Go to Chapter One Section

How Could You Do That?!
The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience
By Laura Schlessinger

Chapter One: Yeah, I Know . . . But . . . (Where's Your Character?)

The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance, and even our very existence depends on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to our lives. Albert Einstein

The number one most typically asked question of me in any radio, magazine, TV, or newspaper interview is: "What is the number one most typically asked question on your internationally syndicated show?"

My answer is twofold. First, although there is no typical specific question, there is a more general one, namely, "Now that I've done all these things I shouldn't have done, how can I avoid the consequences I knew, but denied, and just hoped would not happen?"

That's the truth. While many callers' questions are about contemplation and anticipation (i.e., "What could/should I do about . . . ?"), the majority are attempts at retroactivity (i.e., "I know I created a mess, but how can I make it all better, come out differently, or better still, make it go away?"), Second, the number one response to my reminders of cause and effect, common sense, values, ethics, morality, and fair play is: "Yeah, I know, but . . ."--and at that moment there occurs the abdication of character, courage, and conscience. The "but . . ." is followed by all sorts of attempts to indemnify the action under scrutiny, for example, through saying "But . . . I was . . .

* unhappy * confused * frightened * in love * scared to risk * uncomfortable * feeling lonely * feeling needy * feeling anxious

(By the way, by using the word feeling, most people think they are now on sacred ground, since pop psych has elevated feelings from information to irresistible force.

* carried away * vulnerable * unawares * victimized

Victimization status is the modern promised land of absolution from personal responsibility. Nobody is acknowledged to have free will or responsibility anymore. Everyone is the product of causation (i.e., "Such 'n such happened to me and made me do that."). There are no longer individuals" Just victims in groups. One such popular trend is "Adult Child of Some Kind of Parent or Situation."

You know the final excuse that really gets my hackles to full quivering attention? It's when callers protest that they are "only human." ONLY human? As if one's humanness were a blueprint for instinctive, reflexive reactions to situations, like the rest of the animal kingdom. I see being "human" as the unique opportunity to use our mind and will to act in ways that elevate us above the the animal kingdom.

A perfect illustration of these clashing definitions of humanity occurs in the classic film The African Queen. Humphrey Bogart as Charlie, the solitary sailor, tries to invoke the "only human" excuse when he attempts to explain his prior drunken evening by saying that it was, after all, only human nature. Katharine Hepburn as Rosie, the missionary, peers over her Bible and aptly retorts, "We were put on the earth to rise above nature."

And it is largely with the 3 C's that we accomplish that. The 3 C's are Character, Courage, and Conscience, without which we are merely gigantic ants instinctively filling out our biologically determined destiny.

While natural selection did shape our minds and feelings, there is something extra special about the human mind that leads us to be able, if not always willing, to take that extra step past some action that makes sense on only the basis of "survival of the fittest," or "survival of the me."

No doubt about it, self-advancement and self-indulgence are powerful innate drives for personal status and pleasure. Even the motivation for seemingly altruistic behaviors (such as letting people in line in front of you, and sharing food and other resources) can be found in the common sense of "I do for you because I can expect some reciprocal benefits in the future." Humans are social animals, therefore we all rely on the kindness of kin for survival to some extent-yet, if all giving is simply motivated by the expectation of eventually getting, where does our special "humanness" come in?

Right here! Human beings can actually derive pleasure in the very act of resisting temptations, from not getting something, someone, or someplace the easy way. Also, it's profoundly satisfying to forgo immediate pleasures and benefit another person at some expense of the self, even if no one else knows you've done it, eliminating the investment concept of reciprocal altruism and restoring character to its rightful place in our lives.


Yes indeed, human beings derive pleasure from having character, which I once heard defined as "What you are when no one else is looking" For humans, brute strength and stealth are not enough. We value reputation, respect, admiration, and the longlasting happiness that comes from the sacrifice, pains, and efforts that go into forging character. In addition to the specific pleasure humans take directly from rising above the pull of selfish desires, we gain the acceptance and affection of others.

Peek-a-Boo, Now I Really See You

Tina, twenty-two, was married for six months when she and her husband went to dinner with three other couples. All the guys at the table had been at jack's bachelor party and took this opportunity to tell tales of how he'd carried on that fateful night, including having oral sex with one of the entertainment-type women at the party. Tina had asked jack before and after the event if there was going to be drinking, women, and sex. He said yes to the first, and no to the rest.

When I asked Tina, "So, what are you left with?" she replied sadly, "I know that he lied to me before and after the fact, and that he had intimate sex with a complete stranger. I now see him as having little character and believe that I cannot trust him to resist impulses. For the 'long haul' of marriage, I don't see how I can trust him and count on him. I'm seriously considering an annulment."

Tina now sees her husband as having little "character." What does this mean? It suggests that in the inner battle between the self (interest/indulgence) and the obligation toward others (fairness/sacrifice), she imagines he win lean toward self. Therefore, she judges she can't count on him to do the right thing or honor his commitments to others. In her eyes, and in all of ours, this makes him less reliable, therefore less valuable as a potential partner, mate, co-parent, and friend.

The call ended with Tina in a contemplative and sad mood. While she understood the philosophical implications of what her decision needed to be based upon, she did not draw a conclusion by the end of the call.

An assessment of your character is either a social invitation or a warning to others about you--or it should be. Just yesterday a co-worker told me that his friend had been offered a terrific job opportunity by a long-time acquaintance. In the course of wooing the friend, the acquaintance told him about the time he'd bought a piano with his credit card and had never been billed for it; he has a piano, and somebody else never got paid for it.

When my friend asked me what I thought that acquaintance should have done, I replied that of course he should pay the bill. I added that the friend should make sure he gets his compensation up-front because the acquaintance already telegraphed in advance that he was a getting-without-giving type.

When Do I Get Mine?

Integrity, honesty, and honor may not give immediate reward-s or gratification, and they cad be life-threatening (for example, being a whistle-blower or turning state's evidence). The absence of integrity, honesty, and honor do not always bring punishment or scorn, and can be life-aggrandizing (connivers and cheats often gain power and wealth). Therefore, morality must be its own reward. That's what my caller Tony and I grappled with.

Tony is twenty-nine, single, and his career is about to take off. All it requires is that he concentrate and focus his time, effort, and resources specifically on his goal. One problem: Almost two years ago his older sister and her husband died in an accident. A-nother of Tony's sisters took in the two children, now ten and thirteen. However the woman didn't have the money and space to handle the additional responsibility, so they had all moved in with Tony.

"Look," Tony complained, "I feel sorry for them, I really do. But isn't it my turn at life? I have so much I want to accomplish and this is the time. I don't think I'm being selfish, just practical. What do you think?"

Instead of giving him my opinion, I asked him one question: "If I could project you fifteen years into the future and you could look back at this time in your life, what would you want to see yourself having done?"

Sighing deeply and choking back the tears, Tony replied, "Continue to help them."

Clearly, to resist the inner drive toward self-indulgence over character requires a value system that judges some behaviors as better than others--along with a specialty known as Courage.


Merely sustaining life is a vegetative state; people who lead such lives report experiencing unhappiness and boredom. Thoroughly living life requires initiative, risk-taking, sustained action against odds, sacrificing for ideals and for others, leaps of faith. People who lead such lives report being happy, hopeful, and exhilarated . . . even when they fail.

Courage is to life what broth is to soup. It is the very context that gives experiences, events, and opportunities a special richness, flavor, and meaning.

Courage is also what gives values vibrancy. So many people espouse values about sex, abortion, honesty, etc., until the dilemma is theirs. Then, because of their particular circumstances, selfish needs, and uncomfortable feelings, the values become optional.

Yeah, But . . . I'm Only Human

A recent caller, Gayle, thirty-one, and I tussled w-ith this concept when she began her call by telling me she needed to let her mother know that at age nineteen she'd had an abortion as the result of carelessness in an uncommitted, sex-for-fun relationship.

"Gayle, why do you have to let her know that now?"

"Well, because my younger sister is in the same situation and I want to make it easier for my mother."

