In Homer’s poetry, every hero has a trait. Achilles is angry. Odysseus is cunning. And so was born one picture of character and conduct.
In this view, what you might call the philosopher’s view, each of us has certain ingrained character traits. An honest person will be honest most of the time. A compassionate person will be compassionate.
These traits, as they say, go all the way down. They shape who we are, what we choose to do and whom we befriend. Our job is to find out what traits of character we need to become virtuous.
But, as Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton philosopher, notes in his book “Experiments in Ethics,” this philosopher’s view of morality is now being challenged by a psychologist’s view. According to the psychologist’s view, individuals don’t have one thing called character.
The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call “cross-situational stability.”
The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don’t have one permanent thing called character. We each have a multiplicity of tendencies inside, which are activated by this or that context. As Paul Bloom of Yale put it in an essay for The Atlantic last year, we are a community of competing selves. These different selves “are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.”
The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life.
The difference is easy to recognize on the movie screen. Most movies embrace the character version. The hero is good and conquers evil. Spike Jonze’s new movie adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” illuminates the psychological version.
At the beginning of the movie, young Max is torn by warring impulses he cannot control or understand. Part of him loves and depends upon his mother. But part of him rages against her.
In the midst of turmoil, Max falls into a primitive, mythical realm with a community of Wild Things. The Wild Things contain and re-enact different pieces of his inner frenzy. One of them feels unimportant. One throws a tantrum because his love has been betrayed. They embody his different tendencies.
Many critics have noted that, in the movie version, the Wild Things are needlessly morose and whiney. But in one important way, the movie is better than the book. In the book, Max effortlessly controls the Wild Things by taming them with “the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”
In the movie, Max wants to control the Wild Things. The Wild Things in turn want to be controlled. They want him to build a utopia for them where they won’t feel pain. But in the movie, Max fails as king. He lacks the power to control his Wild Things. The Wild Things come to recognize that he isn’t really a king, and maybe there are no such things as kings.
In the philosopher’s picture, the good life is won through direct assault. Heroes use reason to separate virtue from vice. Then they use willpower to conquer weakness, fear, selfishness and the dark passions lurking inside. Once they achieve virtue they do virtuous things.
In the psychologist’s version, the good life is won indirectly. People have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing. There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.
But it is possible to achieve momentary harmony through creative work. Max has all his Wild Things at peace when he is immersed in building a fort or when he is giving another his complete attention. This isn’t the good life through heroic self-analysis but through mundane, self-forgetting effort, and through everyday routines.
Appiah believes these two views of conduct are in conversation, not conflict. But it does seem we’re in one of those periods when words like character fall into dispute and change their meaning.