Moral Grandstanding and Character-Based Voting

I’ve recently been teaching Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s paper, “Moral Grandstanding“–and simultaneously been working on a paper on Jason Brennan’s critique of character-based voting–and happened to see an interesting connection between the two. So this post harks back to, and ties together, two topics we’ve recently been discussing here at PoT–Michael’s recent post on grandstanding, and mine on character-based voting.

Suppose, as per Brennan’s argument in The Ethics of Voting, that character-based voting is justified insofar as character functions either as a proxy for the policies that a candidate might enact once elected, or more generally, for the quality of governance he might be expected to engage in. Now suppose that character-based voting sometimes is justified on those grounds, so that character sometimes does function as a proxy variable for predictions about a candidate’s capacities for good governance in the future.

If so, then if I’m a candidate for office, evidence about my moral character will be relevant to your voting for me. If the evidence is good enough, you’ll be justified in believing it, and justified in relying on those beliefs to vote for me. Obviously, at some level, it’s up to me to make the evidence “good enough” and accessible to you. And given the distractedness and short attention span of the average voter, that might mean trumpeting my good character fairly loudly.

Suppose that one governance-relevant moral trait is honesty: a politician can only be expected to enact good policies, or govern well, if he’s honest. In that case, a candidate has good reason to convince voters of his honesty. Suppose ex hypothesi that I really am honest–indeed, demonstrably more honest than my rivals in the campaign.* If so, I have good reason to convince voters of my honesty.

Given this, when I speak on the campaign trail, what I say will have two different motivations: I’ll want to persuade voters of the truth of whatever I have to say on a given topic (call this my “first-order political message”), and I’ll want to persuade them of my honesty as a politically valuable trait of character (my “character-based sales pitch”). Ideally, I’ll want to do both, but if I can’t do both, I’ll reluctantly (and with some disappointment) do one or the other. The point is that while I hope that voters will accept both messages, I’m realistic enough to settle for their acceptance of one of the two, and flexible enough to grasp that their acceptance of either one is sufficiently valuable to be worth the effort.

On the Tosi-Warmke account, the preceding motivational structure is a clear case of my having a recognition desire, and my expression of that desire is a clear instance of recognition expression. The conjunction of the two is a clear case of moral grandstanding. It follows that when the honest candidate speaks on the campaign trail, he’s bound to do a lot of Tosi-Warmke grandstanding, even if doing so is instrumental to what seems a perfectly justifiable end–namely, his trying to get elected for his honesty in a case where (a) honesty is relevant to his capacity for governance, and (b) he is demonstrably more honest than his competitors.

One implication of the preceding is that Brennan’s account of character-based voting contradicts the Tosi-Warmke account of grandstanding. Brennan’s account of character-based voting can require grandstanding in a case where a candidate has a moral trait that he regards as an asset on the campaign trail, and where the asset is plausibly relevant to his future governance once in office. Meanwhile, Tosi and Warmke seem to be condemning grandstanding even when it’s instrumentally related to a justified end in that way.

Granted, there’s no a priori reason why Brennan-on-character-based-voting has to be consistent with Tosi/Warmke-on-grandstanding; the two sets of arguments are offered in different contexts, on different topics, by different authors. The point of noting their incompatibility is to highlight the implausibility of Tosi-Warmke’s account of moral grandstanding.

It’s plausible enough to think (with Brennan) that character-based voting can be justified in cases where moral character is demonstrably relevant to policy- or governance-type considerations. If so, voters need information about character, and candidates have good instrumental reason for soliciting recognition of their good character. But doing so, according to Tosi-Warmke, is just what moral grandstanding is. So while Brennan’s account of character-based voting gives a plausible rationale for engaging in Tosi-Warmke grandstanding, Tosi-Warmke’s account of grandstanding undercuts the possibility of character-based voting even in cases where character-based voting otherwise seems justified.

I draw the following conclusions from this.

First, contra Tosi-Warmke, it simply isn’t plausible to suggest that all, most, or even “the paradigmatic” forms of grandstanding are morally wrong.** In particular, Tosi-Warmke would have done better to distinguish cases of grandstanding that are instrumentally necessary to some justified end, and cases that are not. It seems plausible to say that if an end is justified, and instrumentally requires (what Tosi-Warmke call) grandstanding, then grandstanding is itself justified.***

Second, and related to the preceding, a defender of the Tosi-Warmke account of grandstanding needs a special account of instrumentally justified cases of “grandstanding.” Either such cases are not genuine cases of grandstanding, or they constitute a whole species of justified grandstanding. Alternatively, Tosi-Warmke might provide an explicit argument for why there are no justified ends that require grandstanding as a means. But as it stands, what they say is extremely uninformative.

