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People are Mixed Bags with Christian Miller

Dr. Christian Miller is the A.C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. His research focuses on the philosophy of religion and contemporary ethics. He has co-directed the $3.9 million Beacon Project to examine moral exemplars and, more recently, the $5.6 million Character Project which funded 28 scholars to examine the existence and nature of character and virtue. He has published two academic books, as well as one trade book titled The Character Gap: How Good Are We? In this episode, Dr. Miller and I talk about the emergence, development, and varieties of the situationist challenge—the idea that situations dictate moral action, and that character traits may play little if any role in morality.

APA citation: Cazzell, A. R. (Host). People are Mixed Bags with Christian Miller (2019, November 5).  [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from


NOTE: This transcript was generated automatically. Please excuse typos and errors.

Amber: 00:01:19 Hi everyone. Today I am with Christian Miller. Christian, I am so grateful to have you here. We're going to be discussing situationism, particularly from a philosophical bent, which will be really interesting for me because I'm only familiar with it in the context of psychology. So a Christian, thanks so much for, for coming on the show. So great to be with you today. Yeah. So let's let's go ahead and start with a little bit of your background. I always think that's fun. How did you become interested in the philosophy of morality at large?

Christian: 00:01:55 Well, it's probably the same time I became interested in philosophy in general and that goes way back all the way to high school. Most people don't get exposed to philosophy in high school. It's usually later on in college. But I had the good fortune of reading a lot of philosophy in about ninth and 10th grade on my own, especially works of ethics and morality. And then my, by my senior year, I ran out of classes to take in my high school. So I went to a local college and, but by that time I was still kind of interested in philosophy. From my independent reading. Then I decided to sign up for introduction to philosophy with a professor named Dr. Bible of all of all names. And so his introduction class and then took two more classes with him. And at that point I was just, was really, really hooked.

Christian: 00:02:42 The formal instruction in philosophy just kind of solidified my own personal interests. So from there I went off to college at Princeton and then grad school Notre Dame and for whatever reason ethics emerged as my favorite area of philosophy. I got a, I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that it's very applicable. So some areas of philosophy tend to be more abstract and it's hard to think, you know, does this really make any difference in society. And I, in my own personal life, that's not the case at all. With ethics, it's obvious how it's really applicable and makes a difference. And then secondly, I think w it was more just easier for me to get my mind around when I'm, I'm trying to wrestle with questions like what is the nature of time or the nature of space or can is time travel possible?

Christian: 00:03:42 Some of these other philosophical questions, I just, I have a hard time making much progress in my thinking about them. But when it comes to something like where does morality come from? Or what is it to be a good person or is a famine relief something that we should be contributing a lot more money to than we currently do there? I, I found I had views and I had intuitions and I had arguments and objections and responses, the kind of thing that philosophers deal with. So both, it was both tangible and real world together tangible for me, something I could really wrestle with and applicable and made a difference in the world.

Amber: 00:04:25 Yeah, definitely. So when I was talking to you just before we started this recording, we had mentioned that when we're talking about sort of ethical philosophy, it's always good to start with an understanding of what morality is, what it means and the perspective that you're coming from. So let's back up there because today we'll be talking about situation. Situationism how do we and situationism generally rests on. It's piggybacking off of this idea that people seem to assume character exists. So and then that idea comes under attack. So what is character from your perspective or from the philosophical perspective before situationism really becomes a big challenge.

Christian: 00:05:18 Sure, sure. So starting with the broad heading of morality, a morality of self is very hard to define where the limits of morality. How do we distinguish morality from other topics like the law or self-interest or other normative realms out there. But within morality, it's fair to say that people talk about things like right and wrong, moral obligations. They talk about good and bad moral values and then they talk about a third thing, character, moral character. So that's really been my focus in my research on morality. So honing in on character specifically we can think of character as how we're disposed to think, feel, and act when it comes to moral matters. So my moral character influences how I think about moral questions, how I'm motivated to act on moral questions, and then my actual behavior, what I do with respect to moral concerns.

Christian: 00:06:23 So that's a kind of pretty abstract characterization to make a little bit more concrete. It's worth noting that moral character comes in two different varieties. There's moral virtue, the good side of character and moral vice, the bad side of, of character. So if we have, we have example of moral virtue like honesty or compassion or courage we can take what I just said about character and maybe make it a little bit more relatable. So someone who's honest, that's part of their character. It's one of their virtues. So they're disposed to think in an honest way, to think it's important to tell the truth. I think it's important to not cheat or steal or lie. Also are disposed to be motivated and have emotions and feelings of an honest kind. So they want to tell the truth. They're moved to not cheat or lie or steal.

Christian: 00:07:23 And then they actually do the, the thing is when in relevant situations, so they actually are honest, they step up and when they're on, on the, in the courtroom, they tell the truth under oath. When they're at the party and they have an opportunity to gossip and spread malicious lies about someone they don't. So you see that example of character being displayed by an honest person in their behavior, but that behavior stems from their underlying thoughts and feelings, which are also part of their character as well. And, and this name the same as just to end the sorry for the long response. The same thing goes with vices. So you have the virtues and the one hand, that's one part of character named devices on the other side. So we take a virtue like honesty, we invert it, we get dishonesty, courage, we invited, we get co cowardice. Temperance, we invert it. We get in temperance, but interestingly these vices function in much the same way. So they are, this is also to think, feel and act in a certain way. Unfortunately it's a not a very admirable way.

