The field of psychology, which once taught us not to value character, is beginning to praise virtues as necessary for the good life.
By Paul C. Vitz, First Things, December 20, 2017
That our country is in a sexual crisis is obvious from the large number of prominent men who are accused of aggressive sexual offenses against women. That number, still growing, is staggering. The historical roots and development of this crisis can be illuminated by a look at popular psychological theory.
The problem began in the early 1950s, when the first signs of the coming sexual revolution emerged. After the Great Depression and World War II, the country turned toward prosperity and consumerism. At that time, psychological problems were commonly interpreted as arising from sexual repression and moral prudishness. The understanding of personal problems as caused by moral failings or weak character was on the way out. Among the signs of this change were the Kinsey reports, Playboy magazine, and the rise of advice columns offering psychological answers.
Already in the 1950s, and more so in the 1960s, psychologists emphasized “self-actualization,” where the self—presumed to be all good—should break from all inhibitions and choose its own values and way of life. The goal was to be without restrictions, and even without interpersonal commitments. “I’m OK, you’re OK” and the psychology of Carl Rogers and of Abraham Maslow spawned the “Me” generation of the 1970s and 1980s—the very time when many of our sexual abusers were creating their personal worldviews.
Meanwhile, the business world was finding that this psychology and its implicit approach to morality were attractive to consumers. Remember: “You’re the boss”; “Try it, you’ll like it”; “Have it your way”; “Grab all the gusto you can”; and countless similar slogans. Virtue and good character were ignored—they might hurt sales.
During these decades, psychology criticized any emphasis on character as a “bag-of-virtues” understanding of the moral life. It ignored or denied good research evidence in support of character education. This psychology culminated in so-called “Values Clarification”—an approach widely adopted in our schools, where it was absorbed by millions of students. Values Clarification asked each student to choose his or her own values, whatever they might be, to think about them, and then to act on them. Values Clarification rejected the teaching of virtue as “indoctrination,” while at the same time indoctrinating each student with moral relativism.
Moral relativism was nothing to worry about, since psychology taught that the self is all good. But it is not surprising that many people chose selfish goals. In addition, when there was disagreement about values, it was common to hear: “Don’t tell me what is right or wrong”; or, “I have my truth, you have yours.” In short, since we each have our own values, our increasingly atomized society has become a culture war of “all against all.” The only way left to settle our conflicts is in the old-fashioned way, namely: “Might makes right.”
Fortunately, since its heady days in the 1960s and 1970s, psychology has become wiser. Newer theories have emphasized strong and supporting interpersonal relationships throughout life as necessary for psychological health. Even the importance of forgiveness has been introduced into psychology, de-emphasizing the isolated autonomous person. Still more significantly, the field of psychology has discovered—really, re-discovered—the importance of virtues and character strengths to a flourishing life. Initiated by Martin Seligman and termed “Positive Psychology,” this newer movement, now about twenty years old, has become a major part of contemporary psychology. It focuses on six core virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence, each with several sub-virtues or character strengths. Examples of character strengths include, in order: love of learning, bravery, kindness, fairness, self-control, and spirituality.
There is now good evidence that the character strength of self-control, or self-regulation,which is a sub-virtue of temperance, is more important than IQ as a predictor of academic performance. Indeed, self-control has been found to be a long-term predictor of what is termed“a flourishing life.” Failure to control sexual urges and anger commonly leads not just to unhappiness but to legal problems. This is most often a problem for young men, but recent events show that legal consequences can ruin the lives of much older men who are lacking in virtue.
Psychology, which once taught us not to value self-control and so facilitated our sexual crisis, now advocates virtues and character strengths as necessary for the good life. A man (or woman) who lacks self-control will have trouble with the basic virtues. Without controlling your fear, you cannot show courage; without controlling your self-interest, you cannot show justice; without regulating your use of time, you cannot study or develop wisdom; without controlling your sexuality and anger, you cannot show either temperance (by definition) or humanity, which involves kindness and love.
Our culture needs to recognize again what we once knew, an insight that is found in all the world’s major cultures: that the good man and the good woman are persons of good character. For men especially, this means regaining control over their sexuality and aggressiveness. And this time around, psychology can probably be of help.
Paul C. Vitz is professor emeritus of psychology at New York University and senior scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences.