Merit, Virtue, and Character

The concept of merit is one that gets far too little attention these days.  And while the armed services still afford various honors to soldiers who have engaged in “meritorious conduct,” there’s far too little recognition generally given to virtuous behavior.  This is really unfortunate because being recognized and reinforced for engaging in meritorious action is crucial to a person’s healthy character development.  So, I think it important to say a few words about merit, virtue, and character.

I believe I was the first in my field to emphasize the difference between the concepts of self-esteem and self-respect (see:  In Sheep’s Clothing, pp. 106-108) and the roles each of these play in character development.  And I discuss these same topics and issues related to them in greater depth in Character Disturbance (pp. 85-92).  But I probably can’t emphasize enough how critical it is for a person to receive recognition and reinforcement for their sometimes perilous and always difficult right choices and actions if they are to develop a healthy sense of self-worth.

It’s most unfortunate, but in our modern culture we give a lot of attention, recognition, and praise to folks for all the wrong reasons.  We praise them for the talents they have, the natural attributes they possess that we find desirable (e.g., good looks, intelligence, wit, charm, etc.) or things they have done that have brought us amusement or pleasure .  And folks like Charlie Sheen are a living testament to what can happen to a person’s sense of self-worth when they are overly valued and rewarded for such things.  When we reinforce people for the wrong things, especially for things that they can’t legitimately claim credit (e.g., their beautiful blue eyes, their intelligence, their quick wit, their musical talent), we necessarily invite them to evaluate their worth in a false and pretentious manner, and we help them inflate their self-esteem.  Contrarily, when we recognize and reward them for the things that they can legitimately claim sole credit (e.g., making the tough but more principled or pro-social choice), we help them develop the kind of self-respect that will help motivate them toward cultivating additional virtues and incorporating those values into their characters.

It was not too long ago that we had real “heroes” in sports, entertainment, and public life.  These days, it seems there are far too many overpaid showboats who feel entitled to do as they please without regard for the impact on their “fans” or how their actions might reflect on their character.  How is it that it then surprises and shocks us when they act the fool, especially when you consider that it is that WE who helped create these impaired characters by lavishing attention on them, throwing incredible sums of money at them, and sending them the constant message that we can let almost anything slide if only they satisfy our desires?

The rules governing behavior are really quite straightforward:  reinforce a behavior and it will happen more often; shun and refuse to reward bad behavior, and it will diminish.  It’s that simple.  And when we remember to recognize and reinforce others, especially our children, for making the tough but noble choices, we help mold people of more virtuous character.

My next post will re-visit this topic in more depth and will present many real-life examples of how recognizing the value of meritorious conduct made all the difference in a person’s self-concept, behavior patterns, and relationships.

5 thoughts on “Merit, Virtue, and Character

  1. I have worked at the same bank for 40 years; there was a recent management change and a new CCO was placed over me. The first thing he did was start having meetings each week with me and my three subordinates, treating us equally and downing anything I said. This has culminated into my receiving a 4 page “counseling” where they removed me from managing my department; I got to keep my VP title and I have been assigned as a Systems Administrator. I have three years left until I retire at age 66 and am really stuck. I loved my job and the people I worked with, and now I can’t stand to go to work. I wish someone could do something about these covert agressive bosses–it is impossible to fight this and our HR doesn’t see it.

  2. PS I have purchased your book and for the first time I see this individual for who he is. I believe eventually the board and management will see it but it will be too late for me, and I am too old to find another job. I have a special bonus I get if I stay at work until I am 65 so I can’t afford to lose this job. I can’t believe this is happening, I have never ever had a counseling and was given this special retirement bonus if I stay until I am 65 because I WAS valued. Now, I feel like I’ve been thrown out with the trash.
    Sorry for the 2nd post but I wanted to tell you if I hadn’t purchased the Wolf in Sheeps Clothing I would have thought it was me instead of him. This validated what I’m experiencing. Thank you.

  3. Bonnern, this could be the beginning of a campaign to get you out before retirement. Don’t just put up. Begin to document everything, look for allies and other people who can witness the covert-aggression against you (and possibly against them), be discreet, and gradually increase the pressure on HR with your documentation. You may need to hire a lawyer too.

    I tried whistleblowing up the chain of command, and only got myself fired.
    Dr Simon, I have been reflecting on another pattern that had always puzzled me. The manipulators in my life tended to abuse me (furious yelling about some “slight”) when I was in the middle of a project, focusing intensely on doing something that was good for both of us. One notable instance was putting the snow chains on while the abusing manipulator was sitting in the car, launching his attack through the window. I was often reduced to tears by this tactic, feeling so blindsided. Now I am thinking that my focus on the “Big Good Thing” I was doing provided an opening to knock me down.

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