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History A good leader vs a good person

Discussion in 'Social Sciences & Humanities' started by Indian Summer, Jan 26, 2017.

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  1. Indian Summer

    Indian Summer Administrator Owner

    Does a good leader have to be a good person? Or are perhaps these two qualities mutually exclusive?

    Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th century author of The Prince, said that while it would theoretically be wonderful for a leader to be both loved and obeyed, a good prince should always err on the side of inspiring terror(!), as this is what really keeps people in check. He pointed to obvious incompatibilities between Christian ethics and good governance, as a leader who is weak won't last for long.

    In this context I decided to do a quick review of the last few decades of US American presidents :) What was characteristic of the successful ones? And the unsuccessful ones?

    Jimmy Carter seems like a person of good character, a good Christian, someone who we like as a person. But as a president he's been rated mostly in the third quartile by academic historians, and left office with only a 34 percent approval rating.

    Ronald Reagan was also a likeable person, especially with his two wives. But as a politician he was sometimes ruthless. He left a lasting legacy, the 'Reagan era', that has defined policies on taxes, welfare, defence, the federal judiciary, and the Cold War, which lasted well after he left office and only started to fade with the presidency of Obama. Reagan has been rated mostly in the first quartile as a president, especially in more recent times. He left office with the highest approval ratings of any departing president in the modern era, 68 percent.

    George H. W. Bush has been rated mostly in the second and third quartile. His career points to a perhaps hawkish tendency: war hero, oil company president and chairman, member of House of Representatives, director of CIA, and as president he was leading the country to war and military interventions. However, he lost an important battle with Congress and had to go along with tax increases which were contrary to his campaign promises. This along with an economic recession resulted in approval ratings at the end of his presidency at only 37 percent.

    Bill Clinton is rated mostly in the second quartile by academic historians, but is tied with Reagan as the best scoring approval rating of any departing president in the modern era. He presided over the longest period of peacetime economic expansion in American history. He ordered military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo which were successful in ending hostilities and helping to restore a fragile peace to the region. Progressive laws were passed under his presidency such as the family and medical leave act, but his administration failed to pass health care reform despite a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress at the beginning of his first term.

    George W. Bush is rated mostly in the fourth quartile by academic historians. His approval ratings were the highest ever recorded in the wake of the September 11. attacks, but his final approval ratings were very low, 34 percent (Gallup) and 22 percent (CBS News / NY Times). He took the country to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which turned out to be costly both monetarily and in terms of human lives, and yet these countries are still today in turmoil. In his personal life he was an avid reader, and spoke highly of his wife, Laura.

    Barack Obama has been rated in the second quartile by historians. His approval ratings were between 55 and 62 percent at the end of his presidency. In his personal life it would be fair to say Obama belongs to the 'good person' category. As a president he seems to have succeeded sometimes by being pragmatic and "bipartisan", sometimes by executive orders and presidential vetoes. Some of his successes include the Affordable Care Act, repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", his economic stimulus package, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the assassination of Al-Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden. He also significantly scaled down the military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this has been well received with the electorate. He's been criticised for extensive use of drone attacks which sometimes lead to civilian casualties, and the chaos resulting from the military intervention in Libya.

    I think Machiavelli is clearly wrong in suggesting a good leader has to "inspire terror", though it's possible that's how it was like in his own time. On the other hand, it does seem like several of the US presidents were relatively "good persons" in their personal lives, but it's not clear that this did them any favours in their capacity as leaders. Obviously, a good person doesn't take actions that endanger other people's lives, but an ordinary person also usually isn't in a position that require them to choose between life and death, or between death and more death. So I don't think making such a choice makes them a bad person.

    Those who were considered successful - Reagan, and to a lesser extent Clinton and Obama, had some ruthless traits, but mostly I think the trait they relied on was pragmatism. Yes, they definitely pushed their own agendas, but only as far as was feasible.

