Ethics of Leadership Applied to ClintonApplication Essay

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¶ … broke of an alleged affair between the sitting President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton and a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton at first denied the affair had taken place but later retracted his statement, admitting to the liaison. Although Lewinsky also admitted the affair was consensual, accusations of sexual misconduct as well as dishonesty plagued the president. The ensuing scandal can be analyzed in terms of multifaceted issues related to ethics, leadership, and power. Additionally, the scandal reveals the conflict between issues related to privacy and social norms related to sexuality.


Power is at the crux of the Lewinsky scandal. Ludwig and Longenecker suggest that powerful leaders commit ethical violations because they have never learned how to deal effectively with success: a pattern the authors refer to as the Bathsheba Syndrome. The Bathsheba Syndrome is characterized by a loss of focus, complacency, privileged access to information, unrestrained control over organizational resources (including, in the Clinton case, human resources), and an inflated belief in one's "ability to manipulate outcomes," (p. 265). Clinton arguably viewed himself as being immune not only from being caught but also from having to suffer any undue consequences.

Plato's allegory of the Ring of Gyges, illustrated in The Republic, suggests that a person in a position of power tends to abuse that power if given the opportunity. The Ring of Gyges is based on the criminological theories of rational choice and opportunism. In other words, Clinton has an affair with a young intern because he (a) has the opportunity; and (b) knows he can get away with it. The allegory also demonstrates a pessimistic view of human nature. The allegory of Gyges appears in Book II of The Republic. Gyges finds a powerful gold ring that renders the wearer invisible. Invisibility is a power -- a superpower -- that allows the invisible person to commit any act undetected. Gyges uses the ring to seduce the queen and gain the throne. Glaucon, who tells the story of Gyges in The Republic, concludes, "no man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure," (Plato, Book II).

Glaucon's view of human nature is not universally shared among philosophers, though. Indeed, Adeimantus immediately responds to Glaucon's pessimism with his own point-of-view about human nature. Adeimantus claims that there are at least a good contingency of people who, even in possession of the ring of power, would act justly if only "for the sake of character and reputation," (Plato, Book II). Even if people have a tendency to act in their self-interest, then, those same people might at least be persuaded to act morally if doing so were also in their own self-interest.


Self-interest can also explain why President Clinton would have lied initially to cover up the affair. Adeimantus continues to comment in The Republic: "honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty," (Book II). Knowing that honesty often leads to self ruin, Clinton lied so that he might preserve his reputation. He did not predict that he would get caught, possibly because he might have believed that his position of power (ie. a Ring of Gyges) might have protected him. When he realized that forensic evidence did indeed exist, Clinton was then forced to admit to not only the affair but also to the lie. According to Plato, lying is a natural instinct of self-preservation, even if lying is not virtuous or ethical.

The concept of self-interest can also be applied to Clinton's critics. The decision to impeach and publically scandalize the president was as much based on political self-interest as Clinton's affair was; in fact, the smear campaign propagated by the media and Clinton's political foes can be viewed as being more self-serving than the sexual liaison. As Miller points out, "outspoken Republicans have raised questions about how the American people could continue to have confidence in their political leaders, government institutions, or the rule of law when a president who lied to the public, lied under oath, and obstructed justice remains in office," (721). The moral judgments made by Republicans were often hypocritical, given the large number of both Republicans and Democrats who have been involved in some kind of immoral imbroglio. By condemning Clinton, Republicans and others against Clinton created the appearance of a morally righteous front in opposition to a demonized leader. The President's sex scandal became an ideal opportunity to propel Republicans into power, by selling the gullible public on the notion that Democrats like Clinton are immoral compared with Republicans. On the other hand, many Democrats and Americans who supported Clinton did not perceive the affair as being significant in terms of how it would impact the President's ability to lead the country (Miller). Basing their views on principles like social utility, many Americans viewed the scandal as unfortunate but not important.

Virtue Ethics and Character

Plato believed that virtuous behavior must be cultivated; and that its cultivation does depend on self-interest. Aristotle presented a more comprehensive vision of virtue ethics, in which some individuals are indeed more prone to being instinctually virtuous or ethical in their behavior (Hursthouse, 2012). An Aristotelian view denounces self-interest as a valid indicator of virtuous behavior, for a truly virtuous person does not behave justly out of the fear of being caught but out of a genuine desire to do good. Thus, Aristotle disagrees with Glaucon. There are some individuals who would still act virtuously even if they were protected by a cloak of invisibility. Clinton may not be one of those individuals, and yet virtue ethics are not absolute. There is room for the virtuous person to act in ways that deviate from social norms; virtue ethics allow for situational variables, which is why virtue ethics is distinct from deontological or duty ethics (Hursthouse, 2012). Virtue ethics stress character over the actions themselves.

Given Clinton's charity work and his performance as President, and particularly given the consensual nature of the affair, it can be said that the Lewinsky scandal does not represent a significant ethical transgression. If consequentialism is a benchmark, no one was hurt by the affair other than Clinton and Lewinsky, who suffered the most via loss of reputation, and perhaps Clinton's wife Hillary. Ancillary casualties may include the reputation of the Democratic Party itself, which could in fact be the reason for the next president after Clinton being a Republican. However, character ethics do not take consequences into account, something it shares in common with duty ethics. Generally, a person with good character would not lie unless it were absolutely necessary to achieve some greater but selfless goal. Clinton's lying and the affair can both be considered self-seeking, which is why the president's character as a leader was called into question by the media and those who called for Clinton's resignation or impeachment.

The Bathsheba Syndrome also posits that Clinton's transgressions were not due to the president's lack of principles or ethical standards. Instead, leaders like Clinton simply lack the preparedness required to handle vast amounts of power. Given Clinton's record with charitable organizations, it can be shown that the president indeed suffers from the Bathsheba Syndrome much more than it can be shown that Clinton is inherently unethical. Ludwig and Longenecker show how the Bathsheba Syndrome may be culturally bound, rooted in the peculiar conditions of how power is acquired in the modern world.

In addition to embodying the Bathsheba Syndrome, Clinton also exhibits a strong tendency toward Machiavellian ethics. In The Prince, Machiavelli claims that while leaders should of course strive to act justly, that it is technically impossible for a person to always act like a saint. No one is perfect, observes Machiavelli, but what makes a good leader great is the ability to discern both when to commit transgressions and also how to preserve his reputation in the process. For a leader to "hold his own," he must "know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity," (Machiavelli, Book XV). Moreover, Machiavelli would heartedly condone Clinton's lying about the affair because doing so was Clinton's attempt to preserve order and maintain the dignity of his office. "It is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state," (Machiavelli, Book XV). Committing a sexual transgression does not have a bearing on how Clinton conducts his affairs of state, and thus, Machiavelli would note that the affair has no bearing on the leader's core abilities. Also, Clinton acted in the best interests of the state by trying to cover up the affair and prevent the scandal. According to this view, it was the media and the morally self-righteous trend in American culture, not the President, who created scandal and denigrated the Oval Office.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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