Character-Based Voting: The Case of Joseph P. Ganim

This story, about the current gubernatorial campaign in Connecticut, offers a near-perfect exemplification of the criticism that I’ve made in the past of Jason Brennan’s critique (in The Ethics of Voting) of character-based voting. “Character-based voting” is a vote for or against a candidate based primarily on considerations concerning the candidate’s moral character, as contrasted with considerations concerning the policy positions he promises (or can reliably be predicted) to make. Brennan argues (or more precisely, asserts without argument) that character-based voting is only legitimate insofar as it functions as a proxy for predictions about policy, adding (or half-adding) that it usually doesn’t.

One of my objections to Brennan’s claim is that it assumes without argument that future-oriented considerations are the only ones that matter to deliberations about how to vote for political candidates. But (I suggest) elected office comes with rewards, and it’s plausible to think that considerations of moral desert are relevant to the distribution of rewards. Moral desert is a past-oriented consideration. Absent an explicit discussion of the role of moral desert in voting, and an argument that it’s somehow outweighed, defeated, or made irrelevant by future-oriented considerations, the role of moral desert can’t be dismissed. Since moral desert can’t be dismissed, a candidate’s past can’t be dismissed, insofar as it reveals relevant considerations of moral character. But if that’s right, the case for character-based voting is stronger than Brennan makes it out to be.   

From the news story about the Connecticut race:

BRIDGEPORT, CONN. — Joseph P. Ganim, the mayor of Connecticut’s largest city, is selling a message of imperfection, but also redemption.

He is the embodiment of the second chance: After serving as Bridgeport’s mayor in the 1990s and early 2000s, Mr. Ganim, a Democrat, was convicted on multiple charges of corruption and sent to federal prison. Seven years later, he emerged from his “time away,” as he calls it, a changed man.

He returned to City Hall as mayor in 2015, vowing to make his mayoral redux squeaky clean — even hiring, as a senior adviser, the F.B.I. agent who was a key member of the prosecution team that convicted him.

Now, Mr. Ganim is hoping to pull off an even more improbable comeback: He is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor amid a crowded field of candidates bidding to replace the Democratic two-term governor, Dannel P. Malloy, who is not seeking re-election.

Mr. Ganim believes that his life experience will resonate with voters across the state, and not only in cities like Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven that are troubled by crime, unemployment and poverty.

Let’s assume that Ganim has no intention of repeating his past offenses, or anything like them. Let’s assume that voters can know and predict that, as well. And let’s assume that the policies he can be expected (or reliably predicted at the time of the election) to enact are about on par with at least one other candidate, Candidate X.

My thesis entails that a voter could justifiably vote for Candidate X over Ganim simply on the grounds that, given his past crimes, Ganim doesn’t deserve a “second chance.” To the extent that Ganim and Candidate X are on par in policy terms, moral desert breaks the tie.

Suppose that Ganim is slightly better than X on policy grounds (meaning that we can reliably predict, on Election Day, that Ganim will be slightly better than X over the course of his elected term). Even so, it is possible that moral desert is weighty enough (and Ganim’s crimes are serious enough) to entail that a voter ought still to vote for X over Ganim.

The preceding judgment depends, of course, on one’s moral verdict on Ganim’s crimes. To simplify the issue, imagine a Ganim* who had committed much more serious crimes than the actual Ganim did–rape, let’s say, or armed robbery, or  murder (or some combination of those). Assume ex hypothesi that Ganim’s* having committed those crimes doesn’t probabilize wrongdoing in the future. If those crimes are serious enough, they might well outweigh or override the policy-based (future-oriented) advantages that Ganim* enjoys over Candidate X.

Now suppose that Ganim (or Ganim*) is much, much better than X on policy grounds. In fact, assume that X, though morally upright, will make a complete mess of things. In this case, it could be that Ganim/Ganim* ought to be preferred to X, or that X ought to be preferred to Ganim/Ganim*, or that the right thing to do is sit out the election. Which disjunct is right depends (at least) on the relative weights of the two considerations at issue–policy and character–as well as on our moral assessment of what Ganim/Ganim* has done. (It also depends on the relative weights of other things at issue besides policy and character, but that’s a topic for another time.) Brennan’s argument against character-based voting fails unless he has an account of the relation between policy and character that goes beyond asserting that character is only a legitimate consideration as a proxy for claims about policy. Or if “fails” is too strong a term, the argument is significantly weakened by the omission.

In the one implicit nod that Brennan makes to the issue of moral desert, he asserts (without argument) that moral desert is irrelevant to deliberations about voting because political offices aren’t “honorifics.” (Actually, what he says, somewhat irrelevantly, is that the American presidency is not an honorific, but the point he’s making applies to all offices up for election, not just the American presidency.) I find Brennan’s claim about honorifics questionable, but put that aside. The relevant point is that both candidacy for office and elected office itself come with rewards attached to them, which the person in question can either deserve or not deserve.

Interestingly, campaign finance law in Connecticut seems to reflect precisely that point. From the same article:

His criminal past, however, is not Mr. Ganim’s only obstacle; last November, a federal judge dealt a blow to Mr. Ganim’s campaign by affirming a state law that prevents those convicted of corruption from accessing state campaign funds. (Mr. Ganim had challenged the law on the grounds that it violated his constitutional rights.)

Connecticut’s campaign finance law appears to be based on the idea that a candidate can fail to deserve access to campaign finance funds. That’s not exactly the same as not deserving elected office, but it’s close enough for my purposes. The existence of this law and the decision reached by the judge both suggest that my objection to Brennan is neither idiosyncratic nor merely academic. Both legislators and judges regard moral desert as sufficiently important to block a candidate’s access to public funds, even bracketing future-oriented considerations about what a great official he promises to be. Maybe they’re both wrong, but in that case, someone arguing Brennan’s case would have to explain why.

In a sense, my criticism of Brennan is less about the ethics of voting per se than about the burden of proof in philosophical argumentation. Someone who asserts that p bears the burden of proving the truth of p. Part of bearing the burden of truth is responding in advance to plausible objections to p. Brennan asserts that character-based voting is a bad idea, but fails to deal with the strongest case one could make for it (or alternatively, to plausible objections that could be made to criticism of it). So I’m not committed to having a precise, worked-out claim about the relevance of moral desert to voting; I don’t need one. Nor does my objection require me to be wholeheartedly committed to the legitimacy of character-based voting. It doesn’t matter where I personally stand on the issue. My point is that in failing to deal with moral desert at all, Brennan fails to deal with a plausible objection to his claim that character-based voting is a bad idea. In the absence of a discussion of the objection, his thesis remains unsupported (among other objections that might be made to it).

I’ll be giving a much-revised (and hopefully much-improved) version of my critique of Brennan this summer at the 35th Annual Conference of the North American Society for Social Philosophy I’ll try to post a version of it (superseding the version linked-to above) sometime before I go.


*What I say in the main text is compatible with the following (admittedly implausible) possibility: Suppose that we have a Ganim** who has engaged in significant past wrongdoing (criminal or otherwise), but who redeems himself so comprehensively that he turns out to be more deserving of elected office than Candidate X, who’s lived a morally humdrum (but perfectly decent) life.  In this case, character-based considerations could dictate voting for Ganim** over Candidate X on the basis of Ganim’s** wrongdoing plus his redemption. (Indeed, the process of redemption might have forward-looking features as well as backward-looking ones: it might, for instance, give Ganim** special insight into, say, bullying, prison reform, bankruptcy, addiction, sexual harrassment, etc. that might play a salutary role in policy-formation on those topics.)

The case I have in mind is exemplified, at least in fiction, by Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Indeed, the real-life Ganim seems to be suggesting, implicitly, that he is a latter-day Jean Valjean figure (a mayor, no less). I doubt that, but the doubt doesn’t affect the normative claim I’m making (and isn’t conclusive about Ganim, either).

23 thoughts on “Character-Based Voting: The Case of Joseph P. Ganim

  1. When I think about not voting for someone due to their bad moral character, the relevant reason seems to be something like ‘because we should punish, not reward or encourage or approve of, bad people, and my voting for this person constitutes my rewarding or encouraging or approving of her’. This is very much a matter of desert, but it does not involve political offices being or coming along with rewards. It is also something of a deontic (agent-centered, token-action-centered) reason because the undeserved thing is simply one exhibiting the relevant attitudes and actions.

    As something of a consequentialist, I don’t think Brennan is friendly toward these sorts of reasons. Maybe he is, or should be, unfriendly toward *any* reasons of desert or at least any reasons of desert that carry the weight that we intuitively think that they do (after all, the most obvious ‘why’ of appropriate punishment and reward concerns motivating adequate compliance, but any given inappropriate punishment or reward state or action, or at least any non-publicly-prominent instance, is unlikely to effect compliance very much).

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  2. I won’t have time to work this out to anybody’s satisfaction, but I’m having trouble with the idea of severing, in the way your arguments seem to require, past-oriented considerations of action and character from future-oriented considerations about what a person is likely to do. I don’t have any very developed ideas about desert, but while I’m no consequentialist I do tend to think that purely past-oriented conceptions of desert end up making little sense. When I try to isolate considerations of what Ganim or someone like him did from considerations of what Ganim or someone like him now intends or is likely to do, I’m not sure I see any sense to the idea that he deserves anything. It is difficult, for instance, to think that a long dead person genuinely deserves something. I can readily see that we might have good or decisive reason to hold and express certain judgments and attitudes toward long dead people, and from there the idea that the person deserves honor or dishonor might make some sense provided that we don’t think of the honor or dishonor as a good that we give to or withhold from him. But let’s suppose that, however we explain the notion of desert, long dead people can genuinely deserve our honor or dishonor. Nonetheless, in the case of a still living person like Ganim, whether or not his past actions prevent him from deserving honor or public office (whatever their exact relation) seems as though it simply must depend on what kind of character he has now and what is he likely to do in the future; if, as his campaign would have us believe, he’s been morally transformed, then it isn’t clear to me that it makes any moral sense to hold his past actions against him. It may be a substantive moral point rather than anything about the sheer coherence of purely past-oriented considerations, but it seems perverse to insist that someone whose character has really been transformed should be punished, dishonored, deprived of some good, or disqualified from performing some role for which he is otherwise well qualified simply because his past act supposedly generates some moral desert that can only be satisfied in these ways. Presumably anyone so transformed would agree that we should see his past character and behavior in a negative light; what coherent and legitimate purpose would be served by going further than that?