"Easier for your mother? Interesting. What's the one sentence you want her to understand that would make it easier for her? One sentence."

"I want her to understand we can make mistakes, that we're only human."

"Only human? That makes me want to toss up my lunch. You do what you feel like without forethought or responsibility and then you say, 'Oh, well, that's human.' I see human as something very special. I reserve 'that was very human' for something that was magnificent--like courage, altruism, artistry. Not just doing what you feel like, then say, 'Ah, gosh, only human!' So, I disagree with your basic tenet. Is that what you're going to tell your kids--don't think about right and wrong or consequences and responsibilities?"

"No, I won't tell them that"

"But, Gayle, that's what you want your mother to accept and understand and it is the wrong message."

Gayle's mother has two daughters who had unprotected sex in noncommitted relationships and will have aborted what for them is inconvenient tissue without contemplating that the tissue was a grandchild to their mother. I suggested to Gayle that knowing of the loss would probably hurt her mother, then proposed that her sister have her baby and put it up for adoption in a two-parent family. That way, the child would not have to pay the ultimate price for their mother's moment of pleasure, passion, fantasy, and obvious risk. "Why," I asked Gayle, "does this innocent have to die because you and your sister are 'only human'?"

I further suggested that if there were anything to say to her mother it ought to be apologies for the pain and hurt and loss because her daughters were operating on animal instinct instead of human responsibility. Admitting she hadn't looked at the situation from that point view, Gayle signed off by saying, "Thank you." I replied, "I'm glad you gave me a chance."


I believe too many people use "Okay, I made a mistake" (where the word mistake is used instead of the more honest "did wrong") or "But I'm only human," or "I'm not perfect!" as an escape clause out of a guilty conscience. Proof of the pudding, do people mostly say these before or after life has caught up with them? if it's before, I'D accept, as innocent error, an initial attempt to deal with life and others that is corrected when the self-centeredness or folly is recognized. If it's after, though, the speakers hope or believe they cannot nor should not be condemned, criticized, or judged. With these protective clauses they demand to be excused.

We wish to be excused because guilt (internal pain from the disappointment in self) and shame (public awareness of our transgressions with the threat of condemnation and punishment) are painful emotions, and so we go through verbal and psychological contortions of blame and rationalizations.

Conscience, however, is not just about avoiding those negatives. Conscience, our capacity to judge ourselves in moral terms and to conform to those standards and values that we make a part of our inner being, is also motivated by good feelings such as pride (in our fulfillment of goodness), compassion, empathy, love, and identification (seeing ourselves in others, thereby imagining how our actions would feel if directed onto us).

Human beings, not tightly programmed by instinct like lower animals, are charged with the seemingly overwhelming responsibility of making judgments and choosing between behaviors. We have responsibility because we have control. The metaphorical point of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden is that humans have the ability and the inescapable requirement of making choices. These decisions are made continuously: from parking in handicapped spaces to save yourself time and steps to justifying your lack of quantity time with your children and family by exalting quality time.

Thelma made my day, and drove home this point, with her fax:

The more I listen to you the more wrong I see I have been in most of my decisions; not because YOU, Dr. Laura, say so, but because I now see I have always done what I wanted and then justified my actions after the fact to myself and others. Thanks to You, things are beginning to make sense.

Beware the Pleasure Principle

Why does there seem to be such an inner struggle between the concepts of human as instinctive animal and human as an elevated being of choices? Simple. It's all about immediate gratification: pleasure. Conscience would appear to get in way of that.

The pleasure principle of which I speak has to do mostly with our confusion between the concepts of "happiness" and of "Pleasure," While a balance of both is a great formula for a satisfying life, the confusion between the two, and the emphasis on the latter, have been devastating to individuals as well as families, and inevitably, society.

Pleasure is a discrete a enjoyable experience: a sugar-covered donut, great sex, listening to music, a foot rub, watching an absorbing movie. As satisfying as, pure pleasure is, it is also transitory and often quite superficial.