Amber: 00:08:29 Yeah. Yeah. And I think it's interesting too, like what your, it seems like we're talking about moral character specifically as it's going to relate to situationism. And you were saying, okay, morality is, is difficult to define, but we could also think about character as it relates to amoral characteristics, right?

Christian: 00:08:52 But so there are a character, I was a little bit sloppy initially. Character itself is a broad concept and there are different kinds of character traits. So there are moral character traits. There are also character traits associated with other areas of life. For example, there are character traits associated with our thinking. Those are called epistemic character traits. There are characters traits associated with our self-interest as Prudential character traits. Their character traits associated with athletics, with aesthetics and beauty with religion, with civic engagement. So lots of different realms of life have character traits associated with them. And I lead people to behave well or behave badly in those particular realms. But you're right to say that in my research and in a situationist discussion in philosophy the focus has been specifically on moral character traits. Okay. So

Amber: 00:09:56 I did from your perspective as a philosopher, did the big situationist, the situationism or in psychology, you know, it's often called the situationist challenge. Which of those sort of emerged first was philosophy, concerned about it first or psychology.

Christian: 00:10:13 Philosophy was very much late to the game. So that now I should preface everything I'm going to say here with the, with noting that I'm a, I'm a philosopher, I'm not a trained psychologist and that's I'm sure I'm gonna make some mistakes. Psychologist, are going to cringe about. So I'm a morning good advance. But so there was this person situationist person-situation debates in psychology and the 1960s and 70s often associated most prominently with Walter Michelle's book, personality and assessment, which came out in 1968. And this is before my time. I wasn't even born then, but for when I read it was apparently a, a really big deal. There was a, the words like warfare and Blitzkrieg and combat to these, to kind of militaristic words how you describe the state of psychology at the time. There was questions about whether personality psychology would even survive anymore, whether those departments would be shut down.

Christian: 00:11:14 There'd be no more hiring. I'm careers available in that field. So so that was my understanding of the psychology got there first. Very prominent for awhile. Although then it kind of went by the wayside and psychology in the late seventies. And, and ever since philosophy comes along. And by that I mean a few philosophers writing at the late 1990s, early two thousands, they started reading some of this literature. People like Michelle Nisbett, Ross, other psychologist talking about situationism. They also read a bunch of studies, classic studies that situations like to cite like Darley and Batson's, Princeton theological seminary helping experiments or bats or the,uMilgram shock experiments from the 1960s. So reading these actual studies and then they say, well, there's something of interest and relevance here going on in psychology to philosophers that philosophers should pay attention to this older developments in psychology because it will actually help advance discussions in ethics specifically. And we can get into exactly how that is. But so th that now the short answer is philosophers came along about 30 years later, specifically the philosophers, Gilbert Harmon at Princeton and John Doris at Washington University in St Louis.

Amber: 00:12:48 That's not what I expected. I have to admit, I feel like philosophers always beat us. So I'm surprised that it came up in psychology first.

Christian: 00:12:59 In general philosophers have for a long time not been reading too much empirical literature. So, and this is a unfortunate thing in my view, so that they would do, I mean this is stereotypical on overgeneralizing, but they would tend to do more just reflective conceptual analysis, thinking hard about concepts like knowledge or the mind or other things that morality without drawing on the resources of, of empirical study. But that's really changed a lot in the last, say, 30 years in philosophy, minds, people, philosophers of mind of really reading a lot of neuroscience and ethics these days. You know, we're really reading a lot of moral psychology, behavior economics and the like. So I'm very glad. Eventually we, we've caught up a little bit.

Amber: 00:13:50 Yeah. well it's interesting too, cause I, I just had the honor of actually getting to interview Dan Batson for this podcast and asked him just briefly about his take on this situation, his challenge in psychology since he was a part of that study this good Samaritan study. And he kind of said he was surprised that it became like such a big deal because there were character traits that were predictive of things than it was a part of the study of that. It wasn't just a situation thing. And so he was kinda surprised. So when philosophers come in, look at psychological literature. Was it more like they were reacting to the maybe hysteria is too strong of a word, but reacting to psychologists, reactions to the situationist challenge or were they actually, you know, kinda sitting down and wrestling with the literature, looking through it and being like, well yeah, we actually have come to the conclusion that the situation seems to be more influential than character traits.

Christian: 00:15:03 Yeah. So I, I can't speak for for people who were early on engaging in this in philosophy as to what, what they were doing. But my sense is they, they were spending time reading the actual studies. So there were, they were reading Milgram his work, they were reading Darley and Batson's original paper. They were reading the bystander effect studies from the late sixties. Another study that's often cited Isen and Levin's work on mood and helping. So where for example, finding a coin or not in a coin return slot of a payphone made a big difference to subsequent helping to pick up drop papers or not. So they were, they was, it wasn't just I'm reading some kind of surface level overviews of this movement historically, and then running with that. Oh, it was like, let me track down Isen and Levin's paper and go through the results myself and then see what I make of it.

