The Enlightenment and Industrial revolution radically changed the way we understood right and wrong. The Zeitgeist of the time demanded that everything in the world should be reducible to simple formulas and mathematical proofs. Even morality was reduced to a series of if-then statements and abstract rules that were totally alien to the way we believed and acted before that time.
In the Western world before the dawn of mechanistic thinking we embraced what is often called by philosophers as the ethic of character as the primary way of being a moral person. The ethic of character can be formulated something like this:
No person is a lone individual: their upbringing, their actions, their well-being, their good or bad, only happens inside a community. You cannot be good or evil until your actions affect other people. You are a part of society, and can’t be considered outside of it.
Thus what makes you good or evil is what you have to contribute, and whether you make the world around you a better place or a worse one. This comes from a combination of actions and attitudes alike, rather than being a simple matter of how you behave in extraordinary circumstances.
It is difficult to break down all the things that go into good character as the ancient philosopehrs like Socraties, Plato, Aristotle, or Augustine had described them, but some common themes of Character are the following.
Honesty: No one can trust a thief or a liar, you never know what their real intentions are. Nor can they trust someone who is so selfish that they won’t deal in good faith. Honesty is more than not telling lies, however, it is about sharing information you think is important and avoiding self-deception.
Leadership: Being willing to take charge – to put the needs of the group before your own, and to ensure that everyone gets the best deal, rather than looking only to your own advantage. No one is expected to be the leader the whole time, but as you have unique talents and perspective, sometimes you will be the best person for the job.
Responsibility: Willing to take ownership of your tasks, and to get them done. This also means willingness to take ownership of your mistakes, and let go of the need for blame, blame helps no one and creates bad blood in a group. Willingness to accept the results of your actions, on the other hand, means others can trust you to do your best, improve, and make amends – which means even when you do make serious mistakes you will be given more chances.
Courage: Courage is the willingness to put yourself in the way of harm, not just physical harm, but social embarrassment or emotional hurt. Sometimes to make sure the right thing is done you have to speak out even when it is unpopular to do so.
Compassion: Empathy is a skill that can be learned, and pays in dividends, even for someone in a competitive situation. No one likes to be treated poorly or rudely. In a large group, the person who is capable of understanding another’s rights and needs, and is disposed to help will always be welcome, and the group will thrive as a while by embracing him.
Passion: People respect and admire passion. When a person does not care about what he does or the community he is in, it suggests that he doesn’t really care. Failure to invest shows that you are seeking an exit rather than doing your best possible job.
Humility: If you are both honest and courageous, you understand where you are lacking, where you could learn more, and that there is always room to change. A person who seeks to grow becomes progressively better at everything they do; he remains humble and gains greater compassion for others who are going through the same process.
Excellence: Of all the values of character this is the one that has most vanished in the world of mechanistic ethics. Each person has specific talents and gifts that are unique to them; certain strengths and skills that come naturally. Making the most of those gifts – striving to be the best in your field, to bring creativity into what you do, being open to growth, and passing on what you know – ensures that you are a boon to your community. Playing to your strengths and owning your weaknesses (rather than spending your energy on trying to have no weaknesses) is the way to make the most of your life.
Trust: Being able to trust others is necessary to be able to truly be a part of the community around you. If you cannot trust, you cut yourself off from compassion. You become constantly vigilant against hurts from others, and feel as though you have been wronged; this leads to selfishness, pettiness, and anger. You also try and be everything to yourself rather than excelling in your strengths and allowing others to do the same for you.
Character is also not a perfect ideal: you are not expected to conform to the greatness of one leader, or to be a hero. It asks you to do the best with what you have got for the sake of others, and trust them to do the same. It allows for flaws, and rewards people for striving, rather than for being perfect.
One of the greatest flaws with our modern mechanistic system, is that it doesn’t say anything about the quality of the person – nobody feels a need to cultivate their best possible selves, because they aren’t told that it is part of being a good person. It is possible for a person to live a life without excellence, without courage, and without passion in such a system – meaning that person has not lived life to its fullest most joyous potential.
It also means that people can be petty, arrogant, untrusting, unkind, selfish, and dishonest, but still be held up as a good person because they never did anything to hurt others. That has allowed us to create our current culture of dog-eat-dog elitism, in which a few people can be allowed to rise to the top by ruthlessly stepping on others, and be considered a moral authority, based on something like their financial or political success.
If there is one thing I took away from my study of philosophy it is this: some actions and ways of thinking/behaving will make you happy, and others will make you miserable. Even if you don’t believe that there is some reward for being good – no heaven or enlightenment – being part of a close and community that is full of trust and compassion is a reward unto itself.
Happiness is found in other people, in experiences you can share, and in moments of intimacy, not in the knowledge that when Y happened you did X. Focus on character is the surest way to ensure that you will have it to share.
On Monday I discussed the idea of judgement and learning to use it. I mentioned that once you accept that judgement is a valuable skill, and sometimes it must be passed in order to ensure the best experience in life, you also have to be willing to be judged, and ensure that when people judge you, they do so favourably. Cultivating character is perhaps the most effective way of doing that, whatever your moral beliefs ultimately are.
I believe that Character is an idea whose time has come again. As we struggle to be good men in an increasingly complicated and changing world, the rigid ethical systems we have created are bringing more problems than they are solving. We are saturated with confusing ideas and bad advice about how to be a good person that often comes out of someone else’s agenda, and advantages them, often by convincing us to act in our own best interest. Character is a tool that ensures, whatever we might do, we are doing it from a place of honesty and compassion, and one that is meant to make us happy – without stepping on others to attain it.
I want to post a challenge to you – for the next month, rather than worry about whether you are doing what’s right or wrong in the usual way you are used to, evaluate your actions on the basis of whether it helps you build and maintain strong character. At the end of the month, assess: how did you behave? How did others respond? Are you happier than you were pursuing the old model?