March 10, 2021

I've been thinking about this story, from the New York Times in January, since I read it when it was published.

This is the lawyer in the justice department who seems to have wanted to go along with Trump's attempted coup, though of course now he's denying everything. People who have known him for many decades are astonished. We thought we knew this guy, they seem to say, and he was pretty much like the rest of us. How could he have gone so crazy?

This is an old question about people's moral character, and how it relates to their behavior.

Some people seem to think that character is destiny: that's what you do fundamentally reveals who you have been all along.  Henry James famously said, “what is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”

This is a common assumption. Marjorie Garber analyzes it in her new book, Character.  I'm looking forward to reading it, but I don't think we'll find any conclusive answers in that direction.

I don't think things are as simple as all that. In fact there's a good deal of psychological evidence to suggest that people are swayed by their cultural context, both in long-term ways and in short term ways, in a fashion that suggests that our character is not as inflexible and determinative as we would like to think.  (Our failure to see this, especially as regards other people, and our eagerness to excuse ourselves with this strategy, is called the fundamental attribution error by social psychologists.)

Sure, people have character, but they also make choices.  Choices may not reveal some deep "inner" sense of "who we really are," but they are ontological facts in the world.  This is true of all of us.  And choices are always made in situations, where the choice options may be, shall we say, problematic.

Maybe we are more context-specific than we think.  In which case, we need to be more attentive to the contexts in which we put ourselves.  A pro tip for me, for you, for all of us.