What is the role of character in action?


I’ve been seriously interested in the question of character since being invited to contribute to a volume on the subject a few years ago. That volume, Questions of Character, has now appeared in print, and it is an excellent and engaging contribution. Iskra Fileva was the director of the project and is the editor of the volume, and she did an excellent job in selecting topics and authors. She also wrote an introduction to the volume and introductions to all five parts of the collection. It would be possible to look at Fileva’s introductions collectively as a very short book on character by themselves.

So what is “character”? To start, it is a concept of the actor that draws our attention to enduring characteristics of moral and practical propensities, rather than focusing on the moment of choice and the criteria recommended by the ethicist on the basis of which to make choices. Second, it is an idea largely associated with the “virtue” ethics of Aristotle. The other large traditions in the history of ethics — utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, or consequentialist and deontological theories — have relatively little to say about character, focusing instead on action, rules, and moral reasoning. And third, it is distinguished from other moral ideas by its close affinity to psychology as well as philosophy. It has to do with the explanation of the behavior of ordinary people, not just philosophical ideas about how people ought to behave.

This is a fundamentally important question for anyone interested in formulating a theory of the actor. To hold that human beings sometimes have “character” is to say that they have enduring features of agency that sometimes drive their actions in ways that override the immediate calculation of costs and benefits, or the immediate satisfaction of preferences. For example, a person might have the virtues of honesty, courage, or fidelity — leading him or her to tell the truth, resist adversity, or keep commitments and promises, even when there is an advantage to be gained by doing the contrary. Or conceivably a person might have vices — dishonesty, cruelty, egotism — that lead him or her to act accordingly — sometimes against personal advantage.

Questions of Character is organized into five major sets of topics: ethical considerations, moral psychology, empirical psychology, social and historical considerations, and art and taste. Fileva has done an excellent job of soliciting provocative essays and situating them within a broader context. Part I includes innovative discussions of how the concept of character plays out in Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. Part II considers different aspects of the problem of self-control and autonomy. Part III examines the experimental literature on behavior in challenging situations (for example, the Milgram experiment), and whether these results demonstrate that human actors are not guided by enduring virtues. Part IV examines the intersection between character and large social settings, including history, the market, and the justice system. And Part V considers the role of character in literature and the arts, including the interesting notion that characters in novels become emblems of the character traits they display.

The most fundamental question raised in this volume is this: what is the role of character in human action? How, if at all, do embodied traits, virtues and vices, or personal commitments influence the actions that we take in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances? And the most intriguing challenge raised here is one that casts doubt on the very notion of character: “there are no enduring behavioral dispositions inside a person that warrant the label ‘character’.” Instead, all action is opportunistic and in the moment. Action is “situational” (John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior; Ross and Nisbett, The Person and the Situation). On this approach, what we call “character” and “virtue” is epiphenomenal; action is guided by factors more fundamental than these.

My own contribution focuses on the ways in which character may be shaped by historical circumstances. Fundamentally I argue that growing up during the Great Depression, the Jim Crow South, or the Chinese Revolution potentially cultivates fairly specific features of mentality in the people who had these formative experiences. The cohort itself has a common (though not universal) character that differs from that of people in other historical periods. As a consequence people in those cohorts commonly behave differently from people in other cohorts when confronted with roughly similar action situations. So character is both historically shaped and historically important. Much of my argument was worked out in a series of posts here in Understanding Society.

This project is successful in its own terms; the contributors have created a body of very interesting discussion and commentary on an important element of human conduct. The volume is distinctly different from other collections in moral psychology or the field of morality and action. But the project is successful in another way as well. Fileva and her colleagues succeeded in drawing together a novel intellectual configuration of scholars from numerous disciplines to engage in a genuinely trans-disciplinary research collaboration. Through several academic conferences (one of which I participated in), through excellent curatorial and editorial work by Fileva herself, and through the openness of all the collaborators to listen with understanding to the perspectives of researchers in other disciplines, the project succeeded in demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary collaboration in shedding light on an important topic. I believe we understand better the intriguing complexities of actors and action as a result of the work presented in Questions of Character.

