Virtue Ethics vs. Character?

Mitt Romney published an editorial claiming that Donald Trump lacks the character to be President. Will Chamberlain offers a kind of opposing argument, although one based on far too few examples to be decisive, that "character" in Romney's sense is at least unrelated to successful performance as a President.
The two most decent, polite, cooperative, and empathetic Presidents I can think of (from the last fifty years) are George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

They were also arguably the worst two presidents of that time period.

No - who were the Presidents with the worst "character" of that time period?

I'd say - Kennedy, LBJ, Clinton.

All three were adulterers, liars, narcissists. Kennedy and Clinton were more well-liked, while LBJ was just a raging narcissistic asshole.

Did that translate into making their presidencies "failures"? Hardly.

Kennedy and Clinton are both lauded - and LBJ is a Dem hero for his legislative accomplishments. They all had relatively successful presidencies compared to Carter and

At a minimum, it's pretty clear that "character," in the "are you a polite, decent, empathetic human" sense is just not that useful a way to predict the success of.a President.

What is, then?

A few years back Jack Donovan wrote a fascinating book - The Way of Men.

In it, he outlined what he called the "tactical virtues" - strength, courage, mastery, and honor. He argued that these virtues made one "good at being a man."
Trump isn't strong, and his mastery is somewhat open to question. I would have argued, however, that his most significant problem was with "honor." However, this is one of those occasions when the issue turns out to be that the writer has stipulated a definition of the term that is at variance from the usual one.
Donovan used honor in a narrower sense than you might anticipate - it loosely translates to "in-group loyalty," as the context for all these virtues is the ethos of the gang.

Trump had an advantage on every GOP politician by aligning himself HARD with the base.
So really, what is meant by honor here is 'can we count on you?' It isn't the issue of understanding what is worthy of respect, and acting so as to show proper amounts of respect to the worthy and to the unworthy.

That, I think, is what Trump tends to get wrong: he shows respect or disrespect transactionally rather than out of a grasp of what is worthy of respect. If you show the President respect, he responds with respect. If you show him disrespect, he reflexively shows disrespect back. There's a kind of game theory justice to that, especially since he offers occasional forgiveness if you come back: 'tit for tat plus forgiveness' is one of the best game theory strategies.

However, it's how he gets sideways in cases like McChrystal and Mattis, and even the Khan family back during the campaign. Once you understand what is worthy of respect per se, it is unjust to assign disrespect in those cases. The negative reactions he gets from the broad American culture when he does this are healthy rejections of this basic injustice. Of great interest to me is that this shows an American sense of honor that is broad and deep, and crosses party lines: for the most part, even committed Republicans hate when Trump speaks disrespectfully in these cases.

This understanding of what is worthy of honor, and the actions to show proper honor in proper cases, is fundamental to Aristotle's capstone virtue of magnanimity. Ultimately the magnanimous does what is most worthy of honor in every case, to include showing proper honor to others according to their virtues. Getting it right gets everything right, Aristotle argues. But it requires complete virtue to do this, as virtue is what is most worthy of honor and you must have it to 'know' it well enough to recognize it. Note that this adequately solves for 'polite, decent' qualities -- those are both about showing respect. The only one it doesn't solve for is 'empathetic,' which I suspect is not really a virtue; that kind of emotional attachment warps one's fairness of mind in the manner that Aristotle describes as 'distorting the ruler before you use it to measure.' It makes it harder to understand what is justly worthy of honor, in favor of honoring that which or those to whom one is emotionally attached.

Magnanimity and honor, then, are where I think Donald Trump goes wrong, but the point about LBJ or Clinton stands. There are effective approaches that are not respectful and not honorable. Sometimes you can get a long way with low cunning and a two-by-four approach to disagreements.


E Hines said...

Romney bleated--he wasn't even sworn in as a Senator before he took up Jeff Flake's rag (I won't call it a mantle) and claimed Donald Trump lacks the character to be President.

Romney is, of course, empirically--perhaps tautologically--wrong: Trump has the character to be President because he is President. Whether it's an appropriate character is an entirely separate matter.

Regarding another point, I'm not sure Trump operates on a can we count on you? basis so much as he operates on a related and transactional basis: what have you done for me lately while acknowledging reciprocity--what have I done for you lately. That's fractious, but the degree of it is masked by the fractiousness of a refuse-to-negotiate Progressive-Democrat contingent in the House and Senate.

He's had some policy successes so far; it remains to be seen whether he can continue having policy successes. The character question is important, but secondary to policy. Romney frets that other nations don't respect us because of Trump's character. I suggest they never did (and I don't care that they never did), regardless of the character of the President; we were just the big dog in the junkyard. We still are, but for years we haven't acted like it.

