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Christian Miller joins the show to talk about how most people have a self‐​inflated view of how good they actually are.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Christian Miller is a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Princeton University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. His main areas of research are meta‐​ethics, moral psychology, moral character, action theory, and philosophy of religion. He is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and Philosophy Director of the Beacon Project.

Most people think of themselves as decent human beings. We also generally think our friends and family members are decent people. No one is a saint, but many people we interact with are honest, kind, and humble. But, Christian Miller discovers in his book that if you look at recent psychological studies closely many people regularly fail to acknowledge significant character flaws.

Do you believe yourself to be a virtuous person? What do we expect of virtuous people? What is the difference between a virtue and a vice? Do we naturally move to help people?

Further Reading:

The Character Gap, written by Christian Miller

The Milgram Shock Experiment, written by Saul McLeod

A Call for Help, written by Nicholas Lemann


00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:10 Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Christian B. Miller. He’s the AC Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and past director of the Character Project as well as director of the new Honesty Project. Today we’re talking about his book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? Welcome to the show, Professor Miller.

00:26 Christian Miller: Thank you so much for having me on your show. I really look forward to our conversation.

00:30 Aaron Powell: I am generally pretty confident that I’m a good person. Should I be less certain about that?

00:39 Christian Miller: Well, I don’t know you very well, so maybe you’re on target. And maybe you are one of the… What I would think of as exceptions to the rule of most people not being good. But as a general matter, these two things seem to be true to me. On the one hand we tend to think of ourselves as good people. So if you look at survey data where you rate your character from 1 to 5, with 1 being poor character and 5 being very good character, or less, people will give themselves a 4 out of 5. So we tend, in general, to have an inflated or a high opinion of our character. But at the same time, that opinion does not seem to correspond to the facts, because for reasons I’m sure we’ll get into later, the best evidence of what character is actually like suggests that most people do not have the virtues, do not have good character and so fall short of their own self‐​evaluation and self‐​opinion.

01:50 Trevor Burrus: So is the goal to try and get them… So we’re going to talk about some of these experiments, but I guess we kind of flesh out how some of these work. Do these experiments rely on having people self‐​grade? And then… Like, I would help someone and then seeing if they actually help someone? Do you actually put them into almost like fake situations that they think are real to see if they line up what they think they will do with what they actually do?

02:15 Christian Miller: Yeah, so good… So when we’re thinking about character here and how good our character is, there are lots of ways to assess that. The way I go is to look at the psychological research. So I wanna be clear that that’s not the only methodology you can employ. You can look at religious texts, you can look at history, you can look at current events. What I like about the psychological research is that it puts lots of participants into different situations that are morally relevant and sees how they behave in those situations. I should say right off the bat, I’m a philosopher, I did not run these experiments, I’m piggy‐​backing on the work that psychologists have done for the last 50 years. And now to directly answer your question, lots of times these studies would not ask people to first rate their own character and then put them in a situation.

03:04 Christian Miller: The reason being that that would potentially taint the results, because you’ve already primed them to think about morality and think about their own character. And then you ask them to perform an actual, “How honest am I?” And I… Okay, “If I had to think about honesty I’d give myself a 4 out of 5.” And then a few minutes later, here’s an opportunity to cheat. Are you gonna take the opportunity to cheat or not? Well, that’s probably not an accurate reflection of how people would ordinarily be. So instead, what we have are two different bodies of evidence here. We have on the one hand, just surveying lots of people using paper and pencil surveys to see how they rate their own character. And then separately, different people, different experiments, different research, putting participants into concrete situations where they have an opportunity to lie or to cheat or to steal or to help or to harm, and seeing what they actually do.

04:04 Christian Miller: So do they do the right thing where… Hopefully it’s fairly uncontroversial, what the right thing is. Or do they fall short? And to cut to the chase, the pattern of behavior that I end up seeing across lots and lots of these studies, not putting a lot of weight on any one study, but looking at the body of work collectively, is a pattern of behavior that does not seem to me to correspond to what I would expect of a virtuous person. The virtuous person sets the bar pretty high for behavior as well as motivation and thoughts. And I’m not seeing that translating into or corresponding to the data that’s actually out there in psychology.

04:47 Aaron Powell: Maybe we can dig a bit into that before we turn to more of the findings and the individual experiments that drive them. When we talk about a virtuous person… ‘Cause you said early on in our conversation, you mentioned we’re talking about good character and good character is… Someone with good character is someone who possesses the virtues. So what do we mean by the virtues? And what does it mean to say that someone has them versus doesn’t have them?

