What is unique about the Jewish tradition’s approaches to altruism and charity, and how does it contrast with the Christian view that has generally been dominant in Western society? Why are supposedly evil inclinations like the yetzer hara actually crucial to human thriving, and does it matter what motivates a charitable act? Christian B. Miller, PhD studies many of these questions, and how they contribute to the overall notion of human character – whether humanity has done well up to now, and what we could be doing differently in the future.
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Christian B. Miller, Ph.D. is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University, director of The Honesty Project, and author of The Character Gap: How Good Are We?.
Next week, March 16th, at 2 PM EST, we will be speaking with Tiffany Shlain, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, founder of the Webby Awards, and author of the national bestselling book 24/6: Giving up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Welcome, everyone, to Episode 13 of Sacred Science: Gleaning Wisdom from Science and Religion. I am Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, I’m the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, which bridges the worlds of religion and science and while I am sitting here in New York, sitting in his home in North Carolina is Professor Christian Miller, who is the A. C. Reed Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University, the Director of the Honesty Project, and author of the book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? I read his book, The Character Gap, maybe two or three years ago, and was absolutely blown away by it as doing terrific work on questions of honesty.
He’s now writing a monthly column for Forbes, has gotten multiple grants from the John Templeton Foundation, and is doing such interesting work on the interplay of science and religion and philosophy and questions of ethics. And so, Christian, it’s wonderful to be sitting here with you.
Christian Miller: It’s really great to be with you, thank you for the very kind introduction. I look forward to our conversation today.
Geoffrey Mitelman: So, I want to start by – because your Twitter handle is @CharacterGap, which I know is the first book that you wrote. How do we define character? What does that even mean? How do we even understand it and all its different facets here?
Christian Miller: Yeah, it may be very hard to define. I mean, it’s a complicated notion. I could take a stab at it and maybe get some light on it. So, I’m thinking of character as moral character. I’m focusing on that side of our character, our moral character. The question of “how good are we” is the question of moral character, I think. I’m thinking of character as your character traits, so your traits of character, and I’m thinking of those as kind of dispositions to think, feel, and act a certain way. So, I’m giving you that kind of abstract philosophy characterization, [and] I’ll give you some examples to make it a little bit more concrete in a second.
So, our character is made up of a bunch of character traits that lead us to think a certain way, feel a certain way, and then subsequently act a certain way in the world. And some of those character traits can be really, really good – we call those the moral virtues. Some of those traits can be really, really bad – we call those the moral vices. And some of those traits can be somewhere in the middle, and I call those “mixed character traits.” They have some good sides and some bad sides to them.
So, let’s take it a little bit notched down in abstraction. Take those character traits which are really good – the virtues. Honesty is one which we’ll probably be talking about later. So, I’ll save that one into our discussion in a minute, but how about something like compassion? Compassion is a trait of character. A compassionate person has that trait, it leads that person to think in a compassionate way, think about things like, “It’s important to help others in need,” “this person’s needs matter more than my needs,” things like that, to feel or be motivated a certain way – so, [to] selflessly help others, rather than helping others for my own benefit selfishly.
And those thoughts and feelings in turn can give rise to an outward expression in behavior, where I actually help someone. So, that’s what you would expect of a compassionate person who has that trait as part of their character. They would think in a compassionate way, feel a compassionate way, and act in a compassionate way.
Geoffrey Mitelman: You know, it’s interesting as you’re bringing this up, that one thing that often comes up in Judaism and conversations about Judaism, of tzedaka versus charity. Often the word “tzedaka” is translated as the word “charity.” But charity, from a Christian perspective, from– not just your name, but– charity coming from the Latin of Caritas, of how you’re feeling towards someone, versus tzedaka, in Judaism, is the root of tzedek, of justice, that in many ways, it almost doesn’t matter how you feel. You have a certain responsibility to give a certain amount of your income, for example.
And so, I think there’s an interplay, and this comes up in all what it means to be human, but it definitely certainly plays a lot in religion and different elements of Judaism versus Christianity, of how much of it is our internal motivation leading us to act in a certain kind of way. Like, “I’m charitable, therefore I will help people versus outside,” and of, “Look, it doesn’t matter what I want to do, I have a responsibility towards society, and the outward behavior then may actually impact our internal senses here.”
So, how does that play that itself out, philosophically or psychologically?
Christian Miller: Yeah, it does, that’s great. So, those kinds of two different emphases show up all over the place. They show up in Christianity, they show up in Western philosophical ethics as well. So some ethical traditions have emphasized more just outward behavior, and following rules.
So, Emmanuel Kant is famously associated with this. He is a very duty-driven, duty-bound, ethical code, “you have to act this way, you don’t act this other way, and motivation is not as important.” Other ethical systems, in the West at least– which I’m more familiar with than other parts of the world – emphasize internal states as much, if not more than, outward behavior. So Aristotle would be an example of that. Aristotle is the kind of leader of the virtue movements along with Plato, and he says, “Look, in order to be a really good person or virtuous person, you have to have the right kind of heart or motivation behind your action as well as good behaviour.”
