More than any other time in our illustrious history, our nation faces a crisis of character. This crisis threatens the future of both our quality of life and our position and influence in the world community.
The crisis is the decline in the character of the citizens of our country. The quality and sustainability of any society is a function of the overall character of its citizens. Character drives the long-term success of any group of individuals, from communities to companies to countries to competitive teams.
Character encompasses the complex combination of intangible traits and qualities that form an individual’s essential nature. Although there is no definitive list of these we have arbitrarily grouped these traits and qualities into the following categories:
Integrity: Adhering to a set of moral and ethical principles.
Respect: Respecting oneself and others as well as the dignity of mankind in general.
Sacrifice: Sacrificing one’s own interests for the interests of the common good.
Tolerance: Being tolerant of others including differences in opinion, ethnicity or religious faith.
Responsibility: Taking responsibility for one’s own decisions and actions and being accountable for them.
Considerate: Being kind to others and showing compassion towards them.
Contribute: Making a positive contribution to society, both inside and outside of work.
A person’s character is the summation of these traits and qualities and defines the type of individual they truly are. When we refer to someone’s character we are ultimately referring to how often they do the “right thing.” The right thing is not necessarily just the virtuous or moral/ethical thing but also includes behavior that would be considered exemplary. By exemplary we mean conducting oneself in a manner that enhances the character of others or has a positive impact on society as a whole.
Ultimately, character is what makes a person to do the right thing without being “forced” to do it (similar to the ‘how you act when no one is watching” concept). Fortunately everyone has a conscience (with few exceptions) and pretty much knows what the right thing to do is in almost any situation. Certainly not everyone can always agree on what the right thing is (abortion for example) and it can also be a cultural thing but for the most part people instinctively know what it is.
There is an eternal, existential conflict between the needs and desires of the individual and of everyone else. What may be in the best interests of the individual may not always be what is in the best interests of a society as a whole. Character is what bridges this gap by internalizing the motivation for an individual to do the right thing.
People with stronger character do the right thing because it is important to themselves as an individual and it defines who they are to themselves-living according to their principles outweighs all other considerations. Ultimately, people with a strong character answer to themselves.
People with weaker character are more concerned about either the opinions of others or the potential consequences of their actions and are “forced” to do the right thing as their main concern about not doing the right thing is getting caught. Ultimately, people with a weak character want to avoid answering to anyone, including themselves.
Trust is Critical
Although character encompasses numerous traits and qualities the most important one is integrity, or more specifically honesty. Honesty breeds trust in others, and trust is the glue that holds a society together. A certain amount of public trust, or trust among all the citizens of a society, is required in order for a society to run efficiently and maintain a level of harmony and civility and ultimately determines the quality of life in any society.
Trust is essentially confidence or faith in others that they will do the right thing. The right thing can either be what someone has said they will do or what a rational person would expect them to do in the context of ethical behavior. Ultimately it means the individual will not unfairly put their own interests before the interests of others to the detriment of others or society as a whole.
All people act out of self-interest to some degree or another, which is human nature, and benefits a society as long as they are doing the right thing. As Adam Smith has famously stated in an economic context people working out of their own self-interest also serve the public interests by producing goods or services that people want or need and creating jobs which ultimately raises the economic living standards for everyone.
However, when people act out of self-interest and don’t do the right thing the level of public trust suffers, which is the critical ingredient to the health of any society for numerous reasons. At a minimum trust allows the citizens to feel more confident about their safety and survival, the most basic human need. It also allows a society to function more efficiently since the citizens will not have to waste resources trying to force people to do the right thing and punishing those who do not.
Most importantly, trust allows the citizens of a society to feel more confident about the future and the likely outcome of events as life is inherently uncertain. Life is about making choices and those choices are a function of the individual’s assessment of the likelihood of achieving the desired outcomes. The lower the level of public trust the higher the risk that the expected or desired outcomes will not be realized.
Of course it is not realistic to expect everyone to always be trustworthy. There will always be a certain number of dishonest people as well as a number of individuals who are willing to compromise their integrity in certain situations. What matters, however, is the overall amount of honesty in a society and ultimately the level of public trust.
Trust is Everywhere
The public trust, or trust among all the citizens of a society, permeates through every aspect of a society. We trust our fellow citizens are doing the right thing whether in the context of commerce, in the government or just in society in general.
In all of these settings, individuals routinely have the discretion to breach the public trust by not doing the right thing. Not doing the right thing can either be outright illegal behavior, unethical behavior (which may or may not be illegal) or just doing something that most people would not consider to be the right thing to do.
Sometimes this is very noticeable, such as committing a crime like robbing a bank or worse, murdering a fellow citizen. Most breaches, however, are more subtle and much less noticeable. Sometimes the breach may not be discovered until well after it has occurred, often only when horrendous consequences happen as a result, or it may never be discovered at all.
That is the nature of trust. We are not always in a position to know for certain that our fellow citizens are doing the right thing in every situation so we must trust that they are. In addition, we may never know if they did or not depending upon the situation.
For example, in the context of commerce when we purchase something we trust the seller is not misrepresenting their good or service or intentionally trying to deceive us. We also trust people who claim to be experts really are and are recommending what is in our best interests, not theirs. This includes auto mechanics recommending unnecessary services for our vehicle, healthcare professionals recommending test that we do not need or brokers recommending products that earn them the highest commissions.
We trust people in the food industry, whether restaurants or packaged foods, are producing and selling food that is safe to eat. We trust companies are adequately testing their products to ensure they are safe for us to use. We also trust people are doing their jobs, such as airline mechanics are completing their safety checks to ensure the plane we are flying on is safe or pilots are not drinking before they fly.
We trust the bankers where our savings are deposited or the money managers who are custodians of our investments are not mismanaging our even embezzling our money. We trust public companies are not intentionally misrepresenting their financial statements or anyone on Wall Street is not using information only they are privy to for their own benefit, such as for insider trading or front running.
We trust companies are not selling technology to our enemies or intentionally selling products they know are being used for illegal means. We also trust background checks are being completed on potential employees who will have access to sensitive information or harmful materials. We trust companies are not gouging us, such as charging excessive bank fees to ignorant or captive customers or taking advantage of the incompetence or disinterest of government employees.
We also trust lawyers are not defending clients they know are guilty or filing frivolous lawsuits with the sole intention of getting companies to settle. We trust our fellow workers are not engaging in activity that puts the entire company or even others outside of the company at risk.
We trust critics, whether for movies, music, restaurants etc., are not being unduly influenced by whomever they are critiquing. We trust professional athletes or the refs are not fixing their games. We trust journalists are not falsifying or bending facts to support their own point of view (we are way beyond trusting journalists to be objective anymore).
We also trust the citizens who work in our government are putting the interests of the public before their own, and are running the government as efficiently as practical. For example, we trust our representatives are making laws and voting on them based on what is in the best interests of their constituents, not lobbyists or their campaign contributors. We also trust our votes are all being counted and the voting machines are not being rigged or manipulated.
We trust judges are impartial and ensuring that justice is served and police officers are not abusing their power. We trust government regulators are enforcing the laws and are not being unduly influenced by the industries they are regulating. We trust civil servants are doing their jobs, like completing background checks on people who apply for gun licenses or verifying the information of foreigners who apply for visas to enter this country.
We trust the defense department and all related agencies are protecting our country to the best of their abilities and are proactively preventing attacks by our enemies. We trust public schools are doing everything they can to ensure our children are properly educated and as well as ensuring their safety. We trust the government to effectively respond to unexpected events, like natural disasters, and to develop and implement viable solutions to the challenges that our society continually faces.
In addition, we trust our fellow citizens are being good citizens in general. At a minimum we trust they are not committing crimes and are obeying the laws, paying their fair share of taxes and respecting established social customs and standards of behavior that are prevalent in any society.
We also trust they are willing to sacrifice for the common good, respecting the rights of others and are being tolerant of others including differences in opinion, ethnicity or religious faith. We trust others are respecting the principles of our democracy and not attempting to undermine or circumvent it and will engage in civil and productive debate. We also trust they are not rewarding bad behavior or aiding our enemies.
We could go on and on. In pretty much every one of the examples above we can think of a specific example where someone did not do the right thing and breached the public trust. The issue is not if this happens but how often it happens. All societies can withstand a certain amount of breaches of the public trust, as long as most of the perpetrators are caught and punished in some form or another.
Trust is Everything
The point of all this is there is a certain level of public trust that is required in order for a society to run efficiently and maintain a level of harmony and civility. A society cannot possibly monitor all or even most of its citizens to try to force them to do the right thing. The citizens of a society need to be able to trust most of their fellow citizens are doing the right thing most of the time.
The level of public trust is a function of the overall character of the citizens of a society. When the public trust falls below a certain level a society starts to degenerate and the quality of life deteriorates. The next essay will discuss the ramifications of a decline in the level of public trust as a result of the erosion in the character of the citizens of a society.