Book Review: The Character Gap

Turn on the news, survey social media, or glance at the comments section of any major Internet article and you’ll probably notice we live in an extremely polarized time. It’d be easy to conclude that the world can neatly be divided into good and bad people. If we stop to think about it, we’ll probably realize we tend to think this way, grouping ourselves and our friends and family in the good people category.

Dr. Christian Miller’s The Character Gap: How Good Are We? complicates this simplistic character gapdivision of the world, arguing very few of us possess good or bad character. Most of us are more or less in the middle: not as good as we’d like to think but not morally wretched either. Miller is a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University and Project Leader of the Character Project, an interdisciplinary academic exploration of character by scholars in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and theology.

Despite the academic context from which this book developed, it’s clearly written and easy to follow. You don’t have to have training in the disciplines above in order to appreciate the book. The simple structure and conversational writing style make the arguments easy to follow. Miller is warm, inviting, and self-effacing, and though he makes a clear case in the book, he’s charitable to opposing viewpoints or potential arguments and ideas against him. It’s an interesting book filled with great stories and examples that will keep your attention.

Purpose and Survey

The reason for the book, and indeed the Character Project as a whole, seems to be to encourage readers to pursue growth in good character. The Character Gap has three parts aimed at answering several questions to that end.

Part 1 has two chapters. The first explains what Miller means by good character. He argues that a person has good character when possessing virtue, which “when acquired becomes a relatively stable feature of our character and leads to relevant motivation and behavior over an extended period of time” (p. 13-14). In other words, a virtuous person performs good action in a variety of situations for the right reasons as a pattern of behavior over a sustained period of time.

The second chapter highlights the gap between good character and our actual character and then gives reasons why we should try to develop virtue: 1) it’s inspiring, 2) it makes the world a better place, 3) there seems to be wide agreement among different religions that God wants you to, and 4) good character can be rewarding.

Part 2 seeks to establish the main proposal of the book—that most of us are not virtuous or wretched—by drawing conclusions from research on our character with a focus on four particular behaviors: helping, harming, lying, and cheating. Chapters 3-6 look at research on each of these behaviors. For instance, in chapter 4 on harming, Miller makes some fascinating observations about how fear of consequences restrains aggressive behavior and about the role legitimate authority plays in our decisions to harm another person. The studies he cites suggest that the more responsibility a person feels, the less willing they are to inflict pain on another. He concludes most people do not have proper restraint on their aggression, but that most people aren’t cruel either (p. 99). Each of these chapters surveys the research, examines how differing motivating factors affect behavior, and ends with the same conclusion: most of us aren’t good or bad. Miller does a great job in these chapters interacting in engaging and thought-provoking ways with studies that might otherwise be dry and unstimulating to most people. Chapter 7 concludes part 2 by collecting 7 lessons from the previous chapters to tell the story of our character (p. 143-160).

Part 3 tackles the problem of the character gap by proposing what we can do to grow in virtue. Chapter 8 charitably critiques less promising strategies of character growth, noting some of the good these approaches can make. Miller offers three strategies in chapter 9 that show better promise. He notes we need to utilize multiple strategies to be effective but admits none of them will truly work unless we are properly motivated to want to grow. This leads to the final chapter where Miller makes a gracious invitation to irreligious people to consider the role and resources of religion in character development (p. 219-220). In particular, he suggests Christianity offers at least three things that facilitate virtue: 1) Christian rituals and practices like prayer, confession, scripture reading, giving, fasting, and worship, 2) Christian community, and 3) divine assistance by the Holy Spirit. Miller doesn’t take for granted his readers will be readily open to this approach. So while he acknowledges practicing Christianity cannot be proven to cause virtuous behavior, he argues studies do suggest a correlation between them (p. 239). The book closes with a short expression of hope that more research and work will be done in the field.

