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.