Son of a bitch! – Virtue in politics (and the role of the media)


Recently, the headlines of the news have been dominated by all kinds of remarkable details regarding our politicians. However, they usually are not about the political ideas of the politicians or the party they represent, but rather about funny details and edgy characteristics. For instance, why is it so important that Hillary Clinton’s best friend was in a relation with a pervert? And why does Donald Trump keep emphasizing how successful and rich he is as a businessman? And why is the sexual orientation of the Dutch President more important than his liberal ideas on business? And how come that the news regarding the latest AESEAN summit was dominated by a silly remark of the President of the Philippines on Barack Obama, instead of the more pressing issues such as climate change and North Korea’s latest nuclear tests?

Virtue based ethics
In normative ethics philosophers usually distinct between consequentialist, deontological and virtue based ethics. Although this distinction is typically a European one, and does not do justice to many other approaches, for now I will use these classifications. In consequentialism, a moral action is justified when it leads to the best result. In deontology, a moral action is justified when one sticks to important values. In virtue based ethics, it is the idea that someone is continuously working on her/himself to build a good character. After all, good people will do good things. The great philosopher Aristotle assumed that when people would perfect their characteristic traits, they would in the end find the perfect middle ground between two extremes. This ‘golden mean’ would lead to virtuous men and women. So, no cowardly or overconfident politicians, but brave ones.

And yes, of course we want our politicians to be trustworthy, successful, reliable and decent. All good and relevant characteristic traits that could be classified as a golden mean between undesirable extremes. However, the main criticism to virtue based ethics is that is hardly about content. It is hardly about what is the right thing to do, or how to realize goals. At most, it is about whether the involved politician is able to do the right thing due to her/his personality.

Virtue and the media
Where in some contexts, we would need a bit more virtue based ethics (maybe amongst business leaders?), there seems to be an overkill in the political landscape. Or perhaps it is fair to say, in the media reporting about the political landscape. As it seems, people rather read about a president calling his colleague a son of a whore, instead of what this ASEAN summit was really about (and if you want to know, just check this website, and the resulting statements of the participating States).

In defence of the virtue based approach in the US elections: the elections are about one person running for one particular job: President of the United States. While the President represents a certain political party, the American political landscape is complex, and the party programme greatly depends on the one that is elected. To a certain extent therefore it makes sense to ask yourself the question who this person is and whether (s)he has the right character that qualifies for the job.
The result however is that the presidential campaign is very personal, and dominated by intense personal accusations back and forth. A pity, for it could also be about content: norms and values the candidate seeks to realize if s(he) would be elected.

In the Netherlands, we do not elect a President. Instead, the electorate chooses their new parliament through direct (House of Representatives) and indirect (the Senate) elections. The Prime Minister will be appointed by this parliament, and is traditionally representing the largest party. This Prime Minister is not necessarily the person who leads the political campaign preceding the elections. But also here during the election campaign, the media seems to rather publish about the personality of politicians, their emotion and whether or not they regret their sometimes harsh words.

The media
In the heat of the TV debates, there seems little room for in-depth reflection of a political course, or the true comparison of political solutions to actual problems. After all, when you are a politician who finds her/himself debating in a closely choreographed TV-show, and you have to pitch your idea on how to solve a problem that is larger than life in less than one minute, the character of the politician  might become visible, but the proposed solution not.

One might ask the question: ‘what’s in it for the media?’ Well, I guess that reporting on content rather than character might reduce the chance that radical thinkers (who usually cause most of the fireworks in debates) might grab power too easily. History teaches us that in the past, the first thing that radical leaders do is to reduce the freedom of the press. It is just a thought….



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