Character and determinism

There’s a great article on ‘Character’ in this month’s Prospect by Richard Reeves, an old friend of the RSA and the newly appointed director of Demos.


His piece is a convincing attempt to reassert a liberal account of the importance of character – ‘an old idea with a contemporary relevance’. He defends liberalism against the charge that it has somehow eroded character and he defends the value of good character against the idea that it is somehow illiberal.


“Good societies’ he concludes ‘need good people’.


Along the way there’s a really interesting discussion about what character is and where it comes from which avoids getting bogged down in sterile nature-nurture debates.


Reeves argues that while “it is clear that some character traits are inherited… the weight of evidence is that good parents provide good insulation against inherited negative traits.” And he cites research by Stephen Scott of KCL to this effect.


This is a really important point: one of the key insights of modern cognitive science is to illuminate (if only partially) the ways in which different factors combine and interact to inform our character and behaviour.


So we can see how genetic inheritance, neurophysiological processes, cultural and physical environments, and conscious decision making all have a part to play in making us what we are. We do not have to choose which of these is the ‘real’ key to who we are, but can attempt to understand and unpick how they work together in different contexts and at different times.


Reeves shows how this approach to character has concrete policy implications in areas such as early years care, skills provision and parenting, but it also illustrates a wider point.


A scientific approach to understanding behaviour does not, as is sometimes claimed, commit us to neuro-determinism, evolutionary-conservatism, or genetic-fatalism. Understanding the processes that make us think and act as we do, does not condemn us to blindly act them out, but frees us to follow or resist them as we choose.



6 responses to “Character and determinism

  1. Yes, it’s really important that people understand this basic point: science has not disproved freewill. Actually there are strong evolutionary and neurological reasons for the existence of freewill. But the intellectual mood music is against it – and this is very damaging to society and to clear thought.

  2. Charles Colenaty

    I don’t have an issue with the notion of freewill or its various opposite conditions. However, I am surprised to find that NBeale is aware of both evolutionary and neurological reasons for the existence of freewill. How would freewill fit in with study findings that indicate that subjects brain measures indicate the decision that has been made several seconds before has conscious awareness of having made that decision? I am not citing this as a “gotcha”, since I am seriously interested in this phenomenon.

  3. They don’t – they indicate that you can predict the decision with probability of 55-60%. It would only undermine freewill if you could predict the decision with 100.00000% probability.

  4. Surely there is something about the type of decisions as well – we may all be programmed to fight of flight, but a more complex decision, of the type that demonstrate character etc, will be less automatic.

    I’ve not seen the neuroscientific evidence, but this would seem intuitively right.

  5. Jonathan, you sum up my conclusions to perfection -‘Understanding the processes that make us think and act as we do, does not condemn us to blindly act them out, but frees us to follow or resist them as we choose.’ Knowledge about our own biological functioning, plus meta-cognitive thinking skills, together have the potential to give us a deep understanding about our own behaviour. Until we have this understanding, particularly about our emotional influences, I am not sure that we can truly say that we have made a real ‘choice’ about how we react and behave.

    If David Cameron continues with the ‘public morality’ agenda he may well secure some votes. However, if he and the Conservatives come to power he may discover that they are votes he could do without.

    With such prescriptive undercurrents, talk of morality would be unlikely to provide any practical help to the ‘deeply excluded’. In fact it would probably be as little help as an arctic jacket on a sweltering day in encouraging the ‘pro-social choices’ that Matthew Taylor describes as so essential to successful public policy. Education needs to provide sufficient understanding, and deep learning on an individual level, to make this highly responsible social behaviour a tangible possibility.

    Jay Cross says ‘people like to change, but they don’t like to be changed’. I think he is right.

  6. Pingback: Wednesday Round Up #27 « Neuroanthropology

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