The Character We Had; The Character We Need Again

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of character these days; the kind of character where individuals choose principle over expediency; who stand up for what’s right rather than give into fear or worse, silence.

“The Death of Socrates,” by Jacques Louis David–The Greek philosopher Socrates (469–399 B.C.) was convicted of impiety by the Athenian courts; rather than renounce his beliefs, he died willingly, discoursing on the immortality of the soul before drinking poisonous hemlock.

What we know of the Greek philosopher Socrates comes from his greatest student, Plato.

Socrates believed that “to know the good is to do the good.” He believed that ethical truth was absolute and understandable, much like the truths of mathematics; that if we taught these truths, people would then “…do the good.”

People of character know the difference between right and wrong or seek to find it. They demonstrate consistency between principle and practice, and strive to live out of ethical principles because they know, in the long run, it’s best for all of us to be honest, responsible, concerned individuals who care about family, friends, community and country. People of character strive to do what’s right for the right reasons even at personal cost.

Through Plato, Socrates states, “False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”

Wyoming Republican Congresswoman, Liz Cheney has a lot in common with the Greek sage as she has put her career on the line because she places truth before political ideology and publicly speaks that truth because she knows that it is in the best interests of the country.

It takes character to put the needs of others ahead of your own.

While I’ve shared this quote before, it bears repeating, “Ethics is having the character and the courage to do the right thing, even when it costs more than you want to pay,” ethicist Michael Josephson says.

For Cheney, that bill is likely to come due next year at the Wyoming ballot box. The question before voters: will they accept that their representative is acting in the best interests of the country they profess to love, or will they condemn her as a political heretic?

“The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.”

Those words were spoken by Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith on the floor of the Senate. In her “Declaration of Conscience” speech, she decried “the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle.” While Smith never used Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy’s name, everyone knew who she was talking about.

That’s character.

When Johnson & Johnson Chairman James Burke was confronted with the news that seven people in the Chicago area had died from Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide, he chose to recall all forms of Tylenol from every store in the country even though the cost to the company was considerable. His decision has since become a textbook case on company integrity.

“I think that the only way that we could have done what we did,” Burke told me in an interview, “was to have all of the institutions that were affected by the Tylenol poisonings believe in us—the company—whether it was the head of the FBI, the FDA, or the people that we spoke to in Congress or at the White House. There was no thought that this was something that we were doing that was only in our own interest. And that came from a hundred years of experience.  While I was the person that had to lead and carry the message to those institutions – and I think they trusted me personally, too – I think they trusted me largely because I represented an institution that had been around for a hundred years and had earned the trust of its entire constituency.”

That’s the same kind of character NBC sports broadcaster Bob Costas demonstrated when he publicly came forward and said, “The reality is that this game [football] destroys people’s brains.” As a result, Costas left the network.

That’s character.

And now, after the first hearing of the special House Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, we can add the names of law enforcement officers, Aquilino A. Gonell, Harry Dunn, and Michael Fanone. “Telling the truth shouldn’t be that hard,” one of them told the committee.

We need that kind of character, again.

At some point in our lifetime, each of us will be faced with ethical choices—choices involving honesty, loyalty, duty, respect—choices that will test who we are and what we stand for.

When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he was telling us that only through self-examination can we improve.

“Not life,” Socrates said, “but a good life, is to be chiefly valued.”

I will be taking my annual leave and return after Labor Day.