Skip to main content


Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice

American Values and National Character

There are ways in which our character was strengthened in 2017—but many more in which it was weakened.


There are ways in which our character was strengthened in 2017—but many more in which it was weakened. 

The belief in American exceptionalism has been grounded not just in the strength of our political institutions and the bounty of our natural resources but in the strength of our national character, our commitment to a distinctive set of ethical values.

How have these values and our national character fared in 2017?

I believe there are ways in which our character was strengthened in 2017—but many more in which it was weakened.

First, the good news. We are today less tolerant of routine sexual harassment and gross sexual assault than one year ago. Mostly because of the bravery of women in all sectors of American life, we have started to understand the burdens every woman in our society has carried. Our wives, sisters, and daughters are safer, though there is a long way to go to create laws and systems that fully protect them.

We are also much more aware of the plight of the middle and lower classes who have been left behind by globalization and economic dislocation, and too often live in hollowed-out communities that have suffered from an opioid epidemic.

It was President Trump who demonstrated forcefully that we had neglected the interests of these groups, and they voted him into office late in 2016—although neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have helped them much in 2017.

And now the bad news. We have become a country more accepting of lying and more distrustful of anything that claims to be the truth. Arguably, President Trump’s penchant for lying, insisting on patently false “truths” (my inauguration crowd was the biggest), has contributed. Politicians’ distrust of science-based information and Russian-sponsored web trolls bear some of the blame, too.

We are also more tolerant today of self-dealing and conflicts of interest than we were a year ago. President Trump set off this trend by refusing to release his tax returns. Then by making only minor changes in his control of the Trump empire, he became the poster child for conflicts of interest. The nomination of so many senior industry executives to key government positions has distressed even many Republicans.

There is bad news from business as well. Some of our corporate leaders have demonstrated previously unimaginable contempt for their own customers. Formerly trusted companies—Wells Fargo, General Motors, Volkswagen, United Airlines, Toyota—not to mention the dozens of companies that have mishandled our data—appear to have sacrificed their values for increased profits. This erodes the reputation of all business.

More than ever over the past year, we have been transformed from a proud melting pot of immigrants to a society afraid of immigrants and of diversity itself. The ban on immigration and travel from selected Muslim countries and the newly invigorated white supremacist movement are signs of this erosion, as is the failure to retain DACA.

Finally, instead of a country that has a strong can-do spirit dedicated to solving its problems, we have become a nation increasingly immobilized by the toxic polarization in Congress and its echoes in so many state legislatures, city councils, and school boards.

Ethicists like myself often quote an ancient Buddhist text: Beware your thoughts, for they become your actions. Beware your actions, for they become your habits. Beware your habits, for they become your character. And beware your character, because it becomes your destiny.

We need to heed this warning in 2018, for the sake of our American character and our own destiny.

Kirk O. Hanson is executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Read more about him here. This article originally appeared in the Mercury News. Views are his own. 

Top Stories, Features