Ethics Matters: What is character?

The legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach, John Wooden, once urged the following: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous I Have a Dream speech said these words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” These are but two well-known and wise references to character, and we could recount many other similar comments about this well-known concept. But, although the term character is mentioned frequently, it is much less often actually defined.

So, what is character, and how does it come about in a person? Allow me to offer a preliminary definition, which might be helpful, if only as a stimulus to further and deeper reflection and conversation.

“Character” may be defined as a person’s ability to know the morally correct course of conduct and to act consistently and habitually on that knowledge. A person of good moral character is one who possesses at least the following four moral virtues/habits). Courage is the mastery of one’s fear; the ability to act and do the right thing despite one’s fear. Temperance is the ability to exercise self-control and moderation; self-discipline. Justice is the trait of knowing what others deserve and being able to give it to them; giving others their due. Prudence is the habit of knowing what the reasonable and correct thing to do is in a particular situation, and not of simply being aware of the general rules of conduct.

Of the four virtues, prudence is perhaps the most subtle and difficult to define. This is so because it guides our practical reason not only to identify our true good in each particular situation but also to select the right means to achieve it. It has been said that prudent people look where they are going. It is the virtue that allows us to apply moral standards to particular cases with confidence about the good to be achieved and the evil to be avoided. In other words, prudence helps the mind to identify the right thing to do and to select the correct way to attain it. Acting prudently requires, among other things, a good memory, since it involves seeking good advice while utilizing knowledge from both the past and the present.

What we may conclude from this discussion is that character is not merely a descriptive notion, but it has also, and more importantly, a prescriptive and evaluative dimension. When we talk about character, we are not so much describing a state of affairs as we are stating how things ought to be, how persons ought to act and behave and what sorts of habits of conduct, or traits of character, they should try to cultivate.

It was Aristotle who was one of the first thinkers to identify the four main moral virtues listed above and to argue that they were the sorts of good habits that enabled human beings to act in line with their specific purpose as beings endowed with reason, which he defined as the ability to think things through before acting. For him, the four moral virtues were habits to be developed in order that human beings could live lives guided by reason, by means of which they could know and choose the appropriate middle ground between “excess” (i.e., going too far) and “deficiency” (i.e., not going far enough) in their desires, feelings, and actions.

St. Thomas Aquinas, a Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages, accepted the view that reason, and the four cardinal virtues, should guide human behavior. But, shepherded by his Christian faith, he added that while the short-term purpose of persons is the exercise of reason in this world, their ultimate purpose is union with God in the afterlife. Accordingly, he added to these four moral virtues the three “theologi¬cal” (i.e., Christian) virtues of faith, hope, and charity, because it is through these virtues that a person is able to achieve salvation.

These seven virtues, along with a commitment to the relevant moral standards, he believed would make it possible for persons successfully and morally to decide how to conduct themselves. And perhaps there is no better armament for us to employ when confronting life’s challenges, however small or large they might be.

Roman Ciapalo, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the Andrew P. Studdert Chair of Business Ethics and Crisis Leadership at Loras College.

About Loras College
Founded in 1839, Loras College leverages its historic roots as Iowa’s first college, the second oldest Catholic college west of the Mississippi River and one of the nation’s 10 diocesan colleges to deliver challenging, life-changing experiences as part of its residential, Catholic setting. In 2019, Loras was the second-highest ranked Catholic college in the state of Iowa according to College Consensus, the 16th Best Regional College in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report and one of America’s Top 200 Most Loved Colleges/Universities by Forbes Magazine for the third consecutive year. Loras students ranked No. 2 in the world as part of the global Peeptrade Investment Challenge while a second group ranked No. 4. For the 10th consecutive year, Loras Media Studies student-led television station (LCTV) was named the TV Station of the Year by the Iowa College Media Association (ICMA).