Chris Lee and Virtue
February 11, 2011

Chris Lee, member of the United States House o...

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For the Socrates of Plato’s Republic, there were three virtues: wisdom, courage, and temperance. People possessed each of them in different quantities and ratios, but those were the basic building blocks for all virtuous behavior. In other words, he believed that something like courage was a global trait: your capacity to behave courageously in one context (say, war) could tell an outside observer something about how courageously you might perform in an entirely different context (say, romance).

The logic of global traits also suggests that someone who is duplicitous and self-interested in his personal relations would, in any kind of leadership role, treat the public in the same way. That’s the rationale for prodding into the personal lives of our public figures: If John Edwards is willing to screw around behind his cancer-ridden wife’s back, who knows what he would do to the American people if he became president? If George W. Bush was a pretty good dad, doesn’t that tell us a thing or two about his decision-making abilities?

And so it goes. That’s why Rep. Chris Lee was pushed into a humiliating resignation earlier this week: he proved to the world that he’s a shitty husband. We can’t have that from a public figure.

Assuming, that is, that there’s anything to the whole global trait construction. Last week I read a piece by an academic philosopher making the opposite case:

Over the past decade, these two streams have met in debate over the relevance of empirical psychological findings to philosophical accounts of virtue and character, debate that would hearten Mill for its empiricist method as much as for its subject matter. This discussion centres on Lack of Character, in which John Doris draws on an impressive range of experiments to argue that people do not possess such “global” traits as courage, temperance, honesty, or kindness. We really possess “local” traits, he argues, such as office-party-temperance or sailing-in-rough-weather-with-friends-courage. If this is right, then the virtue ethics of preceding decades that assumes that we do have “global” traits must be either radically rethought or abandoned altogether.

I haven’t read the relevant literature, and I can’t say with any confidence whether we possess global or local traits. But my suspicion, based on both personal observation and phenomenal introspection, is that it’s the latter. And if that’s the case, then there’s really no relationship at all between an individual’s public and private virtues. You can be a terrible spouse and a magnificent legislator, or vice versa. What’s the logic behind cutting someone from one role because he does a poor job in a separate, completely unrelated role?

I don’t know much about Lee. What little I do know suggests that he wasn’t a terrible valuable member of Congress. But forcing him out because of a personal failing dragged up by the dirty laundry spelunkers at Gawker is just counterproductive.

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