You know, my own view is that you can think of it, maybe, as a spectrum. Look, on the one hand, it’s better that a person acts well as opposed to not acting well. So, look, if we make progress in that direction, instead of cheating, lying and stealing, you do the honest thing, that’s already great progress, and that’s the thumbs up, and I’ll take that nine times out of ten. But then there’s another, I think, a further step one can make, which is to do the right thing for the right reasons. And that’s going to take you further down the path to being a virtuous person. And so, I’m moved by examples like this.
You know, this is an example from the philosopher, Michael Stocker. Suppose you’re in the hospital and you’ve been there for a while, no one’s come to visit you, there’s a knock on the door – in comes your best friend through the door. And you say, “Look, oh, great to see you, I’ve been wondering where you were.” And your friend says, “Yeah, I just want to come and see you and check up on you, and see how you’re doing.” Okay, good behavior – thumbs up. You know, better than not seeing me at all, and just leaving me alone in the hospital. But then what’s the motivation?
So, you say to your friend, “Why are you coming to visit me?” And your friend says, “Well, I was bored. I didn’t have anything else to do,” or, “I really would need to get some more, you know, good credits with God so that I can get rewards in the afterlife,” or “I didn’t want to feel guilty if I didn’t come to visit you,” or “If I’m in need, I want you to come to visit me.”
These, to me, rub me the wrong way. These would be uncomfortable answers, because they are not the right kind of motivation behind the action. So, better still, if my friend came to visit me because he cares about me, or because he loves me, or because he is my friend, that’s what I would expect of a truly virtuous person.
Geoffrey Mitelman: And it sounds almost like Maimonides, Rambam, has eight levels of tzedaka, of each one is greater than the last, of one giving grudgingly or giving less than one should, and then, each one is, look, each one is better than the last, and it is a spectrum and actually for Rambam the highest tzedaka has been able to give somebody a way to get out of poverty in and of itself. But that is an element, right? There’s, yes, it’s better than nothing but there are always levels that you can be moving up as well,
Christian Miller: Right, yes, and I can nuance this a little bit more. So, I’m not familiar with the tradition you’re referring to, but you know, the kind of spectrum. I was sketching a little bit – you could take it a step further and say, “Well, okay, how about that motivation?” If it’s conflicted, even if it’s predominantly good, if it’s conflicted, that’s not as good as being wholehearted.
So, now we’ve got three levels: the person who acts well, but for not very good motives at all, the person who acts well and for good motives, but out of a state of conflicting motivation, so they were tempted to do the wrong thing, but they overcame that temptation and still did the right thing. And then the person who’s even higher up on more of a level – Aristotle would say this – who’s not conflicted at all, who wholeheartedly does the right thing for the right reasons, without experiencing any temptation to do the wrong or the bad. That’s a very hard, high standard to meet. That’s why it’s a spectrum, and then hopefully you make some gradual progress in that direction, but that’s a hard one to attain to.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Well, and it’s interesting [that] when you were talking about compassion, also, there are a couple of pieces that come up in Judaism where there’s some tension there, or it’s not quite as Aristotelian, where there’s one phrase where it says, actually, “Someone who is compassionate, when they should be cruel, will ultimately be cruel, when they should be compassionate,” and is the phrase there.
So, sometimes giving somebody too many chances in some ways that can ultimately backfire. And then there’s another piece too that says, there’s an idea in Judaism, it’s called the Yets. It’s a terrible translation called the Yetzer HaRa, which is described as the inclination to do evil.
But the rabbis also say that we’re not for this inclination and it’s often a desire for sex or for power, or for different things that can ultimately be very destructive. There is a little bit of an ego drive that needs to happen, the rabbis say, without the yetzer hara, no one would ever get married, no one would ever start a business, right? So, they talk about [how] there are elements of this, where even you think something is a pure virtue can–there are pieces of it where if it goes to too much of an extreme in one way and it can actually subvert what you’re trying to do.
Christian Miller: Interesting. Okay, so I was thinking of a couple of things while you were saying that. One, I was thinking of how this might relate to notions of sin and original sin, that no matter how well one tries to become a virtuous person, there’s always going to be this condition, sometimes called an original sin.
But I was also thinking this might fit an Aristotelian picture in the following sense, what you were saying. There’s not just one virtue, there are multiple virtues, and one virtue in isolation, well, that they typically have a pattern of being virtues, then vices, of excess and vices of deficiency.
So, taking in isolation, a virtue could become excessive and turn into a vice. But in this Aristotelian picture, it’s not just compassion by itself, it’s all these other virtues, and they are not always harmonious. There can be times in which we have to not act according to one virtue for the sake of another virtue, so that overall, one does the virtuous thing.
And I think that your example would fit that pattern there. That’s issues about practical wisdom and “How do we decide between conflicting virtues?”, and lots more to be said there, but maybe I’ll stop.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Well, and we talked about this, actually, last week. We were talking with Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Crane, who’s a professor of bioethics at Emory. And one of his colleagues that you probably know, Paul Root Wolpe, who did a TED Talk, delivered something where he said that “Ethics is not the difference between right and wrong. That’s actually, in some ways very easy, the big ethical questions are right versus right.” And that’s when the harder questions are, trying to be able to say, “Wait for a second, is it privacy versus transparency?” You can make arguments on both sides.
