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Walking while Black

On Character (in The New York Times' The Stone)

Mark D. White

In this morning's The Stone column in The New York Times, UNC visiting professor Iskra Fileva offers "Character and Its Discontents," in which she writes eloquently on the nature of character in response to the situationist critiques of Gilbert Harman and John Doris. Her article doesn't lend itself well to quotes--it really must be read in full to be appreciated--but two points stood out to me.

  1. Even when we judge people to have behaved inconsistently with what we took to be their character traits, this may be the fault of our limited perception of their character rather than any inconsistency of their part. (She attributes this point to psychologist Gordon Allport.) This parallels my point against paternalism, that the only knowledge regulators have of a person's interests in what they can infer from his or her choices or behavior, for which there can always be multiple explanations. By the same token, it is difficult to infer character traits from behavior with any confidence, and therefore it is difficult to make any judgments of inconsistency based upon them (just as external judgments of poor choices cannot be made simply based on observations of previous ones).
  2. Unity of character is an aspirational goal, rather than something to be taken for granted. This reminds me of Kant's understanding of autonomy as a responsibility as well as a capacity, in that all of us have the potential to be autonomous but we have to work at it constantly, exercising our strength of will, in order to maintain it. It is also consistent with what I wrote in Kantian Ethics and Economics (in chapter 3, based on the work of Christine Korsgaard and Ronald Dworkin) about constructing, expressing, confirming our characters through the choices we make, which is a responsibility for personal integrity that we all have.

I also appreciated that she began the piece with a discussion of character in fiction, which is important for more pragmatic reasons. Nonetheless, creators have a responsibility to their audience to maintain behavioral consistency in their characters, who can have complex motivations up to a point. This makes them more fascinating, but beyond this point, the characters themselves become imperceptible, such as in absurdist literature and theater, as Fileva mentions, or in poorly written traditional fiction (a frequent complaint of fans of "serial fiction" such as myself).

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