"Happiness," as Stan Cohen wrote in the Los Angeles Times,

is making steady, measurable, and observable progress in achieving the long-term goals that are a part of a lifetime plan. Happiness is rooted in some combination of the basic desires for a good life that nearly every functional individual holds: to love and be loved; to successfully raise a family; to share ample quality time with friends and loved ones; to be enjoyably engaged in a gainful pursuit, one that fully employs and continuously expands one's skills, has purpose, earns fair recognition and provides rewards that are economically and/or emotionally satisfying; and to be a valued and respected member of one's community and society.

In this regard, pleasure is an event; happiness is a process. Pleasure is an end point; happiness is the journey. Pleasure is material; happiness is spiritual. Pleasure is self-involved; happiness is outer- and other-involved.

When individuals disregard the process of their lives and focus mostly on the seduction of the pleasurable moment, their self-centered actions often generate pain for others and destruction to their ultimate potential for self-esteem and personal achievement.

To this point, Carol B. faxed the following:

As I was sitting in church yesterday I learned the following: True happiness requires fidelity to a worthy purpose. Then I realized, Dr. Laura, that you must be the happiest person on earth. Forge on, woman!

Missives like Carol's not only affirm my efforts but help keep me focused on the process (teaching/helping) versus the moment (ratings/time cues).

A Good Conscience Has Its Perks

In childhood, conscience is our internalized fear of losing our parents' love and support. In adulthood, it's something we impose upon ourselves in order to become complete human beings. There is seemingly no biological benefit to acting with conscience; if there were, only moral individuals would survive and procreate. Sadly, we know that's not true. The benefit of conscience is that you won't suffer guilt (private) or shame (public), and that by your own self-imposed definition, you are a moral human, a special kind of animal who takes unique pride in elevating him/herself above the termites.

This attitude is usually associated with religion and spirituality. Why do all religions have firm rules about behaviors? just to cut into your fun? just to control you? No, it is as a guide to help individuals in their "human" struggle between immediate self-gratification and the positioning of their behaviors in special circumstances, like reserving sex for a committed love relationship, which then elevates human sexuality above crickets and termites and other animals responding mindlessly to instinctive, built-in reproductive urges.

Twenty-one-year-old Mitch's car helped clarify this point: "A lot of my characteristics, a lot of my beliefs do not fit with a lot of the people I see and interact with every day. You know, people my age."

"Meaning that you are more or less what?" I asked.

"Traditional. What I wanted to ask you is this: I've been in three, to me, long-term relationships. Since I'm only twenty-one, long-term is a year to two years. And, in all three of those relationships I have been in love with the other person. Two of these relationships have been sexual. Um, I am not currently in a relationship, but I met somebody on the telephone about one month ago. I'm in Seattle, she's in Dallas. She is thirty-one. We get along well over the phone."

"Mitch, my friend, I'm glad you said "over the phone" because it's not real life, it's real fantasy."

"Right, I understand that, but [See?! Here's the "but" that erases every intelligent thought that came before!] I've planned a trip for me to visit her and to spend the week to see how well we get along. My question to you is that, based on my background, what do you think?"

"Wow--it is certainly tough to beat out a romantic fantasy with intellect here. If in real life people got together like this the divorce rate would be four times what it is now.

"Your basic thirty-one-year-old woman might want to rent you for a while, but it's unlikely that she'll buy. So, this is about excitement and an opportunity for pure sexual gratification. If you are talking about a traditional relationship where you have much in common in values and experience, where you are working toward family, and other common goals--this isn't likely to be the opportunity."

There is a thrill and a pull to something like this--that this might be the magic to give your life meaning, that you might feel more manly and grown--up at least for now. This pun is so exquisitely powerful that rationality is put by the wayside as a trade-off (choice) for the "fun," for the "pleasure."


Here's the key, though. Mitch says that he is a "traditional guy." The point of traditionalism is that it gives you rules and values that serve as bridges, to carry you over these kinds of temptations. Otherwise, there is absolutely no point to calling yourself traditional, unless you just want to give some illusion of superiority or maturity (definitely Mitch).

