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The Politically Great and the Morally Good

photograph of Machiavelli statue

It wouldn’t be beyond the pale to assert that we’re currently having a collective crisis of faith regarding many of our world leaders and the political institutions they represent. Not only do they appear to be ineffectual in the face of emerging challenges – climate change, economic collapse, pandemics, and rising fascism, to pick a few – but several also seem to be fundamentally untrustworthy and, if one wants to be provocative, downright immoral.

For example, in the U.K., in the past year alone, several high ranking cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister himself, have been accused of lying, bullying, adultery, cronyism, corruption, and the questionable appropriation of public funds for personal use. Abuses of power like these, which extend far beyond the U.K.’s shores, have even been identified by the Centre for the Future of Democracy’s recent report as one of the critical causes for the broader decreased faith in democracy in many of its former bastions.

Now concerns regarding politicians acting less than virtuously are nothing new. In the 44 B.C. treatise De Officiis, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote that there is “no vice more offensive than avarice, especially in men who stand foremost and hold the helm of state. For to exploit the state for selfish profit is not only immoral; it is criminal, infamous.” Indeed, concern regarding politicians’ dubious dealings have been common throughout history.

Cicero’s demand that politicians not exploit the state is pretty ethically uncontroversial. However, there is a more nuanced question here than should politicians do their job morally. The question of the personal moral character of politicians and what this means for their suitability as statesmen is far more complex. Does it matter to us if a world leader acts immorally in private when they are good at their job of being a politician? That is, if they lead the country, protect their citizens, and communicate clearly with those they’re responsible for/to, then why should we care about their extracurricular ethical deficiencies?

To illustrate, let’s use a thought experiment. Imagine an election has been called to decide your country’s next leader. Candidate A is known to be morally admirable – they recycle, don’t cheat on their partner, give generously to charity, don’t lie, etc. On the other hand, Candidate B does the opposite – they lie, cheat, throw all their rubbish in the same bin, hoard their wealth, etc. After a brutal campaign, both candidates demonstrate their suitability for the job in equal measure. With nearly all the votes counted, there’s a tie. Yours is the only vote left to be cast. As such, you get to decide who the newest world leader is. Whom do you pick, and why?

On the one hand, you might think it’s obvious – you pick Candidate A as they are objectively better than Candidate B. In addition to doing the job, Candidate A is also a good person, and that’s valuable. After all, immorality is, by definition, bad (we might want to value it as -1). This undesirability is evident compared to the amoral (which we could value at 0) and even more so when compared to the morally good (which we can value as +1). Thus, if you end up with an effective leader regardless, why would you pick Candidate B, who comes with a negative value (-1), when you could instead have Candidate A, who comes with a positive value (+1). In other words, why settle for less when you can have more?

Complementing this self-centered approach, those favoring the morally virtuous leader may also ground their reasoning in justice. We typically think that the immoral shouldn’t succeed at the expense of the moral; there is something right in rewarding those who act morally and punishing, or at least not rewarding, those who don’t. To actively choose Candidate B over Candidate A would fly in the face of this sense of justice. It would indicate that individual integrity is divisible from the mainstay of professional ethics. That personal moral failing can be disregarded in decisions about who should(n’t) be rewarded in professional capacities. In short, when all other things are equal, justice demands that bad people shouldn’t succeed and good people should. Thus, Candidate A is the just choice.

On the other hand, it’s plausible to argue in favor of, or at least of not discounting, Candidate B simply because they possess some personal moral failings. After all, who among us is entirely virtuous?

As we’ve already established, the two candidates are equally qualified. Thus, we have to ask why it matters that one acts in a morally dubious manner and the other doesn’t. Could it be that we’re acting upon some ill-formed or reactionary intuition? After all, we don’t think in these terms when we consider a person’s suitability for other jobs or tasks. For example, if you need surgery, the idea that you would pick from a list of equally qualified surgeons based on whether one was faithful to their partner would seem bizarre. In this situation, what matters is that person’s capacity to fulfill the role’s requirements. Anything outside that scope is inconsequential. So, just as we would think it insignificant that a capable surgeon acts immorally when not on-call, we might feel the same about a world leader – provided that they can undertake the task of effectively leading the nation, all other considerations should fall to the wayside.

As with many thought experiments, you might consider this one’s parameters to be too restrictive or even implausible. The pessimistic (or some may say realistic) of you may argue that the very qualities that make one a practical head of state are the same qualities that would tarnish one’s personal ethical record. As noted in Machiavelli’s The Prince:

“And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.”

