Psychology of Character RFP Winners

We are excited to announce the winners of our Psychology of Character funding competition. These twelve outstanding research projects were selected from 128 initial proposals. Congratulations to the following scholars who were awarded grants through this competition:

“Loving Mum and Tough Career Girl: How do Role Settings Affect Our Personality and Character Traits? A Multi-Rater Experience Sampling Study”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Wiebke Bleidorn (Bielefeld University/Tilburg University)

Project Abstract:

Pushed by the commotion about finance industry greed, dubious investment strategies, and excessive bonus payments called forth by the still lasting financial crisis, there has been a revitalized public interest in moral qualities and character traits. Already before its comeback in public perception, there has been a revival of the character in psychological research.

Though character traits undeniably have a great appeal in times of financial misconduct and moral hazards, we should not give into the temptation to accept this revival without a critical inspection. There still are several open issues concerning the nature and properties of character traits that need to be re-examined from the perspective of modern personality psychology: (1) How consistent are people with respect to their moral behavior - is it actually our character or rather situational pressures affecting our moral conduct? (2) Is it possible to measure character traits accurately – to what degree do social desirability effects distort people’s reports on their character traits? And finally, (3) do we actually need character traits – aren’t these morally colored attributes sufficiently covered by contemporary models of personality traits?

The present project aims at addressing these questions by studying character and personality traits in a sample of working parents across the different role settings of being a parent vs. being at work. Using an e-diary design, participants will rate their daily behavior with respect to their character and personality traits. Additionally, participants themselves and four of their peers will rate the participants’ general (“how I am in general”) and role-specific (“how I am as a parent/employee”) character and personality traits by means of questionnaire inventories.

This research design allows addressing core aspects of each of the aforementioned questions: Regarding the first issue, a central goal of the present project is to examine the degree of consistency vs. variability in character-relevant behavior across different role settings. Though it can be assumed that people systematically adapt their behavior to the given role context, there should be at least a certain degree of cross-role consistency that is founded by the person’s general character.

Regarding the second question, this study allows a detailed examination of potential social desirability biases by inspecting the level of self-peer agreement. Furthermore, this is the first study that probes the viability of a daily e-diary design to measure people’s character-relevant behavior as it naturally occurs in ‘real life’.

Finally, this project provides a more decisive test to the question, if character traits are sufficiently distinctive from more established personality taxonomies. By measuring character and personality traits, this study is suited to examine the degree of overlap and the distinctive value of character traits in predicting relevant outcome variables.

To conclude, the central purpose of this project is to re-examine the character approach in the face of three major critiques that have led to its former discredit in personality psychology. Thereby, this study aims at substantiating the modern character approach to personality with more solid arguments than just its mere attractiveness.

“Relations among Children’s Understanding of Mind, Moral Self-Concept and Involvement in Prosocial vs. Antisocial Behavior”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Elizabeth A. Boerger (University of Mississippi)

Project Abstract:

One of the most important goals of parents and educators is to ensure that children grow up with a strong moral character. For most adults, having a strong moral character means recognizing that others' needs, desires and emotions are as important as one's own and managing one's behavior accordingly. In order to do so, however, children must first understand that others can have needs, desires, and emotions that are different from their own. Thus, development in children's ability to take others' perspectives has long been considered an important precursor to moral development. Recent research (e.g., Gasser & Keller, 2009), however, indicates that some children with highly developed perspective-taking abilities use these abilities to take advantage of others rather than to help them. This is seen, for example, in "popular bullies," children who are highly aggressive toward other children but are also seen as being among the most popular children in school. In contrast, other children with highly developed perspective-taking abilities are recognized by both teachers and classmates as especially sensitive to others' needs and willing to help others. Clearly, being able to understand others' points of view and emotions does not lead to the same level of concern for others' well-being in all children. Research among adolescents and adults indicates that those who consider it important to be moral (i.e., to be kind, honest, generous and friendly, etc.) are more likely to participate in volunteer activities that benefit others and to be distressed by violence toward others (Aquino & Reed, 2002; Aquino, Reed, Thau & Freeman, 2007). This suggests that having an idea of what an ideal moral person is like, and desiring to be like such a person, is an important aspect of moral character.

Both perspective-taking ability and self-concept (i.e., beliefs about the kind of person one is and wants to be) are developing rapidly in the elementary school years. Therefore, this project will study how developments in children's ability to understand others' perspectives and their beliefs about their own moral characteristics affect their behavior toward others. Specifically, the project will focus on children from 8 to 12 years of age. Children will complete questionnaires and individual interviews at school to determine their level of perspective-taking ability, their beliefs about their own strengths and weaknesses in various areas including moral behavior, and their perceptions of their classmates' characteristics. Teachers will complete similar questionnaires about all participating children. Children's prosocial behavior will also be directly measured by observing their behavior in two school-based community service projects. Questionnaire responses from teachers and children will be used to identify children who are seen as most likely to help others as well as those who are involved in bullying as either bullies or victims. Data analyses will explore the extent to which these groups of children differ in their perspective-taking ability, their beliefs about their own moral characteristics and desire to be moral, and their involvement in prosocial activities at school.

“Character Traits in the Workplace: A Longitudinal Study of Moral and Immoral Organizational Behaviors”

Principle Investigator: Dr. Taya R. Cohen (Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University)

Team Members: Dr. Abigail T. Panter (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Project Abstract:

This project investigates how character, personality, emotions, and treatment by managers and co-workers affect the frequency with which workers engage in ethical and unethical behavior at their jobs. The workplace is an important setting to study how character affects moral and immoral behavior because most adults spend a substantial portion of their lives at work. In this study, 250 adults with full-time employment will participate in a 12-week online diary study about “weekly experiences in the workplace.” They will first provide detailed information about their jobs and complete a battery of measures assessing various dimensions of character and personality. To measure character, we will assess individual differences in guilt proneness, honesty-humility, empathic concern, moral identity and cognitive moral development, as prior research has found that these traits predispose people to think, feel, and act in morally-relevant ways. Participants will then complete 30-minute online surveys once a week for a total of 12 weeks. The weekly surveys will ask them to report the frequency with which they performed organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB) and counterproductive work behaviors (CWB). The OCB items assess moral organizational behaviors (e.g., helping co-workers with work and personal responsibilities, coming in early or staying late without pay), whereas the CWB items assess immoral organizational behaviors (e.g., verbally or physically abusing co-workers, stealing from one’s employer). The weekly surveys will also ask participants about the extent to which they experienced various emotions at work during the previous week, and how they were treated by managers and co-workers. In addition to collecting self-reports of personality and behavior, we will also collect observer-reports by surveying co-workers of the respondents. The observer-reports will allow us to test whether character can be observed and whether self-reports or observer-reports are better predictors of ethical and unethical work behaviors. This interdisciplinary research is at the intersection of social/personality psychology and organizational behavior and extends and builds on our prior work on personality, moral emotions, and unethical behavior. By examining the factor structure of and longitudinal relations among character, personality, emotions, and behavior, we will be able to determine the ways in which these factors influence moral and immoral behavior at the workplace

“Resisting Everything Except Temptation: A Longitudinal Study of Domain Specificity in Self-Control”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania)

Team Members: Eli Tsukayama (University of Pennsylvania)

Project Abstract:

In December 2009, Tiger Woods confessed that he had been unfaithful to his wife. The news was particularly sensational given Wood’s squeaky clean image, which personified almost fanatical self-control. Known as the exemplar of mental discipline, Woods demonstrated remarkable self-control and moral character in many domains of life. Yet, he was impulsive when it came to extramarital sex.

Why do some people act morally in some situations but not others? In particular, how do we reconcile apparent inconsistencies in self-control behavior? That is, why does it appear that an individual can be self-controlled in one situation or domain (e.g., work) but impulsive in another (e.g., drinking)? Can subjective temptation and perceived harm explain inconsistent self-control behavior across domains? Similarly, can domain-specific subjective temptation and perceived harm explain gender differences in domain-specific self-control behavior? For example, do women have more self-control problems with food because they are more tempted to overeat than men? Does the number of self-control domains increase over the life course, and if so, can this trend be explained by age-related changes in subjective temptation and perceived harm?

