John Edwards’ Character: What His Affair Reveals About the Connection of the Virtues

On Friday, August 8, 2008, former senator, vice-presidential, and presidential candidate John Edwards admitted to ABC’s Bob Woodruff that he had entered into an extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter, a former employee in his presidential campaign. “In 2006, I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs,” Mr. Edwards explained in his statement, “I was and am ashamed of my conduct and choices, and I had hoped that it would never become public.”

Less than a year ago, former New York attorney general and current governor Eliot Spitzer admitted to having an extramarital affair with a prostitute, ratcheting up a tab of close to $100,000. In 2004, NJ governor Jim McGreevey admitted to having a homosexual extramarital affair. And who can forget the Bill Clinton fiasco in the middle of his second term as president of the United States? My interest in these scandals is heightened by the fact that all these men were admired for their political careers and especially for their commitment to justice. John Edwards ran on the campaign that there were “two Americas” and he was going to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor of this country. Spitzer spent his career as attorney general fighting white collar crime and big business. McGreevey increased taxes for the rich and fought to make homosexual unions legal, which he considered a matter of human rights. And Bill Clinton’s social justice accolades seem endless, both as president and in his post-White House projects.

These men were considered upright, laudable public figures and exemplars of virtue, yet all of them had deeply flawed characters. For a moral theologian interested both in virtue theory and Thomistic moral psychology, cases like Edwards’ are practical examples of the ongoing debate over the theory of connection of the moral virtues. The question at hand is whether one must have all of the moral virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude) if one is to be considered virtuous at all.

The ancient Greeks subscribed to this thesis in various degrees. Socrates and Plato believed that all the virtues were unified into one virtue. Aristotle posited that the different virtues were distinct but connected, meaning that the possession of one entailed the possession of the others. According to Aristotle, this means that one cannot be just unless one is also temperate, courageous and prudent. St. Augustine took a Platonic view of the unity of the virtues, holding that temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence were all manifestations of one virtue—caritas. Aquinas, on the other hand, appropriated the Aristotelian tradition, proposing that the virtues were distinct but connected.

The doctrine of the unity or connection of the virtues advocated by the Greeks, Augustine, and Aquinas, in many ways, seems counter-intuitive, especially when examining figures like John Edwards who seem to have virtues in one area of life but not others. Martin Luther King Jr. is another example of someone who seems to defy the doctrine of the unity or connection of the virtues. King seems an undeniable example of a just and courageous man who spent his entire life fighting to end the injustices of racism and segregation through peaceful means, even to the point of martyrdom. However, he struggled with serious vicious behavior, most notably extra-marital affairs.

Our experience seems to confirm that the doctrine of the connection of the virtues is false. Nobody is a saint, but some people can excel in certain areas like social and economic justice. It should not surprise us when these people fail to practice virtues in other areas of their life.

One of the more important historical figures to argue for abandoning the thesis that the moral virtues were connected came from a 14th century theologian named William of Ockham. Ockham’s basic argument against the connection of the moral virtues, found in his treatise entitled De Connexione Virtutum, was that experience confirms that we are not all exposed to the circumstances necessary to form each virtue. A poor person might be exposed to the right circumstances in which to develop courage but not justice or temperance. A middle-class or rich person is often given little opportunity on the other hand to develop courage in their sheltered lives. Yet, they may still be able to develop temperance and justice.

Interestingly enough, Ockham gets this argument from his interlocutor and opponent Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, in his treatment of the topic, distinguishes between common and special-state virtues. The latter are virtues which everyone can have, including the cardinal moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Special-state virtues, on the other hand, perfect a person according to some eminent state such as great wealth or honor. These special-state virtues include magnificence and magnanimity. Obviously, says Aquinas, a person without great wealth can never develop magnificence, which is the virtue perfecting how such wealth should be used.

But Aquinas has a different take on the common-state moral virtues, which he argues are connected because each virtue is a perfection of an appetite, and since the appetites are connected, so too must be their corresponding virtues. That is, my appetite for food, drink, and sex (called the concupiscible appetite) is connected to my appetite for difficult pleasures like exercise (called the irascible appetite) and also to my rational appetite. I cannot be a complete person without all of my appetites in operation, nor can I be a virtuous person without each one of my appetites being perfected.

The thesis of the connection of the virtues has fallen out of favor in contemporary scholarship due largely to empirical evidence provided by figures like John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, and Martin Luther King Jr. who obviously excel in some areas of morality like social justice but fail in others like chastity. Societal pressure pushes us to acknowledge that these figures are virtuous but flawed, but I think there is something to be said for looking at virtue more holistically. A virtuous person is one whose whole life is dispositionally oriented towards the good, not someone who does some brave actions or takes on some just causes. Epistemologically, it may be useful to separate the moral virtues into discrete, separate entities called prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance (as Aquinas does in his Secundae secundae) but the lived moral life is more complicated. I argue that there can be no justice without temperance, just as there can be no human person without both will (the appetite perfected by justice) and concupiscible appetite (the appetite perfected by temperance). The just life, and the just person, must also be a temperate life and a temperate person. Everything else is just an act.

Which brings me to my last point about the connection of the virtues, namely, that virtue is more than just a discrete bundle of acts. Virtue, at least in the Hellenistic and Thomistic sense, is a disposition to do the good as a second nature. One develops virtue through practice, that is, by acting well, but the real interest of virtue theorists is the way in which one’s character is formed, and this may or may not be reflected in one’s acts. As Aristotle says, it takes more than one sparrow to make a spring. Or as Maureen Dowd wrote in her column covering the Edwards affair: “in American politics, there is an eternal disjunction between character and achievement. Sinners do good things, saints do bad things.” Dowd probably did not know that she was using virtue language, but she was. Virtuous people sometimes do bad things and likewise, vicious people do good things. It is possible that a man like Edwards could have an impeccable character but still fall into a vicious act, or a series of vicious acts, especially in the face of such stress as the death of a son, a wife’s battle with cancer, and two presidential campaigns. Possible, but in this case, unlikely.

Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter was an unjust act but that does not necessarily make him an unjust person, especially if the rest of his life reflects a dispositional orientation toward the good. But in this case, Edwards himself admitted that the whole of his life reflects an egoism, a narcissism, and self-involvement that led him to believe he could do whatever he wanted without consequences. Coming from a man who felt it necessary to say that his affair took place when his wife was in remission, not still in the throes of a cancer battle, and a man whose commitment to the poor did not prevent him from getting $400 haircuts, I would say that such a self-assessment proves my point exactly.


3 comments so far

  1. Scott on

    I actually found an application for this post in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which I was listening to on audio-book today. When Dorothy finds out that Oz isn’t really a wizard, she says “I think you are a very bad man.” Oz’s response is, “Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man, but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.”

    The thing is, the book lets him off the hook with that, explaining that he helped build the emerald city and that he did some good things for the people. But, of course, he lied to them for years about who he was, and he made them wear green spectacles so that they would think the whole city was emerald-colored. (Although you might want to try that some time yourself…)

    On the other hand, part of the reason Dorothy isn’t so mad at Oz is that he knows how to make a hot-air balloon, which means he has a shot at getting her back to Kansas.

    So, my question would be: Should we be content with acknowledging that our leaders aren’t good people, as long as we think they can accomplish what we want, or should there be some realistic expectation of finding leaders who are actually virtuous, in the Aristotelian/Thomistic sense?

  2. everydaythomist on


    How Machiavellian of you. In short, I do not think we should be content with leaders that are bad people “so long as we think they can accomplish what we want.” First of all, whose to say that what we want is, and what these immoral leaders can achieve, is ultimately in our best interest? Lots of people wanted the government to do something after 9/11 to avenge the wrong we had been dealt, and so many of our leaders who would have normally opposed Bush (like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry) ended up giving their support to a war that is most definitely not in our best interest now. The people got what they wanted, but as it turned out, we really didn’t want what we got. Virtuous people (i.e. with prudence and fortitude) would have been able to foresee what voting for the war would do for the future well-being of the country and had the courage to resist what was the popular sentiment at the time. Second, your position speaks to the utilitarianism that is most prevalent in our societal discourse at present. What maximizes utility (or happiness) is best, regardless of the character of the agents. The way the argument goes is that if a bad person can make the best life for the greatest number of people, why should he not get to lead? The problems with this argument, I think, are pretty obvious. What if a society is virulently anti-Semitic and a leader comes along realizing that by getting rid of a few million Jews, he will make ten times as many more millions happy? There are many more examples like this one that aren’t as overused like US segregation policies in the fifties, but you get the idea.

    I think there is a realistic expectation of finding virtuous leaders, but it will take people who can transcend our Machiavellian and utilitarian political system. And transcending systems is difficult, though not impossible. I recommend a great movie called The Life of Others about a man who manages to transcend a very bad political system indeed, and the sacrifices he had to make to do it. I think that Ron Paul was trying to transcend the system. His campaign was most definitely anti-utilitarian and people loved it. He’s still got $5 million on hand and he’s technically still a candidate (at least until the convention). The problem with Ron Paul was that many people (ahem!) might have wanted to vote for him, except they knew he didn’t have a chance to win. So they voted for McCain or Romney or Obama or Hillary because they didn’t want to waste their vote. But now you have a bunch of disillusioned Republicans who don’t really want McCain, and a bunch of less-illusioned Democrats who are starting to find out that Obama wasn’t all they had hoped he would be. Getting virtuous leaders is within our reach, so long as we don’t get bogged down wringing our hands.

  3. Scott on

    I actually wasn’t trying to be Machiavellian (I had to copy that word from the post above rather than trying to spell it) — I was just point out that L. Frank Baum was.

    I like your response, except I’m not sure Ron Paul was electable, even if all the people who liked him had voted for him consistently. He was able to raise a ton of money because he was very appealing to a certain number of people, but in American politics you have to appeal to a lowest common denominator. This, in my opinion, is the problem. Obama transcends it because he is so attractive and appealing, but it remains to be seen (1) whether anything like his apparent idealism holds up if he gets elected, and (2) whether he can beat McCain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: