The Heights and Depths of our Characters

In the ocean off Panama City Beach one beautiful summer day, two boys were screaming. Caught in a rip current, they were quickly being swept out to sea. There was nothing they could do.

Their mother heard their cries, and with her other family members dove into the ocean. Soon enough they all were trapped in the current too.

Then in a powerful display of character, complete strangers on the beach took action. Forming a human chain of 70 to 80 bodies, they stretched out into the ocean, and grabbed ahold of the two boys. Eventually everyone was rescued.[1]

Stories like this inspire me with hope about what human beings are capable of doing, especially when we are faced with a barrage of depressing reports these days about sexual harassment, corruption, and child abuse.

I also read about the good things people do in more careful controlled psychological studies. For instance Daniel Batson has done more than thirty years of fascinating research at the University of Kansas on how empathy can have a profound impact on our desire to help others. Empathy inspires us to stop caring about ourselves, and focuses our attention instead on what is good for someone in need.[2] In one study, once Batson got students to empathize with a complete stranger experiencing a terrible tragedy, the number of students who signed up to help her  dramatically rose from 37% to 76%.[3] Empathy is a powerful capacity for good in the world.

But as we know all too well, there is a darker side to our characters.

Turning a Blind Eye

Walter Vance, 61, was shopping in his local Target for Christmas decorations. It was Black Friday and the store was mobbed. Suddenly Vance fell to the floor in cardiac arrest and lay motionless.

What did the other shoppers do – rush to help or at least call the paramedics? They simply ignored him. In fact, some people even stepped over his body to continue their bargain hunting. Eventually a few nurses used CPR, but by then he was too far gone. Walter Vance died later that day.

None of this is surprising in light of psychological research on character. For several decades now, psychologists have found that if there is an emergency but no one else is doing anything to help, then we are very unlikely to help ourselves.

This is just one illustration of the darker side of our character. There are others. Studies have found that we are quite willing to cheat for monetary gain when we can get away with it.[4] We are also willing to lie to about 30% of the people we see in a given day.[5] And most disturbing of all, with encouragement from an authority figure, a majority of people will give increasingly severe electric shocks to a test-taker – even up to a lethal jolt. Fortunately the shocks in these famous studies by Stanley Milgram were not real, but the participants did not know this at the time.[6]

Putting the Pieces Together

So where does this leave us? As discussed in my new book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, I think it leaves us saying that our character is very much a mix of good and bad.

Writers about character usually talk about the virtues and vices. On the one hand, there is the virtuous person who embodies traits like wisdom, compassion, and honesty. Gandhi, Jesus, and Harriet Tubman might come to mind.

On the other hand, there is the vicious person who is cruel, cowardly, and deceitful. Hitler, Stalin, and Jeffrey Dahmer are clear examples.

It is very important to talk about the virtues and vices, but unfortunately for most of us they do not fit our actual characters very well. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part our characters are somewhere in the middle between virtue and vice. In other words, we have a mixed character, with some morally good sides and some morally bad sides. Our flaws tend to keep us from qualifying as virtuous, but our strengths tend to keep us out of the realm of vice.

The title of my book is The Character Gap to reflect the space between how we should be (virtuous people) and how we tend to actually be (a mixed bag). For each of us, the size of the gap varies, but for many of us it is significant, myself included.

Fortunately there are promising strategies which aim to reduce the character gap in our lives. In the final chapters of my book, I present several of them, including both secular strategies and explicitly religious ones as well. But as I also point out, much further work remains to be done in this area. I am grateful that the Jubilee Centre is leading the way in taking up this incredibly important task.


Christian B. Miller is A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and author or editor of eight books. His most recent, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? has just been released with Oxford University Press.[7] He was a Jubilee Centre Distinguished Professor in 2015.




[2] Batson, C. (2011). Altruism in Humans. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Batson, C., J. Batson, C. Griffitt, S. Barrientos, J. Brandt, P. Sprengelmeyer, and M. Bayly. (1989). “Negative-State Relief and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 56: 922-933.

[4] Shu, L., F. Gino, and M. Bazerman. (2011). “Dishonest Deed, Clear Conscience: When Cheating Leads to Moral Disengagement and Motivated Forgetting.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37: 330-349.

[5] DePaulo, B. (2004). “The Many Faces of Lies,” in The Social Psychology of Good and Evil. Ed. A. Miller. New York: The Guilford Press, 303-326.

[6] Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row.


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