Is one's ability to form his/her own character good?

  • About this question

    Is the act of cultivating our own morally significant character good? Is the ability to do so a good thing?1

    Debates this affects:

    1. This ability to cultivate one's own character is called “soul making.” As famously put by Aristotle: “we become just be doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts” [Nicomachean Ethics 1103b]
“Yes, after all…
  • Intuitively, it is intrinsically good

    Humans seem to widely intuit that it is a great good for us to make self-forming choices. For example, our showing courage and thereby becoming naturally courageous is an intrinsically good thing.1 This extends to desirable spiritual states in general that we might not otherwise attain.

    Richard Swinburne (Philosophy professor at Oxford): “Yet it would seem a good thing that a creator should allow humanly free creatures to influence by their own choices the sort of creatures they are to be, the kind of character they are to have. That means that the creator must create them immature, and allow them gradually to make decisions which affect the sort of beings they will be.” [“The Problem of Evil” Online at]

    1. As argued by one philosopher:

      John Hick: “[Virtues] which have been formed within the agent as a hard won deposit of her own decisions in situations of challenge and temptation, are intrinsically more valuable than virtues created within her ready made and without any effort on her own part.” ["An Irenaean Theodicy," reprinted in Mesle, John Hick's Theodicy, xxii.]
      John Hick: “[One] who has attained to goodness by meeting and eventually mastering temptations, and thus by rightly making responsible choices in concrete situations, is good in a richer and more valuable sense than would be one created ab initio in a state either of innocence or virtue . . . [It] is an ethically reasonable judgment, even though in the nature of the case not one that is capable of demonstrative proof, that human goodness slowly built up through histories of moral effort has a value in the eyes of the Creator which justifies even the long travail of the soul-making process.” [Evil and the God of Love (Harper and Row, 1977), 255-56.] Similarly, Joseph Butler: “[It is appropriate that we] should be placed in a state of discipline and improvement, where [our] patience and submission is to be tried by afflictions, where temptations are to be resisted, and difficulties gone through in the discharge of our duty.” [Fifteen Sermons, 235.]

  • Freely choosing the good for eternity is good

    It is good for agents to be able to make free self-forming choices, orienting themselves to the good (and God) for eternity. This is relevant because it might be that only upon forming our characters in such a way on Earth (with God's aid and where temptations for evil are strong) that we would be suited to naturally and freely choose the only good forever more in Heaven. After all, it may be possible to sin in heaven, but far less tempting. (That is to say, it may be that living a perfect life requires virtually no effort at all for those who in part forged themselves for good on Earth).1

    But wait, isn't it impossible to form one's own character? [See response]2

    1. Relatedly, it is good for humans to be united with God in fellowship, as two wills freely integrated around the good. This is relevant because this kind of fellowship is incompatible with humans whose hearts (and will) are freely wicked in a way that makes this fellowship impossible; fixing the hearts is best done via a rescue operation where we make self-forming free choices in the face of trials and are sanctified in a way that preserves our will.
    2. One might think it is impossible to form one's own character because perhaps free will is impossible. In addition to problems with this suggestion, the possibility of forming one's own character has been intuited and experientially confirmed throughout history. Today, a whole branch of philosophy in ethics is called "virtue ethics" and makes use of this ability humans have.
      Aristotle: “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts” [Nicomachean Ethics 1103b]
      Chad Meister (Philosophy professor at Bethel College): “A proper internal environment could well be one that included opposing desires and dispositions within the individual, such as lust and aggression on the one hand and altruism and benevolence on the other--desires and dispositions that we do in fact find within human beings. Internal conflict and struggle may even be a necessary part of the very nature of moral advancement, at least in the early phases of moral formation (reflect on your own moral development and consider whether this is true). If so, a life involving moral decision-making freely choosing between dispositions and desires would be an essential part of character formation. If it is the case that competing desires and dispositions are requisite for moral decision-making (at least in its development phase), then something akin to aggression, disappointment, frustration, danger, and pain―all of which are essential aspects of biological development―may be necessary features of an internal environment in which real moral progress can occur in an individual. In other words, a world like ours may be indispensable for creatures like us.” [“God and Evil” in Debating Christian Theism (Oxford, 2013), 214.]
      Dallas Willard (Philosophy professor at U. of Southern California): “What then is the specific role of the spiritual disciplines? Their role rests upon the nature of the embodied human self—they are to mold and shape it. And our part in our redemption is, through specific and appropriate activities, to “yield” the plastic substance of which we are made to the ways of that new life which is imparted to us by the quickening spirit.” [Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperOne, 1999), 92.]
      John Hick (Philosophy professor at Cambridge, etc.): If, then, God's aim in making the world is ’the bringing of many sons to glory,’ that aim will naturally determine the kind of world that He has created. Antitheistic writers almost invariably assume a conception of the divine purpose which is contrary to the Christian conception. They assume that the purpose of a loving God must be to create a hedonistic paradise; and therefore to the extent that the world is other than this, it proves to them that God is either not loving enough or not powerful enough to create such a world. They think of God's relation to the Earth on the model of a human being building a cage for a pet animal to dwell in. If he is humane he will naturally make his pet's quarters as pleasant and healthful as he can. Any respect in which the cage falls short of the veterinarian's ideal, and contains possibilities of accident or disease, is evidence of either limited benevolence or limited means, or both. Those who use the problem of evil as an argument against belief in God almost invariably think of the world in this kind of way. … But if we are right… The question that we have to ask is rather, Is this the kind of world that God might make as an environment in which moral beings may be fashioned, through their own free insights and responses, into ‘children of God’?” [Evil and the God of Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 256-258.]