Virtue is defined for us as “the moral excellence evident in my life as I consistently do what is right.” Moral excellence is really another way to say “character,” so virtue is really somewhat of a “catch-all” for all of the character traits. When we aspire to the lifelong process of developing better character, we aspire to exemplify virtue.
Character programs are sometimes criticized the way a certain faith or worldview might be criticized and sounds something like this: “Nobody has the right to tell me what is right or wrong for me. I make my own decisions.” Certainly no one likes to be told how to act and it is almost always offensive to imply that someone doesn’t have good character, but promoting virtue or good character hasn’t always been so offensive.
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed and included these words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” containing “the most potent and consequential words in American history.” The passage came to represent a moral standard to which the United States should strive. This view was notably promoted by Abraham Lincoln, who considered the Declaration to be the foundation of his political philosophy, and argued that the Declaration is a statement of principles through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted.
Stephen Covey’s landmark book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic is most often referred to simply as “7 Habits,” but the complete Library of Congress listing includes the subtitle, Restoring the Character Ethic. Covey was ahead of his time in the late 1980’s when he sounded the alarm and called for a return to character based leadership. In the book, Covey relates that “success literature” from 1776 for 150 years focused on this “Character Ethic” as the “foundation of success – things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule.” He talks about Ben Franklin and others who set high standards of character. However, he writes that, in great contrast, “much of the success literature of the past 50 years was superficial. It was filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques that lubricate the processes of human interaction.”
Character programs today are picking up on Covey’s challenge to restore the “character ethic” in America, to restore the pursuit of virtue and moral excellence as the backbone and foundation of our country. Though some view this encouragement as an infringement upon their freedom to choose, that is certainly not the purpose of a character program. The call to virtue and character is NOT a call to follow a certain set of rules; it’s NOT a way for some to tell others they are wrong; it’s NOT an endorsement of one faith, political platform, or worldview over another; and it’s NOT a statement about what great character we have (no matter who WE are).
A character program simply holds up universal standards we can ALL aspire to. These are qualities/traits/virtues we can ALL agree are desirable – respect, honor, kindness, gentleness, self control, compassion, discretion, justice, and truthfulness, along with many others. ALL of us fall short; ALL of us are guilty of character failures; ALL of us have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to character.
But we can ALL agree to strive to a higher standard. We may not ALL agree on faith or worldview, political view, or the economy, but we can ALL agree to simply respect one another in humility and strive to a higher standard each day in our thoughts, attitudes, and actions.