Bad Character, GoodCharacter
2010 by WernerCohn
Are some people simply bad while others are good? Are there authentic heroes andvillains in real life ? Ofcourse Adolf Hitler comes to mind; most writers (David Irving being theexception) think that he was a bad person without a doubt. But Hitler and a few similar casesaside, a crass characterization of this sort seems to be more a hallmark ofpopular 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 youponder over grey areas and ethical ambiguity.
Outside of fiction, there is a college-inducedrefusal to make value judgments. No no no, people arent bad; they are unfortunate, or uneducated, orunenlightened (or the opposite of all these). Lets understand all, perhapseven justify all, and above everything do not make value judgments (Max Weber, one of the fathers of avalue-free sociology, would wince at this misuse of his notion), As I understand current thinking inpsychology, the notion of good and bad character is considered a fundamentalattribution error.
But this educated, cultivated denial of humancharacter is removed from the phenomenologic experience and actual sentimentsof even those who proclaim it. What a complete jerk !, what a nice guy ! are expressions heard onstreet 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 ineveryday life – has nothing to do with moralistic propaganda such as thatof Moral Remarmament (absolute honesty, absolute purity, absoluteunselfishness and absolute love) or the commercial promotion of CharacterCounts ! programs. To tell aperson be good ! does not strike me as a realistic solution to the problem ofthe person who is simply, overwhelmingly bad.
I am interested in good character and bad, but willtalk 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 restof us ?
Obviously there is room for disagreement, somestressing certain bad qualities over others. But I have found that suchdisagreements are over emphasis. Once we lay aside differences over rank order, there seems to beuniversal agreement on an overall list of what it is that is undesirable. The seven deadly sins, convenientlyshown in Wikipedia, seems to cover the field (with one inexplicable omission, deceit, about which later).
The Seven DeadlySins, also known as the Capital Vices or Cardinal Sins, is a classification ofthe most objectionable vices which has been used since early Catholic times toeducate and instruct followers concerning (immoral) fallen man's tendency tosin. The final version of the list consists of wrath, greed, sloth, pride,lust, envy, and gluttony.
Wrath. I takeit as the too-easy readiness to anger, as in The man is a sorehead.
Greed. Extraordinary selfishness. A narcissistic personality. Sloth. Laziness beyond theexpected. 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 isfound in other classic compilations. I personally find it the most egregious sin of them all, and would haveliked to see it ranked as one of the seven most deadly. But, in any case, I do not insist onany one particular list of undesirable qualities; I think that there is commonagreement, 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 virtueeven. A man may be moved by anger,wrath, by an injustice or misfortune, to constructive action and thus do gooddeeds; a poison, in small doses, may well be a blessing. But this problem isverbal rather than real. A very moderateamount of wrath is not the same phenomenon as wrath run amuck; a white-lie deceit (yes, your newbornis indeed the cutest of them all) is hardly the same phenomenon as Mr.Madoffs.
One may also raise a more basic question: How do weknow that these sins, or personal characteristics, are necessarily bad ? Could one make a case (asapparently 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 ifnot 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 clustertogether. The analogy here is tomental abilities (verbal, arithmetic, scientific, etc.), which have been shownto correlate in all studied populations. When various abilities are empirically tested, techniques ofmulti-variable analysis, mainly factor analysis, have produced underlying measures (g) that can beinterpreted as measures of overall ability. So I conjecture that there is an underlying measure (cperhaps) on which some people are high and others low. One can be high on this overall measurewithout necessarily being high on any one of the constituent measures. And as one intelligent person may beparticularly good at figures and not quite as good with words while another hasthe reverse constellation but the same IQ, so I imagine that one bad person canbe particularly shy of probity (high on deceit) but average in lust, withanother equally bad person showing just the reverse. Moreover, just as an overall intelligent person mayfall very short on one or the other of the measured mental abilities, so Iimagine that an overall good person can have one or another very bad trait.
Of course the analogy with intelligence measuresfalls on one very important point: it is possible to test for mental abilities empirically (with more orless success), but it does not seem feasible to test (as yet), in anysubstantial way, for the various deadly sins.
3. Verifying and measuring badness.
Many of the attributes of the bad man rely, for theirdetection and even description, on the perceptions and sensibilities of individualobservers. Perhaps future advancesin psychology will develop objective tests, but we are not there now.
LyndonLarouche has famously declared that he, himself, is the best economist in theworld, and indeed so by a large margin. This utterance would seem to offer prima-facie evidence for the sin ofpride. Not so to the Larouchies whom I have queried. I have encountered similarly hard differences ofappreciation, and it may well be that such differences are unbridgeable, atleast at the current state of knowledge.
Suchdifficulties in detection and measurement may suggest that the whole phenomenonof badness doesnt exist. Thatwhich cannot be measured does not exist. This kind of epistemology strikes meas simplistic. I would say thatthe phenomenon is there, that parts of it are clearly detectable andmeasurable, and that the expenditure of resources for further exploration iswarranted.
4. Practical Implications
In ordinary life situations, say the process ofhiring a key employee, thereusually is an implied recognition that character counts, that it matterswhether a prospect is a good person. But insofar as those who do the hiring are affected by theeducated-mans reluctance to acknowledge character, this consideration is notmade explicit. It can assertitself indirectly, for instance through an interest in whether or not specificbackground factors can be established: has he, or has he not, shown himself to be dishonest in particulartransactions, etc.. I would arguethat by formulating the inquiry more explicitly – to ask is he a goodperson – there will be more forthrightness to the procedure, and also, Iwould hope, more accurate appraisal.
Abad character is a trait that dares not speak its name. We know that its there among ourfellows, and we refer to it frequently, but it is absent from the officiallanguage of the college-educated (except in very restricted contexts), whoprefer to hound it as fundamental attribution error. Its time to let it out of the closet.