Saturday, August 23, 2008

Character is Relevant!

This country has gone through some deep changes about this issue: is a politician's sex life "private" in the sense that it is irrelevant to what we should think about the things he or she does or will do as a "public" official?

During the agony of the Clinton sex scandals I tried to interest a class I was teaching on moral character in writing a term paper on this issue, and they were struck dumb -- literally -- by the suggestion that there is a discussable issue here. When I prodded them with a few questions, I was told that the idea that a politician's sexual behavior is relevant to our moral or political judgments about them as politicians is a myth invented by cynical Republicans, who are pursuing their own political ends. In other words, as a philosophical issue, it is utterly beneath contempt. Well, then, I said, what do you think of the Mother of All Character Issues: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. If these allegations are true, do they give us some reason to chisel him off Mount Rushmore? Or not? What do you think? Anybody? Anybody?

No one wrote on that issue. I concluded that the students' view was probably the standard one among Democrats at the time, including those who constitute almost 90% of my esteemed colleagues at the university. I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and I can only gain insight into how such people think in the same way that an anthropologist finds out about the beliefs of distant tribes: by observing the behavior of others. Introspection is less than no help at all. Today, using the same methods, I conclude that things have changed. During the flap about Edwards, it became obvious that many of his supporters (or former supporters) it were genuinely disappointed by his behavior. Today, his political status seems to be somewhere in the category of damaged goods.

What do I think about this issue, other than that it really is an issue?I have actually written on theoretical issues that bear on this question but every time it pops up I find myself thinking about -- not some theory or argument but -- a comment someone made to me while we were watching a movie.

He was a Russian scientist, here to do research, and we were watching the original airing of a made-for-cable biopic about Stalin, in the early years of the Clinton agonies. During a scene in which Stalin (Robert Duval) was treating his wife, Nadezhda, in a particularly beastly way (she later committed suicide), my companion became very upset and said something like: "This is what drives be crazy. How can people say that the way Clinton treats women has nothing to do with what we should think of him as a politician? What Stalin was doing to his wife, he later did to the whole country! The same thing!"

A similar point is made about Hitler's relationship with Geli Raubal in a fairly good novel by Ron Hansen. I hope it is obvious that I am not comparing Clinton and Edwards to Hitler and Stalin -- the issue here is the (in some broad sense) logical one of whether the "private" realm of a person's life is a separate compartment from the "public" one, with no inferences (not even probablistic ones) allowed from one to the other.

To accept the compartmentalization idea is very close to denying that there is such a thing as moral character at all. The idea of character is the idea that there is a certain kind of connection between one's acts: that people act from traits, like courage and cowardice. If you do a brave thing, that is evidence that you have the trait of courage and are a courageous person. Not conclusive evidence, because acting out of character is possible. Compartmentalization is also possible. A person can be a hero in the face of physical dangers and a coward about moral ones. I don't deny for a minute that this sort of looseness and independence between the parts of one's life is possible. But the compartmentalization idea implies that such things are not merely possible but necessary.

In effect, the compartmentalization idea says that, necessarily, there two Stalins: the one who abused Nadezhda, and the one who abused Russia. It is simply a coincidence that they were both abusive. But why only two? Applied consistently, the idea would disintegrate the person into an infinitude of homunculi, with no connection between them. That, of course, is not how things are.


Anonymous said...

"This is what drives be crazy. How can people say that the way Clinton treats women has nothing to do with what we should think of him as a politician? What Stalin was doing to his wife, he later did to the whole country! The same thing!"

What would you say of a political monster who is otherwise a model husband and father. Goerbbels and other prominent Nazis were supposed to be quite "correct" on the family front -- or so I've heard. Anyway, it's conceivable. If there's supposed to be some deep, necessary connection between the private and public life of a political figure, why didn't Goerbbels' domestic rectitude translate into political rectitude? In the same way, I can't see any straight line between Jefferson's owning and having sexual intercourse with slaves and his political behavior. Indeed, the latter seems to contradict the former in fundamental ways. "We hold these truths to be self-evident...," etc. What part of his political career corresponds to his owning and using his slaves for sexual gratification?

Lester Hunt said...


