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.