When the allies liberated Mauthausen on May 6, 1945, Martin Weiss found himself — along with a half dozen other Jewish survivors of the camp — walking out the gates and down the road, sick, malnourished, without possessions and with no idea where to go or what to do.
They came across an overturned truck and searched it, finding a small tub of lard and an assortment of cow hides. They took the lard, and they took the hides, thinking they might be able to have some shoes made from the leather. None of them had shoes.
A little farther down the road they saw a farmhouse. They knew that Germans lived inside. They regarded all Germans as Nazis, and they hated the Nazis for what they had done to them and their families. They were ready to kill any German they saw.
They walked up to the farmhouse and knocked on the door. When a woman answered they asked her for eggs and flour, which she gave them. Then they went to the barn, found a kettle, started a fire and cooked some dumplings with the lard, eggs and flour. After they finished eating, one of the men suggested they should take some of their hides and give them to the woman as payment for the food.
Years later, Weiss reflected on that moment: “To this day I have a hard time understanding why we behaved so ethically. I could tell you it was because we were nice guys ... baloney! We were mad. Yet, without any discussion, we all agreed to do the same thing.”
This story illustrates the significance of character. The survivors didn’t believe they owed the German woman anything. And yet, faced with a particular situation in which they had asked for something and received it, they responded the way they had been brought up to respond, by paying the woman for what she had given them.
Character does not conform itself to our beliefs. It is deeper than that. It is formed through repeated actions, often beginning at a young age, until the behaviors become habits. And these habits shape the very way in which we perceive ourselves and others.
Character is not necessarily good. It consists of virtues, which are positive traits, and vices, which are negative traits. Virtues are regarded as positive because they tend to lead to happiness, at least in the long run. Vices lead to unhappiness in the long run, though they often are thought to be positive in the short run.
We tend to speak of “values” rather than “virtues” when talking about ethical traits. But the term “value” was imported into ethics fairly recently from the field of economics. “Value” is a term implying relative worth whereas “virtue” refers to a behavioral trait.
Values language has become popular because it is fairly easy for most of us to say what we value. It is what we believe to be important. The problem is, we often don’t act according to our values. We act according to our virtues and vices — according to the traits that have become part of who we are, through our habits and upbringing. Martin Weiss didn’t value the Germans after he was liberated. But he still acted with justice, despite the injustice done to him, because that’s the kind of person he had become.
At the time of year when we naturally turn to a reassessment of our lives, bringing new energy and enthusiasm to becoming better selves, it’s good to remember that the only way to change our character is through the repeated actions that turn into habits. There is no short-cut to virtue.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.