Donald Trump and the End of Virtue

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Introduction

The election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States in November 2016 has evoked a flurry of commentary in print media and over the internet.  Much of this commentary, especially on the progressive side, has centered on whether Mr Trump is “temperamentally suited”—fit–to be president.  This question touches on a variety of subordinate issues—his decision-making ability (prudence), trustworthiness, veracity and sense of fair play as well as his sense of proportion and ability to avoid harm to others. Beneath layers of satire and apologetics the question of temperament still nags citizens of the United States as well as observers in other countries.

The question of temperament belongs properly to two important discussions with a long history in philosophy and theology.  Primarily it concerns the question of “human nature,” a question which is now of interest not just to philosophers but to social science, psychology, and cognitive studies.  At the same time, the subject of temperament raises a particular question about character and propensities to do harm, or produce benefit, to oneself and others.  The latter topic is situated historically in discussions of virtue, a word which has a long lease in philosophical discourse but today seems almost absent in political discussion and social commentary.

The following essay attempts to deal with the matter of virtue in a way that respects formative ideas in ancient philosophy, in religion, and in contemporary ethical theory.  Because so much attention is paid to Mr Trump’s colorful rhetoric and so much time is spent defending and critiquing particular pronouncements, the focus here in not on a specific range of “sayings” or actions but on the way in which his characteristic and habitual performance illuminates the current discussion of virtue theory.

The argument here is straightforward.  It is that with Trump we reach a point in modern political life where virtue is not only absent but actively resisted and considered a political liability.  This situation mirrors a society in which the understanding of virtue has become associated with impractical, religious, or metaphysical concerns, and to the extent it is discussed at all is considered a situational rather than a habitual matter, in which action is assessed largely in terms of effects beneficial (or harmful) on an agent or on a class of people affected by his actions.

The title of this essay is intentionally ambiguous.  In ethics it has been common since the time of the classical writers to talk about ends as “outcomes” related to the intention and performance of an action, its τέλος (goal or purpose) to use Aristotle’s language.  But it also means in everyday English the final point or terminus of a process, something which for better or worse is finished.  In fact the original Greek word is the root of the word toll, a price to be paid at the end of a road. It is the contention here that with Trump we reach a kind of end-point in a particular  version of government, statecraft, and politics and that the events of his rise to power illustrate a formal division between politics as a virtuous profession (the ancient ideal), in which a contract is struck between the leader and the people on the basis of goals and aspirations for the good life, and politics as a strictly mundane business concerned chiefly with the amassing of wealth and power. The final embrace of oligarchic and plutocratic (power- and wealth- driven) forms of governance is, in practical terms, the end of virtue, since those forms of governments are formed with different ends (purposes) in view. (Piketty, Thomas (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press, p. 514)

The reader is forewarned that the discussion of Mr Trump as a test case in ethics is offered only after a rather long discussion of the idea of virtue in philosophy and religion. I hope that forbearance will reward the argument: It seems to me that this discussion is crucial if we are to anchor comments about the 45th president of the United States in specific traditions rather than in disaggregated commentary on his mystifying habits and unexplainable behavior.  Philosophy, especially ethics, has already begun the deconstruction of Trump as sui generis occurrence  but it is better, I would argue, to see him not as an anomaly but as a case the long history of discussions of leadership and virtue.

The Classical Background

Anyone who has read a little of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics knows that it’s basically about two things: happiness (which we all desire) and virtue (which we pursue more or less successfully)–a sort of “proficiency in goodness,” which the Greeks described as excellence or arête.  We still see this usage in words like “virtuoso,” a master performer—a flutist or singer.  A virtuoso is someone who does something well. ( James Stedman,  “Aristotle’s Cardinal Virtues,” Practical Philosophy 10:1, 2010)

But when we take discussion to a slightly higher level and ask, What is virtue in general?, or more specifically, What does it mean to call a person virtuous? the question becomes slippery, because not everyone can be an accomplished artist, scientist, or athlete and many people are not especially good at anything.

For Aristotle this created a puzzle:  Are there individual or particular “excellences” that point us in the right direction or touch on what it means to be virtuous in a more comprehensive way–since it would seem that no single excellence, or even some combination of them, would constitute happiness for everyone.  A virtuous person, to bring the language into our time, would be someone who excels at being human. And being human for Aristotle depends on using what we uniquely have to the best degree possible.

And what is this unique thing?  He arrives at the answer through differentiation.  Aristotle says that we possess a lot in common with plants and animals:  we need nutrition, so we have (like plants) a “nutritive spirit”; we feel and have instinct–motion and emotion–which gives us (with animals) a “sensitive” soul.  But above all we have reason, which no other creature has.  So reason, he says, is our defining difference; and to act in accordance with reason is what constitutes excellence for us.  Consequently, no one who acts against reason—that is, irrationally or unreasonably, can be said to be virtuous.  In another passage, he will say that only someone who exercises virtue in accordance with reason can be “humanly” happy–happy above a vegetative, transitory, or sensate state which satisfies the needs of the soul at those levels, but not at the rational level.

Aristotle’s definition of moral virtue is not very different from the way in which we describe actions today as being “reasonable” or “rational”— things that are done in moderation, within a range of choices, avoiding extremes of excess or deficiency: With sufficient habit and practice (as with any other kind of virtuosity) we develop a disposition to behave in the right manner, pursue what is temperate, and avoid the vices.   The analogy to musical performance is the most tempting: through practice the musician knows how to fine-tune her violin, and the tuned instrument is necessary before it functions in the desired way.  In the pursuit of virtue, the fine tuning of the soul disposes us to act in certain ways that would not be possible without consistent application of particular knowledge and skills, activated by the desire for excellence.

While reason and instruction play a role in this process, a virtuous person will assimilate the essentials of virtuous action in such a way that it becomes “habitual,” that is, embedded in character and routine.  For centuries schools all over Europe considered a student’s habituation in virtue (moral education) at least as important as the book learning that taught him skills in mathematics, rhetoric, the sciences and languages—and in fact it was the connection between being educated in these subjects and their ability to influence character that made schools incubators of moral purpose, not just knowledge-dispensaries.