We propose and test a model that incorporates and explains both domain-general (some people are more self-controlled than others on average) and domain-specific (a person can be self-controlled in one domain but impulsive in another) differences in impulsive behavior. Specifically, we suggest that individuals who on average are more self-controlled across all domains relative to others have more self-control resources to deploy (e.g., greater working memory capacity) and more effective metacognitive strategies (e.g., pre-commitment, goal setting and planning, psychological distancing). On the other hand, an individual’s observed behavior will vary across domains as a function of his or her idiosyncratic, domain-specific subjective evaluations of temptation and perceived harm. For example, Tiger Woods might have prodigious self-control resources and effective strategies for reducing the cost of resisting temptation. But, relative to other temptations that Woods did successfully resist (e.g., the urge to procrastinate), the particular improprieties which were his undoing must have elicited exceptionally strong urges and/or been evaluated as benign.

In preliminary work, we found support for our model using a convenience sample of college students. Now, we plan to conduct longitudinal studies with cohorts of varying ages (e.g., childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, late adulthood) that are more socioeconomically and ethnically diverse than our initial sample. The proposed research would shed light on putative inconsistencies in moral character. More specifically, this investigation would potentially (1) establish a model that explains both domain-general and domain-specific self-control behavior that is generalizable across the lifespan, (2) demonstrate temporal consistency of domain-general and domain-specific self-control behavior, (3) provide an explanation for the increase in relevant self-control domains from childhood to adulthood, (4) and provide an explanation for gender differences in self-control behavior.

“Taking Evil into the Lab: Exploring the Frontiers of Morality and Individual Differences”

Principal Investigator: Dr. David Gallardo-Pujol (University of Barcelona)

Team Members: Dr. Mel Slater (University of Barcelona), Dr. Veronica Benet-Martínez (University of California, Riverside), Dr. Albert Maydeu-Olivares (University of Barcelona)

Project Abstract:

Why were the atrocities of World War II committed? How is that some soldiers committed horrible atrocities at the prison of Abu-Grahib? Some researchers, Philip Zimbardo being one of the most prominent, provided a partial explanation to this phenomenon, explaining it from a situational standpoint. That is, situational forces are so powerful and influential social roles so large that override individual personality and the ability to act in a straight and moral way. This explanation has transcended science to the folk culture, even producing films like The Experiment, or reality shows on the BBC.

However, it is rarely mentioned that in those classic experiments of Milgram, Zimbardo and Latané, not all subjects behaved immorally. Situations and social influences had a great capacity to influence behavior, but not in all subjects. In the famous Milgram experiment, used to explain the atrocities that were committed by Nazis on the Jewish people, almost one third of the participating subjects refused to continue the experiment. Why these subjects did not wish to continue? The most likely explanation is that some factors in their inner self prevented to continue them participating in the experiment.

These individual characteristics are now known as personality traits and character. Indeed, since the 1970s, there has been virtually no study that has tried to explain why some individuals behaved morally in those experiments. Moreover, at present it is not possible to replicate them in the original way because of clear ethical limitations. Some of those experiments have been recently replicated in virtual reality environments. This gives us the chance to investigate individual characteristics that could affect the fact that a participant behave morally in the experiment, but with appropriate ethical safeguards.

In this ambitious project, we aim to answer several questions: 1) The fact that someone behave immorally has to do with individual characteristics? 2) People who behave immorally in a particular situation do equally behave immorally in others? 3) How general are, if any, these individual characteristics that may explain immoral behavior? 4) What is the real role of situations in immoral behavior? and 5) with which state-of-the-art technologies can we reach groundbreaking conclusions about the character?

To carry out this study, we will use new technologies to simulate classic experiments of social psychology in virtual reality environments. Moreover, we will also analyze genetic data and brain functioning of the participants in the study. In addition, we will take advantage of more than 40 years of research in personality psychology, which have improved the tools we have to assess the character.

Altogether, we intend to take Evil into the laboratory in order to study if people behave immorally because of their character, or because the circumstances of the situation they may encounter.

“Lay Beliefs of Character Shape Character Itself: Individual Differences in Genuine Other-Love Beliefs”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Jochen Gebauer (Humboldt-University of Berlin)

Team Members: Dr. Constantine Sedikides (University of Southampton, England), Dr. Mark Leary (Duke University), Dr. Jens Asendorpf (Humboldt-University of Berlin)

Project Abstract:

Does moral character result from genuine interest in others’ welfare or is moral character merely means to achieve self-interest? Put differently, is moral character founded on genuine other-love or on fundamental self-love? This question pervades philosophical thinking and social/behavioral sciences ever since Aristotle (350 BC) coined the terms “other-love” and “self-love.” The question also lies at the heart of the Rousseau-Hume quarrel in Western philosophy, the Mencius-Xunzi quarrel in Confusion philosophy, and the Botero-Machiavelli quarrel in politics. Most recently, the question is at the forefront of economists’ debate on economic decision-making, evolutionary biologists’ debate on group-selection versus individual-selection processes, and psychologists’ debate on true altruism versus egoistic altruism.

We move beyond the evasive question of whether genuine other-love objectively exists and onto the empirically answerable question of whether there are individual differences in laypersons’ beliefs about the existence of genuine other-love. This project sets out to show that subjectively held beliefs about the existence of genuine other-love have important consequences for thinking, feeling, and behaving. Specifically, we propose that differences in laypersons’ beliefs about the existence of genuine other-love shape moral character.

Our Genuine Other-Love Beliefs model comprises four corollaries. First, like the belief in the existence of God, the belief in the existence of genuine other-love is hypothesized to be cross-culturally prevalent. Second, compared to disbelievers, believers in the existence of genuine other-love are hypothesized to exhibit more moral character. In experimental economy, genuine other-love believers should make more moral economic decisions. In experimental philosophy, genuine other-love believers should be more moral in ethical dilemmas. In sociology, genuine other-love believers should engage in more moral civic behavior. Finally, in social psychology, genuine other-love believers should behave more morally in interpersonal and intergroup contexts. Third, genuine other-love believers are hypothesized to exhibit more moral character across the aforementioned domains, because they should hold particularly positive self-views (e.g., “I am genuinely other-loving”) and particularly positive other-views (e.g., “Others are genuinely other-loving”). Finally, the belief in the existence of genuine other-love is hypothesized to stem from universal human desires for calmness emotions (e.g., “It calms me down that others genuinely love me”), relationship security (e.g., “Genuinely loving individuals won’t turn their backs to me”), and Christian faith (e.g., “The Song of Solomon and Thomas Aquinas describe other-love as genuine”).

Together, our Genuine Other-Love Beliefs model capitalizes on concepts from psychology, philosophy, and theology in an effort to understand better how a particularly central lay belief related to moral character is shaped, and how this lay belief in turn shapes moral character. The empirical examination of our model will contribute toward the restoration of the written off image of character and toward the recent revival of character, ethics, and morality as objects of psychological scrutiny. In times of growing self-centeredness, the revival of a psychology of moral character is essential. We maintain that genuine other-love beliefs lie at the heart of moral character, so that the study of this topic may clarify both moral character and ways to pursue it.

