Character: The Concept

PTP4 Excerpts - Character: The Concept


“Why are we the way we are and do the things we do? This is the fundamental question we humans have been asking ourselves (as a species and as individuals) from the dawn of recorded history. In the opening chapter of this book, we traced the emergence and development of what, for well over two thousand years, was the dominant approach to answering this question in the West. Responding to the call to “Know Thyself,” this revolved around the practice of what eventually came to be known as self-examination, with a person’s character constituting the primary object of inquiry, the premise being that what we do is a function of what we are.

As we saw, AA’s moral inventory arises out of this tradition. The assessment of character is its central object. This is based on the corollary premise that the defects which mar our character are the principal cause of the harm that we do and of our general failure in life. It follows therefore that our primary task in Step 4 is to identify these defects in us. They are the defects we are going to admit to in Step 5, become ready to surrender in 6, ask God to remove in 7, become willing to make amends for in 8, and proceed to make restitution for in 9. Clearly, how well we work these subsequent Steps depends to a considerable extent on our understanding of what character is, how it can become defective, and how it can be repaired and rebuilt.

Advancing this understanding in the context of examining our emotions was the main focus of the second part of this book, for as we tried to show, these are closely tied to our character and are the chief drivers of our moral action. In this third part we step back and refocus entirely on the whole notion of character. In the current chapter we review the Big Book’s and the 12&12’s treatment of it, relate it to the tradition’s understanding, and consider in general terms what this says about how character develops in us. This builds on the introduction of the concept in the first volume of this work, to which the reader is referred. In the two ensuing chapters, we distinguish character from two related concepts discussed in the two AA books, those of personality and of temperament. In the fourth and final chapter, we narrow our focus to concentrate on defects of character, elaborating on what we have said so far and applying it to taking inventory of some of the defects highlighted in those texts.


Though central to Step 4 and the entire inventory process which ranges through Step 10, the concept of character and the ancillary idea of character defects are far from clear in the minds of many an AA. As with the concept of emotional sobriety, this reflects in part a lack of clarity in our fellowship’s two basic texts. This despite the fact that, unlike emotional sobriety, which is mentioned only once, character is frequently mentioned in them—a total of 43 times. Unfortunately, many of these mentions tend to obscure rather than clarify the concept. The reason is that, like all seminal terms, “character” has evolved and spawned a variety of meanings. And yet, our texts do not distinguish between these, effectively conflating them with the meaning that is relevant to our inventory. Consider the following passages . . .” 

         – From Part III: Character Defects, Chapter 13, Character: The Concept, pp. 257-258