Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Candidates of Virtue or Vice? (Trump and Clinton Through The Lenses Of Ethical Theory)

The Old Testament records that, when Israel wanted to have a ruler that looked like their neighbors, they had one demand of God: “Give us a king” (1 Samuel 8:6).  In God’s fulfillment of their request we are reminded of the caution that we ought to be careful what we wish for lest we get it. We are not Israel, but our plaintive “Give us a President!” resounds during this election with an unsettling biblical echo.

We the people – or at least the political machinery that claims to offer us all a constitutional republic that reflects our wills – have chosen two historically unpopular candidates. This looked like a banner year for third party candidates – until they unveiled their own candidates (I’m talking to you, Libertarian Party).

My friends, family and colleagues are more divided this election than perhaps any other since I began voting.  Many are reluctant supporters of Clinton or Trump; some are excited to some degree. More than usual are going third party this year if for no other reason than to send a loud message that is time for the independents to rise.

So what’s a Christian to do? We are citizens of Heaven first, be we are also American citizens who have been given the opportunity and perhaps even the mandate to be involved. The Bible uses imagery of salt and light to describe a Christian’s spiritual influence; it’s easy to see how this has a pragmatic call as well. It's just not easy to see what to do when when voting appears to be inevitably morally compromising.

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all approach. This is the kind of election where the oft repeated mandate to ‘vote your conscience’ carries more truth – and weight – than perhaps ever before. In the interest of providing a way to think through this choice, I will offer a series of posts that cover various ethical theories that can be applied as one prepares for this year's election. I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through several different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity.

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I will begin with one of the oldest: virtue ethics. The basic claim is simply that a person ought to be virtuous.

Aristotle used the word arête to describe virtue (some say 'valor'). It carries the idea of being the best you can be or reaching your highest potential. Plato associated it with moral excellence; Aristotle connected it with purpose which was found when people used their reason, since reason is the proper function of humans.

We are not born with it; it must be pursued. Arête values education, training and role models, since those of us who are not naturally virtuous can learn how to at least do good if we observe those who are good and patiently commit ourselves to developing their virtue.

When people use arête as a disposition and not merely as a function, they will be participating in eudaimonia, which is happiness, well-being, or flourishing (depending on the translation). The happiness is not a simple acknowledgment that one feels good. It is a morally grounded, value-laden sort of happiness that one ought to have. It is the state that accompanies arête.

For example, truly honest people are not honest because they want applause or simply want to feel good.  Their virtues are deeply rooted within them, and they actively seek the virtues because they are good in themselves. They behave honestly because it is part of eudaimonia.

The virtuous will not simply reflect virtue in their actions: they will be distressed when they see it lacking in others, and will praise those who do well and condemn those who do not. The truly virtuous condemn others who pursue vice and to praise those who act virtuously.

Aristotle claimed that living virtuously needed to be linked with phronesis, or ‘practical wisdom.’ Honest people can lie if they have good justification (to save their life, for example). That’s the wise thing to do. Generous people can withhold money if giving it will enable a vice. Exercising a good virtue (such as honesty, generosity or kindness) might not make a person virtuous depending on the circumstance. Thus the need for phronesis to accompany eudaimonia.

The formation of our character requires us to make a rational choice to develop virtues. The goal is to have virtues so deeply lodged in you are characterized by ‘well-being.’ This natural outflow of one’s life is then paired with wisdom as needed in order to navigate difficult situations. There are three criteria for virtuous actions:

  • You must know what it happening. It’s not accidental. You don’t get kudos for stumbling off the sidewalk and accidentally knocking someone to safety.
  • The action must be chosen and done for its own sake. You can’t save someone for the applause or the self-satisfaction.
  • The action must be done without hesitation, thus showing the disposition of virtuous character. It must be almost instinctive; you shouldn’t have to decide whether or not to do the right thing. 

The aim is to perform the right action, with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, and in the right way. This noble aim would be found within the boundaries of the Golden Mean, the middle course of action between two extremes, the sweet spot of phronesis. The Golden Mean of courage is found between cowardice and rashness; self-control is found between indecisiveness and impulsiveness; ambition between laziness and greed.



Thomas Aquinas promoted specifically Christian virtue ethics in the 1200’s. From his discussion sprang the classic Seven Virtues (chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, patience and humility) and the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride).

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So, here is the first set of question as you consider your vote:

  • Does either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton meet this virtuous standard? I think the easy answer is “no.” That’s true for all of us. It’s a noble ideal, but an impossible one by human standards to achieve perfectly.
  • Who is the closest to meeting it? And why? Let’s grant the general consensus that both are far from perfect. Which departures from the Golden Mean matter the most to you? And why?
  • Which one do you believe will be most likely to perform the right action, with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, and in the right way?
  • On balance, which candidate displays more virtues than sins?

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Up next: Deontological (duty-based) ethics...

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