 Taxonomy of Virtue

At its core virtue is a matter of having the appropriate attitude toward pain and pleasure. For example, a coward will suffer undue fear in the face of danger, whereas a rash person will not suffer sufficient fear. In the area of “honor and dishonor” a virtuous person prefers honour by being properly ambitious, but one who chooses winning at any cost—for example, through deceit, insult, bribery, or injury to another–is acting dishonorably.

Aristotle holds that this same graph applies to every virtue: all are located on a map that places the virtues between states of “too much” and “too little.” He is careful to add, however, that the mean (the via media) must be determined in a way that takes into account the particular circumstances of the individual (1106a 36-37). “The arithmetic mean between 10 and 2 is 6, and this is so invariably, whatever is being counted. But the intermediate point that is chosen by an expert in any of the crafts will vary from one situation to another.”   Aristotle breaks decisively with Plato on this point:  Virtue is a hexis (“state”), a tendency or “disposition” induced by our habits to “have appropriate feelings” (1105b25–6). Defective states of character are hexeis as well: they are tendencies to have inappropriate feelings.  For Plato, virtue was a kind of knowledge, and vice a lack of knowledge.  But for Aristotle virtue can only be achieved through habitual action.

In the Ethics (VII.1–10) Aristotle investigates “character traits.”  These characteristics are not as blameworthy as the vices but not as praiseworthy as the virtues.  The Greek terms are akrasia (“incontinence”– literally: “lack of mastery”) and enkrateia (“continence” or “mastery”). An akratic person goes against reason as a result of some pathos (“emotion,” “feeling”). Like the akratic, an enkratic person experiences a feeling that is contrary to reason; but unlike the akratic, he acts in accordance with reason. His defect in virtue consists in the fact that, more than most people, he experiences passions that conflict with his rational choice. The akratic person has a further flaw: he habitually gives in to feeling rather than reason more often than the average person.

All in all Aristotle gives us a description rather than a rule book for virtue.  At around the same time in history, the Chinese teacher Confucius (孔丘, Kǒng Qiū, 6th century BCE) and his disciples, like Mencius (Mengzi: 孟子, 4th-3rd BCE ),  were speculating on similar questions—whether, for example, we are born good or evil, and what it means to speak of “human nature.”  But it is chiefly from Aristotle and his elaborators in the Christian West and Islamic Near East, especially ibn Rushd, that we get a systematic discussion of virtue as action habitually performed in accordance with reason, avoiding extremes, and pursuing the middle way.  A man or woman without self-control, who habitually tends towards excess, and expresses in his actions the deficiency of character that comes from not cultivating virtue is akratic–morally deficient and chaotic, as Richard Kraut suggests:

It is important to bear in mind that when Aristotle talks about impetuosity and weakness, he is discussing chronic conditions. The impetuous person is someone who acts emotionally and fails to deliberate not just once or twice but with some frequency; he makes this error more than most people do. Because of this pattern in his actions, we would be justified in saying of the impetuous person that had his passions not prevented him from doing so, he would have deliberated and chosen an action different from the one he did perform. (Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle’s Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Spring 2016 Edition], Edward N. Zalta, ed.)

Virtue in Religion and Theology

Christian theology, especially Catholic theology in the thirteenth century, drew heavily on Aristotle’s Ethics in its development of moral theory.  The Ethics was one of the few works of Aristotle considered safe for debate and elaboration in the European Middle Ages since his Metaphysics, not rediscovered until the twelfth century, was thought to be erroneous  on the topic of a created universe.  In his Rhetoric Aristotle suggests that “the forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, and wisdom.” (1366b1) Yet the menu of virtues we inherit from the ancient world comes not from this extended list but from Plato’s Republic (IV, 426-435).  They were expanded by writers such as Cicero in the Latin West, and later by Ss. Ambrose, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas.

Prudence (φρόνησις), Justice (δικαιοσύνη), Temperance (σωφροσύνη), and Courage (ἀνδρεία), the so-called cardinal virtues, were supplemented by three theological virtues, faith, hope and love, taken from Paul’s  first letter to the Corinthian Christians  (1 Cor. 13.13).

Catholicism’s non-biblical, Aristotelian emphasis on virtue was one of the casualties of the protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, with its emphasis on salvation by grace through faith and its motivationally crippling insistence, in Calvinism anyway, on the bondage of the will.  The Catholic Church continued to hold that grace, while undeserved, could still be earned (actual grace, gratia gratis data) through the pursuit of good habits and actions, while a supernatural grace (sanctifying grace, gratia gratum faciens), was imparted by God directly, as part of Christ’s design for the Church, through its sacraments.  Aquinas in fact calls sanctifying grace “habitual” and “actual grace “punctual,” meaning individual and occasional actions that help to sustain a state of the soul which is “pleasing to God.” The ability to act virtuously comes through grace, but not without effort.  Aristotle might well have substituted the phrase “through reason” but the end was roughly the same: to encourage an adherent to act in conformity with the well-being of the soul.

Protestantism did not reject the idea of virtue but saw it as an effect or expression of a covenant between Christ and the believer: grace could not be earned through virtuous action but only through faith.  In his theoretical study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism the sociologist and historian of religion Max Weber saw this, .important distinction as a dividing line between Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Certain branches of Protestantism, especially Calvinism and various forms of Pietism (for example, the Anabaptists) had supported worldly activities dedicated to economic gain, seeing them as endowed with moral and spiritual significance.  The protestant belief in salvation through grace, combined with its characteristic belief in election (that God had predestined some to heaven, others to damnation) had profound psychological effects on masses of people: starkly said it meant that believers needed to appear to enjoy the visible signs of God’s approval and grace in their everyday life—“everyone from the cobbler to the wealthy merchant ”—so that hard work, gain,  and a healthy sense of self-sufficiency became pillars of the protestant ethic.  An old joke runs, the Quakers came to Philadelphia to do good, and they did very well indeed. Weber explains,

According to the new Protestant religions, an individual was religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation (German: Beruf) with as much zeal as possible. A person living according to this world view was more likely to accumulate money.

The new religions (in particular, Calvinism and other more austere Protestant sects) effectively forbade wastefully using hard- earned money and identified the purchase of luxuries as a sin. Donations to an individual’s church or congregation were limited due to the rejection by certain Protestant sects of icons. Finally, donation of money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God.

In Reformation Europe but especially in Protestant America, this “work ethic” led to a suspicion of Catholic-style charity and the Roman Catholic catechesis about the corporal works of mercy.   Even now, a persistent suspicion of social welfare remains vestigially present in periodic Congressional proposals to cut “entitlement programs” like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and government subsidized health insurance.  Benjamin Franklin, who had plenty to say on the topic of thrift and money wrote “God helps those who help themselves.”  But the policy was already present even in the New England Divinity’s emphasis on “self-reliance.”  Whereas Catholicism could teach that the poor and suffering were as they were through original sin and its effects on the “propensities” of the soul, through no fault of their own, Calvinism taught a different doctrine, focusing on conspicuous rewards to the elect and conspicuous disfavor for the wicked as a result of God’s predestining judgement.  In the most extreme form of predestinationist social theory, it was possible to argue that the saved had no social or moral responsibility towards the reprobate.

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It is oversimplification to say that the political tensions that define the modern political situation in America in the second decade of the twentieth century can be traced to early twentieth century diagnoses of protestant and Catholic approaches to social action.  Weber himself might have acknowledged that the real reason to see a disparate Catholic and Protestant emphasis in the analysis of social groups is that religion, rather than philosophy, reached people in greater numbers–where they lived, worked, and prayed.  Universities from the time of Duns Scotus in the Middle Ages to the time of Kant in the eighteenth developed theological and philosophical approaches to moral theory.  But these teachings affected very few outside the lecture halls of Europe and fledgling New England.  The priest or pastor in his pulpit reached hundreds of souls each week, in every city, parish, and village church. Theology shaped European civilization in direct ways:  battles were fought, wars were won and lost, immigration burgeoned, borders shifted and cultural attitudes were shaped by competing religious ideologies. (Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550, New Haven: Yale, 1981)

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Catholic social teaching, a derivative of earlier, scholastic forms of moral theology, had arisen to address the demands of the industrial era.  Workers in Italy, France, Spain, Ireland and immigrant groups in America labored under such extreme hardship that in 1891 Pope Leo XIII was compelled to write what is now considered a foundational document in the history of progressive Catholic social teaching.   After the Communist Manifesto (1848), Rerum Novarum is the most significant plea for the rights of workers in its day, a time when industry and factories were overwhelmingly dedicated to the pursuit of wealth and capital gain at the expense of the working poor.  Leo wrote,

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman  accept  harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he has been made the victim of force and injustice. ( Rerum novarum, 45)

Leo’s dedication to the virtue of “mercy” (a biblical term understood to be latent in the classical idea of Justice) would be reiterated and expanded by later popes, notably Pius XI, John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Their common theme is that the virtues of love, mercy and justice (which the Thomistic Church regarded as rational and rooted in human nature) (Summa Th.  58.3) make certain demands on all people irrespective of creed or culture:  human dignity, the common good, social justice, care for the poor and the vulnerable (the homeless, the trafficked, the refugee), and responsibility towards the planet.  Every pope since the time of Leo has had something to say on these topics, most recently Pope Francis in his 2016 encyclical Laudate Si.

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Protestant theology, especially in America, and especially in cities with their burgeoning immigrant populations, developed a strong tradition of social teaching to parallel the Catholic strand.  The social gospel movement, closely identified with the teaching of Walter Rauschenbusch, shared with protestant theology an emphasis on biblical tradition, but revolutionized preaching with a new interpretation of the text that eschewed the literal in favour of “ethical” interpretation, thus he rejected the idea that mainline protestant and Catholic theology held inviolable that the death of Jesus was a substitutionary atonement for the individual sins of humankind:

Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.

And again,

Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies [his] faith.

Rauschenbusch construed evil as corporate,  identifying six “social sins” that affect American society directly:  religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit (“the social group gone mad”) and mob action, militarism, and class contempt– “every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil.”  Jesus, in Rauschenbusch’s social theology, is the exemplar of how these sins affect personal life but can be overcome.  While evil has a suprapersonal origin–in militarism, individualism, capitalism and nationalism–it has a remedy in “institutional embodiments of good”– pacifism, collectivism, socialism and internationalism. If there is a crimson thread working its way through this taxonomy of virtue and evil, it is the belief that the spirit of humanity has been enslaved by greed and the dehumanizing power of the state to encourage selfishness.

Whereas both Roman Catholic and traditional Protestant theology maintained an emphasis on the individual’s responsibility before a righteous but merciful God, the social teaching of Catholicism and the social Gospel of the liberal preachers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century assumed the state’s direct complicity in enabling and perpetuating conditions that conduce to sin.

Taken to the limit, this thinking might lead to an abdication of personal moral responsibility and “free will.”  In the teaching of popes from Leo XIII to Francis it is greed and uncharitableness that thwart the “kingdom of God”; yet socialism and collectivism are not seen to be the cure (private property is seen as part of God’s plan) and so the Church maintained a healthy skepticism towards revolutionary activity–precipitated on behalf of the people by “charismatic  leaders” (Weber), only to replace one form of tyranny with the ruling “party.”  For the Catholics, an evil society is the sum total of the selfishness and sin of individuals, each of whom exercises free choice at a personal level.

For the social gospeliers the chain of causality runs from soulless institutions sustained by the need to satisfy our material needs to individuals who become spiritually empty and finally unresponsive to any form of satisfaction other than what money can buy.  In short, in a society like that envisaged by Leo XIII and Rauschenbusch, the practice of virtue has become unrewarding and almost irrelevant since it does not pay the material dividends demanded by people who have been brutalized by the desire for material gain.

The Centrality of Justice

Through Rauschenbusch (who was closely in touch with German thinking on the subject) the theme of social responsibility directly affected the activities of Reinhold Niebuhr, first-wave feminism, the civil rights movement associated with Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and the anti-War and pacifist movements of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  The practical theology of churches and seminaries across America, blended at times with new voices and themes in Christian and Jewish thought.  Secularism and various strands of humanist thought were outgrowths of the social gospel in the Unitarian, Congregational, American Baptist, German-American Freethought, and Ethical Culture Movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. With these themes, a critique of biblical tropes and images, patriarchy, and social oppression emerged: Catholic liberation theology, death of God theology, feminist, post-feminist and Post-Christian theology and ethics, and dozens of smaller trajectories flowed from these new models of ethical reflection.

While it is impossible to generalize about movements that gradually developed different agendas, it is safe to say that a lively concern for justice was the bedrock of the protest and liberation movements.  Metaphysical ideas of sin and evil were replaced by a view largely compatible with that of Rerum Novarum and the social gospel, though Rauschenbusch, unfettered by the constraints of scholastic logic and hierarchical thinking (Leo, for example, defended Roman primacy and private property as much as he scolded the ruling classes) took the message much further.

The endurance of evil was regarded as the effect of what ancient theologians had seen as a flaw in human nature—original sin in the Catholic tradition; bondage of the will in Protestantism—instantiating itself in political life and institutions, inimical to virtue, fatal to charity and reason.  Sin was, in theological terms, a deficiency which, left unchecked, made the soul unworthy of salvation.  This focus on justice as the μητέρα του αρετή–mother of virtues–was so much taken for granted in modern theology that by the twentieth century everything from Nazi-style Christian socialism to atheistic Marxist-Leninist ideology, especially Stalinism and Maoism, could be evaluated as enculturated “sins” against justice, with the state, in the person of desouled, morally destitute and unvirtuous leaders, playing the role formerly ascribed to Satan.   At the fringes of liberal theology, Evangelical Christians and some traditional Catholic groups not only opposed the thinking behind the virtue-based social justice movements but challenged the whole theological program which, it seemed to them, was not biblically-based but grounded in revolutionary and socialist doctrine.

From Justice to Virtue Ethics

In his discussion of virtue, Aquinas in the Summa asks the question whether justice is a “general virtue.”  He refers to Aristotle (Ethics 5.1) for his answer:  “The Philosopher says that ‘justice is every virtue’.”

Justice, as stated above (Article 2) directs man in his relations with other men. Now this may happen in two ways: first as regards his relation with individuals, secondly as regards his relations with others in general, in so far as a man who serves a community, serves all those who are included in that community…. It follows therefore that the good of any virtue, whether such virtue direct man in relation to himself, or in relation to certain other individual persons, is referable to the common good, to which justice directs: so that all acts of virtue can pertain to justice, in so far as it directs man to the common good. (2:2.58.5)

Aquinas sees the essentially relational aspect of justice emphasized by Aristotle in his view of “man” as a political animal, that is, as a creature in society:

A human virtue is one “which renders a human act and man himself good” [Ethic. ii, 6], and this can be applied to justice. For a man’s act is made good through attaining the rule of reason, which is the rule whereby human acts are regulated. Hence, since justice regulates human operations, it is evident that it renders man’s operations good, and, as Tully declares (De Officiis i, 7), good men are so called chiefly from their justice, wherefore, as he says again (De Officiis i, 7) “the luster of virtue appears above all in justice.

The rediscovery of the core principle of justice (which for Aristotle means balance and harmony in the soul, as well as more specifically interpersonal expressions of justice in society) is the basis for most modern discourse about virtue, especially in the study of so-called virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics is usually considered to be one of the types of so-called normative ethics, along with rule ethics (deontology) and consequentialism.  Its modern prominence is traced to a 1958 essay by the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe (“Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy, 33: 1–19).  “Whereas consequentialists will define virtues as traits that yield good consequences and deontologists will define them as traits possessed by those who reliably fulfil their duties, virtue ethicists will resist the attempt to define virtues in terms of some other concept that is taken to be more fundamental.”  In this respect, virtue ethics still takes seriously the tradition of practical wisdom or phronesis, which emphasizes themes that have always been central to the study of virtue:  motives and moral character, moral education, “moral wisdom” or discernment, friendship and family relationships, a deep concept of happiness, the role of the emotions in our moral life and the fundamentally important questions of what sorts of persons we should be and how we should live.

It is key to the modern discussion that individual acts of goodness do not satisfy the conditions that a consistent theory of virtue requires:  The occasional good deed, done in order to repay a debt, for example, or refraining from doing harm for fear of reprisal or punishment, or being generous in order to garner praise (to “look good”),  do not add up to virtuous action or to a virtuous state of  being.  This is why virtue ethicists tend to take seriously the question of motive, disposition and character when discussing ethical conduct.  As Rosalind Hursthouse says,

The concept of a virtue is the concept of something that makes its possessor good: a virtuous person is a morally good, excellent or admirable person who acts and feels as she should. These are commonly accepted truisms. But it is equally common, in relation to particular (putative) examples of virtues to give these truisms up. We may say of someone that he is generous or honest ‘to a fault’. It is commonly asserted that someone’s compassion might lead them to act wrongly, to tell a lie they should not have told, for example, in their desire to prevent someone else’s hurt feelings. It is also said that courage, in a desperado, enables him to do far more wicked things than he would have been able to do if he were timid. So it would appear that generosity, honesty, compassion and courage despite being virtues, are sometimes faults.

Intent, disposition, and character are all that distinguish a brave outlaw from a brave soldier: the desire to do good apart from all other considerations.

