in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #445: How to Close the Character Gap

Are people mostly good or mostly bad? We’re apt to think of ourselves as good people, while thinking of the general population as not-so-stellar. My guest today argues that most people, including yourself, are really best described as a mixed bag.

His name is Christian Miller, he’s a professor of moral philosophy and religion at Wake Forest University, and today on the show we discuss his new book The Character Gap: How Good Are We? We begin our conversation discussing how Christian defines the extreme ends of the character spectrum and why very few people can be described as entirely virtuous or vicious. Christian then points to psychological studies that highlight both bad news and good news as to whether humans tend to have praiseworthy or blameworthy character, and which suggest that whether we behave virtuously or viciously often depends on the context we find ourselves in. We then discuss how to close the gap between how we should act and how we do act, including practices that strengthen our ability and desire to do the right thing. We end our conversation discussing how all world religions provide structure to moral development and why we should be slow to call ourselves and others good or bad people.

Show Highlights

  • How Christian defines good character vs bad character 
  • Why underlying motivations matter in determining character 
  • How can you figure out people’s real intentions?
  • What about objectivists (those who are altruistic because it feels good to them)? 
  • Flesh and blood examples of virtuous and vicious people in history 
  • Finding virtuous people in your own life  
  • Where most people truthfully land on the virtue-vicious scale (and studies which prove this) 
  • The effect of peer pressure on our virtuous acts 
  • Why we shouldn’t judge people based on one bad behavior 
  • Why the Milgram shock experiment doesn’t actually paint people as wholly awful 
  • How much context and our environment matters in determining our virtue and character
  • Free will and character 
  • So how can we close the character gap and become more virtuous? 
  • The importance of finding real-life examples of virtue to inspire you 
  • How to audit your own character and virtuousness  
  • The value of religion and religious texts (even if you’re secular) 
  • Why you should have a community around you on the same quest for virtue 
  • Why you need cut yourself and others some slack 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of " The Character Gap" by Christian B. Miller.

Connect With Christian 

Christian on Twitter

Christian’s website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. So, are people mostly good or mostly bad? Now, we’re apt to think of ourselves as good people while thinking of the general population as not so stellar. My guest today argues that most people, including yourself, are really best described as a mixed bag. His name is Christian Miller. He’s a professor of moral philosophy and religion at Wake Forest University, and today on the show we discuss his new book “The Character Gap: How Good Are We?”.

We begin our conversation discussing how Christian defines the extreme ends of the character spectrum, and why very few people can be described as entirely virtuous or vicious. Christian then highlights psychological studies that highlight both bad news and good news as to whether humans tend to have praise worthy or blame worthy character. These studies also suggest that whether we behave virtuously or viciously often depends on the context we find ourselves in. We then discuss how to close the gap between how we should act and how we do act, including practices that strengthen our ability and desire to do the right thing. We end our conversation discussing how all world religions provide structure and moral development, and why we should be slow to call ourselves and others good or bad people. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at

Christian Miller, welcome to the show.

Christian Miller: Thank you so much for having me on.

Brett McKay: So, you’re a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, and your focus is contemporary ethics and philosophy of religion. What’s contemporary ethics? I took an ethics class in college. It’s sort of like an overview, as we talked about utilitarianism, Aristotelian virtue ethics, Kant. So, what’s contemporary ethics?

Christian Miller: Sure. So, the contrast is really with historical ethics. I don’t study too much what people said in the past, going back and kind of digging into Plato or Aristotle or Kant. I’m really much more interested in ethical debates that are going on today, and what we as philosophers might contribute to them.

The way I see contemporary ethics is kind of dividing it up into three areas. Areas what’s called meta-ethics, which has to do with the foundations of morality. Where does morality come from? What is the source of morality? Is it objective for all human beings, or is it just a matter of social or individual construction? That’s a relativist position. Another area of contemporary ethics is what we might call ethical theory, or normative ethics. That’s what you were eluding to. That’s where we look at different accounts of moral right and wrong, different theories which try to give us guidance to figure out what the right thing to do is and the wrong thing to do is. So, you gave examples like utilitarianism or Immanuel Kant’s ethics or Aristotelian virtue ethics.

And then there’s a third side to contemporary ethics, which is applied ethics, where you really get into some of the controversial issues of the day, like abortion or the death penalty or stem cells or cloning, all these kind of things. So, it’s a huge field, and way more than any one philosopher can really get a handle on. I just kind of pick and choose what interests me the most, and that tends to be matters of character, matters or virtue, and also issues of the foundation of morality, where does morality come from.

Brett McKay: It seems from the book, we’ll talk about the book here in a minute, that you take a look a lot at psychological research and looking at ethics.

Christian Miller: Right. That’s correct. That’s a little bit unusual, especially maybe 50 years ago or 30 years ago. Philosophers weren’t doing that much at all. But, in the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been a ground spell of interest in drawing on psychological research to help philosophers do ethics.

Now, you might wonder, well, how? I mean, what relevance does it have to play? In my own research on character, it works like this. As a philosopher doing ethics, I can think about questions that are more normative or more evaluative, questions like what kind of character should we have, what does a virtue look like, what is an honest person. But, I can’t get much insight into another set of questions, which are ones about how we’re actually doing today. So, as a matter of fact, what does most peoples’ character look like? Is it a good character? Is it a bad character? Is it somewhere in between? Are we by and large virtuous, vicious, or neither? So, for that more empirical question, more descriptive question, I can’t sit here in my armchair, which I’m sitting in right now, and pontificate about the deep questions. I need some hard data to wrap my mind around.

