Blogs > Liberty and Power > Character is Relevant!

Aug 25, 2008 5:49 pm


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.


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Robert Hugh Hodges - 8/25/2008

As far as I know, the only crime against their wives that Bill Clinton and John Edwards were ever accused of was frequent adultery. Your post seems to imply that Hitler and Stalin physical abused their significant others. Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings (if it did occur, I don’t know or really care) may have been superficially consensual, but given the context of the master-slave relationship should be classified as rape since Hemmings presumably did not have the option of refusal. If these three assumptions are sound, then I think the comparison between the five leaders’ moral wrongs is superficial and very misleading.

Maybe their wrong actions are compartmentalized from their public careers or maybe not. But first we need to examine the distinction between violating your significant other’s person versus simply violating your promise to be sexually faithful to her. Maybe both would affect your actions as a leader, but this is not obvious.

Cheers,
Bob

P.S. I don’t endorse any of these five leaders’ public or private lives, and I do think adultery is reprehensible, just much less reprehensible than rape or physical abuse.

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