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What Hypocrisy Tells Us

photograph of the lighted front of the Metropolitan museum of art at night

On September 13th, 2021, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the 2021 MET Gala wearing a white ball gown emblazoned with the phrase “Tax the Rich” in bright red lettering. The command on the dress was a reference to Ocasio-Cortez’s fiscal platform policy of increasing the tax burden on the wealthiest 1% of U.S. earners. Wearing (literal) statement pieces to the red-carpet Hollywood events is nothing new; celebrities such as Megan Rapinoe and Cara Delevingne have both attended the MET Gala in pieces protesting various social injustices, and Lady Gaga famously attended the MTV’s VMAs in a dress made of meat to protest the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Predictably, Ocasio-Cortez’s look immediately received a flood of attention, some positive, and some quite negative. The most prominent thread of criticism, however, was not criticism of the political position itself. Rather, critics on both sides of the aisle took issue with Ocasio-Cortez advocating for increasing taxes on the rich while attending a tax-payer subsidized event that costs a minimum of $30,000 per ticket. In other words, people were upset that someone would perform (what they took to be) a criticism of extreme wealth while attending an event that indicated they themselves had access to, and benefited from, extreme wealth. That is to say, people accused Ocasio-Cortez of being a hypocrite.

Accusations of political hypocrisy are a fairly standard complaint to make, not only of politicians and public figures, but sometimes also of a movement as a whole. Consider this critique of anti-abortion politicians by a group called Pro-Choice America. Herein, Pro-Choice America accuses politically conservative people who are against legalized abortion of being hypocrites in virtue of rejecting other policy proposals. The other policy proposals in question include: nationalized healthcare, subsidized higher education, affordable housing, eased immigration restrictions, and so on. Their insinuated argument is something like the following: if you are against abortion because you are “pro-life”, then consistency demands you also favor other political positions that would help people live better lives.

From the other side of the aisle, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, republicans have been accusing democrat politicians of hypocrisy for instances of failing to abide by the masking and social distancing rules they have signed into law. Such failures include instances of gathering indoors without masks, patronizing salons and restaurants, and hosting birthday parties with long guest lists.

But what is the purpose of pointing out apparent ideological hypocrisy of individuals or groups? If Nancy Pelosi acts hypocritically in failing to conform to mask mandates that she endorsed, does this indicate that mask mandates are not a good policy after all? There is no obvious connection between a person’s failure to act consistently in accordance with their beliefs, and the falseness of those beliefs. That is, hypocrisy on the part of advocates is not straightforward evidence against the policies they are advocating for. It may be that the policies themselves are the correct ones to implement — the advocates may be merely weak-willed. Yet, charges of hypocrisy are often brought forth as evidence against the beliefs of the would-be hypocrite. Is pointing out hypocrisy a legitimate way of critiquing someone’s beliefs or policy positions?

A common response to perceived hypocrisy is that, in acting hypocritically, we lose the right to advocate for certain beliefs or policies. For example, a politician who advocates against legal abortion may be accused of lacking the right to an opinion on the matter if it is revealed that he once procured an abortion for a pregnant mistress. Are hypocrites doing something wrong by speaking out of turn? It is hard to see exactly how one may lose a “right” to speak to an issue merely by failing to live up to their own standards. There is no commonly-recognized moral duty to only speak up in favor of behaviors that you yourself follow. Additionally, if consequences are what matter morally, then one ought to advocate for correct policies even if they are so weak-willed that they cannot follow their own prescriptions. Of course, it would be better if one could, as they say, take their own medicine, but it would still maximize the good to encourage other people to act well/implement good policies, regardless of whether they act consistently in their private life. For example, if mask mandates maximized well-being for the country as a whole, then politicians who refused to wear a mask would still (according to utilitarianism) do best to advocate for mask mandates.

On the other hand, a virtue ethicist like Aristotle might say that behaving hypocritically, either by failing to act on your convictions or by advocating for positions you do not truly accept, is a sign of vice — that is, bad character. And having bad character may incline one to believe, or advocate for, bad positions and policies. At least, we are probably more confident in the judgments of people with good character than the judgments of people with bad character. And so, if hypocrisy is a sign of bad character, this could provide some indirect evidence against the views or policies in question.