“Understanding the Perceived Structure and Importance of Moral Character”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Geoff Goodwin (University of Pennsylvania)

Team Members: Dr. Paul Rozin (University of Pennsylvania), Katrina Fincher (University of Pennsylvania)

Project Abstract:

A person’s moral character is their “normal pattern of thought and action, especially with respect to concerns and commitments in matters affecting the happiness of others or [themselves], and especially with respect to moral choices” (Kupperman, 1991, p. 17). Psychologists and philosophers have debated the existence of moral character. Some skeptical theorists, having been influenced by the seeming lack of stability in moral behavior across time and across contexts, have taken the position that ‘character’ is a fictional notion (e.g., Harman, 2009). Such skepticism seems misguided. The extent to which stability is lacking in characteristic patterns of moral thought and action may have been overstated by skeptics – even if such patterns are highly context and situation specific, there can nevertheless be consistency within, if not across, situations, and across larger aggregates of behavior (see e.g., Fleeson, 2004; Mischel & Shoda, 1995). Further, and perhaps most importantly, even if it were conclusively to be established that character is a fictional notion, this would not change the fact that it is a widely believed and influential notion. In fact, we think that lay conceptualizations of moral character play a particularly important role in everyday life. For one thing, our beliefs about other people’s moral character determine whether we trust and cooperate with them (see e.g., Haselhuhn, Schweitzer, & Wood, 2010). For another, our beliefs about our own moral character can determine the likelihood of our contributing to charitable causes (see e.g., Sachdeva, Iliev, & Medin, 2009). Such beliefs probably also contribute to several other features of moral life, such as our willingness to engage in moral self-criticism (Kupperman, 2006). More generally, beliefs about the nature of moral character, where it comes from, whether and how it can be improved, also likely contribute to a range of everyday moral education practices, such as parenting, teaching, coaching, and advice-giving. In this proposal we outline a plan of empirical work that will explore individuals’ basic beliefs about moral character, and will test five key hypotheses about the perception of moral character: (1) Moral character is seen as the most important information we can have about another person; (2) Moral character is perceived as a coherent entity, and as distinct from personality or ability; (3) Moral character is perceived as being composed of two fundamental sorts of traits, “strength” and “goodness” traits; (4) The perception of moral character, in contrast to the perception of abilities, is seen as being most strongly determined by a person’s “weakest link” rather than their “strongest link”; and (5) Unlike in ability domains, directly presenting oneself as being of high moral character is likely to backfire, because reliable information about one’s moral character must be revealed through actions and not words. We will investigate these hypotheses primarily through questionnaires, completed both by college students and by international adult samples. By exploring these ideas, we hope to provide a better understanding of the role of character in everyday moral life, and in the pursuit of the “good life” more generally.

“Dispositional Empathy as a Character Trait”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Sara Konrath (University of Michigan and University of Rochester Medical Center)

Team Members: Dr. Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis (University of Michigan), Edward O’Brien (University of Michigan), Mary Y. Liu (University of Michigan)

Project Abstract:

Intellectual merit. Empathy is the glue of social relationships. It involves imagining others’ perspectives and actually feeling things from others’ points of view, rather than from one’s own point of view. Empathy is a character trait because of its relevance to ethical and moral behavior. Some research states that empathy is a trait (people differ from each other in their levels of empathy), some states that the most important determinant of empathic behavior is the immediate situation, and some treats empathy as a skill to be learned (individuals can increase their empathy for others by learning specific skills and through practice). There is much debate about how to encourage empathic behavior, but little research on how empathy functions under situations of depletion and constraint, or how simple interventions can increase empathy in those who have little energy for it. To our knowledge, no studies have examined whether the capacity to empathize with others can be depleted, nor has research situated empathy within a broader theoretical framework that can more strongly predict how and when empathy results in prosocial behavior.

Objectives. We will examine whether empathy functions like a muscle. We expect that people start out with different levels of empathy, similar to how different people have different capacities for muscle strength. We also expect that empathy is a character trait that can be strengthened, similar to how muscles can be strengthened through practice. We propose a testable model that accounts both for the consistent relationship between empathy and prosocial behaviors, and also the inconsistency in empathy’s ability to predict these same behaviors.

Methods. We will conduct 3 experimental studies to test these hypotheses. In Study 1 we will determine the extent to which an empathic act depletes the energy of lower empathy people more than higher empathy people, as well as whether this depletion in energy is associated with less helping behavior. In Study 2 we will examine the effect of providing an energy boost (via glucose) on the helping behavior of people with lower versus higher empathy. In Study 3 we will examine the effect of empathy-building exercises on increasing the empathic “strength” (i.e., resilience to depletion) of people with a variety of levels of empathy. These empathy-building exercises will be sent to participants in text messages so they can strengthen their empathy skills over the course of 2 weeks, in the context of their regular lives.

Broader scientific impact. These studies have broader implications for learning about how empathy functions and how it develops. Empathy is vital to human social interaction, and these studies can inform whether and how we can encourage empathy in our children, neighbors, businesses, government, medicine and education. Empathy extends its reach into most aspects of our lives, and increasing our understanding of how empathy functions can create a far-reaching ripple effect of understanding, inquiry, and progress, both scientifically and socially.

“Structure and Consistency of Character”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Brenda L. McDaniel (The University of Tennessee, Chatanooga)

Project Abstract:

For almost a century, the existence of character has been debated by psychologists with central issues being the definition and consistency of character. The present project examines character as a collection of moral tendencies or dispositions such as being honest or forgiving others. Specifically, different categories of moral dispositions are compared to see which categories are more likely to predict moral behavior. The degree of overlap between different categorizations is examined to help identify the possible structure of character. To examine consistency, moral dispositions from a single individual across multiple time periods are collected and moral dispositions found in both children and young adults are compared. This research design allows for the assessment of individual changes in character across short time spans such as weeks and months as well as developmental changes in character spanning several years. Beyond time, situational characteristics and influences can also affect consistency. Some situational characteristics involve how well you know other people in the situation and your level of interest in the activities occurring in the situation. These characteristics are thought to influence the expression of certain behaviors as well as the opportunity to display those behaviors. For instance, if you are in a situation where there is no conflict and no one is in need of help, it would be hard to display the moral characteristic of bravery. Hence, assessing situational characteristics are critical in the study of character. In a similar way, situational influences are also important in the study of character. Some situational influences involve the moral characteristics and behaviors displayed by others such as parents and peers. Of particular interest in the present project were those individuals that are looked up to or named as role models and their impact on an individual’s moral identity and behavior.

The current research design addresses structure and consistency in character; these same findings are applicable to current controversies in the field of personality psychology. One personality controversy addressed involves whether dispositions should be studied as differences within unique individuals or as differences between groups of people. A second personality controversy addressed involves whether there are characteristic ways of behaving or if behavior is the product of situational influences. A resolution to these controversies involving a synthesis of opposing viewpoints is presented.

Overall, the present project provides valuable information for the specific study of character as well as for the field of personality psychology in general. The present project utilizes innovative approaches in order to advance our current knowledge of character and personality.

“Eavesdropping on Character: Testing the Stability, Variability, and Changeability of Naturalistically Observed Virtuous Daily Behavior”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Matthias Mehl (University of Arizona)

Team Members: Dr. Simine Vazire (Washington University in St. Louis)

Project Abstract:

The question of the existence of moral character has been at the heart of one of the most contentious debates in psychology. In the fifth decade since its ignition, important basic questions remain empirically unanswered. Among those questions are (a) how moral traits–in contrast to “regular” (i.e. non-virtuous) traits–should be measured, (b) the degree to which they exist, and (c) whether they follow similar or different “operating principles”. The proposed project will shed new light on these questions by examining the convergence among behavioral, self-report, and informant-report measures of moral character and testing the stability, variability, and changeability of virtuous relative to neutral and negative daily behavior using a novel, observational ecological momentary assessment method, the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR; Mehl et al., 2001). The EAR is a digital audio recorder that people wear while going about their daily lives. It periodically records snippets of ambient sounds from people’s environments. The EAR yields acoustic logs of behavior as it naturally unfolds, making large observational studies feasible while protecting participants’ privacy. It yields about 70 sound bites per person per day – enough to provide representative data on participants’ daily lives – which are then coded for specific, observable daily behaviors. The EAR brings several innovative aspects to the study of character, among them the ability to provide data independent from self-reports, which can be biased especially for highly evaluative constructs. The project has two parts. First, we will conduct a new study measuring moral and non-moral aspects of character with self-reports, informant-reports, behavior coded from videotaped interactions in the laboratory, and EAR coded behavior. This study will help establish the validity of each method for measuring moral character. These analyses will reveal to what extent each perspective (self, informant, observer) can pick up on moral character, and where there are areas of disagreement among the perspectives. These results will help us interpret the results from the EAR-based analyses. Second, using data from five (i.e. the new and four archival) EAR studies (more than 300 participants and 100,000 real-world situations), the project will test (1) the stability of virtuous daily behavior, (2) the amount of within-person variability in virtuous daily behavior relative to the amount of between-person variability, and (3) the potential for (deliberate) change in virtuous daily behavior. All existing EAR sound files will be coded for a set of acoustically detectable virtuous behaviors. The virtuous behaviors (e.g., compassion, gratitude, affection) will then be compared to base-rate matched, evaluatively neutral (e.g., talking on the phone, talking to oneself, using numbers) and evaluatively negative (e.g., rude, arrogant, blaming) behaviors. Stability, variability, and change in the virtuous daily behaviors will be evaluated against (a) the (neutral and negative) control behaviors and (b) effect size benchmarks established by prior social/personality research. This project will provide unique empirical evidence regarding the measurement and relative degree of stability, variability, and changeability of virtuous behavior. That way, it will allow for reliable conclusions regarding the existence (or absence) of moral character based on strong empirical data.