    Of course, real life is never so tidy as a thought experiment, and I, for one, am pretty skeptical of claims to thorough moral transformation, particularly since I don’t suppose that only people who come to political office with extraordinarily bad character are liable to be corrupted by it. So I’m inclined to think that Ganim’s past character and behavior are extremely relevant, and probably tell against voting for him. But I’m not sure my reasons would really be at odds with Brennan’s thesis. I’m inclined to agree with you that political office does indeed have an honorific dimension (it is interesting that in classical Greek the word for ‘political offices’ is τιμαί, literally ‘honors,’ though of course this may simply reflect an idiosyncratic feature of Greek political culture), and for that reason I’m inclined to disagree with his thesis. But if we’re taking seriously the claim to character transformation, then I’m not convinced that the honorific dimension of political office tells against voting for Ganim — if anything, assuming he really has undergone such a transformation, that in itself might be good reason to vote for him, as your remarks on Jean Valjean suggest.

    In the main, though, I’m just confused and skeptical about the coherence of purely backward-looking or past-oriented conceptions of desert.

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    • Interesting comment, but a complicated issue. I have stuff to say, but too much going on at the moment, so I’ll defer a substantive response for later this week. (Have you noticed that none of us seems to have the time to sit around and do philosophy?)

      One question of clarification, though, on the scope of your skepticism about past-oriented conceptions of desert. Which of the two are you skeptical about?

      (1) All claims of moral desert make reference exclusively to the past.

      (2) There are claims of moral desert such that they don’t make reference to the future.

      If the skepticism is about (2) rather than (1), I myself would be puzzled. Suppose I’m walking down the street, minding my own business, and am the unprovoked (hence undeserved) object of some assault or affront. I don’t deserve that treatment at t1; hence, trivially, I deserve very different treatment at t1. Why does either judgment require reference to the future? Imagine ex hypothesi that I was fated to die at t2 for reasons totally unrelated to the undeserved treatment. Would that change the moral facts about my treatment at t1?

      Another example. I take owing and deserving to be correlatives: what is owed by Smith to Jones is deserved by Jones from Smith.

      So take a debt of gratitude. Smith does something for Jones such that Jones owes Smith a debt of gratitude. Yes, the debt has to be paid sometime in the future, but the act for which Jones owes the gratitude is in the past, as is the incurring of the debt by Jones to Smith. The capacity to pay the debt (at the time of incurring it) may make reference to the future, but the having-incurred the debt need not make (does not make) reference to capacity-to-pay: you can incur a debt you can’t pay back. So it seems to me having incurred a debt, and being obliged to pay it in full (relative to your capacity to pay) are two different issues. But if that’s so, incurring a debt (on its own) is an instance of (2) above.

      Perhaps if you take desert to be “fittingness/suitability/aptness for a job or an office,” desert so conceived does inherently make reference to the future. Or if you take desert to be “that which facilitates someone’s capacity to contribute to the common good,” it does. Is that what you had in mind?

      This isn’t meant to answer your question, just trying to clarify it.

      Incidentally, I seem to remember reading somewhere that Brennan majored in classics or studied classics in college. If so, he would likely know that timai is the ancient Greek word for “political office”; in fact, I’m inclined to think that his rejection of the claim that political offices are honorifics is self-consciously intended to put distance between his own considered view and what one encounters in ancient Greek texts. Just a speculation, though. Nothing much turns on it.

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      • I think my trouble is with the idea that facts about the past could be reason-giving independently of present- or future-oriented considerations. Roughly, I think what I want to say is that a person can deserve such-and-such solely in virtue of facts about the past, but desert itself — supposing that any true claims about desert would be at least pro tanto reason-giving — has to be connected to some ends that are worth pursuing now and in the future. If so, then the mere fact that someone did some awful thing (or some good thing; we’re not talking primarily about punishment here) in the past will not entail that he deserves any response now independently of the role that such a response would play in promoting or preserving some good — and I’m assuming that no action we can take will promote or preserve some good in the past.

        That’s not good enough, I know. Sadly, I actually have a fair amount of time to sit around and philosophize, I just typically don’t have much energy or will left over after I’ve been utterly demoralized by 16 year olds all day. C’est la vie.

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        • I’m doing battle with a missed deadline–both a past- and future-oriented consideration–so I have to extend my IOU on a full response to your (David’s) original comment. But construing my original post as a critique of Brennan-on-character-based-voting (rather than an independent treatment of the nature of moral desert), I’d still say this: Suppose I grant everything you say without argument. Still, this by itself will not help Brennan, at least not in this form:

          Roughly, I think what I want to say is that a person can deserve such-and-such solely in virtue of facts about the past, but desert itself … has to be connected to some ends that are worth pursuing now and in the future.

          Suppose that I refuse to vote for Ganim because I regard him as undeserving of office. He’s undeserving of the office of governor, I say, because of his past corrupt acts in office as mayor of Bridgeport. Suppose I concede (no more and no less than) the claim that “desert itself has to be connected to some ends that are worth pursuing now and in the future.” That might be sufficient to scuttle a thought-experiment that detaches desert in every respect from the future, but it leaves at least two things open: 1. Whose end? and 2. What end?

          The claim quoted only helps Brennan if claims about Ganim’s moral deserts have to be connected specifically to those of Ganim’s ends that bear on the policies he can be expected to enact (or initiate) during his gubernatorial term. Maybe they do, but that claim would require a further argument over and above the argument for the claim that “desert itself has to be connected to some ends worth pursuing now and in the future.” My bottom line criticism of Brennan is that both arguments are needed, but neither is there.

          Even if I agreed with everything you say, I would still insist that Brennan’s discussion of character-based voting fails because he owes the reader a discussion of that topic, and he not only doesn’t do so, but fails to see the need to do so. But there clearly is a need to do so. It’s not the reader’s job to figure out how moral desert works in order to figure out what Brennan is trying to say about character-based voting. It’s Brennan’s job to explain why character-based voting is wrong. Part of doing that is addressing moral desert, and part of doing that is addressing the temporal complexities involved in making claims about moral desert. He can’t just airily say, “Well, obviously, voting is about policy, so it’s not about character; QED!” and be done with it. Which is effectively what he does.

          What Brennan fails to see is that his rejection of character-based voting seems–whether he realizes it or not–like a wholesale rejection of the idea that moral desert is connected to honorifics. He rejects character-based voting because, obviously, political offices are not honorifics. He offers no argument whatsoever for that claim, and I find it extremely implausible. Suppose ex hypothesi that political offices are honorifics. If he were convinced that they were, would he then modify his claim and say that character-based voting was justified after all? Or would he then insist that moral desert was altogether irrelevant to honorifics?

          There’s no way to know. The first claim would entail the virtual abandonment of his thesis. The second is a much bolder claim than the one he ends up defending in the book.

          Suppose he takes the second tack, divorcing honorifics from claims about the past (or demanding that the claims about the past have clear policy-based consequences for the future, or even just clear expected consequences). Consider the fact that four Nobel Peace prizes have gone to individuals who were arguably terrorists (or military aggressors) of one kind or another: Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, Nelson Mandela, and Yasir Arafat. It obviously doesn’t make sense to say that the four individuals’ terrorist pasts should play no role whatsoever in deliberations about whether or not they get the Peace Prize. A prize is an honorific, and an honorific is obviously about the past–much more about the past than about the future, if it’s about the future at all.

          Suppose that Brennan insists resolutely that forward-looking considerations are all that matter, whether you’re talking political offices or Nobel Prizes. He’d then be in the position of insisting that whether or not you get the Nobel Prize is a matter of predicting what policies you’ll enact in the future. In that case, the most appropriately-awarded prize would have to be the one made to Barack Obama in advance of his having done anything to merit it. On this view, the Nobel Prize would become a sort of inverse version of “Minority Report.”

          Yes, Nobel Prizes are different from political offices. So my point is not that Brennan’s view about character-based voting leads us directly to this reductio about Nobel Prizes. My point is that Brennan’s view is so cursory and over-simplified that depending on what he’s saying, it could lead us to that reductio, or might not. But we can’t decide unless he says more than he does say. He doesn’t say more, because he regards everything about the subject as so obvious. But very little of it is obvious. What’s obviously is only that he’s given us a bunch of glib over-simplifications that fail to do justice to the issue he’s claiming to address. The topic deserves better, I’d say.

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          • If that’s how much you write when you’re too busy to write, I look forward to the day when you’re not busy.

            I can grant your points as criticisms of Brennan’s argument as he makes it. In fact, I pretty much have to grant them, because I haven’t read much of what Brennan’s written on the issue, so I can’t evaluate your criticisms independently. I approached the issue less with the question “has Brennan adequately articulated convincing arguments for this thesis” and more with the questions “is this thesis true?” and “does desert for past wrongs provide good, character-based reasons for voting, reasons that are genuinely independent of the candidate’s likely future actions?” Granted that Brennan hasn’t done enough to address this sort of point, I’m skeptical that legitimate considerations of desert cause a serious problem for it, and my skepticism comes from a suspicion that legitimate considerations of desert in fact depend, at least in the relevant contexts, on claims about the likely future actions of the supposedly deserving agents. If my suspicion is right, then character-based voting grounded in desert will be in part forward-looking, and hence not in conflict with Brennan’s thesis as I understood it.