For that, I could go to different places. I could go to religion. I could go to history. I could go to current events. Plenty of things going on today that could be useful to think about. What our character looks like in politics, for example. But, what I prefer to do is to consult psychology. I look to very carefully constructed psychological experiments, which put people into morally relevant situations, for example, give them an opportunity to cheat or not cheat, steal or not steal, lie or not lie, hurt or not hurt, help or not help, and find out what happens. So, do these participants in this study actually step up to the plate and help someone when there’s a need or not? Or, when they think they can get away with it, do they cheat or not?

So, after looking at not just one study, because that wouldn’t tell us much, but after looking at a whole wealth of studies, hundreds and hundreds of studies, going back in psychology to the 1950s and 1960s, I can kind of craft a picture of what our character actually looks like and then compare that, as a philosopher, to what I think our character should look like and see what the difference is.

Brett McKay: All right. So, this is a good segway to the book, ’cause it’s called “The Character Gap”. It’s basically looking at what we think how we should behave, but then really how do we behave on a day-to-day basis. So, before we get into the gap that you say exists, how do you define what it means to have good character or bad character? I think it’s a word that’s get thrown around a lot since you were a kid. Like, you’ve got to be a person of good character. But, no one really tells you exactly what it means, but you have a rough idea.

So, as an academic, you want to get very specific, so how do you define someone with good character?

Christian Miller: Sure. That’s a great question. I guess, even more confusing, because people talk about character in other ways too. Like, they talk about characters in novels, talk about characters in plays. I even, when I’m talking about my research, I get people looking at me oddly. They think do I go to a lot of plays or do I read a lot of novels to do my research, and I say, “Wait, wait, wait. Let’s start at the very beginning by defining our terms so that we’re not talking past each other.” That’s what philosophers should always do.

So, here I’m not talking about things like that. I’m talking about moral character. Moral character comes in two varieties. There’s good moral character, which are the virtues, and then there’s bad moral character, which are the vices. So, examples of virtues include things like compassion, honesty, courage, bravery, temperance, justice, fortitude, generosity and the like. Now, merely saying that good character is to be understood as the virtues just shifts the question over to what is a virtue. I think of a virtue as having two main components, or parts, to it. There’s our behavior, and then there’s the underlying psychology behind our behavior, and both are really essential to being a virtuous person.

So, to make it a little bit more concrete, let’s take a particular virtue like honesty. An honest person is expected to display honest behavior, not just once. Like, you know, as if telling the truth one time gets me enough credit to count as honest in general. No. It’s not just once, but repeatedly over time, and not just in one type of situation either. I don’t get to count as honest just because I’m honest in the courtroom. I have to be honest in my behavior over time, and across a variety of situations relevant to honesty. So, in the courtroom, the party, the office, the home, school, or wherever those might be. That’s, in a nutshell, the kind of behavioral side of having good character, which I’m understanding as virtuous character.

But, there’s more to it than that. Mere behavior, even if it’s admiral and praise worthy, isn’t enough to qualify as being virtuous. Why? Well, because underlying motivation, in particular, matters too. If we just exhibit good behavior, but for poor reasons, morally disadmirable or unfortunate reasons, then we don’t get to qualify as virtuous. So, again, let’s make it a little bit more concrete with an example. We said honest behavior, that’s one part of it. But, if I’m just telling the truth so that I don’t get punished, or so that I just make a good impression on some people I’m trying to impress, those aren’t the kind of reasons we would expect a virtuous person to be acting upon. They’re merely self interested, focused on myself and my own benefits, and they’re not good enough, praise worthy, to count as virtuous motives which you need in order to have a virtuous character.

So, to sum it up and boil it down to one sentence, having good character involves having the virtues, and the virtues require virtuous motivation and virtuous behavior as well.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. So, I imagine someone who’s a vicious person would be just the same thing, right?

Christian Miller: Yeah. It’s pretty interesting how you can just flip that and get a vicious person. So, a vicious person is also kind of reliable in their behavior, repeatedly doing vicious things, and across a variety of situations. So, the cruel person isn’t just cruel in the forest or at the office or anything like that, if you want to look at a narrow situation. It’s across a variety of situations, and for underlying cruel motivation as well, because they want to hurt other people or because they take pleasure in the suffering of others. 

So, the one caveat to all that though is vicious people who are somewhat careful about it, who have some kind of cleverness about being vicious, they won’t advertise their vice. So, whereas you might see a virtuous person telling the truth in a lot of different situations, or being generous to others in lots of different situations, you may not see a cruel person being cruel in a lot of different situations when others are watching them, because they know they’re liable to get punished, either get in trouble or go to jail, or whatnot. So, they’re reliable in their behavior, but typically when they think they can get away with it and no one’s looking.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. I mean, that’s interesting, an interesting definition of … ‘Cause it’s very stringent. Particularly the motivation part I’m sure gets really tricky, because, okay, I went to law school, and some crimes you have to figure out intent, motivation, and that’s really hard to do. You have to get inside someone’s mind.

So, how do you as a philosopher, using psychology, figure out the intent of people? ‘Cause people can say, “Well, I did it for X altruistic reason,” but, really, the reason was the other, something else that was more self motivated.

Christian Miller: Right. Exactly. I mean, let’s be upfront about it. It’s very, very hard. There are no easy answers here. Let me, instead of talking in the abstract, let me give you an actual illustration of how a psychologist has gone about doing this in the case of a really important moral situation.

So, this psychologist, who’s name is Batson, wanted to understand why people who feel empathy are much more likely to help those in need. This is a longstanding phenomena in psychology, well documented, going back 50 years, that when you empathize with the suffering of others, you’re much more likely to help them than if you don’t empathize. Empathy here, adopting their mindset and trying to understand the world from their perspective. So, why is that? What’s the underlying psychological or motivational explanation? There are dozens of possibilities here, many of them have to do with self interest. Maybe you help because you want to make a good impression, or maybe you help because you want to get some kind of reward. Maybe you help because you want to avoid some kind of punishment. Lots and lots of different explanations.

