Moral attacks in politics

Not too many people know the actual terms for the ethical concepts of deontology (formalism) and consequentialism (utilitarianism), but in their lives they feel the full conflict of these two moral “schools” when facing moral dilemmas and trying to do “the right thing.” The third school, which predates these two, is virtue ethics. As a refresher to readers unfamiliar with these concepts, here’s the important stuff, with links to Wikipedia:

  • Virtue Ethics focuses on the intent and character of the doer.
  • Deontology posits that there are moral duties towards a formal action, the deed itself, absent consideration of the consequences. Immanuel Kant is one of its most famous adherents, and (almost?) all religions are deontological by nature.
  • Consequentialism judges the rightness or wrongness of an act based on the consequences produced. Its largest failing is that it doesn’t necessarily provide a guide as to what to do at the time of the dilemma itself.

I bring these definitions to the fore because political discussions too often unfortunately take on the nature of moral discussions. “Is it wrong or right to go to war?” “Is anything less comfortable than a hotel stay appropriate for enemy combatants?” “Under what, if any, circumstances can a pregnancy be ended, or a life ended by the state as consequence of a crime; and for that matter, what crime forfeits a person’s life?”

After years of reading, observing, studying, and participating in political discussions of this nature, I realize that disagreements over policy boil down to one party judging the other on a deontological standard while the other excuses its actions using good intentions (virtue ethics) and consequentialism. A fine example can be seen in Julian Sanchez’s The Spectre of Pacifism:

The conceptual mistake is to suppose that we’re faced with a binary choice between a pure consequentialism that just mechanically adds up all the yums and ouches or a kind of absolutist deontology that hews to a principled rule, and damn the consequences.  The point of invoking pacifism is to imply that if you want to consider any non-consequentialist moral properties of certain kinds of acts, you’re compelled by relentless logic to the most extreme possible position.  The thing is, pretty much nobody really thinks this way. Most people—the vast majority—will say it’s immoral to secretly chop up a healthy vagrant for organs to save five other people. We’re not just interchangeable tokens in some great social calculus, but individuals with individual rights that must be respected—rights that trump maximization of social welfare.  Except that if suddenly we’re sure we could save a thousand or ten thousand or ten million people by killing one innocent, most of us will at some point say, reluctantly, that it ought to be done after all.

Majority of political discussions play out this way. Pundits large and small judge each others’ quality as people based on which positions they would condone and condemn. This is also the root of the declaration that “there is no absolute morality,” in the sense that religious moral standards can fly against the face of reason. (Not to mention, of course, that different religions posit different moral judgments on certain actions.)

As another example, let’s take a look at the manufactured scandal over Scott Brown’s bikini-clad daughters. Liberal critics of this photo, as well as Scott Brown’s 1982 nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan hinge their arguments on the fact that Scott Brown and his daughters are Republican. The faulty logic goes like this:

  1. Scott Brown and his daughters are Republicans.
  2. “Republicans like to sell themselves as bastions of morality.”
  3. Posing nude or sexy is immoral.
  4. Therefore Scott Brown and his daughters are hypocrites.

The major fault in this line of reasoning is that Liberals focus on propositions 2 and 3. They exaggerate and caricature the definition of what it means to be Republican. Liberals would excuse the baring of such flesh by people with whom they agree because in their mind, these Liberal exhibitionists don’t hold themselves to a high moral standard. If Scott Brown were a Democrat, I fully expect Republicans to launch a similar line of attack, but I don’t think it would have been as effective, because Liberalism somehow reconciles with licentiousness. That Democrats would not hold Scott Brown to the standards they would hold for themselves is just one of those tactics from Saul Alinsky’s playbook. Hypocrites are, by and large, more repugnant than those who admit to, and even wallow in, their fallen nature.

The aim of a political attack based on morality is to invalidate the target’s reputation and credibility. They can be very effective, but can lead to a cheapening of the debate so much so that matters of actual policy lose priority. In the meantime, those in power continue to govern however the hell they like, to the detriment of us all.

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