Can We Legislate Character?

In this age of character disturbance, there’s never a shortage of news stories about someone whose irresponsible actions caused great damage.   And over the past few days, information has been coming to the fore about how some greedy and reckless executives at a very large bank engaged in risky bets that lost billions.   As is typical these days, cries immediately went up for more federal oversight and regulation of an industry that has proven unwilling or unable to adequately manage itself.  But can we ever really solve our problems by adding to the millions of laws already on the books?

The character crisis I define in my book Character Disturbance is far-reaching.  No human enterprise is unaffected by it.  Most of  our economic and social woes can actually be traced to it.  So it’s no wonder there’s so much interest in doing something about it.  But putting our faith in legislation to resolve the problem is misguided.  Unscrupulous characters always find ways around the rules.  No matter how many laws and regulations we put into place, the selfish, greedy, and callous among us will always find a way to render them useless.  We’ve all read how unethical politicians manage to channel huge sums of money into coffers without technically breaking the rules meant to limit donations.  And we’re forever learning how crafty business executives find their way around paying any taxes on enormous profits.  Besides, a great many laws crafted in recent times were passed in an attempt to close loopholes left by the laws that preceded them.  This testifies to the fact that those intent on skirting the law always find a way to do so.  So, if we can’t make people behave responsibly simply by passing legislation, what can we do to restore some social sanity?

There’s an old saying that one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  The same principle applies to our current character crisis.  It will take years of dedicated attention to instill and nurture in our young people the character sufficient to enable them to function responsibly as adults.  And in the meantime, we need to do a much better job of holding the unscrupulous among us accountable.   It takes courage to call people out on their misconduct and to bring about a day and time of reckoning.  But we all must get better at doing exactly that.  Instead of pinning our hopes on the government to protect us, each one of us must be willing to lead the way with respect to modeling integrity in ourselves and insisting upon it in others.  Absolutely no one or no entity is too big to fail.  And sometimes failure provides the only sufficient motivation to change course.  All of us must reckon with the consequences of our actions.  Holding ourselves and others to account – that’s the real answer.  And we must also help create a climate in which principled behavior is more clearly valued and rewarded.

The character problem that has now reached crisis proportions did not develop overnight and will not be resolved with the snap of a finger or the passage of a thousand new rules.  Because of where we are in this crisis, there will indeed be some very hard times ahead.  And because the costs of this crisis continue to add up, there will be constant cries for someone to do something (which usually translates into the government passing yet more laws).  But the rules for civil, responsible conduct always have to be written on a person’s heart.  And there are tremendous risks with respect to the loss of personal freedoms if we keep trying to legislate our way out of this crisis.  Not to mention all-too-common unintended consequence of further over-burdening those who are already behaving responsibly.

It will take a lot of dedication and time to resolve the social, political, and economic mess we’re in.  But the task we face is clear:  be the kind of person we want others to be, and hold one another to account.  Like it or not, we’re all in this together.   And we can certainly do better.  It’s just that passing rules to make misbehavior more difficult won’t provide the inspiration necessary to get the challenging job before us done.

3 thoughts on “Can We Legislate Character?

  1. Very interesting line of reflection.

    Having been through this in the workplace various times, one think I strongly recommend to those with the authority is making sure that your workplace rules, codes of conduct, disciplinary procedures are all written with this type of personality in mind.
    We now have embedded in our definitions of bullying, misconduct, etc. the substance of what can be covert aggression. The national laws of your country might be slow in letting you tackle such things. But if you have the interal capability of defining covert aggressive behaviors and tactics as misconduct at least in the workplace you can give yourself the powers to tackle it legally and fairly. And it’s a great staff training opportunity to talk it through and enlighten those around you to ‘CA-proof’ your working environment by raising awareness of the syndrome in general; and making clear (a) to the CD you won’t tolerate it and (b) to others, that you want to hear about it and will take action.

    1. I don’t agree that passing more laws is not the thing to do, because of the need to hold people accountable for what they do. In most cases, how do we do that? We point to a law they broke, then we can indict them and possibly put them in jail. If we repeal old, good laws, as we have done, this enables those Big Business People of bad character to do whatever they want, which they have done. If we repealed some laws, therefore they didn’t break any, how are we supposed to hold them accountable? These people should be criminally prosecuted. They caused millions to lose their homes.

      Second, laws and codes mean something besides the formal act of holding people accountable for what they do. They’re there because they mean something. They are a concrete statement of the values of the society that put them in place. For instance, there’s a law now that says corporations are people. Obviously, enough people had to believe that way for such a thing even to be considered, and now it’s a touchpoint for the kind of debate in the society that fosters the very development of character that you point out is needed. Are corporations people? Now millions of people are thinking about it and talking about it.

      I am not saying that we need millions of picky little laws and rules about everything. We don’t. But if we had no laws at all, you could come and steal for me and I would have no legal recourse–no way to hold you accountable. Except maybe to come and shoot you, and then it would be the wild west of the 1800’s all over again. Do we really want to go back to settling disputes by fighting duels in the street? Nah. A little common sense is in order.

      1. Thanks for the comment, Linda.

        I’m not at all saying we don’t need laws. But I am insisting that the way we’re going about trying to solve the character crisis by legislating every little thing, further restricting even good people’s freedoms, and placing an ever increasing burden on those who are already being responsible just to have legal cause to hold the unsavory characters among us responsible is both misguided and ultimately self-defeating. And putting our faith solely in the rules is also folly. Antisocial personalities ALWAYS find ways around the rules, no matter how many of them we create. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing but expecting different results. We already have billions of laws on the books and an equal number of regulations. But look at the mess we’re in. And it isn’t getting any better, despite the literal explosion of new rules. Our character crisis can only be solved at the root. We must take a much more serious look at the cultural climate in which our young persons develop and the character fostering experiences they need to become responsible adults. And our cultural climate also needs to return to one in which reprehensible behavior against the common good is universally regarded in the shameful way it once was. We’ve got to quit glorifying the outrageous and call people out on their irresponsible behavior.

        I truly respect your valid points, Linda. But I’m dead serious in my point here. We’re in a serious crisis that we cannot trust mere rules to solve.

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