Evaluation

The Character Gap has much to offer any willing reader open to challenge and change. By even writing the book, Miller encourages and even resources readers toward good character. He offers inspiration, information, and strategies to grow. He dispels false notions of our own virtue and encourages humility and compassion towards those we might assume lack virtue, which is especially important in these polarized times. The book is well researched, and as I mentioned above, Miller presents his research in engaging ways. Especially in part 2, the book contains many fascinating observations about human behavior. I was particularly interested in several of the lessons he drew in chapter 7.

  • Most people behave admirably in some situations and then deplorably in others (p. 146ff).
  • Our changing moral behavior is extremely sensitive to features of the environment, and often we do not even realize what those features are (p. 148ff).
  • Most of us act with mixed motives (p. 152).
  • Sometimes we are not aware of an unconscious motive behind action, and we might be completely wrong in our understanding of our own motives (p. 153).

Finally, it was surprising and refreshing to find an academic integrating his own faith into his work on such a subject in a humble and gracious way. Not everyone will agree with this part of his book, but objections with this part of his book shouldn’t take away from the rest of it.

Though it has much to offer, The Character Gap left me scratching my head on a few accounts.   First, there is little to no argument made as to what qualifies as good behavior and why. Early in the book, Miller explains he will focus on uncontroversial examples of virtue (p. 7). While it’s helpful to see there has been widespread historical agreement on what behavior is considered good, Miller appears to beg the question. As another reviewer pointed out, “the booked does little to highlight the need for an underlying philosophical foundation for morality.” Many have argued, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, that differing accounts of morality are the result of diverse metanarratives, yet Miller seems to assume all readers are operating out of the same grand story. Given pluralism, this seems a problematic assumption.

Second, Miller suggests that virtue is not motivated by self-interest (p. 13). However, when explaining why we should be good, several of the reasons he offers are grounded, at bottom I’d argue, in self-interest. For instance, why should we pursue being good just because God wants us to unless we are interested in pleasing God? Also, isn’t the desire to make the world a better place grounded in our desire to enjoy a better world or, at least, to have the satisfaction of knowing we made the world a better place? Or finally and most obviously, isn’t pursuing good character because it can be rewarding clearly self-interested (p. 43)? Now Miller seems to try to avoid this conclusion by distinguishing between the goal of good behavior, which should be others-oriented, and the by-product of good behavior, individual reward (p. 47). However, I’m not so sure this distinction lets him off the hook. Later on, Miller returns to the question of motives, and he asserts that egoism—the idea that we are always motivated by self-interest—is clearly false, asserting that we can also be motivated by duty, altruism, and a number of different motives all at once (p. 150-153). Miller, no doubt, did not have time in this book to dive into a huge debate in the philosophy of ethics about motivation, so I can’t fault him. But further work on character will probably require deeper treatment of this issue.

Third, I wonder if there’s a flaw in the method of obtaining support for the main proposal that most of us are not good or bad. This thesis is supported by the studies explored in part 2. However, at the very beginning when Miller explains what character is, he makes the point that “mere behavior, no matter how consistent it might be, is never enough by itself to indicate good character…It’s hard to tell whether someone is truly virtuous” (p12). As far as I can tell, he makes this claim for two reasons. First, we cannot always discern the motivation behind an act. Second, one act, by itself, does not give us enough information about a person to establish a pattern. It seems, then, the studies Miller explores throughout the book cannot reliably tell us about the character status of the persons involved. Most of the studies cited involve single acts where no motive can be certainly discerned. I’m not sure the empirical methodology can do the work Miller asks, but this concern may only reflect my own limitations in understanding research methodology.

Conclusion

My questions aside, I happily commend this book. We could all use some encouragement to pursue virtuous character, and there are some good tools in this book to help us move in that direction. Furthermore, the topic is one we sorely need to discuss more as a society preoccupied with technique, efficiency, consuming, and entertainment. I’m grateful for Miller’s work, and if you take the time to get a copy and read it, I suspect you will be too.

[Disclaimer: I should note that I majored in philosophy at Wake Forest University before the author started teaching there. However, I do know the author personally, and I received a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.]

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