Recently, I had the privilege of participating in a leadership training program. One aspect of this program was the identification and understanding of disposition types. Naturally, such a program raises a series of issues about the relationship between our nature and our free-will. This gets played out in the debate of “nature vs. nurture” and other similar questions. I think our training handling these issues well, and building off of their insights, I offer the following.
I think the answer is a classic example of the Catholic “both/and.” On one extreme, the view has been taken that human activity is determined by our nature and our genetics. Due to forces that are beyond our control, we behave in us set patterns that can be measured and identified. The main problem with this view is the question of responsibility. It denies that individuals have a role in shaping their life. Thus it implicitly denies free-will.
The other extreme is that everything can be reduced to our free will. This view would seem to deny personality dispositions and other determined parts of our personality that are beyond our control. The main objection to such an exaggeration is that human experience, by means of statistics and empirical research, proves the contrary. Humans often act in ways that have patterns that occur with measurable regularity.
By way of analogy, I offer a view that is “both/and.” Another system that has fixed rules and clear patterns is that of language. Language is very deterministic, so much so that the patterns of language can be taught relatively easily to young children. Yet within this determined framework, in any given communication between persons, language and the meaning it involves becomes incredibly unique to the moment. In a linguistics course I had, the professor once humorously stated, “Pink elephants like to vacation in Alaska, but only when penguins agree.” He then quite confidently proclaimed, “Those words have never been heard before.” We had to agree.
There is a similar dynamic in play with other aspects of any given moment. Do we have personalities which involve patterns of behavior? Absolutely. Do we often fall into predictable ways of responding to given situations? The answer is yes, and it can be backed up by evidence. However, in any given moment, there is a uniqueness and unrepeatable quality that cannot be overlooked.
The call for people of good will is to practice the virtue of prudence. Prudence is that virtue by which we take the patterns of life, and learn to apply them to the uniqueness of situations. Prudence is not about taking a cookie cutter mentality to life, but rather it is the art of living in the moment. This art draws wisdom from our understanding of the patterns of human behavior.