Because understanding character lies at the heart of human identity, philosophers, psychologists and theologians have long wrestled with how to define good character and how to improve character.
Wake Forest professors Christian Miller (philosophy), William F. Fleeson (psychology) and Michael R. Furr (psychology) have been awarded a $3.67 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation for The Character Project, an exploration of the nature of character.
Miller, Zachary T. Smith Faculty Fellow and associate professor of philosophy, is the principal investigator on the grant and will direct the three-year project.
The grant is the largest ever received for humanities research at Wake Forest.
“When we think about how to understand human behavior, one of the first things we tend to mention is someone’s character and character traits such as honesty, courage or laziness,” Miller said. “We are very excited about using the complementary perspectives of psychology, philosophy and theology to better understand what our characters are like and how we can improve ourselves as persons.”
The multi-faceted approach to understanding character will include:
- Competitions for scholars around the country seeking funding for research on character;
- Research projects by Wake Forest psychology and philosophy professors;
- Two research conferences and a summer seminar;
- An essay competition with nine prizes of $3,000 each.
“Character and how to develop it are at the core of who we are as human beings,” said Wake Forest President Nathan O. Hatch. “This award spotlights Wake Forest’s pairing of a classical liberal arts education with a focus on the education of the whole person. Christian Miller’s groundbreaking work and the Templeton Foundation’s support of innovative scholarship will advance our understanding of foundational issues for our society.”
The project’s first initiatives will be to conduct psychology research at Wake Forest and to fund proposals in psychology on the existence and nature of character and the relationship between character traits and beliefs, desires, identities, emotions, behavior and situations.
This research will build on Fleeson and Furr’s pioneering work on the nature and existence of personality traits in general, including character traits. They will also co-direct the funding of the “New Frontiers in the Psychology of Character” initiative. This initiative will make $1.5 million in funding available to scholars in psychology with preference given to young scholars who earned doctorates within the past 10 years.
Similar initiatives will fund research on the philosophy of character and the theology of character. Angela Knobel, an assistant professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, will direct the “Theology of Character” portion of the project.
Miller is currently writing a book, “A New Theory of Character,” presenting a new framework for thinking about character that will be shaped by some of the key questions The Character Project explores. Among these questions are: “Do character traits such as honesty, courage or compassion really exist?”, “How should we go about improving our characters and overcoming character flaws?” and “Should thinking about human and divine character be central to theological ethics?”
Miller’s main areas of research are ethics, moral psychology and philosophy of religion, and his work has appeared in many leading academic journals in philosophy. He is the editor of “Essays in the Philosophy of Religion” (Oxford University Press) and the book review editor of the “Journal of Moral Philosophy,” and he is currently editing “The Continuum Companion to Ethics” (Continuum Press). In 2009, Miller won both Wake Forest’s Reid-Doyle Prize for Excellence in Teaching and the Award for Excellence in Research.
“The past 30 years have seen a resurgence of interest in character, particularly in the areas of psychology, philosophy and theology, Miller said. “Our goal is to figure out what kind of character we have, what kind of character we should strive to attain and how far apart the two are.”
The project will be overseen by Michael J. Murray, John Templeton Foundation Vice President for Philosophy and Theology.
“The Templeton Foundation is enormously pleased to support the work of professors Miller, Fleeson and Furr through this project,” Murray said. “Sir John Templeton was very keen to fund research projects aimed at discovering the nature and content of character, with the goal of better understanding how to become virtuous, flourishing individuals, family members and citizens. We were especially attracted to Wake Forest for this project because it is an institution that understands and reflects the importance of multi-disciplinary approaches to Big Questions of this sort, and because of the inter-disciplinary collaboration that was already taking place between the scholars who will now lead this project.”
The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the big questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love and free will. The Foundation supports a broad range of programs, publications and studies focused on the universal truths of character development, from childhood through young adulthood and beyond.
Fleeson, Kirby Faculty Fellow and professor of psychology at Wake Forest, is currently associate editor of the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” and serves as consulting editor for several leading journals. His work focuses on examining actual behavior and behavior patterns in order to obtain new insights about personality. His research has been published in leading psychology journals and he won the 2002 Society for Personality and Social Psychology Theoretical Innovation Prize.
Furr, McCulloch Faculty Fellow and associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest, is associate editor of the “Journal of Research in Personality.” He is former executive editor of the “Journal of Social Psychology,” and his research has appeared in many psychology journals. Furr studies personality psychology, social psychology, psychological measurement, and quantitative analysis. He recently co-authored a book, “Psychometrics: An Introduction” (Sage Publications), and his new book “Scale Construction and Psychometrics for Social and Personality Psychology” (Sage Publications) is scheduled for publication in 2011.
Angela Knobel, assistant professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, studies Thomas Aquinas’s virtue theory, ethics and bioethics. Her papers have appeared or are forthcoming in several academic journals. Her book “Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues,” is under contract with University of Notre Dame Press.