Christian: 00:16:11 Uh the the, the key question is in my mind, well, what do we make of it? And philosophers at this point have kind of parted ways. So they, they, they all read the studies, but then they have kind of different interpretations, of what the implications should be or what the implications are for ethics and morality. So some people take it in a quite a skeptical direction about lack of character. Others not as skeptical. And I see room for the existence of character traits, even of a traditional kind of like virtues and vices. So it's more of interpreting the data rather than not being familiar with it.

Amber: 00:17:01 Yeah. So that, I mean, that's, that's what I was gonna ask you about. Let's jump into what those reactions were in more depth. So it sounds like philosophers were also under the assumption that this idea of character existed in the first place and that that served as sort of the baseline and situationist concerns were sort of a surprise. Is that, is that fair?

Christian: 00:17:27 That's fair. Okay. So, so I mean, that's right. So here's how I would kind of briefly summarize how some of this goes. The the, it's first important to think about what kind of character traits we're looking at here. So we're looking at traditional virtues and vices, like honesty, compassion, and so forth. And the key feature of these character traits that's at issue is cross situational consistency. So we would expect an honest person to be reliably honest, not just over time in the same situations, but across situations. So in the courtroom, at home, at the party, at the office and so forth. That same thing with a compassionate person. That compassionate person doesn't just help you know, at the supermarket, but also helps set a number of other situations which arise in life. And so the debate has not been about whether character in general exists or not. Even the most skeptical critics are willing to acknowledge the existence of some character traits or other, and I can say what those are in a moment. It's the debate has been about whether these traditional cross situationally consistent virtues and vices are present in the population. So to give you a contrast even the most skeptical, let's say, situationist, philosophers are willing to accept something like honesty just in the courtroom.

Christian: 00:19:03 So except that, that that exists or courage just on the boat or compassion just in the shopping mall. Now that's not at all how people ordinarily think of those virtues as not also not how, you know, philosophers traditionally like Aristotle and Plato would think of the virtues. These are, these are called local traits, local to specific situations. And so even though most skeptical situationist philosophers were okay with that, the debate has centered just on instead on these quote unquote global character traits where the global has to do with cross situational consistency. And that's important because these are the, it's not like this is, I'm like esoteric or irrelevant discussion. Those are the character traits that inform, ordinary thinking. They've informed the philosophical discussions in the past. And they're central to a leading view and ethics called virtue ethics, which I can unpack in a moment if you like.

Christian: 00:20:08 So it's, it's a support to see that. So on the one hand you have this, the situation is philosophers, and I'll say the best reading of the data suggests that most people do not have global character traits. And on the other hand you'll have some people who are just more optimistic. They'll say, ah, well the data is either ambiguous or doesn't clearly decide one way or the other or is compatible with the possession of global character traits. So hopefully that's kind of frames that the main elements.

Amber: 00:20:44 Yeah. So how have those views evolved over time or are they largely, is there any nuance within even those two broad categories?

Christian: 00:20:55 Yes. so I I think there are a different, some different positions you could now kind of nuance or, or delineate. And this is been something that's evolved in the last, so the, this really got going at the turn of the century. So in the last 10 years or so, I think we've seen some more nuance positions emerge. One one, one way to go is just to say, ah, yup, situationist philosophers are right global character traits are very rare. Almost no one possesses them or maybe no one possesses him another position. You could take this to say moral virtues are widespread. So despite the evidence from situationist psychology and from the situationist philosophers, no, actually the best view empirically is that most people have the moral virtues to some extent or other. A third position you could take is that no, it's, it's a, it's the opposite.

Christian: 00:22:03 They're global character traits exist and are widespread with their devices. So we're, the best interpretation of the is one according to which most people have the traditional vices, like cowardice or cruelty. And then there's a fourth position, which I'm a little biased cause it's my position. So I think, I think it's the best position. And this one's a little bit mate might take a little while to get to wrap our minds around, but it says global traits exists. People do have moral character traits, which are cross situationally consistent. They're not virtues and they're not vices. They're what I call mixed character traits. But there are, in a nutshell, our character is very much a mixed bag. In some situations we'll act well in other situations will act poorly. We're not good enough typically to count as virtuous. We're also not bad enough to count as suspicious. Nevertheless, we still have a stable and consistent character, which is mixed. So that you can still make predictions. You can still explain people's behavior using mixed character traits. So these are real things. They're important. They're explanatory on predictive but there are not moral virtues. They're not moral vices and yet they're still cross situationally consistent global trace. So there's a lot,

Amber: 00:23:42 Sorry. Yeah, no, no, no, no. This is great. So are these mixed traits? Just like earlier we were distinguishing between like, okay, this is a moral characteristic. This is a, you know, aesthetic characteristic. This is a performance characteristic. Are mixed traits simply amoral traits?

Christian: 00:24:05 No, no. If only it was that easy. Now it's they are moral traits too. They're just another kind of character traits that we have not paid much attention to. So I think at this point it might be helpful to give a real specific illustration. Yeah. So to keep it make a little bit more tangible. So here's a it'll be a little bit of a segue, but you'll see where, where I'm going eventually. Here's a study from the 1990s, which I like to use a lot. It's by a psychologist named Robert Barron. And it had to do with helping in shopping malls. You had a control. So no one knew if they were part of a study until the end when they were debriefed. These were just ordinary shoppers going about their business in the mall. The control subjects ended up being those who had walked past clothing stores, then they were approached to make change for a dollar.

