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September 06, 2008


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An interesting post, Sam. I see your point, but I don't think that, on the whole, there's much virtue ethical about his campaign.

First, the most obvious example in your favor is his reliance on the importance of his POW experience as a foundation of his character. This has virtue ethical aspects to it, for sure. He's suggesting that his character and experience provide him with the necessary ground for the kind of practical judgment (phronesis, or "yi" for Confucius perhaps) a ruler needs. Most politicians do this, however -- Obama has tried to assure us that he too has practical wisdom, by pointing to things in his past biography.

Second, McCain's campaign manager, in stating that the election is not about issues, but "personalities" isn't pointing us towards honest character assessment -- he's pointing us towards likability, and the two aren't the same. It's about whether we see ourselves in the candidate (identity politics of one source or another). Look at the Palin choice: clearly she wasn't chosen because of her obvious abundance of yi; she was chosen because her (a) stance on certain issues is fundamentalist and (b) because her personality appeals to a certain demographic. Nothing character driven in that choice. Moreover, McCain, in choosing Palin, demonstrated a massive lack of yi. No virtues there; people called it a "maverick" choice, but it wasn't courageous, it was rash. It wasn't thoughtful, it was reckless. From a virtue ethical point of view, McCain demonstrated a whole assortment of vices here. Note also, that by "likability" they meant "we're going to go negative against Obama". Going negative against your opponent is not virtue ethical because it shows nothing about your own character. If anything, it detracts from it.

Third, I don't think, other than in a superficial way, his rejection of firm stances on this or that policy makes his campaign virtue ethical either. True, a VE might reject the suggestion that there are core unassailable principles that one must not deviate from (think 4.10 from the Analects). But this wouldn't stop a person from speaking generally, and McCain even refuses to do that. Moreover, one might point out, virtue ethical commitments to context specificity (in discerning what is yi, say) would seem to err on the side of, for one, the permissibility of abortion. A virtue ethicist might well say that up front (as Obama has). Whether an abortion in a specific case stems from practical wisdom cannot be discerned beforehand; it must be left up to the virtues of those in the situation (in which case some will make vicious decisions, and some virtuous ones). But McCain wasn't about to say that, was he?

He doesn't want to talk about policy because he's committed to the realism of situations and context, he doesn't want to do it because he has nothing to say. Voting for a person of practical wisdom shouldn't be like voting for someone from whom one would have no expectations at all how they would vote. It would just mean that only regularities of action should be expected, not sheer determinism (action following rigidly from some rule).

A quick example, too, of something McCain does not do in his avoidance of policy. A VE candidate could point to the past and talk about how this or that policy decision is clear evidence of the virtues of the person who implemented it, or of how it was a clear sign of being a product of practical wisdom. The more of these you get, the better a sense of McCain you get, and of his own practical wisdom. I didn't see much of that either. Whenever policy was mentioned, I heard bromides. Not very virtue ethical.

This is controversial, but I'm not sure I agree with you that VE is committed to "right action". I think they are committed to the development of right character, and right action springs from this. That said, you rightly point out that McCain is hardly committed to right character, so even by my analysis he's left right action twisting in the wind in any event. Maybe he was at some point in the past (maybe), but he isn't anymore.

I'm most happy that someone with a deeper understanding of virtue ethics than I has weighed in on this. Thanks.
I agree that likability is not VE. But the point I was trying to make is that by jettisoning consequentialism and deontology, McCain is, by default as it were, creating more of a VE campaign than is usually the case. And I think this opens him up to effective critique for precisely the kinds of reasons you adduce. Among other things, the Palin pick undermines the claim to Yi.


I certainly agree that it opens them up to exactly those criticisms (mine and the ones you point out). I think I just resist the suggestion that it "is" a VE campaign by default because it isn't a D or C one (that's a quibble, though). Still, I see what you mean -- by avoiding policy consequences or principle-oriented discussion, they've made it about "people" (not necessarily about character). In ethics talk, it's not about rules or states of affairs, but about agents (and VE is seen as falling under that latter description).

At best, perhaps, they are trying (sincerely) to run a VE campaign. If so, they are woefully coming up short. At worst, though, and this is what I actually think, they aren't trying to do this -- instead, they've simply ceded the field to the kind of cynical "do whatever works" thinking to secure the win, regardless of (a) whether it is virtuous, (b) whether it results in the best consequences overall, or (c) whether it is in accord with right principles.

If anything, they simply embraced a form of ethical egoism.

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