Finally: to the extent that one regards character-based voting as justified, one would be warranted in regarding Tosi-Warmke’s account as subverting rather than promoting the justifiable ends of public moral discourse. Character-based voting is one case (potentially among many) in which we justifiably want information, not just about a speaker’s message, but about his moral bona fides, and about how the two things cohere. In other words, there are times when we don’t simply want to know what someone professes, proposes, or believes, but how his character expresses his professed beliefs in action across a track record of some sustained duration. Contrary to Tosi-Warmke’s account, there are easily imaginable contexts in which moral grandstanding seems a perfectly legitimate way of conveying this information. Contrary to what they say in the last section of their paper, there is nothing inherently discourse-subverting or disrespectful about grandstanding so conceived.

Perhaps Tosi-Warmke would deny that there are such cases, that there are very many of them, or that they’re very important if they happen to exist. But those are large claims nowhere addressed in the paper.**** As I see it, their failure to deal with such issues is a weakness in their account.

*I might, for instance, have a demonstrably better Politifact Truth-O-Meter score than my rivals.

**To be precise, what they say is:

First, we will not argue that grandstanding should never be done. We are open to the possibility that there are circumstances in which either an instance of grandstanding possesses no bad-making features or, even if an instance does have bad-making features, the option of not grandstanding will be even worse (p. 208).

But if my argument is right, this is a misleading understatement. It’s not just that there are “circumstances in which…an instance of grandstanding possesses no bad-making features,” but that there is a whole category of instances of grandstanding that are justified and seem morally unproblematic. Tosi and Warmke give no reason for thinking that the unjustified instances outnumber the justified ones.

***Obviously, given the negative connotations of the word “grandstanding,” those who engage in this behavior will probably want to give it a different name. I’m agnostic on the right word to use: “humble bragging” seems apt in some ways, but has already generated ambivalence that more or less tracks the ambivalence felt about “grandstanding.” Compare this with this and this.

****Maybe “nowhere addressed” is an overstatement, but what they do say strikes me as beside the point:

Finally, we note that one’s considered views about the morality of grandstanding will depend in no small part on one’s views about normative ethics more generally. We try to remain neutral among moral theories and intend only to raise a number of moral problems with grandstanding. The considerations we adduce, however, are diverse. There is, as it were, something here for just about everyone (p. 209).

Neutrality among moral theories is not neutrality about first-order moral judgments, neutrality about the justified ends to which grandstanding might serve as means, or neutrality about the typical motivations behind particular instances of recognition-seeking utterances. Given that, many of Tosi-Warmke’s negative judgments about grandstanding are apt to strike at least some of their interlocutors as either puzzling or question-begging or both.

9 thoughts on “Moral Grandstanding and Character-Based Voting

  1. In the case of honesty as the relevant character trait, I would agree that touting one’s record of promise-keeping (for example), is morally unproblematic. If this counts as moral grandstanding, so be it. I would venture to guess that integrity might have more predictive power, in the sense that the person running for office can point to those bona fides — voting record, any past policies advocated and enacted (in lower offices) align with current election promises, etc.

    Irfan writes:
    It’s plausible enough to think (with Brennan) that character-based voting can be justified in cases where moral
    character is demonstrably relevant to policy- or governance-type considerations. If so, voters need information about
    character, and candidates have good instrumental reason for soliciting recognition of their good character.

    The instrumental reasons for voting for a particular candidate are, for me, the most important ones. If a self-professed and demonstrable commitment to a greater honesty (and integrity, perhaps more-so) than the other candidates, that can plausibly be thought of as a parameter positivity relevant to the claim that the more-honest candidate ought to receive one’s vote if quality of governance (i.e., no corruption) is a value.

    On the other hand, character as “a proxy for the policies that a candidate might enact once elected” is less plausible. In any case, aren’t you presuming that verifiable honesty-touting has predictive power? That presumption is an empirical one and needs independent justification. Does Brennan cover the evidence in his book?

    To underscore the need for a narrowly understood concept of “character” as honesty and/or integrity, the case of Rob Ford, former mayor of Toronto is food for thought. He was a loose cannon, a disheveled drunk, and lied about his drug use off-hours chilling with dealers while he was in the mayoral chair.

    I don’t really care; the policies he enacted were overall positive for Toronto during his colorful but truncated stay in the Major’s office.


As an aside, I do think inferences from the dishonesty of a person to the unacceptability of their stated premises (not otherwise verifiable) are cogent in general: ad hominem cannot legitimately be extended to such argumentation schemes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re mostly agreeing here. But, as you say….

