This essay is one of a series of posts based on the recently published book The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. The book is a project of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
How are America’s high schools helping to form their students’ moral character? This question is at the heart of the recently published book The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. The issue is timely in a society absorbed in debates over ethical behavior, but it’s a question that implicitly raises another: What do we mean by character?
In The Content of Their Character, the book’s editors, James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson, observe that there are two dimensions to a person’s moral character: its substance and its form. Its substance is defined by an individual’s specific moral views of what is good and right—“the good we, as individuals and communities, aspire to become and the right we are obligated to do, including the justice we are obligated to pursue,” in Hunter and Olson’s words.
For example, due to distinct moral commitments, one person might demonstrate character by refusing to shop on Sunday. A second might refrain from eating meat. A third might vote in every election, while a fourth might volunteer at a women’s shelter.
Character’s form, on the other hand, is comprised of three things regardless of a person's ideals, Hunter and Olson argue: “moral discipline, moral attachment, and moral autonomy.”
Moral discipline is something we often associate with character: “the capacities of an individual to inhibit his or her personal appetites or interests on behalf of a greater good.” Perhaps a pilot learns to refuse liquor. An accountant resists the opportunity to embezzle company funds. A politician declines the chance to win votes by sacrificing an important cause. Moral discipline, “in many respects, is the capacity to say ‘no,’” as Hunter has written elsewhere.
In contrast, moral attachment is effectively the capacity to say “yes”—the ability “to affirm and live by the ideals of a greater good,” as Hunter and Olson put it. As opposed to the ability to avoid wrongs, moral attachment is the desire to uphold the right, to act with consequence upon one’s convictions in ways that affect the larger community. Perhaps a salesclerk donates a Christmas bonus to a children’s charity. A retiree buys a pristine beachfront property to preserve it from development. A corporate board member at a shareholders' meeting urges the company's CEO to support criminal rehabilitation by hiring ex-convicts.
But even moral attachment and moral discipline cannot constitute character without moral autonomy: the ability “to freely make ethical decisions for or against those [greater] goods” that a person acts on behalf of. We feel this instinctively. For instance, we’ll often suspend judgment of a man’s character when he publicly supports the leaders of an authoritarian regime if we know that he and his family would be imprisoned if he did not. The threat of compulsion constrains his autonomy—his freedom to act. Similarly, we may withhold praise from an inmate who refrains from violence while she’s behind bars. Her apparent moral discipline may proceed only from the physical constraints on her behavior.
So if we define character as both form and substance, and if we define character’s form as moral discipline, moral attachment, and moral autonomy, have we performed anything other than a dry exercise in philosophy? In fact, we have.
Part 2 of this essay has now been published.