Every Individual Nature Has Its Own Virtue

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

In an earlier post (“Call for a moratorium on easy generalities”), I admonished David Brooks for generalizing short term leadership requirements to those of the long term. Yes, CEOs preparing a corporation for imminent sale call on different skills—the so-called “hard skills” of toughness, analysis, and decisiveness—than is required of CEOs nurturing a corporation for the long haul, where the “soft skills” of listening, team development, and people development are critical. It seems that Mr. Brook, who happens to be one of my favorite pundits, has again taken to an easy generality, and I would like to gently call him to task.

                In his column for The New York Times on Tuesday, October 20, 2009, Mr. Brooks contrasted the “philospher’s view“ with the “psychologist’s view“, whereby the former proclaims that character (i.e., bravery, courage, fearlessness, honesty, wisdom, and other virtues) was either turned on or off in any given individual, whereas the latter declares that character is wholly situational, with individuals calling up virtuous behavior in some situations and not in others. This distinction is based on a recent book (Experiments in Ethics) by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. Writes Mr. Brooks: “A century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by traits that apply from one context to another…. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call ‘cross-situational stability’.”

                As it turns out, both are true: virtue does exist in some people and not in others. Some people are more consistent in their behavior from situation to situation, and others are more inconsistent. The term that psychologists use today to describe where one falls on this continuum is “traitedness.” To the degree that an individual is more consistent in some aspect of their behavior, they are said to be more “traited.”  The model of trait behavior currently embraced by most psychologists is the Five-Factor Model, of the Big Five. Therein, five supertraits describe behavioral traits with a broad brush, with each supertrait being subdivided into component subtraits. Accordingly, the supertrait “Extraversion” is subdivided into components such as warmth, sociability, activity level, and so forth. The more extreme one’s score—either high or low—the more consistent one’s behavior from situation to situation. The closer one’s score is to average, the more situational their behavior with respect to that specific trait. Gordon Allport, called by many the “father (parent?) of American personality psychology,” said most people have one trait that is more extreme than all the others, i.e., farthest from the mean. This he dubbed one’s “dominant trait”—the trait by which they are best known to others.

                So, Mr. Brooks, some contemporary people exhibit what you call the “philosopher’s view”—situational consistency. They are the roughly 14% of the population who score more than one-and-a half standard deviations from the mean on a given trait (i.e., 7% who score 1.5 SDs higher than the mean, plus 7% who score 1.5 SDs lower). The rest of the population, with regard to a particular trait, are more situational, and exhibit the “psychologist’s view.” The beauty of it is that there are many traits, with each being bipolar. In other words, the trait of gregariousness has solitude at one pole and sociability at the other, with each in its pure form being a “virtue.” The probability that any given individual would have high “traitedness” on at least one of the Big Five traits is very high. However, as Aristotle of yore pointed out, moderation is itself a trait. Hence, scoring in the mid range is, in spite of being cross-situationally inconsistent, also a virtue. Thus, each of us has our own unique way of being virtuous. Or, as we like to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Every individual nature has its own beauty.”  (from Society and Solitude, 1870).

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