In our interactions with one another, and also in our observations of the actions of individuals in fiction, we find ourselves assessing behavior. We judge individuals as good, or kind, or vicious, or even evil. We consider what has been done, and what may be done, and we assess those actions as wise or foolish, as self-centered or generous, as right or wrong. When we engage in these assessments, we are often guided by our view of the character of the individual. This view is more general than the specific action we may be considering. It is an overall profile of the moral status of the individual, as a good person, a kind person, a lazy person, or a thoughtless person, and the role that the character we associate with that individual plays in their actions. Among the things that philosophers reflect on here, is the question of whether there really is something we can describe as a person’s moral character, and if there is such a thing as character, is it fixed, or can it change? These questions are raised in “In Praise of Pip.”
Max Phillips is a small time bookie, a person who takes illegal bets on horse races, working as a runner for a small time mobster, who doesn’t hesitate to use violence to collect from his clients. Max’s job is to collect bets and forward the proceeds to his boss. He’s been doing this for a long time, and nothing about his life seems admirable. He lives in a squalid room in a run down apartment building; he has a stash of cheap whiskey that he keeps in dresser draw nearby, and he doesn’t hesitate to mislead his clients in order to get them to place their bets. Yet Max is sweet to his landlady, and reflective. He knows that the life that he leads is not admirable.
How does our assessment of Max’s character contribute to our moral evaluation of his choices? We expect that Max will continue the life that he is stuck in. We expect him to continue to live as a petty criminal, and to exploit people who hope to turn their meager savings into winning bets. We don’t expect Max to improve his lot or the lot of others, and most would disapprove of his failure to get unstuck.
How, exactly does Max’s character influence his behavior? If we think of character as the beliefs, desires, and possibly moods and inclinations of a person, then we might see how holding certain beliefs, including beliefs about right and wrong, as well as beliefs about what is valuable, together with a set of desires, might contribute to the choices someone makes. There are, however, other things that influence our behavior, including the circumstances that we are in. Max’s circumstances are not ones that facilitate self improvement or the improvement of others. How far does character take us in guiding our choices? What role do external circumstances play?
The episode helps us consider another aspect of character. We quickly come to appreciate that Max is quite self-reflective. He is not just a bum, but a bum who knows that he’s a bum. He observes his own behavior, both at the moment and in the past, with a critical eye. At one point he characterizes his character flaws eloquently: “Dreamed instead of did, wished and hoped instead of tried.” He knows that his behavior is not praise-worthy, and he doesn’t attempt to justify his actions. The fact that he is aware of his own character suggests that his character is influencing his actions, though the actions he takes clearly are not the ones even he recognizes as ones he shouldn’t take. For less reflective souls, who don’t think, or think much, about what they believe and desire, it’s harder to see how their character causes their actions. How character and our awareness of our character are related is discussed by Taylor, (1996).
There’s much more to “In Praise of Pip” than Max Phillips in his room. Max is the father of Pip, a young man fighting in the Vietnam War. Max learns that Pip has been gravely wounded, and may die. This causes the already reflective Max to undertake a radical reconsideration of his character and his actions. He then does something we would regard as uncharateristic, that is, something that is at odds with his character, coming to the defense of a small time gambler who needs a refund. In doing this, Max rejects the values and beliefs he shared with his mobster boss, and does so bravely and with great resolve. This suggests that we can, when we are in crisis or faced with challenging circumstances, change our character and in doing so reorder our priorities and act in ways that surprise others. Whether such character changes endure, or are just temporary, depends on many factors. Unfortunately for Max, one of the consequences of his character change was that the change, like Max himself, was short-lived.
Millum, J., (2008), “How Do We Acquire Parental Responsibilities?
Social Theory and Practice, 34,1: 71-93.
Nussbaum, Martha, (1990) Love’s Knowledge : Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford University Press.
Taylor, G., 1996, “Deadly Vices?”, in How Should One Live?, R. Crisp (ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press.