So, what Batson did is he tried to map them out, all the possibilities, and then test them to see which one was the correct one. How could he test them? Well, you could see what predictions each explanation will give. So, if this explanation is correct, it would predict people to behave this way. If this other explanation’s correct, it’ll predict people to behave in another way, and another way, another way, another way. So, different psychological explanations of motivation generate different predictions about who we would behave.

So, what he did was, he got people together, put them in these different situations, and see if they behave the way that was predicted. What’s the upshot of it? Well, time and again, the predictions failed. Every single prediction that was based on an egoistic motivation, a motivation that says I’m helping others so that I might benefit in some way, failed in the lab. The only explanation was a different motivational one that had to do with selflessness, being altruistic, caring about the good of others for their own sake. That explanation, time and time again, lined up with how people actually behaved in different situations.

So, his conclusion, after 30 years of research and well over 30 different experiments – I kind of lost track how many it was – was that the most plausible explanation in this particular instance is that people are motivated by selfless, non-egoistic motives to help others when they feel empathy for their suffering.

Brett McKay: So, I hear that. The thing that came to my mind when I read that was what about objectivist, right? Like, sort of Ayn Rand folks who say, “Well, yeah, people are altruistic, but they’re altruistic for selfish … Like, it feels good.” So, in the end, even altruistic motivations are selfish because, yeah, it does, it feels good when you help people. Like, I feel good whenever I help somebody.

Christian Miller: Right. Right. There are a couple of things to disentangle here. A quick side about Ayn Rand and objectivists. I’m not expert on their views, but what I see them typically being interested in is a different question about what we should do. So, rather than the empirical question, are we always as a matter of fact motivated by self interest, what they will often try to convince us is that we should be motivated by self interest, whether we are in fact motivated by self interest. So, their position is what’s called ethical egoism, which is an ethical theory about how we in fact should live our lives. Whether we want to get into that or not, I’m perfectly happy to. I personally think that’s a really hard theory to accept. Very, very problematic theory.

But, that’s not the main focus of your question. You’re saying, well, isn’t it often the case that, when we help others, we often feel good as well in the process? So, doesn’t that ultimately render all of our helpful behavior egoistic, benefiting ourselves? The key distinction I want to make here, this is one I actually like to use with my students, and I think it’s very valuable, is the difference between a goal and a mere side effect or byproduct. So, to take an analogy, when I’m driving my car, my goal is to get to my office, or wherever I happen to be going. A byproduct is that my car is omitting exhaust into the environment. That’s not my goal, unless I was some kind of weird polluter and my goal was to pollute the atmosphere as much as possible, but that sounds really strange. That’s not my goal. It’s just a byproduct, or side effect, of driving my car is that it pollutes the environment.

Well, apply that distinction and analogy here. When we help others, it is true that often times it is for egoistic or selfish reasons. You can’t deny that. But, what is interesting is that Batson’s research, and others have found, that in certain cases it seems like we care about the good of others, selflessly, independent of whether we benefit or not. And, if we happen to benefit, if we happen to feel good about it, pleased that we did it, that’s great, but it’s a mere side effect or byproduct. Our goal, just like in driving a car, is to get to the destination. Here, the destination is helping my friend, or relieving that person’s suffering in Africa. A side effect, or byproduct, like the exhaust, is I get to feel good or pleased about it in the process.

So, altruism needn’t be kind of begrudgery. Doesn’t need to be like I have to put myself through this with no benefit at all. You can benefit, it’s just not your goal. It comes along for the ride.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. That reminds me of, I think, something Viktor Frankl wrote about in “Man’s Search For Meaning”, is just like if you aim for happiness or joy or satisfaction, you usually miss it. So, I imagine if you go into an ethical decision thinking, well, I’m going to do the right thing because it’ll make me feel good, you probably won’t feel good, right?

Christian Miller: Exactly. That quote is absolutely in line with what I was just saying. So, if you’re trying in life to find happiness, and that’s your goal, for your own happiness, that may be a frustrating way to become actually happy. Better to invest yourself in other pursuits which have as a byproduct, or a side effect, that you become happy. A much more reliable way to actually become happy in life.

Brett McKay: So, a good person with good character, virtuous person, does the right thing consistently, for the right reasons. So, who are some examples, some concrete examples, flesh and blood examples of you would say, well, yeah, they’re probably a virtuous person?

Christian Miller: And that probably is important.

Brett McKay: Right.

Christian Miller: As we’ve talked about already, we can’t peer into the minds of others, and since motivation is essential to, we really can’t be sure. But, I think we can agree on some likely examples. We can go in a variety of different directions here.

You can actually go to fiction and look at some exemplars from works of fiction. For example, in Les Mis, the bishop who helps out Jean Valjean and gives him the candlesticks instead of sending him to prison. You can go to religious exemplars, and heroes throughout different religions. People like Jesus or Confucius or Buddha. You can just talk about heroes and moral saints and exemplars from the histories of different countries. So, in our case, we like to point to people like Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman.

The one other way to go though is to kind of look in your own life, and people who maybe don’t have a lot of celebrity status, but who you deeply admire for some aspect of their character. Maybe they’re not perfect in every respect, but in one respect they show a lot of integrity, or they exhibit a lot of courage in this case, or they stood up for something that they thought was just. This could be your neighbor, it could be a coworker, it could be a family member. There may be, and I hope there are, virtuous people in our day-to-day lives, and they actually can have a big psychological impact on our becoming better people too.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. So, vicious people, I think the obvious … Hitler would probably be one that people would say was probably a vicious person.

Christian Miller: Right. That’s a pretty safe one, I think. That’s my kind of go to one in my ethics classes.

