What’s The Difference Between Character & Reputation?

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Philosophers often discuss the importance of character, commonly called “virtue”. Stoicism in particular places a large emphasis on developing the cardinal virtues (justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance) which, as the Stoics believed, would allow us to flourish as human beings.

At the same time, it isn’t uncommon to hear talk of reputation. Many companies, for example, pride themselves on their reputation and make it known to their employees that their reputation is of utmost importance. Are philosophers like the ancient Stoics right in that character should be our aim, or is it the modern businessmen focusing on their reputation that have it correct?

Defining Character & Reputation

As mentioned above, “character” is the same as virtue. It’s doing the right thing and being a good person. Exactly what this means is complicated (and beyond the scope of this article), but in Stoicism, the four cardinal virtues are a great place to start.

Having a good character means developing those virtues as habits. That is, developing the wisdom to know what to do, when to act, and how to act, the courage and fortitude to overcome fear so that you are able to act appropriately, and the temperance to remain balanced in all aspects of life. All of these virtues point towards justice, which requires being active and social in the world around you.

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More abstractedly, we could say that character is what you are. Reputation, on the other hand, is not necessarily what you are but rather what people think you are. If you have a good reputation it means that people have the perception that you have good character. That does not mean, however, that you actually do have good character. The world is full of people who are skilled at giving off the impression that they are virtuous (at least temporarily).

Is Reputation Valuable?

The fact that so many companies talk regularly about their reputation does suggest that reputation has value. The reputation of a company is what people perceive that company to be (from a character-like perspective). If a plumbing company has a reputation for being competent, professional, and decently priced, for instance, it is likely that more people will want to hire them.

Hence, reputation does have value in the world, and it makes sense why companies would care about their reputation: it increases the chances that they will have more business. How is it, then, that reputation is considered an indifferent in Stoicism? How is that position justified given its practical nature of it in the real world?

Should We Prioritize Character or Reputation?

Aiming At Reputation Doesn’t Work

Let’s say that you are starting a new company. You understand that reputation is what allows you to get more work in the future, allowing you to support your family. It is tempting for many to go out into the world and spread a good reputation. This can take many forms, from going door-to-door and informing everyone of your skills, to constantly bragging about that one job that you did exquisitely.

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The problem with such an approach is that doing so doesn’t actually improve your reputation; it actually degrades it. The reason is that it degrades your character. This is known as “virtue-signaling”, and involves publicly expressing how “virtuous” you are. When you choose to engage in virtue-signaling, such as bragging to potential new customers about your skills, you are actively cultivating a poor character.

The Connection Between Character & Reputation

This leads to the connection between character and reputation: character is what you are, and reputation is what people think you are, but reputation is fleeting while character is more stable. Character is absolutely within your control while reputation is the opinion of others, which is far out of your direct control. Consider how character and reputation stand the test of time.

If a person has good character (meaning they focus on being virtuous as opposed to appearing virtuous), then their reputation will naturally improve over time. It may fluctuate depending on personal opinion, but it will trend higher with time because time exposes who you really are to people. As you act more and more in the world and with other people the number of opportunities for people to evaluate your character (and hence change your reputation in their minds) increases.

The opposite is the person who has a good reputation but a poor character. They may start on the right foot, but as time goes on, people will begin to note that their initial perception of them was false; their character was, in fact, bad.

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Going back to the “new company” example, if you can convince people that you will do a good job due to your charisma and virtue-signaling, you may have many initial work opportunities. However, if you charge them double once the job is complete, they will soon learn that your character isn’t what they thought, and they are very unlikely to come back to you again.

Closing Remarks

Improving your character does not always mean that you will have a good reputation, but it’s the best chance that you’ve got. The alternative — directly trying to improve your reputation with a bad character — seems to be short-lived. The element of time can make this difficult. It may be tempting to care too much about your reputation early in an encounter, but an article of faith is required that being good will naturally improve your reputation over time, hence giving you better opportunities and success in the world.

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.

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