Message 127, The Power of…Character, 4-7-13character

(c) Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


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Imagine, if you will, that you have volunteered to join an experiment supposedly about thinking under duress.  You’ve joined an experiment conducted by the Yale University Psychology Department.  You’re asked, along with another person, to pick lots to determine who will play the role of the teacher and who will be the learner in the experiment.  Your pick assigns you as the teacher.  The other person’s pick is to be the learner.

The learner is seated in another room and an electric wire is affixed to his arm.  You are seated at a console not far from the experimenter – the scientist running the test.  On the console in front of you are switches each designated by an increasingly higher level of electric volts.  A wire leads from the console into the next room and is attached to the learner.Milgram_Experiment_v2

The experimenter asks you to read pairs of words to the learner along with four words possibly associated with the word pair.  The learner is to pick one word that best describes the association.  You are instructed to flip a switch to shock the learner for each incorrect answer.  The switches increase at 15 volt increments up to 450 volts.

As you pose the word pair questions, the learner makes many mistakes.  At first, the learner expresses only mild discomfort at the lower level shocks you administer.   Increasingly, however, the learner feels pain and at about the 90 volt level – he screams.  Around the 150 volt level the learner utters a piercing scream and begs to be released from the experiment.   You are told by the experimenter to continue with the test.  With each wrong answer and at each level of electric shock, the cries of pain from the learner get worse.  At 300 volts, the learner refuses to respond – which is considered a wrong answer.  You are told to administer a higher shock.

At some point, you ask if the shocks inflict lasting damage.  You even ask to also be released from the experiment.  You are reluctant and anguished as the wrong answers pile up.  Each time you show reluctance to continue, the experimenter reads one of five responses:  “Please continue”, or “The experiment requires that you continue” or “Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on”, or “It is absolutely essential that you continue” or, finally, “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

The question I pose to each of you is: how far would you go in administering shocks?  How far would I go?  Would you stop at the level when the learner screams and begs to quit the experiment?  Would you quit when the cries are horribly piercing?  Would you quit when the learner does not even answer?  Would you go all the way to maximum shock level of 450 volts – a level that can be fatal?

What you are NOT told is that the learner in the experiment is an actor.  He or she is never electrically shocked.  No pain is inflicted.  As the teacher in the experiment, you do not know this.  The ultimate point of the experiment is to test YOUR level of compliance and the influence of YOUR moral character on decisions you make.

Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, ran this experiment in 1962.  Its results were immediately controversial and have been ever since.  Before the experiment was run, he asked 100 senior psychology students and 45 leading psychiatrists in various medical schools to predict how many teachers would inflict the maximum voltage.  The average prediction was that less than 1 percent of teachers would inflict the maximum shock.  Most predicted the teachers would stop when the learner asks to quit.  The results, however, startled everyone.  66 percent of teachers went to the maximum level of 450 volts…..although every teacher expressed concern at some point.  Every teacher exhibited various levels of tension with some weeping and trembling.  Even so, the vast majority went forward as they were told.

This experiment has been duplicated many times since 1962 in many other nations and even in non-descript locations without the prestige of Yale’s name.  Results have all been statistically the same.  The first test used only men.  The same test has been run with only women and the results were nearly identical.  While some have argued many teachers quickly surmise the pain is faked and the experiment is not real, the overwhelming results from many tests over many years prove otherwise.

Stanley Milgram concluded from the results that, “Ordinary people, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few have the resources needed to resist.”

As we consider the topic for today on the power of character, it is sobering to contemplate how we might act in such an experiment.  What is the level of our own morality and how strong is it?  Each of us likely believes that we are moral individuals – not perfect but essentially good, compassionate and honest.  We might skirt the edges of morality in some minor ways but when it comes to basic integrity and intrinsic character, we believe we are good.

But what constitutes character?  Is it something innate?  Are we naturally virtuous or is virtue something learned?  Do we have the free will to be good or bad?   If we can choose how we act, are we therefore morally responsible for our actions?  How is morality encouraged in our society – through laws and threat of punishment or by the simple desire to be good?  Ultimately, how do we tap into the power of character in a way that leads to healthy, decent and productive lives?

