Here is a column about United States Senator Barack Obama, who is running for president. I’m not the least bit troubled by Obama’s propensity to say, “On the one hand; but on the other hand.” What’s wrong with acknowledging the arguments on both (or all) sides of an issue? What’s wrong with acknowledging that principles can and do conflict in particular cases? Has moderation become a vice? To Aristotle, virtues such as courage are a mean between extremes. Those who risk too much for minor goods are rash or foolish; those who risk too little for major goods are cowardly. There are two vices for each virtue: one rooted in excess, the other in deficiency. Good lawyers such as Obama know that to win an argument, you don’t have to destroy the countervailing arguments; all you have to do is show that they’re weaker than your argument. It sounds to me as though Obama has, or at least understands, judgment, which is the capacity to bring all relevant considerations to bear on a problem, assign them their proper weights, and decide accordingly. Judgment is in short supply in our political life, perhaps because it is in short supply in our personal lives.

It’ll be interesting to watch Obama’s campaign develop. Right now, he’s pretty much a blank to me, but the fact that he has nuanced views on various matters is encouraging, not discouraging, especially to a philosopher. After all, there’s not just one social good; there are many, ranging from individual liberty to autonomy to security to prosperity to equality. Politics is the business of working out the comparative values of these and other goods, and seeing that they—as well as the burdens of social life—are distributed fairly. Politics, like morality generally, is complicated, which is why political moralities such as libertarianism and egalitarianism falter. They’re one-dimensional. They give inordinate weight to one value (liberty and equality, respectively). John Rawls (1921-2002), recognizing this, tried to work out a theory that gives liberty and equality their proper places in the social order. Whether he succeeded in this ambitious task remains a matter of controversy. Rawls has been attacked by libertarians for giving too much weight to equality and by egalitarians for giving too much weight to liberty. Maybe that’s a sign that he gives these values their proper weight, or something close to it.

Addendum: Obama is a baseball fan (albeit with misplaced loyalty). That alone makes him a worthy successor to George W. Bush.