How about doing virtue scans on the candidates in this crucial election? Surely such background checks and assessments would lead to better choices than simply listening to campaign rhetoric and spin. Predictions of actual responses to future challenges can be most accurately based on virtuously developed habits of moral behavior.
Virtues are on my mind because I’m working my way through a young friend’s admirable new book, Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues by William C. Mattison III. Bill has done a fine job presenting the importance of the moral virtues, and in an engaging way that will appeal to his college students.
Chapters discussing the different virtues are interspersed with discussions of test cases, such as alcohol use and premarital sex. The first half of the book is devoted to the four cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, justice and prudence, which can be open to every reasonable person, and then the last half of the book treats the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
As I read along, the thought experiment of assessing the present political candidates on their respective cardinal virtues became irresistible, however rough and ready the judgments.
First, the virtue of temperance seems to be equally displayed by the two slates. As a matter of fairness only present adult behavior should be counted. McCain is no longer a beer drinking and hell raising young midshipman and naval aviator, and Barack Obama the exemplary family man has left experimentation and inhaling far behind in the past.
Courage and fortitude also appear evenly matched on the tickets. Obama has had to overcome barriers of racism and Biden has triumphed over family tragedy and serious illness. Sarah Palin has taken on sexism, entrenched establishments and met her own family challenges.
Most famously, John Sidney McCain III has displayed the courage of his family’s military tradition in bravely enduring torture and the after effects of imprisonment in Hanoi Hilton.
While profiles of courage abound equally in our present election choices, the virtues of justice and prudence are definitely not evenly distributed. Obama and Biden in their past careers show a far greater concern for liberty, equality, peace and justice. They do not display misplaced loyalty on behalf of family and friends.
The gap grows even larger when it comes to the all important virtue of prudence. Prudence is “the virtue of choosing well” or the acquired capacity of accurately sizing up situations and making good practical decisions. Prudence is the preeminent virtue since as “the charioteer of the virtues,” it governs when and where a person deploys other virtues. Unfortunately, courage displayed in pursuing a bad cause can be dangerous.
Prudence comes from past experiences in making wise, responsible, well thought through choices-- not impulsive and not flamboyant ones. An unwillingness to accept guidance from others is also fatal to prudence.
In my estimation, John McCain and Sarah Palin, for all of their lively magnetic qualities are far outdistanced by Obama and Biden in exercising the virtue of prudence.
Appropriately, Biden and Obama have both taught constitutional law, and are well versed in the most prudent instrument for governing ever invented. When the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution are arbitrarily flouted, disasters descend.
While no voter can control the future in this precarious and unsettled period they can seek to elect the most virtuous and prudent leaders possible. My own choice is obvious, and as my granddaughter’s answering message on her cell phone has it, "I think you know what to do."