“Stability and Change in Character in Early Emerging Adulthood”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Erik E. Noftle (Willamette University)

Project Abstract:

Do virtues and character traits develop and grow in college? If so, how and why? The current research follows two hundred young adults through the course of their first two years in college. The beginning of college represents an important life transition and period of development in which many students spend a lot of time and effort on figuring out who they are and who they want to be, and begin to plan what they want to do with their lives. Although there exists a lot of psychological knowledge about young adults’ personalities in general, psychologists don’t yet know much about their specific character strengths and virtues and how these might develop during this dynamic span of life. The current study aims to answer six central questions. First, the study investigates which character traits and virtues are strongly represented in young adults, and which characteristics they are relatively lacking. This will be important to know because it will reveal young adults’ character strengths and weaknesses. Second, the study identifies which character traits and virtues young adults find highly important, and which characteristics they desire to improve upon, and the reasons why the chosen characteristics are important and worthy of trying to change. This is important because it will suggest which aspects of character matter to young people and why. Third, the study tracks character traits and virtues of young adults across their first two years of college to see which character traits and virtues are strengthened and which characteristics either remain the same (or even decrease). This will be important to know because it will show how young adults typically develop and grow in these important characteristics and which may be neglected. Fourth, the study predicts changes in character traits and virtues by looking at a multitude of personality, life event, and college adjustment factors. This is important because it will highlight the internal and external factors that foster optimal character development. Fifth, the study tests whether young adults’ own plans and desires to change their character traits and virtues result in later improvements. This will uncover whether intentions to improve actually have an effect on real change. Sixth, the study explores the outcomes of good character and improvements in specific character traits and virtues, including happiness, academic achievement, social investment, and college engagement. This will suggest several reasons why good character may be important. In sum, this research promises to yield some likely interesting and revealing answers about young people’s character development, an important topic about which too little is currently known!

“The Development of Character in Early Childhood: Developmental Changes and Individual Differences in Moral Cognition and Prosocial Behavior over the First Two Years of Life”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Jessica A. Sommerville (University of Washington)

Team Members: Dr. Cheryl R. Kaiser (University of Washington)

Project Abstract:

The development of moral character is of central concern to psychologists, philosophers and laypeople alike. Traditionally, the study of the development of morally relevant thought, feelings and behavior relied heavily on methodologies that require complex verbal responses, forcing the conclusion that the development of moral character awaits middle childhood. The past thirty years, however, have seen the birth of innovative non-verbal methodologies designed to investigate thoughts, feelings and behavior in infants and young children. This work has revealed impressive knowledge of the physical and social world in infancy, raising the possibility that moral thoughts, feelings and behavior may be within the reach of young children and infants.

The current project addresses 5 key questions concerning the development of moral character. First, we investigate whether infants and young children are capable of thinking, acting and feeling in morally relevant ways, through the use of novel paradigms that rely on simple responses within infants’ repertoire. Second, based on our initial work suggesting that moral sensitivities are present by at least 15 months of age, we investigate whether moral thoughts, behavior and feelings are consistent over the course of infancy or whether they exhibit developmental change during this period. Third, we address whether individuals vary in morally relevant thoughts, behavior and feelings within the first two years of life, and whether such individual differences are stable over time. Fourth, we address the question of whether moral thoughts and feelings (e.g., judgments and evaluations) are distinct from, or related to, moral behavior (e.g., prosocial behavior). And, fifth, we investigate the role that parental beliefs play in the development of children’s morally relevant thoughts, behavior and feelings.

In the current project, 120 infants will make laboratory visits at 12, 15, 18 and 24 months of age. During each visits, infants will participate in tasks that measure their awareness of, and sensitivity to, moral norms (such as the norm of fairness: that resources should be distributed equally) and their ability and tendency to engage in prosocial behavior (such as the ability to share with others, and help others). Parents will complete questionnaires that measure their infants’ personality to situate infants’ moral cognition and behavior within the broader context in which these developments are occurring, and in order to explain potential individual differences. Parents will also complete questionnaires concerning their own moral values, attitudes and beliefs, to determine whether these values, attitudes and beliefs are related to infants’ developing moral cognition and behavior.

Our research will contribute to a number of key questions about moral character raised by the New Frontiers in the Psychology of Character funding initiative, including whether there are reliable and meaningful individual differences in dispositions to think, feel, and act in morally relevant ways, how character develops, and whether methods and analytic techniques can provide breakthroughs in the study of character. More broadly, the current project will provide important information concerning not only how moral character develops, but how moral character can be fostered within the first two years of life.

Philosophy of Character RFP Winners

We are excited to announce the winners of our Philosophy of Character funding competition. These eight outstanding research projects were selected from 110 initial proposals. Congratulations to the following scholars who were awarded grants through this competition:

“Epistemic Justice and the Social Virtue of Deference”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij (University of Kent)

Project Abstract:

Far from being a discipline relevant only in the halls of academia, epistemology has a long tradition of taking one of its main missions to be that of providing hands-on intellectual advice. However, any attempt at providing such advice has to take into account that we have a tendency not only for bias but also for overconfidence, on account of which we often underestimate our own susceptibility to bias. This gives rise to a problem for any attempt at intellectual advice: while we might acknowledge bias in others and perhaps even in general, we tend to consider ourselves the exception, and thereby run the risk of ignoring sound intellectual advice.

The hypothesis of the present project is that we might be able to come to terms with this problem by thinking about it in terms of the virtue of deference, understood as a disposition to defer to the judgments of others in contexts where doing so would increase one’s chances of making an accurate judgment. Moreover, whether one exercises such a disposition is partly a matter of being embedded in a particular social environment, perceived by us to be in a certain way. As such, the virtue of deference is a social virtue. Which brings us to the main question of the project: In light of our best psychological evidence, what are some ways in which social institutions deserving of deference can promote the virtue of deference?

One crucial factor behind deference identified in the social psychological literature is perceived legitimacy, typically manifested in a belief on part of the person deferring that the authority being deferred to is in some relevant sense just. The present project aims to bring this social psychological literature in contact with the philosophical literature on epistemic injustice—i.e., on how structural inequalities contribute to some people’s experiences being systematically discounted—for the purpose of not only saying something constructive of how deference can be brought about where deference is deserved by social institutions exercising epistemic justice, but also illustrating one way in which the growing research area of virtue epistemology might benefit from being brought in contact with relevant empirical research.

“Vindicating Virtue”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Bradford Cokelet (University of Miami)

Project Abstract:

Contemporary common sense tells us that human lives are especially valuable – humans have a special form of value or ethical importance that plants, insects, and cows, for example, lack. We must go beyond common sense and engage in philosophic reflection, however, when we turn to questions about the basis of humanity’s value and about how we should honor or respond to the distinctive value that humans have.

Most contemporary attempts to tackle these questions take their inspiration from Immanuel Kant, and focus on the facts that human beings are self-conscious, rational, and that, by exercising our basic powers of rational self-governance, we can make up our minds about what to think and do. Kantians believe that these features give humans a special dignity that we are duty-bound to honor and respect. In addition, Kantians are optimistic about our ability to fulfill our moral duties: they believe that any run-of-the-mill person can, by reasoning about what to do and exercising will-power, honor humanity and its value in unimpeachable fashion. They believe, in other words, that the basic powers of rational self-governance that all mature persons enjoy enable people to treat each other with due honor and respect.

