Book | The Character Gap |Christian Miller
Review by Nick Mattiske
The ball tampering cricket scandal has put moral character in the headlines again. While disciplinary action has been taken, deeper questions remain about why it happened – why on Earth the players thought they could get away with it and what sort of culture has allowed the cricketers to think that cheating was a valid option.
For the players involved, particularly captain Steve Smith, it is a blight on their characters, and commentators have speculated on whether the stains will ever wash out.
Is Steve Smith now a cheat or is he simply someone who cheated? Is cheating at the core of his moral character, perhaps inseparable from his fierce competitive drive, or is it an anomaly?
Issues similar to this are explored in The Character Gap by Christian Miller, who suggests that we are ‘a messy blend of good and evil’.
Psychological and sociological experiments show that our behaviour changes radically in varying situations, with our environment having a large bearing, even with incidental things like the weather. Miller suggests that the terms ‘ virtue and vice’ are often inapplicable because we are erratic.
Unsurprisingly, the studies that Miller cites show the strong role of others in influencing our moral actions, whether they are figures we see as authoritative, who cause us to act in ways that wildly deviate from our normal behaviour, or groups of people, where we might not want to be the odd one out.
In the case of Cameron Bancroft, a junior player, it is unsurprising that he chose to conform to a culture emphasised by more senior figures. In Steve Smith’s case, his authority brings responsibility, and he failed spectacularly with a winning-at-all-costs mentality. But if he thought cheating was a valid strategy we might wonder if he was influenced by those higher up, and a wider cricketing or professional sporting culture that is on the nose.
The flipside of this issue of culture is the positive influence of others, particularly those we see as role models. It is unusual to be autonomous in moral character. We are easily influenced and we can be blind to what our influences are. Therefore we need to make an effort to be conscious of these influences. Good and bad moral character happens without us knowing it, but if we desire to improve moral character in ourselves and others we must seek it out and cultivate it. The process is like physical exercise. It must be deliberate and consistent, at least until it develops into a habit. This, by the way, is how moral philosophers across the ages have often thought of the matter.
As with exercise, cultivating good moral character can be done individually, but it helps to do it in a group, such as volunteer and charity organisations, mothers’ clubs, (dare I say) sporting clubs and organisations where morality is front and centre. Surprisingly for a book of contemporary psychology and philosophy, Miller’s book extols churches as places where good moral behaviour can be reinforced. Here are groups of people with shared moral goals that, as Miller points out, reinforce their goals through prayer, confession, readings and modelling behaviour.
Churches have also recognised over the centuries what psychology has more recently statistically proven – that we are inconsistent in our moral behaviour – saints and sinners simultaneously. Subsequent to this is the need for forgiveness. Jesus emphasised that forgiveness should be without limit. To remain healthy people we always have the chance of a fresh start so that wrongdoing doesn’t define us. This is perhaps a message that our cricketers need to hear right now.
Image: Graham Dean/Flickr