Good Character and Moral Perception

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Good Character and Moral Perception

There are again a variety of possible answers to the question I just raised. But I want to focus on one specific way in which good character might be necessary for moral behavior even in situations that are not extreme, a way that tends to get obscured in the example I initially proposed. In the case of the burning car, it is obvious what the brave thing to do is, and it is obvious how a lack of courage would impede our ability to do it. Those who witness the accident will not fail to notice that someone needs saving, and they would agree that saving the car’s driver is a good thing to do. But things are not always so obvious.

Consider some less dramatic examples of moral behavior. Peter, seeing that the walks are icy and worried that his elderly neighbor might slip and fall, salts his neighbor’s walk as well as his own. Paul, seeing how much cleaning up there is to do after a friend’s party, stays behind to help wash the dishes. All of us can agree that these are good things to do. But few of us ever actually do them.

Why not? The answer, I suspect, is that the thought of doing things like salting our neighbor’s walk or helping a friend clean up hardly ever crosses our minds. We all agree that it is good to help the elderly: if asked, we would all probably say that we care about the well-being of our elderly neighbors. And, if an elderly neighbor asked us directly for assistance, we’d most likely oblige. Yet, it rarely occurs to most of us to salt our elderly neighbor’s walk. If we all agree that these kinds of actions are good to do, why does the thought of doing them not occur to us more often? Here, again, the answer has to do with moral character.

Even if we recognize the value of being kind to others, that value doesn’t necessarily guide and shape our actions unless we are kind people. When we wake up to find our sidewalk coated in ice, our first thought is likely of the inconvenience this poses to ourselves — to our own risk of injury and our own well-being. It’s not that we consciously disregard the well-being of our neighbor but, rather, that we don’t habitually think of our neighbor’s well-being much at all. Most of us habitually think only of our own well-being. As a consequence, we don’t typically notice anything that doesn’t affect our own interests directly.

Someone who possesses the virtue of kindness, by contrast, perceives exactly the same situation in a different way. Because the kind person is habitually concerned for the well-being of others, this concern informs the very way he perceives the world. Thus, rather than perceiving the icy sidewalk as an inconvenience to himself, he perceives it as a threat to his neighbor’s well-being as well as to his own. And this perception makes it more likely that he will go and salt his neighbor’s walk as well as his own.

This, I propose, is why character really is a necessary pre-condition for moral behavior. Unless we possess virtues, we won’t recognize the vast number of occasions on which virtuous behavior is called for. Virtuous people are more likely to behave morally because they are more likely to see occasions for moral behavior in everyday life.
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