Thursday, March 15, 2012

Importance of character

Noted scholar James Q. Wilson recently died. In remarking on his death, a number of commentators called attention to Wilson’s 1985 essay, published in Public Interest, “The rediscovery of character: private virtue and public policy” (available here).

Wilson analyzes achievement in the public schools, welfare and the dissolution of the family, and crime rates. He concludes that public policy alone cannot explain what he observes. Instead, the character of the citizens has changed.

What economics neglects is the important subjective consequence of acting in accord with a proper array of incentives: people come to feel pleasure in right action and guilt in wrong action. These feelings of pleasure and pain are not mere "tastes" that policy analysts should take as given; they are the central constraints on human avarice and sloth, the very core of a decent character. A course of action cannot be evaluated simply in terms of its cost-effectiveness, because the consequence of following a given course--if it is followed often enough and regularly enough--is to teach those who follow it what society thinks is right and wrong.

In other words, character is critical. Morality matters. That concept is not popular in an era of Freakonomics in which many people want to explain human behavior in terms of self-interest and gain. What Wilson’s essay repeatedly underscores is that people do not always act in their own self-interest. Wilson sadly suggests that Americans today are more self-centered than ever before.

From a Christian perspective, unbalanced self-centeredness is sin. Thus, I found Wilson’s essay especially timely during this season of the Church year in which Christianity encourages self-examination and adopting a spiritual discipline.

The traditional approach of adopting a single discipline for the entirety of Lend does not suit everyone every year. Nor is there any reason not to adopt an additional discipline partway through Lent or to begin a new one if you have, for any reason, put aside the one you first adopted.

So, here are some Lenten questions for assessing your own character/morals:

·         Toward what goal or aim is your life directed?

·         What right actions give you pleasure? What wrong actions leave you feeling guilty? How do these feelings shape your character in a positive way, making you more of the person God created you to be? How do these feelings and behaviors help you move toward your goal or aim?

·         Conversely, what right actions leave you feeling guilty? What wrong actions give you pleasure? How do these feelings negatively shape your character, making you less of the person God created you to be? How do these feelings and behaviors move you away from your life’s goal or aim?

·         Is there one habit – just one – that you can change from positive to negative that will transform (at least a little bit) into more of the person you want to become?

If so, cultivating that habit may be a very worthwhile Lenten spiritual discipline.

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