Brett McKay: Right. It’s on the cover. You’ve got Hitler there, at the bottom there.

Christian Miller: That helps too. It’s right on the cover of my book, has the exemplar of vice. But, plenty of other ones we could talk about too. If you wanted to do political leaders, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Again, if you want to go fictional, you can say … Some fun ones to talk about are people like Scrooge, for example, or the Grinch, before he … You know, later, at the end of the book, before he has his conversion, the Grinch wants to steal Christmas. Then some ones that are a little closer to home in American society … I’m not going to get into any political matters here, but serial murderers and rapists. Ted Bundy and the like come to mind.

So, sadly, it’s easy to come up with examples of vice as it is easy to come up with examples of virtue.

Brett McKay: All right. So, those are the extremes, right? People who are virtuous, exemplars of people who are vicious. What about just most people? Are most people good? Are most people vicious? ‘Cause people have different approaches to that. Like, well, yeah, people are just terrible for the most part, and then they do good occasionally, or people are inherently good for the most part, and then sometimes they do bad things. What’s your take?

Christian Miller: Right. So, first we have to talk about what good and bad mean. Well, we’ve already done that. And then we have to next ask, well, how are we going to decide how most people are? I’ve already indicated I’m going to look to the psychological evidence, but that’s only one way to go here. You might want to look to other sources of information. But, being clear that I’m going to turn to psychology here, two things emerge to me. First of all, psychological research on what people think they’re like, and then psychological research which I think reflects how people actually are.

So, on the first one, people tend to have a high opinion of their own moral characters. If you give people a survey, say, from one to five, where one is poor character and five is very good character, most people will say they’re about a four out of five. They’re not going to say they’re perfect or they’re really very good, but they’ll say they’ve got pretty good character. That’s true not just in general, but on specific virtues like honesty and generosity. It’s also cross culturally been demonstrated. So, it’s true in Brazil just as it’s true in the United States. Now, is that accurate? Are peoples’ self assessments reflecting what their underlying character is like? My take away from my psychology research, where you actually put people into different situations and see, low and behold, what do they do, I tend to think that the assessments are inflated. My own as well. I should say that I’m not standing up here as some exception from the crowd who’s got it all figured out. I thought I had a pretty good character before I got into this research too, and I’ve had to kind of ratchet it down.

So, what I end up concluding is that we have what I call a mixed character, one which is not vicious … That’s good news there. Let’s not overlook the fact that it’s not vicious. But, on the other hand, it’s not virtuous either. So, our character is not good enough to qualify as virtuous, but not bad enough to qualify as vicious. It’s a mixed bag of some good features, which will, in many situations, lead us to behave quite admirably. But, on the other hand, some other features, which are morally quite disadmirable or unfortunate, which will, in certain situations, lead us to do terrible things. I’d be happy to give some examples of each.

But, as far as what my overall conclusion is, that’s where I understand most people to be like, where the most … This is important. I think of this as a bell curve, with some exceptions, as we’ve already talked about. There are some outliers on the virtue side, like Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman, and there are some outliers on the vicious side, people like Ted Bundy and Hitler. But, most of us, I think, are in this kind of murky middle.

Brett McKay: So, let’s look at some of the experiments and psychology that bolstered this argument that people are not either really virtuous or vicious. You could be either depending on sometimes the situation, right?

Christian Miller: That’s right. Shall we do the more positive or the more negative first?

Brett McKay: Let’s do bad news first, good news last.

Christian Miller: Okay. Get it out the way?

Brett McKay: Right.

Christian Miller: Okay. Well, I’ll give you one, and if you want some more examples, you can ask me for more. But, let’s take this one, because it’s pretty well established in the psychological research. Some other studies, there are some concerns these days about whether they’re replicating or whether they were just kind of one off, not really illuminative about our character.

But, this one goes back to the 1960s, and it’s been replicated time and time again, so it’s pretty solid. It has to do with helping, or in this case not helping when an emergency is going on. The early studies were what’s led to what’s now called the “bystander effect” or the “group effect”. They involve you coming into the lab, signing up and agreeing to be part of a study, taken into a room, given some materials to fill out, a survey. Your task is to fill out this survey. The person in charge leaves, comes back a few minutes later with another person who looks like they’re a different volunteer for the same study. They’re given the same materials to fill out and told to sit at the same desk, or some table, you’re at.

So, the two of you are working away at your survey materials. The person in charge has left, gone into her office, and so far so good. But, then, after a few minutes, you hear a loud crash, and then screams of pain. The person in charge is saying things like, “Ouch. Ouch. This bookshelf has fallen on top of me. Ouch. I can’t get it off. My leg. My leg. My leg.” What would you do? Well, I’m not going to ask you, I’m not going to put you on the spot, but overwhelmingly I think we would say, “I would do something.” People would say, “Of course I would come to the assistance of the person who’s just had this emergency in the next room.” Well, it depends. If the stranger who’s with you in the room doesn’t do anything and continues to fill out that survey as if nothing’s happened, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you will do nothing yourself.

In the original study from 1969, only 7% of participants did anything to help when that emergency happened in the next room, whether that was getting up and opening the door, or even just calling out and saying, “Do you need help?” Only 7% did anything. In contrast, when participants were by themselves … These were different people, different day, different study. When they were brought into the room, and put in a room by themselves filling out the survey, and then an emergency happens in the next room, 70% helped in that kind of situation. So, 70 versus 7. That’s a huge effect in psychology. It’s nice that the 70% helped, but really unfortunate, and I think a bad reflection on our character, that only 7% were willing to help when there was lack of helping seen by a stranger.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ve-

Christian Miller: That’s one illustration.

