Character: The Concept

PTP4 Excerpts - Character: The Concept



Character: What’s in a Name . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 258
Character: A Moral Concept . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .260
Character as Moral Habits . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .262
Character, Concerns, and Construals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 266

“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:” 

                                                                                                 . . .

     Given these disparate uses of the term, it is not surprising that some readers should be at a loss as to exactly in what sense character and the defects thereof are germane to our inventory. And yet, if we dig deeper into our two texts, we will find that their take on character aligns for the most part with the traditional understanding of the concept. To try to get a handle on exactly what this is, we will first give a bare-bones definition of character and then proceed to unpack it.

                                                                              Character: A Moral Concept 

     Character is most fundamentally a moral concept. That is why ours is a moral and not some other type of inventory (the term is used 28 times in the Big Book and 12&12). It is essential to underscore this once again, for the moral implications of character is the main reason the concept is resisted and has fallen out of favor, as we shall presently see. This is evident in the self-help as well as in some of the secondary recovery literature, which, under the influence of various religious and philosophical perspectives, go so far as to intentionally omit the term moral from their discussion of Step 4, giving the mistaken impression that the Step calls only for a personal inventory, nothing more. Now, that it is personal should be obvious, after all, it is of ourselves, not of anybody else. But it should be equally obvious—since it is explicitly stated—that it is specifically of our moral selves. 

                                                                                             . . .

                                                                               Character as Moral Habits 

     When thus engraved to, in effect, delineate or demarcate a character, moral traits function in practice as moral habits. As with any habit, the engraving results from a person’s repeated action—in the case of character, repeated action involving particular traits in particular situations—to the point where the person becomes accustomed to acting from or out of those traits in those situations. She develops a stable disposition or tendency to repeat the action whenever the situation arises. The action becomes habitual, often unconscious, and nearly instinctive or automatic. It reflects what the person has become. 

                                                                                              . . .

                                                                    Character, Concerns, and Construals 

     We develop the moral habits that make up our character in the process of living our lives and, as Aristotle notes, acting repeatedly in certain ways, choosing some things and avoiding others. These choices reveal moral purpose, we observed, because they pertain to the good as we perceive it, that is, to what we deem to be good or not good for us. As such, our character reflects what we have called our concerns and construals—and vice versa. It reflects what we deem to be good, important, of value or significance to us, the things we care about. 

                                                                                           . . .

     It logically follows therefore that, if our emotions are a function of our concern-based construals, as we have argued, then our emotions are necessarily a function of our character. It also follows that if we can change our character, we can change our emotions. Or, to be more precise, if we can change the patterns of motivation and cognition which make up our character, we can change the corresponding, latent emotional dispositions, and with them our habitual affective responses to people, places, and things. We can change who we are, what we feel, and what we do. This, in the final analysis, is the ultimate goal of our self-examination. 

– From Part III: Character Defects, Chapter 13, Character: The Concept, pp. 257–258, 260–261, 262–263, 266, 266–267 

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