The Three Virtues and the Presidential Election
Ever since I went to Wyoming Seminary secondary school, I have been obsessed by what I call the three virtues: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness (known at ”Sem” as Verum, Pulchrum, Bonum, the school’s motto). I have been convinced that they are important and should be cherished; and that my own life should be guided by the pursuit of these values.
Reflecting that pursuit, in the late 1990s, I wrote a book called The Disciplined Mind, in which I developed the idea that education should be focused on developing understanding and valuing of truth, beauty and goodness. Though sincere, I was also naïve: my children, my friends, and my critics (sympathetic or otherwise) pointed out that these three virtues are hardly transparent or self-evident. People differ vociferously on how to define them, or even whether the terms are legitimate descriptors. As the years went on, the emergence and proliferation of digital media—the internet, the web, social media—further complicated the identification and the pursuit of this venerable trio. Among the disruptive features were the ease of disseminating fake information, unethical exploitation of social media, and challenges to traditional criteria of beauty.
And so, some years ago I decided to update the principal argument of The Disciplined Mind in a new book called Truth Beauty and Goodness Reframed. The subtitle of the hardback edition was “Education for the Virtues in the 21st Century.” The subtitle turned out to be too subtle! In the paperback version, I substituted the somewhat jazzier “Education for the Virtues in the Era of Truthiness and Twitter.” The book sought to pin down which aspects of the virtues could be sustained in our time, and which had to be rethought, modestly or fundamentally.
I continue to be haunted by these terms and their implications. A few years ago, I gave a series of public lectures at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; I’ve given university-wide lectures at Harvard; and this semester I am teaching a course on the topic. Informally, I have described the course as “Between the Literacies and the Livelihoods.” Almost all agree that the first job of school is to help students master the basic literacies—reading, writing, arithmetic, and perhaps now coding. And certainly within the contemporary United States, most have come to believe—rightly or wrongly—that the principal purpose of higher education is to secure a job. But what should come in between?
In an effective educational system, LIteracies are attained by the ages of 9-10; and securing a LIvelihood is the challenge of late adolescence. That leaves close to a decade to pursue the LIberal arts and sciences. In my view, the liberal arts and sciences are the time-honored avenue by means of which we approach the trio of truth, beauty, and goodness; the liberal arts teach us how to stretch our minds, evaluate evidence, confront new perspectives, and express ourselves clearly and thoughtfully.
Enter the 2016 election. At least among journalists, scholars, pollsters, and pundits (not to mention my own family and friends), the process and the outcome of the election were, to put it mildly, unexpected! Nor has it been easy or straightforward to understand the way in which a large part of the electorate approached the campaign and the vote. Since I think about truth, beauty, and goodness every day—often every hour—I’d like to share how the virtues have fared over the months.
The biggest surprise to me has been how little importance large portions of the electorate have placed on whether statements made by candidates (or their surrogates) are in accord with the facts. Time and again Donald Trump said things that could easily be demonstrated to be false—the so-called “pants on fire” metric. This did not seem to faze his supporters at all.
While Hillary Clinton’s tally for truth-telling was somewhat better, she was widely (and, I believe, correctly) perceived as being legalistically truthful but otherwise suspect. And so when Trump called her “Lying Hillary,” the label seemed more apt than, say, a characterization of “Lying Barack” or “Lying Michelle.” Truthiness triumphed over truthfulnesss—and whether truthfulness will count more in future political campaigns is anyone’s guess. As some have suggested, we may live in a “post-truth” society.
While my definition of truth—the accuracy of statements—is conventional, my definition of beauty is less orthodox. I apply the descriptor “beautiful” to experiences. An experience counts as “beautiful” to the extent that it fulfills three criteria: 1) it captures one’s interest; 2) its form is memorable; and 3) the experiencer would like to repeat the experience or one like it.
Politicians blessed with charisma are likely to create beautiful experiences. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama created beautiful experiences for their audiences. Hillary Clinton does poorly on these criteria—no fault of hers, as beautiful experiences are very difficult to contrive, particularly in the public arena. Personally, I found it painful to watch and listen to either candidate for any length of time, but it was clear to me that many Americans found it interesting and even memorable to behold Trump and happily revisited the experience. Without doubt, his long immersion in reality television—aided by the American public’s love affair with that genre—contributed to his ability to create what for many were beautiful experiences.
I apply the descriptor “good” to the relations that obtain among human beings. But I distinguish between neighborly morality and the ethics of roles. Neighborly morality describes how we strive to relate to family, friends, and neighbors. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule tell us how to behave towards these people. But the Ten Commandments cannot tell us how to resolve an ethical dilemma at work, how to petition, how to vote, how to click our support, or when to mobilize or become a whistle blower. For these situations, we need what I call the ethics of roles. Instead of the Ten Commandments, we might turn to the Hippocratic Oath, or the U.S. Constitution, to determine how to behave in our roles as citizens and workers.
I will leave it to others to draw conclusions about the extent to which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are actually good family members, good neighbors, good workers, or good citizens. Certainly it is possible to be good in one sphere and to fall short in the other. But I will share my thinking about the recent campaign.
Each of the candidates sought to convey goodness to the public. Their platforms and policy recommendations had little impact—much of the public seemed little interested in how either candidate would function as president (worker) and whether either would in fact pursue the public interest (citizen).
Instead of judging the candidates using the ethics of roles, the public weighed them in terms of neighborly morality. They judged the candidates in terms of whether they were perceived as “my friend,” feeling “my pain,” speaking directly to me, making me feel better, or making me feel more optimistic.
In the popular vote, while Clinton came out ahead, it was very close. She was successful with many women and minorities, those in urban regions, and those with more education; Trump was successful with many men, with whites (who thought of themselves as “real” Americans), those in rural regions, and those with less education.
And Trump was successful with those voters because he proved a better reader of what “goods” were wanted than was Clinton. He spoke to their economic insecurity, promising to bring back jobs. No matter that he did not explain how. What mattered is that Trump made people feel good; the majority of those in the Rust Belt felt they’d rather have a beer with Donald Trump (though he does not drink) than bourbon with Hillary Clinton.
Of course, getting elected is one thing. It remains to be determined in what ways, if any, the Trump presidency will be true, beautiful, or good.