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What is Character?

Character and Free Speech Go Hand in Hand

Character is the sum of qualities that define a person. These qualities include one’s intellect, thoughts, ideas, motives, intentions, temperament, judgment, behavior, imagination, perception, emotions, loves, and hates.

Character manifests itself in the decisions we make. An honest person always tells the truth (or, at least, is committed to do so). A person of character avoid lies by omission (not disclosing all the facts another has a need to know) and lies by commission (outright lying).

How does a person develop character? Character gains through its expression, and loses through its repression. Love grows through expression. Knowledge gains through expression. To possess a strong character, we need to practice acting in accordance with certain core values oftentimes referred to as virtues.

The Josephson Institute identifies Six Pillars of Character. They include: trustworthiness; respect; responsibility; fairness; caring; and citizenship. I define them a bit differently and place them in six categories I call “The Magnificent Seven Core Ethical Values.”

Truthfulness: Be honest and non-deceptive: don’t hide important facts from others.

Trustworthiness: Keep promises, be reliable, treat others faithfully.

Responsibility: Be accountable for your actions; learn from your mistakes.

Fair-mindedness: Treat others equally, impartially, and objectively.

Respect: The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Caring: Be kind to others; be sensitive to their needs; show empathy for others.

Civility: Listen to others attentively; don’t be rude or disrespectful.

At the end of the day, whether we live up to these values depends on our ability and willingness to lead a life of virtue. Virtue ethics places less emphasis on learning philosophical rules and instead stresses the importance of developing good habits of character.

In his account of Aristotelian Virtue, MacIntyre states: virtue requires “a capacity to judge and do the right thing in the right place at the right time in the right way.” Developing judgment is the key to making virtuous decisions. We practice virtue, reflect on our actions and decisions, learn from our mistakes, and commit to leading a better, more fulfilling life: A life of integrity, which is the wholeness of our character.

Respect and civility are missing from society today. I am very concerned that our college campuses are failing the true academic test of an academic institution: listening to many points of view attentively, debating the issues, and acting civilly towards others. Time and again we hear about speakers with a contrary point of view who are threatened, shouted down, and made the target of disparaging comments. The need for open debate on campus seems a vestige of days gone by.

It seems to me the long-standing academic tradition of free speech on campus, without fearing for one’s safety or life, has given way to the ‘no platform’ policy to keep off campus pretty much anyone whose views don’t coincide perfectly with the prevailing groupthink. Students insulate themselves from anything that might dent their self-esteem and issues that make them uncomfortable. How will they ever grow and learn? What will happen when they enter the workplace and deal with different points of view – within work teams and from superiors?

I credit the social media culture for reversing course on the tradition of open and honest dialogue, and respectful treatment of others on college campuses. Young people read Tweets that attack others for speech and positions they’re not comfortable in hearing. Others act out and post You Tube videos that are tasteless and offensive. Many witness uncivil behavior on TV – even from our so-called “leaders.”

No one seems to draw a line anymore in society on what is appropriate and what is not. It’s a no consequences mentality and you had better move aside if you hold a divergent position or else risk being humiliated, or worse.

Character and free speech go hand in hand. You can’t have one without believing in the other.

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