Brett McKay: Right. Like, we’ve seen this in real life. Like, not too long ago, there was that guy who had a heart attack during the middle of Black Friday sale at Target. He keeled over, and people just stepped over him.

Christian Miller: That’s right. Yep. So, I talk about that example, just to make sure that these studies are not something we’re treating as just academic exercises or something like that, that have no real world implications. This is a study that has clear real world implications. The particular one, I’ll elaborate a little bit more, that you’re referring to, is just one of hundreds of instances in our society where an emergency happens and there’s no helping, because people are in a group and they defer to what the group’s doing as opposed to rising to the challenge.

So, in this particular instance, this man in his sixties had a heart attack in a store. It was a Target store, Black Friday. There were lots of shoppers trying to get the best deals for themselves. He was doing some Christmas shopping in advance of Christmas. If you saw that happen, what would you do? Well, again, you would expect that you and others would come to the assistance of this man. But, it was a crowded store, and the deals were flying off the shelves pretty fast. So, what ended up happening is that the shoppers just ignored him. It’s not that they didn’t see him. They saw him, but they didn’t do anything. In fact, in some cases, they would turn around and go in the other direction, or even more dramatically, they would step over his body to make sure that they got to where they wanted to go.

It was only after quite some time that some nurses recognized what was going on and stepped up to the plate, called 911. But, unfortunately, he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. So, real world demonstration of a failure of character.

Brett McKay: Right. You see that, and you’re like, “Man, people are just terrible.” Like-

Christian Miller: Yeah.

Brett McKay: People suck.

Christian Miller: You could think that. In that particular instance, their behavior was not admirable. I mean, we should accept that, be upfront about that. But, it’s a jump to go from one behavior to how a person is in general. That’s a bad philosophical inference. It’s a bad behavior, but that does not automatically make a person a bad person. It needs to be weighed against other kinds of behavior, other instances where perhaps people are behaving quite admirably. If you like, I’d be happy to switch to some more positive news.

Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s get to the positives. All right. So, in some situations, when there’s lots of people, we tend to do the not good thing. What’s something like an example of people, shows that people are, no, people have the capability of doing good?

Christian Miller: Yeah. So, this will actually reference back to … The example that comes to mind most immediately references back to our earlier discussion of empathy.

So, in Batson’s research on empathy, we have already said that he’s seen how adapting an empathetic state of mind can lead to vastly increased helping. Let me give you a more specific illustration of this. In one of his studies, the participants were students in a class at a university, and the professor went into the class and described what had happened to another student at the university. Not in their class, but just at the … Some student that no one knew had been in a terrible car wreck and needed a lot of help. Well, what happened? Would the students in the class step up to the plate and help or not?

Well, it depended. If they were, and this is … let me do a little bit more set up first. If a group of those students had been given an empathy manipulation, in other words they had been told to try and think about the world from the perspective of the student that’s been in this terrible car wreck, and think about the suffering she’s undergoing, then those students were very willing to help out. 76% of them were willing to volunteer to help this student, Katie Banks, and on average donate an hour and a half of their time.

Now, this is a student who they’d never met, they’re probably never going to come across in their four years of college. They’ve got a lot on their plates, but they were willing to do that. As compared to another group of the students in the class, who had just been the control group, told just think about what had happened to Katie, but had been told nothing about adopting her perspective. Only 33% of them were willing to volunteer to help Katie. So, 33% versus 76% volunteering to help a stranger at their school, based upon whether they empathized with her suffering or not. That’s really impressive, I think. Really admirable.

Then, we add to that, the second thing we talked about already when it came to empathy, that their willingness to volunteer and help likely stemmed from selfless motivation, generally altruistic motivation, because they were concerned about the suffering of Katie for its own sake, and helping her in her difficult situation. That just makes it even better.

So, this is not limited to universities or to Katie Banks, or anything like that. It looks like we have, as part of our character, a genuine capacity to help others, selflessly, in a variety of situations. But, that’s alongside different capacities which will lead us to not help others in other situations. So, it’s a pretty mixed bag.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Another kind of mixed bag thing that you highlighted, some of the research you highlighted … So, everyone’s probably read about the research that was done in the 50s and 60s with electric shocks. Is it Milgram who did that?

Christian Miller: That’s right. Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brett McKay: Right. So, yes. Everyone probably has read that. So, some guy, you went in, and you were told that someone on the other side was taking a test, and if they got the answer wrong you were supposed to give them a shock, and the shocks got progressively higher and higher til basically you killed the person. The experimenter was over this participant’s shoulder and said, “Initiate the shock,” and people kept doing it. I guess this was to explain why people during the Holocaust were willing to murder people because they were ordered. Basically, they were putting the responsibility on the higher up for the bad behavior. They weren’t taking personal responsibility.

But, you even highlight … So, this experiment shows, yeah, people, if they’re put in that situation, they’re going to do terrible things. But, you say that, no, actually, the research, if you look at it more carefully, it’s a lot more … It’s a mixed bag, because when people were turning the notch up on this shock thing, they were distressed that they were doing it. So, that indicates these people weren’t terrible, they weren’t psychopaths. Like, they felt really bad about doing this. But, nonetheless, they did it anyway.

Christian Miller: That’s right. That’s really a helpful presentation. I think there are a couple of respects in which the Milgram studies, which seem like paradigm studies of bad character, don’t actually warrant that inference. So, what you’ve highlighted is the struggle that the participants went through. A vicious person, as we highlighted earlier, is someone who’s kind of wholeheartedly invested in doing what they’re doing, whether it’s being cruel or being selfish, or whatnot. They’re not very conflicted about it. They’re just kind of on board with it. They’re ready to go.

