Presidential Candidates and Virtue Ethics


Aristotle is supposed to have said that he was no theologian and did not know much about divine matters, but as a thinker, he thought that the most noble of all professions was to enter into Politics, to work for the common good of society.

It was so noble a work that one should participate in it without seeking any salary or remuneration. The idea to serve was payment enough, a richness in itself. How far we have strayed from this ideal!

In recent years, a way of doing Ethics, of judging if something is right or wrong, has arisen. It is called Virtue Ethics. People like Alasdair Macintyre with his work After Virtue have generated many other schools of thought on this subject. He was reacting to the rejection of moral rationality of people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Nietzsche.

Hopefully we can agree that to speak about Virtues means to talk about “dispositions that not only sustain practices, but also concern the unity of one’s whole life and relate one’s individual life to that of the community.” (Lucas Chan). We do not live just for ourselves and our own personal gain. There is more to the meaning of life than that. We live and find true happiness in helping others.

In the Changing Minds blog, there is a list of Seven Contrary Virtues, meaning those good dispositions which counteract against what some call the 7 Deadly Sins. Thus Humility controls Pride; Kindness against Envy; Abstinence against Gluttony; Chastity against Lust; Patience against Anger; Liberality against Greed: and Diligence against Sloth. In case someone might think that this is too much of western way of thinking, the Japanese Bushido Code of the Samurais has many points in common.

Another word, Character, was made popular by New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose book The Road to Character was a best seller. Using well-known figures of recent history, Brooks showed that pure accomplishments without any moral codes can be dangerous, even hurting millions. His choices of the people who took steps against the current easier way did things which had lasting influences. Many of his figures paid great personal costs, a price to do the right thing. The more noble thing.

Thus many virtue thinkers today are looking at moral character which leads to being over just doing. In 1965 Rabbi Joseph Solveitchik wrote in Lonely Man of Faith that he identified in Genesis two opposing sides of human nature: Adam I and Adam II. Adam I works on success; he lists on his resumé those “virtues” or good qualities which will get him a good job and make money. In general we want our plumber, dentist or mechanic to be competent, to do a good job. We don’t ask if he is an adulterer, pedophile or cheat on his income taxes. But when it comes to our kids’ teacher, clergy or public leaders, we hope for a higher standard of conduct.

Adam II possesses the virtues which make that person admired at his funeral! He or she had moral qualities. Not only did good things, but was a good person. His or her goal was to practice love, compassion, being available for others. The one we want our kids to grow up and be like.

So during a presidential campaign year in which we have the privilege of choosing our leader for the next 4 years, making him or her the most powerful person in the world, what criterions should one use to make that choice?

Returning to Aristotle once again, he wrote that to possess a virtue makes a person good and causes him to act well. Virtue Ethics give a priority of being over doing. In other words, practicing hospitality makes one into a hospitable person who is likely to practice hospitality in future situations! Our “being,” who we are, is formed in and through “doing,” and while “being” prepares the way for “doing,” “doing” shapes “being.” This also brings about a commitment to continue to improve and grow, not stand still and be stagnated.

Once the pursuit of happiness was considered the main goal of all human actions. More and more we have learned that the key to true happiness goes through serving and helping others, many times putting our own personal whims and desires aside. No man is an island. Who we are is determined, in part, by the community which raised us and how one reacts and participates in that society. So in choosing our leader and commander-in-chief, do we want someone who has our best interests at stake, or only his or hers?

We should not only ask who a person is now, but who he or she can become, or who he or she ought to be. Does our candidate lay out a vision of always trying to pursue and improve his or her life and conduct? An ancient mystic felt that one could only be a mentor for others after having struggled on the ladder of virtue, thus gaining the vision needed for guiding others. We need to admire our leaders for their moral qualities if we are going to trust them to lead us.

Since being President also includes having good judgment, be able to absorb new ideas and interact with differing opinions, to work with others, we hope that the moral character of that person also includes compassion, an ability to forgive and forget, not be governed by a spirit of vengeance or darkened by prejudices and foregone conclusions. Or as Hauerwas remembers so well: character is not merely the summation of what we do, but also includes the way we are programmed to act in some ways rather than others!

In this way of thinking, it does make a difference what kind of person our candidate is. We will never get anyone who is a saint, without faults and imperfections. Sometimes we have to choose the least bad available. Yet we hope that our commander-in-chief is someone who has character like an Abraham Lincoln, or the humility to acknowledge that there is much more that he does not know (which may be distorted or even wrong) than what he currently understands. A willingness to overcome personal hang ups and biases which we learn by the time we are six, seven or eight (cf. toon from South Pacific).

Wisdom can mean different things to different people. One way is to understand Wisdom as “the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight.” (Wikipedia). I would hope that we all agree that a wise man or woman has as his or her aim to live to make a better world, even at the cost of personal loss and suffering.

We want a candidate who can admit to his or her own personal weaknesses and blind sides, who accepts human limitations as he tries to govern. Not someone who thinks that the universe revolves around him and others are there to serve his needs and desires.

So the debate goes on. May the American public have an instinctive perception to make the right choice.

Father Donnell Kirchner, CSsR, received a degree in moral theology in Rome and taught for 39 years as a Redemptorist priest in Brazil, teaching at a regional pastoral institute in Manaus. He is currently working with theologians in Chicago.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2016

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