Confessions: How can we talk about character and ethics?

The Oklahoma County Courthouse facade, facing Park Avenue in Oklahoma City, Okla. 
Severalrole plays in thenew prison curriculum lacked realism, she said. And she wanted to know how I got a job writing character-training material for prisoners.

It was family day for the faith and character pods at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ Mabel Basset Correctional Center. She had a tear tattooed in the corner of her eye, and I had a feeling her...balogna...meter was finely tuned.

The DOC had contracted with my then employer, Character First, to see whether character-based programming could―in connection with anger-management, cognitive behavior change, and other programming―change the culture for long-term prisoners.

Apparently it was obvious I didn't have much experience in prison.

But her question triggered two questions in my mind. First, on what basis can we talk about ethics? Because we talked about various character qualities―aspects of personal integrity―we had to give some rationale for what makes good and bad behavior. Most of the other curriculum I’ve seen focused on other variables.

“Thinking for a Change” uses terms, such as "action plan―a chosen plan for dealing with a particular problem" or "thinking choices―different attitudes and thoughts I could have had." As participants work through each unit of the curriculum, they add additional vocabulary focused on the social and thinking skills needed to change behavior patterns. These approaches have merit, particularly when verified by research. And by defining goodness essentially in terms of prosocial behavior, the writers avoid a lot of philosophical debate.

But avoiding a philosophical debate is not the same thing as avoiding a philosophical position. Teaching people to relate to one another in terms of prosocial behavior makes certain assumptions about what it means to be human and how the individual relates to others.

These approaches also involve assumptions about the nature of reality overall.  

Character First's approach seems to assume we live in a broken but ethical universe governed by a set of laws―something like the laws of physics―with which humans can be more or less in tune. 

Character First definedfaith as “confidence that actions rooted in good character will yield the best outcome, even when I cannot see how,” discernment as “understanding the deeper reasons why things happen,” and virtue as “the moral excellence evident in my life as I consistently do what is right.”

But there are always questions when desired results tend to benefit those who have power...employers or prison managers for example...and that brings up my second question: who benefits from the ways we talk about character?

In the day-to-day work of developing a curriculum, it’s easier to tell people what to do than to walk beside them through their challenges. We think we understand. So we stop letting them explain.

David Vishanoff, associate professor in the University of Oklahoma religious studies program, has been one of my primary influences as I've wrestled with these issues. As part of his personal experience as a Christian believer in conversation with secular academics and others in his field of religious studies, he has articulated an approach based on the idea of loving one's neighbor rather than defending one's belief system.

He points out in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus describes the other not only as someone to whom his hearers can give, but also as someone from whom his hearers can receive—not just someone whom they can teach, but someone from whom they can learn. In conversations I've been privileged to have with him, he's stressed not studying books that tell how others think but studying others...and allow them to explain themselves, whether through texts or in person.

Notlong after we started work on the Character First prison curriculum, Character First hired Jeffery Boothe. He had been in prison for a couple of years and was serving his remaining time in work release when another client sent him our direction. We had the obvious conversations―“Is this a realistic situation?” “Is that even an issue prisoners struggle with?”―but the greatest benefit Boothe brought to our team was the opportunity to know him, to hash out the finer points of the “no snitching” culture, to hear him wrestle with his experience.

In many ways, a discussion of character lends itself to this kind of engagement because it emphasizes the intersection of ethical concepts and lived experience. In his book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” David Brooks presents a narrative of human experience, incorporating the insights gained from recent neurological research.  

In the “morality” chapter, he questions common rationalist assumptions about thinking and acting, and he points out the influence of the intuitive, subconscious mind in shaping the way an individual sees and feels.

Brooks points out the sense of justice small children display. He stresses how institutions teach people all kinds of little rules for getting along. And he observes how conscious choices can nudge and shape the direction of the subconscious mind.

In “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis uses the word “Tao” to refer to the traditional ethical standard found in various cultural and religious traditions. And he answers both those who would seek another basis for human behavior and those who would do away with ethical standards altogether.

