Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Character, the Unity of the Virtues, and Politics

Spurgeon Chapel, Green Lake
Conference Center, Wisconsin
When a leader transgresses in his private life, it reveals a flaw in his character that leads us to mistrust him in his public, professional life. Call this the Unity of the Virtues. It is found in Aristotle, and more fully explicated in Thomas Aquinas. University of Texas Professor of Law J. Budziszewski writes: "What it means is that all the excellences of character are interdependent: a flaw in one entails a flaw in every other. Aristotle understood but did not explain their interdependence; Thomas Aquinas explained it." (Budziszewski, J., Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, p. 31)

How, for example, could we trust someone who breaks a vow and cheats on his wife? That question, that intuition, finds support in Aristotle's Unity of the Virtues. Aquinas interprets Aristotle as follows.

  1. Every moral virtue depends on practical wisdom.
  2. Practical wisdom depends in turn on every moral virtue.
  3. Therefore, every moral virtue depends on every other.
The moral virtues are interdependent. If virtue X depends on practical wisdom but practical wisdom depends on virtue Y, then virtue X depends on virtue Y. "All of the virtues are joined, all are part of the web. A touch on any thread makes the whole web shake." (Ib., 32)

Here is the idea of a morally integrated life. What, asks legal scholar Budziszewski, does this tell us about the "character issue" in politics? The answer is that if the virtues constitute a unity, then the person who cheats on his wife will also cheat on the public. David Hume actually went further, saying that such a cheating person-as-politician would cheat the public even more, because "men act less virtuously in their public capacities than in their private." (Ib.)

This is why the character issue is important in politics.