            Rather than fixating on the relevance of forward-looking considerations to desert, though, I’ll ask two questions, one about your own view here and one about Brennan’s. First, does your defense of character-based voting depend on your view about the honorific dimension of political office? I myself don’t accept Brennan’s view as I understand it because I think there is an honorific dimension to political office, or at least to some political offices, and I think a person’s character and past behavior can render them less fit for office because undeserving of that honor. But this objection to Brennan’s view does not rest on the claim that desert matters independently of forward-looking considerations; it rests on a disagreement with Brennan about what makes a person suitable for political office, itself based on a disagreement about the functions of political office. If your objection depends on the honorific function of political office, then I don’t think any differences between you and me about how to understand desert would turn out to be relevant; we would both agree, against Brennan, that a candidate can fail to deserve the honor attendant upon political office by virtue of his character and past actions.

            That brings me to the second question: how narrow a limitation does Brennan intend to set when he limits relevant considerations to “policy”? Suppose the candidate we have in mind is likely to enact, in his official role, policies that we see as pretty good ones, but that he is also an arrogant, short-tempered liar and a serial sexual harasser. Is Brennan’s view that the arrogance, short temper, lying, and sexual harassment shouldn’t matter unless they somehow impact policy? If so, then I’ve been construing his thesis in an overly broad way, but then it would seem to me that the issue has little or nothing to do with forward- vs. backward-looking considerations; the more immediate question would be whether we should limit the forward-looking considerations to policy outcomes (narrowly construed). Quite independently of whether political office has an honorific dimension, there seem to be plenty of good reasons to avoid giving power and prominence to people whose character makes them likely to behave badly. I’d been supposing that these reasons would count as proxies on Brennan’s view because they’re forward-looking, but on reflection I suspect that his thesis rules them out because they’re not sufficiently relevant to what he regards as policy outcomes.

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          • I shall be brief.

            First, does your defense of character-based voting depend on your view about the honorific dimension of political office?

            Yes, it does.

            [If so], we would both agree, against Brennan, that a candidate can fail to deserve the honor attendant upon political office by virtue of his character and past actions.

            Yes. What Brennan says is “The office of the presidency is not an honorific meant to show that we respect that person’s character,” (p. 84), a claim that manages to combine an ignoratio elenchi with a begging of the question.

            how narrow a limitation does Brennan intend to set when he limits relevant considerations to “policy”?

            He doesn’t elaborate. In fact, the failure to elaborate is something I discuss in the paper. He conflates policy with governance with outcomes and with policy outcomes that can be predicted by the best social science at our disposal.

            the more immediate question would be whether we should limit the forward-looking considerations to policy outcomes (narrowly construed).

            Correct, except that precisely because he doesn’t elaborate, he could mean anything from

            character must be related to policy on the narrowest construal of “policy”

            to

            character must be related to some forward-looking consideration of some kind, as long as it’s a causal outcome, no matter how attenuated, of the candidate’s being elected.

            Here he is in another context:

            In general, I despise symbolic politics. Politics should be about policy and outcomes; politics is not a poem. But given that people insist on making politics about symbolism rather than policy, it’s interesting to see how the rules about symbolic expression vary.

            A useful corrective to all those people laboring under the delusion that politics was a poem. What are we to infer from the despicable nature of “symbolic politics”? That we should conduct political activity and inquiry by dispensing with all symbols? That a concern for symbols is incompatible with a concern for policy and outcomes? I’ll be the first to concede that politics is not a poem. Does it follow that poetry is not political? That poetry is irrelevant to politics? God knows.

            The relevant point, though, is that what’s important is now policy and outcomes. Which outcomes? Forget all the quibbling about backward-looking versus forward-looking concerns. And forget the narrow focus on policy. Strictly speaking, if what matters is “outcomes,” character always has those. A person of arrogant, ill-tempered, dishonest, sexist character will tend to produce outcomes related to that character. Will they be policy outcomes? That depends on what you mean by “policy.” What if you don’t tell anyone what you mean by “policy”? Then you haven’t explained what you mean by an “outcome,” either. That’s the problem.

            The real problem with Brennan’s account is not primarily that he fails to deal with moral desert (though I think he does fail to do that), but that it’s not clear what he’s trying to say. He writes with a great sense of confident conviction in the near self-evidence of his claims, but when you look carefully at what he’s saying, the problem is not so much whether they are true or false but what they are.

            When the reader finds himself saying things like this…:

            I’d been supposing that these reasons would count as proxies on Brennan’s view because they’re forward-looking, but on reflection I suspect that his thesis rules them out because they’re not sufficiently relevant to what he regards as policy outcomes.

            …the appropriate conclusion to draw is that the author has not adequately explained himself. The reader should not be in the position of “supposing” or “suspecting” but being told. And though I realize you haven’t read the book, I have. It’s a problem for Brennan that we’re both in the same predicament despite that.

            This is how the relevant section of his book ends:

            Just as voting on moral character is not obviously a reliable way of generating good policy outcomes, neither is voting on [experiential] skill (p. 85).

