Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology
Christian B. Miller, et. al. eds. Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. 720. $74.00 (hardcover).
Reviewed by Tasha Striker
This anthology features groundbreaking research in character traits from leading scholars in philosophy, psychology, and theology. The book’s content is pertinent to both students and experts whose interests lie in the interdisciplinary study of character. The curious layperson will also find it accessible. Within the compilation there are thirty-one essays, written by both budding scholars and the book’s four editors, who are established voices within their respective fields. The rising scholars’ contributions were selected as a part of a fellowship competition, supported by the Character Project at Wake Forest University. Eight main sections follow a brief introduction. They include: (1) an overview of the study of character in philosophy and psychology, (2) beliefs about character, (3) the existence and nature of character, (4) character and ethical theory, (5) virtue epistemology, (6) particular virtues, (7) character development, and (8) challenges to character and virtue from neuroscience and situationism. Each of the eight main sections subsequently features between two and eight chapters, written by either individual or collective writers. There are a total of thirty-one chapters in the book.
One notable chapter is “Character Traits and the Neuroscience of Social Behavior,” written by Daniel J. McKaughan. In this chapter, McKaughan considers the role the brain will play in future discussions concerning the feasibility of virtue theory. McKaughan identifies both points of relevance and non-relevance of the significance of neuroscience for ethics. Specifically, he discusses oxytocin, a peptide hormone that a group of neuroscientists, led by Paul Zak, have recently classified, “the Moral Molecule.” McKaughan addresses the hype surrounding oxytocin, arguing that calling it “the Moral Molecule” leads to an oversimplification of the role it plays in the brain. In the remaining sections of his chapter, McKaughan offers an alternative perspective on how neuroscience can offer insight for our understanding of character traits. In all, McKaughan’s essay is persuasively insightful, while still remaining modestly open to new avenues of convergence between neuroscience and virtue theory.
Another striking chapter authored by Sara Konrath is titled “Can Text Messages Make People Kinder?” Konrath’s research is the first known study to explore cellular technology’s potential to alter deeply embedded character traits in humans. As her title suggests, Konrath’s experiment aimed to make participants kinder through repetitive text messaging. While the results of her study were convoluted, she was able to show that participants who received empathy-building text messages were rated more empathetic by others, offered more of their time to a distressed person, and reacted more prosocially to a hostile text message. In the future, Konrath hopes her study will prompt others to ask whether text messages can cultivate dispositions such as optimism, thankfulness, and honesty. In sum, this book is a seminal compilation of cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research on character. Featured authors not only offer fresh insights and critiques, but also creatively pave the way for new research that will be formative in the coming years.
Tasha Striker, ThM Student, Princeton Theological Seminary