Character sometimes seems like a notion from the 1800’s. You judge a person by his or her character. There are probably different meanings for the notion of character, but mostly it has a fuzzy connection with “being a good person.” We need to be able to live with ourselves, and believing we are good persons makes that way more comfortable. So we care about what it means to be a good person.
Character is about moral stance, and over time, psychologists have come to understand that a person’s moral stance is created as the result of a developmental process. Lawrence Kohlberg, as part of a 1958 dissertation, described six stages of moral development that people pass through. These stages provide moral reasoning that makes the person increasingly successful at resolving moral dilemmas. This is why they are considered linear stages. Different people move through all of them, but some people seem to get to a certain stage and stay there.
Kohlberg’s stages start with small children who do the right thing to avoid punishment. As they grow a little bit, they follow rules because it will benefit them personally. As adolescents, people want to fit in and so they follow norms of their group and by adulthood, they understand that rules are necessary for society to function. The fifth stage is recognizing that different people might have different ideas of what is right and wrong, and rules might not always be useful or applicable.
Kohlberg’s sixth and final stage of moral development is a universal ethics orientation where people can empathize with other people’s thoughts and feelings and they make decisions based on their own internal sense of ethical right and wrong. They develop a sense of universal ideals. For people who are able to mature to this stage of moral reasoning, the standards of what they believe is ethical are carried as thoughtful, reflectively chosen ideals. They make decisions and take actions in line with those personal ideals, whether or not anyone else knows they are doing this.
This is the important point. For a person with character, it is not the judgements of other people, the rules of their organizations or the laws of their community that regulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, it is their own judgment. This does not mean that that person ignores social mores or disregards the opinions of other people. On the contrary, he or she is more tuned in to the ideas of other people because learning and growing are part of that ongoing developmental process. And because each of our choices continues to create us as people.
So this comes back down to the conversation between me and me. Only I will know if I have done the difficult, but better, thing. Only I will see my choices in the context of my ideals. So ultimately, character is something I create decision by decision and something only I can truly know about myself.