The level of thoughtful comments I received regarding my character question was impressive. On March 2, I asked, What does it mean to you to have strong moral character?
Amanda from North Carolina wrote, “My thoughts on morality and ethics continue to evolve as my understanding of the historical concept of morality develops. Do I care about a president’s sexual affairs? No. Do I care if that president takes a moral high ground against sexual affairs and then commits them? Yes.”
Frank from California: “No other factor is more important than the basic moral character of a human being. It is vital for parents, teachers, business men and women, pilots, plumbers and priests.”
Gary from California made a spiritual point. “Character is not the easy route, but the ‘right, true and spiritual’ route.”
Kat from Ohio points out that, “You cannot be a person of ‘good’ character if you present one persona in your business life while not being honorable in your personal life.”
John from California: “as my dad said, ‘Honesty is what you do if you pretend your mom and dad are watching you.’ That stuck with me better than, ‘Dishonesty is what you do when you think nobody will know.’ But they are the same coin.”
Leonard from California reflects on the political context of my question: “Among Republicans, the term ‘Strong Moral Character’ has probably become ideological code for something else — i.e., religious, patriarchal, ‘pro-life’ values. If asked, Democrats or Independents would not mean the same thing by that term, or I would think, rank it nearly as highly as a criterion for ‘Candidate Quality.’ ”
Going deeper, Bruce from Connecticut writes, “I think the character question… is tough because we all are saints and sinners. We do and say things in our private lives we would never want exposed. Is a man who makes an insensitive racial remark or laughs at a crude racial joke in private yet hires, promotes and truly advances minorities in his business really just the sum of that one, thoughtless moment?”
Julie from Connecticut wrote, “A person of strong moral character has the strength to apply reasoned, objective judgment when making decisions and adopting a course of action. They have the fortitude to form views that are unbiased by personal agenda and the resolve to act in the best interest of all parties involved in a given situation. They are not motivated by personal gain alone, and operate within the law. They do not allow their personal beliefs, religious and political views and class affiliation to override good judgment. Their decision-making analysis is intellectual requiring tremendous discipline, honor and integrity and a strong value for fairness.”
Julie’s response was so clear and covered all the bases that I wrote back to ask if this was her personal opinion or did this come from some dictionary of philosophy?
“No,” she said. It was all her.
I liked that Julie focused on the aspirational aspect of character while acknowledging that it requires “tremendous discipline” in the decision-making process.
When it came to answering “how does that apply to your choice of a presidential candidate?” Julie added, “…it is critical to identify a presidential candidate with these qualities because their decisions, which affect the well being of our country and its standing in the global arena, must be made with the intention of improving the welfare of all, not one particular class, ethnicity, religious or personal interest group. While moral character is paramount, it has to be accompanied by other talents. A high degree of wisdom, self assurance, willingness to take calculated risks and understanding for how to collaborate effectively in Washington or in business completes the package.”
Frank reminds us, “For the president of the most powerful nation in the history of mankind, moral character is the principle issue. As a nation we have had presidents that were a little shaky in the area of ‘moral character.’ We wear the fabric of that weakness every day.”
Kat from Ohio noted, “I don’t believe we can easily discern the character of any presidential candidate as our society has developed into a ‘spin’ machine. I don’t believe we ever get the true total picture of an individual, maybe we never did.
“It’s easy to fantasize about the good old days but in this day and age of technology when at the touch of a button we can find out or manipulate as much dirt as possible on anyone I think it distorts what we might know about a person’s true character… I miss President Truman’s ‘the buck stops here’ ideology.”
“Maybe we ask too much of our leaders,” Bruce adds. “Kennedy surely was almost pathological in his womanizing, but did he threaten the core of the country as much as the prig, Nixon, with his enemies lists, his rampant anti-Semitism and his divisiveness? I think the answer is clearly that Nixon was far more threatening…
“So, what am I looking for in a president? … someone who will speak the truth and state his or her positions honestly without fear of losing votes.”
“I’m sure it’s not coincidental that your article carries a portrait of President Washington,” Bruce adds. “It’s no question why he was revered. Was he prefect? No. But he stood tall, even among the giants of those days. During the darkest days of the Revolution he persevered. He guided the new nation to stability. Offered a kingdom, he chose a republic. He retired after two terms. He warned of excessive partisanship. Would that we had a Washington today.
Myles from California summarized, “It’s relatively easy to say or do what is politically expedient to win ratings or be re-elected; it takes moral character to take action that you know is correct but which may result in the imposition of adverse consequences to you personally when you proceed nonetheless.”
And that is the real difference between someone who talks about ethics or character and someone who acts. Character is ethics in action.
Thanks to all who contributed.