(Here is a series of posts on the topic of character; link.)

Historicizing social action

Khmer rouge soldier

It is self evident that people are influenced by the historical circumstances in which they are raised and live. People are historicized as actors. The hard question is, how deep does that influence go?

When we consider the mental features that are invoked within the process of interpreting and acting within the world, there is certainly a range of capacities and functions at work, and there are some important differences of level that exist among these. Some of these features are more superficial than others. Take beliefs. If a person is raised in a culture in a cold climate he or she will have more beliefs having to do with snow than counterparts at the equator. A person raised in a highly racialized society will have different beliefs about other people than one raised in a more racially tolerant society. Likewise the norms of interpersonal behavior differ across settings; here too it appears that this mental feature is a fairly superficial one. Beliefs and norms seem particularly close to the surface when it comes to the features of the actor that respond to social and cultural context. Are there historical effects that go deeper into the actor — effects that show up as differences in basic ways of thinking and acting?

Values may be a little deeper, given that they have to do with the goals that people have in their actions and plans. One person sets a high value on the wellbeing of his or her family; another is primarily interested in material and financial success for himself or herself. Expectations and habits seem even deeper in the sense that they are only semi-conscious; they are features of the social cognition mechanism that generally work at a level that is invisible to the individual.

And what about character? We might think of a person’s character as the most enduring features of action and reaction; character has to do with the most fundamental aspects of the personality when it comes to making life choices. One person displays loyalty; another displays a commitment to the idea of fairness; and a third shows a basic lack of trust of others. These are differences in character. This seems like the most basic or fundamental of the mental attributes that influence interpretation and action. But like other features of practical cognition considered here, this attribute too seems historically malleable.

If this informal hierarchy of the furniture of the actor seems at all plausible, then we have essentially postulated an onion-like ordering of features of practical cognition (the thought processes and heuristics through which an individual processes his/her current situation and the actions that may seem appropriate). Here is a diagram that captures this rough hierarchy:

 Screenshot 2014 12 06 15 27 35

And the problem of historicized mentality comes down to this: how far down the onion does the effect of cultural and social context extend?

There is an analogy to this question in Chomsky’s linguistics. The superficial part of grammar is the specific set of rules that apply to one’s local language — French, Swahili, or Cajun. This feature of linguistic performance is plainly context-dependent. But Chomsky maintained that this superficial plasticity exists on top of a universal underlying grammar capacity that every human being possesses from birth. The universal grammar — essentially the capacity to learn and execute the rules of the language one hears around oneself as a child — is a constant and is not affected by context.

If we were Chomskian about action and behavior, we might take the view that there is a constant human nature at the center of the onion, which allows for the formation of the more superficial kinds of differences in action that we acquire through experience of particular times and places. And we might attempt to reconstruct this fundamental set of capacities by trying to answer the question, “What capacities must a human being have in order to acquire character, habits, expectations, values, norms, and beliefs?”.

Presumably this is a legitimate question, since there are non-human organisms that lack the ability to form some of these features. But what that implies to me is that it is possible to push the inquiry below the level of the features of human action that we have identified to this point, and that at some point we should expect to arrive at a situation of neurocognitive invariance.

But here is the crucial point: it appears to me that all the capacities identified on the diagram are themselves socially and culturally malleable. Historical circumstances certainly affect the beliefs and norms that an adult has within those circumstances; but they also affect the habits and character of the individual as well. And this means that human mentality is deeply historicized. Very fundamental features of the ways that we understand and react to the world are shaped by the cultures, institutions, and extended historical experiences that we undergo as children and adults. And this is true of the features of character that we bring to life’s decisions as much as the beliefs and values we have acquired through earlier experiences.

The image of the Khmer Rouge cadre above poses quite a number of relevant questions, and most pressing is this one: How was this generation of Cambodian young people shaped such that they were amenable to the murderous emotions, compliance, and actions illustrated in the photo?

Lack of character?

image: Stanford prison experiment

John Doris argues in Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior that the basic theory of action associated with virtue ethics and the theory of moral character is most likely incorrect. The character theory maintains that individuals have stable traits that lead them to behave similarly in a range of relevant but differing circumstances. A person with the traits of honesty or compassion will behave truthfully or benevolently in a range of circumstances, when it is easy to do so and when it is more difficult.

Situationism is the competing view that maintains that people’s actions are more sensitive to features of the situation of action than to enduring underlying traits. Doris largely endorses situationism — for example, he cites experiments showing that subjects make different choices when confronted with a situation of a need for help by another person, depending on whether or not the subject recently found a small amount of money. Apparently situations that induce a “good mood” make a large difference in benevolent behavior. Rachana Kamtekar does a good job of explaining situationism as presented by moral philosophers such as Gilbert Harman; link. Kamtekar summarizes situationism in these terms:

Situationist social psychologists tell us that information about people’s distinctive character traits, opinions, attitudes, values, or past behavior is not as useful for determining what they will do as is information about the details of their situations. (458)

Doris’s argument is almost entirely grounded on the findings of experimental psychology drawn from a number of experiments designed to observe how people will behave when faced with a particular situation involving the wellbeing of others. Particularly well known are the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment performed by Philip Zimbardo and colleagues, which Doris discusses extensively; but there are many others with similar results that have been performed within social psychology as well.
It isn’t Doris’s view that there are no personality traits at all, but rather that they are small and context-specific in contrast to the general character traits cited in the literature of virtue ethics. “I allow for the possibility of temporally stable, situation-particular, ‘local’ traits that are associated with important individual differences in behavior” (25). In particular, he takes issue with the “globalism” of many theories of moral virtues and character. Those theories typically make three important assumptions about the virtues of character that Doris finds to be contradicted by the evidence of empirical research in psychology:
  1. Consistency. Character and personality traits are reliably manifested in trait-relevant behavior across a diversity of trait-relevant eliciting conditions…
  2. Stability. Character and personality traits are reliably manifested in trait-relevant behaviors over iterated trials of similar trait-relevant eliciting conditions.
  3. Evaluative integration. In a given character or personality the occurrence of a trait with a particular evaluative valence is probabilistically related to the occurrence of other traits with similar evaluative valences. (23)

He concludes that these three features are not supported by the evidence:

Systematic observation typically fails to reveal the behavioral patterns expected by globalism; globalist conceptions of personality are empirically inadequate. (23)

There are several things about Doris’s approach that I like. His insistence that moral philosophy needs to be attentive to the findings of empirical psychological research is compelling. His care in treating the philosophical theories he challenges in thoughtful detail is appealing.

What Doris doesn’t provide is any kind of theory of the actor of his own. He doesn’t favor the idea that actors possess character traits; but we are left in the dark about how he thinks our actions actually proceed. Is it a form of calculation? Is it the result of intuition and snap judgment (along the lines of Daniel Kahneman’s arguments in Thinking, Fast and Slow)? Doris doesn’t offer an alternative theory of how the actor processes a situation and arrives at an action. And in fact, it’s somewhat difficult to see how we would characterize any human behavior without recourse to something like character traits and dispositions. Is every moment a new occasion for spontaneous choice or rational calculation? Is action at a moment simply the result of unconscious prior stimulation and a little bit of cognition about the current situation?

Doris discusses a possible solution to this worry, the theory of “social cognitivism” (76 ff.).

[Social cognitivists] understand behavior as a function of each person’s “cognitive-affective personality system”: the organization of beliefs, feelings, goals, competencies, and strategies that is supposed to support “stable and distinctive patterns of intraindividual variability in behavior”. (77)

I don’t know whether the social cognitivists (e.g. Walter Mischel and Yuichi Shoda) succeed in offering a compelling empirical case for their view; but at least it provides a somewhat developed theory of the actor. In any case, it is not a framework that Doris endorses. And that seems to leave his account with a large hole in the middle: we would like to have an answer to the question, how do actors process the situations they encounter and arrive at actions to perform? What is the theory of the actor that is most plausible given a commitment to situationalism?

Here is Rachana Kamtekar’s most fundamental objection to the kinds of arguments offered by Doris and others:

It should by now be clear that the experiments which find character traits to correlate poorly with behavior rely on a very particular conception of a character trait: as an isolable and nonrational disposition to manifest a given stereotypical behavior that differs from the behavior of others and is fairly situation insensitive. (477)

In fact, Kamtekar suggests that situationism in the extreme is incompatible with almost every form of moral or practical reasoning:

Perhaps, if situationism is true, then the answer to the practical question “what can I do to take charge of my situation?”is“nothing”— the features of situations that determine behavior are so subtle and surprising that no ordinary rational strategies could enable us to be masters of our situations. But such pessimism is premature, and if it were ever to become warranted, then it is not only virtue ethics and the notion of character that we would have to jettison, but the power of practical reasoning. (491)

Pure situationism seems to run deeply contrary to our ordinary, commonsense understandings of how and why people behave as they do. Doris doesn’t have too much regard for commonsense when it comes to understanding behavior, though he does address the topic. But if we think about the people we’ve observed most closely in professional contexts, personal life, and politics, it seems hard to avoid the sober conclusion that these individuals do indeed have “character”, for better or worse, and that their characters differ. This one can be counted on to deflect responsibility for bad outcomes in his or her division; that one is solidly committed to his spouse; and that one is forever expedient in appealing for votes. People differ in these ways in our ordinary experience; so it is difficult to find the experiments of Milgram or Zimbardo sufficient to erase our reliance on the idea of persistent character traits in ordinary people. (Could we design experiments that seek to evaluate characteristics like “avoids responsibility,” “honors familial commitments,” “acts out of devotion to principle”?)

Observing character traits



The key idea of moral character is that the actions individuals choose are influenced by enduring features of their mentality. Unlike the situationist who looks at each situation of choice as a solution to achieving goals given current circumstances (Gilbert Harman, “Moral philosophy meets social psychology” link; John Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior), a character theory maintains that choice derives in part by perduring features of the self. We might say that an individual’s choices over time reflect a “style” of action that corresponds to these underlying features of personality and character.

An example will be helpful. Let’s say that fidelity is the virtue of honoring one’s commitments. A person who has acquired the habit of fidelity will be more likely to keep promises even in circumstances where there are short-term advantages in breaking them. So fidelity is a motivational counterweight to impulse and opportunism. There are other counterweights that also work — for example, what Elster describes as foresight is also a bulwark against myopic opportunism. The foresightful person is able to take longterm interests into account and thereby avoid the error of myopia. But an embodied habit of fidelity does the work well.

This brief example suggests two kinds of questions. First, do individuals actually demonstrate the workings of such a virtue in their actual behavior, and are there observable differences in the strength of this factor across individuals and groups? And second, how does this character trait develop in the course of maturation in typical individuals? What circumstances or experiences either strengthen or weaken the trait?

Personality psychology and social psychology offer experimental means for exploring the first set of questions. Much of this research takes the form of behavioral experiments along the lines of the Milgram experiment, apparently demonstrating that human beings are more ready to behave badly than we would have expected. (This experiment is described in the Harman article mentioned above.)  These experiments involve selection of a set of volunteer subjects and a carefully designed task that will probe their behavioral dispositions. Here is a study that attempts to measure the distribution of trust across a population; link.