Christian: 00:25:06 So a simple helping task and at about 15 to 20% of them ended up doing it. Okay. The experimental participants, although they didn't know they were part of an experiment, experiment participants were those who instead in the same shopping mall, different people, but in the same shopping mall had walk past Mrs. Fields, cookies or cinnabun, right? So they they didn't stop and buy anything. They just walk past it and experience the fragrance. That group about 65% ended up helping on the exact same helping task. So you've got about about a 40% difference in helping. It's huge. So what, why do I mention that? How's that relevant on a mixed character? Well, so I want to know what's an explanatory story? Why, what's it, what's, what's, what's responsible for that effect? And we don't know this for sure, but at least one plausible explanatory story appeals to the role of mood maintenance.

Christian: 00:26:05 So the smell put the participants in a good mood that activate a desire to maintain the good mood. And then low and behold, a few minutes later it comes an opportunity to help, which could be seen as a way to maintain the good mood. So let me switch out of psychology for a moment. Go into ethics. When I think about that, that is the true account and it may not be, but if it's the true account of what's going on there, when I think to myself, well that's kind of a mixed bag. On one hand these people are helping. That's great. So they're helping, it's better to help than not help. On the other hand, their motivation is not the best. It's not the most admirable or virtuous kind of motivation to be helping someone primarily in order to maintain your own good mood. So this is an example of a kind of mixed bag, a mix, a mixed character.

Christian: 00:27:00 And why do I say it's mixed character an element of our character? Well, it's not limited just to shopping malls. Presumably the desire to maintain a good mood is going to be something that could be relevant to lots of different situations, whether it's shopping malls or not whether it's helping a chain change for a dollar or not. And so it's going to have a impact on behavior that's cross situational and it could lead me to help and lots of different situations where I see helping as an opportunity to maintain my good mood. Or that's the mall, whether that's the office, whether that's at home or on the cruise ship, wherever it might be. So I get a pattern of helping behavior that's cross situationally consistent. Oh, that looks like the virtue, but wait a minute. No, no, no, no, no. When I look deeper and I look at the underlying motivation, it's crummy.

Christian: 00:28:03 That's crummy motivation, a self-interested motivation. And so we don't get a virtue. We don't get vice either though. It's helping, you're helping, it's great or it's not, it's not vicious. But again, it's not for the right reasons. So that's just meant to be a specific illustration of how our character actually is cross situationally consistent, but in a way, in a way that's not very morally admirable in a way that you expect a virtuous person to be. And then from there you can just like, I kind of give lots and lots of examples and my research, you can actually use Milgram in this context. Talk about Xarelto Bay authorities, you can use bystander effect. We'll talk about our desire to avoid embarrassing ourselves in front of others. So this kind of pattern that I see of mixed character is all over the place in the psychology literature.

Amber: 00:28:55 So let me see if I can let me see if I understand correctly. So because I, I'm so used to thinking of things in terms of virtue advice. So because the, the underlying motivation for the, this mixed bag is not a particularly moral or nonmoral motivation. It leads to manifesting in moral or less moral ways depending upon this specific circumstances of how that motivation is going to interact with the situation at hand.

Christian: 00:29:35 Good. That's, that's a good way to put it. So the, the background assumption here is that in order to be a virtuous person is not enough just to display a certain pattern of behavior that's necessary. And I want to downplay that at all. If we're talking about traditional virtues, you have to be cross situationally consistent in your virtuous behavior. However, that's only one part of the story. I'm an Aristotelian about this. So following Aristotle I think motivation has to be part of the story too. And so good behavior but crappy motivation is going to be lack of virtue. And so what, you know, if I ask the question of well what is a good motivation? And that's that's a big story and maybe you touched on that with, with Dan Batson as well cause he's one of my heroes when it comes to talking about moral motivation.

Christian: 00:30:30 But you know, broadly speaking for my, my way of thinking, you have a self interested in motivation is going to be off the table. If you're doing good things but primarily for self-interested motives, then that doesn't count as virtuous. And we, and then we have to look, well what is on the table. And there, there are two candidates I think that are out there and Batson I think when we largely agree, one is dutiful motivation. So it's because my, it's been my duty or I have to do it. I'm required, I have an obligation that's impersonal, very impersonal motivation. The third alternative is altruistic motivation, selfless motivation for the good of the other person, irrespective of whether I benefit or not. Right. And so those are where we would look and we could, you know, go into deeper if that, if you like for particular virtues like compassion, honesty, that's where I would look.

Amber: 00:31:28 Have you have you read his book? What's wrong with morality or what's wrong with our morals? Something like that.

Christian: 00:31:36 I've read that I have not studied as closely as I've studied his earlier book, Altruism in humans, which is one of my probably top three most favorite books in psychology, but I have read,

Amber: 00:31:46 Wow. Oh, I'll have to read that one then. Yeah, no, I, I haven't read the book myself, but, but from talking to Dan and hearing what you're saying, it seems like he would probably agree with your mixed bag conception of morality as like, okay, well this is something that, you know, a, a persons that basically morals, having morals doesn't necessarily guarantee doing the right behaviors and that we can see all these atrocities taking place from it.

