become better characters, well then it arguably makes sense to recognise the importance of good character and put policies in place that will nourish the next generation to achieve that ideal.

Reeves discusses whether good characters are harder to come by these days and if so why. He finds no evidence for the idea that we've been corrupted by consumerism, but says there is evidence for the idea that liberalism - the anything goes mentality of modern life - may be partly to blame.

In particular, Reeves says the idea that we should all be free to do what we want has negatively impacted on parenting. And it is the family and good parenting that Reeves identifies as one of the most important sources of good characters. Here Reeves says parenting classes could have a part to play. He cites a forthcoming paper by Stephen Scott of the Institute of Psychiatry showing just how long lasting the benefits of these classes can be.

All in all the essay makes for a fascinating read. It's rewarding to see psychological findings filtering through into political thinking. And it provides a lesson in how messy things can get when ostensibly innocent lab results (for example on parenting or self-discipline) collide with issues of morality and personal responsibility.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to "A Question of Character" freely available at Prospect magazine.


Anonymous said...

Is the question of good character really a scientific one? Or is it moral?

If it's a moral question, who put psychologists and people from think tanks in charge?

From what grounds do psychologists and other Western intellectuals base their moralising on? Is it because they are better than us mere mortals?

I'm far from confident that psychologists and other intellectuals are particularly 'good people'. Perhaps more importantly I doubt that they even meet their own standards of what 'good' is.

Unknown said...

Anonymous: I don't think anyone is saying that psychologists or intellectuals are particularly 'good people'. Also, I'm not sure I agree that moral issues are precluded from useful scientific enquiry - you imply that such domains are mutually exclusive.

Anonymous said...

“I don't think anyone is saying that psychologists or intellectuals are particularly 'good people'.“

My point is that those who offer prescriptions to other people regarding how we ought to live ought to first of all demonstrate that they live according the moral view they advocate. The philosopher Peter Singer is a fine example of someone who does this. I believe professionals (psychologists, philosophers and others) who talk about good character ought to, at the very least, demonstrate a desire to have such a character.

Certainly one can have a ‘bad character’ and study what ‘is’ the case with regard to morality (i.e., how do people actually behave?), but as soon as he or she moves to discussing what ‘ought’ to be the case, then consideration of that person’s character becomes highly important. Politicians and clergy are often in the business of moralising – we all know what happens to their moral authority when they are shown to be full of hot air.

Even those professionals who restrict themselves to examining actual moral behaviour (what 'is' the case) are still operating with a set of implicit premises on what 'ought' to be the case. Can empirical facts be established without being shored up by a raft of hidden, implicit normative claims?

If there are a raft of hidden, implicit normative claims being made then we’re back to requiring proof of the moral authority of the investigator or his or her claims, before we accept them.

“Also, I'm not sure I agree that moral issues are precluded from useful scientific enquiry - you imply that such domains are mutually exclusive.”

I agree that morality can be studied scientifically. We can ask questions such as "what caused a person to think/feel/act that way?", "what factors led to that decision?" and "what constrains certain actions?" etc, etc. These studies are very useful and feed into the wider debate, especially the challenges of establishing a secular system of morality.

The problem is not that psychologists study morality. The problem is that many of them go from observation of behaviour to prescription of behaviour without so much as blinking an eyelid. As you know, Hume clearly stated that one can never argue ‘ought’ from ‘is’.

I think this is something that many leading psychologists forget. From what I’ve read, this holds true in the fields of personality, clinical, forensic, sport and occupational psychology.

So what if they do forget? I suppose they have as much right as anyone to give their moral tuppence worth. But as stated above, before I accept moral advice from a person I wish to know on what moral authority they speak. Have they, like Peter Singer, chosen to live their lives according to their philosophy? Are those that advocate a certain type of good character of that 'good character' themselves?

Unknown said...

Anonymous: I think your argument was made more lucidly two decades ago in Michael Jackson's hit song "Man in the Mirror".

But beyond the honey-sweet sentiment captured so lyrically by that song, which I'm sure we can all agree with, I'm not clear where your logic leads. You just seem to be attacking unnamed individuals for going beyond the evidence and taking the moral high ground. Any science, not just psychology, can obviously be misappropriated. That isn't an argument for not doing it.

Anonymous said...

Personally I feel David Hume provides a more compelling analysis of the issue than Michael Jackson. I'm not particularly comfortable with Man in the Mirror as an exposition of the is-ought problem...

"You just seem to be attacking unnamed individuals for going beyond the evidence and taking the moral high ground."

No, I don't mind anyone taking the moral high ground when it is clear that that is what they are doing. At least then the debate can proceed on the proper terms.

However the crucial difference is that moralisers in science (including psychology) quite often portray their moralising as somehow based in evidence. To avoid further charges of not being lucid I'm not going to try and explain what the 'naturalistic fallacy' is, but it is rife.

And you're right, I haven't named names - I was making a general point which applies to many social scientists, in particular psychologists and psychiatrists.

Let's focus on the article though. Richard Reeves may display all the 3 traits of a good character (which he pulls out of the hat 8 paragraphs into the article). Good for him. However who says these are good traits? It strikes me that these traits may well be suited for achieving certain social outcomes like getting a job and making money - but who says these are good outcomes? From what rational basis have these been derived from?

Presumably a willingness to conform and a high capacity for humiliation would also confer advantages to people who are competing for jobs as workers in Rocco Forte's hotels.

I agree that the traits he mentions are 'useful' or adaptive traits when it comes to making money, getting a job etc etc., but whether they make that person a 'good person' depends entirely on your concept of what 'good' is.

I'm afraid I don't know of any pop songs which I can cite in support of this argument - which is far from original I hasten to add.

Unknown said...

Anonymous said: "I'm afraid I don't know of any pop songs which I can cite in support of this argument". May I suggest Hot Chip's Over and Over (ignoring the end part) and dan le sac VS scroobius pip's Thou shalt always kill.

Anonymous said...

Funny? Yes.

Engaging with the actual issues or points raised? No.

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