I see at least three possibilities as to the connections between the different parts of one's life: a) necessarily connected, b) possibly connected, and c) necessarily not connected. The compartmentalization idea only makes sense if (c) is true. My own view is a form of (b). But so is yours. I don't see that we disagree there.

Also, I suspect that the compartmentalization view rules out the idea that Jefferson's political principles can be inconsistent with his sex life. They are simply parallel universes. My own view on this issue does not tell us what we should think about Jefferson, only that, if you believe the Hemmings theory, you have to deal with it somehow. You can't make it a non-issue by claiming that it is irrelevant to the political realm.

Michael Drake said...

The resistance to discussing Clinton's character flowed not so much from the sense that character doesn't matter, but from the widespread appreciation that public debates about the "character" of political figures are inherently disingenuous and epiphenomenal.* The greatest howls of outrage about Clinton's dalliance, for example, came from Newt Gingrich, a guy who had not only stepped out on his wife after she developed uterine cancer, but actually served divorce papers on her while she lay in bed recovering from surgery -- then refused to pay alimony or child support. (Which infidelity got more play in the "liberal" New York Times?)

The argument to remove character from the political debate thus seems of a piece with the rule in evidence law that generally bars a defendant's character from the jury's consideration during the guilt phase of a trial; while "bad character" (suitably defined) probabalizes a tendency to commit relevant "bad acts," its probative value is nonetheless likely to be outweighed by its prejudicial effect.

* And maybe also out of a widespread appreciation that infidelity is not quite an indicium of Stalinesque mental cruelty.

Anonymous said...

Well, if we're only talking about the possible bearing of a bit of private behavior on how we judge the overall character of a public person, then everything depends on the behavior in question. An acute alcoholic who finds it impossible to stay sober can certainly be found unsuitable for a position of public power and trust. By contrast, a cold and unresponsive father (Ronald Reagan?) can serve with great distinction without having his overall character impugned. Since there's no a priori reason why an unfaithful husband can't also be an excellent public servant, I should think the burden of proof is on those who believe otherwise. Your Russian friend's incredulity apparently stems from his not considering the particulars of the Clinton case and from his being mislead by an obviously extreme and misleading example. Clinton's "treatment" of women, to be specific, was with their consent, involved no deception with regard to his marital status, and resulted in no injury. As for the position that a politician's private behavior should never influence what we think of him or her as a public servant -- that strikes me as a straw man. Are there people who actually espouse this extreme compartmentalism? I can't recall anyone defending Clinton, or any other public figure, on such general and indefensible grounds.

Kali Fontecchio said...

That was an excellent post! It definitely brought up issues I have not thought about in some time.

I was on the side of your students at around that same time, but that is because I was young, misinformed, and always felt strongly for the underdog (which at the time I thought he was one).

In recent years, I suppose I decided to just disregard everything, and not even think about politics, for it always gave me a headache and distracted me from my work if I dwelled on the ugliness of it all.

I think I started to lean in this direction after the past while with Bush, for he always showed these traits in his personal (public) recreation etc. It became obvious to me that the personal character of a president is definitely a major factor, especially in a day and age where morals no longer exist practically.

Now, I am pretty convinced, that it should always be considered and weighed carefully when going to the polls. Thanks for your insight, Lester :)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, indeed! For me, lapses of personal conduct in a public leader (e.g., infidelity) are not themselves as important a measure of the leader's character, as how they view their own lapses. Clinton went down hard because he lied to the public when the issue of Lewinsky came up, the unfortunate decision to shake his finger at the camera in denial. I would have respected him more if he'd said his personal life was not up for discussion. But lying about it revealed more than a hound tendency, it showed that he endorsed duplicity of his own image, a conscious intention to manipulate facts, I think he showed this earlier with the 'I didn't inhale' remark, too. On the other hand, Edwards tried preemptive blame on himself, and unfortunately that is a new manipulative trick that politicians have learned to play (go ahead and beat me up, I already have beaten myself up more). It's hard to really know the sincerity behind these pronouncements. But if it is manipulative, that seems to indicate a character flaw at a more central level, at a level that does bear on their ability to be trustworthy leaders.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that we indulge in sweeping inferences about the deep character flaws of public figures based on their private peccadilloes but often make no such inferences based on truly shocking acts of public wrong-doing -- for example, lying in order to bring about a war that results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the subversion of the Constitution? If George Bush (let's assume) can lie on such a grand scale as that, then isn't it at least tempting to infer in him a tendency to lie in his private life as well? Doesn't this reveal a devastating character flaw? Though I truly detest the man, I for one am very reluctant to say that. It seems purely speculative and, in the absence of evidence, unjust. But when a national klieg light is thrown on Clinton's sexual indiscretions and he lies about it out of shame, fear, and panic, we feel at liberty to infer in him a deep propensity to lie, one that might in principle disqualify him for public office. It simply does not follow, however, that a person who would lie about his private sex life would also lie us into a war. I am still not convinced that Clinton is an example of a man with character flaws beyond the ordinary, and I am always a bit astonished at the reflex use of his name in such contexts. Clinton and Stalin? Good grief!