Christian: 00:32:19 Right. Yeah. So clearly just cognitive, cognitively knowing the right thing is nowhere near sufficient. So I do believe, you know, most people know what the morally right thing to do is at least in some intellectual abstract sense, but there is a bit of gap between that and action and in two things. First appropriate motivation and secondly, cross situation and consistent behavior. Yeah.

Amber: 00:32:49 So what do you make of personally as the mixed bag guy, what do you make of moral exemplars?

Christian: 00:32:57 Yeah, yeah, go ahead. So my view to say it a little bit more precisely is that most people, and maybe maybe we have to say most people in the West because so some of the studies are done with Western participants and maybe we have say more precisely, most people in recent years, since we don't have studies going back hundreds of years, most people in recent years in the West seem to exhibits a mixed character. Now, I start there in answering the question because I want to highlight the word most. I think it's a bell curve with some outliers on each end. So you're gonna have your moral exemplars on, well, like you could even say moral exemplars of both kinds. You have your positive moral exemplars and you have negative moral exemplars. So positive. On the one hand, you know, for honesty, maybe it's Abraham Lincoln for courage, maybe it's Harriet Tubman. On the negative side, negative exemplars. You have your Hitler's and your Stalins. So I think absolutely I want to acknowledge the existence of such people. I also wanna say that even in air case, it's not like they had perfect moral character. Everyone has some flaws and some shortcomings, but they were heck of a lot better than most of us. Myself, I'll, I'll speak in my own case. Heck a lot better. And so they exist empirically.

Amber: 00:34:22 Well, at least at least the, a positive exemplars are, I have a feeling you're not as bad as Hitler.

Christian: 00:34:33 Yeah, thank you for the clarification. And then so then, that on empirical grounds, I'm comfortable and confident that they exist. And then there's a second way in which I'm, I'm really intrigued by exemplars, which is how they can be helpful for character improvement. Hmm. So, you know, it's one thing just to diagnose, okay, this is how we are today. And there's another thing, well, can we get better if we have this mixed character, are we kind of stuck with it? Or are there actual concrete steps we can take to improve our character? Yeah. And one strategy I spend a lot of time thinking about and writing about is actually looking to exemplars to help us become better people.

Amber: 00:35:16 Yeah. But, but I mean, how, how, so maybe the next question is just like, how, what have you found in looking at exemplars to be strategies for helping us become better people?

Christian: 00:35:28 Yeah. So I, I, this is kind of newer research for me this in the last few years and this is kind of also symptomatic of how things are going in philosophy. The situation is debate in philosophy is getting a little stale and a little I don't know burned out at the moment. And, but, but as often happens, new new avenues open up for exploration. And one of the, I think most active and interesting new avenue that's come up or relatively new avenue is character improvement. Let's just not spend our time arguing about what we actually like about what, what can philosophers contribute to this discussion of how to become better people? And so about lines several strategies one of which is exemplars. And there I would say the, the, the idea is this we look to exemplars and there are different kinds of exemplars.

Christian: 00:36:28 There are historical exemplars. They're contemporary exemplars. There are real exemplars, are also fictional exemplars. And in works of fiction, there are kind of distant exemplars who are so much better than we are. And there are more relatable exemplars. But if in particular, in the case of contemporary, relatable exemplars they can have a significant impact on our moral thinking and emotions along the following lines. So w we tend to admire first of all, such exemplars. So I might admire the work that Paul Farmer is doing in Haiti helping people who don't have much opportunity for medical care. I admire the work that Abraham Lincoln did and being honest under all kinds of temptations to be dishonest. But then admiration is not enough. It's admiration followed by emulation. Every, an emotional response. What Haidt would characterize his elevation to bring my character and who I am more in line with the character of the exemplar.

Christian: 00:37:43 Cause I could just admire someone from a distance and not, haven't had much impact on me. You're not gonna admire how well the gymnastics team did in the Olympics, but I'm not really moving, moving towards the you know, training in gymnastics. But it's a twofold process. Admiration followed by emulation whereby I'm emotionally, not just cognitively, but emotionally inspired and moved to change my life, to have it better reflect the life of the exemplar, bring my character up to the exemplars level if I can, I'll try to work towards that rather than bringing the exemplars character down to my level. Yeah.

Amber: 00:38:18 But I, I guess I, cause it seems like in order to do that in the first place is to suppose that people have a less, well, maybe I'm wrong. It seems like in order to do that, in order to shape one's toward these things and keeping consistent behavior across different settings as a goal would require once I have character in the first place, such that you want to keep your character stable across these different contexts. Yes.

Christian: 00:38:51 Good good, Yeah. Yep. And so for this strategy and for all the other ones, I've also thought of there's a limit to how effective they could be. So for, for psychopaths, for example, you know, it's just not even worth going there. For people who are vicious, who have already formed their character so much over time in a, in a, in a bad or even evil direction, there's you know, it's, there's only so much that can be done. I'm not saying it's hopeless. I think there's character change as possible even in those cases, but only so much can be expected. And I'm thinking of here are these, these mixed character individuals like myself where, you know people tend to have moral beliefs to think certain things are right and wrong and, and you know, often have good moral beliefs and are interested in morality and want to some extent to become a good person. And they also want, want lots of other things in life too. Yeah. So they want to pursue their self interest. And I can take many, many forms as well. So that, that's who I'm really interested in and, and, and targeting. Okay.

