Some Thoughts on Character

February 16, 2010 at 7:08 pm Leave a comment

Webster’s dictionary defines character as the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation. As the definition suggests, character is multifaceted. For one, character is cultivated over long periods of time. It is partly formed through one’s biological inheritances and partly through choice.
Character is the embodiment of a person’s moral orientation. It is dependent upon how a person has interpreted his/her values. It is built up, piece by piece, through the decisions we have made over time. It is not innate, we aren’t born with it, rather we create it. But the rub is most of us create our character more or less unconsciously. Character is based upon our core values and how our interpretations of those values influence our behaviour. What is unconscious for most of us is how we have interpreted our values. It takes a lot of self-reflection to understand what our values are and how we have interpreted them. Unfortunately, we live in a society that largely ignores, indeed in many instances actively discourages, self-reflection.
In the development of character, the cultural and physical environments play an enormous role. You can send individuals to ethics seminars that emphasize trust and fiduciary responsibility as the subject material but if the overall environment those individuals work in day to day is one of a cut throat pursuit of profit often at the expense of the clients the individual and the firm have promised to serve, then the environment will heavily influence many of those individuals to act against the well being of the client. While all of us are limited through circumstances, intelligence, self-awareness and environment, we still do make conscious decisions that define who we are. Morally we come to be what we do and not what we say or think.
With moral values it is one thing to “know about” them and another thing to “know” them through the richness of encounters with other people. When we merely know about values, we can become easily detached from their real existential meaning. Abstract intellectual analysis of values allows for distancing oneself from the spirit of the values. Talking about honesty, fairness, fiduciary responsibility and other critical values is not the same as experiencing those same values in encounters with other people. Some investment firms have magnificent value statements and they may even throw in an ethics seminar to highlight those values, but in their actions one can see that the values statement is merely a mist behind which those firms operate like pirates. One can look at the present state of the investment industry where many of the behaviours that created the massive economic meltdown that we are still suffering through are still the operating behaviours of many of those firms whose selfish and stupid actions created the economic mess in the first place. Here is character on display. These firms can speak abstractly about values but their behaviours indicate the values aren’t worth the paper upon which they are written. They flaunt both the letter and the spirit of the values that they present to the public as demonstrations of their true character.
While most individuals in the investment industry (and, to be fair, the general public) are more or less unaware of the values that influence their decisions that create who they are, many financial firms through their actions are consciously demonstrating an awareness of their values and that awareness, sadly, is still mainly selfish and destructive to the society that both created them and sustains them.

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