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Podcast: What Do We Really Mean by “Moral Character”?

We’ve all heard the term “moral character” at some point in our lives, but what do we really mean by it? Are morals and character two different things? Is this something that exists only in the abstract, philosophical sense, or something that can be shown in everyday life? Our guest approaches these questions and more in this week’s episode.

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About Our Guest

Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He is the Philosophy Director of the Beacon Project and is Past Director of the Character Project. He is the author of over 80 academic papers as well as three books with Oxford University Press: Moral Character: An Empirical Theory (2013), Character and Moral Psychology (2014), and The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (2017). Miller is also the editor or co-editor of Essays in the Philosophy of Religion (OUP), Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology (OUP), Moral Psychology, Volume V: Virtue and Character (MIT Press), Integrity, Honesty, and Truth-Seeking (OUP), and The Continuum Companion to Ethics (Continuum Press).


Editor’s NotePlease be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Narrator 1: Welcome to the Psych Central show, where each episode presents an in-depth look at issues from the field of psychology and mental health –  with host Gabe Howard and co-host Vincent M. Wales.

Gabe Howard: Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Show podcast. My name is Gabe Howard and with me as always is Vincent M. Wales. You know, Vince, one of these days, we have to like mix that up and have you introduce me, just to keep it fresh.

Vincent M. Wales: I don’t know if you want me to do that.

Gabe Howard: No no, you’d have to introduce me politely, like I introduce you.

Vincent M. Wales: Well, then, I don’t know if I want to do that.

Gabe Howard: Yeah, definitely kind of sucks out the fun, doesn’t it? But today, Vince and I will be talking character and virtue with Christian Miller, who is the A.C. Reid professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University. He’s also written three books on the subject of character. And we’re excited to have him. Christian, welcome to the show.

Christian Miller: Thank you so much for having me on.

Vincent M. Wales: So, Christian, tell me something. When we talk about character, what are we really talking about?

Christian Miller: Well, we could be talking about a lot different things. We could be talking about characters in movies or plays. But what I’m really interested in is moral character, a kind of moral fiber. It’s what makes us who we are as a moral person. And to unpack that little bit more, I think of our moral character as how we are disposed to think, feel, and act in morally relevant ways. So that’s my kind of starting point as a philosopher. Right now, it’s very abstract, so maybe I can make it a little bit more concrete and tangible. An example of part of our moral character has to do with whether we cheat or not or lie or not or steal or not. An honest person has a character that inclines them to think in honest ways, to feel and be motivated to do honest things, which in turn give rise to honest behavior. So that’s an example of a specific aspect of an honest person’s character. That’s only one example, though, that character is a broad notion and includes the positive character traits like the virtues of honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, and so forth, as well as the negative character traits on the flip side. You can just reverse those positive ones, the virtues, into the vices and you have things like dishonesty, cruelty, and callousness.

Gabe Howard: But sincerely, doesn’t everybody think that they have good character? I mean are there people walking around that say, “O,h I have bad character. I’m a bad person.” Even people who do bad things they tend to – or I believe that they tend to believe that they’re doing so – as some sort of “the ends justify the means” or that they’re correct or that people are viewing them incorrectly.

Christian Miller: Well that’s I think true in general. If you actually look at the empirical data on this, there are self-report measures of people’s character. So when they’re asked to rate their own character say on a scale from 1 to 5 with 5 being excellent character and one being not very good character, most people tend to rate themselves in general and on a particular character traits around a four. And that’s not just American samples, that’s been replicated cross-culturally. So I think you’re right to say we tend to have a high view of our character. My interests or at least one of my interests is, does that correspond to the facts?  In other words, how we do we think of ourselves in a way that really reflects our actual character or is there a divergence between the two? Is our actual character better or worse than we tend to think it is?

Vincent M. Wales: You spoke about empirical data there. How do you assess someone’s character?

Christian Miller: Well there are lots of different ways. And I’m a fan of certain ways more than others. So just to run through a couple of different techniques that have been used, probably the classic way is to just give people surveys and ask them to rate say from one to five, like I just mentioned, how good they think they are in general or what they would do in a difficult certain circumstance or what their behavior has been like over the past week. I’m not as much of a fan of that approach. I think there are all kinds of biases and ways in which we might inflate the reporting beyond what’s actually going on in our character. Another approach has to do with asking people in your surroundings. So like your friends or your family members or your colleagues to rate you. The psychologist will ask those people to rate given participants to get more of a external evaluation of that person. But the approach that I actually favor the most has to do with real world behavior. By that, I mean you take participants and put them into actual situations and see what their behavior is. Sometimes this is in the laboratory context and there are famous examples of these kinds of studies in the history of psychology. For example, the Milgram shock experiments, which found startling behavior when you put people in a situation where they were under pressure to turn up a dial and shock innocent test takers. These can also be situations though where people don’t even know that they are part of a study. So they’re just being covertly observed. For example, in a shopping mall, the psychologist might arrange the situation in such a way to see whether the smell and the environment or the noisy environment impacts whether shoppers in the shopping mall are more likely to help or not. So I want to see behavioral testing rather than self reports, I think is the best way to get out people’s character.

