Friday, November 19, 2010

More on Professionalism: What Is Meant by Character?

I have been considering the professionalism rule promulgated a few years ago by the Vermont Supreme Court. In this post I want to examine the notion of character, one of the so-called tenets of the legal profession consistency with which constitutes professionalism according to the rule.

The inclusion of "character" in the list of tenets suggests just how much the Court was scrambling to come up with content for professionalism that is different from the content of ethics. Several things should be noted here. First, we should ask whether there exists a sort of character that is distinctive to lawyers, some kind of character that differentiates us from other folks. I doubt that this is what the Court meant to imply, but it might open up some interesting, if highly controversial, discussion.

But I want to focus on a different angle. A venerable tradition of ethical theory -- what is known today as "virtue ethics" -- puts character at the center of its vision of ethical life. As a result, the word has powerful cachet. Another (perhaps more cynical) way of putting that is to say that the word sounds good, and you can always call upon Aristotle or George Washington to back you up when you cite character as a good thing or a tenet of anything you value. 

But a close look at Aristotle will show the problem: everyone has a character -- some people have a good character, some a strong character, some a weak character, some an evil character, and so on. The word "character" simply refers to the bundle of virtues and vices a person displays. What Aristotle valued was virtuous character, and he had a full list of virtues to go with it and a profound sense of what virtue consists in. The good person displays virtues such as courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, magnanimity, mildness, friendliness, truthfulness, wit, justice, and a variety of what Aristotle called "virtues of thought." Virtue consists in a mean between two extremes; for example, courage is a mean lying somewhere between rashness and cowardice. Each virtue can only be acquired through long habit; no one is born virtuous and virtues cannot be acquired by deciding one day to be virtuous or by sitting in a seminar learning about them.

Washington, like many of the other founders of our nation, had a distinctly Enlightenment sense of the value of character. And, as we saw with Aristotle, this sense of character had a precise content. It involved presenting oneself in a particular way, a well-developed body of manners one adheres to religiously, a patrician sense that one is superior and should act accordingly, a deep concern about one's reputation, a level of self-discipline that involves squelching one's passions and subjecting them to the control of reason, a powerful sense of honor, and a willingness always to place the common good ahead of one's personal good. Washington drove himself to live strictly according to these virtues of character. He carried himself in a way that conveyed superiority and command. He was a master of the grand gesture and sought consciously to foster his reputation as an American Cincinnatus. 

Gordon Wood makes the important point that the Enlightenment notion of character quickly became out-of-fashion as the new nation became more and more democratic. Even as Washington left office, the world that made sense of him was disappearing. By the 1820s Washington's personality had become more and more difficult to figure out. He came simply to seem aloof, inscrutable, somewhat stiff and pompous. In other words, democracy undermined the Enlightenment notion of character and the model of life Washington worked so hard to cultivate became increasingly unavailable.

"Character," therefore, is a residual category, left over from earlier modes of moral thinking, and increasingly empty in our own moral discourse. That does not keep it from being thrown around in conversation about ethics. But it does keep it from communicating much of anything that can help guide action. Just imagine the effect a "magnificent" man would have in today's flattened moral universe -- one can already hear the cries of noblesse oblige and elitism. What would be said of a woman who consistently presented herself in the elitist, aloof, stiff manner Washington cultivated? Modern notions of equality run counter to classic notions of character -- a point recognized and driven home with his usual ruthlessness by Nietzsche, who derided the "slave morality" associated with modern equality and bemoaned the loss of the "master morality" associated with ideas of nobility and character espoused by everyone from the ancient Greeks to (what Nietzsche would have seen as) throwbacks such as George Washington. (By the way, it is a monumental mistake to link these ideas of Nietzsche with totalitarian tyranny -- but that is a long discussion not relevant here.)

If we want to respond as Aristotle did that "character" really means "virtuous character," then it is incumbent upon us to define what those virtues are. Otherwise we are simply giving empty praise when we say someone has character. The endeavor to define those traits we consider virtues would repay the efforts it would require, but we have yet to truly start down that path. I think we should emphasize character, and we should have long conversations about what virtues it includes, but merely throwing the word in a list as if it has an inherent meaning obvious to everyone takes us nowhere.

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