05:12 Christian Miller: You must be a philosopher at heart. So that’s where I like to start, because a philosopher always starts by defining the terms, so getting real clear about what we’re talking about. And then we can go and see how the messy empirical data maps on to the definitions. So you’re right, I say character is the kind of broad category, and under that you have good character and bad character. And if we take good character, I’m understanding that in terms of the virtues and bad character would be understood in terms of the vices. And then I can give examples of virtues, then I’ll give you the definition. So examples of virtues are things like honesty, temperance, justice, fortitude, gratitude, courage, and the like.

05:54 Christian Miller: These are not unfamiliar notions, hopefully, that… Things that we often talk about in our ordinary lives. As a general matter, virtues… This might be more the philosophical contribution. Virtues have three components to them. They have a motivational component, they have a thinking component and they have an outward external behavioral component. So and all three are necessary, if you don’t have one of those components, you can’t be a virtuous person or instantiate or possess a virtue. So to make that a little bit less abstract, let’s just pick one. Let’s take something like compassion. So, of course, a compassionate person externally helps others, so their behavior is one of being helpful, but that can’t be the whole story, because if they’re helpful for the wrong reasons or the crummy reasons, then they don’t get to count as compassionate, virtuously compassionate. So the motivation has to be virtuous as well, things like caring for the person in need for his or her own sake, plus the thinking has to be virtuous too, so being able to recognize when someone is in need and being able to recognize what would be helpful in their situation and what would not be helpful.

07:20 Christian Miller: So virtue involves thinking, motivation and behavior. Now, the last part of your question was, well, what does it mean to say someone has one or doesn’t have one. Well, I think that there’s what we might say a threshold, that your character has to kinda pass over a threshold of being good enough to count as virtuous or to have one of the virtues. So to put that a little bit differently, if… Let’s just switch the example, say to say honesty. If someone lies repeatedly for no good reason and cheats and steals, they have a character, they have a character trait that’s actually… You can predict what they’re gonna do and you can explain their behavior in terms of their character trait, but it’s not good enough to count as the virtue of honesty. You have to have… If you’re gonna be honest, an honest person, you have to have a pattern of honest behavior and that honest behavior has to be caused by the appropriate thoughts and motives. And once you pass that threshold, then you get to count as possessing or having a virtue, like the virtue of honesty.

08:35 Aaron Powell: Does that then mean that vices… Because you spend a fair amount of time in the book also talking about vices and studies that measure vices. That vices are simply the absence of a virtue, are they something else entirely, like their own trait? Or I’m thinking the most famous virtue theory is probably Aristotle’s, and for him it’s… We have vices, and then the virtue is the right spot between them. You go too far on one direction it’s a vice, too far on the other… So virtues hover between vices, but is… How does… How specifically does a vice fit into this?

09:12 Christian Miller: That’s great, that’s a great question. People may have different views. I am definitely coming from the tradition of Aristotle. I’ve been influenced by him more than anyone else in my thinking about character. I do think of vices as also character traits as well, rather than just the absence of a virtue. I think that if you have… If you don’t have a virtue, that leaves the door open to lots of possibilities of what your character might look like, not necessarily vicious. So let me put this differently, you can have a virtue, you can have a vice, or you could have something between the two. There are other options between virtue and vice. So merely saying I don’t have a virtue doesn’t get you a vice.

10:01 Christian Miller: Now, more on vices, though, so I do think of vices as character traits that have actually the same features of virtues, just orientated in the opposite direction. So they have a thinking component to them, they have a motivational component to them, and they have a behavioral component to them. So you could run the same story I just taught about honesty, using dishonesty. Think about dishonest thoughts, dishonest motives and dishonest behavior, and then you’ve got the vice of dishonesty, which then opens up empirical questions too. Well, do most people have the virtues, or do most people have the vices? Or if there’s a middle space between the two, if there are other options out there, maybe it’s neither.

10:46 Trevor Burrus: So if we’re talking about being virtuous, it’s kind of an interesting metaphysical concept where you could have someone who believes they’re virtuous and have other people believe they’re virtuous, but they are not in fact virtuous, or you could have a situation where a person believes they are not virtuous and other people believe they are not virtuous, but maybe they are in fact virtuous. It seems kinda interesting to try and decide which one of those you would choose, ’cause in one of them, you are virtuous, but no one knows it, in the other one you aren’t, but everyone thinks you are. Is there a reason we should care about one over the other?

11:25 Christian Miller: That’s a tricky question. I’ve never got… I never really thought about that before. First of all, I definitely grant the assumptions, everything you said there sounds right, you can think you’re virtuous and not be virtuous, you can think you’re not virtuous and actually be virtuous. If I’m given the choice between the two, which one do I take? And I wonder if it depends on individual virtues too, so suppose I think I’m honest, but I’m really not… Or suppose I think I’m not honest, but I really am, which was… I don’t know if I have a real clear answer to that.

