Dr. Laurie M. Johnson

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Home: Political Thought Links: Parallels: Plato


Parallels: Government as Moral Leader

Plato's views on the role of government in shaping citizens' character can still be seen today in certain strands of contemporary political thought. Columnist George Will is a particularly good example of a contemporary figure who thinks like Plato. In Will's case, he thinks like Plato in part because he studied Plato and other political philosophers and has incorporated his knowledge of them directly into his commentary and writing. In his book Statecraft as Soulcraft, Will makes the point that political leadership always carries with it moral influence. The question is, will our leaders use that influence to improve the people's character or will they, through the absence of moral leadership, encourage immorality? Obviously, Will is on the side of those who think that President Bill Clinton had a character problem, and that this issue was crucial to evaluating his leadership. Will argues against those who insist that the public can and should separate how the president conducts his "job" from problems in his "personal life." Will believes that looking the other way on such matters corrupts the public's morality, whereas proper leadership involves setting a good example and paying special attention to how laws and policies affect the people's character. He writes:

"A well-governed polity clothes and shelters the individual, enveloping him in a rich weave of relationships-rights, restraints, duties, privileges, customs, mores-that shape his disposition, buttressing what is best in him and tempering what is worst. This should work to discourage certain lurid diversities-some base or vicious tendencies. However, it also should leave wide scope for diversity because it bears always in mind the enhancement of excellence, and individuals have different faculties that point toward different forms of fulfillment natural to them."

This view is similar to Plato's insistence that leaders should be philosophically informed, that they should know what is good and legislate to reduce vice and increase virtue. Plato obviously believed that leaders did indeed have a profound moral influence on their citizens, for good or ill. So, today, does Will. The idea that government and our political leaders have anything to do (or should have anything to do) with shaping the public's moral character is certainly controversial, especially in areas like gambling, abortion,
and sex education.


By now you can hopefully see how compatible are some of Plato's ideas on leadership and the purpose of government and certain political ideas that tend to be seen today as "conservative." Plato certainly was not a conservative in every respect-he had no love of tradition, but instead challenged it at every turn. However, his argument that morality is a key component of governmental leadership corresponds to a certain theme in conservative political discourse today.

Not all conservatives, however, are alike. George Will disagrees with those who think that government should only concern itself with establishing law and order and facilitating maximum freedom in economic matters. He is more of a "neoconservative," a type of conservative ultimately more concerned about social and moral issues-as Plato was. Yet Will does not see a religious revival as the most important cure for what he thinks ails America as do today's Christian conservatives. Instead he writes about the need for leaders to come to grips with the fact that government inevitably makes decisions which affect our moral choices. So, our
leaders should admit that they are doing so and take their moral obligation to the people seriously. Thus they should openly ask, "What kind of people do we want our citizens to be?" But even though Will may be right that government cannot avoid having a moral (or immoral) impact, a politician openly asking this question in a campaign would face immediate opposition from those who claim that the politician was going to try to enforce his or her morality. Increasingly in our society, morality is seen as a choice which each individual makes, not a framework that exists independently from individual opinion. Both Plato and Will claim that such a framework of morality exists independently of individual opinion and that thinking people (philosophers) can determine with some degree of certainty the content of that framework. Will is not calling for some form of dictatorship or for a theocracy. He is saying, as did Plato, that politicians have a responsibility to use their "bully pulpit" to persuade people to support moral policies and to live better lives.

Of course, the first problem with Will's proposals is the same problem Socrates faced inThe Republic. Who will accept the rule of philosopher kings who try to teach the people about virtue? America would seem a long way from appreciating this style of leadership. There is also the other problem-how do you get good leaders to enter the rough and tumble political fray. George Will for president? Apparently Will has not seriously considered the possibility. Then let's think about some of those moral issues that Will and other neoconservatives highlight:


George Will has argued that state-sponsored gambling, like the lottery, should be discontinued. He thinks that the state, especially, should not be in the business of corrupting the people by leading them to make bad choices with their money and their leisure time. Using statistics, he points out that those who play the lottery the most tend to be those who can least afford to do so-the poor, and disadvantaged minority populations. He argues that when the state sponsors gambling it is sending a message that gambling is a legitimate form of entertainment. This legitimacy then spills over to private gambling operations (casinos now operate legally in most of the 50 states). With more and more private gambling comes other pathologies-more drinking, more pornography, prostitution, etc. Families are bankrupted by those who cannot control their gambling habit. Marriages are broken up over financial and moral difficulties that ensue because of gambling. Will asks, is this something the state should actually encourage?

