If men were angels, no government would be necessary. Madison’s famous observation from The Federalist captures the Framers’ unromantic view of human nature. Given the very obvious flaws in human character, they thought, it would be unwise for a state to depend on citizens’ moral progress. In fact, as the twentieth-century liberal political theorist Richard Hofstadter once observed, with frustration, the Framers had a Calvinist outlook that stubbornly rejected any idea of human perfectibility: they were quite sure human nature was weak and would never change. Much safer, they thought, for the state to contain checks on ambition, treachery, folly, and pride, which were bound to assert themselves in time, no matter what people’s better intentions.
A new book from Oxford University Press, The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, by Wake Forest philosophy professor Christian Miller, shows the Framers were more or less correct about human nature. We really are, in the author’s words, “a mixed bag”: not altogether terrible, but not so great, either. The Framers were right to design our institutions as they did. Whether those institutions can survive over the long run remains to be seen. Here’s the description of the book from the Oxford website:
We like to think of ourselves, our friends, and our families as decent people. We may not be saints, but we are still honest, relatively kind, and mostly trustworthy. Miller argues here that we are badly mistaken in thinking this. Hundreds of recent studies in psychology tell a different story: that we all have serious character flaws that prevent us from being as good as we think we are – and that we do not even recognize that these flaws exist. But neither are most of us cruel or dishonest. Instead, Miller argues, we are a mixed bag. On the one hand, most of us in a group of bystanders will do nothing as someone cries out for help in an emergency. Yet it is also true that there will be many times when we will selflessly come to the aid of a complete stranger – and resist the urge to lie, cheat, or steal even if we could get away with it. Much depends on cues in our social environment. Miller uses this recent psychological literature to explain what the notion of “character” really means today, and how we can use this new understanding to develop a character better in sync with the kind of people we want to be.