Character-Based Voting and the Policy of Truth

For the past six months or so, I’ve been working on a project on what I call “character-based voting” (CBV), construed as voting for a political candidate based on her traits of character, as contrasted with “policy-based voting” (PBV) which is voting for a political candidate based on the expected consequences of the candidate’s expected policies.

It’s a rough and in some contexts problematic distinction, but clear enough to work with. There’s a clear enough distinction to be drawn between voting for a candidate because you regard her as more honest than her rival, and voting for a candidate because you expect her to enact policies X1…Xn, which have expected consequences C1…Cn, which you regard as net favorable, but which you don’t expect her rival to enact. My modest claim is that CBV can in principle be justified, and has its place.

There is a literature on both CBV and PBV in political science, but not much of one in political philosophy. Political scientists have tended to argue that policy-based voting is the paradigmatically rational approach to voting whereas character-based voting is not. That older consensus is now giving way to a view that takes a more positive view of CBV (see the work of Loes Aaldering and Scott Clifford), but the literature is in its early stages and leaves a lot undiscussed. The only philosophical discussion of the topic that I know is Jason Brennan’s in The Ethics of Voting (and elsewhere). Brennan’s arguments against CBV strike me as both cursory and weak, but that’s a topic for another post.

No matter how positive a view one takes of CBV, however, it’s obvious that one has to distinguish the cases in which it has a hope of being justified from those in which it really is irrational. It’s one thing to vote for a political candidate because she’s more honest than her rival; it’s another to vote for her because she’s sexier than her rival. Both are traits of character, but only one is relevant to the task of holding political office, and voters have a real tendency to confuse the two.

Honesty is a politically relevant trait because the assessment of policy depends so heavily on it, especially in democracies that rely heavily on voter consensus created through open political discourse. Policy wonks often seem to forget that a political candidate in a democratic election isn’t just an impersonal lever for the promotion of policies; she’s a person who has to convince her would-be constituents (and colleagues) of the rightness of her proposed policies, or at the very least, to inform people of what those policy proposals are. A dishonest politician suffers from an obvious liability in this respect. You can’t convince people of anything unless you induce them to believe you. But if they regard as you as dishonest–and in particular, as extraordinarily dishonest–they will tend to disbelieve you. If so, they will tend not to be persuaded by what you say about policy, or suspect it (and suspect you) even when you’re telling the truth, or at least trying to. And if you are dishonest, they’ll largely be right.

A cynic might at this point be inclined to laugh, or at least chuckle. Honesty can’t be that important, he might say. Politics isn’t the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Politicians lie all the time about everything. We all know this, and all just tolerate it, correcting for the inevitable signal-to-noise or truth-to-falsity ratio we encounter. Once we do that, we’re then free to focus on policy, which is what we should focus on. So CBV is beside the point, even when it comes to honesty.

The cynical view has a point—up to a point. But it seems to me that there’s a point at which it clearly fails, and that’s when one candidate is basically honest (by political standards), but the other tells blatant, Orwellian lies with a straight face, expecting to be believed–often actually being believed by large swatches of the electorate–but giving the real impression of being either an all-out con man or a sociopath, or both.

The question then arises whether a candidate’s character can be so fucked up that his putative policy positions cease to matter—either because you can’t really trust him to tell you what those policies are, or because his character is so defective that it makes more sense to elect the decent-but-policy-suboptimal candidate than the psychopathic-but-putatively-policy-optimal one. Believe it or not, stuff like this sometimes happens, even in America.

Let me try to simplify the preceding scenario for purposes of a thought experiment. Of course, when it comes to thought-experiments, “simplifying” means “abstracting from real-world complexity,” which really means…

making complex stipulations in order to simplify a situation for purposes of analysis, in the hopes that the reader will make the right inferences from the analysis, and also in the hopes that the reader will then re-introduce the relevant complexity when he applies the inferences back to the real world that the thought-experiment was intended to illuminate.

Which never happens. But anyway, take two candidates, Smith and Jones.

As far as traits are concerned: Smith is fundamentally honest—doesn’t lie, doesn’t stretch the truth, doesn’t aim to deceive, tries her best to be as candid as political life permits her to be, and is willing to pay the political price for her candor.

By contrast, Jones is not just a liar, but a fucking liar: he lies about everything, consequential and inconsequential; half the time, you get the sense that he’s lying for fun, and half the time, you get the sense that he’s lying to himself. But you also wonder whether his whole lying routine is intended to deceive you into complacency: if he lies all the time, there’s a danger that people will start to take his dishonesty for granted, get jaded by the sheer quantity of lies, equate his extraordinary dishonesty with everyone else’s garden-variety dishonesty, and finally get conned into something really big. Assume that for now, nothing of that sort has actually happened, but that as far as Jones is concerned, it could.

Let’s hold the preceding descriptions constant, but imagine five different cases which vary in their policy implications.