12:00 Trevor Burrus: Well, even aside from whatever your answer is, it’s an interesting conundrum because it’s what popped in my head when thinking about the general thesis of your book, that people seem to have an over‐​estimation of their own virtue or their own moral character, which it seems to me it could be… You can argue that’s okay. Because if you really think you’re a bad person, that becomes depression and maybe suicide or something along those lines that you… It’s okay that your brain is actually kind of fighting to tell you a better story about yourself because the alternative is depression and suicide. It has been observed before that depressed people score better on tests where they are accurately assessing things about the world and people what they think about them, they actually score better on those tests, but maybe that’s the reason they’re depressed.

12:52 Christian Miller: Right, good. So that’s really good. Now, maybe I can offer a little bit more… You’ve given me a little bit more time to think it through. So if the alternatives you’re presenting with me with are, “I think I’m actually a vicious person, but I’m really virtuous. Or I think I’m a virtuous person, but I’m really vicious,” those are very stark alternatives at the ends of the spectrum… Extremes of the spectrum, so speak. But now this gives me a chance a little bit… Explain a little bit more about my own view, and helps address the question too. My own view is that it’s not that most people are vicious. So it’s not that we have this over‐​inflated sense of our character because in fact we’re vicious, so we give ourselves a 4 out of 5, but we’re really a 1 out of 5. That’s really massive self‐​deception or massive error going on.

13:53 Christian Miller: My view is what I call mixed character, where our character is more like, if you use the numbers again, more like a 3 out of 5. We’re a mixed bag. We have some good sides to our character and some bad sides to our character, but not good enough to count as virtuous, and not bad enough to count as vicious. So we occupy a middle space between virtue and vice, this is for most of us, such that we can move in either direction. Our character can erode and get worse, and we can tend towards vice, or it can improve and tend towards virtue.

14:27 Christian Miller: In that framework, I think it’s… Now, if I had to choose, I think it would be okay to say, “I have a mixed character… I think I have a mixed character, but I’m very virtuous.” That’s the choice I would make. “I’m under‐​selling my character. It’s actually better than I think it is.” That’s the option I would take of the two you presented me with. And one last footnote, why some of this matters. Well, if people tend to have a positive, and especially very positive view of their character, when in fact they don’t have the virtues, then they can let down others as well as themselves. For example, they might think, “Okay, of course I would help in an emergency when no one else around is helping, because I’m a compassionate person.” And an emergency comes along, and lo and behold, they don’t help. They let down the person who needed help. Or the professor thinks, “Okay, most of us are honest people, so I can relax my standards for taking the test, or take home exams, or so forth, because I think most people are honest.” Well, lo and behold, in fact they’re not, and there’s widespread cheating on the test. So, the gap between perception and reality does matter, I think.

16:04 Aaron Powell: Are there reasons that I, or anyone else, ought to care about having a good character, about possessing the virtues outside of purely instrumental? Like, if nobody likes me, that makes my life worse, and people tend to like people who they find to be honest and caring and compassionate and so on, but are there other reasons why we should care about this at all and let it be action‐​guiding?

16:28 Christian Miller: Right. There are, I think, but it might depend on who the audience is as far as how persuasive they are. So if you’re presenting me with a moral skeptic, or someone who’s just amoralist, or a psychopath, or something like that, not to say these are equivalent, but just… I probably will not be able to provide sufficient arguments or reasons to convince that person to get on to the virtue bandwagon. However, if I’m talking to someone who’s already interested in morality, cares about doing right and wrong, and is trying to live a good life, but maybe is not as familiar with the categories of virtue and vice, and learns about them, then gives me that question, “Well, why should I devote a lot of time to this?” Here’s what I’d say. First of all, I probably would go with the instrumental reasons, simply because they are the easiest to appreciate, and often have the strongest pull on us. So it turns out that people with better character have all kinds of… Their better character is correlated with all kinds of benefits in their life. This has emerged from the data.

17:44 Christian Miller: Things like longer life span, greater subjective well‐​being, less stress and so forth. So I would spend some time on that. But you’re asking me the question of, “Let’s move beyond that. What else is there beyond that?” Here I would, depending on the audience and the person, I might cite different things. So for example, if it’s a religious audience, I would go in a religious direction and talk about the importance of character within religion in general, or within particular religions. Let’s assume it’s not a religious audience. Let’s assume it’s a secular audience. Then I think it gets a little harder, but a couple of things you could say, one is, it’s beneficial not just for yourself, but beneficial for society at large if there’s more virtue in a society. If there’s more justice actually embodied by the people in a society, that makes a society overall better. That’s one thing.

18:45 Christian Miller: A second thing is that I just think virtue is intrinsically good. So you said give me something that’s not instrumental. Well, what’s not instrumental? The intrinsically good, and things that are good in and of themselves. So I think virtue in general and individual virtues are all intrinsically good in and of themselves, even if they don’t bring about good consequences or outcomes. And then finally, there’s a more nebulous reason. It’s less a philosophical reason and more an emotional reason. Which is that, we often find exemplars of virtue to be inspiring.