So, the really difficult ethical questions are not, “Should I steal or should I not steal?” But the bigger societal questions are the ones that come into what you were talking about, of the practical wisdom.
Christian Miller: Yeah, I would have to think about that one some more. I’ve never actually thought of that idea, that it’s always a choice between right and right, because in a sense, how could you have two actions which are different, and have them both be right in the same circumstance? That’s – I have to get my mind around that a little bit.
I do think this is true. A lot has to be done upfront to just categorize what’s going on and make sure we label it in the right way. Is this, like you said, an act of honesty or dishonesty, or privacy or transparency, or whatever?
And I also think that ethics is really messy, so that you can… so maybe I’ll agree with this point. It’s somewhat easy to come up with general rules, Ten Commandments, general societal norms and regulations, but what often happens is that those things can come into conflict in a particular situation, or there might be exceptions to them. And so, the details of the concrete case really matter, and that’s where things get messy, and that’s where you need practical wisdom to sort through. Okay, this is a case where the Nazis are at the door, I’m hiding Jews in the basement. I could tell the truth, [and] if I tell the truth there, Nazis will come in and kill the Jewish family in the basement, but if I lie then I can protect the Jewish family. But I’m violating the rule that says, “Do not lie.”
And what about my own situation? What about my family? What about the chances of protecting this family in the future? So, all these kinds of complex features of the situation come into play when you have to sort through it. No simple rule’s going to help you. You need the discernment of practical wisdom, or a more nuanced situation-by-situation discernment or perception of what the most important moral feature of the situation is, and go from there.
Geoffrey Mitelman: And that’s a lot of what Judaism aims to be able to do, and that’s why those Jewish law is reams and reams and reams of discussions, because you can’t just say, “Well, love your neighbor as yourself,” like, yes, right?
But you know, it’s because there are some interesting questions that come up. It actually comes up in the Talmud, but it’s become very relevant over the last couple of years, of – there’s this great conversation of – imagine that there’s somebody who’s a wealthy donor and wants to give multi-millions of dollars to a hospital or to the synagogue, or wherever it is. They want to make multi-millions of dollars, but they profit off of slave labor, or they’re strip mining, so where they get their money from is at best questionable.
If the synagogue doesn’t get this $3 million donation, it will go under, or won’t get this wing, or whatever it needs, does that institution have the right, the responsibility, the willingness, to be able to say, “Yes, I’m going to accept that, but there are questions of honesty and integrity from both sides there?”
Christian Miller: Yeah, for sure. And I’m reticent to make a blanket rule about all those kinds of cases. Maybe there are some cases where the money was acquired, but through minor wrongdoing. Maybe some ways or cases where the money was acquired through tremendous wrongdoing. I would want to say you could never accept a donation like that, so long as there was some wrongdoing involved or other. It has to be case by case. But what I also would want to caution against is taking this in a kind of relativism direction. By that, I mean where there’s no right answer, or it’s just a matter of opinion because that’s a real danger when we have this kind of conversation about the complexity and nuance of ethics.
People could just say, “Well, okay, what you’re really just saying is [that] it’s ‘each person should decide for themselves,’ and there’s no right or there’s no wrong here. It’s right, according to my opinion; wrong, according to your opinion.” And I would want to resist that very strongly. I do think there are right answers here, just going to be case by case, hard to dissect.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Right. And I think that there are certain universal values that manifest themselves differently in different cultures and different languages, right? There’s no – I can’t imagine any culture that is going to say, in its own language, “stealing is good,” right? Like, “I encourage people to steal.” There are pieces of saying we want to have a level of integrity and honesty here.
But I’d love to actually unpack a little bit, because you’re doing this really interesting project funded by the Templeton Foundation, about the Honesty Project, and would love to hear a little bit about that work and spend a few minutes about that, and the nuances there.
Christian Miller: Yeah, sure. Well, but I need to [boil it down] for a few minutes, but we’ll see how much you can get. So let me give you a little context and background about that.
So, we were talking initially about character and more general issues about virtue and vice. I wrote this book called The Character Gap, and then I pretty much kind of moved on from that. I said what I wanted to say, I got kind of restless, wanted to do something else, came across honesty as a topic that philosophers had said very little about. It’s what I call a “neglected virtue.” And not in the sense that it’s unimportant, it’s very important in society, but in the sense that there are almost no writings and philosophy in many other fields unpacking what it means to be an honest person.
“So,” I said, “let’s see what I can do here.” And we wrote an article that got kind of morphed into a book, and then got the interest of Templeton and became a big project. So, to me, it turns out that honesty is an extremely complicated and nuanced virtue that it would be great to pay more attention to.
So, to start out how I think about it, honesty is surprisingly broad-scope. It pertains to a lot more of morality than you might have thought initially, so it pertains to everything from lying – well, of course, you know that – but also I’d say cheating, stealing, promises, hypocrisy, self-deception, bullshitting and misleading, where misleading could be things like – you say this truth to someone, but in a very misleading way, so that they will infer a false conclusion from it. So, it covers a lot of territory.
