Good Arguments and Good Character in Politics

Michael Gerson  and Peter Wehner
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There are several pillars upon which effective persuasion rests, beginning with the character of those trying to do the persuading. Aristotle, in his book Rhetoric, writes, “There are three things, apart from demonstrative proofs, which inspire belief—namely, sagacity, high character, and good will. . . . If a person is thought to command them all, he will be deserving of credit in the eyes of his audience.”[1]

Integrity Always Matters

Aristotle’s point is that the integrity of individuals cannot be separated from their arguments. We are all far less inclined to listen to the case for fidelity from a serial adulterer, the case for responsible drinking from a practicing alcoholic, or the case for honesty from a chronic liar. Bad character and bad behavior can discredit good arguments.

Of course, this is not the whole story. Arguments should ultimately be judged on their merits. Loyalty isn’t any less a virtue because of disloyalty in the ranks of those who speak out on its behalf. And we need to be careful not to set up a situation in which only perfect individuals are allowed to advance moral arguments. If that becomes the case, then moral arguments will simply vanish. Since sin is a congenital condition, only flawed people can speak out on behalf of moral ideals.

In addition, politicians are not ministers or deacons; the high biblical standards that apply to those holding church office—for example, being the husband of one wife and managing children and households well—are different from those to which we should hold public figures.

Still, we can all agree that, when it comes to the art of persuasion, moral character exerts significant influence. We have all participated in discussions on complicated issues that we cannot fully understand and whose details we don’t fully grasp. In those instances we often look to those whom we trust, morally and intellectually, for guidance and ratification. We rightly take their integrity into account when weighing the merits of a particular argument or cause.

Since the Beginning

This point applies, incidentally, to the American founding. Its success rested not simply on the words and ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution; it also depended on the trust Americans placed in the moral character of George Washington. In 1783, unpaid officers from the Continental Army threatened a military coup to overthrow Congress, which had run out of money. But because of an appeal to them by Washington, whom they revered, the officers voted to give Congress more time to pay them what they were owed.

The integrity of individuals cannot be separated from their arguments.

Washington persuaded the officers to respect the law. Yet his argument won the day because of his character rather than his words. “He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man,” Jefferson said of him. “Washington errs as other men do, but errs with integrity.” Had that not been the case, Americans during the difficult early days of the Republic may well have given up on this “new order for the ages.”[2]

People and Their Arguments

We therefore should not view arguments simply in abstract intellectual terms. They are often tethered to the people who advocate them. It’s all fairly simple, really: if people cannot trust you, they aren’t likely to trust the facts and evidence you marshal on behalf of your cause.

The danger that flawed character will discredit good arguments may be particularly acute for Christians, who are held to an especially high standard of probity. And of course the world is always eager to expose Christians who are moral hypocrites. That is why the Scriptures go to such lengths to instruct followers of Christ to act in a manner that is above reproach, to be blameless in conduct, and to remind Christians that faith without works is dead. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” St. Peter wrote. “But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

[1] J. E. C. Welldon, trans., The Rhetoric of Aristotle (New York: Macmillan, 1885), 113–14.

[2] William Eleroy Curtis, The True Thomas Jefferson (Philadelphis: B. Lippincott, 1901), 241.

For Further Reading:

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