            Right, but: asserting that “p is not obviously the case” is not quite the same as asserting that “p is obviously not the case,” or for that matter, of proving that “p is not the case.” Put another way: “I can think of a few considerations against p while ignoring all the considerations in favor of it” is not a disproof of p.

            The question of whether moral desert can be conceived as purely backward looking or a combination of backward and forward looking remains (I admit) unaddressed. It bears more thought, and I’ll need to come back to it. But you’re right that it is not directly relevant to how we assess Brennan’s thesis.

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          • Ok, given that your case against Brennan depends on the honorific dimension of political office, I think I agree with your case against Brennan, at least in essentials, notwithstanding some potential disagreements at a different level about just how and when desert matters.

            I find myself feeling inclined to agree with something about Brennan’s distaste for ‘symbolic’ politics, but I don’t know just what it is, and on reflection it can’t be any of the things that come immediately to mind. I think, for instance, that Brennan elsewhere (I can’t recall where; probably a blog post somewhere, since I’ve read more of him in that medium than others) disavows concern with the expressive dimensions of action, or at least of voting. I can’t disavow that, even if I also often find myself thinking that people give the wrong kind of emphasis to the expressive dimensions of voting or identify expressive dimensions in it that don’t need to be there. This highlights a shortcoming in my own thinking at least as much as in Brennan’s: something about distaste for ‘symbolic’ politics and expressive conceptions of action bother me, but I don’t know exactly what it is, because (perhaps unlike Brennan) I can’t bring myself to disavow the expressive or symbolic dimensions of voting or action outright.

            But that brings us to your complaint that Brennan just doesn’t make himself clear enough. What, exactly, is supposed to be included in the ‘outcomes’? I’d have thought it apparent by now that consequentialists can convince themselves to include anything in ‘the outcome,’ and can accommodate just about any view of the kinds of things in the outcome that have value. But even if I’m being overgenerous to consequentialism there, surely the prominent debates about consequentialism in the philosophical literature have highlighted the importance of specifying just what does and doesn’t count as a relevant dimension of ‘the outcome’?

            Clearly the epistemically responsible thing for me to do would be to just sit down and read Brennan. I usually enjoy reading his stuff even when I think it’s off the mark, so it’s not a bad prospect. I even think I might have wrecked a job interview once by naming The Ethics of Voting as a book I’d assign in a class on, surprise, the ethics of voting; I described it as written from a libertarian perspective, and the look on the interview committee’s faces when I appeared to be referring to libertarianism without distaste left me very unsurprised when I didn’t get the job — so if I already owe that to Brennan, I might as well actually read the book, right? I mean, I’m pretty sure I’d have been miserable if I’d taken that job, so I could owe my future felicity to the guy.

            Well…

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          • “What, exactly, is supposed to be included in the ‘outcomes'”? Exactly. I address that in the paper. I intend to post the paper here sometime before the conference (late July), so if anyone is still interested, we can revisit.

            Two quickies: Brennan isn’t a consequentialist, and the book isn’t written from a libertarian perspective. He’s a pluralist intuitionist who feels free to adopt whatever sort of meta-ethics seems intuitively right to him in any given context, and there’s nothing overtly libertarian about the book. There are three passing references to libertarianism in the book, none of which avow it.

            Despite my criticisms, Ethics of Voting is so obviously the right book to assign in a class on the ethics of voting that there’s something deeply wrong with a hiring committee that would look askance at doing so.

            I’m sure there’s something wrong with symbolic politics, but there’s also something right with it. At a minimum, Brennan would have to grant some grudging respect to the expressive dimensions of otherwise instrumentally rational political behavior. There’s also a “clean hands” dimension to symbolic politics: people sometimes engage in symbolic politics to signal the fact that while they can’t change a policy, they want publicly to distance themselves from it or disavow complicity in it. To the extent that tacit consent is taken to legitimize a regime–and it is, whether or not doing so passes philosophical muster–I can’t see the objection to expressive forms of dissent. If people take my “tacit consent” to an unjust regime to legitimize that regime, I might want expressly (and expressively) to make clear that I don’t.

            But I need to get back to my hot and sour soup. Lest I go on.

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          • Right, I didn’t mean to suggest that Brennan is a consequentialist. I meant simply that, given the prominence in debates about consequentialism of precisely this problem about what counts as among the ‘outcomes’ of an action, and given the well-known flexibility of that notion in consequentialist thinking, it should be fairly clear that it demands some explication at least.

            I can’t remember exactly what I said about the book; I might have said that it was by Brennan and described him as a prominent young libertarian political philosopher. I mentioned libertarianism; it didn’t go well. Really, though, I think the larger reason I didn’t get that job is more boring and closer to the reason I didn’t get so many jobs: my credentials are in ‘classics’ but most of what I actually do outside of a language classroom is more or less indistinguishable from what ‘philosophers’ do, and that sort of thing is increasingly unpopular in classics departments. They wanted someone more like the Classicists who publish hip, cultural-theoretical stuff about racism in antiquity in Eidolon, not people writing boring analytical philosophical books on Aristotle’s Politics. Their loss, really, but as I said, I’m pretty sure I’m better off where I’m at.

