Character determines one's ability to understand

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2014 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

In the previous chapter, we took a cursory look at the Aristotelian dictum: As a person is, so does the end appear to him. I would like to explore this more deeply. The first point to make is that you are not what you think, nor are you what you feel; rather, you are what you will. One's moral identity (character) is determined by the free moral choices that we make. Aristotle writes: " For our character is determined by our choosing good or evil, not by the opinions we hold. We choose to take or avoid a good or an evil, but we hold opinions as to what a thing is , whom it will benefit, or how: but (the decision) to take or avoid is by no means an opinion. Also, a choice is praised for being directed to the proper object or for being correctly made, but opinions are praised for being true."[1]

The end, as you know, refers to the final cause, which is the purpose. Now recall Socrates who divided humanity into three on the basis of what each group regarded as the greatest good or ultimate purpose in life, that is, as man's chief end in life: pleasure, honors, and virtue. I can make pleasure my ultimate end in life, or my own glory and honor. In both cases, I choose myself as the greatest good. Or, I can make the common good of the civil community my ultimate end, or God, etc., that is, something outside myself. The end that I choose will determine what I see as fitting, that is, a fitting means to the end that I have chosen. All this depends on my will (the rational appetite), which is ordered to a single end. The principal appetite in us, in fact, is the will, and it is the orientation of the will that defines our character, our moral identity, the kind of person that we determine ourselves to be.

Recall too that the final cause and formal cause coincide. Both are defined as "that for the sake of which there is coming-to-be". The agent acts for an end, for example, the carpenter sets out to build a table, but he can do so because the "form" is in his mind. And so "form" (what it is) and "end" (final cause) are really the same. What comes to be "in the end" is the form that was in his mind throughout. So too, "what" a person is (his character) and that which he makes to be his end through an act of the will (final cause) are really the same. What comes to be "in the end" is what I make of myself (character).

Now, a person's sensitive appetites (and the emotions that proceed from them) are ordered by the will, that is, they receive their direction from the will. If my end or purpose is always to feel good, regardless of how that might affect others, then I will assign my sensitive appetites a position of government; they become my advisors, so to speak. If my end is the common good of the civil community, and not myself, then my emotions will not be given a governing position, but a subservient one. If I have to do something that is a fitting means to that end, which is the common good of the civil community, I will carry it out, despite the fact that I have to go without rich foods for a while, make sacrifices, or that I might have to experience a degree of fear, etc. Thus, the entire network of the emotions is ordered according to the direction of the will, which is centered either around the self, or around the will of God, or around the demands of justice, etc.

Thus, character affects a person's ability to judge, that is, to see what is a fitting means to an end. It also affects our ability to evaluate other human beings. The reason is that we see others in relation to ourselves , and if we have made ourselves our own norm (from the Latin norma , "carpenter's square, rule"), then those who are different are regarded as falling short of the rule in some way (i.e., too small or too large). Aristotle writes: "…a brave man seems reckless in relation to a coward, but in relation to a reckless man he seems cowardly. Similarly, a self-controlled man seems self-indulgent in relation to an insensitive man and insensitive in relation to a self-indulgent man, and a generous man extravagant in relation to a stingy man and a stingy in relation to an extravagant man. This is the reason why people at the extremes each push the man in the middle over to the other extreme: a coward calls a brave man reckless and a reckless man calls a brave man a coward, and similarly with the other qualities".[2]

The virtues dispose the emotions, and so what the above implies is that improperly disposed emotions will affect one's ability to judge properly. The emotions affect our ability to "know". That is why Aristotle says that it is the virtuous man who judges correctly. To be virtuous is to be emotionally well ordered. He writes: "…what seems good to a man of high moral standards is truly the object of wish, whereas a worthless man wishes anything that strikes his fancy. It is the same with the human body: people whose constitution is good find those things wholesome which really are so, while other things are wholesome for invalids, and similarly their opinions will vary as to what is bitter, sweet, hot, heavy, and so forth . (Just as a healthy man judges these matters correctly, so in moral questions) a man whose standards are high judges correctly, and in each case what is truly good will appear to him to be so . Thus, what is good and pleasant differs with different characteristics or conditions, and perhaps the chief distinction of a man of high moral standards is his ability to see the truth in each particular moral question , since he is, as it were, the standard and measure for such questions . The common run of people, however, are misled by pleasure. For though it is not the good, it seems to be, so that they choose the pleasant in the belief that it is good and avoid pain thinking that it is evil."[3]

