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).