Amber: 00:40:09 And, and I'm sorry I'm, maybe I'm beating a dead horse here, but backing up also to just the idea of the exemplar in general. It's not that you think that exemplars aren't a mixed bag, right? I, I'm assuming you're operating from the assumption that everybody is a mixed bag, but somehow exemplars have particularly positive exemplars have habituated to the more positive aspects of that mixed bag.

Christian: 00:40:41 Yeah. So this is where it might be a different disciplinary difference. I have noticed many times when talking to psychologists because philosophers tend to work with thresholds whereas psychologists when it comes to character and personality more generally don't tend to work with thresholds. But that, I mean when philosophers tend to think about say, say that the spectrum of of matters of lying and cheating, where are people on the spectrum when it comes to line? They'll tend to have kind of carve up the spectrum and they'll say, ah, over here on the, on the left hand side, that's an honest person. And then there's going to be a kind of threshold requirements you have to meet in order to count as an honest person. And over here on the right hand side are the dishonest people. There are certain threshold requirements that you have to meet to count as a dishonest person.

Christian: 00:41:42 So we were thinking of these as kind of categorical traits as do you use the psychologist like lingo or clot ways to classify people. That's, that's the way philosophers are often working here. And so I'm adopting that framer too. Now to answer your question more directly I'm thinking this bell curve I have in my mind, I think of the bell curve. Most people are in this middle ground. This middle territory w a mixed character. I'm classifying them that way. And I think, okay, on the outliers, I've got a classification for the people on the left that's virtuous. Or in this example honest I've got a classification for people on the right end of the, of the bell curve to those, the dishonest ones. And so when we talked about the exemplars I think someone like Lincoln, well, he, his character actually made it across the threshold. He, we could, we could classify him no longer as mixed when it comes to honesty, but actually as virtuous, he has the virtue of honesty as Stalin and Hitler. Well they actually made across the threshold too. It's just the other, the other threshold for cruelty in their case. So this is something I run into again, again, I'm sorry if it's confusing for psychology listeners but it's, it's a really actually a big disciplinary divide that where we, we, we, we run into trouble.

Amber: 00:43:14 And so, um, just, I want to direct the conversation back to some of these strategies. So you had mentioned that sort of trying to emulate these exemplars might be one strategy. What are some of the other ones?

Christian: 00:43:24 Yeah. so I'll mention them and these are strategies, which I wouldn't say are kind of, they sound good to me as a philosopher. And I see other philosophers and people who think about character putting them forward as well, but they all need a lot more rigorous empirical testing. So I'm not putting it forward or anything, which I would feel really confident about on empirical grounds. Unfortunately, the empirical testing is needed, I think, or the best kind is also a really difficult kind of kind to do, which is going to be longitudinal studies where you're going to have an experimental group and you're gonna have a control group and you know, the experimental group gets the the particular strategy. And then, you know, periodically, we check over time a week later, a month later or a year later to see using some good measure of, of character, some good assessments technique, whether the strategy is actually effective or not.

Christian: 00:44:20 But a last, we don't have those studies, so so take this for what it with a grain of salt or that way. So a second idea would be the importance of moral reminders. So it's easy throughout daily life to get sidetracked by something that's tempting or something that's conducive to our self interest. And the nice thing about moral reminders is that they can help get our perspective back on track when it comes to what really matters, being a good person, doing the right thing. So some ordinary examples and then I'll mention study as well, some ordinary examples would be things like starting each day with a certain reading. That's ethically relevance. Or getting text messages on your phone, a certain or emails which have more reminders as part of them are people wear jewelry, bracelets, or, even tattoos which can serve that purpose.

Christian: 00:45:23 There's a study I'd like to mention in this context. I'm trying, we'll get into all the details unless you want to do. But the upshot of it is participants in a control situation had no opportunity to cheat that they took a test, they got about seven problems correct on a test. Is different participants in a taking the same test. You had an opportunity to cheat. They could report whatever number of correct problems. They wanted no questions asked. Oh, and by the way, there's a monetary incentive of 50 cents per correct, right answer. They tend to achieve a fair mouse in, in one version it was 14, quote unquote problems answered correct correctly in this in this version. But in a third version where the participants are different participants again sign their university's honor code first pledging that their honor then took the test, same monetary incentive and have the same opportunity to cheat, no questions asked to get away with it.

Christian: 00:46:31 No chance of detection. The the reported average score went back down to the control level.

Amber: 00:46:39 Yeah. Is that Dan Aierly's work?

Christian: 00:46:43 And colleagues, yes. A group of people. There's they kind of they, they're kind of Gino and Shu and a bunch of others tend to tend to write a lot together. And this is they're variations of this. So, for example, there's a, when I got a lot of attention where it was recall as many of the 10 commandments as you can, it's gonna have the honor code and the same effect was observed in the initial study. Unfortunately, that just failed to replicate. So that's but as we got a lot of attention at the time, decided all over the place, but it a big attempted replication just, just failed. So so, you know, my, my only point in bringing that up as a, as an illustration, our more reminder in this case, the honor code helps people get back on track and thinking about morality.

Christian: 00:47:36 And then lo and behold later on there was, there was little to no cheating. Yeah. So that would be a second strategy that I would put forward. The first one be exemplars. Second would be moral reminders. And then a third one I call. And there, there are others, but I'll, I'll try to keep it brief. I'll I call it getting the word out which is my own label for just improved self awareness and self understanding because what I see in a lot of the studies in psychology is good evidence of psychological influences on behavior that we don't even know are there. Or at least we're not aware of the extent to which they're influencing our behavior. Maybe they're unconscious or maybe they're conscious, but we don't pay enough attention to them. So things like the power of a desire to obey authority figures.

Christian: 00:48:40 You know, Milgram showed us a lot about that, which we didn't appreciate beforehand. The power of a desire to not embarrass ourselves. A fear of embarrassment.The bystander effect and group effect literature tells us a lot about that. And the power of helping others so as to maintain a good mood example from earlier, not as maybe as important, but just as another illustration. So that the idea here is that if we can gain some greater familiarity with these underlying psychological influences on our behavior, then we can also work to curb them, correct them, adjust them, work against them if they're going to lead us to do something bad. And so that's why I mean, I'm not saying go out and gets, you know, all the latest issues of a journal personality or something like that, or JPSP or something and start reading the latest studies.

Christian: 00:49:38 And that's not, that's not realistic. But there are other ways to find out about this that where the studies and the results have been transmitted. I kind of are are filtering down into the society at large where, you know, such that next time I'm in a group of people and no one's helping. And initially I'm holding back too. I'm, I'm reticent to help. I might remember, wait a minute, I have no good reason for not helping. Why I'm hesitating is probably because I'm a fear of, I'm afraid of embarrassing myself and that's not a good enough reason.

Amber: 00:50:12 Yeah, it's, it's interesting how much it seems like just having that knowledge really can change your tendency to act like, I wonder how many people have started to intervene and, you know, unfolding muggings or something after learning about kitty Genovese and all of that.

Christian: 00:50:32 Right. So there was a study from 1978 that, unfortunately this is from 1978 so it's a long time ago and it hasn't been replicated, but at least I'll just throw it out as one small piece of empirical data where they had a students attend a lecture on the group effect. Then two weeks later those students confronted a rigged emergency. They didn't know it was rigged, but it was, you know, they kind of set up where there was an emergency going on and there were bystanders who were not helping. And so the results they reported this is beam in at all 1978 was something it'll quote me on, or I guess you're going to quote me recording something along the lines of roughly 42% helped versus 25% of controls helping.

Amber: 00:51:26 Yeah. Wow, that's really cool. Yeah, it is something, it makes us helpful that psychology's maybe capable of doing good in the world. So as you've been talking about the stuff, especially earlier on in the conversation, it got me thinking about social media and big tech at large because I think that one of the kind of uncomfortable aspects of social media is that you really are held accountable to some degree for having the same character across a bunch of different situations. So, you know, whereas people might be willing to post something that they would naturally tell one small part of their social circle when they start to post on Facebook or Twitter or wherever it goes everywhere. And it starts to bleed, you know, boundaries between how you act at home, how you act at work, how you act at your church or what, what have you.

Amber: 00:52:31 Right. And I think it makes kind of this uncomfortable tension that people like Mark Zuckerberg didn't fully appreciate when they first started. I think they might've been operating again out of sort of that character assumption that people are the same across these settings. Or the assumption that people ought to be the same across these social settings, which is another, you know, assumption that I think hasn't even really been addressed with situation is I'm at least not that I'm aware of and that's probably because it's been discussed in terms of morality primarily. But it's not, I'm just thinking out loud here, but it's not necessarily the case that for sort of amoral concerns that you necessarily want to behave the same way stable he from situation to situation.

Christian: 00:53:25 Right, right, right. So, yeah, I, I actually had not thought about the connection of social media that you just outlined. I, so I think I would really want to think about that more. My, I have two initial thoughts. One is I think you're right about that presenting yourself in a certain way across platforms and in a consistent way that's, there's more emphasis on that perhaps than in the past. I wonder how much of that presentation though, is authentic. So if that's really your true self you're presenting or a kind of persona that you're crafting to make yourself, not you personally, no offense of course, but well one is one is presenting a kind of projected character that you want other people to think that you have or to see you as having which may or may not have much relationship to your actual character.

Christian: 00:54:20 So then there's that. And I, I think you're comparing what people say when they have their name attached to a comment or to a post versus what they say when they can anonymously post would be quite revealing. On the, on the broader point about the should have consistency, should we always aim to be consistent across situations? I think there is this a yes and a no answer to that. So a virtuous person should be consistently virtuous across situations and honest person should be honest in the courtroom classroom, etc. But what that looks like will have to be very nuanced. So it sometimes it's like understood in a very flatfooted way that they, you know, they have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You know, in all these situations without any kind of sensitivity to what's going on or they have to switch examples, be compassionate.

Christian: 00:55:22 They have to, you know, donate the exactly the same match to all these different causes or help helping exactly say why no life is way more complicated and nuanced and rich than that. So what my helping book might look like to someone who's asking for money outside of the supermarket might look very different than what my helping might look like for a student who's coming to me to better understand the material for class a, it needs to be sensitive to the particularities of the situation and of the individuals we're interacting with in those situations.

