Personality Ethics vs. Character Ethics

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Rana Rais Khan

Owner and editor-in-chief at Hiba Magazine

Latest posts by Rana Rais Khan (see all)


Reaping benefits out of the Quran and Seerah, I always notice, how they place absolutely uncompromising emphasis on the value of character integrity. But what really took me by surprise was reading Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The book was so much in line with the core Islamic values. The author narrates his personal experience of the middle seventies, when he was required to review 200 years of success literature published in the USA as part of a doctoral program.

He scanned hundreds of books on self-improvement, popular psychology, and self-help. A startling pattern emerging in the content of the literature was noticed. Much of the success literature of the past 50 years was superficial. It was filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes with social band-aids and aspirin that addressed acute problems and sometimes even appeared to solve them temporarily, but left the underlying chronic troubles untouched to fester and resurface later on.

It was after the World War I that the trend of focusing on the personality ethics emerged. According to Covey, “success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques that lubricate the processes of human interaction. Some of this philosophy was expressed in inspiring and sometimes valid maxims such as ‘Your attitude determines your altitude,’ ‘Smiling wins more friends than frowning,’ and ‘Whatever the mind of man conceives and believes, it can achieve.'”

It also focused on clearly manipulative, even deceptive tactics, such as using techniques to make others like us and to fake interest in the hobbies of others for achieving what we want. The personality ethic approved of intimidating others and wearing the ‘power look.’

However, some elements of the personality ethics are essential for success, such as personality growth, communication skill training, and education in the field of influence strategies and positive thinking. But they are secondary in greatness. It is like constructing a building, whose foundation is the character ethics, or reaping a harvest, whose seeds lie in our character strength.

Now, let us have a look at the character ethics. In 1776, thinkers and social scientists of United States believed that the foundation of success lied in such values as integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the golden rule. Everything that the Quran has ever taught us – that there are basic principles of effective living, and that people can experience true success and enduring happiness only as they integrate these principles into their characters. These are the principles of character ethics.

If we were to use human influence strategies and tactics to get work done, to be more motivated, or to make others like us, while our character is fundamentally flawed, marked by duplicity and insincerity, then in the long run, we cannot be successful. Once the charm disappears and the real face appears, all techniques will cave in. Frustration will build, relationships will become sour, and in spite of efforts, results will be far from desirable.

Lessons to Learn

As the West compartmentalized the character ethics, rather than recognizing it as a foundational and catalytic ingredient of success, they have paid the price. It gave birth to a ruthless and self-centered perception of life. This can be very blatantly observed in the media campaigns they broadcast and through the behaviors of an entire generation, which skipped the core values to cram in quick-fix solutions into their lives.

But as the saying goes, it is not a pity to sight someone making a mistake but to experience others repeating that mistake, rather than learning from it. Pakistan regretfully is treading the same path.

Last year, when I experienced the ordeal of getting my 3 and ½ year old son into school, my shock knew no bounds. Every reputed school was interested in an extrovert and outspoken child. Every mother wanted her kid to be the most eloquent voice box in town, mainly because that was in demand. God forbid, if the child failed the school entrance test – the parents went into mourning, self-pity, and envy.

I wondered if ever any of these parents went to that length to teach their children the significance of honesty, compassion, or other basic values in life. Instead, at this tender age of learning, they were being conditioned to a whole set of superficial traits, which would mould their mindsets into believing that this is the ultimate key to achievement. Later in life when they fail, they would be left devastated and confused.

Steven Covey has presented his case with a strong example of the law of harvest. If we forget to sow in the spring, play all summer and try to cram in the harvest in autumn, what will happen? Can we expect a shortcut? No. It is a natural system. The price must be paid and process must be followed. This also works for human relationships, whether at work or at home. If marriages are contracted on the pretext of false pretence and a flimsy veneer bringing two families together, when the charming tactics and techniques begin to crack up, relationships will break up, too.

There is an extremely powerful and critical lesson to be learnt here, something that every single one of us can relate to. We need to develop, change, and even train ourselves inside-out. Basic goodness gives life to technique. Once the values are in place, additional tactics can lead us to success. In Islamic terms, we can relate this to Tazkiyah-e-Nafs (self-accountability). Attempting to correct our own faults and constantly trying to improve ourselves by following the primary values (character ethics) and then developing the secondary principles (personality ethics). Once we have sown the seeds of a strong character upholding core values, success is bound to follow in our personal and professional lives and even beyond – in our lives in the Hereafter.

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