If that’s right, then one question that arises is, “Well, what’s the definition, or what unifies this thing called honesty, if it’s doing everything from stopping lying to stopping cheating, to stopping stealing?”And no one’s really proposed any answer to that, as far as I could tell. So I give an account when I say the heart of honesty is twofold: an internal motivation and an external behavior. Looking at the behavior, the heart of honesty is a matter of not intentionally distorting the facts as you see them.
That’s probably easiest to see in the lying case– so someone who’s honest doesn’t intentionally distort the facts when they’re talking to someone else.
So, if I’m talking to you and you ask me, “Where did I go to go to college?” And I say, “Well, I know my answer,” and internally, I say, I know the answer, “I went to this school,” but instead I tell you I went to, you know, Duke University, I’m intentionally distorting the facts. I didn’t go to Duke University, I know that I’m lying to you, I’m being dishonest. That’s a dishonest answer. And I think that applies to cheating as well. When someone cheats on a test, they’re potentially distorting the facts about their performance on the test. It applies to stealing, too. There, someone is representing this property as if it were their own when it’s not, all down the line.
Then just to wrap it up – sorry to go on for so long. There’s the other side of it, which is motivational. And we’ve already touched on this, so we kind of could anticipate that this was coming. It’s not enough for me to behave well as an honest person – after all, you could do that for crudely self-interested reasons. Your heart has to be in the right place too.
But here I’m very ecumenical about motivation. So, a loss of motivation will be fine for an honest person, so long as it’s not self-interested. If you’re not telling the truth primarily in order to look good in front of others or to not get fired from your job, or to get those rewards in the afterlife, again, that’s not going to do it, that’s not going to be virtuous motivation. As long as it’s not that as the primary motivation, if it’s compassionate motivation, if it’s justice motivation, if it’s dutiful because it’s the right thing – if it’s honest motivation, as in, “that would be the honest thing to do,” if it’s friendship motivation, “because you’re my friend” – any of those kind of motivations to me are perfectly fine. And there’s no one fundamental motivation for a honest person. It’s a very pluralistic approach. There’s a lot more to say – I’ll stop though, sorry.
Geoffrey Mitelman: So, there’s a couple of things that I’m thinking about here in response, the one of lying and stealing and deception. and there’s a line in the Torah, in Leviticus, that’s actually – it’s in the Holiness Code, which is where it says, “Love your neighbor as yourself, and you shall not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds.”
One of the verses in there is, “You should not put a stumbling block before the blind.” And the rabbis expand that a little bit, and they sort of say, “What kind of horrible cruel person would take a blind person and make them fall over?” And the answer is, “Unless you are a sad sociopath nobody,” but we can, if we have particular knowledge of something and another person is blind to that knowledge, do what they talk about, of putting a stumbling block before the blind. “I know this car is a lemon, and I’m going to sell it to you anyway.” That’s what that kind of thing is talking about. And I think that’s a really interesting perspective, that honesty is not just the words, but also the actions as well.
I’m curious, because what I’m struck by is the idea that acting selfishly – almost, it sounds like, and correct me if I’m wrong – that’s almost kind of negating the virtue, right? If you’re acting honestly because you’re worried that you’re going to get caught, that’s not as – I would agree, that’s not as virtuous as doing it from a real motivation. But does that negate the virtue, then, if you’re doing it purely from self-interest, of “I don’t want to get fired”? Because I think people– it’s a reasonable thing of like, “I want to make sure that I don’t get fired in this way, right?”
Because again, I’m coming at it from my own Jewish perspective, that there are a lot of rabbi – one thing that the rabbis say is that “You should study Torah, even if it’s not for its own sake, because by doing it, you will ultimately do it for its own sake.” So, I’m curious as to where the pushback is, for you, on doing something a little bit more self-interestedly, or from an ulterior motivation.
Christian Miller: Yeah, good. So, maybe we can separate them and let me comment on the first part, about the not putting a stumbling block in front of someone. Now, that was really interesting. Now, I won’t forget the motivation part.
So, I think you’re quite right that honesty pertains to not just the spoken words, but to behavior as well. It’s also important that the stumbling blocks can take lots of different forms. The stumbling blocks could take the form of an outright lie, the stumbling blocks could take the form, though, of truths, too. And this is what I think is the really interesting thing about honesty and dishonesty, is that you could say lots of truths and be a dishonest person. Not just say them because they are accidentally true, but the things you know to be true, and they really are true. And nevertheless, you’re dishonest in the process.
And so, how does that work? Well, that’s what the paradigm case of most bleeding is all about. So, if someone comes home at night from the bar and says to the wife or the significant other, or someone, “Honey, I’m home,” and let’s just do it the male-female, so let’s say she says, “Well, where were you?” And he says, “Well, I was at the bar.” But he conveniently leaves out where he was after the bar, which was, you know, fill in the blank, whatever you know, fill in the blank in a negative –
Geoffrey Mitelman: And virtuous.
