Frank Saunders Jr is a PhD candidate in the philosophy department at the University of Hong Kong.
Do the Moral Characters of our Leaders Really Matter?
The rulers of the ancient Chinese warring states had absolute authority over their subjects, and were therefore principally responsible for their well-being. The Confucian and Mohist political thinkers of the Warring States period developed the idea that a ruler can lead his people to order and prosperity only if he cultivates his virtue or moral character (de 德). To this end, the Confucian Mencius, for example, traveled from state to warring state encouraging rulers to cultivate the four beginnings (si duan 四端) of their moral characters so that they could care for the people (ai ren 愛人) and establish policies that protect them (bao min 保民). Similarly, the Mohists folded the idea of benevolent government into their very concept of moral character. Heaven (tian 天), the Mohist deity, embodied both their supreme ruler and their highest moral standard (fa 法) by caring for everybody (jian ai 兼愛) and benefiting (li 利) the world. The Mohists urged rulers of states and clans to conform to their moral and political superiors (shang tong 尚同), including Heaven, by caring for and benefiting their subjects, thereby cultivating their personal moral character.
Today, elected officials in modern democracies each have far less authority over their fellow citizens than ancient Chinese hegemons had over their subjects. And given myriad other socio-political differences between the two groups, if the moral characters of the elected really matter to their fellow citizens’ well-being, they do so less obviously—or at least obviously less so than those of the hegemons. So here’s the question: when we modern, democratic citizens fixate on the moral characters of our leaders—something that the 2016 US presidential election has made clear many of us do—is it because they really matter, or is it rather because they have mattered throughout our long and unfortunate political history, and we just can’t seem to shake off that hangover?
Perhaps they don’t matter anymore, or perhaps they never really did. Or perhaps they do, but shouldn’t. If they do though, so much the worse for us, since—to channel Hanfeizi, critic of the Confucians and Mohists—virtue is rare and we have work to do:
Today, the loyal and trustworthy officials don’t exceed ten, but government offices number in the hundreds. Surely if we rely upon loyal and trustworthy officials, these won’t be sufficient to fill all the offices, in which case orderly folks will dwindle while disorderly ones will multiply. (Hanfeizi Book 49 五蠹)