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          • I find myself agreeing with most of what you say here, David. And wanting to read the damned book myself. (I’m up for blogging it if you are.)

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          • Michael: if I tell you I’m up for blogging it, but then let you do all the work, and I intend this outcome all along, would that be a sign of bad character?

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    • I like these thoughts, David. Suppose that you punish me for some bad action that I committed 2 years ago. What desirable things might this accomplish? Here are two things: (a) providing me with incentive not to act the same way in the future, (b) by my example, if the matter is public, providing others with incentive not to act this way in the future. And here is another thing: (c) providing all of us with incentives, via the psychological reinforcement of the relevant (good) values or norms, to promote these values or adhere to these norms. All of these things are forward-looking in their justification. If we knew that punishing me would accomplish none of them, then it is not clear what the justification would be for doing it. If this is right, it suggests that the “backwards-looking” element to desert is backwards-looking only with respect to object of response, not with respect to fundamental justification.

      On this kind of picture, in the case of character-based voting, likelihood of good/bad policy results goes well beyond the likely results from the morally bad (or politically-salient morally bad) person getting elected. Even if this particular scoundrel would happen to put good policy in place, perhaps if his ilk are more likely to get elected we get, on net, disutility with respect to good policy. And, even if these likely-policy-effects could be ruled out, we have to consider the hard-to-commensurate far-flung effects of relevant values and norms having their grip on everyone weakened. Finally, in each of the three respects, there might well be values at stake that are independent of the production of good policy; and these might outweigh the (stipulated) good effects on policy of our scoundrel getting elected (though I suppose this element is moot if the justification is merely relative to being a good citizen or some such, not all-in). So it seems to me that, even if desert is forward-looking with respect to ultimate justification, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of electing people who are reformed (or by-chance policy-wise good) scoundrels with respect to values and norms relevant to political performance.

      I suspect that, once some fundamental empirical information is added, this puts me quite a bit at odds with Brennan – i.e., allowing for at least some, and perhaps no small amount, of character-based voting being justified from the standpoint of being a good citizen.

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      • All of these things are forward-looking in their justification. If we knew that punishing me would accomplish none of them, then it is not clear what the justification would be for doing it.

        There’s a view out there to which I’m sympathetic that models retributive justice on debt collection. The idea is that in interacting with you, I incur a debt of respect for your agency–that’s the price of interaction–on which I’m delinquent when I wrong you. If I wrong you, I owe you. If I wronged you two years ago, then, two years ago I incurred a now-delinquent debt to you. Punishment is primarily a matter of paying back this debt. The debt is to be paid in the future, obviously, but the having-incurred-it is in the past, and whether-you’ve-incurred-it is in the present.

        This view, debt-based retributivism, is associated with Daniel McDermott, at Oxford.

        http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/academics/about/dr-daniel-mcdermott

        I don’t agree with the details of McDermott’s account, and one defect of the view, arguably, is its failure to cash out (so to speak) the relevant conception of “debt.” But you could either take that as a defect or a lacuna, and I take it to be the latter. It has lots else to cash out. But I find the general idea plausible.

        A well-designed system of punishment would also want to achieve aims (a)-(c) that you list above. But the primary aim is delinquent debt collection, and the primary justification is forced collection on a delinquent debt. So the specifically retributive, moral desert-oriented aspect of punishment is backward-looking. Everything else is an add-on, and has a different moral basis.

        McDermott defends debt-based retributivism specifically as an account of what is deserved in contexts of retributive justice. It’s an open question how far the model can be generalized to moral desert as such.

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        • Something like the McDermott idea sounds quite plausible (and different from my [a]-[c]). I have to think about it more. Here is a flat-footed, friendly framing: this kind of idea makes sense to me under the rubric of maintaining (achieving, realizing, repairing) a specific sort of moral (pro-social, trusting, mutually-respectful) relationship with other agents. Whatever relational end is achieved here exists in the present (but might extend into the past). In this framing, it still looks like the “backward looking” aspect is the object of response, not the ultimate justification. This seems right insofar as there is a fundamental moral reason for realizing the particular response-pattern (as against, say, the particular debt-fulfilling response-pattern being something that there is a brute intrinsic reason to realize). But maybe all of this is perfectly compatible with what folks mean by “backward looking” justification.

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          • I wouldn’t necessarily have put things that way, but can’t quite disagree with it, either. The ultimate justification of a debt-based retributivism depends, I suppose, on things like a broader conception of debts, of promises, and of moral desert generally. And the ultimate justification of those things might well be future-oriented. I take it, for instance, that an Aristotelian conception of flourishing is going to need an account of all three things, understood as elements of justice, all ultimately justified in terms of the contribution that justice makes to the flourishing of the virtuous agent (which may have been what David had in mind in his comment, at least in part). But however that goes, I don’t think it changes the basic fact that a particular debt is incurred in the past and held in the present until the terms are altered by the person to whom the debt is owed. So it should still be possible to detach past/present from future in the way that my criticism of Brennan requires.

