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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 166-170

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Character and Leadership

Daniel J. Mahoney

The Politics of Moral Capital. By John Kane. Cambridge University Press, 2001. 277 pp.

In its most aggressively "scientific" forms at least, modern political inquiry prides itself on its "realism," by which is meant its ability to see through the moral claims and specific arguments of concrete political life to the interests and power struggles that actually motivate human individuals and collectivities. It sets out to "disenchant" politics, to expose the witting or unwitting pretenses of political actors who often fail fully to admit or understand their own motives and concerns. In marked contrast to this view, Alexis de Tocqueville once famously claimed that his goal was "to see not other than, but further than the parties." The goal of social-scientific realists has nothing to do with such an eminently civic perspective, for their aspiration is indeed precisely to see "other than" citizens and statesmen, to uncover what political actors, blinded by their interests and passions, cannot or will not see. The modern student of politics is trained to distrust "unscientific" words such as "character" and "soul," and generally attempts to achieve the levels of predictability and generalizability that have accounted for the remarkable fecundity of modern natural science. But this means that the "scientific" perspective, if left wholly to its own devices, risks leaving behind the civic and moral perspectives—and hence political life itself—altogether.

In The Politics of Moral Capital, Australian political scientist John Kane takes aim at a realism that cannot fully capture the realities of the human world. His thoughtful and well-written book rejects the "methodological [End Page 166] cynicism" (p. 258) that arbitrarily simplifies the motives of political actors and ignores "the ubiquity and effect of moral judgment in politics, as in all of life" (p. 255). His point in doing this is not to reject the scientific study of politics as such, but rather to expand its horizons by confronting it with phenomena that are quite real but do not readily lend themselves to measurement or predictability.

In a series of useful chapters on Abraham Lincoln, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the modern U.S. presidency, Kane explores the role of moral capital in political life. If economic capital is "wealth in action," moral capital is "moral prestige—whether of an individual, an organization, or a cause—in useful service" (p. 7). Moral character and prestige are both valuable in themselves and "resources that enable the achievement of other social, political, or economic ends" (p. 7). Kane ably traces the ambiguity at the heart of moral capital: the tension between moral prestige and personal character, on the one hand, as ends in themselves and, on the other hand, the necessary but morally problematic effort to put them to public use. This effort to bring moral prestige to bear on political life is indispensable if morality is to have a real foothold in human society. The French poet and political thinker Charles Péguy once suggested that the Kantian moral purist was so afraid of getting his hands dirty that he ended up having had no hands at all. According to this logic, the statesman is faced with the difficult challenge of pursuing decent ends while trying to be as effective as possible in the real world. Happily, Kane's close examination of exemplary statesmen reveals that moral capital can survive—and even draw strength from—its embodiment in the messy rough and tumble of political life. Economists, political scientists, and sociologists have fruitfully utilized the concepts of human and social capital to measure how skills and abilities and "social trust" affect the nature and development of modern society. These concepts contributed to bridging the gap between social science and civic life, providing valuable empirical tools for those investigating the preconditions of economic development and civic participation. Nevertheless, these ideas remain essentially theoretical notions associated with social science research. In contrast, the concept of moral capital has a closer relationship to political life itself. Charles de Gaulle, for...