From a psychological perspective, we may infer from an act of hypocrisy that the person in question is being dishonest about what they say they believe. For example, we may suspect that someone’s true reasons for opposing legal abortion is misogynistic in nature rather than related to the inherent value of life if they advocate for other policies that fail to adequately value life. But even if someone is lying or being misleading about their true beliefs, this should not upset any additional evidence we have in favor of those beliefs or policies. Someone who thinks abortion is wrong on the basis of arguments would not be dissuaded merely because some politician lied about his desire to protect all life. Someone who believes, for social and economic reasons, that the tax burden on the top 1% of U.S. earners should be increased, would not be dissuaded from this belief even if Ocasio-Cortez acted hypocritically in attending the MET Gala.

In conclusion, charges of hypocrisy hit hard, but it is not clear exactly whether, or how, the charges constitute a criticism of the positions of the supposed hypocrite. Regardless, we would likely do better to focus more on the beliefs and policies themselves than on the fallible humans endorsing them.

On the Obligations of Sports Fandom

image of lined field under bright lights

This season, Cristiano Ronaldo’s been welcomed back to Manchester United (twelve years after leaving them), while Ben Roethlisberger turned out for a seventeenth campaign for the Pittsburgh Steelers. What unites these two players? Both Ronaldo and Roethlisberger (twice) have been accused of rape. Both men have escaped criminal prosecution due to prosecutors being unable to prove the allegations beyond reasonable doubt. There are important questions concerning how teams, sponsors, and governing bodies should treat these players, but I want to explore a question that is more pressing for many of us: how should fans respond to these players?

There are a bunch of complicating factors that are worth mentioning. Firstly, these allegations are prominent: any fan should know about them (whereas sometimes allegations are swept under the carpet). Sure, other players do bad things, but my focus will be on allegations we know about.

Secondly, fans might say that because they haven’t been convicted, we can assume they have done nothing wrong: innocent until proven guilty. But a lack of conviction does not mean that someone did not commit a crime, it means that prosecutors (or, in other cases, a jury) did not find it likely beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed a crime. They may well have committed a crime, we just might lack overwhelming legal proof. Yet other people may be accused and be entirely innocent. The law does not exhaust our moral judgment – if a friend were accused of a crime but not charged, we might have to evaluate whether we believe them, and I suggest we need to do the same when it comes to sports stars. (Sometimes we should conclude “Maybe they did it, maybe not,” but even that attitude should affect how we treat somebody.)

Thirdly, some sports stars have been convicted of crimes. Michael Vick spent nearly two years in prison for participating in a dog-fighting ring. After his release, he continued his career as an NFL player. There is little doubt that he committed the crime. But, as well as doing the crime, he did the time. Again, that seems too easy a moral escape for sports fans. Just because someone has suffered legal punishment, it does not mean that they receive carte blanche to receive the adulation of hundreds of thousands of fans. (On the other hand, Vick later worked with charities to help fight for animal rights. Perhaps taking his crime seriously means that he should be accepted back onto the field.)

Moving on, what matters is that, like ordinary people, sports stars sometimes do evil things, though it can be hard for us to know with certainty when they have committed evil, and it can be difficult to work out exactly how we should respond to them on a purely moral front. Complications aside, how should we respond to sports stars who have been credibly accused (if not convicted) of wrongdoing?

One might draw a useful comparison with artists who have done wrong. Noel Carrol has argued that sometimes a piece of art “invite[s] us to endorse the wrondgoing in question.” To take his example, if an artwork portrays paedophilia, and the author endorses paedophilia, we might have good reason to eschew that work, since appreciating it involves appreciating this endorsement of wrongdoing. But, to take another of his examples, we have no reason to avoid W.B. Yeats’s “The Fiddler of Dooney” because, although Yeats was a eugenicist, appreciating that poem doesn’t require us to endorse repugnant racist views. We can still enjoy artworks if they are unrelated to the artist’s wrongdoing.

This depends on the idea that artworks have content that we can judge morally. Perhaps a player who is violent in their domestic life should not be cheered for violence on the field. But Carroll’s principle will not get us very far, since the wrongdoing of sports players will rarely be represented in any clear way on the field. Most sporting actions have no real relationship to the immoral acts of everyday life, so appreciating them will rarely actively endorse a player’s wrongdoing in the way that we might do with artworks.

But there is clearly something troubling about cheering for sportspeople who have done wrong. What explains this? Alfred Archer worries fans signal that supporting this player is more important than blaming them for their moral wrongdoing. This is a bit like hanging out with somebody who is quite funny but is horribly xenophobic: you show that you think their sense of humor is enough to outweigh the fact that they willfully discriminate against foreign people.

