This article analyzes the moral and political implications of strong moral character for political action. The treatment provides reason to hold that strong moral character should play a role in a robust normative account of political leadership. The case is supported by empirical findings on character dispositions and the political viability of the account’s normative prescriptions.
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Some of the points in this article may also apply to leadership positions in nonpolitical structures and institutions, or to those holding high office in nondemocratic polities; for the purposes of clarity, my case focuses on elected leaders in liberal democracies.
Kupperman notes that acting ‘out of character’ is a possibility (Kupperman 1991, pp. 52–53).
Kupperman contends that a person with weak character will have at best a ‘qualified loyalty to anything’ (Kupperman 1991, pp. 7, 137).
When I refer to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ character, I mean to describe character that is morally good or morally bad, respectively. It is sensible not to conflate virtue and character, or to propose that virtues are the only constitutive components of good character. Cf. Galston (1988, p. 1279).
I mean here to discuss what Darwall calls ‘appraisal respect,’ as opposed to mere ‘recognition respect,’ following his distinction; see Darwall (1977, pp. 38–39 ff., passim).
Cruelty violates all three principles with the suffering and diminution that it entails; lying does as well, by erecting barriers to another’s ability to accept the good, to reject false doctrines, and to distinguish between them. Violating commitments and betraying trust are similar: both kinds of action undermine another individual’s plans and pursuits, which are important parts of what it means to accept the good (see Swaine 2006).
The points I make here are meant to apply at least within liberal-democratic societies; other societies may emphasize different elements or virtues of citizenship. Shklar proposes that moral courage and self-reliance are required elements of citizens’ moral character (Shklar 1989, p. 33); it is sensible to assume that there may be reasonable disagreement about the central elements of moral character for citizens, as with the basic components of moral character itself.
Benforado and Hanson submit that there ‘really is no such thing as a pure dispositionist or a pure situationist’ (Benforado and Hanson 2011b, p. 487); cf. the authors’ suggestion that ‘dispositionism, by itself, is almost certainly going to lead us astray’ (Benforado and Hanson 2011a, p. 300). Hanson and Yosifon, similarly, propose that dispositionist assumptions are ‘often [vs. always] wrong’ (Hanson and Yosifon 2004, p. 7).
Williams appears to be referring more narrowly to ‘outrageous or insane’ domestic political questions, such as whether to kill one’s local political opponents for advantage (Williams 1981, p. 58).
Thompson submits that the relevance of officials’ private lives to their duties and roles as public officials is ‘a matter of degree,’ and suggests that in some cases private and public virtues ‘may not be correlated at all’ (Thompson 2005, pp. 234, 237). If democratic citizenries were to avoid picking leaders based on character traits immaterial to the respective charge of the office in question, that would mitigate concerns about constraints on types of personalities suitable for leadership.
Cf. Hare’s remark that ‘[w]e shall be most likely to do what is right if we stick to the principles, not indeed … on absolutely all occasions, but unless we have a pretty cast-iron reason, based on firm knowledge that the case is an unusual one, for breaking them’ (Hare 1989, p. 41). Cf. also Kamtekar (2004, pp. 482, 487–488).
Eisenhower’s remarks were addressed to the narrower issue of the amount of spending to be put toward development of new weapons to fight the Cold War. See Ambrose (1990, p. 536).
The fact that political candidates’ sincerity may be difficult to gauge does not mean that citizens should not try to determine whether the individuals in question are deceitful, nor does it indicate that it is not possible to draw justified inferences about their earnestness or their character more generally.
Thompson notes the difficulties inherent in efforts accurately to identify character, given that ‘some people are able to conceal even their most objectionable flaws’ (Thompson 2005, p. 302).
Kennan suggests that it is ‘frequently’ the case that American government brings forth demands of this kind based on ‘pressures generated by politically influential minority elements’ (Kennan 1985, p. 210). Cf. Galston’s apt suggestion that liberal citizens need to be self-disciplined and ‘moderate in their demands’ regarding domestic issues (Galston 1988, p. 1283).
The data do not show that citizens accurately identify or assess the components of moral character appropriate for political leadership, but that people are already motivated even modestly to key on politicians’ character traits is encouraging. Cf. Croco (2011), discussing citizens’ tendencies to remove political leaders believed to be culpable for wartime losses.
Cf. also Robert Jervis’s reflection on the international behavior of the United States, in comparison to that of historical great powers, when facing situations ‘[combining] both danger and opportunity’: ‘The U.S. is not particularly good or particularly bad, international politics just is ugly’; see Jervis (2010, p. 8).
The objection at issue here is unavailable to those who insist that a leader’s character has no effect on state behavior, interestingly.
Mearsheimer discusses the prospects of what he calls ‘blowback’ from lying in international politics.
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The author wishes to thank Eric Beerbohm, Stephen Brooks, William Galston, Robert Goodin, Nannerl Keohane, Seth Lazar, Alice Liou, Stephen Macedo, Mara Marin, Michael Morrell, Russell Muirhead, James Bernard Murphy, Joseph Reisert, Nancy Rosenblum, Andrew Sabl, Dennis Thompson, Jeffrey Tulis, Benjamin Valentino, Daniel Viehoff, William Wohlforth, and the editors and referees of this journal for helpful commentary on earlier versions of this article. Research for this article was generously supported by Dartmouth's Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics.