Moral Complications

By all appearances, Missouri governor Eric Greitens was a picture of discipline and integrity. He was a former Navy SEAL, a family man, and highly educated. He advocated moral responsibility in politics; he once wrote a letter lamenting the “liars, cowards, [and] sociopaths” he had met who attack others and “are drawn to politics as vultures flock to rotting meat — and they feed off the carcasses of vice.” Greitens scoffed at “excuses so lame they’re almost comical,” and proclaimed that “the cowardice behind it all is just disappointing.” He insisted that “we can, we must — and we will — kill the snakes.”


In January, however, Greitens was accused of blackmailing a woman with whom he’d had an extramarital affair. Greitens admitted to the affair, which went on while his wife was either pregnant or caring for their newborn child.


Of course it is disconcerting to hear something like this about a man who seemed to stand for moral integrity. However, I think Greitens’ example provokes interesting questions about moral consistency. History is full of complicated characters. A slave-owning George Washington was integral in founding a nation which made unprecedented progress toward freedom and equality. Abraham Lincoln was against “social and political equality of the white and black races” as he fought a war to free enslaved African-Americans. Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed white women were most worthy of the vote. Martin Luther King Jr. had extramarital affairs while he lead the Civil Rights Movement. Today, Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to acknowledge ethnic violence in her country even after helping Myanmar to become more democratic.


Do the deeply problematic beliefs of these leaders mean we reject their work wholesale? Certainly not. The founding documents of our nation established an impressive framework. Abraham Lincoln made an important advance in the pursuit of racial equality, as did Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women’s suffrage. The list goes on. Their work, though fraught with problems and incomplete, was helpful; acknowledging the sexism of Gandhi by no means suggests a return to colonialism for India, and admitting the moral shortcomings of the Founding Fathers does not mean we should rip up the Constitution and start over.


How is it possible that goodness and depravity can coexist, that a flawed or even hypocritical leader can produce positive moral outcomes in politics or society? It is a difficult reality to accept. It is more than the idea that no leader is perfect– it is the fact that many leaders are profoundly blind to their own moral inconsistencies.


Moral inconsistency is rampant, even among those we look up to most.  Clearly, however, this is not just an affliction of world leaders. We are all guilty of moral inconsistency, to varying degrees. It is too easy to point fingers at what appears to be the flagrant hypocrisy of a politician. It is much harder to observe the weak excuses we make for ourselves, to pinpoint the ways we neglect to change our own behavior when it falls short of what we know to be right. I think the example of Greitens is an invaluable one because it is an opportunity to examine the incongruencies in our own beliefs and actions. When Greitens penned his letter defaming the snakes and the cowards, did his own actions cross his mind? I don’t know the man, but I’m not certain that his own discrepancies were so obvious to him. It’s entirely possible that in his mind, his behavior and his moral stances made some kind of sense.


If Greitens thought this, Greitens was wrong. Integrity is possible, and it is precious. Integrity does not begin in critical junctures, but in daily decisions to adhere to the moral principles we are committed to upholding. The bewildering inconsistencies in others and ourselves do not mean integrity is unattainable. Such stories can and should be humbling and inspire us to double our own efforts to be honest with ourselves. It is only then that we can succeed in living lives of principle. I hope Greitens’s mistakes are not just a warning for politicians, but a lesson to normal people like myself, and urge us all to nurture an awareness that can accurately assess our intentions and our actions both public and private.

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Rachel Finlayson

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