This question could be addressed in many different ways. I will begin by offering some preliminary remarks about the meanings of the relevant terms, which will help us get at a precise answer. First, by “character” I mean the possession of one or more virtues, and by “moral behavior” I mean the doing of morally good actions. But what does it mean to possess a virtue? One way to understand this idea, which comes from the ethical tradition associated with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, is that to possess a virtue is to have a deeply ingrained disposition, thanks to which one is able to not only recognize what is virtuous, but to do it promptly, easily, and without internal struggle. This is what I will mean by “possessing” a virtue or being virtuous.
With these definitions in hand, we can reformulate our question. Is a given virtue necessary for the kind of morally good action characteristic of that virtue? For example, is the virtue of courage necessary for courageous actions? Is the virtue of kindness necessary for kind actions? (Let’s leave aside questions about the so-called “unity” of the virtues — that is, for instance, whether one can be courageous but unkind, or kind but cowardly.) At first blush, it might seem obvious that the answer is “no”: people who aren’t particularly courageous sometimes do courageous things, and people who aren’t particularly kind sometimes do kind things. This is true. But do they do these things in the same way that courageous or kind people do them?
Good Character and Readiness of Action
Suppose you and a friend witness a terrible accident: a vehicle loses control, crashes into a tree, and begins to burn with the driver trapped inside. Let’s assume that it’s possible to save the driver, that going to his aid would be courageous, not reckless or foolhardy. Your friend, who is courageous, immediately springs into action. Before other bystanders have fully registered what has happened, he has rushed to the vehicle, found a means of breaking the window, and is in the process of dragging the unconscious driver to safety. If you are not particularly courageous yourself, it’s unlikely that you will react as your friend does. For one thing, you probably won’t react as quickly or decisively, even if you do want to help. You might, for instance, have a hard time deciding what to do and an even harder time doing it. In other words, you will have to wrestle with your fear of being burned or otherwise injured — even if you end up doing the courageous thing.
Risking one’s life to save someone else from a burning vehicle is brave. But, as the example indicates, there is a difference between doing a brave thing and being a brave person. When, belatedly and with trepidation, you go to help your friend, you do a brave thing. But your trepidation and tardiness are an indication that brave actions are not characteristic of you the way they are characteristic of your friend. By contrast, people like your friend, for whom bravery is an ingrained part of who they are, do brave things without any internal struggle and without having to stop to deliberate at length about whether they should act as they do. Perhaps most importantly, brave people seem even to want to do brave things; they see doing brave things as the obvious choice or the only choice. When the hero says that “anyone” would have done what he did, it probably isn’t empty posturing.
Does having a good character matter, then? Is it better to be a brave person rather than merely to have done a brave thing? An answer could be given by pointing to the features that distinguish our friend from us as well as from those who do nothing at all. A brave person acts more quickly — with less of an interior struggle — than the rest of us. And this clearly matters, at least when there are people who need to be rescued from burning vehicles. But what if there are no burning vehicles? Is good character still important in less dire circumstances?
It might seem that it isn’t. Surely, one might argue, what matters in those situations is doing the right thing. So long as someone ultimately does what’s brave or kind, what does it matter whether the person was quick or slow to act, or whether the person experienced an internal struggle or not?
Good Character and Moral Perception
There are again a variety of possible answers to the question I just raised. But I want to focus on one specific way in which good character might be necessary for moral behavior even in situations that are not extreme, a way that tends to get obscured in the example I initially proposed. In the case of the burning car, it is obvious what the brave thing to do is, and it is obvious how a lack of courage would impede our ability to do it. Those who witness the accident will not fail to notice that someone needs saving, and they would agree that saving the car’s driver is a good thing to do. But things are not always so obvious.
Consider some less dramatic examples of moral behavior. Peter, seeing that the walks are icy and worried that his elderly neighbor might slip and fall, salts his neighbor’s walk as well as his own. Paul, seeing how much cleaning up there is to do after a friend’s party, stays behind to help wash the dishes. All of us can agree that these are good things to do. But few of us ever actually do them.