In the book manuscript the Character Fellowship is enabling me to complete, I reject this optimistic view of the human (ethical) condition. I argue that only an exceptionally virtuous person, with excellent character, is capable of fully appreciating and responding to the value of humanity. In defending this claim, I also attack the idea that morality is a system of obligations or laws that we are duty-bound to meet. On the contrary, I argue we should think of morality as an attractive ideal and that we should aspire to become like fully virtuous people, who are able to willingly, or even joyfully, treat other people with respect and excellently honor their humanity.

In the first part of the book, I present an account of virtuous agency, which is inspired by Aristotle, and argue that we need admirable, hard to develop character traits in order to appreciate and respond to the distinctive value that human beings have. More broadly, I argue that the ethical value of our actions, activities, and relationships is deeply affected by facts about our dispositional character, and that only exceptionally virtuous people have the power to shape their character in self-governing fashion. In the second part, I present my aspirational account of moral motivation and criticize the dominant, duty-based Kantian alternatives. Finally, in the last third of the book, I turn to questions about why we should aspire to become more virtuous, given that we are not guaranteed success and that, to pursue virtue, we may have to forego or sacrifice other worthwhile goods.

“Virtue Epistemology: Unexplored Territory”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Nathan King (Whitworth University)

Project Abstract:

Following the resurgence of virtue ethics that occurred in the 1980s, philosophers working in epistemology began to explore the significance of the virtues for the theory of knowledge. A significant proportion of this exploration has concerned the analysis of intellectual virtues, construed as cognitive character traits. Such virtues (e.g., courage and humility) are acquired, motivational dispositions to think excellently in the course of one’s intellectual projects. Such virtues exemplify cognitive excellence. Thus, reflection on them helps to inform our understanding of the cognitive “good life.” Each paper involved in this project attempts to contribute to epistemology from a virtue-centered perspective, and in so doing, to explore uncultivated regions of the field.

The first paper, “Perseverance as an Intellectual Virtue,” is an analysis of an important but largely neglected virtue. I locate perseverance as a specifically intellectual virtue, and distinguish it from its better-known cousin, moral perseverance. I locate intellectual perseverance in relation to its vice-counterparts, intransigence and irresolution. Roughly: intransigence amounts to undue persistence in an intellectual project, while irresolution involves abandoning a project too early. I also consider important relations between perseverance and other intellectual virtues. I argue that intellectual courage is a species of perseverance—an important result, given the prominence of courage in the present literature. If my claim on this score is correct, we can better understand courage by identifying the genus (perseverance) of which courage is a species.

Many recent projects in virtue epistemology assume that human beings have intellectually virtuous character traits. In “The Empirical Status of Responsibilist Intellectual Virtues,” I critically examine that assumption. As is well known, studies in moral psychology are sometimes thought to threaten the enterprise of virtue ethics by undermining the claim that human beings actually have moral virtues. This is the so-called “situationist” critique of virtue ethics. Though the upshot of this critique remains the topic of debate, it is a topic to which philosophers have devoted significant attention. By contrast, until recently, the empirical status of the intellectual virtues had gone virtually unexplored. In this paper, I explore the situationist critique of virtue epistemology, and defend the project of virtue epistemology against this critique.

In “Disagreement and Intellectual Virtue,” I apply the insights of virtue epistemology to a topic that has received a great deal of attention in recent epistemology: the epistemic significance of peer disagreement (that is, disagreement between equally intelligent and well-informed persons). This paper advances two main claims. First, there is no perfectly general decision procedure that provides a rule for rational belief revision in the face of peer disagreement. Second, in the absence of a decision procedure for peer disagreement cases, what we need is an account of how intellectually virtuous agents will persist in inquiry despite the presence of controversy. Toward the end of the paper, I sketch such an account.

“Aristotelian Autonomy”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Rebecca Stangl (University of Virginia)

Project Abstract:

Most of us think it important that the life we live be in some sense truly our own. We recognize that we do not exist in a vacuum: that who we are and what we do are in important ways influenced by our cultural, religious, and familial contexts. But the kind of life we live is not determined by these contexts, and we will all reach a point at which we must decide for ourselves what that life should look like. When that time comes, what we want is to fashion a life in accordance with values that we have reflected upon, and can endorse as authentically our own.

Philosophers refer to the capacity to live such a life as autonomy. What exactly autonomy is, and what makes it valuable, are matters of great dispute. But underlying the dispute lurks an assumption that is widely shared. Namely, the ideal of autonomy is often thought to be the sole province of Kant and the intellectual heirs to his enlightenment philosophy. In particular, it is thought to stand in diametrical opposition to an Aristotelian ethics of virtue.

This project aims to challenge that assumption. I shall argue that there is a kind of autonomy which virtue theorists can and should embrace. But it is not the kind of autonomy that Kant embraces. To be autonomous, Kant tells us, is to be a law for oneself. And being a law for oneself consists in an act of the will: willing to act in accordance with moral law just because it is the moral law, from a sense of duty. Thus whatever one’s state of character, one is capable of full autonomy. No virtue theorist can accept this account of autonomy as an ideal, since it locates moral agency and worth in an act of the will that is too independent of the particular character of the person making it.

But, contrary to widespread assumptions, the ideal of autonomy is not one that virtue theorists must or should abandon completely. There is a sense of autonomy, or self-governance, that is compatible with an ethics of virtue. This is the sense in which we try to develop a character that is authentically our own, and in accordance with our deepest values. A mere act of will is never sufficient to develop autonomy in this sense. Rather, becoming autonomous is a long process of embodying, in progressively more excellent ways, the particular forms of activity which only virtue can make possible. Just as a successful education teaches one how to learn, a successful moral upbringing will leave us with a set of virtues that equip us to continue the task of shaping our moral lives in accord with our deepest values.

“Character, Emotion, and Value”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Charles Starkey (Clemson University)

Project Abstract:

Recent years have seen a growing interest in understanding ethics in terms of character and associated virtues and vices rather than the application of explicit rules to ethical situations. Despite this, there is currently little or no systematic consideration of what character traits are. In addition, the existing work on the topic leaves unresolved the psychological components of character, particularly the role of emotion, which Aristotle claimed is central to virtue. This project will first address the nature of character traits and develop the idea that character traits are psychological traits, the distinguishing mark of which is the instantiation of particular values. The essential content of character traits is these values, and specific character traits are distinguished by the relevant values involved in each trait. The project will then address the psychological components of character traits. It will lay out the relation between emotion, perception, and cognition in character traits and outline two ways in which emotions play a role in determining character: proximal and fundamental. On a proximal level emotions are determinants of character by virtue of the effects of emotion on moral perception and understanding. How a situation is perceived and understood is influenced by emotions, and emotional responses underlie patterns of perception and understanding that produce character traits. On a fundamental level, emotions enable character traits by preventing “axiological entropy” – the diminishment over time of the tacit sense of the importance of values upon which character traits are based. Without emotions the significance of values related to those emotions would fade and the character traits that involve those values would diminish or cease to exist. This portion of the project will provide a better understanding of the psychological components of character traits and how emotional development is related to character.

The project will provide a new theory of character traits that answers the question of what character traits are, and will map out the relation between emotion and character by way of the effect of emotion on moral perception and understanding. It will examine the implications for the nature of virtues and vices, which are a species of character trait. The project contributes to the argument that situationist literature does not have the strong implications for character traits that some take it to have, and that other psychological literature supports the proposed model of character traits. In addition to advancing philosophical understanding, this will offer a basis for future psychological research on character by providing a model of character traits and outlining a method of coordinating cognitive, behavioral, and physiological measures to better identify the state of the agent in order to accurately assess the role of character traits in human thought and action.

“Virtue Epistemology & Intellectual Character”

Principal Investigator: Dr. John Turri (University of Waterloo)

Project Abstract:

My project focuses on a set of core questions about the metaphysics, epistemology and normativity of intellectual character.

