What Ever Happened to Good Character?

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” - Abraham Lincoln

Character used to be revered, as were those guided by principles, moral strength, and integrity to do the right thing.  It was something you cultivated, acquired and cherished. But sometime in the 20th century, striving for character got shelved for striving for success.  We got more interested in the shadow than the tree.

The website, Art of Manliness, has an insightful article about the decline of character, citing the work of cultural historian Warren Susman. Susman explains that the idea of character was replaced during the industrial revolution with the idea of personality.  He noted that ideas on improving the self changed from “emphasizing moral imperatives and work to personal fulfillment and self-actualization. The vision of self-sacrifice began to yield to that of self-realization.”

Perhaps we shun character improvement because it requires too much fundamental work on the self; instead of spit shining who we are to gloss up appearances, we must work to change what we value and who we are in order to give back to the world and find deeper meaning.

But the reality of character still remains and we are still judged by it. Steven Covey, explains here on Youtube, the core difference between character ethics vs. personality ethics.  He says the personality ethic is technique “how to appear to be instead of how to actually be.” He continues to explain, “Character ethic depends on deep changes within each of us, while the personality ethic falls back on methods or techniques. The personality ethic does not challenge us; neither does it bring about deep changes within us.”

“The techniques and personality ethics are the tip of the iceberg, but character is the great mass of the iceberg, but … the foundation must be changed. When we use techniques to cover our lack of character, then they’re manipulative. We need the character ethic. We need the inside out approach.”

If this character vs. personality idea seems simple to you, know that it’s greatly misunderstood by young people. According to the non-profit character promoting organization, CITRS, the Josephson Institute of Ethics, found that 70% of the high school students surveyed admitted that they cheat in school, but 97% said that it is important for a person to have good character. When asked if they themselves were people of good character, 91% said that they were, even though 70% of those asked had admitted to cheating.   

Is it any wonder our kids are confused, when our politicians, Wall street bankers and celebrities run their character amok and yet live prosperous, successful lives? These kids cheat no doubt to “get ahead” and not disappoint.  They need to get into good colleges, maintain their reputations, and so character loses out then to a success and personality ethic.

Next time you work on improving a part of yourself, be sure and ask, does this improve my character? Is this about my habits, motives, thoughts and morality? Or am I simply working on personality ethics such as being more optimistic or confident?

If you need more clarification about what constitutes character, check out this comprehensive list of Character Traits from Character-Training.com, which includes traits (like courage, humility, decisiveness) and their definitions.

In the end, know that success will be fleeting, elusive or hollow if it’s not driven by character.

Human Unlimited
Human Unlimited