Coherence of character

In ethics we typically look at actions rather than people. But part of ethics involves understanding what actions can tell us about the people who perform them.

Confucius said:

Look at the means he employs, observe the sources of his conduct, examine what gives him comfort – where can he hide? Where can he hide?

In other translations: “In what way is a man’s true character hidden from view?”

We can indeed separate a person’s actions from their character, but when a person’s actions become habitual, or are chosen ‘freely’ without external constraint, then we can also make assessments or at least hypotheses about their character.

Someone might lie to you once under pressure, and we forgive it. But if they lie regularly, we recognise that this is somehow their habitual response, part of their character. Likewise, if someone lies when they are not under pressure, ie. they lie gratuitously, we realise there is something wrong with them personally.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument that a person is habitually manipulative and a liar at work, yet seems to be a ‘good mother’, friend, or partner in private contexts.

Typically we try not judge someone ‘as a person’ because we may not see the full picture – they may exhibit different qualities in different contexts. However, I would argue that a) behaving differently in different contexts can most likely be coherently explained, b) it is possible that some people behave incoherently/inconsistently, and c) either a or b actually further implicates the person’s character.

Let me explain:
If someone is willfully manipulative of others in a work context, I would not be at all surprised if she is equally manipulative in other private contexts. I would never broach this in public of course, but we can take the disarray of a person’s private relationships as another ‘data point’ in an ongoing assessment of their character.

If she is *not* equally manipulative in a private context, there must be reasons. The reasons may be that her manipulations are only really motivated by money or by power, and her private relationships at present do not happen to impinge on those motives. Yet in theory there would always be potential for the line to be crossed.

If, on the other hand, someone truly behaves inconsistently, this is far from a redeeming feature. Inconsistency is not a good character trait, not a virtue. There’s a story of a senior Nazi officer who would quite happily murder Jewish children and then go home to his own young family and be a ‘loving father’. There is no virtue in this…the fact that he didn’t murder his own children, or the fact that he didn’t feel any love or mercy toward the Jewish children…in either case, he clearly had some kind of deep incoherence in his psyche. Call it a lack of ’empathy’ if you will.

Let’s say I lie to everyone at work, but I never lie to my wife. There’s no real merit in this, unless perhaps I constantly struggle not to lie to my wife, and in that sense am fighting with the ‘thin end of the wedge’ in my lying behaviour more generally. But if I am stable in my behaviour, lying to others but not lying to my wife, I am either acting out of an irrational incoherence, or I am acting rationally according to some arbitrary moral principle such as “you can lie to anyone *except* your wife”, or something more utilitarian such as a need to have my wife’s support in case everyone else turns against me.

Such character assessments should never be taken as a definitive judgement or total condemnation of an individual. But the fact is that a person’s character cannot remain hidden, and for our own sake we can draw reasonable conclusions about how a person is likely to behave in future.

As Confucius’ schema suggests, a person’s ‘true character’ can be ascertained from their actions, motives, and where they turn for comfort. In a truistic sense, we can tell how a person is likely to be by observing how they already are.


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