A different approach is offered by David Winter, a personality psychologist who studies personality traits at a distance — historical figures and political leaders. Winter offers an accessible summary of his research in “Things I’ve Learned About Personality From Studying Political Leaders at a Distance” (link). Here is how he describes the “distance” point:

Denied direct access, those who study political leaders, past and present, have had to develop a variety of indirect means for measuring personality ‘‘at a distance” (see, for example, the recent collections of articles in Feldman & Valenty, 2001, and Valenty & Feldman, 2002). Some researchers look for patterns in known bio-graphical facts (Post, 2003), perhaps using formal systems of clinical diagnostic categories (Immelman, 1993, 2002). Others ask experts to rate leaders by using standard personality rating scales (Rubenzer, Faschingbauer, & Ones, 1996, 2000) or Q-sorts (Kowert, 1996). There is, however, one kind of data from political leaders that is produced and preserved in abundance—namely, words. Thus, many at-a-distance researchers do content analyses of leaders’ verbal or written texts: speeches, interviews, and even government documents (see Winter, 1992). It is thereby possible to measure a wide variety of personality characteristics of otherwise inaccessible people: for example, integrative complexity (Suedfeld & Rank, 1976), explanatory style (Satterfield & Seligman, 1994), nationalism, and internal control of events (Hermann, 1980)

The second question has been treated in very different ways. One aspect of character formation, we sometimes believe, stems from the strong experiences we have had in our lives. Another view is that our character took shape through exposure to the actions of role models. An interesting current approach to this question is provided by an interesting recent book in naturalistic ethics by Mark Alfano, Character as Moral Fiction.  Alfano repeats a call for what I refer to as a theory of the actor:

The clarion call of the revival of virtue ethics was Elizabeth Anscombe’s feisty “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958). She claimed that it is not worthwhile to do ethics until we possess a proper philosophy of psychology — one that provides a theory of reasons, motives, and dispositions inter alia. (17)

He takes a provocative view on the status of virtues in real human actors. He argues that virtues are shaped in the individual by the commendations and criticisms that are offered by the individual’s proximate community during development and adulthood.

Traits like callousness, courage, greed, dishonesty, generosity, and tact are dispositions to act and react in characteristic ways. (2-3)

I shall argue that though most people do not think, feel, and act in ways that traditional normative theory would describe as virtuous …, we should still attribute the virtues … to one another because these attributions tend to function as self-fulfilling prophecies. Calling someone honest … will lead him to think, feel, and act more honestly in the future. (9) When this happens, I call it factitious virtue. (10)

What is clear is that there is a very large domain for empirical research that is created around the moral psychology associated with character and virtue, and that this research is important for the purpose of refining our theory of the actor. Philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists have an interest in arriving at the most illuminating research in this area possible.

Character and authenticity

image: Molière’s Tartuffe, Comédie Française

When we judge that a person has acted on the basis of character in a given situation, we are implying a judgment about his or her inner constitution, and we are judging that the action derived “authentically” from the individual’s underlying traits. Character and authenticity go hand in hand.

So what is “authenticity” when it comes to action? It seems to come down to this. When we talk about authenticity, we are presupposing that a person has a real, though unobservable, inner nature, and we are asserting that he/she acts authentically when actions derive from or reflect that inner nature. This is a kind of moral psychological realism: we work on the assumption that there are real inner features of personality and character that influence (portions of) the individual’s behavior.

There are many other kinds of judgments that we make about other people’s actions that suggest the opposite of authenticity: pretense, guile, manipulation, scripted, self-flattering, role-playing, acting. What these descriptors have in common is the idea of an individual choosing a series of actions and a style of action that is intended to convey a particular impression of the actor, irrespective of the actor’s “true” nature, thoughts, and intentions. There is a disjunction between semblance (based on actions) and self (based on the actor’s inner subjective reality). Tartuffe’s actions in Molière’s comedy are inauthentic and insincere; Tartuffe skillfully shapes his behavior to evoke specific reactions from others.  Politicians come to mind as we consider this list of features of action — persons who seem always to be playing a role to cultivate positive reactions from others for the sake of electoral gain, with no evidence of authenticity.

