Does Character Matter Any Longer?

Bullying trumps virtue in today's world.

Posted Sep 01, 2019

Not long ago, civility mattered. Not that it was always practiced. There always have been scoundrels and those who are mean-spirited. Selfishness may have been lauded by some, but it was condemned by many.

Today, nothing seems to count so much as winning, no matter what the cost to one’s own character, no less to the common good. This is true both in the public sphere and the personal. Politics, in particular, seems to be dominated by a sense of triumphalism: Winning is all, compromise is for losers, and opponents are enemies.

Character once counted for a great deal. George Washington is considered our greatest president—"first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen"—because of the kind of person he was: a man widely respected for his integrity and his humility, ready to retire to his farm than become the king that some wanted. The myth created around him was that as a child, he couldn’t tell a lie. And that, for 200 years, was thought of as an admirable quality.

Ben Franklin, like Washington and many of his contemporaries, created a list of virtues to live by. They often failed to live up to the ideals; no one is perfect. But they remained the values by which they wanted to be judged.

Here is Franklin’s list. I accept most of the virtues as valid for today. Some need modification. But there isn’t one I would dismiss completely.

1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. 

2. Silence: Speak what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. 

4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful, and cut off all unnecessary actions. 

7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly. 

8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty. “To pour forth benefits to the common good is divine.” 

9. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve. 

10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation. 

11. Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. Chastity: Rarely use venery, but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation. 

13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

What are the virtues you want to live by? What are the virtues you want to see in others? As the new year begins, it is a good idea to be reminded that how we live amongst others matters.

I agree with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: “Happiness [is] the aim of life. Virtue [is] the foundation of happiness.”

If we re-center at least some of these virtues today, I believe we would all be better off and happier.