Character as Destiny

Published: November 20, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
Read More

There’s a scene late in the film The Emperor’s Club when William Hundert, a teacher who believes that character is the path to true success, dispenses a final lesson to an errant student.

“All of us, at some point,” Hundert tells an older but no wiser Sedgewick Bell, “are forced to look at ourselves in the mirror and see who we really are.”

Earlier, Hundert faced his own moment in the mirror when he changed the grade on Bell’s final freshman essay allowing the student to compete in an academic contest.  At the time, Hundert rationalized his choice believing that this means would offer the troubled Bell the chance to rise to both academic and ethical excellence.

So, does the end justify the means?

My own teacher, Michael Josephson, would call Hundert’s actions consistent with the doctrine of consequentialism.  A theory “based on the notion that the ethics of an act is best determined by the consequences produced. Consequence-based decision making models allow the ethical person to evaluate competing ethical values in terms of likely and intended results.”

In short: the end result can justify the action taken even if that action may be ethically questionable.

I was thinking about this in comparing and contrasting two recent events. Board members for The New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York approved the loan of a substantial art collection by one of their own trustees for a major exhibition to be held at the museum.  Even though the result of the action serves to benefit the public in seeing works that have never been shown in the United States, the ethically questionable action would also allow one of their own trustees to benefit by enhancing the value of his collection particularly if he chooses to sell or donate any or all of it.

“The major shortcoming of pure consequentialism,” Josephson points out, “is the ease with which it can be manipulated by self-serving rationalizations to produce situational ethics and an ‘end justifies the means’ credo which elevates expediency over principle.”

However, there are times when consequentialism works.

Freshman Representative Joseph Cao was the lone Republican to vote in favor of the House version of the Health Care bill.  “I felt last night’s decision was the right decision,” Cao said, “even though it was not the popular decision for my party.  At the end of the day, I had to make a decision of conscience based on the needs of the people in my district.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the health care bill is not the point. Cao put his principles and the needs of his constituents before the needs of his party and his own political career.

That’s the kind of decision Professor Hundert would offer up as example of living a life of principle; for at the end of the day, when faced with the difficult choices that ultimately come our way, it is our principles, or lack thereof, that will determine who we really are.


There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?

Leave a Comment

Read More Articles
The Latest... And Sometimes Greatest
Fraud at the Polls?
The cancer of false conspiracies, lies, and cynicism eating away at the Republic—lies propagated and fed by the former president and his allies—has metastasized to...
September 20, 2022
“I. Do. Not. Like. Bullies.”
That’s Arizona Republican and Speaker of the House . . . correction, former Speaker of the House, Rusty Bowers who had been abruptly shown the...
September 16, 2022
Debate: How We’re Doing It Wrong
Every time another mass shooting occurs, the debate begins again. FOR GUN CONTROL – Nineteen, the number of mass shootings that have occurred since January...
September 13, 2022
Think It Can’t Happen Here?
     “If there’s one American belief I hold above all others, it’s that those who would set themselves up in judgment on matters of what...
September 9, 2022
The Man Who Made America’s Spirit Come to Life
Of all the books written by historian David McCullough the book I return to is a compilation of his speeches. The American Spirit offers exactly...
September 6, 2022
American Integrity in the Era of Trump
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in...
July 29, 2022