Consider the example of Will Kane in High Noon, played in 1952 by Gary Cooper. Will Kane is a small-town marshall who is placed in a position of having to decide whether to stand and fight the armed men coming to kill him, or to slip out of town with a good head start — and leave the town to the violent depredations of the outlaws. He strives first to gain a collective defense of the town, but all the town worthies suddenly find that they have other urgent appointments. And his deputy Harvey Pell takes this moment to allow his long-standing grievances to boil over and to walk away. So it is either stand alone or flee. He stays.

So how are we to understand Kane’s choice? The movie’s original poster gives one interpretation: “the story of a man who was too proud to run!” This isn’t a particularly satisfying interpretation, though, in that it seems to trivialize his choice. Pride seems like a superficial motivation — along the lines of “Robert was too proud to ask his boss for a loan for taxi fare when he realized he had forgotten his wallet.” Pride seems to be a motivation that has to do with avoiding embarrassment rather than the loftier motivations of character and sacrifice.

Here is a somewhat different line of thought: Kane has learned to become a certain kind of person — a person who doesn’t bow easily to threats, a person who cares about his neighbors and friends, a person who loathes the violent bullying of the outlaw. On this line of thought, Kane has grown into a certain kind of character, which leads him to act in ways that seem contrary to his self-interest. He resists intimidation; we would also expect him to resist subornment or bribery.

Another possibility is that Kane possesses a deeply engrained role responsibility: it is his job as marshall to take risks to defend the town. (It’s no longer his job, in fact, since he has resigned in deference to the pacifist convictions of his soon-to-be wife, Amy Fowler, before the crisis began.) But we might speculate that his sense of duty prevails over the fact of risk and the coincidence of having given up his badge; he is the only person on the scene who can or will oppose Frank Miller’s gunmen.

There are several entwined complexities in this short discussion. One is the fact that the examples used here are drawn from fiction; so Tartuffe and Will Kane are both played by actors representing their actions and motivations. Certainly it would be a category mistake to judge that “Gary Cooper displayed great character in High Noon“; it is the depiction rather than the performer that needs analysis here.

Second, there is the realism point made above: the idea that the individual has a core set of characteristics that are “really” part of his or her makeup. Without this assumption, the idea of authenticity doesn’t have traction. But this takes us in the direction of a real “self” which is the author of one’s actions; and there are many reasons for thinking that this is an over-simplification of action and agency. Briefly, it is plausible that an actor’s choices derive both from features of the self and the situation of action and the interplay of the actions of others. So script, response, and self all seem to come into the situation of action.

Moreover, even if the realism assumption is justified, character is only one part of the “real” self. One can be inauthentic by violating the impulses of his/her character; but likewise inauthenticity can derive from a deviation between beliefs and thoughts and actions. Iago is inauthentic because he pretends loyalty to Othello, whereas he is secretly disloyal.

And third, it is possible that the relation between “character” and “role” is not as contradictory as is suggested here. It may be that the role sets some of the parameters of the character and serves to reinforce one set of actions over another in particular circumstances of choice. The fact that Will Kane was regarded by others as an honorable and courageous man may be part of the explanation of the fact that he behaved in an honorable and courageous way.

(Here is an interesting source that provides examples of action driven by character in real life — Bob Blauner’s account of the professors in the University of California who resisted McCarthyism at the cost of their jobs; Resisting McCarthyism: To Sign or Not to Sign California’s Loyalty Oath.)

Character and personality


If we want to have a more adequate theory of the actor (link), we need to broaden our understanding of the factors and capacities that affect action.  The categories of personality and character are both relevant to the ways in which we understand how people behave in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. So a theory of the actor ought to have a place for these concepts.

How are these concepts related? Both have to do with persistent features of behavior, but they seem to have somewhat distinct domains and have been approached by widely separated disciplines. In particular, character seems to be morally charged in ways that personality is not.

Here are some examples of characteristics that seem intuitively to fall into the two categories.

