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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Biden’s Inaugural Speech was Grounded in the Ethics of Virtue and the Common Good

John P. Pelissero, Ph.D

Tasos Katopodis/Pool Photo via AP

This article was originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle on January 25, 2021. 

John Pelissero (@1pel) is a senior scholar in government ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and a professor emeritus of political science from Loyola University Chicago. Views are his own.

Joseph R. Biden delivered his inaugural address as the 46th president of the United States with a theme of unity. He called upon Americans to put aside an “uncivil war” and to find common ground for the public good. His speech was imbued with references to ethical principles, such as justice, fairness, truth and the common good. The words of this new leader are a welcome change after four years of trampling on the ethical foundations of our democracy.

Biden seeks to restore the soul of the nation and stated that his whole soul is committed to finding unity in our democracy. He asks all to put aside personal interest and unite around the common good for the future of our country. In doing so, Biden offers a vision for our country that traces its ethical roots to Aristotle and the desired outcomes for a political community. Serving the common good — the public interest — is the most basic goal of democracy. And Biden’s call to action for that ethical purpose is intended to achieve unity by focusing on the moral objective of achieving the common good.

Another ethical theme in the inaugural address was about virtue. He spoke of the important virtues that define us as Americans: “liberty, dignity, respect, honor and yes, the truth.” Moreover, his words demonstrated his fundamental compassion and empathy for other human beings and asked all to “show a little tolerance and humility.” And as the leader of the free world, he reminded Americans that we must “lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” Biden knows in his head and his heart that these are ethical virtues that can and should guide our national leaders at this critical time of national healing.

The inaugural speech suggests that Biden will be an authentic leader, one who acts out of virtue and promotes the common good. He used language with which he is comfortable and uttered words that reflected his humility and values, like “folks” and “inequity,” words that have never been uttered in previous inaugural addresses. Watching Biden address the nation reassured all that he actually believes in the words that he used and that they were drawn from his authentic moral character.

Joe Biden spoke to America and the world from his heart and his soul. His foundational views are grounded in his Catholic faith and the moral values that he developed during his formative years of political socialization. Of course, he has nearly 50 years of political experience, including mistakes he has learned from, to guide his decisions and his work for unity with those of other political affiliations and ideologies. But at his core, he believes and acts from this humility, his faith and a moral compass.

The nation has a new leader who understands the moral imperative of an ethical approach to his administration. He gave a speech that was filled with ethical principles to which we can all aspire, especially serving the common good and valuing virtues that have been absent from national leadership during the past four years.

Feb 4, 2021

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