Metaphysics. Arguably the most important metaphysical question about character traits is, “Do they even exist?” A recent trend in contemporary psychology and philosophy, known as Situationism, argues that moral character traits, such as honesty and generosity, do not exist, at least not in a form presupposed by traditional ethical thinking. The basis for this striking conclusion is an impressive set of psychological experiments. My project addresses the Situationist challenge by showing that a certain core class of intellectual character traits must exist if we are to understand the experimental results in the way that Situationists want us to.

If outcomes never manifested our character traits, then character would hardly matter to us. But character certainly does matter very much. So outcomes must manifest character traits, at least sometimes. Another important metaphysical question about character traits, then, is, “What is it for an outcome to manifest someone’s character trait?” My project addresses one aspect of this important question by showing that the relation of manifestation is a perfectly natural relation, indispensable not only to the way we think of ourselves and relate to one another, but also indispensible to the scientific investigation of the natural world itself.

Epistemology. Given that intellectual character traits do exist and manifest themselves in important ways, what sort of character traits can generate knowledge? The consensus in contemporary philosophy is that in order to generate knowledge, a character trait must be reliable. And to be reliable, a trait must be such that, at the very least, most of the beliefs that it produces are true. My project challenges the philosophical consensus on this point by showing how it conflicts with the best and most natural way of assessing people’s performances across a wide range of activities, including our athletic, musical and scientific performances. Unreliable knowledge is possible.

Normativity. Virtues have a special role to play in the normativity of rules and practices. Not all rules are created equal. We have good reason to follow some rules, but not others. Otherwise put, some rules are normative, whereas others aren’t. One important question about rules is, “What gives a rule its normative force?” My project explains one answer to this question, focusing on what are known as constitutive rules, or the rules that make participating in a practice possible. We constitute and sustain practices by exercising virtues. I demonstrate the key role that intellectual virtues and knowledge play in constituting two core human practices: inquiry and assertion.

“War Crimes, Obedience, and Responsibility”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Jessica Wolfendale (West Virginia University)

Team Member: Dr. Matthew Talbert (West Virginia University)

Project Abstract:

War crimes and situationism. According to situationism, human behavior is often explained by situational factors such as peer pressure rather than by preexisting character traits. Several social psychology experiments support this theory, such as Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority, in which ordinary people gave what they thought were severe electric shocks to another person when ordered to do so by an experimenter.

Recently, John Doris and Dominic Murphy (2007) use situationism in order to argue that soldiers are typically not responsible for war crimes. According to Doris and Murphy, soldiers’ responsibility is undermined if situational factors impair their ability to recognize and deliberate about morally relevant features of the environment. Situational factors include the battlefield environment, and aspects of military culture that induce attitudes in soldiers that make it difficult for them to recognize illegal orders. Consequently, Doris and Murphy argue that soldiers are excused for their wrongdoing.

We will challenge this conclusion, and argue that Doris and Murphy’s account and similar views are inadequate as explanations of war crimes and theories of responsibility. Evidence from psychology suggests that war crimes can be explained by reference to dispositions such as obedience and loyalty, which meet the definition of character traits as stable dispositions that can lead to the formation of beliefs, desires, and actions. Since military training cultivates stable dispositions that lead to beliefs, emotions, and actions, military training can be construed as a form of character development.

War crimes and moral responsibility. A character-based explanation of war crimes does not disprove Doris and Murphy’s claim that soldiers are not responsible for war crimes. Several theorists have argued that moral responsibility requires that an individual control her acquisition of character traits. But soldiers do not control military training, so it seems unfair to hold them responsible for crimes that result from traits developed through that training. So perhaps soldiers can be excused for war crimes even if their behavior is explicable in terms of character.

We reject the above view. We propose that we may hold a wrongdoer responsible if her actions express attitudes that justify others blaming her, regardless of whether situational forces or character traits influenced her behavior. However, a soldier would be excused if situational pressures caused her to act unreflectively, since then her behavior wouldn’t express her judgments and attitudes. Likewise, if military training inculcates traits associated with unreflective behavior, possession of such traits could undermine responsibility. We therefore provide a nuanced analysis of responsibility for war crimes that avoids Doris and Murphy’s rejection of all responsibility, but recognizes that aspects of combat and military culture can undermine moral responsibility.

“Moral Exemplars in Theory and Practice”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Linda Zagzebski (University of Oklahoma)

Project Abstract:

In this book project I will develop an original form of virtue ethics I call Exemplarist Virtue Theory, which I have outlined in other work. The project has four purposes:

(a) To make the theory sufficiently robust to serve the philosophical purposes of a comprehensive ethical theory, connecting the concepts of a virtue, a good motive, a good outcome, a right act, and a good life to moral exemplars.

(b) To serve the practical purpose of moral education by structuring the theory around the emotion of admiration, an emotion that includes the motive to emulate the admired exemplar.

(c) To link the theory to ongoing research in psychology and neuroscience on the identification and features of moral exemplars, on the emotion of admiration, and on imitation or mimesis. The sets of empirical studies in these areas have not previously been connected with each other or to a theory of ethics.

(d) To contribute to the perennial effort to find a moral discourse in which people from many cultures can find common ground, but which also permits thicker versions of the same discourse within communities so that no community is forced to compromise its moral beliefs for the sake of discourse with radically different communities.

My suggestion is that basic moral concepts are anchored in exemplars of moral goodness, direct reference to which are foundational in the theory. The foundational move for the theory is modeled on the theory of Direct Reference, a semantical theory that became well-known after it was introduced as a theory of natural kind terms in the seventies, notably by Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam. In the Putnam/Kripke theory, a natural kind term like “water” or “gold” does not refer through a descriptive meaning, but refers directly, generally by ostension. In my theory, a moral term like “good person” does not refer through a set of descriptions of a good person, but it refers directly, through the basic human emotion of admiration. What I mean by an exemplar is an admirable person, one dentified through admiration which is trusted upon reflection. Moral learning occurs at the conceptual level by reference to the traits, motives, aims, and behavior of exemplars. On the practical level moral learning occurs by imitation of exemplars. This gives an important place to narratives within the structure of the theory, parallel to the place of empirical observation in the theory of natural kind terms proposed by Kripke and Putnam. It imbeds the practical side of ethics within a theoretical structure, and it connects thicker versions of moral discourse used within a moral community with the thinner versions used in the discourse between communities.

Theology of Character RFP Winners

We are excited to announce the winners of our Theology of Character funding competition. These eight outstanding research projects were selected from 60 initial proposals. Congratulations to the following scholars who were awarded grants through this competition:

“Humility: A Study in Analytic Moral Theology”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Michael Austin (Eastern Kentucky University)

Project Abstract:

The primary aim of the book is to articulate and defend a Christian understanding of the virtue of humility. While a significant body of work in philosophical theology has emerged in the past forty years dealing with central Christian doctrines such as the Incarnation and the Trinity, comparably little has been done in the field of philosophical moral theology. I intend to deploy the methods of contemporary philosophy to the field of moral theology, focused on the virtue of humility. This will help resolve the confusion about the nature of humility that is present in both Christian and secular treatments of this virtue.

Given the Christian theological and virtue-ethical nature of the project, I take Jesus Christ to be a paradigmatic example of humility. I will determine what can be concluded about a Christian conception of humility through an examination of the life and teachings of Christ as depicted in the four canonical Gospels. For example, the author of the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as saying about himself that he is “humble in heart.” It will be instructive to consider what this means, and how this trait is exemplified in depictions of the life and teachings of Jesus.

Humility is modeled for us in the character of Christ as depicted in other portions of the New Testament as well. The concept of Christ’s kenosis (self-emptying) is both difficult and theologically controversial. It is also central for understanding the humility of Christ as presented in Philippians 2. Given this, I will explore the relevance of this theological concept for humility as a Christian virtue.

In my defense of the claim that humility is a virtue, I will explain why it is rational to be humble. While philosophers such as David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche are critical of humility, I argue that given certain facts about human nature and our place in the universe, humility is a desirable character trait. Our limitations as human beings both individually and as a species make it appropriate to take humility to be a virtue.

