Virtue Ethics, the Billy Graham Rule, and Mike Pence: A Response to Karen Swallow Prior

In the past week there has been much ado about Mike Pence and the “Billy Graham Rule.” The criticisms aimed at the Vice President for refusing to dine alone with a woman other than his wife have been all over the map; from accusations of “old-school sexism” to claiming that Pence’s refusal is “rape culture at work,” it’s been a rough go of things for Vice President Pence. The most recent article that I’ve seen is from Dr. Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and it is to that article that I wish to respond.

What sets Dr. Prior’s article apart from the others—apart from the fact that it is entirely lacking the hysterical tone found (in varying degrees) in the articles I’ve linked to above—is that hers addresses the issue from the standpoint of virtue ethics. In this Dr. Prior is to be commended; she seeks to address the controversy at its most crucial point: What are the ethics of Vice President Pence’s decision, and is there a better way than the method he has chosen? The question that her article raises is worth considering and considering closely.

I appreciated much of Dr. Prior’s article, especially how she articulated what’s come to be known as the “Billy Graham Rule” (which was but one part of the Modesto Manifesto). Dr. Prior describes the rule as ” a guideline that says men and women should not meet alone, whether in offices, or cars, or other places in order to avoid illicit temptations or appearances of impropriety.” The reason for the response before you now is precisely due to the definition she has provided in her article.

I doubt anyone would question instilling virtue ethics. Dr. Prior writes,

Virtue ethics relies on moral character that is developed through good habits rather than rules or consequences for the governing of behavior. Aristotle defined virtue as the mean between two extremes, one of excess and one of deficiency. It is a habit of moral character, which, because it is a habit, becomes a kind of second nature. As Aristotle explained, it does not depend upon rules.

However, as admirable as I find Dr. Prior’s concern for instilling virtues (as positive habits) over “rules…for the governing of behavior” (negative reinforcement), her concern overlooks the most important part of her own definition as it relates specifically to VP Pence, and more broadly to any man who is concerned about his character. Note the definition she gave of the Billy Graham Rule: ” a guideline that says men and women should not meet alone, whether in offices, or cars, or other places in order to avoid illicit temptations or appearances of impropriety.” There are two scenarios that the rule seeks to prevent: (1) to avoid illicit temptations, and (2) to avoid…appearance of impropriety. The problem I continue to see in the articles I have read—and in Dr. Prior’s article—is focusing on the first half of the definition while (functionally) ignoring the second half. While Dr. Prior writes regarding her relationship with the male secretary at her first job that

Somehow we managed to do our jobs without having an affair, falling in love, or (speaking for myself, at least) feeling one passing moment that even closely resembled lust

there is no equivalent reference to “[avoiding the] appearance of impropriety.”

Does no one remember Brian Banks?

How about the more recent false allegations at Sacred Heart University?

Rolling Stone and the UVA rape hoax? Anyone?


How about the fantastic lies told in the Duke lacrosse case back in 2006?

Given the fact that we live in a culture with an overwhelming presumption of male guilt when there is any accusation of sexual misconduct (see the book Until Proven Innocent by Stuart Taylor, Jr. and KC Johnson for just one example), is it any wonder that a man in Mike Pence’s position would seek to “avoid [the] appearance of impropriety”? For the vast majority of men I know, they’re far less concerned with the possibility of “illicit temptation,” though that is on their radar; more damning by far is the possibility of their character being smeared by even the whisper of impropriety.

This is a subject that strikes close to home for me. I have seen firsthand how the media frenzy around an accusation of misconduct can destroy a man’s reputation, only to have the same newspaper that smeared a man’s name on the front page for years while he was investigated proceed to bury the announcement of his innocence on the back page. To this day, if you type his name into Google, all you will find is the accusation. The article that announced his innocence isn’t even archived. Horrible as the situation I’ve just outlined is, it’s made even more terrible by the fact that the man in question got in the situation by spending time alone with the young woman who made the accusation. Just weeks beforehand, I pointed out to him that he was setting himself up for an accusation.

“Leave the door open or have someone else in the room.”

He brushed me off, telling me, “I’m not worried about it; my character has been unimpeachable for twenty years.”

And it was destroyed in a single day.

Even if we were to do a superb job of instilling virtue ethics—if we labored to instill deeply in ourselves the virtues of integrity and fidelity—we would still be faced with the problem of man’s nature. Dr. Prior and I would agree on man’s state: He has fallen in Adam and there is no part of his nature that is untouched by the taint of sin. VP Pence is taking steps that are wholly appropriate to ensure that his character remains above reproach. And while there is no fool-proof way to protect yourself from temptation or from the appearance of impropriety, the steps he’s taking have worked well for Billy Graham for almost seventy years.

May we all be so fortunate.


2 thoughts on “Virtue Ethics, the Billy Graham Rule, and Mike Pence: A Response to Karen Swallow Prior

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