The Character of Character: New Directions for a Dispositional Theory

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Philosophy, Applied

First Advisor

Daniel Jacobson (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

David Shoemaker (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Christian Coons (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Judith Zimmerman (Committee Member)


My dissertation aims to solve a puzzle, a paradox, and a problem. The puzzle is to explain why people act in uncharacteristic (i.e., seemingly cruel) ways in a number of social psychological experiments, such as Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment, in which 65% of the participants complied with the experimenter's demands to issue a series of increasingly powerful "shocks" to an unwilling recipient. I argue that owing to features of the experimental design participants were made to feel: out of their element, confused, disoriented, pressured, intimidated, and acutely distressed, and that the "experimenter" (actually a confederate) exploited these factors, which is the central reason why the majority of participants complied with his demands despite being reluctant to do so. The paradox is that, although ordinary people seem to be good, bad, or somewhere in between, evidence (again from social psychology) seems to suggest that most people would behave deplorably on many occasions and heroically on many others. This, in turn, suggests the paradoxical conclusion that most people are indeterminate—i.e., no particular character evaluation appears to apply to them. I argue to the contrary that the social psychological evidence fails to support the claim that people would behave deplorably on many occasions. Milgram's participants, for example, faced extenuating circumstances that should mitigate the degree to which they were blameworthy for their actions, and this, in turn, challenges the claim that they behaved deplorably. The problem is that no existing theory has been able to adequately account for the connection between possessing certain character traits and performing certain actions. Commonsense suggests that there is a connection between, for instance, being a truthful person and telling the truth, but it has been challenging for philosophers to capture precisely what the connection is in an empirically defensible way. I argue that there is a strong empirical connection between character traits and action, but that to understand this connection, it must be admitted at the outset that interfering factors may come between traits and their manifestations in action. The key is to develop a theory that can give an account of which sources of interference are character trait undermining and which are not. I go some way toward developing such a theory.