Human achievements cannot be measured simply in terms of wealth, power or fame. Such accomplishments belong to a small group of elites who are blessed with special talents and good fortunes. Basking in the glory of success and wielding immense influence, they are idolized, envied or feared, but not trusted.

According to Viktor Frankl, great human achievements can also come from great suffering. Ordinary people can become extraordinary heroes when they maintain their spiritual freedom, human dignity, and compassionate heart in the midst of unimaginable horrors. They witness to us that the defiant human spirit and character strength can carry us through impossible circumstances. They achieve greatness not through talents but through perseverance. Overcomers like Dr. Frankl evoke our affection and trust, because they inspire us to live with greater courage and optimism.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from a troubled parent. After reading my article on the pervasive problem of terror and violence, he asked: “What can I do to protect my children and bring them up in such a dark and dangerous world?” I have been wrestling with this haunting question ever since.

After much reflection, I can think of only one answer – character. Nothing can be compared with character in terms of lasting values. If we can instill in our children the kind of unassailable character and moral fortitude exemplified by Viktor Frankl in Nazi concentration camps, we have given them what is needed to survive the worst of adversities.

In praise of character

At the end of one’s journey, when the applauses or jeers become distant memories, when victories and defeats no longer matter, all we possess is our character. In spite of our flaws and failures, if we are able to keep our integrity intact throughout the bruising battles, we can die with a smile on our lips and peace in our hearts.

Good character is like a rare pearl, a precious diamond – it takes years to form and develop. According to a Chinese proverb, pure gold fears no fire; character is gold. Character cannot be overrated, because as individuals and as a species, our survival and success depend on it.

The price of character is high, but the cost of failure in character is even higher. Character defies the odds, sets us free from all the deterministic forces, protects civil society against all the corrupting influences and assures that good will triumph over evil. It is character that steers us through troubled waters and deadly minefields. Character is the foundation for all virtues, and the basis for all enduring and caring relationships. Character is the pinnacle of spiritual achievement and it defines the best of humanity. Above all, character is priceless – it is the only property that cannot be acquired by money or force; it can only be developed through a lifetime of cultivating spiritual and moral habits.

The greatest need for every generation

In every generation and every nation, our greatest need is men and women of good character, who dare to do what is right, choose the road least traveled and follow a higher calling. They are the light and salt of the world; for without them, there would be no way to stop those with unbridled ambitions, insatiable greed and unmatched intellect for evil. Only character is capable of opposing wholesale degradation. Only character can transform an open sewage into a fountain of life-sustaining water.

What kind of quality do you want to see in your president, pastor, partner, physician, or any person of significance in your life? Who do you want to trust with your life and children? People with character!

The real character difference

Character makes all the difference in real life situations. Without it, intelligence, competence, courage, creativity, resourcefulness, even love could all be used to exploit others and perpetrate evil. For example, one can be an intelligent crook, a loving seducer or a courageous murderer.

Often, we have to devise defensive strategies and plan for the worst, because we have been betrayed and burnt far too many times. We can relax and enjoy the relationship, only when we are working with someone with sterling character. The quality of life for both individuals and society depends on the character of its citizens.

But what is character anyway?

But what is character anyway? If we don’t know how to define it, how can we tell whether someone is an honest man or a con? Often, we require a character reference or a letter of introduction, but we can never be sure that it is not just hogwash. There are serious obstacles when we attempt to identify the touchstones.

How do we define character?

Broadly speaking, character refers to some trait or personal quality that distinguishes one person from another. It is similar to personality, except that character has moral connotations, such as good character or bad character.

There is considerable agreement regarding the cluster of virtues that make up good character. Dictionary definition tends to emphasize strength of mind, resolution, independence, and moral quality of individuals. National Character Education Center has chosen seven core ethical values for character education: positive mental attitude, respect, integrity, compassion, cooperation, perseverance, and initiative. Similarly, Josephson (2002) identifies six pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. He believes that these are universal values that can improve the ethical quality of our decisions and lives.

From the perspective of positive psychology rather than character education, Peterson and Seligman (2004) provide a complete list of 6 key virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and spirituality. These general virtues appear to be universal. There are 24 subcomponents of character strengths, which can be grouped according to the six virtues. They believe that these virtues and character strengths can be measured scientifically and enhanced through interventions.

Does character exist?

But many psychologists even question the usefulness of the concept of character or personality trait. They think that it is just some sort of imaginary attribute of folk psychology. They believe that it is more helpful both scientifically and practically to identify the situations which are conducive to ethical behaviors.

In her book “Lack of Character“, Doris (2002) documents research findings regarding the inconsistency and fragmentation of character. Kunda (1999) in his social psychology textbook also concludes that there is no empirical evidence to support the idea that broad and stable personality traits manifest themselves in a variety of situations. In other words, honest people may lie in some situations, and generous people can behave selfishly under some conditions.