            I had meant to save this thought, but it’s also worth pointing out that even if claims about moral desert turned out to be both past- and forward looking, that wouldn’t help Brennan’s thesis, which requires past-oriented considerations to be forward-looking specifically about policy. The claim would have to be not just that every claim about moral desert in the present somehow makes reference to the future, but that in the case of a political candidate, claims about moral desert have predictive bearing on the policies the candidate can be expected to enact during his expected term–or else they’re irrelevant to voting. If Brennan means “policy” in the usual sense of the term, the claim is very narrow. If he means “policy” in some broader sense, he doesn’t say so.

            In the one thing I’ve written about desert (or more precisely, about punishment), I defended something like McDermott’s debt-based retributivism on the basis of Rand’s “trader principle.” The claim I was making is that injustice is a violation of the trader principle, and what we call “retributive justice” is a form of rectification of those violations. That happens to exemplify the point you’re making: my argument provides an ultimate justification for “debt-based retributivism” on the basis of a forward-looking principle governing interaction. The forward-looking justification allows for tying punishment/rectification to forward-looking considerations, like rehabilitation. In other words, unlike a strictly deontic view, the future can still be relevant to, say, punishment. But I’d still insist that there is an identifiably distinct past-oriented set of judgments there about moral desert.

            https://reasonpapers.com/pdf/351/rp_351_7.pdf

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      • You write: “the “backwards-looking” element to desert is backwards-looking only with respect to object of response, not with respect to fundamental justification.” That’s a pretty good way of putting the thought I’m trying to have. I guess I might be inclined to leave “fundamental” out, since I think it’s not only in some rather indirect way that forward-looking considerations come into play; I’m inclined to think that genuinely justified responses to the past must always be tightly connected to forward-looking considerations.

        I agree, too, that there might still be plenty of reasons not to vote for reformed scoundrels, even reasons directly connected to their former scoundrelity. Insofar as those reasons all depend on forward-looking rationales, however, I’m not sure Irfan’s formulation of the objection to Brennan is satisfactory. There are other reasons to disagree with Brennan, and I think I do; I’m just not sure desert-based arguments really count among them — I’m really not sure whether I would disagree with Brennan on the same grounds Irfan does.

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  3. I’m allowing that one might have reasons of desert (even decisive reasons) not to vote for someone who behaved very badly in the past, due, roughly, to one’s voting for her (or perhaps some possible or likely causally downstream things) being *undeserved* (or counting as an undeserved reward). I suspect that there is a good that is being accomplished here, in the present, by not voting for the person: by realizing an appropriate pattern of desert, one is maintaining a certain “moral relationship” with the person (and one’s moral community) that one does, or should, intrinsically value. Or something along these lines, such that reasons of desert are not backward-looking in the sense of good or bad things in the past (that one cannot effect) *somehow determining what one has reason to do in the present independently of anything that might come of one’s action in the present or future*. This kind of “backward-looking” reason makes no sense to me – or, more precisely, it provides no explanation of why the good and bad of the past (that is over and done with) should be relevant to the valence of present action at all. I think that David and I are more or less on the same page on this count – and maybe Irfan too.

    I take all of the above to concern reasons of desert (or certain reasons of desert) and how they work. But we might wonder – and David I take some of your remarks to address this – whether other reasons, including other reasons of desert, might (typically) override such reasons of desert that respond to past bad actions or past bad character. For example, past-bad-character reasons of desert might, in many cases, be overridden by present-good-character reasons of desert (such that, overall, the in-the-past-bad but in-the-present-good person does not deserve to have one’s vote withheld when, apart from this, voting for the person would be the best course of action). And similarly when someone does something bad or wrong and has apologized or made amends.

    I take likely-policy-results (or likely-decision-wise-results) to be non-desert-type reasons, if we take them quite literally (and I think Brennan does). They might typically line up with some desert-based reasons (e.g., maybe I appropriately reward you for having the type of character, now, that makes good political decisions in the future more likely). But they might not. Presumably, if there were some strange situation in which the intemperate, politically-ill-informed person would happen to make just the right political decisions during her term in office, Brennan would have us vote in consideration of consequences, not desert. I’m not sure if this is the right call in such a situation – I’m not sure how the relevant reasons of desert and consequence are best ordered in such a case – but Brennan’s position seems to be dismissive of reasons of desert *due to political offices not being honorifics*. This, it seems to me, constitutes a way-too-narrow characterization of reasons of desert (which I take to be simply reasons of interpersonal obligation). There are lots of ways you can have such reasons with respect to others and, intuitively, they are deontic in the broad sense of being normally or contextually “trumping” (my sense of ‘deontic’ here is meant to allow for normative explanation in terms of realizing certain pro-social relationships between human agents). Maybe I’m missing something in Brennan’s approach (I haven’t read any of his stuff on voting in a long time and never with much care), but this seems like either a careless mistake or a rather bone-headed blindness to (or theoretical bias against) reasons of obligation to others and their form or ground.

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  4. Pingback: Moral Grandstanding and Character-Based Voting | Policy of Truth

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