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.