      On the other hand, character as “a proxy for the policies that a candidate might enact once elected” is less plausible. In any case, aren’t you presuming that verifiable honesty-touting has predictive power? That presumption is an empirical one and needs independent justification. Does Brennan cover the evidence in his book?

      The presumption is an empirical one, and does (ultimately) need independent justification, I agree.

      Brennan doesn’t cover the evidence in his book, if by “cover the evidence” you mean that he discusses it there in his own voice. He cites two books, Russell Hardin’s How Do You Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge, and Bernard Manin’s The Principles of Representative Government, in defense of the claim that “To a significant degree, voting for character is voting for the wrong reasons.”

      So I take it that he thinks the evidence cuts against character’s having predictive power. I own and have browsed both books, but haven’t read either of them. I’m skeptical that either book either confirms or disconfirms the claim that character has strong predictive value. But I can’t pass judgment for sure until I’ve read them.

      Actually, having casually but not systematically read the literature on character-based voting, and casually but not systematically read the psychological literature on personality and character, I’m skeptical that anyone in that literature is going to confirm or disconfirm the relevant claim. There are too many variables there, and too many of them are too contestable to be operationalizable in any straightforward, uncontroversial way. Given that, what we really need is a more basic account of what counts as a rational or relevant consideration in the voting booth in the first place. Strong claims about predictive value strike me as beyond anyone’s capacities, and beside the point. The real issue is whether character can be an important factor in voting, not whether there is some social scientific account underwriting precise predictions between justifiable claims about moral character (on the one hand), and the expected outcome of the policies that can justifiably be expected to arise as a result of the candidate’s being elected (on the other).

      In any case, having claimed that “to a significant degree, voting for character is voting for the wrong reasons,” Brennan concedes that to some (presumably significant, maybe equally significant) degree, voting for character could be voting for the right reasons. So while the relevant section of the book is advertised as making a case against character-based voting, it ends up making a conditional case for or against it, depending on whether you see the empirical glass as half-empty or half-full. Brennan’s claim is that character-based voting is only justified insofar as it predicts good governance and/or good policy. Despite a lot of misleading rhetoric to the contrary, he’s officially agnostic as to whether and to what extent it does. He gives no account of the sort of character that is or could be relevant to voting, no account of what counts as predictability under the circumstances, no account of the distinction between governance and policy, and indeed, no account even of the different types of voting under discussion. (A hiring committee votes for a job candidate; the registered electorate votes for the President of the U.S. They’re both instances of “voting,” but it’s hardly obvious that the same ethical considerations apply to both in the same way.)

      My point is: given the formulation he gives in his book, Brennan has to concede that character could function as a proxy variable in accurate predictions about policy, and in the cases where it does, Tosi and Warmke would have to concede that grandstanding or virtue signaling would be entirely justified. Precisely because we don’t know how good (or bad) a proxy variable it is, we have to allow for the possibility that it is a good proxy variable. But then, an essentially unqualified condemnation of grandstanding/virtue-signaling is unjustified. Granted, Tosi-Warmke’s condemnation of grandstanding is not literally unqualified, but the qualifications they offer are so vague and understated as to miss the point. They write as though there may be an instance of justified grandstanding here or there, but if character-based voting is justified, they have to allow for the possibility that whole election campaigns might involve justified grandstanding. The article proceeds as the issue had never occurred to them.

      On Ford, I have a somewhat different take than you. Suppose the facts are as you say. The fact remains that being mayor of Toronto is a job, that certain behaviors can be presumed to affect job performance, that the voters have an interest in good job performance, and that the distinction between being on the job and off it in that case is somewhat blurry. It’s especially blurry if the mayor is doing drugs with dealers, and drug dealing is illegal (whether or not we assume that drug dealing/consumption ought to be illegal). He can’t credibly enforce the law if he’s so visibly breaking it.

      At a bare minimum, conduct of that kind is going to trigger an investigation aimed at determining whether or not the behavior is affecting job performance, and the investigation itself will affect job performance, which can common-sensically be expected adversely to affect the mayor’s capacity to govern (where “governing” includes the effectuation of policy). So I would say that within limits, a political candidate has an obligation to avoid at least an egregious appearance of impropriety. The tendency to indulge in seriously irresponsible-looking behavior would be an ex ante consideration for voting against, say, a Rob Ford, a Marion Barry, or a Donald Trump, and to prefer a squeaky clean candidate to them, at least as a tie-breaker, but possibly for even more than that.