Well, the participants in this study, they … First of all, many of them verbally said things like, “Do I have to continue?” “Can I stop now?” And then the authority figure would put more pressure on them. They would say things like, “Please continue,” or, “We need these results,” or “You must go on.” So, they’re already showing verbal signs of hesitancy and conflict, but then there were also some kind of more internal psychological signs too. They would shake or they would be nervous, or afterwards they would be sweating a lot. Sometimes they would have breakdowns or they would be crying, or whatnot. But, not everyone. But, enough of them to suggest that this is not the picture of a vicious person. It’s a picture of a conflicted person, a person who’s really struggling with what the right thing to do is in a very, very challenging situation.

There’s another way you could also take it in a more positive direction too, which is that Milgram didn’t just do the famous version which we all know about, so the one where the participant comes in, turns up the dial, under pressure from the authority figure, and about 66% of participants go all the way to the XXX, or the lethal level of shock, try that in all kinds of other variations. For example, where there’s no authority figure at all. It’s just the participants, and the test taker in the other room. Well, in that kind of case, if people were really vicious, they could turn up that shock dial as much as they wanted. It’s not like anything’s really changed as far as inflicting pain on the other person, if they wanted to do that. But, low and behold, without the authority figure, participants overwhelmingly just went up a little bit. They turned up the shock dial a little bit, but then they stopped after it got clear that they were causing some harm, or so they thought, to the test taker.

So, I think there are multiple respects in which this study actually helps support my mixed picture of character as opposed to a really depressing picture of vicious character.

Brett McKay: So, as I’ve been hearing you describe these experiments, one thing that pops up is that context matters. But, that also raises another ethical question. A big one. Like, does free will exist, or do we just do what we do based on the situation we’re in and we don’t really choose? I imagine you have to think about that too, as a philosopher.

Christian Miller: Right. That’s a huge question. Maybe you should have me back for that one.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We’re not going to get that done in the podcast here.

Christian Miller: Let’s solve the free will problem here in five minutes.

Brett McKay: Right.

Christian Miller: So, being clear that this is a huge question, I’ll just give you the most preliminary answer I can. You’re right. It raises all kinds of interesting questions, one of which is free will, and related to that very closely is more responsibility and praise and blame. So, let me give you my real quick take on it.

Yes, these studies illustrate how much context matters. In one context, where there’s the authority figure next to you, that might lead someone to behave in a certain way. When there’s no authority figure in the Milgram study, it leads to a different behavior. When there’s a stranger in the room who’s doing nothing, you might do nothing yourself. When there’s no stranger in the room, you might rise to the occasion and help in an emergency. But, in a sense, we knew this all along, that context matters. I mean, what you do from moment to moment in your just ordinary life is very much a function of what kind of context you’re in, whether you’re going to eat or not, or whether you’re going to stand up or not, or whether you’re going to speak or not. It’d be very appropriate to speak in certain instances, context allows for it and encourages it, but in other instances it would be very inappropriate, the context does not allow us. Say, at a funeral, to just get up and start pontificating about something.

So, we already know that context matters a lot, but one thing that these studies illustrate is that context might matter in ways that are surprising, quite surprising, that we didn’t recognize before. We might not appreciate how the stranger’s behavior impacts us, or how the authority figure’s behavior impacts us so much. Okay. So, that’s one take away.

Directly the question of free will and responsibility. Let me give you a general consensus about what’s going on in philosophy, and then tie it to character more specifically. So, these days, in philosophy, there’s a large consensus that free will actually exists, despite what you might have heard from other sources, maybe in the popular media or not. A few people deny free will outright, but like I said, the overwhelming majority of philosophers are on board with free will.

Now, it’s crucial, in a longer discussion we’d have to really parse this out, to settle what we mean by free will. People mean different things, and there’s more inflated notions and more deflated notions. So, more robust notions and more minimal notions. Some people think that certain kinds of free will are available, and other kinds of free will are not available. My own take on this, and this is now coming back to what character is too, is that situation matters a lot, and environment matters, and context matters a lot. But, it’s not like it determines completely what we’re going to do. It’s an input into our psychology, it gives us information, but that our psychology then reflects on it, can reflect on it, can think about it, can process it, and can weigh up different choices as to how to proceed next. So, I can get this information about my situation now, and then I can ask myself the question, “Should I tell the truth, or should I tell a lie?” I can weigh different considerations for telling the truth and against telling the truth, etc, etc, and come to a conclusion about what I think is the right thing to do in that situation, and then subsequently perform that action.

The upshot, and the summary now, is that I think I can do that in a way that’s free and that’s praise worthy, or blame worthy, depending on whether I do the right thing or not. So, there’s still hope for agency in our psychology, even though agency is very much influenced by what’s going on in our situations.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, if context matters, plays a role in how we behave, and we do have agency in what we do, does it have complete control, what can we do to close that character gap? I think, I’m going to say 99% of our listeners here, they want to be good people. What can they do to become more virtuous?

Christian Miller: Right. Great. So, let me just like real quickly explain what the character gap is, and why I titled the book “The Character Gap”. I mean by the character gap just the gap between how we actually are, which I say is mixed bag, and how we should be as people, which I say is virtuous. So, there’s a gap, a character gap, between how most of us are, in fact not virtuous, myself included, and how we should be, which I say is a virtuous person. So, given that gap I think is pretty sizable, and the studies reflect that, we’re not just helpless. It would be really a shame if I had ended the book by saying, “There’s this gap, and sorry, see you later. Time to go home.”

But, fortunately, I think there are some concrete steps we can take to try and bridge the gap, or reduce the gap, or whatever metaphor you want to use. In the final section of the book, I outline some strategies which I think are not so promising, and I go into some strategies that I think are much more promising. So, the key idea here, though, is that I don’t think there’s any magic formula. There’s no 10 step procedure. If you just did this, this, this, this, this, bam, you’re going to be an honest person, or take some metaphorically some pill that’ll turn you into an honest person overnight. It’s a slow, gradual process that takes months, years and really an entire lifetime.