Gabe Howard: You know it’s interesting that you said people are being monitored like in a shopping mall because, for example, grocery stores, shopping malls, big box stores, Amazon… they’re all watching what we’re doing to understand what we will buy. Now is that an example of trying to monitor somebody’s behavior? Does that relate to character? Or am I just completely off in left field?

Christian Miller: No, not at all. So that’s an example of people’s behavior being monitored, in this case to most likely predict their future consumption. In other words, to see how they’re shopping in the past, what kind of trends, which aisles they go down, what products they tend to buy, in order to better in the future set up the situation, the environment, in order to sell more products and to make the experience more economically viable for the company. Here’s another more concrete example to maybe bring out what psychologists are doing here in a shopping mall and having to do it specifically with moral behavior, which is which is what I’m most interested in. So in this particular study I have in mind, this was done by Robert Barron in the 1990s, he had a control group, which was just passing by clothing stores, and had had an opportunity to help someone in need. And then he had a different group. These are participants who did know they were part of the study. They were just being observed covertly. In a different group were people who were in the same shopping mall and the only change was that they had just walked past Mrs. Fields cookies or Cinnabon. I assume everyone’s familiar with these these.

Gabe Howard: Oh yeah.

Vincent M. Wales: Oh yes. yes we are.

Gabe Howard: You said Cinnabon and I immediately woke up.

Christian Miller: So we all know these places, but you would think initially, why would that matter? What difference would that make? Well, turns out those participants a few minutes later were presented with the same helping tasks and their percentage of helping as a group skyrocketed. About 20 percent helped in the control group, about 60 percent helped in the group that had just passed Mrs. Fields Cookies and Cinnabon. That’s just… that’s just startling. Helping behavior… same helping behavior… being influenced so much by what? Well, the most plausible explanation has to do with the smell that was coming from Mrs. Fields cookies or Cinnabon putting people in a good mood and thereby making them much more likely to help than they would be otherwise. That’s a pretty surprising results.

Gabe Howard: On one hand, that is a surprising result. I’m not going to deny that, but aren’t people more likely to help people around Christmas for kind of this same reason? Because it’s Christmas time, it’s festive, good will toward men, all of all of the stuff that comes with Christmas. And then you know come January or February, we’re kind of back to a every person for themselves mentality.

Christian Miller: That makes sense to me. I would want to have it empirically tested to actually see what’s going on. But I think a natural hypothesis would be something along these lines. In the case of the shopping mall, what was going on was the smell put people in a good mood and then a further story is that those participants were motivated to maintain their good mood, so they didn’t want to lose that good mood. And one way they saw pretty quickly thereafter to maintain that good mood was to help someone in need. Well, you can kind of see the same thing going on with the holidays, right? One feature of the holidays is people tend to be in a good mood. And we want to keep that good mood going. Well, what’s one way to do so? To be nice to others, to help others, to be more charitable, to donate more, to spend time with otherwise maybe not so pleasant relative or whatever the case may be. But then afterwards, the holidays pass and the mood fades.

Gabe Howard: And we’re right back to normal. We’re OK with being average, I guess, because the holidays are over.

Christian Miller: So average is a good way to put it. That’s my take on how we are in general as far as character is concerned, so not just with respect to the holidays, but you know, I’ve read all this literature and I’ve been looking at hundreds of studies having to do with moral behavior. I think the takeaway message is that there’s a kind of bell curve here, where most of us are rather middle-of-the-road. We have some kind of good side to our character and some not-so-good sized to our character. We have outliers on each end of the bell curve, so you have your moral heroes and saints and you have your moral…you know, your Hitlers out there. But average I think is a nice way to put how most of us are when it comes to character.

Vincent M. Wales: Well this makes me wonder, when we talk about moral and immoral, what’s the underlying motivation for these actions?

Christian Miller: So there’s no one a simple story. I mean, not surprising, it’s complex and messy. So in some situations, the motivation would be one thing, in some situations of motivation will be another thing. The way I try to categorize it in my mind – I think this is reflected in the psychological literature – is by using three categories. And I’ll try to not get into philosophy mode, here, like my philosophy classes here at Wake Forest. So I think the three categories I like to use are self-interested motivation – so I am motivated to do even a morally good thing. Why? Well, because it benefits me. It helps me out in some way. Maybe it relieves my bad mood or maybe it makes my resumé look better or maybe it helps me in the afterlife. I think get some rewards in the afterlife. That’s one kind of motivation. Second one would be beautiful motivation. Simply because it’s the right thing. So why am I helping the person across the street? Because I think that morally I’m required to or what God commanded me to do or that’s what is the right thing to do, period. Whether it benefits me or not. And then the third kind is altruistic or selfless motivation. So that’s motivation aimed at the good of another person for his or her own sake, regardless of whether I’d benefit or not in the process. I may benefit. I may not. It’s nice if I do, but that’s not my goal. That would just be a byproduct. So to sum it up, I think there are different kinds of categories of motivation and they can also overlap. So a given action could be done for more than one reason. So it’s messy, it’s complicated, and it depends a situation to situation what the motivation is.

Vincent M. Wales: I’m glad you brought up altruism, though, because this is one of the things that – I’m not sure how I want to put this – but I had a friend back in college who insisted that there was no such thing as altruism because anything that we do, you know, if we’re doing something quote unquote just for the other person, we still get a sense of satisfaction from it. And therefore we did it, you know, it’s not really altruistic. Now my position had always been, well yeah, I get pleasure out of it but that’s not why I’m doing it. And I think that’s really the difference. Am I my accurate in saying that?

Christian Miller: I’m with you on that. So there are two ways this can go. One is the kind of philosophical point, the other is the psychological empirical point. On the philosophical point, I think you’re absolutely right. We want to take seriously the distinction between a goal and a byproduct. So when in my classes, I use this analogy: when I’m driving my car, my goal is to get to my destination, say my home. A byproduct of driving my car is exhaust comes out and I and I pollute the air. It would be really strange if the goal driving my car was to pollute the air. That’d make me a really weird polluter. No, that’s just not my goal, it’s just a byproduct. So, too, in the case of altruistic actions, the primary goal is to benefit the other person. That’s like driving to my home. But a byproduct of that is that I might also feel good in the process. I might get a sense of satisfaction, for instance. Now, if feeling good is my goal, then the action is no longer altruistic anymore. Then it becomes self-interested.

Vincent M. Wales: Right.

Christian Miller: But if my goal is to benefit the other person and the feeling good comes along for the ride as an extra bonus, that doesn’t make it not altruistic. It just makes it something that benefits the other person and benefits me too.

Vincent M. Wales: It’s a bonus!

Christian Miller: It’s a bonus! And that’s great. And so here’s now the psychological points. There’s now very legitimate empirical evidence that this is possible. So it’s one thing to say, you know, hypothetically, altruistic actions would work this way. But if it turns out that, psychologically we’re not equipped to actually do those, and time and time again, all the studies show that we’re just at the end of the day you know rampant egoists who are trying to benefit ourselves, well there’s so much is just… you know, who cares, it’s just a philosophical point. But good news here I think, especially the work of Daniel Batson, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, has shown over the past 30 years that, not only does helping increase when… now he’s talking about empathy in particular, he studied empathy… not only does helping increase when people are in empathetic state of mind, but he also found that the most likely explanation of what’s going on, when we empathize with the suffering of others and want to help them relieve their suffering, is that our motivation is altruistic. So there’s a lot more to say there, and how did he show that, and what does it mean by empathy and so forth. But the takeaway point here is meant to be that psychologists increasingly are coming on board with the empirical reality of altruism.

Gabe Howard: We’re going to step away for 30 seconds to hear from our sponsor and we’ll be right back.

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Vincent M. Wales: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here with Christian Miller discussing character and morals.

Gabe Howard: You know this is like a great moment for me because normally on these shows, I do everything I can not to fall down the philosophical rabbit hole. But since we’re largely discussing philosophy, I’m going to jump right in. Here is my specific question. And I’m going to use money, because it’s everybody’s favorite demon. I have a job and I go to work to earn money and everybody is okay with that. This is how we pay our bills, this is how we live, it’s how we take care of our families. So my goal is to make money. But let’s say that I know that my job is hurting people or I’m making money in a way that is dangerous for other people. Now according to everything that we just just learned, because my goal is not to pollute, my goal is not to hurt, my goal is just to drive my car. My goal is to make money. Does that mean that I have absolved myself of the sin of seeking profit on the backs of hurting people? Now, I already kind of know the answer to that so I’m just kind of interested in your thoughts on that, because there is a good way to make money or a moral way to earn a living and an immoral way to earn a living, even though both parties end up with a living. What are your thoughts on that?