Eric Hines

douglas said...

You know, when a man promises me something and then delivers on that promise (except where obstructed by others- but fights tooth and nail on that), I'd be hard pressed to say the man has no honor. In fact, I may well call him honorable, even if obviously flawed.

Deeds, not words.

Roy Lofquist said...

"Don't immanentize the eschaton" ~ Voeglin
"Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" ~ Various

MAGA is good enough for me.

Anonymous said...

I suspect what we are seeing is how one is forced to behave within the circles of New York/New Jersey business, including the Mafia and other elements. Facto non Verbum appears (at least to this outsider) to be the operative principal, and tit-for-tat. All are assumed to be corrupt to some degree, so the challenge is to sort out 1) how corrupt and 2) how to channel that corruption in order to accomplish one's desired ends.

I almost get a sense that he follows what Bartram Wyatt-Brown called "primal honor."

As a result, Trump is not fixed to a star of honor and virtue as Mattis and others (self included) consider it. He is conditional, used to bluff and counter-offer, and to buying those who need to be bought. I do not care for his public character, but he has accomplished—as president—what he promised to do thus far, and for that he has my approval and even sneaking admiration. Not necessarily my full respect aside that which is due to him as president.


Grim said...

It's a wise idea not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Victory counts for much, and insofar as their are victories they are demonstrations of 'mastery' to at least some degree.

My sense is that the President is very good at breaking things, less good at making new things. His apparently rapid progress arises from the fact that we had many structures that had ossified to the point that they no longer performed their real functions. Those needed to be broken so that something new could happen, and it was a legitimate service to us all -- even to those upset by it -- to break those things.

At some point, though, you have to set up new institutions and systems to address the things that the old ones once attained. If NATO doesn't work any more, we still need defensive relationships that do. If NAFTA was destructive of American wealth, we still need trading relationships that further it.

Honor is necessary to building such relationships, and to building them well. I don't think the President will be as good at the second part as he was at the first. But that doesn't undercut the quality of his performance at the first part; it may be that Jim Mattis, honorable though he is, would never have broken the ossified things out of an excess of respect for the sacrifices entailed in building them. Magnanimity is about getting honor right, both in seeing when special honor is due, and in seeing when honor is not due -- or not any longer.

Grim said...

Also, in case some readers weren't frequent here in 2012, I've never had much use for Mitt Romney. He strikes me as falsely pious on almost every issue: from gun rights to health care, and on everything else, he presents himself as the principled defender of whatever he thinks his voting public wants to hear. That he defended the opposite position a little while ago just as piously is something he thinks we are too dumb to notice.

I don't find Mitt Romney's criticism of anyone's character especially valid or interesting. It was the response to Romney -- that 'character' as he defines it is a negative indicator -- that I found interesting enough to bring up for discussion.

Christopher B said...

Re honor and international relationships -

I've been reading and listening via YouTube to a gentleman named Peter Zeihan (The Accidental Superpower, The Absent Superpower) who has some interesting things to say about the changes we're seeing in international relationships. His theory is that we're seeing the final breakdown of the post-WWII order where the US traded access to our markets and protection of global trade via the USN for participation on our side in the Cold War. The result is going to be a return to more nationally oriented alliance system (even semi-imperial alliances) and a more transaction oriented foreign policy. We enabled the economic growth of our allies and accepted lower growth here in exchange for security. The system was still viable after the end of the Cold War due to the importance of oil supplies from the Mid-east. Even if we didn't use ME oil as much as our allies the market disruptions caused by ME crisis still had a significant impact on us. Fracking and the transition to natural gas electric power generation is eliminating that connection and so we're disengaging as a global power.

A perspective of honor was very necessary for the former system because the agreements, though nominally reciprocal, were largely asymmetric. Our allies had to expect that we would expend our blood and treasure to deal with threats rather than take a pass if they didn't affect us. We had to expect that they wouldn't cause trouble for us unnecessarily, either economic or military, and that they would show some willingness to contribute. We're moving to a position where our allies are going to have to entice us into participation in security and trade agreements.

It maybe that any president at this point would exhibit a less honor driven and alliance oriented foreign policy. Zeihan, no Trump lover, suggests that Hillary would be moving in many of the same directions, though with less bluster and more Power Points.

Ymarsakar said...

Trum is just using another version of the Ymar strategy.

If I thought voting in a President was necessary, I would vote for myself and not a clone of myself called Trum.

One of the problems there is when people are too close in their Mars gifts and it does not manifest co axial mutual cooperation.