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Plato, in the "Republic," develops the notion that a just republic requires just leaders. A just leader has a virtuous character. A virtuous character includes honesty. If one were looking these past few years for evidence that our most prominent public figure – let’s call him “Individual-1” – has a questionable character, there has been plenty of low-hanging fruit. But beyond the narcissism, adultery and financial chicanery, a particularly troubling aspect — because of its social import and character-revealing nature — is our subject’s recurring lack of truthfulness we witness almost daily.

Philosophers have a lot to say about lying. Immanuel Kant thought that truthfulness was a moral duty. Making what he called false promises is morally troubling not only because it only postpones immediate trouble, but because it results in words having no meaning. If I lie to you, I want my words to have meaning to you but expect yours to have none to me. Universalized, language loses usefulness.

Perhaps you are unconcerned because you do not think our figure is lying per se. A contemporary philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, addresses Individual-1’s typical behavior in his book, "On Bull****," in which he distinguishes BS from outright lying. A liar, Frankfurt writes, knows the truth and intends to deceive; a BS-er on the other hand is unconcerned with the truth. The BS may be true; it may not be true. It doesn’t matter. The BS-er is only concerned with self-promotion. In any event, spewing BS is no less a vice than lying.

The ancients have much wisdom to offer. A larger principle beyond the tangible consequences of untruthfulness was developed by the virtue ethicists, pioneered by Aristotle. They emphasize the development of character rather than a set of rules (such as do not lie) to follow. Instead of asking, how should I act, virtue ethics asks, who should I be? Given that moral character develops over a lifetime, the virtuous person attempts to inculcate a set of virtues toward the end (goal) of a good human life, which Aristotle called flourishing, understood as one of integrity where one uses his distinctively human function — reason — well. We would recognize such virtues today; they include the ancient virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice, to which Christians would add faith, hope and love. The virtuous person does not need a rule that says "do not lie"; his character precludes it.

In a passage foreshadowing Christianity in Plato’s "Gorgias," Socrates speculates on what happens after death: “All that’s in the soul is evident after it has been stripped naked of the body ... things that the person came to have in his soul as a result of his pursuit[s]. So when they arrive before their judge ... each person’s soul [is scarred with] the results of acts of perjury and of injustice, things that each of his actions has stamped upon his soul.” Such a passage can move believer and non-believer alike.

We cannot know his heart, but Individual-1 professes belief and scripture is unequivocal concerning false witness. It takes neither ancient wisdom nor rocket science to understand that a just leader would not exhibit the character traits he exhibits nor, in particular, be so capricious with truth.

“All the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue.” — Plato, "Laws"

W. Craig Heymann


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