Consequentialist moral theories locate the good in the consequences of our actions. Naively, we might think that this then removes any sensible way of juding persons - the only thing that matters is what they do. But that’s simplistic. After all, our personal qualities affect how we act.

A dispositional analysis

A simple notion of consequentialist “moral character” could be defined like this:

X is has good (bad) moral character in proportion to the worth of the actions that they tend to perform.

I’ve worded that so it’s going to admit of degrees - as good consequentialists, we want to say that the person who saves a 1000 lives once a year has a better character than the person who saves one life a day.

Like all dispositional analyses, this is very sensitive to the situation. Exactly which characteristics are helpful for someone to be “good to have on your side” depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Someone who is skilled at heroic feats of valour (and inclined to perform them) might be who you want in a fight; but if you’re managing a large organization, you might rather have someone who was inclined to do the filing.1

The same is true of moral character. Today’s world is very different from historical conditions, and the kind of person who will likely do the most good today may be quite different from the historical norm. 500 years ago it was difficult to have global effects, and wealth and power were less unequally distributed. A peasant with good moral character would probably help his neighbours, be kind to those he met, and generally be what we traditionally think of as a “good” person.2

However, if we think that the effective altruists are on to something, then good moral character for today’s world might be quite different. It might even be different between parts of today’s world, since EA argments derive a lot of their bite from the fact that we in the West are so (comparatively) wealthy. The opportunties that are available to us are not available everywhere, and hence the characteristics that are required for us to take advantage of them may not be as important elsewhere. While selflessness and empathy are likely to always be a vital part of the package, good moral character in today’s affluent West arguably requires hard-headed thinking and analytical tendencies more than anything.3

Whither absolutes?

The situation-dependence of moral character is a bit disquieting. Even if you are a “good” person for today, there are situations where the qualities that make you good would be at best irrelevant and at worst actively harmful. The classic example of moral luck highlights this problem: if you were transported to Nazi Germany, would you be a good person there? If you are a law-abiding individual, that’s probably a useful disposition today, but as history has taught us, a tendency to conformity can be very dangerous in the wrong circumstances.

Objectively, the truth is clear: your character can only be good or bad in relation to the circumstances in which you find yourself. It’s natural to worry about whether you have an “absolutely” good or bad character, or whether you’re some kind of “moral specialist”, who is only capable of being good in a limited range of situations. I think the best response to that is to make a stab at reasoning about how prevalent the circumstances which we are suited for are across time.

In my own case, I’m (hopefully) doing quite a lot of good through my donations, and I think that the chances of me reaching this course of action given the circumstances in which I’ve lived are pretty high. So I think I’m doing okay at “modern” moral character; but in terms of “traditional” character, I’m not that good. I can be quite selfish; I do little direct volunteering; I’m nice to people I know but I don’t think I make as much difference in their lives as I could.

That makes me feel like I’m the beneficiary of some moral luck myself - the majority of the good I expect to do in my life is due to the opportunities existing and being noticeable by people like me.4 Drop me in the 15th century and I’d be pretty useless.5 But in the longer term it may be that current conditions are going to become “business as ususal”. By and large, I expect the future to be much more like today than like the 15th century.6 So I think today’s good moral character is likely to be similar to good moral character in the future. So our moral intuitions of what constitutes good character may just take a while to adjust to the world we now live in.

This doesn’t mean that “traditional” moral character is going away. It’s still likely to make you do more good things, but we should focus our personal development on the characteristics that have the biggest impact today.7 Our exemplars of character in the future may be just as compassionate, but focus more on discerning good opportunities and less on getting directly involved.

  1. It’s tempting to think that different circumstances simply require different “virtues”, and that we can nonetheless imagine a perfect person who possessed all the virtues and thus had the correct disposition for all situations. But I think it’s pretty easy to come up with situations where any putative “virtue” is actually morally counterproductive, and hence, by our definition, not conducive to good moral character in that situation. 

  2. Where I refer to “traditional” moral character, I mean whatever dispositions would have led to good actions in a traditional setting. This doesn’t necessarily align with what has traditionally been thought to be good character. Chastity, for example, was probably never very helpful. 

  3. To be clear, most features of “traditional” good moral character are still relevant today, but they may not be the most relevant characteristics. Kindness is still a virtue we ought to cultivate, but there are a few things which conflict, such as a tendency to prefer activities which directly help people. 

  4. Relevant: The privilege of earning to give

  5. Ask anyone, they’ll tell you I’d make a terrible peasant. 

  6. Barring a few possible courses of history, such as a great evening-out of the wealth distribution. That would greatly reduce the disproportionate power of us in the West, but it’s likely that our ability to act will remain global, and so our best moral opportunties are unlikely to be in intuitive locations. 

  7. I hereby dub this field “effective character”.