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).

On Literature and Liberty: Mario Vargas Llosa

Mark D. White

Mario-Vargas-LlosaIn today's Wall Street Journal, Mario Vargas Llosa, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, writes very eloquently (of course!) on the connections between liberty, dignity, and human flourishing. He describes how these ideas, as those of any writer, are an essential and crucial part of his work:

It is the function of the novelist to tell timeless and universal truths through the device of a fashioned narrative. A story's significance as a piece of art cannot be divorced from its message, any more than a society's prospects for freedom and prosperity can be divorced from its underlying principles. The writer and the man are one and the same, as are the culture and its common beliefs. In my writing and in my life I have pursued a vision not only to inspire my readers but also to share my dream of what we can aspire to build here in our world.

More substantively, he describes the different understandings of the word liberal around the world, as well as how the term, along with the associated belief in the efficacy of the free market, have been abused or obscured in various ways:

There are those who in the name of the free market have supported Latin American dictatorships whose iron hand of repression was said to be necessary to allow business to function, betraying the very principles of human rights that free economies rest upon. Then there are those who have coldly reduced all questions of humanity to a matter of economics and see the market as a panacea. In doing so they ignore the role of ideas and culture, the true foundation of civilization. Without customs and shared beliefs to breathe life into democracy and the market, we are reduced to the Darwinian struggle of atomistic and selfish actors that many on the left rightfully see as inhuman.

The market does not operate in an ethical, political, or cultural vacuum, which responsible proponents of it recognize (but for which few get credit).

I'll allow Mr. Llosa the final word (would that I could do that more often!):

The search for liberty is simply part of the greater search for a world where respect for the rule of law and human rights is universal—a world free of dictators, terrorists, warmongers and fanatics, where men and women of all nationalities, races, traditions and creeds can coexist in the culture of freedom, where borders give way to bridges that people cross to reach their goals limited only by free will and respect for one another's rights. It is a search to which I've dedicated my writing, and so many have taken notice. But is it not a search to which we should all devote our very lives? The answer is clear when we see what is at stake.