The return of "good character"

The latest issue of Prospect magazine features a thought-provoking, free article by Richard Reeves (director of the Demos think tank) on the old-fashioned concept of "good character" and its importance for a successful society.

Reeves says good character is made up of three parts: "a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one's own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification." (Of course, everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a good character. Reeves quotes the first headmaster of Stowe school, JF Roxburgh, as saying his goal was to turn out boys who would be "acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.")

Reeves' three parts to a good character will be familiar to psychologists. The first is what psychologists call "self-efficacy" - belief in your own ability to achieve something. Shelves of evidence show how important self-belief is for success. Reeves' second aspect - "taking responsibility for one's own actions" - is easy to aim for but much harder to put into practice thanks to the effects of cognitive-dissonance. Psychologically it is extremely hard for us to recognise when we've behaved wrongly or made bad decisions (check out "mistakes were made but not by me" for more on this). Reeve's third aspect of a good character is also well known to psychologists who have built up plenty of evidence showing that self-discipline and self-regulation are vital to success, and may even be more important than intelligence in that regard.

As Reeves explains, the notion that there is such a thing as good characters gets politically delicate because of (probably unfounded) claims that bad characters cause poverty and because of evidence showing that poverty causes bad characters. Look away for a second and you find yourself in the territory of blaming poor people for their lot. And you're effectively saying that some people are better than others.

This is harsh if you believe that people can't change. But if you recognise that people can change and become better characters, well then it arguably makes sense to recognise the importance of good character and put policies in place that will nourish the next generation to achieve that ideal.

Reeves discusses whether good characters are harder to come by these days and if so why. He finds no evidence for the idea that we've been corrupted by consumerism, but says there is evidence for the idea that liberalism - the anything goes mentality of modern life - may be partly to blame.

In particular, Reeves says the idea that we should all be free to do what we want has negatively impacted on parenting. And it is the family and good parenting that Reeves identifies as one of the most important sources of good characters. Here Reeves says parenting classes could have a part to play. He cites a forthcoming paper by Stephen Scott of the Institute of Psychiatry showing just how long lasting the benefits of these classes can be.

All in all the essay makes for a fascinating read. It's rewarding to see psychological findings filtering through into political thinking. And it provides a lesson in how messy things can get when ostensibly innocent lab results (for example on parenting or self-discipline) collide with issues of morality and personal responsibility.

Link to "A Question of Character" freely available at Prospect magazine.
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