Moreover, humility can positively impact our relationships, encourage appropriate risk-taking, foster the development of other virtues, and help us understand ourselves and the world. For Christians, humility is connected to cultivating the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. It has great significance for Christian living, in a variety of realms. Humility is relevant to how we understand and relate to others in a religiously diverse and pluralistic world. It is relevant to interreligious dialogue, as well as dialogue with atheists and agnostics. It is often lacking in the context of debates and disagreements between Christians. Humility fosters a posture of listening and seeking understanding rather than merely articulating and defending one’s own positions. It is also helpful in navigating practical ethical issues related to the family, sports, the environment, and our obligations to the poor. Humility is clearly a significant virtue that is relevant to many spheres of human life.

“Pious Fashion: The Virtues of Hijabi Fashionistas”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Elizabeth Bucar (Northeastern University)

Project Abstract:

This research explores current developments in the theology of character within contemporary Muslim-majority communities through a study of the ethics of fashionveiling— wearing the Islamic veil while also attempting to follow global fashion trends. My focus is on which dispositions are gained through fashion-veiling, as well as which vices are implied in false-veiling—wearing a veil only occasionally in order to follow a trend. Central questions addressed include: How do everyday sartorial practices relate to the process of character formation? What specific theological and ethical questions does fashion-veiling raise in a variety of cultural contexts? Can a woman seek to enhance her appearance and still embody the Islamic virtue of modesty associated with veiling? If so, does this form of dress have tangible political, epistemological, or theological affects? Finally, given that Christian thinkers from Aquinas to Ambrose have emphasized the importance context in determining virtue, what ways does the study of modesty in non-Christian contexts contribute to a deeper understanding of moral character?

Thinking about the ethics of veiling as fashion is controversial. For one thing, fashion-veiling seems to combine two incompatible symbolic systems. Veiling references tradition and divine revelation, and is understood by some Muslims to be a practice required for the creation of specific virtues (such as modesty, honor, obedience, shyness, and humility). Fashion, in contrast, is ever changing, consumption based, and focuses on visual display. Fashion-veiling is morally ambivalent in that it is both aims at pious cover and entails social signification of distinction. Despite these apparent conceptual, ethical, and theological challenges, fashion and veiling seem to be easily held together in the actual design, production, and marketing of the veil, as well as in the sartorial practices of Muslim women. My book argues that there are substantial theological and ethical interventions taking place when women justify veiling fashionably. Specifically, this project focuses on describing how women’s negotiation of this moral ambivalence is theological: women justify fashion-veiling as an outward appearance consistent with their faith, desires, as well as modern social pressures.

“Virtue, Providence, and the Moral Life: Retrieving the Stoics for Contemporary Christian Ethics”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Elizabeth Cochran (Duquesne University)

Project Abstract:

Virtue ethics is a theological and philosophical movement concerned with retrieving ancient understandings of the virtues as resources for exploring contemporary moral questions. This retrieval began as a recovery of Aristotle in the mid-twentieth century, and has expanded to include major writings of the ancient philosopher Plato and the medieval theologians Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Recent writings by moral philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Julia Annas indicate an emerging recognition that a turn to major writings of Stoic philosophers can expand the work of contemporary virtue ethicists in fruitful ways. Theological ethicists, however, tend to reject the Stoics as a potential resource for virtue ethics, expressing suspicion of ways in which Stoic ethics stands at odds with particular orthodox Christian claims. While acknowledging these concerns, Virtue, Providence, and the Moral Life contends that the Stoics merit further consideration from Christian virtue ethicists, not only because philosophical ethicists have pointed toward the importance of appreciating the complexities and nuances that undergird ancient Stoic thought, but also because Stoic thought shaped Christian theology, and particularly Christian ethics, in crucial ways.

This book-length manuscript defends the Stoics' value for contemporary theological ethics by examining conceptions of virtue and accounts of moral formation in the writings of major Roman Stoic philosophers and the texts of a theologian whom their ideas indirectly influenced, the eighteenth century American Puritan Jonathan Edwards. The Roman Stoics and Edwards share a moral vision in which virtue transforms the human person in a moment akin to conversion, and growth in virtue subsequent to conversion occurs as the emotions are gradually transformed to coincide with and take part in God’s providential activity. In bringing together these sources, this project offers a helpful framework for developing a Christian ethic that draws upon classical understandings of the virtues while simultaneously maintaining some of the faith commitments central to Edwards's own Reformed theological position: the notion that God is sovereign over creation and providentially guides it, a conception of divine grace as essential to humanity’s moral formation, and a belief that a transformative encounter with God plays an essential role in the pursuit of moral goodness.

“Being for the Good: Essays on Liturgy and Character”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Terence Cuneo (University of Vermont)

Project Abstract:

For nearly two millennia, Christians have gathered together on "the day of the Sun" to celebrate the liturgy together. (I use the term "liturgy" here broadly; it refers to what many Christians would call the service.) Lying behind this practice is the conviction not only that corporate worship is due God, but also that it is morally and spiritually transformative; it molds and shapes who we are as human persons in ways that the Christian tradition deems important. The project I wish to pursue, explores the ways in which character traits of certain kinds are formed and sustained by participating in the Christian liturgy, especially the liturgies of the Christian East.

Those familiar with the Eastern liturgies know that lying at their core is the theme of divine-human interaction. At the outset of the Divine Liturgy, for example, the deacon proclaims "It is time (kairos) for the Lord to act." In the eyes of the Eastern church, then, the liturgy is viewed as the occasion of divine action. Specifically, it is viewed as an occasion in which God acts by way of human action, appropriating human actions in various ways, much in the way that we can appropriate each other's actions by endorsing them or authorizing others to perform actions on our behalf. And yet much of the liturgy consists not in divine action, but in the people responding to divine action by doing such things as praising and blessing God: "We praise you, we bless you, we give thanks unto you, O Lord, and we pray unto you, O our God" (from the Anaphora of The Liturgy of John Chrysostomos).

My project consists in four essays that explore different dimensions of the divine-human interaction as it occurs in the liturgy. Some essays emphasize the ways in which God engages human beings through liturgical action, such as the way in which God acts through the baptismal rite. Others emphasize the ways in which human beings engage God by doing such things as blessing God in the face and recognition of vast evil. These essays, then, concern the ways in which we form character traits – sensibilities, commitments, and desires – in the context of divine-human interaction as it occurs in the liturgy.

“Voles, Vasopressin, and Virtue”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Daniel McKaughan (Boston College)

Project Abstract:

We are living through an era in which neurobiologists now routinely investigate associations between molecular level biochemical pathways, emotions, and complex social behaviors. Some of the empirical findings raise important questions about how the detailed physical–chemical explanations starting to emerge relate to aspects of ourselves traditionally regarded as core features of personality, character, or with our ordinary understanding of what it is to be a person. By manipulating the promoter sequence of a single vasopressin receptor gene, for example, researchers can make male montane voles – ordinarily “promiscuous” or indiscriminate in their mating – start acting more like prairie voles, most of which are socially monogamous (Lim et al. 2004). Research on vasopressin and oxytocin is now extending to human subjects, leaving many to wonder about the extent to which talk of traditional virtues like fidelity or chastity can be reconciled with a scientific perspective on the world.

As a philosopher of biology with training in theology, part of my message will be to voice skepticism about the hype that has surrounded this research on voles and the oxytocin and vasopressin systems more generally. There is an identifiable tendency, in what are ostensibly reports and interpretations of the scientific findings, to ask more of neuroscience than it can yet answer. Reports of the research and discussions of its significance become stories about convenient excuses for cheating, genetic screening for your fiancé, and pills that could help you fall in love, rekindle a failing marriage, get over the death of your spouse, or serve as pharmacological substitutes for will and character. Some philosophers have attempted to draw upon such research as a way of vindicating reductionism, of proving that we have no free will, or of grounding ethics. Clearly there is a need for careful public reflection on research like this if we want to reach a sober and reasonable assessment of the implications that neuroscience is sometimes alleged to have.