Christian Miller: Yeah, and in a virtuous way. Well, he’s actually telling the truth. He was at the bar, but he knows that wasn’t the answer, that he could have given the fully transparent and forthright answer. And he’s doing it in such a way as to be giving a deceptive response, so that he hopes his wife draws a false conclusion that he was only at the bar. So, there are lots of ways to put stumbling blocks in front of other people, not just the kind of straightforward lying to them, which is what we normally think of.
Okay, now, about motivation. So, that’s really interesting, and I do get a lot of pushback on this. When I say, “No self-interested motivation can count as honest motivation,’ and in fact, I make it even stronger, then. I say, “No self-interested motivation can count as virtuous motivation for any virtue, not just honesty.” People argue with me about that, which is fine, this is what philosophy’s all about. Yeah, so now there’s a sense in which I completely want to take on board the point about starting out for self-interested reasons, which could help you get on a path to caring about things for the right reasons. For sure I’m perfectly on board with that. You know, we’re not born virtuous, or at least maybe you are, but most people aren’t.
And so, it’s a process, it’s a slow gradual process where we have to try to make incremental progress like we talked about earlier. And so, we’re not going to be starting typically with lots of virtuous motives, we’re going to be starting with other kinds of motives, but hoping to get ourselves on this path. And so, in The Character Gap book, the old one, one of the reasons I give to inspire people to become virtuous is because it’s beneficial to them. So, empirical research has found correlations between how good you are and lots of self-interested benefits. So everything, from better academic performance to living a longer life, to being healthier, to reduce depression, lots of different goods, are correlated in this way to one’s moral character.
So, I’m saying, “Look, if for no other reason that you want to care about becoming a better person, think about some of the good benefits you could have.” But if the motivation only stayed at that level and never got any better, then it would not become–then the person would not be virtuous. It sets on a path, but when it’s kind of like Pascal’s idea with the wager, you start by thinking about the benefits, in the afterlife, of believing in God.
That’s a pretty crude egoistic motivation. If God exists, God might not be happy with you for believing it for those reasons. But the hope is that over time, you go to the synagogue, you go to church, you get immersed in the religious practice, your heart can change and care about things for the right reasons. That’s what I would want to say.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Yeah, so it’s almost— there’s a little bit of a definitional piece, and it also sounds like there’s the beginning, too, of this interplay of – there are both pieces of this, that the actions lead to the motivation and the motivation leads to the actions, and it can create a kind of a virtuous cycle in this kind of way. And ultimately, like, almost like a corkscrew, where wherever you are, you can get up to that next level, but if you’re going to be a truly virtuous person, it’s only at the top level there.
Christian Miller: Yeah, that’s right. That’s great as a way to put it. And one other thing I thought of too, to address your earlier points – I don’t want to come across as completely downplaying selfish motivation, even in the life of the virtuous person. How can I say that? I mean, that just seems to contradict, like you said, because I think there’s mixed motivation on multiple motives. In fact, it could be rare that we act just from one motive.
So, as long as the primary motive is virtuous, there can be a supplemental or secondary motivation coming from self-interest. So, to go back to your example: I tell the truth to my boss, why? Well, because it’s important, to tell the truth, and also because I don’t want to get fired. It could be both those motives, but for it to really be a case of virtue, there better be that non-ego motive there, and it better be the stronger of the two as well. It cannot be so flimsy or weak that it kind of comes and goes, and that’s not enough to be virtuous.
Geoffrey Mitelman: And it’s also probably more sustainable, of coming from an internal motivation, from an external motivation – there’s a lot of research. Although one thing that I want to unpack a little bit, and have been thinking about: because you’re talking about honesty and not deceiving, and what we’re saying of almost like, “I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” and also moving away from the relativism of “Well, this is your truth and this is my truth, and we’re all like, it’s all equally true.”
So, over the last however-many years, 10 years, particularly with the advance of social media, we have real trouble in thinking back on (we’re now coming up on a year of COVID) of being able to distinguish what’s accurate, what is well-meaning but inaccurate, and what’s full deception. And we see that on political perspectives, we see that about science, we see this on all sorts of different perspectives, where what I’m saying from where I’m coming from – I feel like this is true, and somebody is going to have a totally opposite perspective of what that truth is going to be. How do we navigate this kind of minefield? Because I think that also can be very problematic, of like, “I’m telling the truth, and you’re lying,” [and] ultimately becomes a very attack and counter-attack kind of public conversation.
So, how do we square that circle? How do we make sure that we are acting in a way that’s rooted in both truth and honesty, while also giving space to be able to say there may be different perspectives on things?
Christian Miller: Yeah, that’s a huge question – I’m not sure I have a very good answer, it’s a very challenging one. Maybe you can check back with me in a couple of years, when I’ve worked on this some more. I will say this though, one focusing specifically on honesty. One interesting feature of honesty is that it’s compatible with radical error and mistake.
And so, when you’re talking about these two sides, the tendency is to label the other side, “they’re dishonest, they’re cheaters, they’re liars,” and so forth. And it could be “that’s true, maybe the other side is just making things up, maybe they’re freewheeling with the truth, it’s just they don’t care what’s true or not, they just want to care about power or advantage or whatnot.”