On the surface, Lewis' argument appears similar to Brooks' argument, but where Brooks sees a synthesis created by the sometimes contradictory pull of various moral intuitions—sacrificing one's life for a cause and preserving the species for example—Lewis sees evidence that instinct is an inadequate basis for morality because a person must appeal to some moral standard in order to weigh any synthesis.

The difference can be more subtle than it first appears. Brooks leaves open the question of whether human moral experience is capable of infinite variation. Thus, we could argue Brooks merely describes the origin of the “Tao.” 

Lewis seems less concerned with how ethics come to be. So we might argue that a scientific description of how humans experience ethics isn't necessarily out of line with Lewis' “Tao”—or natural law as some call it. 

But Lewis' fundamental objection remains—the variability of human “instinct” makes it a difficult basis for any idea of rightness. Brooks admits some contradiction between particular moral intuitions. But he argues these rational contradictions point to the inadequacy of the rational approach at least as a guide in daily decision making.

In “Ten Theories of Human Nature,” Leslie Stevenson and David L. Haberman develop a critical theory with which to compare religions, philosophical systems, and more recent theories. 

In the introduction, they write: “In our wide sense, a 'theory of human nature' encompasses: (1) a background metaphysical understanding of the universe and humanity's place in it; (2) a theory of human nature in the narrower sense of some distinctive general claims about human beings, human society, and the human condition; (3) a diagnosis of some typical defect of human beings, of what tends to go wrong in human life and society; (4) a prescription or ideal for how human life should best be lived, typically offering guidance to individuals and human societies.”

Parts three and four of their analysis involve more specifically ethical questions, but it also places ethical considerations in a context that deals with what is real and what is human. Granted, some “theories of human nature” might give ethics a stronger position within their understandings of what is real and human, but this approach gives us an opportunity to engage those ideas too.

In his book, “Naming the Elephant,” in which he critiques his previous work, “The Universe Next Door,” James Sire observes, “All worldviews have at least some operative concept of the passing of time and its relation to both human and nonhuman reality. Folklore, myth, and literature around the world from the ancient past to the present tell stories that put present human reality in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning. They act as orienting patterns.”

He takes as an example the Apostles Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell;
the third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty;
from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Christian Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting. Amen.

In just two lines, this ancient statement of belief brings together what H. Porter Abbot in “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative” calls the basic elements of a story—entities and events.

When a person assents to this story, he or she is not making theoretical statements but claiming a particular relationship to the story and adopting a way of perceiving the world—in this case seeing God as the ultimate entity and all things in the context of God.

Sire also argues, “How we view life affects the life we live; it governs both the unconscious actions we engage in and the actions we ponder before acting.” As Sire quotes Wilhelm Dilthey as he's quoted by David Naugle in “Worldview: The History of a Concept:” “Every true worldview is an intuition which emerges from the standing-in-the-middle-of-life.”

I suggest this intersection of moral perception and lived experience forms the narrative whereby we understand our ethical obligations and is formed by the narratives within which we see ourselves. Thus, examining these narratives can help us more fully understand disagreements such as the one between Lewis and Brooks and can help us interrogate our own ethical understandings.


  1. Wow. You've posed some very good questions indeed. I have no answers to share, but I will definitely be thinking. :-)

    1. Thinking is a good thing. And if you ever want to share your thoughts... :)

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  3. This reminded me of a discussion(argument) back in college I had with another student (in an I.T. class of all places) over where our ethics and actions originate. At the time I argued the plethora of good examples we have to choose from throwing out excuses, he argued that it stopped at ones immediate environment. I'm not sure how strongly I'd argue the same now but I still wonder what it takes to get someone to look outside their own environment and seek something new.
    I liked this post and that Chesterton quote is priceless.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, man! That sounds like a fun discussion. So what have been the fruits of your wonderings?

      Getting out of our own way is hard. In practical experience, what's outside ourselves and our accustomed environment has to break in on us or we have to reach out. The problem being that we prove remarkably adept at explaining everything in terms of what we already think...and ignoring what doesn't fit.


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