Traditional values imply the following: there are going to be exciting temptations toward which we will feel drawn; we then use time-honored rules of conduct, including everything from etiquette to morality, to get us through the moment without acquiescing to it, because we know that ultimately it is likely not in our best interest to succumb.

Free At Last . . . Are You Sure?

Since the Sixties, however, the mentality has been "To hell with traditional values. I want to feel what I want to feel and do what I want to do and damn the consequences!" Well, the consequences are usually emotional pain, diminished self-esteem, and the breaking down of barriers that ultimately make us feel less as well as lost. "Traditional" values have an important place in our lives and in society. Mitch used the term too lightly. it is easy to call yourself anything. The true measure of a label is its use. Espousing values is merely paying lip service, unless they are invoked in a time of challenge and temptation.

The sexual revolution screamed that sexual mores and behaviors were repressive and not responsive to the real, healthy sensuality and sexuality. And so began the dissociation of sexual behavior from anything more meaningful than "We feel like it, it feels good, so why not? Who is hurt?"

Some realities were either ignored or minimized. Female sexuality afforded multiple orgasms, all right, but a more typically feminine need for context. was denigrated in this Brave New Unisex World. Consequently, many women were left feeling betrayed and abandoned by their recreational sex partners when the guys continually found new recreational sex partners women also typically overromanticize these liaisons in order to imbue the casual encounter with (synthetic) meaning. Their eventual disappointments dealt a mighty blow to their self-esteem. Also lost was the social expectation for men to see and treat women as special. I believe that the women who succumbed to the Pinocchio promises of the sexual revolution didn't free up their sexuality as much as they lost the sense of specialness of that act and their special contribution to the life process and social cohesion. Two consensual adults is not nearly as spiritually elevating as two consensual committed adults And, double standard notwithstanding, the tide "woman" use to mean much more than just genital determination.

Finally, regardless of birth control, pilot error and contraceptive failure led to unwanted pregnancies, hurling women and their children into single-parent poverty and the loss of the male parental figure in the home. This catapulted teenage sex into the danger zone: pregnancy, abortions, lack of education, poverty, sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS, and drugs, drinking, and violence through the loss of the intact family support system.

Freedom Is Only Half the Ticket

Immediate gratification, pleasure, is all about perpetual and irresponsible freedom. But freedom abused is freedom lost. We all clamor to be free at all times with all things. If we truly were free, for example, all traffic intersections would be festivals of blood and twisted metal, instead of civilized, organized thoroughfares with light signals dictating driving behaviors.

Freedom needs to be balanced with respect for others and the special awareness,that both to others and to ourselves, we are what we do. And mindless freedom of the moment carries a heavy price tag. The following letter highlights real freedom:

I am, by most of society's standards, totally square. I am 32 years old and happily married with two beautiful girls--ages 3 and 6. In my youth, I decided the dating, relationship, marriage process was so full of land mines that I was going to play by the rules. I am so glad I did. I dated, but never slept with a woman until I married my wife at age 25. My wife was 26 when we married and was a virgin. We have never cheated on each other and have a home built on trust, commitment, friendship, mutual respect and a lot of love. Each year our marriage gets better and better and it was good to start with. I have no fear of AIDS or other venereal diseases, I have no flashbacks of other women to compare with my wife, no guilt" and no custody or marital messes. What freedom! Some say luck, but I say it had a lot to do with right choices.

When I listen to your show I become so grateful that I followed the course I did. Some car it a traditional way, some call it God's way, but I know it is simply the right way.

Sincerely, Berin G.

A Quality Life

A quality life requires the constant exercise of character, courage, and conscience. In the chapters that follow, the folly of attempting to ignore or circumvent the 3 C's is demonstrated in actual calls and letters. Read them, identify elements of yourself, and elevate yourself to being truly human.

Dear Dr. Schlessinger:

As a listener who cares not about your specific religious persuasion but about your wisdom, I thank you for your calling us all to become more than crickets. Keep up the good work.

A former cricket trying to work my way up the food chain

And, finally, one last poem faxed to me by dozens of listeners:

Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny. Author unknown

© 1996 Laura Schlessinger

Back to the top