My rejoinder is that we need to take the findings of social psychology experiments with a grain of salt. When I was teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, my colleague Dr. Elliot Aronson, a prominent social psychologist, used to say that if the cover story and the manipulation were very clear and compelling, social psychologist could get just about any result they wanted from their subjects.

Since how people behave in a psychology experiment in most cases do not have serious consequences on their lives, they may act out of character and yield to the perceived demand characteristics of the experimental situation (i.e., behaving according to what they think the researchers want them to do). Therefore, experiments which demonstrate the lack of consistency in character traits do not necessarily prove that these traits do not exist in real life.

Dr. Jackyll and Mr. Hyde

Another common argument is that there is really no such thing as good character or bad character, because everyone has both a good side and a dark side. Given the same set of circumstances everyone can become a Hitler, serial killer, or an abusive prison guard. Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Research and Philip G. Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment.

Milgram’s research demonstrates that most college students (serving as experimental subjects) were willing to obey orders from an authority figures (researchers in white lab coats) and delivered harmful electric shock (up to 450 volts) to a “learner” strapped in a chair with an electrode placed on his arm. The cover story was that it was a study about the effect of punishment on learning, and the subject was to deliver a shock in increasing levels of voltage for every mistake the “learner” made in a memory-learning task. Even when the “leaner” (who is actually an actor) appeared to be in great distress, the subject continued to deliver shock even when the level of voltage is labeled “danger: severe shock”.

The findings show that about 65% of all of the subjects punished the “learners” to the maximum level of 450 volts. The moral of Milgram’s obedience experiments is that the average person can do horrible things to another human being in obedience to authority.

In Zimbardo’s simulated prison experiment, college students who played the role of prison guards who were to keep order of their “prisoners”, who were paid volunteers. Within less than a week, students became increasingly aggressive and abusive towards the “prisoners”. Their dehumanizing and degrading treatments of prisoners included forcing them to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands and acting out degrading scenarios, similar to the recent abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

The experiment had to be aborted prematurely because the prison guards quickly descended into depravity and the prisoners showed signs of extreme stress. The lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment was that given a situation that allows dehumanization, depersonalization, and abuse of power, an average college student can become a sadistic monster.

These two lines of research demonstrate again the power of demand characteristics of social experiments I have just described. But more importantly, they also demonstrate the dangerous potential for abuse inherent in authority and power. However, these findings do not prove that given similar life circumstances, everyone could become a Hitler or sadistic murderer. In fact, not every student in Milgram’s study fully obeyed the researcher’s order, and someone involved in Zimbardo’s study actually stopped the experiment by protesting against it.

Viktor Frankl has demonstrated that circumstances do not determine people; they only disclose their character. The average individual may indeed fall prey to the oppressive situational demands, but there are always some brave souls who shine in the midst of darkness. It is precisely the kind of situations simulated by Milgram and Zimbardo that would separate out real precious stones from gravel. The amazing thing is that often those who consider themselves the paragon of morality actually fall apart under pressure, while some “little guys” may be surprised to discover their own moral fortitude in times of crisis. It is trial by fire that reveals whether one life foundation is made of wood and straw or gold and silver.

How is character formed?

By and large, character is not something that just happens by decree or happenstance. Nor is it acquired through instructions of moral precepts. Like an oak tree, it takes time and weathering through the storms to grow character. Helen Keller says it well: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Many have bemoaned the death of character in today’s school systems and society at large (e.g., Hunter, 2000; Krasko, 2004). Recognizing the importance of character and virtue in a democratic society, Sir John Templeton Foundation supports a wide range of programs and publications to promote character education. Today, there are several organizations dedicated to character development, such as Character Education Partnership.

Character education

The general philosophy of character education is that students need to understand a set of core values, such as empathy and caring; practice these pro-social behaviors, live according to these core values. Thus, whether they are making decisions, and resolving problems, their actions and reactions follow their core values. If children begin to learn and practice positive values through instructions, modeling and daily practice, they will grow in character

Character education will work only when both home and school support the practice of ethical core values. It requires that both parents and teachers to model moral character. Unfortunately, in a free market society of cut-throat competition, where expedience is more important than principles and short-term gains are valued more than long-term relationships, it is very difficult to find individuals with character.

Bitter experiences of betrayal

I believe that all of us have tasted the bitter experiences of betrayal by best friends, business partners or even spouse. How can we be sure that someone is trustworthy? Where can we find individuals with sterling character?

A friend of mine trusts his partner and best friend to invest large sums of money overseas only to learn later on that the money has disappeared together with his partner. I know of many similar cases where people sell their souls for money.