    Sources are mostly Wikipedia articles, see e.g. Historical rankings of presidents of the United States - Wikipedia
    • Funny Funny x 1
  2. Indian Summer

    Indian Summer Administrator Owner

    I could be wrong. Chelsea Manning has a column in today's Guardian where she says:
    Source: Compromise doesn't work with our political opponents. When will we learn? | Chelsea Manning (26. January 2017)
  3. beancounter

    beancounter The Fire That Burns Within

    To get to the top gov't job, you have to be ruthless, regardless of the nice persona you can project. I wish I could find it and post a link, but I remember reading how Jimmy Carter was not what he seemed to be.
    • Agree Agree x 1
  4. Freesia

    Freesia not my business.

    ^and I dont want ruthless people running the world. I wish people would wake up to the fact that all these prominent politicans dont have anyones best interests at heart,

    and any generally good, sincere politicians end up kicked aside by the creep who will do anything for power so you end up with just a bunch of scumbags with the systems we have.
    • Agree Agree x 2
  5. Andy_T

    Andy_T Addicted Poster Forum Moderator

    Hannover, Germany
    There is also the case in point of a very bad leader (and a bad person IMO) who is inspiring terror already, simply by taking office.....
    • Agree Agree x 2
  6. Mischief

    Mischief Addicted Poster

    1. I don't think likability is the same as goodness.

    2. I don't think that all presidents are leaders; likewise, not all leaders are politicians/hold office.

    What I would say is that someone isn't actually a leader if s/he is interested primarily/exclusively in his/her own interests and power. (Just had an argument about that on another board where someone is insistent that Putin is a "brilliant leader.")
    • Like Like x 1
    • Agree Agree x 1
  7. Indian Summer

    Indian Summer Administrator Owner

    We might not want ruthless people as leaders, but we also don't want weak leaders who can't keep their minions in check, and fail to achieve worthwhile goals. Maybe 'ruthless' isn't exactly the quality we want, but I think we do want someone who is effective. And to be effective, I think you sometimes have to use some amount of force or pressure, sometimes you have to be uncompromising, and yet be willing to make a compromise as a last resort if that is the only option.
  8. FortyTwo

    FortyTwo Custom Title

    Put an AI in charge. Tell it that its goal is to decrease net suffering while increasing net happiness. Imbue it with an understanding of rule utilitarianism and teach it to abhor the non-consensual harm of an innocent, even at the cost of greater good. Give it all the means to enforce its will unconditionally.

    Bam. Perfect leader, and no need to worry whether it's a good person or not because it's not a person.

    ETA: For the record, this is more of a human race endgame scenario than something I think is actually likely to happen or even possible to pull off anytime soon.
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2017
  9. Joe

    Joe Celebrity Member

    I've been reading Gail Sheehy's Character, a study of the character structure of the various candidates for the 1988 Presidential race. She is using "character" in a more psychological sense, rather than a moral or ethical sense. I think she has hit the nail on the head with respect to the character necessary to provide good leadership.

    Sheehy took the position that one of the people least suited to be President was Gary Hart, who had too many self-destructive impulses.

    See: The Destruction of Politician Gary Hart

    Taking the opposite view is Matt Bai, who tried to rehabilitate Hart's reputation two decades later:

    See: How Gary Hart Became the First Political Sex Scandal Casualty
  10. beancounter

    beancounter The Fire That Burns Within

    The AI's algorithm would still have to written by an imperfect human with biases. Ask 100 people what the greater good is, and you could get 100 different answers.

    Using one of your conditions as an example, what if the AI considers a fetus to be an innocent.
  11. FortyTwo

    FortyTwo Custom Title

    That's a very good point. However - and I didn't specify this beyond saying it's a human race endgame thing, so this isn't a "gotcha" or anything like that - I'm assuming a level of intelligence and omnipotence here where something like, for instance, surgically removing and housing an otherwise-aborted fetus would be totally possible and not even hard. If that kind of competence couldn't be guaranteed, it would not yet be time to build the thing.