Now, one can have a good will, but struggle with the sensitive appetites. It is a good will, however, that causes things to appear rightly, and so a person of good will knows that his sensitive appetites rebel against the will, which is not centered on satisfying them. He freely admits when he's made a choice to simply satisfy his appetites contrary to the demands of reason, and he regrets his decision.

In book 3, chapter 5 of his Nicomachean Ethics , Aristotle considers a possible objection: "But someone might argue as follows: 'All men seek what appears good to them, but they have no control over how things appear to them; the end appears different to different men.'" He replies thus: "If…the individual is somehow responsible for his own characteristics (i.e., character, character traits or virtues), he is similarly responsible for what appears to him (to be good)."

And so it is true that not everyone can study the "science" of ethics, but the science of ethics is not the only way to "know" what is morally good. Connatural knowledge is acquired on the basis of how one freely chooses to shape one's own character. Character is determined by oneself, by one's own free choices, and that is why personality is not the same as character. We have all inherited certain personality traits and there isn't a great deal we can do about them - if one is a high introvert, there's no changing that, one will always feel tired after having to interact with a group of people. But character is something intimately and entirely ours and it is established as a result of the freely chosen relationship we take towards the end that we have made final (ultimate) and the freely chosen relationship we take towards basic human goods. My relationship to the latter will be disordered if I have chosen to make myself and my own delectable good the ultimate end of everything I do. For example, if I have made myself the center around which my life will revolve, then the alternative to treat another as a means to an end is regarded by me as fitting; in treating others as a means to an end, I become unjust in character (a user).

From the Universal to the Particular

But how does it come about that we determine our ultimate end? The following is my attempt to account for this. Before I know the precise nature of any material being in my environment, I first apprehend that what I know is a being . In this way, our knowledge proceeds from the general to the particular. Similarly, the first free choices that we make are the more general choices, and it is in the context of these more general choices that we make choices that are less general, as a novelist conceives the whole novel very generally, and only later begins to fill in the particular parts, chapters, paragraphs, and sentences, that give expression to the original idea. He knows where he is going from the start. In other words, the whole is prior to its parts. Now the more universal the decision, the less motivated it is by sensible goods, and the more free and self-determined it is. But particular decisions motivated by strong passion can lessen a person's responsibility. For example, if we were to place a Hershey bar and a carrot in front of an overweight and immature boy and ask him to make a choice, we can reasonably expect that he will choose the Hershey bar, because he is immature and has little control over his sense appetites (his will is weak and his sense appetite strong). But the more universal an idea is, the more abstracted it is from matter. So too, the more universal the choice, the more it exceeds the influence of the sense appetites.

Now, at a certain point in our lives, we make a very general choice about ourselves (by no means an irreversible choice). We choose to be a certain kind of person . This choice does not take place in a vacuum, but within an environment containing many different kinds of people. Very early on we choose to be like him, or like her, or not like this person and not like that person. Now, just as certain activities reveal the kind of substance that it is, for example, observing a thing flying allows us to infer that the thing is a living animal, so too, specific acts reveals a specific character. Just as things act according to their nature, human persons choose to perform activities that are in accordance with a specific character. Certain activities are consistent with a certain character, inconsistent with an opposite character.

In freely choosing certain acts, we choose to be a certain way. The actions that we choose constitute that particular way of being. For example, a child might want to be like his mother who is a kind and loving nurse, and he might want to be a person who cares for people, tends to their needs, etc. Or, a child might want to be part of this crowd and want the identity of belonging to it: "I want to be one of these, not one of them."

