Cultivating character : spiritual exercises, remedial virtues, and the formation of the heart.


According to philosophical situationists, empirical psychology suggests that most people are not virtuous, and that we should be skeptical about the possibility of cultivating virtue. I argue against the second claim by offering an empirically informed model of character formation. The model begins with ancient formational wisdom emphasizing emotion education, the practice of spiritual exercises, self-monitoring, and willpower, and is confirmed, nuanced, and supplemented by insights from recent empirical psychology. Many ancient philosophers, recent social psychologists, and philosophers of emotion agree that emotions are central to moral cognition. I defend a perceptual account of emotion, and show how this account suggests a practical upshot that empirical psychologists tend not to emphasize, but that the ancients would endorse: emotion education should be a primary focus of character formation. I dilate on this practical point using the remediation of inappropriate anger as a test case. Taking my remedial cues from the Stoic and Christian traditions, I argue that training the emotions through self-monitoring, willpower, and the use of “spiritual exercises”—practices of mind and body whereby one digests the doctrines of one’s philosophical school, so that those doctrines are not matters of mere notional understanding, but actually take up residence in one’s vision of the world—provides hope for meaningful movement in the direction of virtue. The rigorous practice of spiritual exercises involves difficult work. To have much success, the moral trainee will need at least the seeds of what I call “remedial virtues”: character excellences that enable an agent to do the demanding work of re-cultivating her character. The remedial virtues include self-vigilance (a kind of moral watchfulness) and the virtues of willpower (e.g., self-control, courage, perseverance, and patience). I develop empirically informed philosophical analyses of self-vigilance and the virtues of willpower, and offer empirical evidence to support the claim that they can be cultivated. Then I show how the remedial virtues can help us resist temptation, leverage temptation in the interest of further growth in character, and correct for the subtle situational forms of moral interference that situationists emphasize.



Character. Virtue ethics. Situationism.