Lester Hunt said...

Last anon,

As I have said once already, I'm not comparing Clinton to Stalin.

As to G. W. Bush, I don't see how you could think that he has lied in those circumstances and with those foreseeable results and not say that he is a bad person. Personally, I think he is not merely flawed (like Clinton) but a moral monster, for roughly the reasons you give. If that doesn't count as evidence of a bad character, surely nothing could.

It sounds to me like you are committed to some sort of radical skepticism about people's moral character. I am of course coming from a quite different point of view here.

Anonymous said...

The pertinent example for your purpose, it seems to me, was simply to point out that Stalin's cruelty in private life somehow presaged, or at least was of a piece with, his cruelty in public life. There was no real need to bring Clinton into the picture by quoting your friend's comparison. But since you did...

The point of your friend's Stalin analogy, I thought, was that Clinton's misconduct in his marriage must have (might have?) similar grave implications for his conduct in office. If we knew beforehand about his propensity to stray from his marriage, we presumably, according to your friend, wouldn't have risked our national fortunes on such a base person. That, I am saying, is simply not a credible or just way to assess Clinton's character overall.

I didn't say that Bush was not a moral monster for the things he's done in an official capacity. Like you, that is precisely why I despise him. What I said was that I can't infer anything about his private life based on his crimes as a public official. Indeed, inverting the situation, if I took his private life as a criterion of how he might likely perform in office, I suppose I would have to give him a pass -- as the public did do in 2000 when they elected him president. (If I remember correctly, character was a big issue in that election.)

The reason I brought up Bush in connection with Clinton was to emphasize the curious fact that many people (not you!) seem far more prone to make global character inferences based on private peccadilloes rather than on grave public misconduct. Reagan is another example. He circumvented the Constitution by secretly selling arms to Iran in order to raise funds for a proxy war in Nicaragua -- bad stuff! -- and yet he's routinely lionized today as a paragon of virtue. So far as I know, Clinton never engaged in extra-Constitutional shenanigans of any sort, much less on the scale of Reagan and Bush. But many people, often the same ones who lionize Reagan, routinely deride Clinton as uniquely morally base.

I don't think my point of view here is at all moral skepticism, as you suggest. I am saying that there can be a very wide disparity between private vice and public virtue or between private virtue and public vice. Clinton was a disappointment for his personal misconduct, but he nevertheless served virtuously in office. Bush is pretty much a straight arrow in his personal conduct, but he has served damnably in office. Between the two men, and on balance, I would say Clinton was the better man. It's the difference between a philanderer who was a good public servant and a faithful husband who engaged in politically orchestrated murder.

Is this not a somewhat more nuanced way to arrive at overall judgments of character?

Lester Hunt said...


You seem to be thinking that my post was about the moral character of particular politicians. It wasn't. It was about whether people are right to build a firewall that prevents them from drawing conclusions about "public" officials based on their "private" conduct. I was saying "no," with of course the proviso that these inferences are probablistic. Thus to your suggestion that someone can be good in one realm and bad in the other I say "of course!" -- that's why the conclusions involve probabilities only and not certainties. It's not a reason for drawing no conclusions at all from one realm to the other.