The Definition of Character: Liberal and Conservative Versions

April 23, 2013

You often hear that your character is defined by "what you do when no one is looking."  It's a line that is often quoted by conservatives, perhaps because they tend to stress that morality is determined by strict rules unrelated to circumstance. And I think it's a reasonable definition -- certainly those who make decisions based on what they believe is correct will act the same whether there is an audience or not.

But my definition is one that I think more progressives would share: Character is defined by how you treat people who are less powerful than you. That applies in the case of rich and poor, boss and employee, famous and obscure, and all the other relationships in which one person has power over another. It also applies circumstantially, when you have leverage in the moment -- a popular kid in high school and one nobody likes, a cop and a homeless person, a German citizen and his Jewish neighbor in 1939, or a white bus driver and his black passenger in 1960.

What we choose to do when we have the power to do whatever we want says a lot about us. At best -- and no one achieves this all the time -- we treat each individual the same regardless of our position or theirs. The CEO, the doorman, and the guy at the call center in Mumbai are all treated based on their actions -- none more easily dismissed or assaulted than the other. At the opposite end of the spectrum, those who are gratuitously cruel or humiliating when their power advantage allows it show their deficit of character glaringly. Most of us fall somewhere in between, but how much we tend towards one side or the other is telling.

Of course, both progressives and conservatives would basically embrace each of these definitions.  And the fullest measure of character is to combine them -- judging people by how they treat the less powerful when no one else is looking. But I do think there is an ideological tendency to prefer one of these over the other. 

Conservatives more highly value adherence to proper behavior -- often defined as the unchanging rules of the Judeo-Christian tradition -- whether you are in front of the congregation or in your home. Progressives generally follow this moral code, too, but they mostly see history the exploitation of the weak at the hands of the strong -- and view the abolition of that selfishness as the highest virtue.

One definition is not better than the other. As with many differences, it is a matter of world view.  For me, though, I feel best about myself when I'm able to adhere to the standard of treating all equally.

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