Is Character all in the Genes?

A potentially serious threat to the ideas of character development and character education seems to have materialised with the publication of Robert Plomin’s much-publicised book, Blueprint (London: Allen Lane, 2018). The author has featured on BBC’s HardTalk and in a special BBC programme on character education, arguing for an extreme form of genetic determinism regarding almost all individual variables, including psycho-moral ones. It is not startling to see claims made about 50% of personality traits (including the Big-Five ones of agreeableness and conscientiousness) and people’s levels of subjective well-being being genetically pre-programmed (as witnessed e.g. by research into identical twins brought up in different environments); this has been known before. What is bold and startling about Plomin’s book is the claim that the 50% normally attributed to ‘nurture’ are (a) unsystematic, serendipitous and almost arbitrary effects, or (b) cases of ‘nature’ seeking out ‘nurture’ by preselecting environments that are in line with the person’s genetic predispositions, or (c) effects that mostly peter out anyway after adolescence. This includes the educative effects of parenting and schooling which Plomin reduces mostly to random noises – with the exception of extreme nurture traumas, such as child abuse, which he writes off as statistical anomalies.

Robert Plumin’s book: Blueprint (London: Allen Lane, 2018):

I confess that I find these empirical claims implausible, in particular because of Plomin’s extreme selection bias with respect to background literatures. However, I leave that empirical misgiving aside to make a more fundamental conceptual point: Plomin seems to be completely oblivious to the nature of socio-moral contexts. Thus, when he argues that ‘agreeableness shows no influence of shared environment’, he equates this with the claim that nurture ‘does not teach children to be kind’ (2018, p. 74). What he forgets is that the Big-Five trait of agreeableness is a completely amoral one and has not necessarily anything to do with what we would normally commend as ‘kindness’. The agreeable person simply has a tendency to be friendly to peers, irrespective of contexts. It could be friendliness to fellow members of a drug gang or a paedophile ring, for example (see further in my book Virtues and Vices in Positive Psychology, Cambridge: CUP, 2013, chap. 3). So even if it were true that parents and teachers could not change a child’s overall level of agreeableness, it does not follow that they cannot teach the child to be kind in a moral sense. Personality is not the same as moral character.

Given Plomin’s repeated stress on the ‘generalist’ nature of genes (2018, chap. 6), it would be completely alien to his theory if genes taught people to be agreeable to the right persons, at the right time, for the right reasons, in the right amount, as a moral concept of kindness would require. Indeed, it would require nothing less than a miracle of nature if genes pre-programmed people to identify the morally proper contexts for the exhibition of their traits. So, even if everything Plomin says about the effect of genes on subjective well-being and various personality variables were true, it would not render obsolete our effects to help young people flourish in the morally laden Aristotelian sense.

 

Kristján Kristjánsson, Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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