  2. Admittedly I only glanced at the articles, but the first question that came to mind was the relationship of “moral grandstanding” to “virtue signaling.” I think of the latter as a rhetorical inversion of ad hominem i.e., not “your character sucks, so I can’t take your view seriously,” but rather “my character is superior, so you should take my view seriously.” Presumably you would affirm that use of ad hominem carries some moral burden as it fails the criteria for relevance in critical argumentation. Based on your blog post, I expect you would have fewer reservations about moral grandstanding than virtue signaling. Is that a plausible inference? If not, where does the analogy break down?


    • That’s a good question. A couple of points.

      First, I find your definition or understanding of virtue signaling overly narrow. I take “virtue signaling” to be no more or less than signaling one’s virtue in some context, full stop. It need not be an inversion of ad hominem, need not involve claims of superiority to anyone, and need not invite anyone to take one’s views seriously because one has virtue. Given how I understand it, virtue signaling can be entirely justified.

      I agree that what you describe is an instance of virtue signaling. I regard that particular instance as generally unjustified, but mostly because I think it’s generally unnecessary to stress one’s moral superiority to someone else. But it can be necessary, and if it is, it would be justified.

      In the case I was describing, I have no problem describing the grandstanding as virtue signaling (as I understand it), but in that case, the message would be: “my character is superior to that of the other candidates, so you should vote for me.” If you want to describe “vote for me” as “a view,” then yes, it does say “take my view seriously in virtue of my moral superiority,” but I don’t think there’s any fallacy involved. That is one case where a comparative moral claim is justified, but it’s justified because of the peculiar context of voting: you’re not voting for a proposition or a message, but a whole candidate, i.e., a person as against a slate of competitors.

      But I would say that there are contexts in which one’s moral character is relevant to evaluating the soundness of one’s argument even apart from the context of voting: if my argument depends on testimonial evidence of some kind, then it can only be accepted if I can be presumed honest and careful enough with such evidence to be believed.

      In general, a person’s good faith in argumentation is relevant to evaluating the person’s argument. It’s extremely difficult to argue with someone who is being dishonest about his motives for entering the argument. Once someone evinces a certain level of dishonesty, my view is that it becomes impossible to have an argument with him, and the issue of the soundness of his arguments becomes moot.

      A conversation consists of an interconnected series of arguments, and if someone is entering a conversation in a dishonest spirit, it doesn’t much matter if every odd argument he makes is sound. The overall sequence is dishonest. You just have to step back from the conversation and conclude, “This person is being dishonest.” I don’t think doing that is an instance of an ad hominem fallacy. It’s just a recognition of the diminishing returns of engaging in argument with a dishonest person. (This, by the way, is one problem with the entire literature on “refuting the immoralist.”)


      • To clarify one thing that may sound confusing: I do think it would be a fallacy–an inverse ad hominem–for someone to say, “Take my view on the minimum wage seriously because I am more virtuous than other people.” But it isn’t a fallacy to say, “Take my candidacy more seriously than that of the other candidates, because they are liars, cheaters, and frauds, and I am honest, trustworthy, and above board.” Assuming, of course, that the speaker is correct in saying that.


      • In my experience, when someone is accused of virtue-signaling, what the accuser usually means (generally with no evidence, btw) is “you’re not saying X because you think X is true; you’re saying X in order to look good to your peer group.”


        • One of the problems with the term “virtue signaling” is that it’s not clear what it means, and there’s no obvious way to settle the issue. I was taking the charitable line that it has a legitimate meaning, ignoring the fact that I’ve never actually encountered anyone using it that way. You’re focusing on common usage. Ultimately, “virtue signaling” is what Randians call a “package deal” concept. It lumps legitimate virtue signaling with illegitimate virtue signaling, ignoring the differences between them. It strikes me as obvious that there are times when we need to “virtue signal” in the legitimate sense. If Smith and Jones are interacting and need to trust one another, they need to earn one another’s trust. To do that, they need to signal their trustworthiness–which is virtue signaling. It’s kind of amazing that the term has so negative a connotation given its obvious utility in contexts like that.

          For whatever it’s worth, the term originally had a neutral meaning, and has recently taken on a negative valence.

          As I hear it, “virtue signaling” in the newer, pejorative sense is the polemical successor term to “limousine liberal” or “chickenhawk.” A “limousine liberal” is someone who professes concern for the poor, but is so rich that the profession requires nothing from him in the way of effort or sacrifice. A “chickenhawk” is someone with militaristic views on foreign policy whose circumstances require nothing in the way of having to face the dangers of combat. By analogy: a “virtue signaler” is someone who signals her virtue in a conspicuous way, but from a position of comfort that requires no effort or sacrifice. I think it’s too strong to say that virtue signaling literally requires indifference to the truth of one’s claims. What it requires is indifference to the moral or practical demands on oneself of one’s claims.


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