The Corner

The Character of Psychology versus the Philosophy of Character

David Brooks’s column today is interesting — and another example of his book research intruding on his column-writing, not that there’s anything wrong with that! But, as a friend said to me this morning, I think his column would work better as 4,000 word essay in, say, National Affairs. The column leaves me unconvinced. His basic point is that there is no such thing as a single unified character, at least according to the psychologists. The old philosopher’s notion of character — a single, intact, orientation that manifests itself fairly consistently — is being replaced with the psychologist’s understanding of character. He writes:

The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call “cross-situational stability.”

This is all interesting, but a lot of it sounds like semantics to me. It also sounds like that the psychologists are discovering something the philsophers — and the poets –  never actually denied: that character is complicated.

That people behave differently in different circumstances doesn’t necessarily strike me as a crippling blow to the older notion of character. Good men do bad things in moments of weakness. For instance Brooks writes:

The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don’t have one permanent thing called character. We each have a multiplicity of tendencies inside, which are activated by this or that context. As Paul Bloom of Yale put it in an essay for The Atlantic last year, we are a community of competing selves. These different selves “are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.”

Okay, but a “community of competing selves” is still a community of sorts, right? And we talk all the time about how certain communities have a character to them, and rightly so. Natchez, Mississippi’s character is  different than Milwaukee’s. Which is to say they do things one way in the former and another way in the latter.

Understanding the self as a “culture of one” (to borrow a phrase from Star Trek, heh) doesn’t necessarily contradict the idea that there is something unitary to our individual being, does it? I’m not big on all the Freudian lingo, Id, Ego, Super-Ego, etc. But it seems to me not unreasonable to say that there’s something that is moderating or refereeing the fights between these different selves and that something might have something to do with character. Even people of the highest character have to wrestle with the lowest of desires from time to time. Calling those desires “selves” is an interesting metaphorical approach, and it might have all manner of psychological validity, but I’m not sure it’s progress to do so nor am I persuaded it’s the more accurate way to go.