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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Instilling Public Virtue
June 16, 2010

Romantic history painting. Commemorates the Fr...
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My earlier post about the ethical limits of state interference in culture ties into one of my major concerns in political philosophy: public virtue. Namely, what it is, and how to get some.

It seems to me fairly self-evident that a strong sense of public virtue is necessary for the continued survival of a democracy. After all, in an ideal democracy or republic (which, admittedly, we don’t have), accountability and legitimacy ultimately ends with the decisions of the people. So the state, then, would only be as virtuous as its citizens.

Maybe you disagree. The counterargument is that voting should be done purely as an exercise in self-interest, because if everyone votes in their own self-interest then the result will be candidates and policies that benefit the majority of the people. But very few would argue against some basic limits on the ability of the majority to assert its will, and the reason given tends to be pretty simple: letting the majority enslave the minority and trample on its rights would be unjust. Which makes me think there’s a consensus that justice is a greater priority for a society than making 51% of the society as happy as possible.

So an ideal democracy, then, would be one in which as many people as possible—a bare majority, at the very least—make rational voting decisions based on the outcome most likely to produce a more just state.

So the next question—and, I think, the truly difficult one—is this: Is there a just way to guide voters into freely making decisions like that? Is it just to even try?

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