The idea is that fans condone the behavior and do not think it is bad enough to disavow the player, (I’ve discussed a similar issue, concerning sportswashing and the 2022 World Cup). Not only is this troubling in terms of expressing fans’ moral views, it also signals something to victims: the fans don’t care enough about what happened to victims, they care more about supporting their hero.

This is compounded by another feature of fandom. Fans do cheer for sporting achievements, but they also valorize players. Ronaldo’s manager says things like “Ronaldo is a special man and a special player for us in the history of the club.” Commentators talk about tales of personal redemption. Fans are likewise apt to laud players. And it is clearly a morally troubling aspect of fandom: because fans are liable to valorize players, they respect the player as a person rather than just their best striker.

This is troubling because it explicitly involves ignoring or outweighing the player’s moral wrongdoing. Either the fan valorizes the player as a person due to their sporting actions (because they do good things for my team, they are good) or they think that the player is a good person despite their moral wrongdoing (the fact they do good things for my team outweighs the fact the player is, say, a rapist).

Now, this valorization is not an essential part of fandom. Archer suggests that fans might adopt “a form of critical fandom,” which might involve recognizing the wrongdoing of players, refusing to valorize them as people, whilst appreciating their sporting talent and their contribution to a team’s victory. That said, Archer notes this might not be a difficult position to take up. I worry it has the same inherent instability as “hate the sin, not the sinner.” There’s something about fandom that makes it tempting to love the person, not just the athlete.

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.

The Aristotelian Vulgarity of Billionaires in Space

photograph of Blue Origin shuttle takeoff

On July 11th, billionaire Sir Richard Branson (net worth: ≈$5,400,000,000) made history by becoming the first human to partially self-fund his own trip into space. An investor and entrepreneur who rose to fame after founding Virgin Records, Branson eventually expanded that enterprise into an airline, a passenger rail company, and — possibly in the relatively near future — a space tourism business. With a current price point of about $250,000 (and predictions that the price might nearly double), a ticket to space with Branson’s Virgin Galactic will cost roughly the same amount as the total annual grocery bill for 53 average U.S. families. A host of celebrities, including Tom Hanks (net worth: ≈$400,000,000), Lady Gaga (net worth: ≈$320,000,000), and billionaire Elon Musk (net worth: ≈$168,700,000,000) have already reserved their seats.

Recently, Carlo DaVia argued here that space exploration is, in general, morally impermissible (given the host of terrestrial problems that remain below the stratosphere). In March, Senator Bernie Sanders (net worth: ≈$1,800,000) criticized Musk (whose company is developing a space program of its own and whose personal wealth exceeds the GDP of 159 countries) for prioritizing interstellar tourism at the expense of ignoring needy families, telling the tech mogul that we should instead “focus on Earth.” (Musk’s reply was a textbook example of what DaVia calls the “Insurance” argument.) To make the kind of moral judgment Sanders is invoking, we could weigh the expected utility for “a fun trip to space” against the number of unhoused or uninsured people that the same amount of money could help. Or we could consider the duties we might have to our fellows and prioritize paying two years of tuition for thirty-three students at a community college instead of choosing to experience four minutes of weightlessness.

But Aristotle would say something different: billionaires who spend their money to take themselves to space are simply not good people.

While such a conclusion might sound similar to the other kinds of judgments mentioned above, Aristotle’s concern for human virtue (as opposed to, say, utility-maximization or respect for creaturely dignity) grounds this moral assessment in a fundamentally different, and also more basic, place. Rather than concentrating on the morality of a choice, Aristotle is persistently focused on the character of the person making that choice; insofar as your choices offer a window into your character, Aristotle believes them useful as potential evidence for a more comprehensive assessment, but it is always and only the latter that really matters when making ethical judgments.

Virtues, then, are the kinds of positive character traits that allow a human to live the best kind of life that humans qua humans can live; vices are, more or less, the opposite. Notably, Aristotle identifies that most, if not all, virtues are opposed by two vices: a deficiency and an excess. Just as the story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ demonstrates, it is not only bad to have too little of a good thing, but it can be equally bad to have too much — real virtue, to Aristotle, is a matter of threading the needle to find the “Golden Mean” (or average) between each extreme. Consider a virtue like “courage” — when someone lacks courage, then they demonstrate the vice of “cowardice,” but when they have too much courage, they may possess the vice of “rashness.” On Aristotle’s model, learning how to live an ethical life is a matter of cultivating your habits such that you aptly demonstrate the right amount of each virtuous character trait.