For Machiavelli, those qualities which make someone a good person are not the same as those that make them a great leader. Indeed, often those qualities may impede one’s ability to do their job as a politician. That, at the end of the day, the requirements of statehood demand that one lie, deceive, subjugate, battle, and even kill others – things that we would otherwise decry as vices and sins if not for the fact that the role of world leader required them.

Where does this leave us then? Do politicians need to be moral, and are we right in expecting them to be? While it may seem obvious to say yes – to decry the idea of an immoral leader – we have to be aware that we may be moralizing in a way that we wouldn’t do for people in other roles. Furthermore, we might even be doing our country a disservice by trying to install a leader who, under any other circumstance, might be considered a good person.

Does Character Matter?

photograph of empty oval office

One infamous feature of the Trump era is the shocking decline in the proportion of Republican voters who say that the president’s moral character matters to them. According to a recent Gallup poll, during the Clinton administration 86 percent of Republicans thought it was very important for “a president to provide moral leadership for the country.” In 2018, that number was down to 63 percent. The almost inescapable conclusion is that Republicans have simply dropped the requirement of good character — or perhaps made a special exception — in light of President Trump’s obvious moral turpitude.

However, in a certain way the shift is understandable. Although we may think that good moral character is desirable in our elected officials, it is less clear why this should be so. After all, it seems plausible that we ought to support politicians who will be most successful at their jobs, and that the success of an elected official consists solely in successful governance. But moral character is, at best, a weak indicator of a person’s capacity to govern. For example, Robert Caro’s monumental biography of President Lyndon Johnson conclusively demonstrates that he was a real piece of work, but he was also a fabulously effective politician. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether Mother Teresa could have become, like Johnson, a “master of the Senate,” despite — or perhaps because of — her saintly disposition. Thus, if we think that capacity to govern is the sole criteria of success for a politician, then it seems that moral character does not matter a great deal. Much more relevant is a would-be leader’s record of managing and utilizing unwieldy bureaucracies.

On the other hand, most people seem to have a strong intuition that it would be impermissible to allow a murderer or rapist to hold office, no matter how effective they are at governing. So, we are confronted with two contradictory intuitions: that we ought to support politicians solely based on their capacity to govern, and that we ought not support certain morally egregious politicians regardless of their capacity to govern. Something has got to give.

One might question the claim that moral character is a weak indicator of a person’s capacity to govern. An ancient strand of political thought stretching back to Plato and Aristotle has it that virtue is a necessary attribute of a successful leader since effective statecraft requires practical wisdom, and practical wisdom is both the crown of the practical virtues and cannot exist without them. Anecdotally, the evidence is at best unclear. After all, President Johnson will perhaps be forever known for his disastrous decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, a decision that may have been due, at least in part, to certain character flaws. Likewise, President Trump’s cruelty and stupidity seems to be reflected in his many cruel and stupid policies. At the same time, there are surely instances of morally exemplary characters who perform poorly in political office. Thus, a more systematic study than is possible here would be required to make this objection stick.

Another place that some have pushed back on the argument is the implicit claim that successful governance has nothing to do with having a morally good character. What if exercising virtue is part of governing? If to govern is, at least in part, to provide moral leadership, then an elected official’s acts of humility, kindness, justice, and prudence are also acts of governing. If this is the case, then when, for example, a president consoles victims of a natural disaster or school shooting, makes a wise decision about during a foreign policy crisis, or celebrates the civic contributions of particular citizens, these are all at least arguably instances of governing, and yet also (at their best) authentic demonstrations of virtue.

Another weak point of the argument against moral character is the claim that we ought, without qualification, to support politicians who will be most successful at their jobs. Of course, it is important that politicians be successful, since governing is a kind of job that one can do well or badly. But a political office is also a position that comes with a tremendous number of perks; it is not just a reward, but it certainly is one. Because of this, some have argued that we ought to assess a politician not only with respect to how successful she is in policy terms, but also in terms of whether she deserves to hold political office, with all of its advantages. It is this idea that, I believe, best explains why we feel that we ought not support a murderer or rapist for office, no matter how good they are at governing. At minimum, we think that there is a moral threshold below which a politician is disqualified from the advantages of office. Where exactly that threshold lies is a matter of debate, as is whether a politician can re-qualify herself by properly atoning for her moral failures.