Those who support state-sponsored gambling argue for the sanctity of personal choice. They say it is nobody's business how we spend our money. If a person finds playing the lottery entertaining, then he will play it. No one is "holding a gun" to anyone's head. They disagree that the state is making a moral statement by sponsoring gambling. Instead, the state is simply giving people a choice. In the meantime, states often generate a lot of revenue from lotteries (as well as taxes from private casinos), which pays for government services that benefit all, such as public education. Further, supporters argue that just because there may be some gambling addicts does not mean that the lottery should be shut down, any more than the existence of alcohol means that we should bring back prohibition. In general, they tend to think that arguments such as Will's are paternalistic, that is, that people like Will aim to take care of people who would rather take care of themselves.


Most neoconservatives are pro-life and argue for an eventual return to making abortion illegal. Will argues that the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade which struck down state laws that had made abortion illegal, was an example of the court "legislating" on an issue that Will thought should be left to state lawmakers to decide. Neoconservatives argue that the Supreme Court's decision sends a message to the public that abortion is not only legal, but also now simply an option which should be considered socially acceptable. In the age of sexual promiscuity, this decision means an intolerable number of abortions.

Pro-choice advocates would strongly disagree with Will's argument that Roe v. Wade made abortion socially legitimate and thus changed society's morality as well as its behavior. Abortion has always been a reality, they argue, but in the past women had to take unacceptable risks to their health to obtain illegal abortions. Moreover, more abortions occur now than before abortion was legalized, but that does not necessarily indicate that the change in law changed our moral attitudes. Rather, the law may simply have allowed women to make a free, safe choice that they would have made previously, but could not. Fundamentally, they argue that government is not and should not make moral decisions for individuals. Rather, in issues they consider purely a matter of individual moral choice, people must have the freedom to make "wrong" choices, if they are wrong. Indeed, pro-choice advocates often deny that these choices, including the choice of partial birth abortion, are wrong. Though their positions vary, they tend to deny that the fetus is fully a human being until born, and they would argue that for women to be free and in control of their own bodies-which they say is a fundamental right-they must be able to exercise the option of abortion. They would argue that those who oppose abortion are (like Socrates' opponents often said of him) simply pushing their own moral agenda, and attempting to
make others conform.

Sex Education

It used to be that sex education dealt primarily with anatomy. Then came lengthier discussions of contraceptive use. Finally, in some school districts, different sexual choices and sexual lifestyles came to be discussed as a part of sex education. Neoconservatives have a problem with the latter two events. If a teenager hears that the best defense against pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases is abstinence, but that a knowledge of the birth control pill, condoms, diaphragms and other contraceptives is also necessary, does the teenager come away with the message that sex is acceptable? If the teenager also hears that some people prefer same-sex relationships, does this send the message that such relationships are normal-a teaching which may contradict the family's moral or religious beliefs? Just as Socrates would indicate that the teaching of rhetoric is not a morally neutral tool, Will and others would argue that such sex education transmits unhelpful values, even if this is not intended by the teacher. For instance, the teenager might leave the class thinking that if the teacher spent so much time on contraceptives, it must be because sex is very prevalent among youths, a conclusion which leads her to think that she, too, should become sexually active to be "normal."

Those who advocate an expanded sex education argue that rather than leading on moral issues, the schools are simply reacting to societal trends. More teenagers are having sex, and the schools certainly cannot stop them from doing so. Given that, the schools must do what they can to make sure that the negative consequences for teenagers and for the larger society are minimized. They would also deny that a moral message is sent simply by discussing sex and contraception. Instead, they would see this activity as delivering information to young people, which they can decide how to use with the guidance of their families, clergy and others.


George F. Will, "Gambling: The Pathology of Hope," in Will, The Woven Figure: Conservatism and America's Fabric,
1994-1997, New York: Scribner, 1997, pp. 240-242.

George F. Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

George F. Will, "Who Put Morality Into Politics?" in Will, The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions, New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1982, pp. 33-35.





Dep't of Political Science
Kansas State University
Primary Texts Certificate