Capable of carrying out commitments
Pays attention to principles
Secure / insecure

Both sets of characteristics go beyond (or below) rational calculation and utility. (In fact, we might say that the purely rational individual lacks both personality and character; his/her actions are dictated by current estimates of costs and benefits of various lines of action.) Both personality and character have to do with features of behavior that are non-purposive to an important extent. They have to do with who the actor is, not so much with what he/she wants to accomplish. Rational calculation is sometimes at odds with some of these features — sometimes principles and commitments stand in the way of self interest, so character dictates a different course of action than prudence.

Personality falls within the domain of empirical psychology. There is a long tradition of research and theory in the area of personality psychology. Psychologists seem to favor to use the vocabulary of “personality traits” (Jerry Wiggins, “In Defense of Traits,” Handbook of Personality Psychology, edited by Robert Hogan et al). And a central goal of personality psychology has been to discover a taxonomy of personality types that allow classification of all normal human beings. Along with such a taxonomy, the discipline has sought to create measurement tools that permit application of the scheme to ordinary human subjects.

The study of character has tended to be a preoccupation of philosophers, who approach the question in a more theoretical and apriori way.  Philosophers extending back to the ancient Greeks have attempted to identify the features of a person’s inner life that enhance or diminish the person’s moral worthiness. Part of the moral connotation of features of character is captured in the linguistic fact that many of the features we attribute to character are virtues (or vices). We praise people who possess a number of virtues, and we criticize them if they lack these virtues (or possess the contrary vice). This field of study might be called “moral psychology,” but it has tended to be non-empirical. In the past two decades there has been a degree of convergence between the empirical study of behavior and the philosophical study of moral decision making, in the topic area of evolutionary moral theory (Moral Psychology: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness (Volume 1)Moral Psychology: The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuition and Diversity (Volume 2)).  
There is academic and popular disagreement about the degree to which personality traits are acquired or innate.  Some argue, along the lines of the sociobiologists, that at least some features of social behavior are controlled by our evolutionary history. The underlying rationale for this hunch is the likelihood that personality traits have effects on reproductive success; individuals who have traits that allow them to be more successful in eliciting cooperation from others are more likely to reproduce successfully. (This is the underlying thought in Allan Gibbard’s Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment.) And others maintain that the individual is highly plastic at birth, so the developmental environment is the primary causal factor in the development of personality.

We might try to draw a distinction between personality and character along these lines. Personality has to do with the psychological “hardware” with which the individual is equipped. Just as a snappy Mustang has great acceleration and so-so gas mileage (determined by the organization of its component systems), some individuals have affable, agreeable interactions with other people (determined by the organization of their affective systems). Character has to do with moral capacities in embodied human beings: the ability to keep a promise, tell the truth, or stand resolute in the face of threat. Character has to do with the ways we conceive of ourselves and sculpt our actions to fit our expectations; personality has to do with reactive features of our psychological systems.

(Here is a very good essay on “Moral Character” by Marcia Homiak in the SEP; link.)

Character and history




Source: Gilles Mora and Beverly Brannan, FSA: The American Vision; photos by Dorothea Lange

We often think that some historical periods have deep effects on the personalities and character of individuals who came of age and lived adult life during those periods. This implies that specific cohorts of people may have distinctive personality features that differ from people of other generations, distinctive features of character. This seems to be the thrust of the idea of the “greatest generation”, the Depression generation, and the Sixties Generation. The experiences of World War II, the Great Depression, and the protests of the 1960s had profound effects on the expectations and habits of action of many of the people who lived through these experiences, as we see from conversations with survivors of those times and the literature it produced. And, we might say, the people who came of age through those periods were very different in their most fundamental psychological makeup from those of other periods.

This is a common way of speaking; but it has major consequences for how we think about “human nature” and human psychology. Universalists like Vico held that there was one fundamental human nature, and all historical circumstances do is alter some of the beliefs and habits of action that people possess (Vico: The First New Science).  Historicists have believed since Herder, by contrast, that the human self was fundamentally historically conditioned and created; different historical circumstances make different kinds of actors (Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings).  And to accept the language of “generation X” or “generation Y” is to tilt towards the historicist position.