In short, we should reject the argument that character does not matter for three reasons. First, it is not at all clear that character is only a weak indicator of the ability to govern. Second, the exercise of virtue is itself part of effective governance. Finally, because political office is accompanied by various perquisites, some decrepit characters may not merit it. With a firmer grip on why character matters, it may hopefully be easier for people to avoid inconsistently applying the character standard to their assessments of politicians.

Bad Behavior During Political Primaries

photo of empty studio with debate podiums

The new presidential election cycle brings with it both a sense of hope for the future and cause for frustration over bad behavior in an increasingly hostile political environment. As primary candidates emerge, it’s worth pausing for reflection on what appropriate behavior during the primary season and beyond looks like.

This may be interpreted as a pragmatic question. If we understand it in this way, the question amounts to something like: how should members of a political party behave if they want their party’s candidate to ultimately win the general election? Notice that this is not necessarily a moral question. It may turn out to be the case that the best way to get a candidate elected is to behave as morally as possible, but recent elections don’t lend a lot of support for that view. It may turn out that playing fast and loose with facts and spreading misleading or outright false information on the internet is useful for getting a candidate elected, but such behavior is likely unethical. On the other hand, some argue that what really matters at the end of the day are the consequences of the election. According to this view, the ends justify the means. Though there may be something to the view that consequences matter most, one significant consequence of this kind of behavior worth taking into account is that it contributes to the decline in critical thinking skills of the population at large, and it diminishes the trust that we have for one another. This could potentially result in an irredeemably broken political system.

One of the most visible issues during the primary season is the way that voters treat candidates running against their preferred candidate choice. There is nothing wrong with passionately supporting a candidate; in fact, caring deeply about politics is, at least on its face, a virtue. Politics matter, and many political choices are moral choices—people suffer to a lesser or greater degree depending on what kinds of policies are implemented. It makes sense to support the candidate that you believe will maximize well-being. But what does this entail about how the other candidates in the field should be treated?

Now that so many of our behaviors and comments are recorded and easily accessed decades after the fact, there are many more considerations that can be brought to bear on the decision of which candidate to support. The past behavior of a potential candidate matters. We need to take a look at how a candidate has voted in the past, the ways in which that candidate reliably treats other people, and the virtues and vices that might be easily observable in their character. But we need to use good critical thinking practices when we make these judgments. First of all, we should make sure that we are employing consistent standards across the field of candidates. No person exhibits perfect behavior in every circumstance. It will always be possible to point to some bad decision making on the part of any candidate. Like offenses should be treated in similar ways. We should avoid treating behaviors as disqualifying in an opposing candidate that we wouldn’t treat as disqualifying in the case of our own preferred candidate. It’s also important to recognize that some bad behavior is worse than others and we need reasons beyond our political preferences for treating a particular instance of bad behavior as disqualifying.  
A further question worth considering is the standard to which it is appropriate to hold candidates for political office. We often treat our family and close friends with empathy and compassion. We recognize that people grow and evolve and make mistakes in the process. As a result, we are frequently willing to forgive those to whom we are close. How much forgiveness should we be willing to offer candidates for office if they express contrition for past bad behaviors?

We also need to resolve the question of how to react to various changes both in people and in political, social, and ethical climates. There is some language that it is arguably inappropriate to use in any context, but it is also important to recognize that language is dynamic and changes over time. Should we judge comments made by candidates according to the social standards of the current environment, or should we view them in the context of the environment in which they were expressed?  

The same considerations apply to a political candidate’s voting record if they have previously served as a legislator. This is a real challenge, because it is undeniable that bad legislation exists and we shouldn’t minimize that fact. On the other hand, very few people follow politics closely enough to be fully aware of the political context in which particular decisions are made, especially when those decisions are decades old. Hindsight is 20/20, and often the folly of past political decisions is weaponized. One proposal for the way we should look at a candidate’s record is in terms of what their reliable dispositions seem to be. If a candidate routinely, through the course of a career, makes decisions that, for example, put poor people at a disadvantage, then it is appropriate to conclude that the candidate in question is bad for poor people. It is unproductive to use isolated political decisions out of context to score points against a candidate we dislike.

There is a big picture to keep in mind. Some primary candidates maybe better than others, and it may turn out to be the case that a charismatic candidate wins over a candidate with more productive substantive policy proposals. If we want ideals that resemble our own to prevail because we think those ideals aren’t just political, but are, fundamentally, moral ideals it would be useful to have a theoretical framework in mind in advance for what kinds of behaviors count as disqualifying, and to treat candidates accordingly.