General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has recently stated that the armed forces should place more importance on the character of officers. The military has been rocked by a Navy contracting scandal involving allegations of bribes, high profile sexual assault cases, and test-cheating involving nuclear missile crews. The general stated that the military service chiefs would put renewed focus on military ethics.
I met the general in church a few weeks after his statement. In a brief conversation, I told him that I would be interested to see his findings as to why character is lacking among so many in high places and what solutions his committee proposes. Later that day, I thought that, instead of me waiting for the Joint Chief’s report, I should be contributing to what needs to be a national conversation, since the lack of character is now endemic to our society.
At the beginning of each academic year at Ave Maria School of Law, we encourage our first year law students (1L’s) to participate in an Honor Code ceremony. The attendees take an oath “not to lie, cheat, or steal, not to tolerate those who do"; to “treat others with fairness and equality respecting their rights and human dignity"; and to “strive to be morally courageous and do what is right regardless of the consequences.” They also promise to hold others accountable for infractions of the code.
As at any other organization with a large number of people, there are those who violate the oath. I have found that those who breach it are either not fully conscious of the seriousness of their offense or else do not have the capacity to make a commitment to the ethical standards contained in the oath due to a lack of prevenient character.
For sure, character, cannot be attained by participating in an ad hoc ethics course or a school orientation program. Because, for the most part, character formation has solidified long before Officer Training School, or in our case, law school. To give an exact age for character formation to be completed is difficult, but usually by high school, most people are who they are.
Character does not imply that one has to have an inner debate as to what is right or wrong. For example, fear of punishment may prevent someone from breaking the law. If this is the case, it speaks little of the person’s character — since it implies that if he could get away with it, he would. On the other hand, the person of character embarks on a certain course simply because it is right or refuses to perform an action because it is wrong. For the person of character there is no inner struggle, no rationalization, and no fear. Personal integrity is the only criteria, which guides him or her.
Character formation begins almost from birth. Parents are crucial to our moral foundation. Their faithfulness to marriage vows and their fulfilling the duty of caring for their children provide the foundational example of what a vow means. Example then is key to forming character. With the high divorce rate and a growing number of dead-beat mothers and fathers, the importance of standing behind one’s word has been severely compromised if not lost on Generation X down to the present Millennials.
Even the best children need to be corrected and sometimes punished for transgressing good behavior. However, the great teaching tool known as admonition is seldom used today.
Admonition has become more difficult in our relativistic society. With the breakdown in traditional morality, many fear that holding others to certain standards is old fashioned. The worst expression of this came from the lips recently of no other than Pope Francis, when he said, “Who am I to judge?” Though taken out of context, it has gone viral, causing enormous harm. Moreover, for many, there is the fear that they do not have the support of others in their cohort when they impose a moral diktat. This is true for parents, school authorities, and unfortunately, even for pastors. Many of these simply ignore bad behavior or try to protect malfeasor’s from their bad acts.
Let me give you an example: A number of years ago, after a law school party where wine and beer were served, some students were charged with DUI’s. Of course, for a law school student this is serious, since it can have an adverse effect on the “Character and Fitness” requirement for admission to a state bar. After some discussion with the Student Bar Association (SBA) leaders as to how we could prevent this from happening again, the solution was that they would assign designated drivers for those who drank. I was told that the Mormons, who do not drink alcoholic beverages, had volunteered to be the designated drivers for future events. This was not the best solution. However, at least we somewhat controlled for the bad behavior of some of our students.
The issue, however, is: Was this encouraging character to be exercised? Certainly not! There is nothing more disgusting than drunk human beings. Drunks often speak and act in a degrading way. What must be reinforced over and over again is that drunkenness demeans people, often causes harm and therefore, it will not be tolerated. Those who get intoxicated should be dismissed from law school for at least one year. They should be permitted to return only if they have completed a certified alcohol rehabilitation program.
To drink and drive endangers the life of many people: the intoxicated person who drives under the influence, and of course, the innocent people they may injure or even kill. Excessive drinking destroys families and work performance. Although many would designate alcoholism to be an illness, it is for many, if not most, a character flaw that must be addressed.
Character must be taught and practiced. This requires strong leadership. Good behavior must be reinforced by constantly reminding people of what is and what is not acceptable. For example, jeremiads against lying and cheating must be repeated often, even to the same person or group.
So, too, should parents or those in leadership positions exhort people to do what is right and applaud them when they do. For example, to be a whistle blower on someone cheating on an exam is difficult. However, it is the right thing to do. The person with the moral courage to expose cheaters should be applauded. After all, this enables a culture of honesty to develop.
A number of years ago, I was vice principal of a high school. I gave the juniors an assignment to interview some local Protestant pastors to inquire about some area where their church differed from the Catholic Church. Most of the students did well with their interviews. One student, however, fabricated his! It was easily recognizable as a fraud. Having checked with the Methodist pastor, he confirmed my suspicion. I failed the student for the semester, since this was a major project. His mother was incensed and wanted me to excuse his indiscretion. I knew why lying and cheating had become a part of who he was. His character was malformed by his mother. And, probably, forever so.
Rules for good behavior must be clear and obvious. The “thou shalt not’s” of The Ten Commandments are vital in forming a good person and a good society. It is clear why our forefathers were emphatic on religion being a part of the American social fabric. They realized its importance to forming a virtuous citizenry.
The decline in church attendance and the regnant political correctness now preached from most pulpits has had a detrimental effect on character formation. For example, when is the last time you heard a pastor condemn cohabitation, divorce, or pre-marital sex? How many condemned Bill Clinton when he lied under oath about not having sex “with that woman?” When I did, some people walked out of church.
Recall how Rush Limbaugh was chastised for strongly criticizing Sandra Fluke's self-proclaimed promiscuous behavior? Ms. Fluke, a Georgetown Law School student, in her congressional testimony complained that she needed birth control, and that it was too expensive without insurance. No one else publically challenged her on moral grounds. Even the president of Georgetown University dared not admonish her for her moral turpitude. The opportunity was missed to condemn bad behavior and to encourage virtuous use of our sexual powers. The whole country was attentive. Our leaders missed the boat.
There is no doubt that even virtuous people will sometimes make mistakes. However, when they do fall short there is a self-loathing or a personal revulsion that takes place. When this happens the key to preserving ones good character is to come clean and to bear the consequences. For sure, telling the truth will set you free and reinforce who you really are.
I speak from personal experience now. When I was a freshman in high school, I cheated on an algebra exam. I stole an answer from the student sitting next to me. I just wanted to pass the darn course! After I handed the paper in I felt nauseous. I could not sleep that night. The next day I fessed up to the teacher. He looked at me and said, “Mike you’re a good boy. But, I have to fail you.” I thanked him. And, mercifully, he took no further action. When I was ordained a priest he came to the ceremony. I can never repay him for the chance he gave me to rehabilitate the virtue of honesty in my life.
And so, General Dempsey, your problem with character in the military is one that is pervasive in our society as a whole. It should behoove those in positions of authority to follow the points I have made in this essay. However, we need to go one step further. Before we accept anyone for any high position in our society, whether it be a military officer, a lawyer, or a teacher, we should demand numerous references concerning their character from parents, teachers, clergy, former employers, and even their peers. We should also review their personal and family history. This may help protect us from the corrosive effects that lowlifes’ and scoundrels inflict on all of us and prevent the degrading effect they have on our social institutions.
By promoting men and women of character, we will generate a higher standard of human behavior and role models for others emulate in acting righteously. And, it goes without saying, help create a better society.
Full disclosure requires that I give attribution to Aristotle and Maimonides for the insights contained in this essay.