Amber: 00:55:56 Yeah, I think that's kind of the kind of the spirit of, of why maybe virtue ethicists are particularly disturbed by situationism because you know, like Kant, that was one of the things with contract with, Oh well would you, why to a Nazi when you're harboring Jews? Well, of course you would if you were going to say that you were moral and you know, in, you are still upholding certain ethical principles across a situation even though it might not manifest as telling the truth in that specific environment. But I was also, I guess making a larger point about just nonmoral considerations altogether. So take something like extroverted, the trait of extroversion. It's not, I think it would be potentially a bad thing if there was no situational effect on a person's level of extroversion. It's not clear to me that that's very adaptive, both just socially as well as evolutionarily. It's not clear to me that that is necessarily a bad thing. So I think that could help explain my situationism particularly troubling for scholars of morality as opposed to scholars of you know, performance traits and things.

Christian: 00:57:35 Yeah. So that, there's lots of to unpack there. I I, I think you're right. I mean in the old psychology debates as far as I understand it. The person situation debate, the personality traits that were often discussed were these situation variants or situation free traits. Were, were the details of the situation where it's supposed to matter much to the manifestation of the trades. Or at least that's one way to understand what that means. I, I'm not myself interested in those kind of traits. And it would be very surprising if there w I frankly, if there were such, such traits as you said the, but I've always been interested in our character traits, which are highly sensitive to the situations and which if their virtues are going to respond appropriately to the facts of the situation.

Christian: 00:58:34 So to tie that back to the, the account example I'm not so interested in, in a approach to morality, which involves simple rules like right Kant, you know, famously said, lying is always wrong in, in an essay called on the supposed morality. The right to, to lie. That's to me not very helpful and it kind of has more nuance than that anyway. What I think is better is to think of a position which involves character traits like virtues which take into account. Okay. In this particular situation there's questions about there's an opportunity to lie or tell the truth in the Nazi at the door or in Kant's example, the ax murder at the door. Well, there's also, we have to keep in mind there is in person in the basement who I'm protecting. And so given the complexities of this particular situation, which may not you know, carry over to lots of other situations, I need to weigh both the value of telling the truth alongside the value of protecting an innocent life. So my, the virtue of honesty needs to be weighed alongside the virtue of compassion and from a virtue ethical perspective that would involve practical, practical wisdom assessing which is more important and coming to the conclusion that, well in this case, compassion is going to outweigh honesty. Yeah. And so the right thing to do, all things considered is to lie to the Nazi at the door.

Amber: 01:00:07 Yeah. And so with that as kind of our, our last sort of topic in closing, it sounded like you didn't necessarily identify as a virtue ethicist because of this mixed bag view. And maybe I'm wrong on that. So this is a good place for you to correct me if I'm wrong on that. Is wisdom itself a mixed bag or is that a stable trait?

Christian: 01:00:40 Yep. Yup. Good. so wisdom is one of the virtues as well. It's in Aristotle's way of that gets maybe the most important or foundational virtue. So I would say that it's, it's a virtue. It's not a mixed trait. Because I have this way of thinking where we've got categories and thresholds and taxonomies and this kind of thing. So it's separate from I mixed trades as something that we should aspire towards. We should all be working towards acquiring wisdom alongside of the other virtues. The broader point about virtue ethics, I think we want to keep in mind the difference between the facts as they actually are and then what we should be doing and what's good and valuable. So virtue ethics is talking about the life that we should be living. It's quite compatible with being a virtue ethicist that you think that most people don't actually have the virtues.

Christian: 01:01:36 In fact, Aristotle thought that himself or saw thought. Most people do not have the virtues do not possess that their characters not good enough to count as honest or compassionate. And so in that sense, Aristotle would agree with some of the things that are coming out of situationism in terms of lack of traditional virtues, the key thing is not how we actually are, is how we should be. So, given that we're, we're falling short, we should strive to become better over the course of our lives and work towards changing our characters and society can help us and other friends can help us in other others sources, resources. It can help us so that our character moves from being mixed to becoming virtuous. Yeah.

Amber: 01:02:21 Awesome. Well thank you so much Christian.

Christian: 01:02:24 It was great to be with you today. Thanks so much for all the great questions.

Amber: 01:02:28 I had a lot of fun and I appreciate it. I'm going to have to sit and chew on this idea of the mixed bag cause it's definitely new to me. What, what paper would you recommend to me to go and read to learn more?

Christian: 01:02:45 Well I had papers harder. So I've booked my, like it depends on how much time you have. So so I've got two recommendations books at least. If it's for a if we're talking about for non academic audience, then I recommend the most recent book called the character gap. How good are we? Which came out with Oxford in 2017 for, for those who really want to dive into the nitty gritty details, either psychologists or philosophers with a lot of citations and studies and all that kind of thing. Then I would say my 2013 book more character and empirical theory.

Amber: 01:03:29 Great. Well, thank you.

Outro: 01:03:38 Thanks for listening. If you have questions, comments, suggestions, or requests, contact me at The Moral Science Podcast is sponsored by ERA INC a research and design think tank that's reinventing how people interact with each other. Music throughout the program is Microobee by Keinzweiter and can be found at free music


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