In Book Four of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies at least two virtuous character traits that are relevant for thinking about billionaires in space: what he calls “liberality” and “magnificence.” Both are related to how a good person spends their money, with the first relating “to the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving.” As he explains in NE IV.1, a good/virtuous person is someone who “will give for the sake of the noble, and rightly; for he will give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time, with all the other qualifications that accompany right giving.” Importantly, a good person will not spend their money begrudgingly or reluctantly, but will do so “with pleasure or without pain.” To lack this virtue is to have what Aristotle calls the vice of “meanness” (or caring too much about one’s wealth such that you never spend it, even to pay for things on which it should be spent); to have this virtue in excess is to be what he calls a “prodigal” (or a person who persistently spends more money on things than they rightly deserve).

So, while it might seem like Branson, Musk and others could be exhibiting prodigality insofar as they are spending exorbitant amounts of money on a fleeting, personal experience (or, perhaps, displaying meanness by stubbornly refusing to give that money to others who might need it for more important matters), Aristotle would point out that this might not be the most relevant factor to consider. It is indeed possible for a billionaire to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an orbital trip while also donating large sums of money to charity (Branson, in particular, is well-known for his philanthropic work), thereby complicating a simple “yes/no” judgment about a person’s character on this single metric alone.

But this is precisely where the Aristotelian virtue of magnificence becomes important. While many of the virtues that Aristotle discusses (like courage, patience, and truthfulness) are familiar to contemporary thoughts on positive character traits, others (like wittiness or shame) might sound odd to present-day ears — Aristotelian magnificence is in this second category. According to Aristotle, the virtuous person will not only give their money away in the right manner (thereby demonstrating liberality), but will also specifically spend large sums of money in a way that is artistic and in good taste. This can happen in both public and private contexts (though Aristotle primarily gives examples pertaining to the financing of public festivals in NE IV.2) — what matters is that the virtuous person displays her genuine greatness (as a specimen of humanity) by appropriately displaying her wealth (neither falling prey to the deficiency of “cheapness” or the excess of “vulgarity”). Wealthy people who lack magnificence will spend large sums of money to attract attention to themselves as wealthy people, putting on gaudy displays that are ultimately wasteful and pretentious; virtuous people will spend large sums of money wisely to appropriately benefit others and display the already-true reality of their own virtuousness.

So, when Aristotle describes the “vulgar” person as someone who “where he ought to spend much he spends little and where little, much,” he might well look to Virgin Galactic’s founder and soon-to-be customers as people lacking the kind of good taste relevant to virtuous magnificence. Such outlandish displays of extravagant wealth (such as the would-be tourist who paid a different company the non-refundable sum of $28,000,000 to ride to space, but then canceled their plans, citing “scheduling conflicts”) fail to meet Aristotle’s expectation that the magnificent person “will spend such sums for the sake of the noble” (NE IV.2).

Ultimately, this means that Aristotle can side-step debates over the relative usefulness of space travel versus philanthropy or deductive analyses of the moral obligations relevant for the ultra-wealthy to instead speak simply about how such choices reflect back upon the character of the person making them. For a contrasting example, consider MacKenzie Scott; since divorcing billionaire Jeff Bezos (net worth: $212,400,000,000) in 2019, Scott has donated over $8,500,000,000 to a wide range of charities and non-profit organizations. Asking whether or not Scott was morally required or otherwise obligated to make such donations is, on Aristotle’s view, beside the point: her choice to spend her money in noble ways is instead indicative of a good character.

Meanwhile, Scott’s ex-husband is scheduled to make a space flight of his own tomorrow.

Misericordia and Trump’s Illness

photograph of screen displaying Trump's Twitter profile

Is it okay to feel joy or mirth at another person’s misfortune? In most cases, the answer is clearly ‘no.’  But what if that person is Donald Trump? If my Facebook feed is any indicator, many people are having such feelings and expressing them unapologetically. On one approach to normative ethics known as virtue ethics, the main question to ask about this is: what does this response tell us about our character? Is it compatible with good character for someone to express joy over Trump’s illness and possible demise?

For Aristotle, who is one of the originators of this approach to ethics, a virtue is a good quality of a person’s desires, emotions, and thoughts. A person has a virtue, an excellence of character, when their desires, emotions, and thinking reflect the value that the objects of these desires, emotions, and thoughts have in the context of a well-lived human life. If we are intemperate, we overvalue pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex relative to other goods such as knowledge and family; if we are cowardly, we over-value physical safety, placing it above friendship and community. Applying this framework to feeling joy over Trump’s illness, there is a question of whether we are appropriately reacting to that human being’s suffering and misfortune.

