Some leading conservative commentators have been debating what it means to say that President Donald Trump does or does not have good character. This point, from Roger Kimball, seems much more broadly applicable:
I think it is also worth pondering the work that Jonah [Goldberg] wants the adverb “wholly” to do in the deflationary phrase “wholly instrumental.” Any meaningful definition of good character has to involve an instrumental element. Otherwise the character in question would be impotent. This is part of what Aristotle meant, I think, when he observed that “it is our choice of good or evil that determines our character, not our opinion about good or evil.” In dismissing the connection between character and potency as “wholly instrumental” Jonah flirts with an idea of character that is unanchored to the realities of life.
The idea of character with which Goldberg flirts, according to Kimball, is a particularly progressive one. So many policy debates, these days, wind up with those on the left wanting the government to do something as a statement of morals and those on the right pointing out that the thing that they are proposing government should do will not solve the problem and, usually, will have harmful effects, particularly on our civil rights.
I’ve actually been surprised, in the past, when intelligent, well-meaning people have responded to my observations about a foreseeable side effect of some policy by saying, “That’s not the intention at all.” Well, I know it’s not the intention, but it is almost certainly a consequence. If your policy will not resolve the problem it targets, and if it will have harmful side effects, and if this is reasonably foreseeable, advocates are choosing evil, in Aristotle’s construct, even though their opinions might be good.
In this light, modern liberalism is a game of hedging bets. If you can pretend that the actual consequences of a policy are not obvious, then you can get credit for good intentions whatever may happen. To the contrary, we have the concept of “gross negligence” in the law for a reason. Deliberately failing to consider the consequences of your actions is not an alibi. “How was I supposed to know” is only a defense if one really could not have known.
Character is good when a person fully considers an act and makes a choice that is good (not evil) with as much information as is available. Whether that type of character is resident in the White House, I am not confident. After all, choosing good because it is expedient is not necessarily an indication of good character. However, an electorate that chooses somebody who will do good because he is forced to do good is still the more moral choice for us than a candidate who will do evil while claiming to believe that it is good.