In my humble opinion, ethics are a vital part of every social interaction. And even though there are quite a few ethical standards that every culture in its own agrees upon (e.g. don't lie, don't cheat, don't steal, respect others, and do your duty as some of the core values in western ethical theories), we all have our own opinion of what ethical behavior really looks like in reality.
In the broader scope of self help literature, two different forms of ethics have been promoted over the past decades: character ethics and personality ethics. One of the books I've read recently focused on explaining the difference between these two, why in recent years the literature has provided more advice on personality than on character ethics and why this might be a mistake.
Disclaimer: the term "personality" in this blog is not to be confused with the classic personality in terms of traits and abilities (e.g. intelligence, extroversion, neuroticism, openness, emotional competence, etc.). It should rather be interpreted as the "perceived picture of a person in its social environment" - or in psychological terms: the "persona", the personality that an individual projects to others, as differentiated from the authentic self. I am solely using the term "personality" because it's been used in the original version of the book this blog is partially based on.
Character vs. Personality Ethics...
The author of the book I am referring to throughout this blog, Stephen R. Covey, describes character ethics as the idea that a person advances on the basis of their character. This was culturally the main idea expressed in the US and other parts of the world up until about WWI, when popular literature began to focus more on short-cuts and easy ways to manipulate situations or to get what you want. According to Covey, character ethics depend on deep changes within each of us, while personality ethics fall back on methods or techniques.
The main criticism regarding personality ethics is that they do not challenge us, neither do they bring about deep changes within us. Typical phrases of the personality ethics are "think positive" and "believe in yourself" while character ethics deal with values and virtues such as integrity, honesty, modesty, humility, temperance, patience, courage, justice and others. In simpler terms: Personality ethics focus on how we can manipulate others to get what we want by using tools and methods while character ethics help us focus on ourselves, understand our own flaws in how we interact with the world and make us find room for character-improvement.
Here's an attempt at an illustration: Covey uses the example of a person trying to find his way through Chicago with a map of Detroit. No matter how hard he tries, he will never be successful. In the same way, when we have erroneous ideas of what something is like, we are destined to fail in dealing with whatever it is. So we have to get the map first (character ethics) before using the techniques and skills to find the destination (personality ethics). One of the key aspects therefore is, that we should work to have correct and healthy understandings of the world around us before trying to "manipulate" it.
Our personality in this regard is what others observe when we interact with them, our words, deeds and attire. Our character, however, is the sum of our invisible, underlying principles, values and beliefs. Covey uses the common analogy of the iceberg: Our personalities are the bit above the water, what we present to the wider world. These include what we say and do, how we dress, how we present ourselves and how we interact with others. To some extent these personalities are shallow. They can be a bit of an act that is disconnected from our core selves. They can also be driver by ideologies and other peoples believes rather than our own.
Covey states that more room should be made (in the literature, but also in coaching and leadership) on helping people to improve their characters. This process involves introspection, discipline, consideration, personal development and personal change. I believe there is a strong case to be made for this even 30 years after Covey published his book. For every step we take in our lives there should be a solid foundation. If you imagine who you are and what you could become, it is necessary to understand where you come from from a character perspective, as much as from a skills and abilities perspective. What values have we expressed in the past? What is important to us? Where do we stand on certain topics? How do we conduct ourselves in social interactions? How do we feel about certain things? And do our values and virtues align with our "persona" and the path we aim for?
Making important live decisions, asking these questions and finding solid and honest answers might be more important than trying to figure out what tools to use and methods to apply in order to simply achieve the next short-term gratification...