There are a couple of questions that arise quickly when we think about the possibility of historically created generational differences of character and personality. One has to do with the mechanism of influence: how would the fact of growing up in the Great Depression or serving in the Pacific in World War II have an effect on the actor at the level of perception, expectation, and habit? A second important question has to do with the pervasiveness and consistency of the effects we are considering. And a third question is internal to the person — what features of experience, consciousness, and agency are thought to be affected by historical experiences?

So what mechanisms might create the generational effect on character? Take the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s. Most families experienced serious, prolonged economic hardship — loss of jobs, loss of savings, loss of homes, and sometimes the breakup of families.  This was most intense for people on the margin — the sharecroppers in Oklahoma who took to the road during the Dust Bowl in Dorothea Lange’s wonderful photographs above, for example. But it was true for working families, service providers, and street car drivers as well. This is one level of the experience. A second level is the generalized stress and sense of crisis that was conveyed everywhere one looked — newspapers, radio, the sight of Hoovervilles on the outskirts of cities. So even if a particular family hadn’t yet been touched by unemployment or bank collapse, there was the pervasive sense that nothing was secure. And it seems credible enough that these pervasive existential characteristics of a given decade or two would have important consequences for the consciousness and agency of the individuals who lived through them.

So we might speculate that the trauma of a family’s sudden impoverishment, and the general stress of prolonged fear of impoverishment even if the shoe never dropped, had a powerful effect on the children and young people who lived through those times. Perhaps it made them more risk-averse; maybe it made them less trusting of authority and institutions; perhaps it made them more prone to depression and addiction; perhaps it made them more understanding of outlaws like John Dillinger and the Shelton Boys (link).

But speculating isn’t nearly as useful as empirical research. Are there research threads in personality psychology and social psychology that would shed light on this kind of question? There certainly is research on the personality effects of trauma (linklinklink). Other researchers have studied children who lived through conditions of war in the Middle East (linklink). However, each of these areas of research focuses on an aspect of a traumatic person’s early history that is more extreme than those that were characteristic for most individuals at most times in history. So is there evidence that less dramatic features of social context can nonetheless create widely spread features of personality and character? I’m not aware of anyone who has attempted to probe this psychological question through interviews with Dust Bowl survivors or people who grew up poor in Chicago or New York in the 1930s; but it would be an enormously interesting effort.

The second big question mentioned above is the issue of pervasiveness and consistency. It is apparent that people will be exposed to different experiences within any of these historical periods. And people will be differentially influenced by the experiences they have. So even if there is a generational effect, it will be distributed across the cohort in a range of intensities. And this implies that we should really be framing our question in terms of a distribution of personality and character traits over a diverse population, rather than looking for a single typical profile.  The reality might be that the median level of risk aversiveness might be higher for the generation of the Great Depression than the Sixties Generation — even though there were risk-takers and risk-avoiders in both populations.

The third question is interesting as well — what features of the conscious, feeling, thinking actor do we imagine historical experience to have shaped?  This issue was raised in an earlier post about theories of the actor — what are the components of the actor’s mentality (link)?  We might think of a long list of mental characteristics that are potentially malleable: ways of making decisions, habits of action and reaction, mental models about how the world works, a toolbox of heuristic strategies for coping with challenges, a set of expectations about how various social settings are likely to work out, some ideas about how other people are likely to behave, memories about past scenarios that worked out well or badly.  All of these features are potentially malleable through the process of development, and taken together, they constitute a ver broad and deep set of personal characteristics. So if we concluded that virtually all of these dimensions are potentially shaped by historical experiences, then we seem to have come very close to the Herder position on historicism: the individual is a historically situated and historically constituted being all the way down.

Here are a few earlier posts on cohorts and generations in history; linklinklink. The photos are taken from the beautiful book curated by Gilles Mora and Beverly Brannan presenting many of the photos created during the Farm Security Administration project in the 1930s and 1940s.

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