But sometimes, maybe often, I think the other side genuinely believes that this is the case and is giving expression to what they think is true. And if they’re doing that, they can be honest, even if it turns out they’re radically mistaken. So, here’s a non-political example that I’ll give you, a political example. So, a non-political example would be Flat Earth Society people. So, you could imagine people – and there are such people – who have been raised in a very sheltered way to always think and were taught from an early age that the Earth is flat.
Today, suppose through no fault of their own, they come to believe us because of the way they were raised and one of them says to you… you’re having a conversation, and in the course of the conversation, the person says, “I believe that the Earth is flat.” That person is being honest in my view, even though what they’re saying is mistaken, so it would be a mistake to label them, as in a negative way, in that sense. Now, it might be a totally different story if it’s a leader of the society who doesn’t really believe this, but is involved for financial reasons or power reasons, and it’s just manipulating people – okay, that’s different. Now go to the political example – and I’m reticent, I don’t want to get too political, I don’t want to cause any trouble here, but I think this will be okay.
So, take the election deniers. So, whether what side you’re on or not, you could be a Trump, PRO-Trump, you could be anti-Trump. It seems like the tendency is to label the other side as being dishonest, cheaters, liars and so forth. It depends, I think. I know of people who seem to genuinely believe that the election was faked, was rigged, and they’ve done their homework, they’ve read, “They’ve read the whole bunch,” and this is a conclusion that they’ve come to on the basis of the evidence, such as it is presented to them. I’m tempted to say they might be wrong, but they’re not dishonest. And then you can vote it around, so just to give an equal side, you know. The Trump person could say that about the other side, who thinks the election was not rigged. See those people? Yeah, and don’t label them dishonest. They’re doing the same thing.
Geoffrey Mitelman: So, they would exhibit a variety of vices, but dishonesty is not one of them.
Christian Miller: Exactly, that’s a good way to put it. Yes, so that’s not letting them off the hook by any means, right?
So, there could be other failures of character for sure. But this way of thinking of it, I think could take some of the heat and ratchet it down a couple of notches, right? The heat of the discourse.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Yeah, I’m in the middle right now of Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again, and there was a line that I just read where he quoted George Costanza from Seinfeld, who said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” And his flip side is that something’s not true just because you believe it.
Christian Miller: Yes, and both of those are – that’s straightforward philosophy right there, yes. And both of those are true. I think so. It says definitely it’s not a lie, something is not true, because you believe it. That’s, I mean – lots of examples of that.
But if you really believe something, it wouldn’t be a lie. That’s right. So, if that person really believes that the earth is flat and then communicates that to others, they’re not lying, they’re not doing something dishonest. In fact, if that person were to say under pressure, peer pressure, say, “Oh yes, yes, of course, I believe the earth is round,” then at that point, they’re lying, they’re being dishonest. Even though what they say is true, it’s really true, the earth is round, yet they don’t believe it, so they’re being dishonest.
Geoffrey Mitelman: And I think that’s an important piece of the kind of public conversation that we’re having, of when we think and talk about a lot of politicians and how dishonest they are, and that is getting us nowhere, right? And that’s because we see… I think we are naturally able to see other people’s vices more than we can see our own, and so it becomes a very easy shorthand to be able to say they’re liars, they’re dishonest.
What in fact some of it is, actually, I think, building—we’ve talked about this in a previous podcast—of building relationships and understanding where are they coming from, and then if they change their mind in this kind of way, it’s not that they’ve all of a sudden become dishonest, is that they’ve revised their worldview and they’re still acting honestly. They’re not going from being somebody who’s a liar to somebody who’s honest, or somebody who’s honest to somebody who’s a liar, but actually being engaged and open in this conversation rather than an attack and a counterattack.
Christian Miller: Yeah, good. Very good, yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. So, I mean, I don’t want to let politicians off too much because there are plenty of dishonest ones. So, there are plenty of examples where I think they really were dishonest. But yes, plenty of examples where their heart is in the right place. Even if we disagree with what their view is and if they change their view, it may not be because of reasons of expediency or to win more votes. It could be that through another virtue, something like open-mindedness. They’re willing to entertain new evidence and say, “I was wrong, and this new view is more plausible to me right now. And so, honestly, I’m going to change my mind and present this for you as what I think is the truth now.” Yes, no problem with that.
Geoffrey Mitelman: And, I want to come back here. It’s something you said at the beginning of our conversation about character, and character traits being sort of the core of who we are. And what’s interesting is that I think there are pieces of character that are innate to who we are, and then there’s also the context that we put ourselves in. And our behavior is both part of who we are and how we’ve been raised, and the virtues that we develop, but also the situation that we’re in, and I’m thinking there’s…
And I don’t know if it’s been overturned, like a lot of psychology experiments have been overturned, but there was one about—I think it was being able to go and get vaccinated, to go to your direction in some kind of way, and they asked people who are the most virtuous people and who are the most awful people in their dorm, the typical college sophomores, because that was the population that they did. And they had however many people there to be able to go get vaccinated, wherever the health center was.
And then there were some people for whom they had a map of like, “Here’s how you get to the vaccination center.” And what actually mattered most was just being able to say, like, “Here’s the arrow of here’s how you get to this place.”
Even more so than how virtuous or unvirtuous they are, I can’t remember all the details of this, but the idea that they were rated as what kind of person were they? And then they were placed in a situation of acting – it’s also the example, too, of the good samaritan. And the Princeton Theological Seminary, where they asked theologians to write a sermon about the good samaritan – and they walked by and there was somebody who said, “Help me, help me” – they found out that it was people that were told, “Okay, you have to rush. You’ve got only five minutes,” they ignored the Good Samaritan, or they ignored the person there. But the people who said, “You’ve got lots of time,” they tended to help people, almost independent of how many sermons they were given in this kind of way.
Christian Miller: Yeah, that’s right.
Geoffrey Mitelman: So, where does the interplay of the content of our character and the context of our character – how does that interact there?
Christian Miller: Yeah, that’s a great question too. I don’t know the first study, maybe you could send it to me later, but the second one is certainly a classic, and that has not been overturned as far as I know.
So, character doesn’t work in a vacuum, you’re right. First of all, I don’t think it’s something we’re just born with, so it has a partially genetic component, but it’s mainly, I think, cultivated over time. So, already, from early on, the context and situations are going to matter to what kind of character you have. But then at our age, what is going to be true is that, first of all, we can still change our character. Character is not fixed. But in given moments, we bring our character to the situation, whatever that character happens to be, and features of the situation which we perceive can activate different parts of our character.
So, because I perceived a text message from my friend saying “I’m in the hospital,” that can activate a part of my character, which has to do with helping and caring for my friend, which can then in turn subsequently lead to me walking towards the hospital, changing the situation that way.
So, it’s a constant. It can also go the other way, though. How I act is a product of my character, so my character can change the situation I’m in as well as my situation changing my character. So, that’s why – I didn’t say that as smooth as I would’ve liked, but the point being, it’s a two-way street, it’s an interactive effect.
Now, what ends up happening, that is, the impact of the situation on a person, is going to depend very much upon what kind of character they bring to the situation. Since our character is not uniform across all human beings, it’s what psychologists would call Individual Difference Variable that varies from individual to individual. Two people might come to the same situation, an objective situation apart from them, and because they have different character, respond to that situation differently. So, a virtuous person approaches it, a vicious person approaches it, they could end up having different behavioral responses. The tricky thing – I’ll end with this – is the impact of the situation is something that psychologists have studied for many years, and it’s an impact that is not just at the level of conscious awareness, though.
So, as situations impact us at the subconscious level too, and can influence our behavior in ways in which we might not even recognize, I might find quite surprising, so, that the effect of hurry in the Princeton Theological Seminary study is one example, but other examples, where whether the room was clean or not, or whether there was a nice smell in the air, or the number of other people in the surrounding environments, which we might not have been paying much attention to, could have a significant difference and impact on our behavior, because of the kind of character we have, which functions consciously, but also subconsciously.
Geoffrey Mitelman: And it’s sort of the environment, and the feedback and there’s a loop that happens. I think that I like this idea that there’s an element, I think there’s always a little bit of a genetic element there, but it is much more of “What are you? How are you cultivated? What are some of the life experiences that you’ve had? Have you been in similar kinds of situations before? Can you reflect on that?”
And that’s also one of the things that Maimonides has said, which is, “How do we know that we’ve made Teshuvah?” That we’ve made repentance from our previous deeds of like, “I was in that situation beforehand and I messed it up, but now I act the way that I wanted to have or I should have, and that’s how we know that we’ve grown in this kind of way.”
Christian Miller: Yeah, that’s very nice. So, towards the end of The Character Gap, I talk about different strategies for improving character and becoming a better person, and one of them is precisely this idea of reflection and self-awareness. So, to recognize, “Okay, I messed up, let me reflect about that and what can I do the next time so I don’t do it again,” to the importance of things like journaling or moments of taking a break to look back over the day or over one’s past and see what trajectory you’re on and where you want to go in the future, and how you can reshape your life, this works very nicely with the point I was making earlier about subconscious awareness, because when we learn more from the psychological research about some of the subconscious factors that influence our behaviour, we can then reflect upon them in the future, be more aware of them and guard against them so we can work against something like “hurry.”
Now that we’re aware of how much hurrying can make a difference to our behaviour, we can be more cautious about that, more reflective about that, and in the future say, “Wait a minute, hurrying, it’s not as important, this person’s life matters. In the past, I would’ve ignored this person because I thought it was so important for me to get to this meeting, but I don’t want to live that way anymore. I want to be someone who cares about people first and foremost, as a greater priority over whether I make it to a meeting on time or not.”
Geoffrey Mitelman: Well, and when you talk about the end of your book, I want to end by talking about one piece that you mentioned, which is the importance of rituals. And there’s a line from Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who was the rabbi who married my parents many years ago, who said a line that Judaism’s job was to “ritualize the ethical and ethicalize the ritual.”
And that’s something that I have really grown to like. The example that speaks to me very much is on Friday night before Shabbat, before I light the Shabbat candles with my kids, we put tzedaka, we put money in a tzedaka box, that at the end of the year we decide where are we going to do this. So it’s become a ritual. Like we know every Friday night, before we enter into this holy time of Shabbat, there’s an ethical piece of this.
And some of it is doing something that is ethical, like everything is, in a way of anything from making end of your donations, of knowing, right, on December 1st or on Giving Tuesday, or whatever it is, “I’m going to make those end-of-year donations,” or “when I clean out my– do my spring cleaning, I’m going to find the food that I can give at a food bank.” Where does ritual come in and how do the ritual and the ethical pieces come together?
Christian Miller: Yeah, I don’t know if I have a grand story about that, but I have thought about that a little bit. And this is the last chapter of The Character Gap book, where I talk about some religious ideas for improving character. And I approach that chapter from a Christian tradition because that’s the tradition I’m familiar with. But I stress over and over again that the points I make would generalize to other religions such as Judaism. And so, one thing I really highlight there is, “The journey to become a better person need not be done in isolation.”
And thankfully, it’s not, I mean, that it would be a lot harder if it was just me left to my own devices. I talk about how God can play a role in that journey, too, but I also focus on social interaction and social practices. In Christianity, there are a number of different social practices, which are just kind of the routine life of the church – everything from fasting to donating money like you already mentioned, to prayer, to reading sacred texts. I know they’re not specific to Christianity, but any means they could carry over straightforwardly.
What I think happens in those practices is that they are primarily aimed at something else besides cultivating one’s character. So, the goal, for example, of donating in the offering plate isn’t to make myself a more generous person, right? And that was not the purpose of the practice, it’s to help those in need, right? You’re doing it to help those in need, but a by-product or side effect of engaging in these practices is the improvement of one’s character. Same thing with work. At least it can be–maybe it’s not always this, but can be the improvement of one’s character.
Same thing with prayer. When I think about prayer, the focus shouldn’t be on myself and getting or acquiring things for myself, it should be on glorifying or giving praise to, or worshipping, or other goals. But nevertheless, as a side effect of that, it could lead to a person growing in humility and obedience of a virtuous kind, and other virtues like that. So, I think there’s this interesting relationship between character building and social practices, where the practices don’t have character building as the goal, but they can foster it as a by-product or side effect.
Geoffrey Mitelman: And that religion, regardless of whatever religion one identifies as, or non-religion, but the religion, I think no one would deny is a human construct. And it’s designed, and it’s a social piece of this, too, that’s designed to help us think of something more than just ourselves.
And when you’re talking about praying, the Hebrew word to pray is Lehitpalel, which really means “to judge or examine oneself.” And that it’s not asking for things, and as someone said that all prayers can basically be boiled down to three words, which are “Please, wow, and thanks.” And again, it’s an orientation of moving yourself outside of yourself, so that you’re not thinking, so that you’re not being self-centred and being able to orient in a different kind of way.
Christian Miller: That’s right. And so – that’s how I think of it. You know, one interesting issue here that connects to a lot of the work you’re doing – does it work? I mean, is it effective? And is there any actual empirical evidence? And could there even be any empirical evidence that it makes a difference here where we’re talking about, the difference with respect to growing in character? And that’s a whole big conversation.
You know, at the end of The Character Gap book, I cite some studies, which at least shows some preliminary suggestive findings to indicate that, yeah, it does seem to make a difference, that religious practices do seem to move the needle on good areas of behavior, and hopefully, ultimately, on character too.
So, the more religious participation goes up, there’s evidence that things like criminal behaviour go down, performance at school goes up, use of drugs goes down, charity donations go up, volunteering goes up. So, I’m hopeful that this is not just speculative, or that it’s just we trust it. I do trust it, but it’s not just trust, but there is actually going to be some data and empirical backing behind it as well.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Well, and that’s why the work that you’re doing is so interesting and so important, looking at “What does it mean to be a virtuous person? How do we develop more character? What do we mean to be honest? And how do we develop that?” So, Christian, thank you for taking some time here this afternoon to talk about your work and some of the ideas that you’re grappling with.
Christian Miller: Well, thank you for having me, it’s a really fun conversation. Those are great questions.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Thank you! And you can follow Christian on Twitter and your handle, I believe is @CharacterGap, correct?
Christian Miller: That’s it, Character, one word. CharacterGap, yes.
Geoffrey Mitelman: So, you can find him and his work there. And you can find us on social media. You can find us at Sinai and Synapses on Facebook, or on Twitter, you can find me @RabbiMitelman. You can find these conversations every Tuesday at 2 PM on www.jewishlive.org/sacredscience.
Next week we’ll be talking with Tiffany Shlain, who is the founder of the Webby Awards and the author of the book 24/7, about how we can have what is called a Tech Shabbat, how we can take one day off a week from our technology and how that can impact our lives and the kind of character that we’re trying to develop here as people navigating this crazy world we’re living in. So, Christian, thank you. And thank you all for joining us here this afternoon.
Christian Miller: Take care. Thank you.