The question isn’t settled by the fact that in most cases we would condemn expressions of joy at a rival or opponent’s misfortune. Virtue ethicists favor taking context into account; it really is a matter of whether we are feeling appropriately toward this person in this context. In many cases in which we might feel Schadenfreude, we can recognize that the stakes of our disagreement or competition are simply not comparable to the value of life and freedom from suffering. If I am competing with another person for a job, say, his falling seriously ill before an important interview leading him to miss the interview should not be an occasion for joy. After all, there are other jobs, presumably, but not another life for my rival. For that reason, to display joy at the misfortune reveals a flawed character.

Aristotle, it seems to me, did not quite have what it takes to capture this thought. Although he conceived of the virtues in a powerful way that many to this day take seriously, he did not have a clear label for a virtue that came to be prominent in the Christian tradition that followed him. Thomas Aquinas gives a privileged place to the virtue of charity. For him, this is a virtue that, at least in part, comes from God, a so-called ‘infused’ virtue. Our capacity to love God and our fellow human beings appropriately goes beyond our natural resources and requires an infusion of grace. But one aspect of charity seems not require this infusion, and that is the virtue of mercy or misericordia: a virtue to respond to the suffering of others with sadness that motivates us to works of mercy, among which are enumerated visiting the sick and giving comfort to the afflicted. This is a virtue that stems from our human nature, which is susceptible to disease and injury, and we all have reason to want our disease and injury to be greeted with concern and care rather than indifference or mockery. It seems clear that in most cases, expressing joy at another’s sickness would be a clear indicator of lacking the virtue of mercy, a defect in our capacity to love our fellow human beings as they should be loved.

The case of Trump strikes me as more complex than the case of a rival for a job. After all, he has caused real suffering for many people, including thousands of children locked in detention centers. It seems to me that people inclined to feel joy at Trump’s suffering have felt enormous, and to my mind, appropriate anguish over the impact of Trump’s policies. Further, he has himself created the conditions that have led to the prevalence of the very illness that he has caught.  Hence, his illness may seem a just comeuppance to someone who has at every turn showed himself to be self-serving, oblivious to the impact of his decisions on others, and therefore who himself clearly lacks the virtue of mercy.

And so, does the lack of mercy in someone, including someone whose decisions are so consequential for the well-being of others, justify joy at their suffering, or does that joy indicate a lack of mercy? It seems to me clearly the latter.  It might seem as though I am responding appropriately to the goods at stake in feeling joy at Trump’s illness: I might say that ending the suffering of children in detention centers is reflected in the joy I feel at the illness and possible disablement or death of the person who caused the children’s suffering. Clearly, it would be a joyous occasion if those detention centers were closed, but that isn’t what I am rejoicing over in joy over Trump’s illness. After all, there is no certainty that his demise will bring an end to those detention centers. And so, it is really a desire for revenge: anger and a sense of powerlessness over what he has done occasions the desire to harm the cause of my anger. And so, it might seem that anger is never appropriate, inasmuch as mercy is a virtue, or else there is some inner conflict between the virtues. Yet, this need not be so. For Aquinas, there is appropriate hatred and anger, only it is not directed to the person. Instead, it is directed to acts: we can appropriate hate and feel anger at Trump’s acts and wish them to be counteracted or thwarted, but not in ways that are in conflict with the value of his life. It is, of course, understandable that these feelings get out of our control, all the more so, the more immediately our lives have been touched by what Trump’s opponents take to be his unjust and self-serving acts. Anyone who has lost someone to COVID-19 in the United States can legitimately point to the President’s deeds as a contributing cause of their loved one’s suffering and death. It is difficult to contain our hatred and anger to the acts and not extend them to the person behind the acts. Still, we might wish we did not have such feelings, and recognize that they don’t reflect our deeply considered values. Such, I think, is the right stance to take on expressions of joy over Trump’s illness.

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.

Should We Avoid or Engage Moral Dilemmas?

It is common for parents to teach their children to avoid moral danger. Parental advice includes avoiding certain peer groups, adhering to a curfew, and ensuring that responsible adult supervision is always present.  Parents tend to think that these kinds of policies make it more likely that their children won’t encounter situations in which they might make bad decisions.  

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