COMMENTARY: The Self-Portrait Called Character

While I was on a radio call-in show talking about cheating, a listener I’ll call Stan mocked my concern. He cheated to get into college, he said. He cheated in college to get a job. And now he occasionally cheats on his job to get ahead. In fact, he concluded, cheating is such an important life skill that parents ought to teach their kids how to cheat.

Evidence is mounting that lots of people share Stan’s amoral pragmatism. Because they define success and happiness in terms of getting what they want when they want it, ethics seems irrational. After all, in a world where cheaters so often prosper, why should anyone give up the benefits of dishonesty?

Well, for one thing, the Stans of the world have no idea the price they’re paying for the little they’re getting. A life without principles is demeaning and self-defeating. The Stans of the world are cheated as often as they cheat others. What’s more, they cheat themselves. As they scrape and struggle to fill their lives, they give up their chance to lead fulfilling lives.

The happiest people I know are those who find purpose and meaning pursuing a grander vision of a good life measured in terms of worthiness, not net worth. Virtue is not a tactic; it’s a life philosophy.

We paint the self-portrait that we call our character by our values and actions. We can choose to paint that portrait in the pale watercolors of shallow successes and short-lived pleasures or in the deep, rich oils of honor, spirituality, peace of mind, and self-respect.

The enduring impact of our choices is not what we get, but what we become.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 12

  1. What Stan fails to realize, his actions shows others what he truly is like. One day a very important person will cheat on him and he will come to realize what goes around comes around.

  2. The character of a truly evil person springs from the fact that their will is not submitted to anything higher than themselves. On the other hand, many who try to do what’s right also get into trouble because they make some good thing, even a pet ethical value, the highest good in every situation. Whatever we make the one absolute value (and by definition we can only have one absolute or highest value) becomes our god, our personal plan of salvation. For these reasons, I believe, that the only way to live a good life consistently is to put our faith in the living God and to serve Him alone. Otherwise, we become either legalistic or amoral. Only God is worthy of absolute devotion on every occasion. Every other good thing – achievement, family, social causes, ethical values – has relative, not absolute value.

    1. I agree with your remarks up to the point of “faith in a living God.” How about zealots who believe their horrific, bloodthirsty actions are sanctioned by God?

  3. Since we are all convinced that everyone thinks and acts just like us…cheaters become so busy making sure everyone else is not cheating them, they become paranoid. Their own lack of self-worth is transferred to everyone they meet. The have so little regard for others, they have little regard for themselves.

  4. When you say that the cheaters cheat themselves, that is so true. They cheat themselves because they look for ways to get ahead by cheating, rather than by honest hard work, and so they miss out on the achievements that they could obtain if only they made an honest effort. An example: A lawyer won a case with untrue facts, if only he had done some research, he would have discovered that there was a legal basis for the case and won it legitimately. He cheated himself out of this achievement and the reputation for excellence that it would have brought. People who cheat in the view of their children, rob them of the success that hard work brings when one is committed to succeeding without dishonesty.

  5. Cheating – I remember the shock and disappointment I had when my grandson in the third grade would go to the back pages of his school text book to find the answers to the work sheet questions. The publishers had included the “Cheat Sheet” in the school books. My grandson also informed me that many of the computer games he played had “Cheat Sheets” that provided back doors to winning the games. I’m sure this does serve the goal of teaching our children something, I’ just not sure I’m comfortable with what they are being taught.

  6. If you think about it, cheating only works if others DON’T cheat. If everyone did it, as the Stans of the world claim, there would be no advantage. So when people say cheating is OK because “everybody does it”, it’s just a rationalization to cover up selfishness. And consider: If cheating WERE to become standard, you could trust no one, and you’d always have to watch your back. What kind of a world would that be?

  7. Dear Michael,
    Ethics, morals, values, basic s tuff we hope our children learn from us , value and practice. W e are told that we, as parents, have more influence on our children then their peers. And I have learned that is true in the long run. S hort term it

  8. Thank you for an excellent article. Cheating affects us all. When someone cheats, we all pay a price in reduced credibility and more regulations to control what begins as the actions of a few.

  9. Thank you, Michael, for your comments. Stan may sneer, and his selfishness may indeed always secure material advantages for him, but I believe that he is in the minority. Most people could not live with themselves if they behaved without respect for others.

  10. Truth is our society encourages and rewards cheaters. The ends justifies the means rules the day. In the sporting world, with rare exception, cheaters are not given a meaningful consequence. Those that cheated because of illegal use of steroids or deflating footballs or what have you, are typically not given a consequence that would discourage others from cheating. Championships and records are not taken away and are substituted by fines or other penalties that do not deter others from similar actions. In the world of legal justice [some] attorneys believe that their perceived allegiance to their client justifies dishonesty to the court to accomplish a victory for their client. These are the types of role models that our youth and young professionals have to contend with when discerning how to conduct their affairs. As long as society condones the cheater with less than meaningful consequences cheaters can and will prosper.

  11. And what ugly portraits they are painting in Chicago when parents and children (with their parent’s support) claim to be “unfairly” deprived of the Little League Championship because of cheating. The children are innocent? Not when they are told, and believe, they “deserve” the ill-gotten fruits of cheating. Character must be nurtured before it counts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *