New book by UC Santa Cruz professor attacks character issue

Does the issue of character matter? Should it influence which political candidate we vote for, whom we hire, or what we teach our children in school?

A new book by John M. Doris, associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, argues that people often profoundly overestimate the behavioral impact of character and in turn, underestimate the impact of situations. Drawing on a vast array of psychological studies, Doris found that circumstance has an extraordinary effect on how people actually behave, regardless of whatever character they appear to have.

"A lot of research suggests that moral behavior is absurdly situationally-sensitive," Doris explained. "At the same time, a great deal of research in psychology indicates that differences among personalities--say whether someone is introverted or extroverted--are poorly related to predicting behavior. We've found that surprisingly trivial factors are important. For example, there is evidence that people are more likely to help others if the environment smells good."

In his book, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior, Doris applies the implications of this research to a wide range of issues in ethics, culture, and moral psychology.

"Our tendency is to make snap judgments on next to no data," Doris said. "This is going to cause unjustified admiration on one side, and unjustified condemnation on the other. For instance, voting on character is not the way to go, rather than voting for a candidate's platform. If Bill Clinton has adolescent sexual taste, we can't predict that he will have adolescent views on foreign policy. But those are the kind of thoughts that people put together."

"One problem with the emphasis on character is that it's very unclear what our notion of character comes to," he added. "Yet it distracts us from issues that are much more important."

A self-described "analytic" philosopher working in ethics and moral psychology, Doris takes an interdisciplinary approach to philosophy. He insists that research in experimental social psychology undermines familiar philosophical assumptions that date back to Aristotle.

"I take a detailed look at research and how it impacts moral theory," Doris explained. "I try to suggest a different way of thinking about ethical theory--one that is more empirically sensitive. It's more interdisciplinary, getting philosophers to be more psychological and psychologists to be more philosophical. It's basically doing philosophy with a wider angle lens."

As a result, Doris takes on the concept of character or "virtue" education in his book.

"We do not know as much as one would like about the relation of educational interventions to moral behavior," Doris said. "As far as I can tell at this point, there is not a lot of systematic empirical research--as opposed to anecdotal reports--suggesting that 'character education' is especially effective in promoting morally desirable behavior in children. If my skepticism about character is right, it probably isn't smart to bet the ranch on such evidence appearing."

Doris said that he hopes by being methodologically self-conscious, he will provide a model for others who analyze and influence social behavior.

"The point is not to make judgments about people and history, but to expect that behavior varies with situation and context. Maybe instead of talking about how to develop humane characters, we should talk about developing humane institutions," he added.