Christian Miller: That’s a great question, it’s a complicated question. So I think purity of motives isn’t enough, so that maybe I can boil it down to that starting point. Merely having pure motives, you know, even though the consequences and the side effects and the byproducts are bad, you know, I say my motives are pure, therefore it’s all good. I don’t think that’s a plausible position. Let me give you an example from very very different contexts. And to help draw that out. This has to do with World War 2 and the Nazis and protecting Jews from the Nazis. So it’s a very famous example in the history of philosophy and it goes like this: You’re protecting a Jewish family in their home. The Nazis are coming door-to-door doing a sweep of the neighborhood, looking for Jews. You know that if you tell the truth when they come to your door and ask are there any Jews in your home or do you know where they are? You know that if you tell the truth, the Nazis will kill that Jewish family. You also know that if you lie, and say I don’t know, I haven’t seen any Jews, you know that you will be able to save that family from getting killed. Well, Emanuel Kant, a famous philosopher, said what you should do in that situation is tell the truth, because your motive is pure, then. You just are caring about the truth. And then that kind of absolves you of responsibility and the responsibility just rests with the Nazis then and their subsequent choices that they make in light of the information you tell them. So if they choose to come into your house and kill the Jews in your basement, that’s on them, not on you, your hands are clean.

Gabe Howard: But are they?

Christian Miller: That’s a really hard, really hard thing to believe.

Gabe Howard: Yeah.

Christian Miller: No no not at all. I don’t think so. And most everyone else doesn’t see it that way, either. So the point being the best, say, kind of dramatic illustration of a philosopher who held the kind of view you were talking about and pretty much he’s the only philosopher who’s held that kind of view. Most everyone else thinks that the consequences and the outcomes, they matte, too, not just the purity of the motive.

Gabe Howard: Oh very good. OK. That makes a lot of sense, I see what you’re saying there. You know obviously philosophy is very esoteric. It’s seen differently by different people. And that’s one of the things that, especially for a guy like me, that just makes it so fascinating and incredible. So I’d like to segue for a moment to how we get something that is, again, so abstract and esoteric and turn it into the kinds of things that can be supported by empirical data that can be used by psychologists. But most specifically, how can it be used by us? How can we use… you know… philosophy to judge our own moral character and make improvements if we need to? Because it’s vast. It’s vast.

Christian Miller: Right. Right. So lots to be said here. So first of all let me note that in recent years, there’s a real movement in philosophy towards what’s called public philosophy, which is taking philosophy out of the realm of academia and esoteric discussions and technical vocabulary that can only be understood by other people with a PhD in philosophy and really bring it to a larger audience. So what I’ve been trying to do myself in the recent years is do precisely that with this book The Character Gap. I kind of took out the jargon and took out a lot of logical notation and so forth that we tend to use in our academic writing and make it as much as I could accessible, interesting, and fun to think about. So more to the point now, in the case of character, I think it’s important to see what philosophy can contribute and what psychology contributes. What I call the character gap is the gap between the character we should have and the character we tend to actually have. The character we should have is a virtuous character, a character that has virtues like honesty, compassion, and so forth. That’s something that philosophy can say quite a bit about and has said for thousands of years going all the way back to Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, and other early founders of philosophy in the East and the West. Psychology can’t really say much about that, because now we’re talking about shoulds and us and what would be good to do. On the flipside, psychology has a lot to contribute, of course, empirically, giving us the data. How does our character look on the ground? So that’s where I think now we bring the two together. We see here’s how we should be, as far as our characters concerned. Philosophy helps us with that. Here’s how we actually are. Psychology helps us with that. And then compare the two. How big of a gap is there between how we actually are and how we should be? And I think the gap is rather sizable. So then that’s a valuable contribution in and of itself, but then the next place you go from there is, OK, given this gap, can we come up with any strategies to try and shrink that gap or bridge the gap? Or in other words, make our actual character better reflect the kind of character we should have. And here I think philosophy and psychology can work hand-in-hand. They can come up collaboratively with ideas about character improvement or virtue development. And in my writings, I’ve been really focusing on that specifically, trying to outline different strategies and then assess them empirically and philosophically. Does this strategy make sense? Is it backed up with any evidence? Does it look like it’s going to be promising? Is it going to lead to actual virtue development or it’s gonna lead to something else? Go strategy by strategy and do a kind of assessment on philosophical and psychological grounds.

Vincent M. Wales: So if we’re certain that we can make these changes, how quickly can we make them?

