Moral Virtue and Political Virtue
It is very commonly thought that there are at least two kinds of virtue, moral and political virtue, and it is also commonly thought that the morally virtuous are superior to the politically virtuous. This comes across quite vividly in a book entitled Black Ops: The Life of a Shadow Warrior, by Ric Prado, who at one time was the CIA’s Counterterrorist Chief of Operations, now retired. According to Prado, operations officers like himself – and others – are characterized by moral virtue, whereas American politicians in Washington, D.C. resemble “a tank of political piranhas” who are quite willing to squelch the careers of the likes of Joe Fernandez in response to alleged scandals like Iran-Contra.
But what if the morally virtuous are not only not superior to the politically virtuous, but also facilitate or even create destructive and deadly programs, helping to turn the human situation into a slaughterhouse? After all, moral virtue is basically about dominance; that is, about dominating one’s passions and about dominating those people who are vicious, people like communists or Islamic fundamentalists, people George Bush et. al., like to call “evil.” And because moral virtue is about dominance, it inevitably leads to death and destruction, or to repression and imperialism for the sake of redeeming or purifying the human condition.
The political virtues, on the other hand, are about justice, accommodation, consent, and consensus. Understood politically, human life is characterized by several different and contending groups, each with different agendas. There are, for example, democrats, oligarchs, aristocrats, and monarchists. Each of these groups puts forward political claims that are valid, that form some part of what is known as justice. Democrats honor equality, whereas oligarchs honor the wealthy few, while aristocrats honor “the best few,” and monarchists honor “the one best.” Because each of these groups put forward valid claims, it is necessary and virtuous to seek to accommodate them, to reach some kind of consensus among them in order to ensure their consent. The political virtues, unlike the moral virtues, don’t aim at dominance but rather at accommodation, consensus, consent, even reaching at the best of times community; that is, a society characterized by affection.
Politics then may serve to ameliorate the human condition and especially the human condition understood and governed moralistically. Perhaps this is why Aristotle’s sequel to his Ethics is his Politics. But while this reminds us that politics and the political virtues serve as correctives to the violent human condition that results from the agenda of the morally virtuous, it is also the case, at least as it comes across in Aristotle’s Politics, that while politics is a corrective it is not transformational. Political philosophy is then that activity that reminds us that politics and political activity should be taken with the utmost seriousness, while also reminding us of the limits of politics and political life. One way Aristotle expressed this thought was to argue that the good man and the good citizen are, for all practical circumstances, never the same. This is not to say that good citizenship isn’t good; it is. But it is to say that good citizenship should be confused with human goodness. Thus, those who, like MLK, Jr. or Gandhi, move toward embracing and promoting human goodness should not be surprised when their patriotism is questioned. Nor should we be surprised if they are assassinated or crucified.
Blaise Pascal argued that the political works of Plato and Aristotle should be read, not as if they were serious political works, but rather read ironically, because Plato and Aristotle thought of political reforms as trying to bring order into a madhouse or loony bin. But perhaps a better or more accurate characterization of the human condition is that of a slaughterhouse, not a madhouse or loony bin. And if that characterization is the better one, and if that slaughterhouse is the result of the morally virtuous seeking redemption, social purification, or transformation, then it seems that even while recognizing there is no final solution to human troubles and violence, it would behoove us to take politics – and even or especially the politics of Plato and Aristotle – seriously.