Another aspect of modern virtue ethics is its emphasis on the complex nature of deficiency or what Aristotle called vice—a  fault, flaw, or moral weakness (ἁμαρτία).  This begins with the idea that while there are comparatively few words in any language for “good” action, the number of words describing wrong action or vice are considerably greater. As Glen Pettigrove has suggested:  “We think of acts as being just, generous, merciful, truthful or courageous, but we associate virtue with “avoiding courses of action that would be irresponsible, feckless, lazy, inconsiderate, uncooperative, harsh, intolerant, selfish, mercenary, indiscreet, tactless, arrogant, unsympathetic, cold, incautious, unenterprising, pusillanimous, feeble, presumptuous, rude, hypocritical, self-indulgent, materialistic, grasping, short-sighted, vindictive, calculating, ungrateful, grudging, brutal, profligate, disloyal, and on and on.”

As in Aristotle’s time, the idea of virtue is programmatically concerned with habit and character: with acting in a good way not because one is bound to do so, or because one would be penalized for not acting in a good way but because one is “a certain kind of person”.

The ethicist Gopal Sreenivasan says that an honest person’s reasons and choices with respect to honest and dishonest actions reflect her views about honesty, truth, and deception— “Valuing honesty as she does, she chooses, where possible to work with honest people, to have honest friends, to bring up her children to be honest. She disapproves of, dislikes, deplores dishonesty, is not amused by certain tales of chicanery, despises or pities those who succeed through deception rather than thinking they have been clever, is unsurprised, or pleased (as appropriate) when honesty triumphs, is shocked or distressed when those near and dear to her do what is dishonest and so on.”  (Sreenivasan, Gopal, Mind, 111 [January]: 47–68) This means that in the field of honest action, a person cannot be judged honest on the basis of one or even a complex of honest acts, but only by the total disposition to act honestly and the agent’s reasons (motives) for acting as she does.

Donald J. Trump as a Test Case in Virtue Ethics

The current discussion of the 45th president of the United States is heavily focused on the question of character.

In dealing with Mr. Trump, the words that have become familiar are lying, deceit, self-interest, arrogance, bullying, cowardice, ignorance, and injustice.  This partial list is enough to show the principle that from a comparatively narrow range of virtue-terms, a much broader range of vices or deficiencies can be educed.   Of course sociologists, psychologists, and linguists have their own methods for exploring the behavioral aspects of Mr Trump’s performance.  There is a growing sense that the President’s  actions are “abnormal”  and out of the range of simple political analysis. In an article for New York Magazine (10 February 2017) the journalist Andrew Sullivan writes, “There is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health.  I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him?”

But if in fact Mr Trump’s behaviour is explained as a psychological condition involving delusion, then an analysis based on virtue ethics would be moot since the discussion of virtue is closely connected to the idea of rational choice. A liar is someone who knows the truth, accepts reality as it is, and for various purposes chooses to distort it.  A deluded person simply does not know the truth and what he says is not false representation but wrong representation.  Because Mr Trump’s rhetoric suggests a desire to misrepresent and alter facts, his language and actions will be regarded as deliberate and rational rather than as signs of an underlying pathology.

A virtue ethical- analysis of these activities is thus defensible for the following reasons:

A.  Typicality. Virtue analysis requires more than a snapshot of action. It demands  patterns established over time; the longer the period of time the more informative the analysis is likely to be.  A typically virtuous woman or man may respond atypically given the presence of overwhelming coercion or mental and physical-emotive states that affect decisions and outcomes.  As in the case of mental imbalance, in such exigencies the element of free choice is impaired.  The “Sophie’s Choice”-dilemma is often used in philosophy classes to illustrate this problem, whereby a mother is compelled by Nazi guards to choose one of her children to live, the other to be exterminated (William Styron, Sophie’s Choice, NY: Vintage International Edition, 1992).  Impairment of free choice is tantamount to impairment of mental processes with respect to virtuous action. In ordinary life however, we assume that certain basic conditions will obtain “in most cases,” so that the conduct of the agent can be regarded as habitual.

The virtue-ethics analysis also requires the agent to be of a certain age and level of maturity so that choices can be rationally and consciously made.  Virtue ethicists normally pay attention for example to whether a decision to act in a certain way is being made by an adolescent or an adult, on the premise that children and adolescents are at an exploratory level and as such inclined to “mess things up” (Hursthouse) as to get things right. Aristotle makes the same distinction in talking about the relationship between age and reason, marking off the ages of 7 through puberty as subrational.  A child cannot be morally responsible because a child is not rational and depends on adults for guidance (III.12.1119b13-15).

***

In the case of Donald Trump, his actions can be judged over a decades-long period, have been consistent in nature, observed and evaluated, and thus can be used to assess that behaviour on the spectrum of deficiency-moderation-excess.  When for example the president demeans his critics with names like “Pocahontas,” or “Crooked Hillary,” when he deliberately misstates statistics concerning crime rates, election fraud, threats from foreign nations, crowd size, or or the veracity of news coverage, these actions express tendencies which exhibit not merely a desire to misstate facts but habituation to dishonesty and a contempt for moderation.  In Aristotelian terms, Trump is an example of the akratic man who, through constant disregard for moderation, exhibits an emotional rather than a rational approach to decision-making . Moreover, as Amelie Rorty says,  akrasis is not merely a lack of judgement by an agent but a lack of mastery which is embedded in character—technically the vice of incontinence.

B.  Affect. From the time of Aristotle the question of the sociality of virtue has been significant.  This means that an agent acting in isolation (if that condition can be imagined; perhaps Hayy ibn Yaqẓān on his desert island) rather than interactively with other persons or groups, is not a good exemplar for virtue.  Indeed in some ethical systems the absence of affect would be enough to disqualify such an agent from any role in an ethical analysis.  While self-harm is always possible, suicide being the most extravagant example, it stretches the valence of the concept to call such behaviour unvirtuous.

