COMMENTARY 751.2: What Is Character?

by Michael Josephson on November 28, 2011

in Commentaries, The Nature of Character

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(updated january 17, 2014)

What is character?

Here’s a riddle: You can hardly ever find it anymore — especially in politics or business.

Lots of schools don’t teach it anymore.

We want more of it in our children and in all the adults who interact with them.

We want it from our bosses and the people who fix our cars.

And most of us believe we have plenty of it.

What I’m talking about is character — or, more precisely, good character. So, what is character?

Technically, character is a morally neutral term describing the nature of a person in terms of major qualities. So everyone, from iconic scoundrels like Hitler and saints like Mother Teresa, have a character.

In most situations, however, when we are talking about a person’s character we are referring to the sum total of his or her moral qualities possibly balanced against his or her imperfections. To say a person has a good character or even to admire a person’s character does not require that they are perfect but it does mean we think this is a good person worthy of trust and admiration.

So when we say someone has good character we are expressing the opinion that his or her nature is defined by worthy traits like integrity, courage, and compassion. People of good character are guided by ethical principles even when it’s physically dangerous or detrimental to their careers, social standing, or economic well-being. They do the right thing even when it costs more than they want to pay.

No one is born with good character; it’s not a hereditary trait. And it isn’t determined by a single noble act.

Character is established by conscientious adherence to moral values, not by lofty rhetoric or good intentions. Another way of saying that is, character is ethics in action.

But what do we mean by ethics? All Josephson Institute programs, including CHARACTER COUNTS! and Pursuing Victory With Honor, are based on the Six Pillars of Character, values that transcend cultural, religious, and socioeconomic differences. Those six values are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

Anne Frank, the 13-year-old victim of Nazi persecution said in her diary, “The formation of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”  I have no doubt that she was right. Of course, efforts by parents, teachers, and others to instill these values are very important. They can have a great deal of influence on the values a child adopts, but we must never underestimate the role of choice (and accountability for making  that choice) in the formation of character.

Thus, character is both formed and revealed by how one deals with everyday situations as well as extraordinary pressures and temptations. Like a well-made tower, character is built stone by stone, decision by decision.

The way we treat people we think can’t help or hurt us — like housekeepers, waiters, and secretaries — tells more about our character than how we treat people we think are important. How we behave when we think no one is looking or when we don’t think we will get caught more accurately portrays our character than what we say or do in service of our reputations.

Difference between character and reputation. 

Of course, our assessment of a person’s character is an opinion and it isn’t always right. Abraham Lincoln recognized an important difference between character and reputation. “Character,” he said “is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

Because the shape of a shadow is determined by the angle of light and the perspective of the observer, it’s not a perfect image of the tree. In the same way, reputation is not always an accurate reflection of character. Oscar Wilde once said, Sincerity is one of the most important qualities in a person. And once you can fake that you have it made.” This cynical quip explains why some people are able to create a much better reputation than they deserve. By the same token, there are others who deserve better reputations than they have.

Though reputation is merely a perception it still has very significant real impact. Reputation is not only the result of what people think of us it often determines what people who don’t know us think about us, treat us and whether we are held in high or low esteem.

A good reputation for integrity, for instance, is a primary determinant of credibility and trust, two very marketable assets. Think of how the Tiger Woods “brand” crashed and his endorsement value disappeared after it was discovered that he constantly cheated on his wife. Similarly, the once highly respected accounting firm Arthur Anderson had to change its name (to Accenture) to try to recapture trust after its involvement in the Enron scandal.

Whether fair or not, the indisputable truth is that people, companies and institutions are likely to be judged by their last worst act. Thus, some unwisely became so preoccupied with protecting their image that they actually made things worse, undermining their character and destroying their reputations, by concealing or creating facts to make them look better.

The importance of character is captured in the mantra: “hire for character, train for skills.”

 

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Deb December 2, 2011 at 6:50 am

Good morning J.E. I am on the ethic committee here at the hospital and so I receive emails from a site called “What Will Matter”. This is one of the articles in the newletter this week. I really thought it was good and I thought of the youth group at church. They seem like such a good group of kids. I don’t know if you can use this article or not but I thought I’d send it just in case. It’s good information for everyone but our kiddos really need to hear about it. I don’t think they get to witness much of it in our society. See you Sunday!