So, having said that, what is available? Well, I focus on three strategies, not as competitors, but actually I think we need all three and probably more as well. Maybe I’ll give you one or two of them, and you can tell me how much further you want to get into them. So, one to start us off has to do with exemplars and going back to our earlier conversation about good people, are there any examples of good people? So, there’s research that suggests that if we look to exemplars and moral saints, people who seem to have the virtues, and we admire them, we can also want to become more like them.

So, I look to Abraham Lincoln, and I admire how honest he was. But, I’m not just doing that at a distance, or maybe sometimes I am, just treating him as some kind of interesting curiosity. It can also have a psychological impact on me and inspiring me to emulate him, inspiring me to become more like him, not in every respect, but when it comes to matters of telling the truth. That’s been found to be true for more historical exemplars, but the most impactful ones tend to be those who are in our daily lives. The coworker, or the family member, or the neighbor who exhibits courage, or exhibits honesty, or compassion for the poor. Then I see that, and that has a direct impact on my own character, too. So, one strategy for bridging the character gap has to do with seeking out and finding and then emulating people who are already doing much better than us.

Another strategy, and I’ll stop at this one, has to do with learning more about our character, so we are more aware of the obstacles inside of us to becoming virtuous. So, when you read the psychological research, at least I am impressed that there are all kinds of ways in which we fall short of virtue that I didn’t even know where there, and all these obstacles like the group effect, for example. I was surprised to learn the impact that being in a group can have on my not helping others. Well, what I call “getting the word out strategy” involves learning more about these obstacles, whether it’s by reading the research.

That’s hard for people in our busy lives, but reading summaries of the research, reading popular presentations of the research, listening to podcasts about the research, learning more about these obstacles, so that we are more aware of them and can combat them when we need to, so that the next time I’m in a group and I see an emergency happening, someone’s fallen off their bike or is having a heart attack, or whatnot, and the rest of the shoppers or the people at the park are just acting like nothing happened, initially I might hesitate, not do anything myself, but then I might be reminded, wait a minute, why am I hesitating? This isn’t for any good reason. It may have to do with fear of embarrassment or something like that, or diffusion of responsibility onto the other people. That’s not legitimate. That’s not admirable. I need to step up to the plate here. Even though other people aren’t helping, that doesn’t justify my not helping. So, hopefully I will be more motivated to intervene. In fact, there’s some, but not many studies, which have found that to be the case.

Brett McKay: Then you talk about it also in the book that the chapter dedicated … Like, religion seems to do all these things in a systematic way, right? There’s like exemplars, moral exemplars. Christianity has Jesus. Buddhism has the Buddha. So, you look at these people, they inspire you. There might even by individuals within your congregation, or whatever, that inspire you to live virtuously. Even like scripture in different religions, they play at the fact that you have a tendency to do the wrong thing in certain situations, so understand that so you can do the right thing.

Christian Miller: Right. That’s exactly right. So, at the end of the book, I have a final chapter on religion. What I am thinking there is, look, most people these days report that they’re religious. This is also true throughout human history. At least the major world religions have had a lot to say about character. So, it would be a shame to not least take a look at some of their writings and see if there are some helpful insights which we can gleam from them, whether we’re religious or not.

So, prior to that chapter, I had just been discussing character improvement from a secular perspective, and then I switched to this religious perspective. For different audiences, I think it can still be helpful. For a secular audience, it can be helpful for them to see if there are some insights which might be applicable to them, kind of translated into more secular vocabulary, and still be useful for character improvement. Also, for religious audiences, let’s take a look at some of the ideas in your particular religious tradition that could be helpful supplements, or additions, to more secular approaches.

In this chapter, I focus specifically on Christianity, because I didn’t want to just do a really cursory overview of a variety of different religions. You know, like spend five pages on Hinduism and five pages on Confucianism and five pages on Judaism. I thought that would be so superficial and kind of insulting to the different religions. So, I wanted to dive deeper into one religion, but then also stress that a lot of what I say maps onto other religions as well. So, it’s not by any means suggesting, and I would strongly oppose the suggestion, that Christianity has some kind of unique role to play when it comes to character building, as if no other religion has anything valuable to offer.

So, with that kind of framing and background in mind, you’re quite right, Christianity, but also other religions, have lots to say about exemplars. They point to, say, Jesus as the role model to follow, and also in Christianity the mention of saints as well, and the early followers of Jesus, like the apostles. They’ll have some things to say about what the obstacles are to becoming a better person, and how we might combat them. They have often a lot to say about what specific practices we can engage in, in our daily lives or in our weekly lives, what concrete things we can do. Things like fasting, or tithing, which in Christianity is a commitment to give away a certain percentage of your income to charity, or prayer, or volunteer work. These kind of specific practices, confession is another one, which, if you commit to them, can in the long run have character building implications.

So, something like confession would involve telling others, a priest, friends, minister or whatever, about the wrongdoings in one’s life, which can foster things like humility, forgiveness and compassion. So, they have concrete practices that can be implemented and realized as a means of getting us further on the path of bridging the character gap.

Brett McKay: I imagine the community aspect is a big role too, right? You’re around other people who are all trying to motivate each other to do good.

Christian Miller: That’s right. That can be true in a secular context, too. But, it’s especially true in a religious context, because the religions I’m familiar with the most … I wouldn’t want to say all religions are like this, but the ones I’m familiar with the most outline practices for believers, or followers, to engage in, but they rarely say that you’re supposed to do that on your own. So, here’s what to do, and see you later, do your best. It’s rather here are some things to do which can be helpful, and low and behold, you’re not left to your own devices. You’re going to be surrounded by a community of there people who are going to be doing the same thing. That can be valuable in all kinds of ways.