Why not? The answer, I suspect, is that the thought of doing things like salting our neighbor’s walk or helping a friend clean up hardly ever crosses our minds. We all agree that it is good to help the elderly: if asked, we would all probably say that we care about the well-being of our elderly neighbors. And, if an elderly neighbor asked us directly for assistance, we’d most likely oblige. Yet, it rarely occurs to most of us to salt our elderly neighbor’s walk. If we all agree that these kinds of actions are good to do, why does the thought of doing them not occur to us more often? Here, again, the answer has to do with moral character.
Even if we recognize the value of being kind to others, that value doesn’t necessarily guide and shape our actions unless we are kind people. When we wake up to find our sidewalk coated in ice, our first thought is likely of the inconvenience this poses to ourselves — to our own risk of injury and our own well-being. It’s not that we consciously disregard the well-being of our neighbor but, rather, that we don’t habitually think of our neighbor’s well-being much at all. Most of us habitually think only of our own well-being. As a consequence, we don’t typically notice anything that doesn’t affect our own interests directly.
Someone who possesses the virtue of kindness, by contrast, perceives exactly the same situation in a different way. Because the kind person is habitually concerned for the well-being of others, this concern informs the very way he perceives the world. Thus, rather than perceiving the icy sidewalk as an inconvenience to himself, he perceives it as a threat to his neighbor’s well-being as well as to his own. And this perception makes it more likely that he will go and salt his neighbor’s walk as well as his own.
This, I propose, is why character really is a necessary pre-condition for moral behavior. Unless we possess virtues, we won’t recognize the vast number of occasions on which virtuous behavior is called for. Virtuous people are more likely to behave morally because they are more likely to see occasions for moral behavior in everyday life.
- If character is so important for moral behavior, how does one develop it?
- Is vice related to immoral behavior in the same way that character is related to moral behavior?
- Does the relationship between character and moral behavior imply anything about the unity of the virtues?
This essay examined the question of whether moral character is necessary for moral behavior. I argued that moral character is relevant to moral behavior in two important ways. First, given that I am already aware of what I ought to do (i.e. of what the “moral” action is), moral character facilitates doing that action. The person who has moral character does moral actions more readily — more easily and more willingly than one who does not. I also argued that moral character matters in a second, much more fundamental way: the person who has moral character is able to recognize what is moral and occasions for moral behavior in a way that those who lack moral character cannot. Those who lack moral character often fail to act morally because they simply fail, in many instances, to recognize the morally relevant aspects of the situations they find themselves in.
A significant part of the discussion focused on the relationship between feelings and morality. Some readers felt that the desired moral results could be produced without the relevant feelings on the part of the agent. In other words, social norms or duty suffice to produce the desired outcomes. I think some difference of opinion here may stem from a different understanding of what “feelings” are. For Aristotle, the feelings relevant to moral character are themselves informed by and amenable to reason. So someone whose actions are consistently guided by their belief about what is right simply will come to have the relevant feelings. I think Aristotle is mostly correct about this.
But I also think that social norms, by themselves, can never produce the kinds of actions relevant to our discussion. If I desire social approval and I know that society expects a certain kind of behavior, then I will have reason to do it — when someone is watching. Only when I see the relevant actions as desirable for their own sake will I have a reliable reason to do them no matter what.
Other portions of the discussion focused on what it means to “have” a virtue and with the difficulty of acquiring a virtue. Is virtue all or nothing, or does it come in degrees? If I have to know what is virtuous in order to do it, isn’t virtue circular? How could someone who lacks virtue ever come to acquire it? The Aristotelian notion of the “phronimos” — the moral exemplar whose virtue we recognize and imitate — goes a long way toward answering these questions. Even if we are not ourselves virtuous, we can still recognize people who seem to have “gotten it right,” and we can imitate them. As we make progress in modeling ourselves after these exemplars, we grow in virtue.
New Big Questions:
- Can all the good aspects of moral character be possessed by someone who lacks the relevant moral feelings?
- What does it mean to say that someone “has” a virtue?
- Are there really “moral exemplars” that we can all recognize as such?
This post originally appeared on the blog Big Questions Online on June 10, 2016. Angela Knobel is Associate Professor in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America and is a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.