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Marilyn Lyle December 7, 2011 at 7:52 am

Thanks for this piece on Character and Reputation. As we face the situation in our country and the world, I pray we can help our youth and community to see the importance of good character and living by it, so that our actions are represented by the moral integrity and strength of good character. If we each one really live by this goal there would be less fraud and corruption in our world

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Anonymous December 19, 2011 at 8:52 am

Your thoughts are well expressed, sir. Indeed, what is character and why is it not taught in schools? Of course, parents have primary responsibility but it should be taught in the classroom.

Your opening paragraph’s inquiry caught my eye quickly. “You can hardly ever find it anymore — especially in politics or business.” My wife was taking my young son to martial arts class which increased in frequency. It turns out I was paying not for my son’s martial arts lessons but for his instructor to become romantically involved with my wife.

This was especially horrible since that school was advertising building morale character as part of the training.

“Character” does indeed to be mentioned in our classrooms.

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Donna Staunton February 26, 2012 at 4:51 pm

As a child I distinctly remember being taught about Character and Reputation as being synonymous. Perhaps from 1952-1962 this may have been somewhat true. I am not sure when the distinction between Character and Reputation became apparent to me that the two do not go hand in hand. Thank you for sharing President Lincoln’s definition, this really cleared up the difference.

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Tonia August 28, 2012 at 7:06 am

Great piece but there is something confusing me. Can you please clarify?
Since people behave differently under different circumstances how can we really tell it this is a person of good character or not? A person for instance may have hurt someone really badly and then in another case helped someone a lot . Why do we hear of really good people doing bad things? how can we really know character? please i am massively confused! help me.

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dustin September 5, 2012 at 9:11 am

well if a good person does a bad thing it is just a fault line in character if a bad person dous a bad thing it is bad character. character is really just what u do when noone is looking. if a teachers pet or an angel were to get suspended from school it was like an earth quake happend in their “characterville”
if a teachers demise or like a demon were to get suspended it was not a earth quake it is bad character.

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obermansk August 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm

My grandfather told me this gem” All men are honest until given a chance to steal with out getting caught

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Wayne Edwards September 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Character is, as mentioned, who we are and what we do when no one is looking. We all have character at any given time but when we compromise good ethical principles like The Golden Rule ie: lieing, stealing, etc, we eat away at our good character. This is where the building process takes place, rather rebuilding, as we try to cleanse our psyche of our disappointment in our self. Besides the GOlden Rule, “Harm no one” is a good guide for character enhancement.

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G.K.Chaturvei September 5, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Charector is individuality of a person. It differs from situation to another. It is not permanent feature as it is a human trait hence it modifies itself according to time. If it is static it is not a human quality .

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Wayne Edwards September 7, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Character is, I believe, a kindred spirit with Integrity. Integrity wont let you steal even though you won’t get caught, Good character is the result of strong integrity. Integrity is the tree, Character is the shadow.

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Debbye November 1, 2012 at 8:54 am

Character is all those things above, i.e. a kindred spirit with integrity, individuality of a person, who we are and what we do when no one is looking etc. and what we are inside but your reputation is how other view you (it doesn’t necessary means that’s the way you are). It could be that you have made someone angry; therefore, they spreaded lies on you to make you seem to be a bad person.

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carson January 21, 2013 at 12:18 pm

It is all of the above

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DrCoo August 8, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Its so true that some people think you are one way, but you’re not. I tried to honor people and treat them with respect, but sometimes people think I am to nice and they try to walk all over me, until I put my foot down. I thank God I have people in my life that think enough of me, to show me that I need to be respected and not mistreated.

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obermansk August 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm

no one deserves respect, the only thing you DESERVE is courtesy. you earn respect with your character!!

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Michael Josephson August 17, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Our view, a fundamental tenet of Character Counts! is every person should be treated with respect, whether they deserve it or not. How you treat someone says little about the other person and everything about you.

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Wayne Edwards August 18, 2013 at 6:27 am

I have acquaintance’s (very few) who have taken advantage of our relationship. I treat them with courtesy but I have little respect for them. Perhaps some day that may change but I have exhibited good will and now the ball is in their court.

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Claire Farnell September 10, 2013 at 3:48 am

This is a great article, emphasizing on character as one of the most must have quality of a great leader. Yes I agree that character is built throughout the years, it the sum total of all your good an bad experiences, and how you have responded to these good and the “not so good” challenges in life. A leader with a good character may not always have a great reputation- so I believe they are just synonymous but totally different in meaning . Character is how people you have interacted with view you as a person, while a reputation is something of a “hear say” it is what others think of you based on what they hear from others which may often times be true but… it may not be true at times, especially if one has bad mouthed you.

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