Should the ethics of Presidential candidates matter?

10 June 2015

The classical view on the relationship between ethics and rulership can be traced back to Plato (424-348 BCE), whose Republic argues that a state will never be well governed unless its rulers are virtuous.  Plato’s student Aristotle challenged his master on many issues (rejecting Plato’s radical views on gender, the family, and the private ownership of wealth), but the two agreed in linking personal virtue and effective leadership.  In contrast, the foundational texts of modern political philosophy – The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) – distinguish the qualities of a skillful sovereign from the traits of a virtuous person.  What can this debate between the ancients and the moderns teach us about the current Presidential race?

One can make a prima facie case that virtue has little to do with being a good President.  Jimmy Carter, a sincerely devout Sunday-school teacher, was one of the most ineffectual of Presidents. In contrast, Jefferson, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and Clinton have been ranked either great or at least very good Presidents by most historians, but each had extra-marital romantic relationships that were – what shall we say? – problematic. Perhaps Machiavelli is right, and what we need from our leaders is not virtue but virtù – the amoral excellences that made states like the Roman Empire great, including cunning, disciplined self-interest, and daring. 

I think that both the classical idealist and the modern realist are wrong about Presidential virtue.  Virtue is an important trait of successful Presidents.  As Robert W. Merry notes in The National Interest, Lincoln’s greatness as President depended in large part on his virtues like tenacity (even in the face of what sometimes seemed like certain defeat), and the wisdom that allowed him to envision what America needed to become. But the traditional conception of virtue is mistaken in a key respect.  Plato and Aristotle were committed to the doctrine of “the unity of the virtues.”  According to the unity of the virtues, in order to have any one virtue, you need to have them all.  This is plausible in some cases.  Consider the relationship between benevolence and wisdom.  Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) quipped, “Hell is paved with good intentions,” which is a poetic way of saying that in order to have genuine compassion you need to also have common sense.  But the records and personal characters of our Presidents don’t support the unity of the virtues in every case.  According to the unity of the virtues, Carter should have been a great President: Carter genuinely possesses virtues like loyalty, generosity, piety, and fidelity, so he should also possess the practical wisdom that a President needs. In contrast, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Clinton should be bad Presidents:  they each demonstrated disloyalty in one of the most important and intimate of human relationships, so they should lack all the other virtues.

However, the unity of the virtues is not plausible as an ironclad rule.  Humans are more complex than that, and sometimes manifest valleys of vice next to peaks of virtue.  Nixon is an excellent example of the complexities of character.  It took impressive fortitude for Nixon to come back again and again from political setbacks (including the devastating failure of Eisenhower to offer Nixon his firm support in the 1960 election).  In addition, re-normalizing relations with China required brilliant strategic insight and courage to break with the views of many in his own party.  However, Watergate was a largely self-inflicted wound.  Nixon believed (perhaps rightly) that Kennedy had eked out a slim victory in 1960 through voter fraud in Illinois. Nixon lacked the healthy pride that would have allowed him to move beyond his bitterness over this.  Kissinger expressed a deep insight into the limitations of Nixon’s character when he said, “He would have been a great, great man, had somebody loved him.”  Consequently, even though Nixon could easily defeat McGovern fair and square, operatives with connections to the White House engaged in needless political dirty tricks that would eventually lead to the only Presidential resignation in US history.  Looking at examples like Jefferson, Carter, and Nixon helps us to see that virtue and vice are far from binary.  In place of the unity of the virtues, we should adopt a “pragmatic idealism about Presidential virtue.”  We must demand virtue of our Presidents (idealism), but be prepared to evaluate them based on the complex relationships among their strengths and weaknesses (pragmatism).

Let’s see how a pragmatic idealism about Presidential virtue applies to a couple of the Republican candidates for the Presidency:  Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio.  Huckabee’s religious faith seems as bona fide as that of Carter.  He speaks movingly in his autobiography about how his experience as a Pastor shaped his political convictions.  But does he possess the practical wisdom that a President needs?  Over the last few weeks, Huckabee has repeatedly expressed his support for Josh Duggar.  Duggar is the eldest son of a Fundamentalist Christian family featured on the reality show, 19 Kids and Counting.  It recently came out that Josh Duggar had admitted to sexually molesting five underage girls (including four of his sisters) when he was a teenager.  The line taken by the Duggar family and repeated by Huckabee is that Josh is sincerely penitent for his sins, has been forgiven by his sisters, and is a changed man now. The issues surrounding these events that most commentators have focused on are certainly legitimate.  However, I want to draw attention to an ethical question that has been overlooked. Regardless of whether one thinks Josh Duggar is, or can be, reformed, and regardless of whether one thinks the media are “victimizing” the Duggars, it is undeniable that association with an admitted child molester is about the worst political liability one can imagine.  Can someone be an effective President who lacks the practical wisdom and sense of self-preservation to cut ties with such a person?  Whatever else one may think about the Duggar scandal, does it show a Presidential level of good judgment that Huckabee is willing to expend political capital defending this man?

Marco Rubio presents a very different issue.  There is evidence that he has shown poor judgment in managing his personal finances.  One writer editorialized that this shows Rubio “can’t be trusted [to] manage his own checkbook, much less run the country.”  But this argument is the unity of the virtues rearing its ugly head again. William Howard Taft was America’s fattest President, but his gluttony is irrelevant to the strengths and weaknesses of his administration.  Just as Taft’s gluttony is irrelevant to his achievements as President, so are Rubio’s personal spending habits irrelevant to his qualifications to become President.  We want a President who has a courageous commitment to a realistic ideal of the role of government (including government finances), and one who has the wisdom to organize support for this vision in his own party and among moderates in the opposition party.  I do not claim to know that Rubio has these virtues, but his personal finances do not tell us one way or the other.

In the Divine Comedy of Dante (1265-1321), sins are distinguished and punishments allotted according to their severity.  Adulterers are among the most sympathetic figures that Dante and Virgil encounter; those who are violent toward the defenseless are considered much worse, and Virgil warns Dante against sympathy toward them. This reflects Dante’s understanding (based in Catholic theology) of the complexity of human weaknesses. Any discussion of the need for our leaders to be virtuous must be similarly nuanced.  Virtues are connected in subtle and complicated ways and need not come in one monolithic block.  A pragmatic idealism about political virtues captures the fact that Presidents need genuine strength of character to succeed in the demanding role they occupy, but those strengths are not the same ones that make them good spouses, friends, or controllers of their household budgets.

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, August 23, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I have been reading

I have been reading Santayanna for the first time---a tome entitled: Dominations and Powers (1951). I particularly appreciated a short quip of his regarding government. George said (approximately): government is war, without the needless bloodshed. Pretty good summation. But, someone of you may wish to assail some or all of this comment. Go ahead. Virtue is, after all, highly overrated. As are even the best of presidents.
No apologies,