Reflections on Moral and Political Virtue
I am reading the book The Yankee and Cowboy War, which is about American politics and particularly the connection between Dallas – that is, assassination of JFK – and Watergate – the coup that displaced Nixon. And in the course of my reading, I began to think about Aristotle and his teaching on moral and political virtue.
Aristotle makes is clear that moral virtue is trumped by political virtue insofar as cities are defined by their respective political virtues, whether those virtues be democratic, oligarchic, or monarchical. That is, cities or political order are controlled, guided not by moral virtues but by political virtues, which of course vary from place to place. Democrats practice democratic virtues and oligarchs practice oligarchic virtues. It is the political virtues that rule.
Now, in discussing the assassination of JFK, Carl Oglesby, author of The Yankee and Cowboy War discusses Chief Justice Earl Warren who was, of course, the chairman of the Warren Commission which was authorized to investigate the murder President Kennedy. Given the obvious shortcomings of the that Commission’s investigation, shortcomings that Warren must have noticed, Oglesby wonders about Warren’s situation, about the possibility that Warren was willing to cover-up certain aspects of the Kennedy assassination, even though Oglesby accepts that Warren was a man of “strong integrity.”
As Oglesby puts it, even or especially a man of strong integrity, like Chief Justice Warren, could have faced a conflict in which his integrity would be challenged were it to become evident that the investigation, if honestly carried out, would reveal the corrupt character, even the murderous or criminal character of the American political order. As Oglesby put it: “What if your strong integrity…is confronted with a choice…, a problem mere integrity might not know how to solve?” That is, what if the choice is between the truth (and the subsequent subversion of the established political order) and covering up a murder? Or to put that differently: What if your choice was between a potential revolution and covering up an assassination?
What does “a patriot of unimpeachable integrity do” when his patriotism and integrity clash? Isn’t it likely, to say the least, that patriotism, political virtue, will prevail? And if political virtue countenances or justifies such corruption, how is it virtue? And, finally, if political virtue countenances such a cover-up, it would also countenance or justify the murder itself. It seems that neither moral nor political virtue are sufficient to render the human condition humane or just. Even “a patriot of unimpeachable integrity” like Chief Justice Warren will countenance injustice.