What Does “Character” Even Mean?

Defining What We All Say We Care About

Consider some famous names from the business world in recent years. Bernie Madoff. Ken Lay. Bernie Ebbers. What do they all have in common? One thing is that they each demonstrated a tremendous failure of character. They acted viciously with no signs of a moral compass, and as a result, they destroyed their companies and their professional lives.

Character exists and character matters. A person with a bad character can poison a workplace, alienate clients, and even bankrupt a company. But what is character? And what constitutes a good character?

I am a philosopher who has worked on the topic of character for over ten years. I have found that unless we have clarified what we are talking about, we run the risk of inviting confusion and talking at cross-purposes. For instance, I have had people think that all I do is study characters in novels and plays! Not at all. Rather, what I study are real-life situations where traits of character like honesty, compassion, laziness, creativity, open-mindedness, and pride can come into play.

Character traits like these lead us to think, feel, and act in certain ways. As an example, take someone who is cold-hearted. When he sees children or animals suffering, he has feelings of indifference. He might think that they deserve what they are getting, or that there is nothing he can do for them, or that he has more important things to worry about. So he proceeds to ignore their situation. Not just one time, either. Day after day, and in all kinds of places like the subway, the park, the sidewalk, the beach, and so forth. His cold-heartedness is a part of his character that leads him to think, feel, and act in these ways.

All traits are not equal

There are two main kinds of character traits—the ones that have to do with being a morally good or bad person, and the ones that do not. Clearly, honesty contributes to being a good person, and dishonesty contributes to being a bad person. But consider creativity. By itself, it could be used in either a good or bad way. Someone may creatively come up with new solutions to problems of famine or opioid addiction. Or someone might creatively come up with new ways to torture innocent people or develop weapons of mass destruction.

The business world tends to highly value many of these morally-neutral character traits because of the contributions they can make to the success of a company. Creativity, for instance, is often rewarded by employers. So too are dedication, perseverance, diligence, industriousness, grit, reliability, punctuality, and charm. With good reason, as they are positive traits on economic grounds. Just think of their opposites and what having employees with those character traits would be like.

Yet each one of these traits can be used for moral good or bad. This is why someone could be reliable, punctual, diligent, and dedicated, and still be the next Bernie Madoff or Ken Lay. There is nothing about these traits that keeps an employee’s self-interest and desire for personal gain in check.

Alongside the morally-neutral character traits, it is also important to pay attention to the morally-relevant traits too. They come in two varieties—the moral virtues and the moral vices.

Here are examples of each:

Moral Virtues: Honesty, compassion, justice, gratitude, and forgiveness.
Moral Vices: Dishonesty, cold-heartedness, injustice, ungratefulness, and resentfulness.

The moral virtues are excellences that we should strive to cultivate. The moral vices are the very opposite. So what does it take to be a virtuous person who has these moral virtues? And what signs can we (and companies) look for when trying to find people who have them? Rather than give an abstract answer, let me use an imaginary example involving Samantha and the virtue of honesty.

Samantha works in a high-level position, which gives her access to the company’s finances and entrusts her with its tax reporting to the federal government. Now suppose we only know one thing more about Samantha. As she was leaving the office last night, she had a chance to take home some office supplies for personal use, but she did not. Is that enough for us to conclude that she is an honest person?

Clearly not. For we do not know whether she is taking home supplies on plenty of other nights. An honest person exhibits honesty stably over time.

So let’s change the example. Suppose she never takes home any office supplies, even when she could really use them at home. Does that do the trick?

Again, clearly not. For we do not know whether she is dishonest in other areas of her work life. She might, for instance, cheat on the company’s tax reporting to the government, or engage in insider trading. An honest person exhibits honesty across the different situations where honesty is called for.

So let’s change the example again. Now we can suppose that Samantha never steals supplies from the company, never fudges the company’s tax reporting, never pilfers any of its money, never lies to co-workers in harmful ways, and so on. How does that sound?

Still not good enough. A virtue like honesty is not relegated just to one’s work life. It is supposed to extend to all areas of one’s life—home, work, school, recreation, and all the rest. It even applies to being honest with oneself and avoiding self-deception.

Again we can change the example, and add that Samantha rarely cheats and lies in morally problematic ways throughout the entire course of her life. Surely we are done, right? Now we have an honest person.

Sadly, the answer is not necessarily.

Motivation matters

At this point, motivation enters the picture. Why is Samantha acting this way? If it is because she is afraid of what might happen to her if she is caught cheating or lying, then that is not a virtuous motive. Same thing if her main motivation has to do with making a good impression on others, trying to get ahead, or even trying to earn rewards in the afterlife. These are all motives that are egoistic or entirely self-focused. They do not count as virtuous motives, and the moral virtues require virtuous motives.

What would be a better motive? Well, if she chooses not to lie to her friend because she cares about her friend, that is virtuous. And if she decides not to steal from the company because she thinks that stealing is wrong, that is virtuous. And if she judges that it is best to not deceive her co-worker because she values the truth, that is virtuous. What these all have in common is that they are not focused on what would benefit her.

I have gone on about this example because it illustrates some of the complexity involved in being an honest person. Plus, the lessons learned about honesty can apply to the other moral virtues as well. I sum these lessons up this way:

Central features of a virtue

  • Leads to good actions that are appropriate to the particular situation.
  • Leads to good actions throughout the various kinds of situations that are related to the particular virtue.
  • Leads to actions that are done for the appropriate reasons or motives.
  • Leads to a pattern of motivation and action that is stable and reliable over time.

Here is another lesson from this discussion. Being a good (i.e., virtuous) person is hard. We should not assume that most people have met these requirements. Indeed, we should probably assume at the outset that most people have not.

Fortunately, character can change. Who we are morally speaking is not set in stone. Progress is typically slow and gradual, but it is still progress. And while perfect virtue may be unattainable for us mere mortals, virtue comes in degrees and we can strive to get better and better.

It is the task of a lifetime, but there are few which are more worthy of our time and effort.

Join the conversation on Facebook