19:26 Christian Miller: So when I read the life of Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman, it’s not so much that I’m seeing philosophical arguments presented to me, it’s more like that person’s life powerfully moves me at an emotional level. It brings about admiration and emulation, it inspires me to change my own life and so it gives me an an emotional reason to want to have my character better map on or reflect the character of the person I’m learning about. Those are a couple of thoughts in that direction.

20:00 Trevor Burrus: Your book reminded me of this discussion of how good are we was brought to a head in a very famous case in the late ‘60s in New York called… Of a woman named Kitty Genovese, who was brutally murdered and… I think right outside of her apartment while dozens, if not hundreds of people listened to her scream for help and no one went to help her. And after this happened, there was kind of a big influx of people saying, this is exactly what’s wrong with America or what’s wrong with society, or capitalism, or you name it. People don’t help each other. And there was a desire to do a bunch of experiments on similar situations. But if I recall correctly, a lot of those experiments became extremely context‐​dependent. They didn’t actually end up concluding that people just don’t help people getting knifed, they sometimes don’t help people if they’re hearing… They think that someone else is gonna come or the police are gonna come, but if you put them in different situations, they often are pretty good at helping people and it’s very, very context‐​dependent. Is that the way the literature is today, or has it gotten sort of worse in terms of how much we help people?

21:08 Christian Miller: That’s great. So let me take it very narrow and then build up from there. So very narrowly, that case is, you’re right, extremely famous. There’s recently been some question about the authenticity of that case. So for listeners who wanna dive into it, just Google, and there’s been some question about whether it actually happened the way it’s been historically depicted. Leaving that aside there’s still… You’re absolutely right, it inspired a whole bunch of research about factors which… Foster helping factors which impede helping. The studies most directly relevant to that kind of case are the group effect studies. So you bring a participant into a lab, I’ll give you an example of this from 1968. The Lady in Distress study. You bring a participant into a lab, the participant is taken into a room, sits down, given a survey to complete, the person in charge leaves, the participant is working on the survey, a few minutes later, another participant comes in, sits down at the same table, working on the same survey. They’re strangers to each other. They don’t know each other at all.

22:15 Christian Miller: The person in charge leaves, a few minutes later, there’s a loud crash in the next room, the person in charge voice… You could hear the voice crying and screaming in pain. “Ouch, this has fallen on me. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I can’t get it off me.” Clearly she’s in distress. And what happens? Well, in this variation where there are two people, participants who don’t know each other, and one of the participants unbeknownst to the other is an actor, a confederate, who’s told don’t do anything, just keep working on the survey. The first participant will almost certainly not do anything either. So in that situation, only 7% of participants helped. Seven, not 77, which means 93% didn’t do anything to help. Now, that’s stunning. That’s one study I use as evidence of lack of compassion, the virtue of compassion. It doesn’t prove anything by itself, but it’s a data point. Now, to speak more to your question, if it was always like that, then you would get pretty pessimistic and you’d say, well, people aren’t helpful at all, but the experimenters also had a different version where there was no second participant.

23:36 Christian Miller: It was just the first participant comes in, sits down, takes a survey, the person in charge leaves a few minutes later, there’s the emergency, and in that set up 70% of participants do something to help. So there you see quite a bit of helpfulness, whereas in the first version you didn’t. And so it does seem like it’s very context‐​dependent, as you said. Here, the relevant context is the presence or absence of the stranger who doesn’t do anything. If that stranger is unresponsive, the story that’s emerged is that that can lead to some fear of embarrassment concerns. So, “Why isn’t the other person doing anything to help? Maybe there’s something I’m missing, or maybe there’s a larger story or maybe it’s not really an emergency. I don’t wanna get up out of my seat and run into the next room only to find out that nothing’s wrong. I would embarrass myself, I would look like a fool.” And so that’s part of the psychological explanation of that phenomena, whereas you don’t have that going on when it’s just you by yourself as the participant alone.

24:46 Aaron Powell: As I was reading all of the pretty vivid experiments that you cover in the book, and they go through… I mean, it’s one of the… It’s a really fun part to read because the experiments… There’s something fun about reading clever experimental design too, just how do you suss out these things and how do you come up with some elaborate scenario by which you can zero in on particular aspects of human belief or behavior? But as I was reading it, and it is… As you say, you’re not saying that the findings are that we are all vicious people, but that we’re simply… It’s kind of a lukewarm approach to our virtue. But the picture that gets painted by a lot of these studies feels grim compared to the way that we would self‐​assess and the way that we imagine the people that we interact with in our daily lives would actually be.

25:38 Aaron Powell: And I wondered, I guess two things. The first is the question of drawing these kinds of conclusions from psychological studies and particularly psychological studies done in the ways these are done. So there’s the… A while back, there was the critique of experimental psychology, the WEIRD critique, which said the people who will participate in these studies, often they’re done at universities, in labs with undergraduates, are weird and it stands for Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. That it’s a very particular kind of person who is the subject of these studies, and whether we can… On one hand, whether we can extrapolate from that out to broader characteristics of humans in general, and the other one is… I found myself wondering, maybe there’s something about psychology labs that makes people bad. I’m being a little bit flip, but maybe just there’s something about being in an experimental situation that throws our moral qualities for a loop. And so is there anything to those worries, and I guess if there is, how do you deal with those kinds of worries when you’re trying to draw these conclusions from individual studies?

26:53 Christian Miller: Yeah, yeah, good. So I should preface my remarks by saying that I’m a philosopher again. I do not have a PhD in psychology, and I’m very much relying on the work that others have done before me, so I’m no expert here, but I do have something to say about both those points. So first of all, you’re quite right. There has been an almost exclusive focus on Western populations, very much a skewed perspective on college students, which is natural because the psych [27:27] ____ are professors at universities, and they have students right there at their… Not disposal, but they can use in their studies. So what I do it here is, first of all, try to be more careful in how I state my conclusion. If I’m being a little bit loose, I’ll say most people don’t have virtue, but if you wanna pin me down, I can only say things like, most people in the West in the last 50 years, ’cause that’s when we have the psychological research for, of a certain kind of age range and demographic seem like they don’t have virtue.

28:07 Christian Miller: Now, what I also try to do is appeal to studies beyond just the ones that use college students. So I really like studies which construct a… Which have a set‐​up where the participants don’t even know that they are participants. So that in the natural environment, they’re being covertly observed to see whether they help or not, for example. So I’ll give you a quick example of that, then I’ll turn to the second part of your question. So here’s a really interesting study where it was in a shopping mall and so anyone can be at the shopping mall, we don’t have to worry about this just student population. The control group were people who were going past clothing stores and then were presented afterwards with an opportunity to help. The experimental group were people at the same shopping mall, who… Different people, though, but same shopping mall, who had just passed Mrs. Fields Cookies or Cinnabons, if those ring a bell, you know what that experience is like, that smells like. So they had the real pleasant aromas and then they are given the same helping test.

29:22 Christian Miller: Now, it’s not like an experimenter comes up and says, “I’m part of an experiment. Can you help me with this?” It’s an actor who needs some help, pretending to be an ordinary person. In this study, the fascinating result, about 20% of people helped in the control condition, and about 60% of people helped in the experimental condition after the Mrs. Fields Cookies and Cinnabons. So this is… This is the best kind of study of all. When you don’t even know that you’re part of a study and you get a powerful and intriguing results from that. And we could talk more about it, what I think the implications of that, what explains the difference with the smells and…

30:02 Trevor Burrus: I wanna clarify, you said 6–0, you said 20% for people walking past the clothing store but 6–0… ‘Cause I always thought we were gonna be in Homer Simpson situation where he’s like, “Mmm, Cinnabon,” or help someone out. But they actually helped them out more, right? I was just… That’s just like The Simpsons. Yeah. Well, what is your interpretation of that?

30:20 Christian Miller: Okay, so… I’ll talk about that for a little bit. We’ll table the other question for a moment. I’ll come back to it. So yeah, such an intriguing study, it’s hard to let it go. The story, the explanatory story or the psychological story is something like this. The good smell subconsciously triggers in people’s mind a good mood. It’s not like you consciously say, oh, this is gonna put me in a good mood, it just happens to you, and furthermore triggers subsequently a desire to maintain that good mood. Those smells, they put you in a mood. You don’t want that good mood to go away. You want that good mood to be maintained, but now you walk past the stores, you don’t have the smell anymore, so here comes an opportunity to help. Well, helping is a way to maintain a good mood so that… It’s nothing special about the helping per se. Other options in the environment which would have maintained the good mood also would have been attractive. It just so happens that the next thing that came along was the opportunity to help, and that helps me keep my good mood going.

31:31 Christian Miller: So helping increases, so this also goes back to your other question of situational factors and how this is not a bleak picture, we never help. No. Look, these people did help. Much more than the controls did because of a very specific situational feature in their environments, the smell, which they themselves weren’t even aware of having an impact on their helping. If you asked them after, 10 minutes later, well, why did you help? And they’ll say, well, that person needed help or I was able… I wasn’t in any hurry and it seemed like the right thing to do. And they would be oblivious to the impact of the smell in as a factor in leading to their helping.

32:16 Christian Miller: Okay, so. Now, the other question was, do psychological studies somehow skew the results in a certain way, bring out a darker side to our character or give us license to act worse than we perhaps normally would? And I would push back on that a little bit in two ways. One way is just, piggybacking on what I was just saying, which is that sometimes psychological studies are such that the participants don’t even know they’re in a study. So they’re not even aware of it. But a second thing I would say is that, well, there are plenty of studies which are made… We haven’t highlighted as much in this conversation, but plenty of studies which show good sides to human beings. And so maybe I’ll just give you one to balance things out a little bit.

33:08 Christian Miller: So this is by my favorite psychologist of all, Daniel Batson, who taught at the University of Kansas for most of his career, and he’s one of the world’s experts on empathy. So in his studies, just condensing it really briefly, he was able to find that students, and unfortunately this is mainly student populations in his research, students who were made to feel empathy for the suffering of others, as compared to a control group which did not have an empathy manipulation… So the students who felt empathy for the suffering of others would help way more than the control group, and furthermore, he found… He constructed an argument over many years that their helping was altruistically motivated, which means that it was not self‐​interested helping, but selfless helping, helping aimed at the good of the other person. Now, this is very encouraging, to my ears, right, or my eyes when I’m reading it on a page, to see that here in this area of our character, most people’s character, we are disposed to help, reliably, and to do so for altruistic reasons. That’s a big thumbs up, in my opinion.

34:39 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, no, I agree. The info… The experiments aren’t all bad. One of the ones that is more legendary that you discuss, too, in the book, is one that a lot of people just know, which is the Milgram experiments of authority, which is a little bit different, ’cause those do tend to give a pretty generally bad view of how people will behave when they’re told by an authority figure to torture someone. And so can you talk a little bit about that experiment, and then also any variances, if you’d like, about how it has been replicated or what conditions has it been replicated and what it might mean for our visions of authority and our virtue.

35:23 Christian Miller: Right, sure, great. And that’s a nice one to cite, too, because if you know the study, and I’ll summarize it in a minute, that’s… Initially it’s gonna take you into the vice thoughts, right, that, “Boy, we are pretty wretched people.” But even here, there’s a positive side to it, which gives me more of a mixed character picture too. So, well, first some context. So these are the Milgram studies from the 1960s. They were designed to test whether quote‐​unquote “ordinary” people in conditions where they are being pressured by authority figures could be brought to commit atrocities, and so exploring some issues, for example, from World War II and quote‐​unquote “ordinary” Germans and how they were brought to or chose to, in a fairly short period of time, commit atrocities to the Jews. So what Milgram, in the standard set‐​up did was he’d have a person come in, sit down, told to administer a test to a stranger in the next room who is hooked up to an electric shock machine. For every wrong answer that the person in the next room got, the person in charge of the test would be told, you have to turn up this shock dial more and more. So more wrong answers, higher shock.

36:50 Christian Miller: The other thing to mention about the setup is that behind the particpants would be an authority figure, often in a white coat looking very scientific and in charge, who wouldn’t do much unless there was a lot of objection from the participants, in which case the authority figure would say things like, “You must continue,” “Please continue,” “We need these results.” So what ended up happening? Well, for those listeners who are not familiar with this, it’s really important to note that this is rigged. The person in the next room is an actor, he’s not really getting electric shocks, so that’s good. But the participant doesn’t know that. The participant thinks these are real shocks. And so what ends up happening is that the person in the next room by design gets a lot of wrong answers. There is pressure from the environment and the authority figure on the participant to keep turning up the shock dial, and lo and behold, the majority of participants do turn up the shock dial more and more and more, up to the point where the test taker in the next room is shouting in pain, is saying, “I have a heart condition,” is pounding on the walls, is saying, “Get me out of this, I don’t consent to this anymore.”

38:14 Christian Miller: Nevertheless, the majority of participants kept turning the dial up to the XXX level, which is the lethal… Turned out to be, from their perspective, the lethal level of shock, at which point there was just silence. A little higher than 60% did that. Now, if I stop there, boy, that is depressing, there’s no doubt about it. I mean, it’s disturbing, it’s not a one off experiment either, Milgram himself replicated it, it’s been replicated all over the world, it’s for a time and then you couldn’t do it anymore once the ethics standards got a little bit more stringent, rightly so, when you think about what psychological harm this might do to people who are part of the study.

39:01 Aaron Powell: Yeah, that was… I’ll just say that was my… Reading this one of my reactions was like, yes, it tells us something about the people who participated, but what does this study tell us about the vices possessed by Stanley Milgram?


39:14 Christian Miller: Yeah.

39:16 Aaron Powell: ‘Cause he kept inflicting this and you tell these stories in there, you mention people who are just kind of reduced to tears, who are broken after participating in this and he’s just like, “Let’s do it again.”

