A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Mark Coppenger
I’m glad I read this book, but I have to admit I’d hoped and thought I’d appreciate it more. I ended up feeling the way I do about opera, which has been said to combine unsatisfying drama with tiresome music. In this case, Miller’s effort to amalgamate social science, philosophy, and theology, resulted in somewhat overblown social science and somewhat underblown philosophy and theology.
Miller argues that truly virtuous and truly wicked people are few and far between. Virtues and vice are rarely pure and virile. Instead, most of us galumph along in the valley between the peaks of virtue and vice, showing promise here and there but then making sorry spectacles of ourselves elsewhere, destroying out pretense/conviction of righteousness. We make our way typically between the horrors of total depravity and the cheery refrains of “Up with People.”
Okay. On the it’s-worse-than-you-think side, we can join the chorus of Puritans who say, “Even our repentings need repenting,” for we’re often playing the confession “game” for selfish motives. On the it’s-not-as-terrible-as-you-might-think side, we can mine different aspects of the imago Dei, including our ethical heart-engravings (cf. Romans 2:14-15), for encouragement. So we can track with him on this basic point.
Incidentally, if you have an hour, you can get an good overview of the book, plus Miller’s personal and academic context, thanks to an interview on newbooksnetwork.com, led by Vanderbilt philosophy chairman, Robert Talisse, co-author with colleague Scott Aikin, of Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief.
Character Gap is fruit of the Character Project, which is funded by a multi-year grant from the Templeton Foundation, one that draws on the work of twenty-eight philosophers and psychologists from around the world. (You can gauge the range of his efforts at sister sites, thecharacterproject.com, studyofcharacter.com, and thecharacterportal.com.) The book has three parts, the first an overview of takes on character, virtue, and vice; the second homing in on helping, harming, lying, and cheating; the third on some strategies to improve our character, such as nudging and modeling, and yes, appealing to divine assistance.
Back to the three aspects of this “opera”: We might expect more substantial philosophical rumination since Miller majored in philosophy at Princeton, did his doctoral work on the objectivity of morality at Notre Dame, and has been professor of philosophy at Wake Forest for fourteen years. But the philosophical offerings are thin. Yes, he cites such heavyweights as Aristotle and Kant along the way and submits a version of Pascal’s Wager, But, on the big question of what in the world he’s talking about when he speaks of “moral character traits,” he demurs, as in this footnote:
Naturally you might wonder what the definition of “morality” is and how I know whether a character trait belongs in the moral category or not. I wish I knew the answer to these questions too! Frankly no one has been able to come up with a very good answer. Instead, it is more a matter of knowing it when you see it.
And in a subsequent footnote, explaining why he’s focusing on “relatively uncontroversial examples,” he observes that “trying to sort this debate out would require a long discussion that would sidetrack us from the main focus on character,” so he chooses “to focus on examples of widely accepted virtues and vices, and make claims about them that [he hopes] will be plausible for readers regardless of where they think morality comes from.”
For my money, his refusal to show his metaethical cards, his foundational convictions, is strange. He sounds as though he’s an intuitionist of the G.E. Moore or W.D. Ross school, determined to avoid the so-called “naturalistic fallacy” of translating talk of goodness or duty into talk of something else, like the will of God or human flourishing. Why not clear that up in just a sentence, even a footnoted one? Instead, he says essentially that it doesn’t matter since we pretty much all know what’s what.
Furthermore, how are we to take his saying that “no one has been able to come up with a very good answer,” a claim he introduces by the patronizing ‘Frankly’? Is he saying we neophytes shouldn’t bother ourselves with something philosophers have failed at for millennia? Or that there’s no good answer to this since, by its very nature, it’s unanswerable? (Imagine a theologian saying about the Incarnation or Atonement or Trinity, “Frankly, no one has been able to come up with a very good answer.”) Theologians’ heads would explode. And, to extend the comparison, how much regard should we grant widespread assent? Do we build soteriology on the observation that “the vast majority of religious people on earth agree that righteousness is works based”?
