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Character Counts: The Six Pillars (January 11, 2019)

Last week, I wrote a column about what matters in life, what fills a life with wholeness and goodness. I quoted at length a piece written by Michael Josephson, the founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. Josephson is a passionate advocate for what he calls “character education” for youth, as well as a champion of ethical conduct in every sphere of life, including business, politics, government, policing, journalism, sports, healthcare and law.

He has developed a helpful way of describing character by using what he calls the “Six Pillars of Character”. These six pillars represent six core ethical values.

But before getting into the pillars themselves, it is worth asking, “What exactly is ethics?” It’s one of those words we hear, and it’s often confused with values.

Ethics refers to universal principles which define behaviour as right, good and proper. The important thing is that these principals are understood to be universal. Values, on the other hand, tend to be more personal, and often defined by a set of religious beliefs or cultural practices or family background. For example, the desire to be healthy and wealthy are important values for some, but they are not ethical principles. One of the key things about ethics is their universality. There is a consensus about what makes for ethical living.

At the same time, there is nothing magical about the number six. There could be eight or ten. But these Six Pillars of Character provide an easy way of remembering what makes for a life of character. They help us evaluate our behavior and become more consistent in how we act.

The acronym for the Six Pillars is TRRFCC—which some have called “terrific”. As I describe these Six Pillars, much of the language comes from the Josephson Institute website.

Pillar #1: Trustworthiness. Be honest. Don’t deceive, cheat, or steal. Be reliable, which means doing what we say we’ll do Have the courage to do the right thing Build a good reputation Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and colleagues.

Trustworthiness includes qualities like honesty, integrity, reliability and loyalty. Our words and our actions are congruent, consistent. We don’t say one thing and do another. When we live with integrity, we are whole and complete. We act according to our convictions, and we don’t settle for what is simply expedient in the moment.

When other people trust us, they tend to give us the benefit of the doubt. They are assured that they don’t need to monitor us to make sure that we will live with integrity and honesty. They believe us and hold us in higher esteem.

Pillar #2: Respect. Respect other people. Follow the Golden Rule, which is to treat others as we wish to be treated. Accept and honour differences. Be considerate of the feelings of others. Deal peacefully with insults, anger and disagreements.

People deserve to be treated with respect. When we do so, we don’t exploit, humiliate, or manipulate other people. We don’t call them names when we disagree with them. We act civilly, decently, and courteously.

This pillar has become a casualty in much of social media. People are anonymous, and they think this gives them the right to be rude and obnoxious. When they act this way, they show their lack of character. We need to emphasize this facet of character more these days.

Pillar #3: Responsibility. Do what you are supposed to do. Always do your best. Persevere and keep on trying. Use self–control. Be self–disciplined. Think before you act and consider the consequences of your actions.

Life is filled with choices. Responsible people are accountable for the choices we make. We recognize that our actions matter, and so we exercise self–restraint and self–discipline.

Pillar #4: Fairness. Play by the rules. Take turns. Share. Be open–minded. Listen to others. Treat all people fairly, regardless of their age, wealth, sexual orientation, or the colour of their skin. Don’t be prejudiced. Don’t show favouritism.

Fairness is hard to define sometimes, but at its heart it is about being consistent in how we treat people and making sure that everyone gets a fair hearing. The difficulty comes when we disagree with someone—we naturally think that our own position is the most fair. But this ethical principal means that we hold ourselves accountable to treat other people’s opinions with respect and honour. (Here we see how the different pillars work together in an ethical life!)

Pillar #5: Caring. Be kind. Be compassionate. Express gratitude. Forgive other people. Help people in need.

If we lived alone in the universe, we wouldn’t need any of these ethical principles. But we don’t, and caring is at the heart of the Six Pillars. We are concerned with the welfare of other people, because an ethical life is ultimately about establishing and maintaining good relationships with other people.

Sometimes it is easier to love “humanity” than to love individual people. As Lucy says in the comic strip Peanuts, “I love humanity—it’s people I can’t stand!” But we can’t live that way. We live with people, and we need to care for and about each other.

Pillar #6: Citizenship. Do your share to make your community better. Cooperate. Get involved. Stay informed. Vote. Be a good neighbour. Obey laws and rules. Protect the environment. Volunteer.

We all live in different kinds of communities. We live in a country, a province, a city, a neighbourhood. Our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. As people of character, we get involved with the different communities of which we are a part, and try to make life better for others in that community. What we do will affect others.

Someone once said that character is how you live when no one is looking. These Six Pillars of Character help us live in a way that is of benefit to the world. We need to do that, because as Michael Josephson is fond of saying, “Character Counts!”

Rev. Yme Woensdregt