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Character and Cleanliness

November 10, 2009


The world spends billions of dollars annually to maintain armies and police forces whose primary purpose is to keep people’s bad behavior in check. Take, for example, the U.S. Navy which is now advertising itself as a “global force for good” — and it does respond wonderfully to relief efforts following natural disasters — but it also targets nefarious characters like Somali pirates. Behavior — good and bad — is an interesting topic. As a businessman, I’m interested in behavior because I want my employees to be honest and ethical. I want deals that I negotiate to be fair and I don’t want to have to deal with corrupt and unethical under-the-table practices. In a post entitled More About Our Amazing Minds, I discussed, inter alia, studies that look at the reasons that the “imp” inside all of us occasionally gets out. New York Times‘ columnist David Brooks recently wrote a column that reiterates the fact that we all wrestle with conflicting internal desires [“Where the Wild Things Are,” 19 October 2009]. He examines whether we are born with character traits or develop them over time. He writes:

“In Homer’s poetry, every hero has a trait. Achilles is angry. Odysseus is cunning. And so was born one picture of character and conduct. In this view, what you might call the philosopher’s view, each of us has certain ingrained character traits. An honest person will be honest most of the time. A compassionate person will be compassionate. These traits, as they say, go all the way down. They shape who we are, what we choose to do and whom we befriend. Our job is to find out what traits of character we need to become virtuous. But, as Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton philosopher, notes in his book ‘Experiments in Ethics,’ this philosopher’s view of morality is now being challenged by a psychologist’s view. According to the psychologist’s view, individuals don’t have one thing called character.”

The psychologist’s view might explain why men and women can act one way (say at church) and yet live a very different and darker lifestyle in a different setting. It explains why we are constantly surprised by the individual actions of apparently normal people. Brooks continues:

“The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call ‘cross-situational stability.’ The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don’t have one permanent thing called character. We each have a multiplicity of tendencies inside, which are activated by this or that context. As Paul Bloom of Yale put it in any essay for The Atlantic last year, we are a community of competing selves. These different selves ‘are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.'”

If pressed, I would have to side with the psychologists against the philosophers. I’ve seen too many businessmen lose their ethical compass in the pursuit of profits to believe a mere character flaw was to blame. Brooks continues by explaining the differences in the two views using the screen adaptation of the popular children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. He writes:

“The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life. The difference is easy to recognize on the movie screen. Most movies embrace the character version. The hero is good and conquers evil. Spike Jonze’s new movie adaptation of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ illuminates the psychological version. At the beginning of the movie, young Max is torn by warring impulses he cannot control or understand. Part of him loves and depends upon his mother. But part of him rages against her. In the midst of turmoil, Max falls into a primitive, mythical realm with a community of Wild Things. The Wild Things contain and re-enact different pieces of his inner frenzy. One of them feels unimportant. One throws a tantrum because his love has been betrayed. They embody his different tendencies. … In the movie, Max wants to control the Wild Things. The Wild Things in turn want to be controlled. They want him to build a utopia for them where they won’t feel pain. But in the movie, Max fails as king. He lacks the power to control his Wild Things. The Wild Things come to recognize that he isn’t really a king, and maybe there are no such things as kings.”

It’s depressing to believe that “there are no such things as kings” of our inner wild things. It also makes me wonder if I side with the psychologists after all. I suspect that most people believe they can control their behavior and master the inner turmoil that threatens to release the imp inside. Robert Louis Stevenson dramatically captured the fact that we all have a dark side yearning to escape in his novella entitled The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde published in 1886. In Dr. Jekyll’s case, it wasn’t an imp, but a monster yearning to be set free. But most people seem to be able to contain the imps, monsters, and wild things inside them. William Ernest Henley probably captured best the feelings most people share in his poem entitled Invictus.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

We might not always be as heroic as Henley portrays himself in all circumstances, but we’d all like to think that we can resist situational ethics. If Brooks is correct, however, Henley is describing the philosopher’s view more accurately than the psychologist’s view. He continues:

“In the philosopher’s picture, the good life is won through direct assault. Heroes use reason to separate virtue from vice. Then they use willpower to conquer weakness, fear, selfishness and the dark passions lurking inside. Once they achieve virtue they do virtuous things. In the psychologist’s version, the good life is won indirectly. People have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing. There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside. But it is possible to achieve momentary harmony through creative work. Max has all his Wild Things at peace when he is immersed in building a fort or when he is giving another his complete attention. This isn’t the good life through heroic self-analysis but through mundane, self-forgetting effort, and through everyday routines. Appiah believes these two views of conduct are in conversation, not conflict. But it does seem we’re in one of those periods when words like character fall into dispute and change their meaning.”

Perhaps the most profound thing Appiah states is that good and evil “are in conversation, not conflict.” Terrorists who mutilate and kill innocent victims rationalize their actions before carrying them out. They are convinced of a greater “good” that can be achieved through actions no longer viewed by them as evil. I suspect that many criminals rationalize their actions before committing their crimes (e.g., it’s not fair that someone has so much and I have so little). I’m not denying that there is evil in the world, clearly there is. I simply believe that the evils most of us get involved in result from an inner rationalization rather than the outcome of a great internecine battle with good. It may not be character that causes most people to control their demons, but it is surely self-mastery of some kind. In an interesting, but complementary, study about situational behavior, researchers from Northwestern and Brigham Young Universities discovered that a clean environment can foster good behavior [“Cleanliness May Foster Morality,” by Robert Roy Britt, LiveScience, 24 October 2009]. Britt reports:

“A simple spritz of a fresh-smelling window cleaner made people more fair and generous in a new study. The researchers figure cleanliness fosters morality. They conducted fairness tests, with subjects completing tasks in a room that was either unscented or one that was sprayed with a common citrus-scented window cleaner. One test involved a game. Study participants were given $12 of real money, which they were told came from an anonymous partner in another room. They had to decide how much of it to either keep or return to their partners who, they were told, had trusted them to divide it fairly. Subjects in clean-smelling rooms gave back $5.33 on average. The others gave back just $2.81. ‘Morality and cleanliness can go hand-in-hand,’ said study team member Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. A second experiment asked the subjects’ interest in volunteering for a Habitat for Humanity service project. On a 7-point scale, those amid the fresh scent ranked at a 4.21 interest level, on average, while those in the normal room came in at 3.29. Rather just donate money? Sure, said 22 percent of the folks in the fresh-smelling room, compared to only 6 percent in the normal room. Follow-up questions found the participants didn’t notice the scent in the room.”

The study may explain why Jack the Ripper so easily mutilated bodies in the foggy, dirty, dark streets of London or why crack houses always seem to be dark and dirty. Britt continues:

“‘Researchers have known for years that scents play an active role in reviving positive or negative experiences,’ Galinsky said. ‘Now, our research can offer more insight into the links between people’s charitable actions and their surroundings.’ The study, led by Katie Liljenquist at Brigham Young University, will be detailed in the journal Psychological Science. Liljenquist and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto had previously shown that people who have committed sins feel urged to clean themselves physically. A separate study last year at the University of Plymouth in England found that a vigorous hand wash or shower could cause a person to be less judgmental. Liljenquist figures businesses could take something from the latest findings: ‘Companies often employ heavy-handed interventions to regulate conduct, but they can be costly or oppressive,’ she said. ‘This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behavior.'”

The evidence seems to be mounting that situational behavior is controlled more by circumstance than character (as previously defined by Brooks). In the end, I believe that people can develop character (i.e., the ability to control their demons regardless of circumstances). I believe this because I’ve seen people like Mother Theresa work miracles with the poor in some of the worst circumstances on earth. There is courage in the world and selflessness and goodness. Apparently it takes a lot of very hard work to control the wild things inside us, but it can be done. Thomas S. Monson once said this about self-mastery:

“Perhaps the surest test of an individual’s integrity is his refusal to do or say anything that would damage his self-respect. … One of the requirements of life is to be able to make choices. In order to do so, one must know how to look at things and at oneself. One must also learn that to live means being able to cope with difficulties; problems are a normal part of life, and the great thing is to avoid being flattened by them. The battle for self-mastery may leave a person a bit bruised and battered, but always a better man or woman. Self-mastery is a rigorous process at best; too many of us want it to be effortless and painless. Some spurn effort and substitute an alibi. We hear the plea, ‘I was denied the advantages others had in their youth.’ And then we remember the caption that Webster, the cartoonist, placed under a sketch of Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin: ‘Ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-clothed.’ Others say, ‘I am physically limited.’ History is replete with people possessing physical limitations. Homer could have sat at the gates of Athens, being pitied and fed by coins from the rich. He, like Milton, the poet, and Prescott, the historian, had good alibis—they were blind. Demosthenes, greatest of all great orators, had a wonderful alibi—his lungs were weak, his voice hoarse and unmusical, and he stuttered. Beethoven was stone deaf at middle age. They all had good alibis—but they never used them.”

Character is about overcoming natural tendencies not possessing them. We all have wild things and controlling them helps us grow stronger and better — no matter the circumstance or situation in which we find ourselves. So wash your hands, spray a little cleaner around the room, and go out and do some good in the world.

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