There is also a more positive side to the project. Philosophers, theologians, and an interested public that is committed to taking science seriously will need to come to grips with (a) evolutionary accounts of the origins of basic dispositions to extend care and their association with moral sentiments and (b) neurobiological models of individual human psychological development and the ways that the neural reward system might interact with social practices and conventions in the construction of conscience. While the particular moral outlook that Patricia Churchland defends in Braintrust (2011) stands in need of evaluation, she takes it that the biological facts emerging from this research fit well with a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics and to constrain the range of plausible views about what is conducive to human or animal flourishing. There are several interesting openings here for biologically informed proponents of more traditional approaches in virtue ethics to explore. Moreover, theological approaches that give conscience a significant role in moral development and decision making might draw on this recent work to give the idea of conscience a realistic biological grounding.

“The Virtue of Forgiveness: Between Jerusalem, Athens, and M.I.T.”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Cristian Mihut (Bethel College)

Project Abstract:

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interesting and fruitful work on forgiveness in the fields of theology and moral philosophy. Theologians and Biblical scholars have canvassed fresh understandings of God’s forgiveness mainly through explorations of various models of Christ’s work of atonement on the cross. Meanwhile, analytic philosophers have been busy analyzing the concept of forgiveness. There are vigorous debates in contemporary philosophical literature about the nature and value of interpersonal forgiveness: Is forgiveness an action we take, a process we undergo, a declaration that releases the perpetrator from guilt, or is it a virtue? Does forgiveness entail overcoming certain negative emotions, such as anger and resentment? Is forgiveness conditional upon repentance or not? To what extent is forgiveness valuable in a world in which atrocities such as the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide happen?

As these respective sets of questions suggest, work on forgiveness remains highly compartmentalized. Models of divine forgiveness hardly make a difference to philosophical analyses of human forgiveness. Conversely, theologians seem to care less about conceptual or empirical innovations. This project seeks to offer a small corrective to this situation. This project argues that the best way to understand the phenomenon of forgiveness is to analyze the virtue of forgiveness in a way that integrates the methodologies and insights from both theology and philosophy. Specifically, the project investigates how (a) the virtue of forgiveness is essential to God’s character; (b) carrying the burdens of the offender is an important theological picture of God’s forgiveness that is radicalized and intensified in the teaching and work of Christ; © this theological picture is fruitful in illuminating neglected human aspects of the virtue of forgiveness.

In addition, the project also investigates how philosophical and empirical work may be of real help to theologians in the following ways. First, the project offers some ways of responding to those who deny the possibility that human virtue may be modeled on divine forgiveness. Second, it answers some empirical challenges against the reality of the virtue of forgiveness. Third, the project argues that recent work in philosophy, especially on empathetic understanding, and the emotions may help theologians understand by analogy how God can come to see former offenders (sinners) as redeemed creatures. Fourth, the project answers those critics who claim forgiveness is a modern virtue, and not at all an innovation of the Judeo-Christian world. Finally, it answers both those who see in forgiveness an expression of personal weakness, and those who claim that the opposite trait of resentment may be morally right and good under certain conditions.

“'And Afterward None Like Him Arose': Exemplarity and the Limits of Exemplarity in Rabbinic Judaism”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Tzvi Novick (University of Notre Dame)

Project Abstract:

Some theories of ethics devote their energy to the formulation of rules that can govern actions. Other approaches, often grouped under the rubric of virtue ethics, center not on actions but on agents. Their interest lies in virtue or character. Given the centrality of agents for virtue ethics, it is not surprising that virtue ethics attaches considerable importance to exemplars, real or fictional, who can be offered as embodiments of the different virtues and vices. My project addresses certain fundamental structural problems in the dynamic of exemplarity insofar as they arise in classical rabbinic literature, the canonical foundation of medieval and modern Judaism. By framing my inquiry abstractly, but taking a specific corpus as my data set, I hope to contribute both to the theological study of character and virtue in general, and specifically, to our understanding of rabbinic normativity.

Exemplarity discourse—the setting forth of models of virtue (or vice)—may be analyzed into three components. The first is the model. We may think, for example, of Mahatma Gandhi. The second is the virtue or principle that this individual models. Gandhi might thus be understood as the embodiment of courageous nonviolence. The third component is the representation of the model in discourse. This component involves a speaker, an audience, and a rhetorical context. I isolate and attempt to address structural problems in connection with each of these three aspects of exemplarity discourse.

Thus, for example, I highlight a tension in the relationship of the model to the audience. If the audience is to imitate the model, the model must be worthy of imitation. But the model must not be so exalted as to discourage imitation. One of the techniques that rabbinic literature adopts in response to this tension is to highlight the bonds of identity (ethnic, religious) between the audience and the exemplar. In this way, the audience is called upon less to copy the exemplar than to live up to what it already is. This solutions generates, in turn, a new problem, in that it appears to make virtue the exclusive possession of a single people. Another particularly important tension that I address arises from the fact that rabbinic normativity is by and large rule-based. Much of classical rabbinic literature centers on the categories of obligation and prohibition, rather than on virtues or character. How if at all does exemplarity discourse, which arises more naturally in the framework of virtue ethics, function in this context? In addressing this question, I draw upon and attempt to solve impasses in scholarship on the relationship between law and narrative, and between philosophy and literature. The project as a whole should be able to produce results that serve as a basis for comparison with exemplarity discourse in other religious traditions as well as in secular contexts.

“Character Formation by Grace: Towards a Model for Understanding the Role and Nature of Transforming Grace in Christian Character Formation”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Clemens Sedmak (King’s College London)

Team Member: Mr. Ray Yeo (King’s College London)

Project Abstract:

Religious character and virtue formation in the Christian tradition is quite distinct from its non-religious counterparts in its foundational insistence that genuine Christian formation can only be achieved by divine grace and cannot be had simply through human endeavors. However, the precise relationship between the transforming grace of God and the character transformation of the believer has not always been well understood. This obscurity is primarily due to the complexity of spiritual transformation as understood within the tradition. The issue of spiritual transformation is influenced by a web of other issues, such as: the nature and theology of Christian sanctification, Christian ethics, moral psychology and epistemology, to name a few.This research hopes to penetrate that obscurity and help us better understand the psychological nature and role of divine transforming grace in Christian character formation and transformation by proposing a theoretical model of its psychological functioning. The heart of the constructive proposal for a theological psychology of transforming grace is a synthesis between the theological psychology of eighteen century theologian, Jonathan Edwards, with the insights of contemporary philosophy of emotions and virtue epistemology, particularly the work of Robert Roberts (Roberts, 2003, 2007). In Edwards, we find a theologically sophisticated psychology of grace that attempts to move away from the medieval faculty psychology that his puritan forbearers have worked with. His distinct understanding of the “affections” anticipates many of the findings of contemporary philosophy of emotions (such as the perceptual, cognitive, epistemic and intentional dimension of emotions) and enables him to formulate a fecund theological psychology of grace that is free from the restrictions of faculty psychology. The heart of his account comes down to his theory of spiritual perception where he locates the core and source of the engraced Christian life and true virtue in a kind of “holy affection” by which one perceives the supreme beauty and goodness of God. Building upon the rich theological framework provided by Edwards, his theory of spiritual perception will be modernized and further developed in light of contemporary philosophical psychology. We suggest that the engraced spiritual perception is the foundational basis upon which all other Christian virtues are formed and serves as the psychological core from which the resurrection life of Christ is lived out within believers.

The final end of Christian character formation is the transformation of the faithful into the likeness of Christ and coming to attain a psychological structure that is akin to the human mind of Christ. Foundational to this transformation is the spiritual perception of the supreme good and the reorientation of the self around that divine transcendent good. Hence, Christian character formation can also be conceived as our sharing in the human mind of Christ via the grace of spiritual perception. This resultant engraced Christ-like mind is one that perceives, values and knows the glory and beauty of God’s infinite goodness. For Edwards, such glorious and character orienting affective knowledge among God’s people is also his eternal purpose for creating and redeeming the world.


We wish all of these scholars great success in their research!

The Character Project: New Frontiers in Psychology, Philosophy, and Theology