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So What Is 'Moral Character'?

It's much more than being merely consistent or predictable

By Anne Colby and William Damon / November 1, 1996



So far this political season, efforts by Republicans to make "character" a winning campaign issue have fallen flat with Americans who seem mostly interested in preserving their recent economic good fortune. Character, it would seem, is a less valuable political commodity than a promise of financial security.

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All of this, of course, buys into the widely shared belief that the Republican candidate in this presidential election has character on his side. This belief, rarely contested by spokespersons for either party, follows logically enough from the common assumption that character means, above all, consistency and predictability: that is, when people change directions, they are said to lack character. Some commentators also add a moralistic flavor to the mix: A person of character is one who maintains purity in sexual matters and looks with righteous condemnation on the use of illegal substances.

The Republicans are right in their efforts to give character a more prominent seat at the table. But perhaps they would have more success if they were working with a more complete formulation of the qualities that constitute character. A better definition would likely generate a deeper, more compelling public debate.

It is certainly true that consistency is an important part of character. But consistency does not mean simply doing or saying the same thing over and over again. Conditions change; people discover that what once was right may now be wrong; and sometimes, if they are honest with themselves, they determine that they may have been wrong and may need to change course.

Moral character is consistent in three ways that are far more important than maintaining over time exactly the same position on the issues.

1. Consistency between actions and ideals. Does a person consistently act in a way that reflects his or her moral ideals? Does the person persistently try to accomplish his or her most cherished moral goals?

2. Consistency between the ends that a person pursues and the means used to get there. Does the person espouse high-minded, noble ends and then employ corrupt or inhumane methods to achieve them? Or does the person stay within the bounds of honesty and common decency in pursuit of the laudable aspirations?

3. Consistency of commitment to a moral purpose. Is there a steady commitment that can overcome obstacles, such as the lack of popular support and other difficulties? Does the person stick with the commitment through thick and thin? Is the person willing to risk his or her own self-interest for the sake of deeply held moral principles and ideals?

Consistent with what?

Consistency of these sorts is crucial, but it is not sufficient for defining good moral character. We also must ask: consistent with what? This question is not asked often enough in public discussions about the character of political leaders. A person of character shows a steady commitment not just to anything, but to moral ideals or principles that are founded on a generalized respect for humanity. Such a commitment entails a genuine concern for social justice and for the well-being of all citizens, including the poor and disenfranchised. In order to evaluate a candidate's moral character, we need to think about exactly what he or she is advocating or pursuing - that is, the substance of his or her positions, and the range of his or her social concerns.

Humility: an important ingredient

There is one more ingredient that must be added to the concept of character, one that's often left out because it seems so out of step with many prominent leaders in the modern world. Yet many great leaders, such as George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi have shown how important this can be for the societies they influence. This important ingredient is sometimes called "humility," but is probably better phrased as a balanced sense of perspective about one's own place in the world. Leaders with Napoleonic complexes (and that includes Napoleon himself) need not apply.

To us, these criteria are not hypothetical. We have found these characteristics among moral leaders in virtually every kind of community in this country, from Harlem and Watts, rural Virginia, Vermont and Texas, to the power centers of Washington and corporate America.

In "Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitment," we have told the story of 23 American women and men, all leaders with extraordinary moral character. We saw these people making astonishing differences in people's lives, often working under the most difficult conditions imaginable.

These people did not give up their effectiveness by virtue of their dedication to moral principles, by their refusal to use improper means to achieve their ends, or by their sense of perspective on their own limitations. On the contrary, each of these qualities of character enhanced the power of their work.

So we return to our initial question about the importance of character in candidates for public office. Character is not only important, it is essential. Indeed, it should be our first consideration in choosing a leader. But character does not boil down to simplistic formulas regarding one-dimensional consistency or moralistic purity. If we are to evaluate the character of a political candidate, we must rigorously evaluate what the candidate stands for and the means by which it is pursued. We must examine the candidate's stated and unstated motives, especially those revealed by the candidate's track record of difficult and unpopular choices.

The candidate who has most consistently pursued a humane concern for all citizens and placed principle over self-interest and the good of society over personal self-promotion or partisan politics will be the one who gets our vote.

*Anne Colby is director of the Henry A. Murray Research Center of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., and William Damon is professor of education and Mittlemann Family Director of the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University in Providence, R.I.