Such questions have been asked for thousands of years.  One psychologist defines moral character as an individual disposition to express right or wrong conduct across a range of situations.  Character and virtue were major considerations of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle.  Both believed that humans are morally responsible creatures who consciously choose their behavior patterns.  Each person can learn to be virtuous.  We choose to be good or we choose to be bad but it is our choice.  Unlike other animals, we are responsible for how we act.

Character has also been the subject of world religions.  All religions assert that virtue is a matter of choice.  We choose to follow the ways of God or we don’t.  Christianity recognizes that all humans are sinful and thus in need of a Savior – Jesus Christ.  By choosing to believe in him, we receive forgiveness AND we are reborn as moral people.  As the Bible says, the evidence of the Holy Spirit in a Christian is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness and self-control.   Believing in Christ makes one good.

Overall, traditional religions and philosophers believe human character is consistent.  We either act with moral intentions in most situations or we don’t.

As we have just seen, however, many contemporary studies have proven this notion is false.  The Milgram experiment showed that otherwise good people can act in ways totally inconsistent with their beliefs and morality.

In another recent study, seminary students were asked to deliver a sermon on helping others.  While being driven to a church filled with people waiting to hear the sermon, the seminary students were either told they had plenty of time before their sermon or they were told they were late.  Just before entering the church, they were confronted by a fellow student who had fallen, was groaning in pain and in need of immediate assistance.  Students who were told they were late rarely stopped to help.  Students who were told they had plenty of time almost always stopped to help.

Because of studies like this and the Milgram experiment, many theorists argue that character and morality are situational.  Virtue in people is not “robust” and consistent as Aristotle claimed.  It changes with circumstances.  It is nuanced.  It is vastly complex and highly variable even in otherwise good and decent people.  Indeed, despite our belief that we are each moral people, the startling fact remains that we each have within us a tendency to be shockingly bad.

In a landmark recent book entitled Against Moral Responsibility by Bruce Waller, it is argued that our human concept of morality and justice is deeply flawed.  It is based on our human instinct to reward good and punish bad actions.  Each human has a strong moral code that demands punitive justice.  We judge.  We heap scorn on wrongdoers.  We punish through isolation, shame, prison or broken relationships.  Waller maintains, however, that science and psychiatry have shown that human morality is often NOT a matter of choice.  We are not morally responsible for our actions.  How we act is subject to a number of external influences we cannot control – like the situations we face, our level of education, how we were raised, our environment, our genes, and our mental and physical health.  In other words, we are like all other animals in our inability to choose our character.

Waller encourages humans to stop judging others and to stop imposing punitive consequences for bad behavior.  He encourages our society stop imprisonment as a form of punishment and work, instead, toward teaching and restoring good behavior.  He advocates positive reinforcement instead of negative punishment.  Overall, humans are neither to be praised for good character nor maligned for bad.

Indeed, the Milgram study proves that moral people often act in seemingly immoral ways.  Many of the teachers in that experiment reported that when they were told to continue shocking the learners, they did not think about what was moral behavior towards the learner.  Instead, they focused on what was right in terms of obeying authority and doing what was good for an important test.  Their moral inclinations toward the learner were superseded by the moral inclination to obey.   The same morality was true of the Christian seminary students.  They were focused on the importance of doing the right thing for those waiting to hear their sermon.  Their morality was not blind but was, instead, refocused.

This situational understanding of character is of great importance to us.  Indeed, as a church that asks more questions than it affirms absolute beliefs, we ought to question our own understanding of what it means to have good character.  Clearly, a majority of us would have acted like most of the teachers in the Milgram experiment and like the seminary students.  I confess to often being flustered and short with some people in the busy hour before our services begin.Their moral inclinations toward the learner were superseded by the moral inclination to obey.   The same morality was true of the Christian seminary students.  They were focused on the importance of doing the right thing for those waiting to hear their sermon.  Their morality was not blind but was, instead, refocused.  Our character is not absolute.  It is subject to change and evolve.  It is open to different circumstances.  Ultimately, the character ascribed to any one of us is not perfect.

If all of this is true, how do we leverage the power of our character to improve the world?  If our character is not always a matter of choice, what can we do to become better people?  What is a standard of good character to work towards?

While many prophets and great people of history offer us examples on character growth, as with many areas of human conduct we can look to Jesus as a role model.  We see in him a form of situational morality.  He shouted at and name-called his opponents when he was angry.  Confronting greed by those who were selfishly selling goods in the Jerusalem Temple – the house of God – Jesus flew into a rage.  He violently turned over tables and angrily yelled.  Even allowing for righteous indignation, Jesus was often not meek or gentle as he encouraged in others.

When faced with imminent arrest and execution, Jesus was not calm or at peace, as he had also encouraged.  He struggled with a desire to run away.  Would he be a hero of great character or a weak coward?  For a time, what he would do was in doubt.

Despite his weaknesses, however, we see a model of character for us.  We see that Jesus understood the limits of human character.  He challenged the hypocrites of his day to stop judging others.  He noted that only those who are without sin should judge others.  Implicitly, he noted that nobody is perfect.  All of us have flaws in our character even as we self-righteously condemn others.  He asked that we stop pointing out the minor flaws in others when we have major flaws of our own.  We must examine our own flaws and work on them before we presume to judge others.  As Confucius said, “When we see people of worth, we should think of equaling them; when we see people of bad character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.”

Most of all, Jesus was deeply empathetic about human bad behavior.  He reached out to sinners with compassion and understanding.  To the woman caught in an act of adultery, he was tender and kind.  He did not approve of her misdeed as much as he simply offered his love and encouragement to change.  He did the same for the Samaritan woman who had been divorced multiple times – one who had married a serial number of husbands.  He was similarly understanding toward thieves, prostitutes and the greedy.

Much like the author Bruce Waller advocates in his book, Jesus often practiced positive reinforcement by loving and encouraging the allegedly immoral.  Matthew, a greedy tax collector, became a pillar of the Jesus movement.  Peter, a weak, impulsive and cowardly man, became a leader of the early church.  The thief crucified next to Jesus became one of the first souls to enter heaven.

For Jesus, character evolves.  Good character acknowledges past mistakes and learns from them.  Good character is not fixed, legalistic and punitive.  It is open, flexible and empathetic.

Even as Jesus occasionally acted in imperfect ways, he encouraged change in others by forgiving them, by turning the other cheek and by refusing to use violence.  In an ironic twist on promoting good character, Jesus refused to punish wrongdoing.  He simply forgave it while advocating change.

The power of character in Jesus was his ability to empathize with weakness.  Character is not defined by perfection.  Character is not unchanging.  Character is life enriching, ever evolving and ever understanding of different circumstances, influences and motivations.

We’ve recently seen the power of such character in those who have changed their minds about gay marriage.  We’ve seen the strength of character it takes to suddenly empathize with outcasts like gays and lesbians.   We see a journey from judgment and intolerance to one of understanding.   The character of such changed people – like our own – is not perfect.  It may have once been filled with hate.  But as Jesus taught, good character learns.  Good character develops empathy for those who suffer.  Good character grows.

It would be easy for me to stand here and talk about the many qualities that comprise moral character.  But most of us already know those.  Such statements by me would be a waste of time and highly hypocritical.  As much as I yearn to be a good person, I often fall short.  I make mistakes that are both intentional and not.  What I do ask of us is to honestly examine our own hearts and minds about the kind of character we have.  As Confucius said, we can look to the examples of good people to follow – and Jesus is one of those.  Imperfect in his own ways, he was still a man possessed of wisdom and insight far beyond normal human capacity.  Because he intuitively knew the variable imperfections of character – much like modern science has shown – he was deeply understanding of human foibles.  Contrary to self-righteous prigs who delight in wagging their fingers at others while possessing great immorality of their own, Jesus did not judge as much as he understood.  He did not punish as much as he forgave.  He did not arrogantly assert his own perfection as much as he encouraged humble confession and change in others.

We are all flawed people capable of nasty passions and ill-advised actions.  The power of our character lies in our ability to empathize with the flaws of others.  The power of our character lies in our desire to learn and grow from our mistakes.  The power of our character does not forget, despite our imperfections, all of the ways we can be good.  Instead, the power of our character understands that we are weak and fragile creatures who nevertheless aspire to the greatness of pure love for all.  Let us each resolve to continue on that beautiful path…