In practical terms, Miller’s approach serves to insulate him from criticism when he repeatedly plays the “we all know that” and “of course, we wouldn’t say that” cards, for his is the self-proclaimed voice of cool, near-universal reason. Where do we go when we have a question about his calls, since, by stipulation, he speaks for everybody who is anybody? Where is his objective foundation, the one from which we could draw implications revealing possible problems? And when we read that he tells his students that real philosophers are “fair to all sides” to a dispute, how do we apply that to the moral status of pedophiles or human traffickers? Do ethically balanced and circumspect people find some sort of middle ground, always taking an on-the-one-hand-and-then-on-the-other position? So many questions, but they don’t much count in this book. (Case in point: If Miller’s reading of “Christlikeness” shades toward tenderness, are we to count Barnabas more virtuous than John the Baptist? What does he provide us to sort this out?)
Be that as it may, the sociological and psychological matters get the lion’s share of attention and respect. In this connection, Miller provides a rich survey of fascinating examples, both gratifying and horrifying. On one side, we have the stirring story of Leopold Socha, who led Jews to safety through the sewers of Lvov, and Paul Farmer, who doctored AIDS patients in horrendous settings. The contrasting monstrosities he lists include Hitler and Stalin. He also takes us on a fascinating tour of the research, including the scary Milgram studies and uplifting “Katie Banks” experiment, with its “empathy-altruism” component.
I’m a bit less sanguine than Smith about the conclusions that such clinical set pieces are supposed to establish. He repeatedly suggests that more research will clear things up, but I’m not convinced that social scientists are sufficiently dispassionate and epistemologically imaginative to pull it off. (There’s a reason they’re called “soft sciences” as distinct from the “hard sciences” of chemistry and physics; think, for instance of the social science of polling.)
As a graduate student at Vanderbilt in the early 1970s, I was browsing the trade-book section in philosophy when the student beside me made his selection and headed for the checkout about thirty feet to my left. I noticed him out of the corner of my eye moving briskly past the register and leaving the bookstore. It seemed odd, but I didn’t have a clear fix on what had happened. The clerk didn’t object, and, for all I knew, the student was rushing to class or a prospectus defense, tossing down a $10 or $20 bill (back when academic paperbacks could be had for $5) with a “Keep the change.” Or maybe he’d brought back an irregular copy of the same book and had cleared a swap in advance. At any rate, I was disinclined to yell “Stop!” or pursue a confrontation out on campus. (By the way, I was told recently by a mall worker that they’re instructed not to chase shoplifters out of the store, since liability over humiliation and false charges, plus the chance of evasive or retaliatory violence, were real dangers, not worth the hassle.)
About five minutes later, another student came up to me where I’d continued to scan the shelves and explained that I’d been the subject of an experiment and that, in effect, I’d failed to do the right thing. I protested that I didn’t know what was going on. Nevertheless, I’m confident that I went down in the report as an indifferent observer, the sort of person who would have let Kitty Genovese die on a Queens sidewalk in 1964.
As for theological perspectives, he bends way over backwards to show he’s even handed among the world’s religions. He does close with a word of appreciation for Christian resources, even quoting scripture and mentioning the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification. But he ignores the matter of regeneration. And while we’re on the topic of biblical data that he ignores, I should mention God’s repeated promise of heavenly rewards (which, on Miller’s model, could taint the virtue of one who considered them) and God’s moral endorsement of such people as Job and Simeon, not to mention those in the faith “hall of fame” in Hebrews 11. (A little more “integration of faith and learning” in the scriptural mode would have been welcome.) Instead, he lionizes such predictables as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Desmond Tutu, whose detractors he might well have noted, “being fair to all sides.” (cf. The Gandhi Nobody Knows by Richard Grenier; The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens; and chroniclers of the Anglican defense of traditional marriage, who found no help from South African Archbishop Tutu.) Furthermore, one wonders here and there whether his scale is reasonable. (Think, for instance, of the naïf who snorts at Ted Williams’ lifetime batting average of .344—“Pathetic! Two thirds of the time, he didn’t even get a single, much less a home run.”)
Perhaps one should appreciate Miller’s restraint as he speaks to a non-evangelical audience, exercising diplomacy in the service of witness in a hostile land. But the line between prudence and gratuitous ingratiation is fuzzy, and it’s hard to tell when someone with some conservative credentials evolves into a David Gergen on CNN. If you listen to the podcast interview with crusading atheist Robert Talisse, you’ll notice that Smith makes no mention of the last chapter, the one about possible divine assistance. And when your book has to pass muster with series editor and crusading atheist Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, you have to wonder if The Character Gap is an opera composed to please wrong audience.
Mark Coppenger is Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Review Editor for Apologetics here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
THE CHARACTER GAP: HOW GOOD ARE WE?, by Christian B. Miller