They can mutually support each other. They can encourage each other. They can also provide exemplars and role models to each other, in some respect or other. They can, in a different way, be helpful in discipling and disciplining, words may make us a little bit uncomfortable. But, just kind of calling out ways we might fall short in a loving, or hopefully in a loving and encouraging way. So, it’s engaging in religious practices as part of a larger community, which is also engaging in those practices, in a mutually reinforcing and supportive way.

Brett McKay: Right. I also imagine too there’s the idea, all these different religions, there’s a belief that you can change, that you get better, right? They don’t assume like you’re just stuck like this. No. You have the power, with maybe the help of divine assistance, to transcend.

Christian Miller: That’s right. That’s right. It had better be like that way, because mostly it’s religions, also pride, moral praise and blame to people. So, they’ll praise you for certain good acts and blame you for certain bad acts, whether that’s God’s going to do that, or the Gods are going to do that, or karma’s going to do that, or something. So, it looks like we’re going to be held responsible. Well, if we can’t do anything to change our characters, then that might be unfair.

But, fortunately, the good news it that according to these religions, again, that I’m familiar with, I don’t want to say all, we have a certain kind of character, but that character is malleable. The expectation is that we, or perhaps we in conjunction with some divine assistance, are supposed to move our characters along in the direction that God, or the Gods, or the religious authority intends that character to be and wanted that character to be in the first place. This is, thankfully, a commitment that’s backed up as well by the psychological research. So, again, it would be unfortunate if religious views said, “You can change your character, and here’s some steps to do it,” and the psychological research said, “Oh, well, actually, when we do these studies it turns out that you can’t change your character. It’s stuck.” Well, that would be unfortunate, but it’s not the case. Psychological research backs up, on purely secular empirical grounds, the idea that character can change. Slowly, gradually, but still change over time.

Brett McKay: So, another take away from your research and your study of character that I think is important, that I took away from it, is that none of us … There’s a character gap. Like, there’s a way we think we should behave, but we fall short of it. We can bridge the character gap. It’s going to take a while. But, I think an important take away from that is we should cut each other some slack. Like, everybody some slack. I mean, grace. Maybe have some grace. Because, like, other people are going to do bad things in certain situations, but they’re also going to do praise worthy things in certain situations. So, instead of thinking that person’s terrible, well, maybe not. They might not be a terrible person, just the context, and maybe they’re trying to do better.

Christian Miller: That’s right. That’s very well put, and I actually wish I had said more about that in the book. I think that is definitely what I believe, but I think I didn’t emphasize it enough as I should of.

So, a couple of things strike me right off the bat. I would really commend the idea that we should not go from one action to a conclusion about someone’s character. So, just seeing someone cheat on a test, we should be very nervous or careful to go from that to the conclusion that person’s a cheater in general. So, action is one thing, character is another. In order to really get a good assessment of someone’s character, we need to see how they behave over time and in a variety of situations. We need a kind of rich mosaic of their behavior, and ideally also the underlying psychology, before we can reasonably make conclusions about their character.

Then, the other thing that really struck me about what you said, is that don’t be so sure that you wouldn’t do the same thing yourself. So, the Milgram experiment. Milgram, before he ran those experiments, asked people on the street, “What do you think you would do if you were in that kind of situation, if you had the chance to turn up that shock dial under pressure from an authority figure?” Well, most people said what a lot of us would say, which is, “I would never do that,” or, “I would only turn it up to a moderate amount, but I would never turn it all the way up to the lethal amount and kill someone.” Well, don’t be so sure about that. If you’re actually in that situation, you might behave deplorably too, just like participants actually did, 66% of them it turned out, when they were put in the situation that Milgram constructed.

So, I think your choice of the word “grace” is very appropriate here. We don’t want to go too far in the opposite extreme and just kind of excuse everyone’s behavior-

Brett McKay: Right. No.

Christian Miller: … and say, “Okay, you’re off the hook,” or, “Not that big a deal. Go back to your business.” But, when it comes to judging and forming conclusions based upon our judgment of other peoples’ character, let’s have some grace and let’s have some caution.

Brett McKay: Humility, yeah. Like, have some humility with yourself and with other people.

Christian Miller: That’s exactly right. I should have used the virtue term.

Brett McKay: Well, Christian Miller, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about your work? ‘Cause you’ve done a lot of research and writing about morality and ethics. I imagine there’s more.

Christian Miller: Sure. Well, based on our conversation, the natural starting point would be this book that we’ve talked about, “The Character Gap”. Beyond that, I would recommend that people perhaps visit my website, which they can find at Wake Forest just by Googling my name and Wake Forest. I also am on Twitter and on Facebook at CharacterGap, that’s one word, no space, CharacterGap.

But, then finally, I welcome people reaching out to me directly. So, my email address is on my website too. If someone has a question about character or ethics more generally speaking, I can’t promise I will get back to you the very same day, but I will work really hard to get back to you within a few days and help, either say some things of a hopefully helpful manner or point the person to some readings which might be useful for that person. So, I’m happy to be a resource in thinking about these matters.

Brett McKay: You know someone’s going to ask you about free will, is it exists.

Christian Miller: Well, I’ll just tell them to go read some book.

Brett McKay: Right.

Christian Miller: There are a couple of good books out there which would be a great starting point.

Brett McKay: Christian Miller, thanks so much for coming on. This has been great.

Christian Miller: Thank you so much for having me on.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Christian Miller. He’s the author of the book “The Character Gap: How Good Are We?”, and it’s available on Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at We’ve got over 4000 articles there. Also, if you haven’t done so already, really appreciate it if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it.

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