By the same token, men and women since ancient times who are placed in positions of great responsibility—Pericles in Athens, Caesar in Gaul, Lincoln in a divided America—are in a special position with respect to virtue because their actions and choices cannot be merely private and self-referring.   A leader’s actions will affect the lives of others; those actions will say something both about the character of the leader and the character of the state.  Indeed, Plato’s discussion of virtue hinges on the idea that the state (the good city) will exhibit the virtues:  “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate [literally: healthy-minded], and just.” (427e; see also 435b); and in his declaration that we are fundamentally political animals (ζον πολιτικόν) as well as rational actors (λόγον χον)  Aristotle sees a syzygy, a yoking together, of the individually virtuous person and the harmonious state rather than a cause-effect  relationship.

The relationship between acting rationally for the common good so as to create good in the city has been fundamental not just to political theory but also to public discourse:  the art of expression (rhetoric) and of persuasion (argument, oratory, and exhortation) traditionally have  been seen as the way in which the leader “activates” his own virtue on behalf of the common good, an outward expression of his nature.  This means that appeals to passion, fear, hatred, and self-interest–which depend on exciting the crowd and encouraging emotive states or irrational behavior –are contrary to the  larger good, and hence unvirtuous.

C.  Fear-Baiting the Populace

It is a matter of record going back over decades that Mr Trump relies on appeal to passion and emotion, and especially to fear, in his public utterances.  The most famous instance was his tenacious campaign between 2009 and 2012 to encourage American citizens to believe the then-president of the United States was constitutionally unqualified to hold the office because he was born in Kenya. (D. Remnick, “Trump, Birtherism, and Race-Baiting,”  April 27, 2011.)  A related effort sought to convince Americans that Barack Obama was a Muslim (despite there being no religious test for the presidency), and his more aggressive policies toward the Muslim world since taking office, especially his executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim nations from entering the United States on the basis of the alleged danger they posed to the nation.

Trump is also known to appeal to the interests of the so-called CPAC and “Second Amendment Patriots” and the hierarchy of the National Rifle Association by inducing fear that gun-control advocates are privately plotting to seize their guns, going so far as to suggest that the Paris attacks of November 2015 could have been prevented by less stringent controls on firearms in France.  And, finally, his speeches have targeted laws protecting various minorities and vulnerable groups: gay and lesbian activists, women seeking to retain reproductive freedom, and African American, Latino and Hispanic Americans.  The effect of any one of these public antipathies would not say much about the character of an agent.  Cumulatively however, a pattern emerges that suggests deficiency in what virtue-ethics would term “honor.”  Virtue defined as the impact of the public utterances of a leader, judged from the standpoint of the effects of his rhetoric on the general population, especially upon its harmony and cohesion as a people attentive to the values of a just society.

D.  Unvirtuous Behaviour and Counter-Evidentiary Thinking.

(a) Donald Trump was elected president of the United States on November 8, 2016 in one of the most acrimonious contests in American history.  Analysts were quick to point out that he did this through employing unconventional tools and that his language during the campaign, and even after he was sworn into office on January 20, 2017, was “not the kind of thing” the American people were used to hearing from politicians. This unbridled and raw directness was seen by many of his followers to be a new kind of honesty or “straight talk” that did not obey the conventions of politics (Lakoff).  His most ardent supporters were not especially bothered by rudeness,  exaggeration, and (to use the term that came to be used mockingly of his falsehoods) his “alternate facts.”

(b) Incivility and exaggeration had two purposes: to incapacitate opposing speakers and their viewpoints and to “catastrophize” or “glamourize” information irrespective of its grounding in fact and evidence.  Among these techniques, Mr Trump liberally used ad hominem attacks–insult, impugnment, and ridicule–to discredit opponents. Thus, his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton  became  “Crooked Hilary,” a key spokesman for the opposition party, Senator Elizabeth Warren,  was christened  Pocahontas; a variety of other opponents and critics were labeled, little, weak, dull,  wishy-washy and ineffective.  Outsiders likewise were labeled dangerous, criminals, rapists, murderers, terrorists,  social freeloaders and welfare thieves.  Sometimes all of these things were enveloped in the term “loser,” in distinction to Trump’s portrayal of himself as a successful businessman, a “winner” in the wealth-conscious American context.

Conversely, no attention was given to the views of his opponents or to the contribution made to business, industry, agriculture, and education by ethnic and linguistic minorities. The technique used by Trump in relation to the latter has been labeled “race baiting,” a deliberate attempt to pit social and economic groups against each other in order to promote disharmony and crisis. The political purpose, openly espoused by his advisor Steven Bannon,  to sow discord  in order to make the prospect of “strong government” and demagogic solutions more appealing.

(c)   Trump conveyed the notion in the campaign and in his sepulchral Inauguration speech that the nation too, was beginning to take on the worst traits of his individual and social enemies, especially the alleged weaknesses of the then current administration: The United States was becoming a “loser” nation. No one respected America any longer.  Its streets were rife with death and crime.  Subject to excessive oversight and restraint, police forces had lost respect.  War could not be fought and won because the country had become soft; consequently safety lay in strong-arm solutions to the puny and overcautious measures of the administration of Barack Obama. Generals could be trusted because they knew about winning; politicians only when they agreed with him;  intellectuals, especially scientists,  never.

Similarly, the news media, often suspected of left- leaning sympathies, were seen as not only unreliable but actively engaged in producing “fake news” to undermine his administration.  Trump labeled the press the “enemy of the American people” in a Twitter feed of 19 February 2017. Evidence-based thinking–the kind of thinking typical of the intelligence community– was considered weak, slow, and inferior to the successful intuitive thinking that Trump claimed to be capable of in his “very good brain”    though it later emerged that Trump had lied about his educational achievements and academic standing as an undergraduate

The fallacy-laden approach to problem-solving and problem assessment, seen primarily in gross oversimplification of complex issues and a trivializing of risks, opposition, and counter-arguments, was implicitly an appeal to wishful-thinking, which was based on a belief that his followers relied on shortcutting rather than formal reasoning in making decisions.  Mr Trump made no effort to educate himself or his constituents on the complexity of the issues he had made his agenda: before his tenure as president began he resisted intelligence briefings, sidelined key advisors, routinely shrugged off warnings and criticism, and continued to maintain that his own powers of analysis were enough to see him through even the most complex military decisions and operations.

(d)   Trump’s race-baiting was one part of a more general pattern of conspiratorial and evidence-free thinking designed to create anxiety across the country.  Thus, in his rhetorical framing, the war against “radical Islamic extremism” had failed, despite evidence it was making steady progress.  Despite the evidence of statistics, “thousands of terrorists were flooding across the borders every day.”  The country was in “terrible economic shape” the “worst economy ever” because there had been a war on wealth and small business.  Violent crime was out of control, but he would soon “liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities”

Promising a restoration of obsolete or diminishing industries like mining and petroleum, Trump blamed “illegal aliens” and job-outsourcing for America’s economic woes, promised to build a wall to keep Mexican and other Latino and Hispanic workers out; to deport millions of undocumented workers; and to bring overtaxed industries back to the United States.  In exchange for returning manufacturing to America, industries would be offered tax breaks and an array of incentives–capped with deregulation of big business and corporations.  Companies that insisted on investing or relocating abroad would be punished with high tariffs on the import of their goods.  Certain countries like China would be called out as currency manipulators and their goods slapped with import duties. Banks would lend more freely.  The middle class would receive tax cuts, the economic top-tier bigger ones.  It would again be the free choice of a family or a corporation to go bankrupt, not overseers in Washington and New York limiting credit and restricting lending.

Despite the fact that economists savaged the incoherence of his proposals, Trump was unmoved by evidence, argument and history in repeating these tropes to his supporters.  Having accepted his word as president, not merely a candidate, listeners were asked to choose between the authority of the leader and well researched and documented sources that often showed his pronouncements to be exaggerated or false.  This ad auctoritatem approach created a dissonance especially among non-elite or less educated listeners, who found it difficult to accommodate ambiguity and disagreement in favor of the moral and practical simplicity of the leader’s descriptions and solutions. In addition, the president had an advantage the evidence- and research- based media did not, the ability to offer policy solutions to the problems he described.

(e)  As with the economy and society, Trump was dismissive of headways in education and science, especially with respect to the environment and school reform.  Proponents of the theory of global warming were derided as alarmists if not outright liars, though it was never clear what the advantage to scientists in creating the clamor might have been. Calling global warming a hoax, Trump promised to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and to renegotiate environmental treaties signed during previous administrations.  In one  famous screed, he accused China of “inventing” the science behind green house gas emissions and global warming and spreading the fear to other nations.  Trump’s non-evidentiary thinking turned towards the denial of fact and the further claim that only his facts could be relied on: the intelligentsia were in the habit of misleading ordinary people and inventing crises that simple common sense could avert.

(f)  In education, Trump favoured competition between religious schools and public schools, with vouchers being given to parents who wished to opt out of public school.  His initial solution was to appoint a dramatically unqualified woman to head the Department of Education, with the specific task of offering parents more choice in the kind of education they wanted for their children.

In matters of medical science and health, he opposed abortion rights and with the help of organized conservative religious groups championed the cause of the anti-choice cartels, mostly religiously-based and financed, and called for an end to government funding for Planned Parenthood.   Famously, he stood on the side of the conservative members of his party to defund the so-called Affordable Care Act which by the time of the campaign had provided health insurance to (2016) 30,000,000 citizens. Over 50 attempts to repeal the law had been attempted between 2010 and 2016.

(g)  Finally in the field of national security, Trump insisted on “naming” the problem “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” rather than religious extremism.  Although there had been no large scale attack on the United States since 11 September 2011, and none specifically involving recent Muslim immigrants nesting among the population, Trump convinced his supporters that the United States was being careless; that the intelligence services were not doing enough; and that the only way to deal with potential risk was to ban Muslims from entering the United States until “extreme” vetting could be carried out.  In February 2017, he issued a travel ban on Muslims from seven so-called state sponsors of terrorism, based on an outdated list from 1996, scarcely reviewed or revised since, identifying a number of countries that stood accused of terrorist or terror-related sponsorship in the Clinton administration.

The ban was reviewed and stayed in district and appellate courts and at the time of this writing is still enmeshed in judicial challenges.  The appellate courts’ fundamental objection was that Trump and his advisors had provided no evidence that citizens of the proscribed countries had any relation to terror activities inside the United States.

The terms weakness and strength are especially relevant to the catastrophizing that Trump used to persuade his supporters that “aliens” (foreign “others”) must be walled out or outlawed at the ports and airports.

Fear as Unvirtue

In classical virtue theory, fear is at the opposite end of the scale to courage, “a deficiency of bravery.”  Hence to inculcate fear in the polis is incrementally non-virtuous, even if the leader professes to be courageous himself. Anyone who reads the speeches of Pericles, Demosthenes, Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great at Opis, or the process against Cataline can see the significant rhetorical connection between bravery, honesty and honour and their role in developing the character of the polis.

In modern times, Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Barack Obama have used exhortation to encourage and inspire the polis in times of distress as have political and social leader like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.   The basic premise of their rhetoric is that to instill courage in the population is to regenerate the virtuous nature of a country.  Fear is not only a lack of courage but an incentive to do the wrong thing in time of peril.  Plato had said, “So the unwise person has a faulty conception of what is good for him. A person is courageous just in case his spirited attitudes do not change in the face of pains and pleasures but stay in agreement with what is rationally recognized as fearsome and not” (442bc).

Trump is exceptional in using fear to create insecurity along racial and personal lines;  the blanket excoriation of Islam as violent, or certain categories of foreigners as “criminals” and “rapists,” or the arbitrary demarcation of insiders and outsiders—that is, foreigners who have achieved a certain status as guests and workers and those who have no such privilege, the latter being regarded as dangerous trespassers.  The appeal itself is designed to lessen cohesion and to encourage disharmony – the key mark of an unvirtuous city.  Peace of mind and happiness (unity and harmony) according to Plato are the marks of the good polis, just as they are of the just person (Republic 369 a-b).

