Single Virtue Voting

Not being the sort of voter who decides am0ng presidential candidates based primarily on their stances on issues, I am far from ever being a single issue voter.  I could justly be called a single virtue voter, however, as I prize one virtue above all others when deciding how to vote.  That virtue is prudence, practical wisdom, what Aristotle called phronesis.

Defined broadly, prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; in this sense, it is concerned with both means and ends.

Defined more narrowly, prudence, or practical wisdom, guides one in navigating the grey areas between abstract principles and real world concrete situations that, in their singularity and uniqueness, evade application of those principles. Paul Ricoeur, in his major ethical work Oneself as Another, wrote, “practical wisdom consists in inventing conduct that will best satisfy the exception required by solicitude, by betraying the rule to the smallest extent possible.”

My realistically ideal president (and politician generally) will be neither dogmatic nor relativistic about moral principles, but recognize that he or she has to make choices among conflicting goods and among sets of exclusively bad options, choices that will have nation-wide and world-wide consequences.  Prudence, therefore, is the chief prerequisite for earning my support.

I’ll use the positions candidates take to help me determine, as best I can, who has the virtue, who lacks practical wisdom, and ultimately who has the most “phronetic” disposition, but I’m less concerned with the current positions themselves and more interested in the practical thought processes that went into constructing those positions and the means of addressing them.  A given position on an issue may end up being mostly irrelevant to that issue if the candidate, once elected, has no opportunity to do anything about it.  Additionally, I may disagree with a candidate’s stance on an issue and still be able to acknowledge that the position was taken after prudent consideration.

What about you?  Is there a single issue or single quality in a candidate that most guides your vote?

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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14 Responses

  1. I could never hope to write a more cogent piece of political analysis than this.

  2. Burt Likko says:

    I would have defined “prudence” as the opposite of impetuosity — the virtue of ensuring that one has sufficient information to make an informed judgment before actually deciding to act (or not), or at least of making a decision based on all reasonably-available information given the circumstances. You’re the philosopher so you’re in a better position than I to opine on whether that’s a reasonabl valid way of describing phronesis.

    Now, Bill Clinton demonstrated to me that a President’s personal virtuosity doesn’t really matter all that much. In his personal life, he demonstrated appalingly bad judgment, and not just about his fling with Monica Lewisnsky. But in discharging his office, Clinton was skilled and effective and seemed to make reasonably good choices. He was a good steward for the country despite a plasticity of personal character that I did and still do find alarming.

    So my opinion is that our system of government and politics imposes that sort of virtue — exercising informed judgment and balancing anticipated policy outcomes — on any President even if it’s not a big part of her innate nature. So , virtue is not something I give a lot of thought to when forming a preference between A and B. The skill set and experience the candidate possesses is where I focus.

    • James Hanley says:

      Would you say our system imposed that virtue on George W. Bush, or Richard Nixon, or even Lyndon Johnson?

      Serious question. Those are the presidents with the worst decision-making record, it seems to me, but you may view them differently. That is, I’m posing hard cases, not making snark.

      • I was inclined to agree with Burt until you brought up this question. I even wrote a long comment in response that I didn’t submit because it ended up saying “well, you’re probably right and I don’t have enough facts.”

        I do believe that the institutional constraints and incentives any president faces limits the range of what they will likely do. This doesn’t mean that presidents don’t have power to shape what happens, and some issues may permit a non-prudentially virtuous president to make some horrid decisions attributable to his lack of that virtue.

        Two of the three examples you mention, Bush Jr. and Nixon, are particularly apt. I see Iraq was a war of choice that didn’t have to happen, at least not in the way it did. (I do suspect the US was on a collision course with Iraq ever since the late 1990s or so, so I’m not sure there would have been no conflict.) Nixon was, to put it bluntly, a paranoid megalomaniac. He did some good things, in my view, such as initiating the process of normalizing relations with the PRC.

