Character ethic vs. Personality ethic

This author has put his finger on exactly what bothers me about most “self help” literature. There is a fundamental difference between building a strong character and just putting on a happy face and “thinking positive”.

As my study took me back through 200 years of writing about success, I noticed a startling pattern emerging in the content of the literature. Because of our own pain, and because of similar pain I had seen in the lives and relationships of many people I had worked with through the years, I began to feel more and more that much of the success literature of the last 50 years was superficial. It was filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes–with social band-aids and aspirin that addressed acute problems and sometimes even appeared to solve them temporarily, but left the underlying chronic problems untouched to fester and resurface time and again.

In stark contrast, almost all of the literature in the first 150 years or so focused on what could be called the Character Ethic as the foundation of success–things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, idfustry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule. Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is representative of that literature. It is, basically, the story of one man’s effort to integrate certain principles and habits deep within his nature.

The Character Ethic taught that there are basic principles of effective living, and that people can only experience true success and enduring happiness as they learn and integrate these principles into their basic character.

But shortly after World War I the basic view of success shifted from the Character Ethic to what we might call the Personality Ethic. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques, that lubricate the process of human interaction. This Personality Ethic essentially took two paths: one was human and public relations techniques, and the other was positive mental attitude (PMA). Some of this philosophy was expressed in inspiring and sometimes valid maxims such as “Your attitude determines your altitude,” “Smiling wins more friends than frowning,” and “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”

Other parts of the personality approach were clearly manipulative, even deceptive, encouraging people to use techniques to get other people to like them, or to fake interest in the hobbies of others to get out of them what they wanted, or to use the “power look,” or to intimidate their way through life.
–Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

0 thoughts on “Character ethic vs. Personality ethic

  1. space_parasite

    “Reputation is a side effect of conduct; the notion that it can be created as a direct effect of promotion is one of those unfortunate ills of thought plaguing the 20th century.” — Graydon Saunders

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