It is on the basis of this more general decision that other alternatives become more appealing , for they are more in accordance with the kind of character that the person originally chose for himself. Conversely, certain alternatives drop out of consideration - lose their appeal - because they are inconsistent with the kind of character he has chosen for himself. For example, he does not choose, like other kids he knows, to spit at seniors as he rides his bike past the nursing home every day because he does not want to be that kind of person. He loves those people. Why? Because he has chosen to, not for any ulterior motive (although that is a real possibility), but ultimately because that is the kind of person he has determined himself to be, the kind of person who relates to people this way, that is, in a way that loves them for their own sake.

It is possible for a person to choose to always look out for himself first, to make himself the very center around which his life will revolve. For example, a person can decide that feeling comfortable is more important to him than the wishes of others, or even the well-being and rights of others. He might accept that this is the kind of person he has become, that is, one with a less noble identity than that of a person who has made a better, less self-centered, choice. He experiences himself as rather unsightly as a result of that general decision and the choices that ensue, but he accepts that identity, and he will probably do his best to hide from the subtle awareness of his relatively rotten character. He does not intend that unsightly character, but he does intend to make himself the center of his life; it just so happens that this renders him unsightly to others and to himself, so he will attempt to disguise his true character and attempt to appear better, perhaps as a paragon of virtue, in order to procure the affirmation of others. This is where "personality" comes in to the picture. Sometimes people with depraved character will fabricate specific personality traits that are very attractive to others, precisely in order to hide one's true character and to win favor and adulation, etc.

There are always certain choices that are consistent with the general decision that we make about ourselves, and there are choices that are inconsistent with it. As was said, these latter tend to lose their appeal. For example, if I decide that I always want to be "top dog", and I want others to either love me or barring that, fear me, then things like doing volunteer work or giving generously to charitable causes, tend to lose their appeal, unless they can be a means of maintaining a facade. Watching certain kinds of shows or applying for certain courses of study, etc., will also lose their appeal, while others will acquire greater appeal. Consider, for example, how appealing education becomes to a person who has made a commitment that requires some years of schooling.

It is not necessarily possible for us to determine exactly when this very general choice was made by a particular person, but some of us remember moments in our own childhood when we became conscious of having made a simple and general decision to be "like this person" or to strive to be "like that person", or to be "a good person", or "a notorious person", etc. There is no need to search for the cause of this decision. The choice is self-determined, or self-caused. The power to choose freely is really the power to "make oneself", and what is made, the character that is established, is more intimately ours than anything else that we might own. We are the kind of person that we are because we willed that identity into existence.

The person who has made a general decision to put his own delectable good (private good) second, so to speak, and to give first place to the good as such (the moral good), will begin to judge rightly concerning the means to the end he has decided upon. If he errs, he will make adjustments to line himself up more perfectly with his ultimate end. Now, recall that Aristotle said that "the chief distinction of a man of high moral standards is his ability to see the truth in each particular moral question , since he is, as it were, the standard and measure for such questions ." Unfortunately, those of low moral standard typically make themselves the standard and measure for moral questions, which is why the coward regards the brave man as rash, and the foolhardy judge the brave as cowards, etc. We have made ourselves our own standard, our own norma or rule.

To the degree that our will and the sensitive appetites are disordered, that is, to the degree that our love of self is disordered, our judgment will suffer defect. To the degree that our appetites (will and emotions) are rightly ordered, to that degree will our judgment be right.