The End of Virtue:  Donald Trump as an Ethics-Subversive Leader

Based on actions and words going back several decades, but with special reference to his political activities in the last fifteen years and recent performance, I suggest that Donald Trump can be profitably used as an adverse example in discussions of virtue theory.   This can be done specifically with respect to particular actions he has undertaken as president and as a presidential candidate and,  by analogy, with reference to the language and public actions of past American presidents.

The main features of Trump’s subversion of virtue through political practice can be summarized as follows.  Please note, this subversion is being laid out in terms of deficiency or “vice,” in keeping with the traditional language of virtue theory:

  1. Trump lacks a deep sense of justice. Trump has followed a profit-model that values wealthy and especially white Americans while marginalizing black and brown Americans, poorer Americans, sexual minorities, women, and those with physical or mental disability.  The policies he has so far put into place reinforce his commitment to privilege, whilst garnering support through appeals to lower income and low information voters, white supremacists, and a variety of populist, nativist,  “hard-right,” and fringe groups (his “base”).
  2. Trump lacks a deep concept of happiness. Trump is the first president in American history to pay no attention to human values and virtue-formation as a higher level of satisfaction than the accumulation of profit.  To be clear, past presidents have worried about the state of economy, the level of employment, downticks in trade or manufacturing and fluctuations in wages and purchasing power. In every case the appeal has been to improving the lot of the neediest. Trump however is the first president to equate human satisfaction with wealth.  In addition to constant references to his personal wealth, he has surrounded himself with plutocrats in almost every department of government, has failed to divest control of his companies, and also failed to disclosed his income tax returns.  By analogy, if one looks at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 Inaugural address, we find this:

Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.

  1. Trump is deficient in honesty. In his actions and public utterances Trump condones the irrational, the fantastic, the exaggerated and the improbable in ways that approach adolescent thinking.  He has shown contempt for science, intellectual pursuits, traditions of religious wisdom, the arts, and literature.  His intellectual diet of fringe news, newspapers, stock market reports and conspiracy-theories (and those who share his passion for the fantastic) suggests an addiction to non-evidentiary thinking.  At a personal level this deficiency shows itself in unfairness and often contempt towards factual research, correction, and vital information.  Moreover, he often does not regard his statements as falsifiable, a feature of a cognitive disorder described by Robert Lahy as the “inability to disconfirm.”   Trump has been slanderous towards political enemies, the press, the judiciary system, the American intelligence community, and “hard evidence” concerning failed policies and executive decisions.
  2. Trump is deficient in compassion: “Mercy” in the classical system was an adjunct of justice and often was exhibited in how character displayed itself as “valour” after military victory.  Often it was seen as an undeserved act of generosity towards an opponent, or a willingness to forego certain rights that fell to a victor following a conquest, consonant with the lex talionis.  The paradigm in classical times was the “Clemency of Scipio,” an episode recounted by Livy of the Roman general Scipio Africanus who, following a victory in Spain, refused a generous ransom for a young female prisoner, returning her to her fiance Allucius.  However in its Christianized form, mercy has less to do with displays of generosity than with the belief that (on the pretext that God forgives those who forgive others: Matthew 6.12) mercy itself symbolizes our commitment to “suffering humanity,” a principle that can also be traced back to Confucius and the primum non nocere (above all,  do no harm) axiom of ancient Greece.  Trump has consistently shown a lack of charity to immigrants, the economically disadvantaged, refugees and domestic minorities.  His appeals to fear have essentially pitted group against group and majorities against minorities, creating a kind of tribalism in which those who have achieved success have no moral or fiscal responsibility for those who cannot help themselves.  Trump is the first United States President to enshrine callousness into policy though it has roots in the austere Calvinist theology of Election of the seventeenth century
  3. Trump is deficient in Bravery. In what we called above “fear-mongering” Trump has displayed a weakness that has been the subject of philosophical discussion since the time of Socrates, but flourishes especially in the language of Aristotle: “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”  In his usage Aristotle sees courage or bravery not in military terms (that is, he does not identify it with military strength or power, which in itself is morally neutral) but is terms of individual willingness to show bravery in the face of “hardship, agony, despair” and adverse circumstances.  A strong military may provide security, but not courage, and a country that would use its military power or technology rashly might do so for unvirtuous reasons.   Trump’s junta-like approach to security, surrounded by generals as decision-makers, shows a deficiency of courage and a marked tendency to encourage fear in the population, confuting the defensive role of the polis with bravery.  The classical models of the dilemma between heroism and strength was epitomized in the Odyssey by the characters of Hector and Achilles:  Hector leads with a mature sense that gives his men reason to respect him, illustrating the unity of the virtues of honour and bravery. Achilles fights out of rage, because he is rash, and inspires fear (VI.21-24). Achilles is thus the paradigm of risk, impetuousness, and revenge in classical thought.
  4. Trump is deficient in moderation. Rosalind Hursthouse observes that

    A virtue such as honesty or generosity is not just a tendency to do what is honest or generous, nor is it to be helpfully specified as a “desirable” or “morally valuable” character trait. It is, indeed a character trait—that is, a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor, something that, as we say  “goes all the way down,” unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—but the disposition in question, far from being a single track disposition to do honest actions, or even honest actions for certain reasons, is multi-track. It is concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. Hence the extreme recklessness of attributing a virtue on the basis of a single action.

Judged strictly on the basis of habitual performance, Trump is the model of Aristotle’s akratic man, deficient in self-control, moderation, justice,  honor, courage and temperance with  an inability to control impulse–arrogant in victory, dishonorable and and petulant when thwarted or defeated.

Zhejiang, Hangzhou, 2017

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5 thoughts on “Donald Trump and the End of Virtue

  1. Pingback: Donald Trump and the End of Virtue | The New Oxonian

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