Bad Character, Good Character


© 2010 by Werner Cohn



Are some people simply bad while others are good ?  Are there authentic heroes and villains in real life ?   Of course Adolf Hitler comes to mind; most writers (David Irving being the exception) think that he was a bad person without a doubt.  But Hitler and a few similar cases aside, a crass characterization of this sort seems to be more a hallmark of popular genres than of “high culture.”  Turn on your TV and you will find no dearth of characters to be despised (with others to be admired), all the while the novels “of quality” having you ponder over grey areas and ethical ambiguity.

Outside of fiction, there is a college-induced refusal to make “value judgments.”  No no no, people aren’t bad; they are unfortunate, or uneducated, or unenlightened (or the opposite of all these). Let’s understand all, perhaps even justify all, and above everything do not make “value judgments”  (Max Weber, one of the fathers of a value-free sociology, would wince at this misuse of his notion),  As I understand current thinking in psychology, the notion of good and bad character is considered a “fundamental attribution error.”

But this educated, cultivated denial of human character is removed from the phenomenologic experience and actual sentiments of even those who proclaim it.   “What a complete jerk !”, “what a nice guy !” are expressions heard on street corners and faculty lounges alike.  Who, of high culture or low, likes to be around the compulsive braggart, the incurable womanizer, the ruthless egotist, the blackmailer, the bully  ? 

I should say at the outset that my proposal here – to take explicit account of character in scholarly work as well as in everyday life – has nothing to do with moralistic propaganda such as that of Moral Remarmament (“absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love”) or the commercial promotion of “Character Counts !” programs.  To tell a person “be good !” does not strike me as a realistic solution to the problem of the person who is simply, overwhelmingly bad.

I am interested in good character and bad, but will talk more of the bad person mainly for ease of presentation.  In my view, the bad person is with us, better acknowledged than denied.  This view, to be sure, needs a number of explanatory comments:

1) Just how does a bad person differ from the rest of us ? 

Obviously there is room for disagreement, some stressing certain “bad” qualities over others. But I have found that such disagreements are over emphasis.  Once we lay aside differences over rank order, there seems to be universal agreement on an overall list of what it is that is undesirable.  The “seven deadly sins,” conveniently shown in Wikipedia, seems to cover the field (with one inexplicable omission, deceit, about which later).

The Seven Deadly Sins, also known as the Capital Vices or Cardinal Sins, is a classification of the most objectionable vices which has been used since early Catholic times to educate and instruct followers concerning (immoral) fallen man's tendency to sin. The final version of the list consists of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

Wrath.  I take it as the too-easy readiness to anger, as in  “The man is a sorehead.”

Greed.  Extraordinary selfishness.  A narcissistic personality.  Sloth.  Laziness beyond the expected.  Pride. Pretentiousness.  Claiming credit when no credit is warranted. Lust.  Well, there is John Edwards, Mark Sanford, John Ensign ….   Envy.  Yes, and the power of resentment.  Gluttony. Self-indulgence.

Except by indirection, deceit does not make this particular list, although it is found in other classic compilations.  I personally find it the most egregious sin of them all, and would have liked to see it ranked as one of the seven most deadly.  But, in any case, I do not insist on any one particular list of undesirable qualities; I think that there is common agreement, by and large, on what it is that makes a bad person.

It may be objected that every one of these “sins,” when present only in moderation, may be perfectly acceptable, a virtue even.  A man may be moved by anger, “wrath,” by an injustice or misfortune, to constructive action and thus do good deeds; a poison, in small doses, may well be a blessing. But this problem is verbal rather than real.  A very moderate amount of “wrath” is not the same phenomenon as wrath run amuck;  a white-lie deceit (“yes, your newborn is indeed the cutest of them all”) is hardly the same phenomenon as Mr. Madoff’s.

One may also raise a more basic question: “How do we know that these “sins”, or personal characteristics, are necessarily bad ?  Could one make a case (as apparently Ayn Rand has done when she wrote of “the virtue of selfishness”) that wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and deceit are all virtues, or if not virtues, that they are morally neutral ?  Well, yes, one could conceivably make such a case, but, pace Ayn Rand, not a good case.

2.  One trait or many ?

Here is my conjecture:  while not perfectly correlated, these traits tend to cluster together.  The analogy here is to mental abilities (verbal, arithmetic, scientific, etc.), which have been shown to correlate in all studied populations.  When various abilities are empirically tested, techniques of multi-variable analysis, mainly factor analysis,  have produced underlying measures (“g”) that can be interpreted as measures of overall ability.  So I conjecture that there is an underlying measure (“c” perhaps) on which some people are high and others low.  One can be high on this overall measure without necessarily being high on any one of the constituent measures.  And as one intelligent person may be particularly good at figures and not quite as good with words while another has the reverse constellation but the same IQ, so I imagine that one bad person can be particularly shy of probity (high on deceit) but average in lust, with another equally bad person showing just the reverse.   Moreover, just as an overall intelligent person may fall very short on one or the other of the measured mental abilities, so I imagine that an overall good person can have one or another very bad trait.

Of course the analogy with intelligence measures falls on one very important point:  it is possible to test for mental abilities empirically (with more or less success), but it does not seem feasible to test (as yet), in any substantial way, for the various deadly sins.

3. Verifying and measuring badness.

Many of the attributes of the bad man rely, for their detection and even description, on the perceptions and sensibilities of individual observers.  Perhaps future advances in psychology will develop objective tests, but we are not there now.

Lyndon Larouche has famously declared that he, himself, is the best economist in the world, and indeed so by a large margin.  This utterance would seem to offer prima-facie evidence for the sin of pride. Not so to the Larouchies whom I have queried.  I have encountered similarly hard differences of appreciation, and it may well be that such differences are unbridgeable, at least at the current state of knowledge.

 Such difficulties in detection and measurement may suggest that the whole phenomenon of badness doesn’t exist.  “That which cannot be measured does not exist.” This kind of epistemology strikes me as simplistic.  I would say that the phenomenon is there, that parts of it are clearly detectable and measurable, and that the expenditure of resources for further exploration is warranted.

4. Practical Implications

In ordinary life situations, say the process of hiring a key employee,  there usually is an implied recognition that “character counts,” that it matters whether a prospect is a good person.  But insofar as those who do the hiring are affected by the educated-man’s reluctance to acknowledge character, this consideration is not made explicit.  It can assert itself indirectly, for instance through an interest in whether or not specific background factors can be established:  has he, or has he not, shown himself to be dishonest in particular transactions, etc..  I would argue that by formulating the inquiry more explicitly – to ask “is he a good person” – there will be more forthrightness to the procedure, and also, I would hope, more accurate appraisal.

5. Conclusion

       A bad character is a trait that dares not speak its name.  We know that it’s there among our fellows, and we refer to it frequently, but it is absent from the official language of the college-educated (except in very restricted contexts), who prefer to hound it as “fundamental attribution error.”  It’s time to let it out of the closet.