Christian Miller: Yeah, so disappointing here in one sense and, I guess, optimistic in another sense. So the good news is that our character is not fixed. Not that we’re stuck with the character we have at birth or, you know, emerging out of adolescence. It’s malleable and can be changed. That’s the good news. The kind of disappointing side of it is that it can’t be changed very quickly. It would be nice if we could take a pill or flip a switch or just wake up one morning and go from being less than honest to being very honest people. So here what we’re talking about is very slow, gradual change where that change is measured not in a matter of, really, days or weeks, but measured more in the matter of months or years. That’s the time frame I think we should be operating with.

Vincent M. Wales: I understand the whole long stretch of time to get these changes, but aren’t there situations where a person would have a sudden epiphany – and I don’t mean being visited by the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future – but just something that happens that really changes them significantly overnight, so to0 speak?

Christian Miller: Yeah. Good good good. And I was kind of speaking too strongly there. So let me backtrack and say that the way it typically happens, I think, is the kind of slow, gradual approach. But there are exceptions to that. There are kind of famous cases throughout history of people like you said, having epiphany, sometimes it’s a religious context, sometimes secular contexts, where they just you know, for instance step back and examine the way their life has gone and really don’t like the way their life has gone and go a different course from there. Or they’ve had a really tragic event that’s happened to them, which has caused them to re-examine their priorities and what they’re doing with their life. So I think that’s right, but I wouldn’t want in my own life to kind of wait for that to happen or count on that happening. I think for most of us, the slow, gradual approach is what we have to deal with.

Gabe Howard: And it really is the same way in like therapy. You know, if somebody visits a therapist or a psychologist and wants to work on, you know, any any form of personality issues or personality disorders. You know, I live with bipolar disorder and I went to a psychologist to learn coping skills. I learned the coping skills on day one, but it was another year before I was able to use the coping skills in a way that reduced symptoms. So I imagine that changing your character, unless you’re in a war zone or something ,like you said very significant happens that is unusual, it would have to be a slow process. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Christian Miller: Right. So that makes a lot of sense to me. And one word you used really resonates there which is coping skills. Well lots of philosophers and psychologists tend to think of character and character traits as analogous to skills or maybe they just are a kind of skill. And so we know when thinking about skills that you typically can’t acquire them overnight. So you know take a chess master. A chess master doesn’t become a chess master within a span of a week or even normally a year. It takes practice practice practice, failure, and then learning from the failure and improvements and gradually the hope is that you make that progress towards becoming a chess master. So I think when we think about skills in general, this is just a common feature of skills, and character traits might be one such kind of skill.

Vincent M. Wales: Well Christian, I got to tell you, this has been really interesting. And unfortunately, we’re done, ’cause we are out of time.

Gabe Howard: We always run out of time.

Christian Miller: Well it’s been a really fun for me.

Vincent M. Wales: Yeah. It goes fast for us, as well. I mean we’ve been doing the show for you know a couple of years now but, jeez, sometimes the shows just fly.

Gabe Howard: They really do.

Vincent M. Wales: This was great. I’m really happy that we had you on the show. Thanks so much.

Christian Miller: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Gabe Howard: Before we head out, how can we find you, your book, do you have a Web site, social media? Give us all of the ways that we can track you down.

Christian Miller: Thank you so much for that opportunity. So my latest book is called The Character Gap and it’s available at the usual places like Amazon and you can find me on social media. @charactergap – one word – @charactergap.

Gabe Howard: Well thank you so much, and thank you everybody else for tuning in and remember you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private, online counselling anytime, anywhere by visiting We’ll see everybody next week.

Narrator 1: Thank you for listening to the Psych Central Show. Please rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you found this podcast. We encourage you to share our show on social media and with friends and family. Previous episodes can be found at is the internet’s oldest and largest independent mental health website. Psych Central is overseen by Dr. John Grohol, a mental health expert and one of the pioneering leaders in online mental health. Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who travels nationally. You can find more information on Gabe at Our co-host, Vincent M. Wales, is a trained suicide prevention crisis counselor and author of several award-winning speculative fiction novels. You can learn more about Vincent at If you have feedback about the show, please email

About The Psych Central Show Podcast Hosts

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is also one of the co-hosts of the popular show, A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. As a speaker, he travels nationally and is available to make your event stand out. To work with Gabe, please visit his website,



Vincent M. Wales is a former suicide prevention counselor who lives with persistent depressive disorder. He is also the author of several award-winning novels and creator of the costumed hero, Dynamistress. Visit his websites at and




Podcast: What Do We Really Mean by “Moral Character”?

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Central Podcast, T. (2019). Podcast: What Do We Really Mean by “Moral Character”?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
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Last updated: 20 Mar 2019 (Originally: 21 Mar 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 20 Mar 2019
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