        LBJ is a tougher case, although perhaps his name should be included to avoid charges of partisanship. I see the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam, at least from sending advisors through the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, to be an example of “prudence” given Cold War assumptions about the importance of stopping communism without bringing in the communist nuclear powers. After large ground forces were introduced in 1965 and 1966, my impression is things got out of hand, and LBJ, to his discredit, lost control of the beast.

      • Burt Likko says:

        I think Nixon is the hardest case offered. To that example, I can only say that the man had an affirmative intent to do what he did and a nearly sociopathic disregard of the rightness and wrongness of his actions. When he said that “If the President does it, it isn’t wrong,” I think he really meant that, and that statement more than anything else indicted him as untrustable with power since he considered himself to be literally above the law. I can only speculate about how the man who made the “Checkers” speech — an impassioned self-defense of the man’s honor, one clearly motivated by a sense of honor being valuable — wound up thinking that he could give orders for crimes to be committed for his personal political advantage, but it’s quite clear that somehow he did. And so whatever safeguards were in place to impose deliberation and caution and prudence, Nixon simply overrode them (e.g., the Saturday Night Massacre). I don’t know that any set of systems, institutions, or safeguards can be concieved that can deal with something like that other than impeachment — which is what Nixon ultimately found himself up against, so I guess you could say that in the case of Nixon, we had to fall back on the last available backstop, but at least that one worked.

        Johnson and Bush, I am not so ready to indict as I am Nixon. Neither of them were sociopaths. They made bad calls, but it’s clear enough to me that both of them went through the processes of having information given to them, having to deliberate about the information they were given, and having to make choices from amongst several risky and unappealing alternatives.

        In the case of Johnson, the draw in to war in Vietnam was not a sudden process but a gradual one and no one saw all of the threads pulling the country in until it was too late to stop it, and by then no one had a good answer for how to get out in anything resembling a good way. The failure in the case of Vietnam was one of a near-universal mindset: “We’ve no choice but to stand with our allies the South Vietnamese, and our national mission is to stop the Commies!”. Had Kennedy, Nixon, or Goldwater been President instead of Johnson, functionally the same sorts of decisions would have been made because at no point in the deliberative process would anyone have said, “You know, if we let Vietnam go Red, it really wouldn’t be all that bad in the long run.”

        In the case of Bush, it seems entirely too likely to be that bad information (not necessarily bad intelligence about what was in in Iraq but rather bad information about how America would be greeted upon returning there) poisoned the process, and the vision of a democratic, militarily and economically-allied Iraq as a counterbalance against Iran was judged to be too rich a plum not to pursue. Remember, they may have only had a spurious case about the WMD’s, but the Bushmen sincerely believed that the Iraqi people would come very close to greeting their American liberators by throwing rose petals in their paths and proclaiming a liberal democracy allied with the United States nearly immediately after a Velvet Revolution or a quick decapitation strike against Saddam. In retrospect that was a tremendous misjudgment, but at the time quite a lot of people, not just Bush, really believed that, or something like it, was what was in the cards. So they figured that if they pulled it off, it would be easy afterwards to ask and get forgiveness for the willfully-ignored intelligence flaws and prevarications in the political pitch, given all the great good that had been done. A bad judgment with terrible consequences, to be sure. But not one reached as a result of a failure to have gathered information and carefully considered it, which is what we’re talking about here.

        This should not be understood to be an exoneration of, nor even a particularly full-throated apology for, the bad decisions those Presidents made leading us to long and unnecessary wars. I’m simply not prepared to say that either Bush or Johnson failed to deliberate or failed to be educated to the extent reasonably demanded by their respective situations. They made bad decisions in spite of having gone through that process, and that the system isn’t foolproof.

        • “functionally the same sorts of decisions would have been made because at no point in the deliberative process would anyone have said, ‘You know, if we let Vietnam go Red, it really wouldn’t be all that bad in the long run.'”

          With the possible exception of Undersecretary of State George Ball. But even he, if I understand correctly, framed the issue as a potential defeat or quagmire than as “it wouldn’t be that bad if the communists took over.”