39:26 Christian Miller: Well, not… Fortunately, yes, right. Fortunately, not the same person but even then, you know, it’s… Just going through it one time is bad enough. So yeah, I mean, it’s a reflection of how the changing times and how scientific research these days is much, is held to much higher ethical standard than it was back then. But yeah, I have similar questions myself about the judgments involved in designing this study and putting ordinary people through it. So let me just say one more thing, just to finish answering the previous question, what about variations? Well, first, one lesson I derived from this is, we have a significant desire to obey authority figures, much more than we might have originally appreciated. And this is part of the disconnect between what we think our character is and what our character actually is.

40:25 Christian Miller: Nevertheless, there are variants of this study, which show almost no harm done. So for example, if there is no authority figure presence in the room, then the shocking goes way down. The level of shock goes way down. If there are two authority figures who are arguing with each other, or conflicted, contradicting each other, shocking goes way down. If the authority figure is not in the same room, but is in another room, and he’s just communicating with a participant over the phone, shocking goes way down. So it doesn’t seem like people just have this perverse desire to be cruel, of course, some do, there are masochists in the world and so forth, but by and large, most people don’t have this just perverse desire to be cruel. When the authority figure’s position was undermined or non‐​existent, they didn’t, the participants did not take advantage of their opportunity to inflict harm; in fact, they were very reserved, very self‐​controlled. So it’s a mixed bag there too, I think.

41:39 Aaron Powell: As I was reading this, I have been, my own research projects have, for the last couple of years, focused on the impact of kind of the political environment on our moral character. And a question that I came up with as I was reading this was, so when you’re talking about people’s willingness to harm, so here we have, people seem to be more willing to inflict very severe and clearly unnecessary harm on someone if there’s an authority figure present, telling them to do it or kind of egging them on. But also you mentioned that one of the findings is people seemed to be more willing to do it if they could essentially pass the moral responsibility buck. Like say, “If I crank this all the way up, am I going to… Are you gonna take responsibility, you the authority figure, you the tester, are you gonna take responsibility? It’s not on me.”

42:35 Aaron Powell: And I wondered about that in the context of political institutions, because it seems like one of the things that politics does, or that acting through the state does, is to first, I mean, there’s obviously authority figures telling us to do things, but also the act of voting for something distances you to a great extent from, say, the enforcement of it. And so, am I right in thinking there’s a potential worry there based on these findings, that this distance makes us potentially more willing to do harmful things to each other via the mechanisms of legislation and so on, because it’s easier to pass the buck? Like I voted for it, but I’m not the one enforcing it. I’m not the one doing these things ultimately, or I’m doing it, or authority figures are the ones doing it so it’s okay. Could there potentially be like a short circuiting there that would drive us in directions that might not be beneficial, even if this system is necessary?

43:43 Christian Miller: Yeah, I could only speculate here. So that’s a really intriguing question. I’m sure there’s some research on it in political psychology, and it’s just outside of my, really my comfort zone. So just take this as pure speculation. So you’re quite right, in the Milgram case, what mattered to a lot of participants was, who’s going to be at fault here and who’s gonna be assigned blame and responsibility? And it seemed clear that, if they got reassurance that the authority figure would be the one who was ultimately responsible, not them, for the harm that was being caused, then that licensed them to increase the level of shock. So we’d have to think about it, could that parallel apply in the political case? So I vote for or I in some way support this representative, but then it’s up to the representative to carry out these actions and if the representative gets it wrong, it’s not my fault, it’s that person’s fault.

44:46 Christian Miller: That seems to me to run in parallel, but without looking at the actual research, I’m reticent to do anything more than speculate.

44:57 Trevor Burrus: That’s a good point. There could be a lot of, obviously, different factors in there, but politically the one point that I’ve tried to do when I act politically is to be a person of good moral character and hopefully and think about some of these experiments, like the Milgram experiment, and whether or not I’m falling prey to some of these many, many errors of thinking or biases or a variety of things that undercut your moral character, but in my reading of a lot of the literature, it’s kind of a distressing… It’s a distressing conclusion that even if you know about this stuff, it doesn’t make you a better person in many instances, that you can know about the Milgram experiment and then go find yourself in it and find yourself turning up the dial. So it seems to me that studying these examples that you talk about, I mean, it’s something that you should pay attention to and look for yourself, but it doesn’t solve the problem by itself of creating good moral character, does it?

45:55 Christian Miller: No, that’s intriguing. So this takes us into the third part of the book, the first part being definitions and why is character important, the middle part being what does the psychological research tell us in this mixed character picture, and then the final part of the book being character improvement and how to become a better person, how to close the character gap, which is the metaphor I use in the title of the book. So in that last part, I outline a variety of different strategies for trying to grow in virtue and trying to overcome our mixed character, and one of them you’re taking us to right now is what I call getting the word out, which is increasing our familiarity with some of these biases and some of these results from psychology so that we have a better self‐​awareness of what’s going on in our own minds and then be in a position to curb or counteract the more vicious tendencies or the more negative tendencies in our minds.

