attitude of the same students five years later, expressed in the New York Times by one of them this way: “Apol- ogize for what? I would do it again.”
What a contrast to the values on display in the Conyers story — and even more so the Cambodian one! No one would say that the teacher or those stu- dents in Chicago exhibited character in the positive sense that I am using the term here today. Assume for a moment that the Chicago students had never been caught. Knowing everything else that I’ve told you in these true stories, which group of students would you most want to be like — the ones in Conyers who walked away from a trophy or the ones in Chicago who cheated to win a contest? If you said Conyers, then you have a conscience. You have character, and hopefully a lot of it. And you know something of the inestimable value of being able to look back on your life some day and know that you tried hard in every circumstance to do the right thing.
I love the words of the Apostle Paul, in prison, shortly before he was martyred. It is recorded in Scripture as II Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He had character, even in the midst of extreme adversity. If he had sacrificed it for short- term, selfish gain, all his good words and deeds would hardly carry the weight they do today, nearly 20 centuries later.
A deficit of character shows up every time some- body who knows what the right thing to do is nei- ther defends it nor does it because doing so might
Th e S to r y o f N i c h o l a s Wi n to n a n d Th e I m p o r t a n ce o f C h a ra c te r
mean a little discomfort or inconvenience. I work in the field of public policy, which brings me into contact often with legislators, congressmen and candidates for public office. Far too many times I’ve heard, “I know you’re right but I can’t say so or vote that way because I won’t get reelected.”
You can blame a politician when he behaves that way but don’t forget the voters who put him in that spot. I see character deficits every time I see people pressuring the government to give them something at the expense of others, something which they know in their very gut should come instead from their own efforts and merit.
Perhaps we should ask, “Where does character come from?” or, putting the question slightly differ- ently, “Why is it that when we speak of character, we all seem to know what it is that we’re talking about?” Well, theologians and philosophers can speak to this much better than I. But I will say this: ere is something in the way that we humans are wired. Down deep within us we have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. And when we ignore our wir- ing, something within us — that voice we call our conscience — cries out to us that such and such is simply wrong. In complex situations, the voice can be difficult to discern, and we can even learn how to dull that voice into submission, but we cannot really deny that it is there. It is simply the human experience. We can argue about its origins, but it is there.
Mackinac Center for Public Policy •