          I agree with your overall point. I do think, and perhaps this is because I’m not far enough removed from it yet but also have the benefit of hindsight, that the belief that the Iraqis would welcome the US as liberators–and admittedly, some probably did because Hussein was mean to a lot of people–was so naive as to suggest the deliberation was perfunctory at best.

          To me, the “decapitation” strikes actually support this suggestion. If it had worked and removed the top leadership, the same people, just not Hussein and his immediate cronies, would have been in control and there would have been no need or wish to hope for a welcome parade.

          But again, I’m inclined to your view here, although I would prefer to frame it as constraints and incentives limiting likely presidential decisions to fall in certain parameters.

        • Mike Schilling says:

          In retrospect that was a tremendous misjudgment, but at the time quite a lot of people, not just Bush, really believed that, or something like it, was what was in the cards.

          This croggles me. In 1991, Bush pere and Powell made the sensible (if arguably craven) decision not to overthrow Saddam, precisely because the result of the civil war that would follow was likely to be a Shiite-led state that was a natural ally of Iran. Twelve years later, supposedly smart people couldn’t follow the same chain of logic. I have to conclude that not only was Bush fils stupid, but that it was contagious.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Clinton had skill sets that helped him make some sound decisions. I probably wouldn’t call Clinton a prudent person, though, in the sense that his prudence wasn’t a habitual disposition toward the good, i.e., a virtue. He made some reasonably good choices, but would his governing have been better had he been consistently prudent?

  3. b-psycho says:

    I’m not sure I follow, tbh. If you value prudence above stands on the issues, then one could conceivably support someone who sharply disagreed on the issues on the basis of fulfilling that virtue anyway. Thinking this through it just sounds counter-productive in the name of a vague concept, not to be rude about it that’s just how I see it.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Probably not likely. I’m not so full of myself to think my political positions are the only prudent ones, but then, I happen to think that my much-considered position are the correct ones. On those issues I see as black and white, I would tend to see a differing opinion as a big mark against the candidate. On issues more grey, for which the virtue of prudence is especially needed, I’m more willing not to fault the candidate who takes an opposing position after careful reflection. So, for example, I refuse to support a candidate who advocates what I take to be torture, but I may be willing to support a candidate whose economic policies are more statist or laissez-faire than my own.

  4. NewDealer says:

    Not really.

    I’m a very firm Democratic party voter. This is not to say that I agree with or like all Democratic policies or politicians. Though there are plenty of Democratic politicians I like that receive scorn from the other side. But I’ve noticed in politics that the top fundraisers in each party tend to be the great scarecrows of the other party and equally go fundraisers in different ways. Democratic voters really like Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank. Those are two of the top Democratic fundraisers. Republicans really hate both Pelosi and Frank and probably raise a lot of scare money from the two. See Paul Ryan and Michelle Bachmann for the equivalents.

    My main issue is that the Republican party in my eyes is completely divorced from reality on all issues. Climate change, social stances like gay marriage, creationism, fiscal and tax policy, the Republican party has been taken over by ideologues. This is Nixon’s Southern Strategy working to comically tragic effect. This is not to say I am as left as Kuinich. I get annoyed at the hippie wing of the Democratic Party for not being realistic often enough. But I can’t in good conscious ever bring myself to vote for a Republican candidate.

    Perhaps if you could revive Harry Blackmun or Jacob Javits but those two were chased out of their party. Earl Warren as well.

    • NewDealer says:

      The you in the last paragraph was a universal you, not you specifically. I have no idea whether you can use the dark arts of necromancy or not.

  5. Rodak says:

    You would have to show me that there is such a beast as a politician who is prudent in the sense you present here. Successful politicians tend to be ruthlessly pragmatic, often in the most cynical possible modes. Politics is a street fight, not a parlor game. If you are looking for a politician well practiced in phronesis, I suggest that your most profitable search will be confined to the losers’ locker room.