46:56 Christian Miller: Now, so I would say, I agree with you that that alone is not sufficient, but I think it can be a helpful piece. So, and there is some experimental research to back this up too, so let me give you one of these studies to help clarify what I mean here. Go back to not the Milgram, which we were just talking about, but a little bit earlier to the group effects and the emergencies and if you’re with strangers who aren’t helping, there was a study done in the ‘70s which looked at, okay, what impact would it have if we educated people about the group effect, the bystander effect and then subsequently they were presented with an emergency situation in which others were not helping? So would the group that got the education help more in a real emergency, so this speaks to your point, as opposed to the control group, which did not get the education and was presented with the same emergency?

48:00 Christian Miller: And in this one study, which, it’s only one study, it needs to be replicated. I don’t put tremendous weight on it, but it’s promising, it’s suggestive, it turned out that helping member in the original group effects study was about 7%. In the control version of this study, it was about 12… I can’t remember off the top of my head, but around 12% or so, and in the group which got the education, the helping quadrupled. So the group that was educated about the group effect and then two weeks later was presented with an emergency, they quadrupled their helping compared to the control. So that’s promising to me, learning more about these tendencies, so that if we confront their relevant situations, we can be more on guard and remember, okay, why am I not helping? It might not be for any good reason, it might be because of fear of embarrassment. That’s not a good reason. I need to help, I need to step up to the plate. That seems to be a helpful piece, even if it’s not sufficient by itself.

49:13 Aaron Powell: What are some of the other methods that show promise for improving our character?

49:20 Christian Miller: Sure, so I’ll give you two more. So this was called Getting The Word Out. Two others I’ll highlight are Moral Exemplars and Moral Reminders. I should say, as a preliminary, though, there is no simple quick fix here, as we all know, we should know this from ordinary experience, we should know this if you’re parents that there’s no magic solution to get your kids to clean up their room or anything like that. So whatever it is, it’s going to be a slow, gradual process, full of many setbacks and stumbles along the way, I just wanna make that clear from the start. So another approach is to look to the lives of moral exemplars, moral heroes, moral saints, especially those who are exemplary in an area of character where I am at my worst. So if, for example, I really struggle with pride, then I would wanna have to try and find an exemplar who is very humble. Am I struggling with cowardice? I wanna find exemplar of courage.

50:28 Christian Miller: And these can be historical exemplars, we can think of Jesus, we can think of Confucius, Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln. They can also be and maybe sometimes are more effective if they are immediate exemplars, so real people in our ordinary lives, whether that’s a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a co‐​worker, someone who I can have regular interaction with and who shows me a way of being in the world and who shows me a kind of character that I don’t have, but I wish I did have, and so I can admire and then desire to emulate, just desire to change my life, set a better mirror that maps onto that person’s life. So that’s the second point, I think there’s a lot of common sense to that, it’s a pretty intuitive idea, and there’s some empirical results, research backing it up.

51:24 Christian Miller: The third one I’ll give you is what I call moral reminders, it’s kind of a familiar notion too. The idea here is that often what leads us to perform morally second rate or bad actions is that we don’t have our focus where it needs to be, we get caught up in the moments of what would give me pleasure, or what would give me an advantage or set me apart, or help myself, image improve, or my image in front of other people improve, but a moral reminder can help get our perspective grounded where it needs to be on what we care about morally speaking, because most of us do think morality is important, and most of us do have good moral values, we think that cheating is wrong, we think that lying is wrong, we think that stealing is wrong and so forth, at least in most cases, it’s just that we can get psychologically distracted onto other things that promote, say, our pleasure. So a moral reminder could take the form of starting the day with a certain reading that’s morally loaded, ending the day with a diary or a writing exercise that reflects back on what I did well or not during the day.

52:46 Christian Miller: Getting text messages throughout the day that keep me oriented where I need to be. So let’s just say things like, think about what someone else is going through at this moment, as opposed to what I’m going through. These are small things that could be signage on the wall in your office, small things that seem to have a demonstrable impact, that in the studies on cheating, for example, signing an Honor Code serves as a kind of moral reminder that’s very effective in preventing students from subsequently cheating on tests. Without the Honor Code and an opportunity to cheat, many students will cheat and this has been shown in the lab. With an Honor Code serving as a moral reminder, having an opportunity to cheat, almost no one cheats. So that’s the third and final strategy I’ll recommend, so getting the word out, moral exemplars and moral reminders.


54:00 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.