Ethical Issues in U.S. Presidential Leadership

By Fousek, John; Wasserman, David | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Ethical Issues in U.S. Presidential Leadership


Fousek, John, Wasserman, David, Presidential Studies Quarterly


This issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly presents a collection of papers that examine diverse ethical issues concerning the office of president of the United States. The collection focuses on the role of ethics, character, and virtue in determining what constitutes good presidential leadership and evaluating the performance of individual presidents and presidential candidates. The collection grew out of a symposium organized by the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University and held at the Center for Jewish History in New York City on January 30, 2008. The contributors examine, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, such questions as whether a president can be both effective and ethical, whether ethical political leadership is possible or even desirable in a dangerous global environment, and whether effective political leadership requires "dirty hands." (1)

Since the crisis of authority brought on by the Vietnam War and Watergate, many Americans have come to view "political ethics" as an oxymoron. At the same time, the public has continued to demand ethical leadership from its elected representatives. This is particularly true of the president, who sits at the pinnacle of government and sets the moral tone for the executive branch. Hence the rapid decline of public support for presidents whose leadership appears ethically compromised. That happened to Gerald Ford when he pardoned Richard M. Nixon without providing an adequate justification, and to Ronald Reagan when news broke that his aides had been secretly selling arms to Iran to finance legally prohibited support to Central American insurgents. Most recently, public support for President George W. Bush went into a free fall when it became evident that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the United States seemed mired in an endless war initiated under false pretenses. A desire for ethical leadership may help explain the excitement behind Barack Obama's campaign, his dramatic victory in November 2008, and the widespread euphoria sparked by his election. A far-reaching exploration of the role of ethics and character in presidential leadership seems particularly important at this juncture.

The papers in this collection draw on, and advance, the growing literature on issues of character in moral philosophy, psychology, political science, and history. The past two decades have seen the emergence of virtue ethics, with its emphasis on moral character, as a major theoretical approach in philosophy. Taking up the rich tradition of Aristotelian ethics, virtue theorists such as Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (1997) and Rosalind Hursthouse (2001) regard character rather than individual actions as the primary subject of moral evaluation, and virtues rather than specific rules or consequences as the primary source of moral guidance. This renewed interest in virtue and character is not limited to virtue ethicists; it is shared by leading contemporary philosophers, including Elizabeth Anscombe (1958), Bernard Williams (1985), and Robert Adams (2006), who seek to extend ethics beyond the narrow legal paradigm of duties and rights.

At the same time, some contemporary psychologists and philosophers have challenged the explanatory value of character and the influence of individual differences in moral behavior and decision making (Doris 2002; but see Sabini and Silver 2005). This debate intersects with a much older one among historians and political scientists about the importance of individual character and individual decisions in shaping events and institutions. Among historians, for example, structural and systemic analysis has been pitted against narratives of events that stress the impact of individual actors and their personal qualities. These tensions may finally be giving rise to creative resolutions, as many scholars who had long focused on broad movements and structures have shown new appreciation for the role of the individual, including political leaders (Chafe 2005; Wood 2006). …

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