I read your argument that a bad man cannot be a good statesman – a theme I always enjoy bringing up when I teach. There are interesting dilemmas, however. I was not old enough to vote in 1972, but even knowing then what I know now, I do not believe a vote for McGovern could be justified -- which leaves me with Nixon. But I see no other choice. Your view?
I take your point about voting for President Nixon instead of Senator McGovern even though Nixon was a scoundrel, but I don’t see the dilemma the same way you do. I am only saying that a bad man cannot be a good statesman. I am not saying that a good man is inevitably a good statesman.
The remark I’ve just made uses the term “good man” in your sense of the term. By a good man, I think you mean someone who has all of the moral virtues, even though he may lack prudence. Senator McGovern certainly lacked prudence, and he would have made a terrible president.
But there is another, older way to take the meaning of the term “good man.” For in the classical view, prudence is one of the moral virtues. In fact, it is their intellectual pivot, because it is nothing more than the wisdom to know how to pursue the ends which the other virtues make us desire. In this sense, a completely virtuous man is not one who possesses justice, fortitude, and temperance, even though he may lack prudence. He is one who possesses justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence.
Then would a good man in that sense inevitably be a good statesman? The answer is still “No.” Someone might be prudent in the everyday things with which we all have to deal, but not prudent in the larger matters which concern the body politic. If he has all the other moral virtues, and moreover he has not just everyday prudence but also political prudence, then I would say yes, he has what it takes to be a good statesman – but not every ordinary good man does. Far from it.
I thought of your views today when I read today’s Town Hall column by Walter Williams, “Bad Men, Good Presidents.”
There have been many times in the past two years that I have wished that I could chat with you about the connection between moral character and political greatness – a connection you raised explicitly way back in the Clinton years. Some day, perhaps.
I would enjoy chatting too. Thanks for your letter, and for calling my attention to Walter Williams’ essay.
Mr. Williams argues that although the current president “does not have the personal character that we would want our children to imitate,” he “has turned out to be a good president, save his grossly misguided international trade policies.” Some of the actions for which Williams praises the president are making good nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, significantly rolling back federal regulations, ending the Obamacare “mandate,” and getting the United States out of the fraudulent nuclear deal with Iran.
Of course Williams recognizes that Left will view the same actions as “horrible, maybe treasonous,” but does not trouble me; I don’t agree with the Left. Regarding some of the other things Williams approves, such as making a sort of progress with Kim Jong Un, I think Williams’ judgment is premature, but certainly the old policy appeasing the tyrant in return for promises no one expected him to keep wasn’t working.
So should I change my view that a bad man cannot be a good statesman? No.
Trump apologists always overlook the same problems with bad men. Williams’ view of a good president is one who does more good things than bad ones. If that’s what a good president is, then of course a bad man can be a good president.
But it’s the wrong criterion. When people like me say a bad man cannot be a good president, that is not what they mean. I have never denied that a bad man can do some good things. In fact I’ve insisted on it.
So what is the problem?
As I wrote in an earlier post, “in the first place, the bad man’s motive is flawed, so if it suits his purposes, he is just as likely to do something evil. You cannot be confident that he will do the right thing.”
“In the second place,” I wrote, “just because his motive is flawed, even when he does intend a good act, he is likely to do it in an evil way.”
Moreover, “there are some good things he cannot do even if they do chance to coincide with his motives. For example, he cannot successfully promote good character in others, and will probably injure it by example.”
“Besides,” I concluded, “No matter what he does, he will lie to you about it.”
I see no reason to withdraw any of these points. The third is especially important. Trump’s vices drag all of us down, just as Clinton’s did a generation ago.
Conceded, the view I am defending is not popular on either side of the political schism. On both the Left and Right, activists think that a thug is all right so long as he is our thug.
Couldn’t there be reasons for voting for a bad man? Yes, of course. If both candidates are depraved, but there is good reason to believe that one of them may tend to do better things than the other, then provided that voting for him does not involve formal cooperation with evil, one should vote for him. In that sense, sure, we will have to see how things work out with Mr. Trump.
But no one should deceive himself that doing the things that we want him to do will make him a good president.
Those who hold the views dominant among university faculty often mock those who comment -- well, on the fact that their views are dominant among university faculty. Recently I came across the statement that when persons like me complain about the overwhelming prevalence of secular leftist ideologies in the classroom, we are really merely complaining that students at universities “meet real life.”
No, we are complaining that the students there don’t meet real life. Real life includes all sorts of people with all sorts of ideas. Academia doesn’t.
Is the “meeting real life” excuse merely naïve, or is it offered in bad faith? Maybe a little of both.
You can see why some scholars might want to believe that they represent “real life.” If they were ever to admit to themselves how they shut out the views they dislike, it would eat away at their picture of themselves as critics of the “narratives of power” and protectors of society’s underdogs (of whom, by the way, most have little first-hand knowledge and even less respect).
On the other hand, it seems likely that many university people really don’t know how narrow their intellectual culture is. Since the only people they ever meet are just like them, they think they represent the Great Center, and that their little end of the spectrum is the whole universe of reasonable discourse.
By the way, they censor themselves just as ruthlessly as they do others. If a scholar of this sort ever catches himself implying that there might be something questionable about some behavior that PC norms hold sacrosanct – yes, it happens – he hastens to cover himself by saying, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” And he tries to believe that this is true.
Not only does his social place depend on covering himself, but so does his sense of himself as someone who belongs.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous article, “The Absurd,” concludes, “If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”
I’ve quoted that statement before, but until recently, I hadn’t realized that some people find it uplifting. One online reader remarks, “This is the most beautiful thing I've ever read.”
Let’s think about it. If it is true that nothing matters, then what difference does it make whether we live ironically, heroically, or in despair?
Forgive me for being obvious, but if it does make a difference, then something does matter.
Our task, should we choose to remain men – and we always have the option of declining -- is to find out what.
Satire is a wonderful tool, but what do you do with something like gender studies? Its craziness accelerates so rapidly that by the time the satire is published, reality has outpaced it.
These folks have figured it out: Get it to satirize itself.
Their article is titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.” It’s pure, deliberate nonsense. But it was submitted and accepted for publication as bona fide scholarship.
If you haven’t come across this before, the authors describe the scam here.
It’s a nice touch that they incorporated text into the article from the Postmodernist Essay Generator. I’ve had fun with the generator for years. You can generate new, nonsensical postmodernist essays as often as you like, just by refreshing the screen.
The climate change touch is nice too. One day at the elevator a colleague and I were chatting about how cold winter was that year. Tongue in cheek, I offered the explanation, “Global warming.” Not realizing that I was joking, he agreed.
Last week on the Opinion page of the Wall Street Journal – a newspaper I began reading during my socialist days to keep track of what the capitalists were thinking – I ran across an article by one of my favorite essayists, Joseph Epstein.
Epstein argued that one of the problems of today’s politics is that a person’s political beliefs represent his highest view of himself, so that opposing his politics is resented as a slam on his virtue.
Very true. But I wonder if I might quibble a little. My first grumble has to do with the title of the piece, which I’m sure isn’t Epstein’s fault, since editors often choose embarrassing titles without consulting the authors. The title was “There’s Too Much Virtue in Politics.” Spare us. That isn’t what Epstein argued. What he really said was that there is too much virtue signaling in politics, and that is correct. I would say that there is not nearly enough virtue in politics. We pay far too much attention to arbitrary symbols of virtue, and far too little attention to the thing itself.
A point I think Epstein could have made more clearly is that some policy positions really are correlated with traits of character, although most, as he sees, are not.
If someone supports infanticide, you can confidently say that he isn’t playing with a full moral deck. Infanticide is murder. There are a number of issues of this kind.
But you can’t draw such conclusions about a person’s virtue from his view of, say, government handouts.
Epstein gets it half-right here. Liberals may “see their virtue” as lying in compassion for the poor, and conservatives may “find their virtue” as lying in things unrelated to the well-being of the poor. But although Epstein is not a liberal, that is a characteristically liberal way of explaining the difference between liberals and conservatives, and it leaves out half the picture.
For a good case can be made that some ways of trying to help the poor – especially government handouts – actually hurt them, not only morally but materially, by generating perverse incentives and undermining families. Consider what that implies.
Yes, a liberal might support the expansion of handouts because he believes they help the poor. I’m sure some do. But if he knows better empirically (as he should), then his real reason for supporting their expansion may be that he wants the poor to be permanent dependents who will reliably vote for his party.
Yes, a conservative might oppose the expansion of handouts for reasons unrelated to the well-being of the poor. No doubt some do. But if he believes them to hurt the needy (as he should), then his real reason for opposing their expansion may be that he does care about the well-being of the poor.
And what do liberals and conservatives think about all the other ways of trying to help the poor, especially those which don’t involve the government? A virtuous person might support some ways while opposing others – and so might a cynic, but for different reasons.
The upshot is that in most cases, to judge someone’s character you need to know more than what policies he supports. You have to know what he believes the empirical effects of the policies are -- and you have to know his motives.
This has nothing to do with “liberal virtues” vs. “conservative virtues.” But it may have a lot to do with virtues.
I sometimes have my students read excerpts from Warren Hern, who defines pregnancy as an illness which may be treated by the evacuation of the uterine contents, or from Alberto Giublini and Francesca Minerva, who defend infanticide by maintaining that it is merely “after-birth abortion.” The purpose is to illustrate to them the depth and gravity of the disagreements in the culture war.
Despite the fact that my students are in the thick of it, many of them don’t fully grasp that there is a culture war.
But they aren’t the only ones who are learning something in these exercises. Their reactions to such readings teach me quite a bit about the state of the culture war too.
Some of them, of course, simply cannot believe that such authors really mean what they are saying. Others say that they are horrified and sickened.
But still others respond with comments like these: “What a fresh and interesting perspective! I had never considered regarding pregnancy as a disease. That makes a lot of sense.”
A colleague of mine – who assigns such readings for very different reasons -- is shocked that the students are ever shocked. He thinks it means they don’t have open minds.
My view is different. Certain grievous and widespread moral fallacies must be challenged publicly. On the other hand, the very mention of certain fallacies may pose a danger to those whose intellectual grasp of good and evil is weak, and who lack the tools to understand the challenge. One must always consider the audience.