But isn't it possible for two people, who have the same ultimate end, to have opposing judgments or an opposing vision of what is the best means to a given end? Indeed it is possible. As an example, consider two devoutly religious people. The religious person claims he does not make himself the measure, but God is the measure. That may be true, but as a person is, so does he see. How does a Christian see Christ? And how often is his vision of Christ determined by his own moral identity? Wouldn't you say it is possible to misrepresent Christ without being fully aware of it? That is why the acronym WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) that has appeared on ankle bracelets is really quite pointless. What I judge he would do is going to be very different from what you judge he would do, if and only if we are different . People of like character tend to see "eye to eye". But even bishops are often in conflict in their judgments on the best course of action - not to mention more serious matters of morality. So it seems the religious person still makes himself the norm; and that norm is a true measure to the degree that his appropriation of Christ is complete. In other words, the holier the man or woman is, the closer will his vision conform to Christ's.[4] The problem, however, is that we are never fully aware of just how short we fall from the 'norm' that is Christ. The holiest people among us have the highest level of skepticism regarding themselves and thus the least amount of confidence.

Intrapersonal asymmetry

A further problem is that all of us suffer from some degree of inordinate love of self. The moral life should be a continual effort to bring order to that love of self. But it is this disordered self-love that is the principal contributor to a certain asymmetric phenomenon in which we judge others differently than we judge ourselves. We have a view of ourselves, often not true to reality, and we favor evidence that confirms that "hypothesis" about ourselves - a highly favorable one - , and we tend to allow our mistakes - which disconfirm our "hypothesis" - to drift from memory. This is confirmation bias applied, pre-consciously, to ourselves. We favor pieces of evidence that confirm our own self-estimation, and we leave those disconfirming pieces of evidence in the penumbra.

However, we welcome the disconfirming evidence when it comes to our evaluations of others. We avoid or pay little attention to disconfirming evidence that challenges our self-estimation, relegating it to a region in which it becomes easily forgettable, but this is not what occurs when it comes to the mistakes of others.

This may explain why we often become angry at the mistakes of others. Our perception of others' errors is similar to what occurs in hindsight bias. At the beginning of a judgment, there is tremendous opacity as a result of the various possible alternatives that can explain a given situation, or the various possible ways of choosing to respond to a situation. In hindsight, the opacity seems to have disappeared; we've simply forgotten about it. If we predicted correctly, we take credit for it; if we err, we find it easy to forgive ourselves, after all, "we knew it all along". When others err, we conveniently forget that they too were and are subject to the same initial opacity that characterizes the present; it is as if in their case we substitute the opacity that overshadows the starting point of a judgment or decision with the clarity that appears at the end: "You should have known".

This forgetfulness makes possible our anger or impatience towards the mistakes of others, but this forgetfulness is in turn rooted in disordered love of self, something we are not entirely aware of - at least not explicitly.

Concluding Thoughts

And so we are more in the dark than we think. Thus, we really ought to learn to approach moral questions with a healthy skepticism towards our own way of seeing things; for although we can reason our way to conclusions that show that we have made wrong choices, we are usually not honest and open enough to welcome that correction. Both laziness and pride keep us from making the effort to think hard about our moral convictions and admitting that we are not as "good" as we might have thought. We are not aware of the deficiency in the norm or standard we hold ourselves up to, that is, ourselves as the norm, and so we judge in light of a measure that is probably deficient - insofar as it is a lifetime's work to grow in prudence, humility, temperance, fortitude, etc. This is true even for those who are devoutly religious. Moreover, we are profoundly limited by sense perception, by time and circumstance, lack of experience, poor memory and duration neglect, an intrapersonal asymmetric bias that keeps us from appreciating the unique perspective of ordinary persons, a proven incapacity to predict, the limits and constraints that result from inductive inferencing which characterize most of our day to day reasoning, the resulting lack of familiarity with the rich history of every ordinary human being we encounter - not to mention the resulting lack of understanding of the rich history of the world, much of which is lost to even the best historians - , and despite understanding the tools of probability (statistics), the accuracy of our numbers depend on our knowledge base which is far more constrained than statistics would lead us to believe. Add to this our tendency to disordered appetite (the wounds of Original Sin) which in turn clouds our moral judgment, it seems quite miraculous that human beings have not managed to completely destroy themselves and the world in which we live.