Political Thought Links: Parallels:
Government as Moral Leader
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:
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."
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.
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
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,
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
F. Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does,
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
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.