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Character Through Thick and Thin

ABSTRACT: Concerns about making character formation a strand of public policy centre around both doubts about the empirical basis of such policies and the appropriate role of government in shaping and directing private life. To address both sets of concerns it is helpful to think of two key aspects of character in terms of their “thickness”. First, research in psychology has suggested that many aspects of character are highly variable according to situation. We can call these “thin” character traits are opposed to “thick” traits which are more robust. Second, some of the aspects of character being advocated as the appropriate object of public policy are based on capabilities and are normatively “thin”, in that they are not tied to any specific substantive conception of the good life. Some character traits, however, are normatively “thick”, and so their promotion would be tied to a substantive ideal. In both cases, thick and thin are matters of degree and there is not sharp distinction between the two. Nevertheless, the distinction is important and I will argue that a basic liberal position is that state policy should, in both respects, be as thin as possible, and I will attempt to sketch a means of determining what this is.

Character Through Thick and Thin“, a paper I gave at the Character and Public Policy Conference: 14th and 15th December 2012, Jubilee centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham,


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