Years ago, I was very impressed with one young man, who appeared to possess both competence and character. I invested many years mentoring him and grooming him for leadership positions. At the end, when he thinks that he is strong enough to be on his own, he turns on me and acts in a very mean and unethical manner. This remains one of my most painful experiences. I regret that I did not listen to my wife who warned me from the very beginning that this young man was arrogant, stubborn and self-centered; she has a much better track record than I in judging a person’s character!

How do we identify character strengths?

Is there a way to identify individuals with character? Perhaps, we can develop valid and reliable instruments to measure various character strengths. However, I have two major concerns with the self-report questionnaire approach. First, people may simply fake good and give socially desirable responses. Second, character strengths typically manifest themselves in trying circumstances. Therefore, questions about how individuals typically react in normal situations may not capture the essence of character.

Here are a few behavioral tests which may serve as touchstones of character strengths. Assuming that the best way to define character as integrity tried by fire, we need to focus on how individuals behave and react to situations that contain elements of adversity or temptation. I propose that following tests of character strengths.

Persistence test

What is their track record of overcoming setbacks and obstacles to get the job done? How many times have they quit a job when it became difficult? What is their track record of remaining true to their prior commitments even when the situation turns unfavorable? Are they able to perform their tasks faithfully in obscurity and without any reward? Are they willing to go through the necessary stages of drudgery without complaint, without quitting? Do they have the patience to master the small tasks first before taking on the big task? Do they have a high frustration tolerance threshold?

Honesty test

Do they lie to get out of a jam or to gain personal advantages? Do they alter what they have just said, when they sense that their statement is not well received? Do they often say, “I didn’t really mean that” or “You have misunderstood what I have just said”? Do they steal other people’s credits for success but blame others for failures? Are they willing to admit their mistakes and apologize? Do they practice deception and ingratiation in order to get what they want? Do they keep on shifting their positions like the weather vane?

Secrecy test

When no one is watching, do they act contrary to their own professed values? What TV programs do they watch and what websites do they visit when they are shielded by the privacy of their own room? What secret deals do they cut behind the back of their partners? Do they secretly pursue their personal agenda using company time?

Loyalty test

When their friends are in trouble, do they distant themselves so that they won’t be implicated? Do they betray their friends for personal gains? Do they sell out to the highest bidder? Do they risk their own necks to defend a friend who has been unfairly treated? Do they value friendship and maintain good relationship for long periods of time?

Power test

When they are in position of authority, how do they treat their subordinates and their superiors? Do they blindly obey their boss and demand blind obedience from their own subordinates? How do they treat those who have the courage and integrity to disagree with their bad decisions?

Value tests

Given a value-conflict situation, do they behave according to their professed core ethical values and get demoted, or do they endorse unethical practices in order to get promoted? Do their make decisions that according to cores values or according to expediency? Are their behaviors consistent with their mission statement?

Caring test

Do they make time to care for other people who need help? Do they demonstrate empathy when a colleague is in trouble with the boss? Do they care about other people’s feelings and sensitivities? Are they mean to people? Do they simply use people as instruments and stepping stones? Do they contribute regularly to charity? Are they concerned about social issues such as poverty, discrimination, and victimization?

Conclusion

It should not be too difficult to conduct the above seven tests of character strengths through “behavioral” interviews, observations or “candid camera” setups. If we pay attention to how people behave in trying situations, we have a better chance of identifying individuals with character.

Even Jesus had to pass three temptations before his public ministry: He was tempted to turn stones into bread, jump down from the highest point of the temple, and finally worship the devil to gain power and wealth. He was tempted like we are in all three areas: physical needs, spiritual pride, and worldly ambition, but he did not sin. Temptation reveals our true nature. How do you fare in coping with temptations? Do you have the character to withstand the endless barrage of trial and tribulation?

Character is essentially a collection of habits. What matters most in character formation is not religious belief, nor head knowledge of moral precepts, but the consistent habit of doing the right thing in difficult situations. What really counts is the consistent discipline of making ethical decisions in good times and bad times. It is through consistent moral and spiritual habits that we develop and reveal our character.

References:

Doris, J. (2002). Lack of character: Personality and moral behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Krasko, G.L. (2004). This unbearable boredom of being: A crisis of meaning in America. New York: iUniverse, Inc.

Hunter, J. (2001). The death of character: On the moral education of American children. New York: Basic Books.

Josephson, M. (2002). Making ethical decisions. Marina del Rey, CA: Josephson Institute of Ethics. Retrieved on October 11, 2005 from
http://www.josephsoninstitute.org/MED/MED-2sixpillars.htm

Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition; Making sense of people. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Wellington Square, UK: Oxford University Press.