  1. Smith, the honest candidate, is, all things considered, policy-superior to Jones.
  2. Smith and Jones are policy-equivalent. Neither is perfect, but all-things-considered, Smith is no better than Jones, and Jones is no better than Smith.
  3. Jones, the dishonest candidate, is all-things-considered slightly preferable to Smith on policy, making Smith the policy-suboptimal candidate. But Smith’s suboptimality doesn’t put her too far behind Jones. In other words, as far as policy is concerned, Jones is good, but Smith is acceptable.
  4. Jones, the dishonest candidate, is all-things-considered substantially preferable to Smith on policy. Dishonesty aside, his policy preferences are spot-on, at least if he can be trusted to enact them. Smith, by contrast, has some seriously problematic policy preferences—not disastrous, but discernibly, seriously worse than Jones. But at least she’s honest.
  5. Jones, the dishonest candidate, has spot-on policy preferences (as [4] above). But Smith’s preferences, though honestly expressed, will very likely lead to all-out disaster.

With that in hand, let me make three (or so) simplifying assumptions.

For one thing, let’s set aside the possibility of single-issue or litmus test voting; when I say that a candidate is “all-things-considered policy superior” to another, I mean that the one candidate is better than the other on the basis of a global consideration of all of the policies he or she can be expected to adopt, not on the basis of a single policy that clinches the case while ignoring all the others. In saying this, I’m really borrowing an assumption from the literature on PBV to the effect that there is such a thing as a “global consideration,” and that voters know how to engage in one.

As it happens, I’m skeptical that anyone really does have a clear account of “all-things-considered” policy assessments, or that voters engage in them. (I don’t even think act-consequentialists have a workable account of either thing, and of course, a commitment to act-consequentialism creates problems of its own). Unlike, say, Michael Huemer, I don’t reject the legitimacy of single issue voting, either. It just simplifies things here to make some of the same assumptions as defenders of PBV, so I’ve done so. But part of the problem I have with them, not further discussed here, is that I reject both their one-eyed insistence on PBV as contrasted with CBV, as well as their conception of each half of the CBV/PBV contrast, which then affects the nature of the (supposed) contrast itself. But as that’s too much to deal with in one place, I mention it and move on.

Second, I’m assuming that we can make trait-ascriptions to people like honesty, and that we have an account of a politically relevant conception of character traits (not just a generalized account to the effect that “honesty” is politically relevant, but an account of the specifically political version of honesty that is relevant). This is another big assumption, one that defenders of PBV might well reject on grounds that trait-ascriptions all tend to involve bias or error. Again, that’s too large an issue to adjudicate here, so I mostly set it aside. (I don’t know where I stand on Roderick Long’s overall argument in this paper, but I agree with enough of his criticisms of “the trait-ascription error literature” to want to cite it here.)

Third, I’m assuming (very implausibly) that we can predict the likely consequences of the policies a candidate is likely to enact. Actually, the very idea of “a policy that a candidate is likely to enact” strikes me as semi-nonsensical, but I’m going to ignore that fact here. Obviously, political candidates do not enact policies on their own, and aren’t, even by their voting records, obviously responsible for all of the consequences of all of the policies they do support. Nor, by the way, do social scientists even pretend to track, or claim the ability to track, all the relevant expected policy consequences of a given candidate’s expected policies in all of the cases where tracking them would be politically important (I take that to be obvious, but if you don’t think it is, see this paper by Hendrik van den Berg).

But don’t worry yourself about the preceding assumption, because for purposes of this post, I’m pretending to be an analytic philosopher, which permits me to over-simplify obvious facts by legislating them away by means of under-analyzed Latin phrases like “ex hypothesi” and “ceteris paribus.” It would over-complicate things to deal with issues of causal attenuation or unpredictability, so I’m not going there, at least “for present purposes.”

OK, I’m done “simplifying” things. By the way, if you think I make big assumptions, you should read the other guys in this literature.

I take it that (1), (2), and (5) are easy, or relatively easy, cases—but also relatively uninformative for that very reason.

Case (1) is easy because it involves over-determination: since it makes sense to vote for Smith on policy grounds by itself, that fact tends to conceal the causal role of the character-based considerations that might simultaneously be operating. So the choice is as easy, but the role of CBV unclear.

Case (2) is easy because it’s a tie-breaker: it suggests that character-based considerations become relevant when all or most of the others are exhausted. That’s not nothing, but it’s pretty faint praise. It says that we vote for the honest candidate because honesty is at least a weak consideration in favor of the candidate, even if it’s the last consideration in a lexical ordering of legitimate considerations. That proves that some CBV is justified, but only under rare and narrow circumstances.

I suppose that ties do arise in any election where the policy issues are relatively settled so that the election turns in some way on which candidate will operate in good faith. Primaries are sometimes like this. So are lots of local elections, e.g., for judge or sheriff, where the law is basically settled, and the officeholder is just adjudicating or enforcing it in a routine way. Of course, lots of elections aren’t like this, and it’s probably rare to find an election where the candidates are precisely policy-equivalent ex ante for any given voter.

Case (5) is easy (or seems easy) because it allows (or seems to allow) us to set character-based considerations aside as obviously irrelevant so as to avert an imminent disaster. But its ease is of no help to a defense of CBV, since the ease of the decision arises, precisely, from a case in which CBV seems obviously silly.

On the other hand, case (5) can in a certain way be construed as offering backhanded support to CBV. For some voters, case (5) might give reason not to vote for anyone, or to vote “None of the Above” despite the disaster that might arise, something I ignored in the other two cases above as unlikely or irrelevant (unless you oppose voting altogether). At a minimum, abstention or a NOTA vote in case (5) implies that immoral traits of character can disqualify an otherwise qualified candidate once the candidate crosses a certain threshold of immorality.

Of course, it’s a further question whether it really makes sense to disqualify an immoral candidate at the price of allowing the sky to fall. But if you don’t think that the sky’s falling is your problem–you are, after all, merely allowing it to fall by failing to make a very, very minimal contribution to its not falling–then there’s nothing wrong with this line of reasoning. To be clear: the preceding reasoning is most relevant in the case of the otherwise-eager voter driven to abstinence by the repulsiveness of case (5), not the voter who sits out case (5) because he’d sit most of the other cases as well.

That leaves us with the really contentious cases, (3) and (4).

Case (3) is in some sense the crucial one, the one that most clearly distinguishes the monistic defenders of PBV from anyone sympathetic in any context to CBV. Here is the CBV-friendly interpretation: There’s a point at which a candidate’s immorality is such that it either disqualifies or tends to disqualify the candidate for office in ways that can’t be compensated-for or offset by his policy-superiority to rivals who are at least in the ballpark of policy sanity. In a case where the rival candidate is substantially more honest but only marginally policy-inferior, I would say that honesty is the kind of electoral asset that can tip the scales in favor of the honest-but-slightly-policy-suboptimal candidate as against the dishonest-but-policy-optimal candidate.

The question is how to cash this out; for now, I just want to say that the claim is plausible enough to be worth cashing out, and that its plausibility poses a problem for any rigidly one-dimensional defense of PBV that flatly excludes CBV. The clearest case for CBV is the one where the difference between the two candidates in, say, honesty is dramatic but the policy differences are relatively minor, even if they redound to the (marginal) favor of the dishonest candidate. It seems perfectly rational to vote for the honest-but-policy-slightly-inferior candidate to the fucking liar whose policies, if enacted, would be marginally better than the honest candidate’s (i.e., would be slightly superior in relative terms to policies that, absolutely considered, are not-bad but not as good).

Of course, though honesty is an awfully convenient example to use, it’s also slightly problematic and potentially misleading. In relying on honesty in our analysis, there’s a danger of confounding moral and epistemic considerations: a dishonest candidate is immoral but also a source of uncertainty; the first is a moral consideration, the second an epistemic one.  In saying that dishonesty disqualifies a candidate in an election campaign, it’s unclear whether that means that dishonesty disqualifies the candidate qua moral consideration or qua epistemic one or both.

It sounds like it shouldn’t make a difference, but it does. The moral issue is: Jones is dishonest, but the consequences of his proposed policies are better, and arguably more choiceworthy than Smith’s. So should we opt for dishonest consequences or consequence-suboptimal honesty? The epistemic issue is: as the honest candidate, Smith’s policy platform can rationally be believed; Jones’s cannot. So should we go with the credible candidate, or gamble on the non-credible one? In other words, if we disqualify Jones “on grounds of dishonesty” without specifying which issue we mean, it’s unclear whether we’re disqualifying Jones because…

  • It’s a moral fact that: Smith’s sheer possession of honesty is more choiceworthy than the best consequences of the best policies that Jones enacts (taking their enactment for granted), or because
  • Smith is simply more believable than Jones, so that we can’t rationally expect Jones to enact the optimal policies he claims to promote.

In the first case, we’re comparing a trait-possession (Smith’s honesty) with a set of policy consequences (the actual consequences of the policies for which Jones is responsible). In the second, we’re comparing two different sets of probabilities with respect to the policy consequences expected to arise on each candidate’s being elected (i.e., policies that are more probable because you can trust the person promising them, versus policies that are less probable because you can’t).

These are different comparisons involving different considerations, and it’s a conceptual mistake to conflate them, even if it’s very hard to disentangle the different factors in real-world deliberation and action. As I defined it at the outset, CBV includes both moral and epistemic traits of character (and others as well). Since honesty has both epistemic and ethical dimensions, the distinction between immorality and unpredictability may not matter all that much in most practical contexts, or at least not matter enough to affect the point I’m making, viz., that traits matter (should matter) to voting.

Exactly how or why traits matter is a separate issue. I suspect that the epistemic reason for trusting an honest-but-policy-suboptimal candidate is easier to grasp than the ethical one. But that doesn’t mean that the ethical one should be dismissed. Better, I think, to imagine an an inclusively disjunctive account that allows traits to matter in both epistemic and ethical ways. Maybe honesty trumps good policy in case (3) both because when purchased dishonestly, good policy is an ill-gotten good, and/or because you can’t trust a dishonest person to do anything, much less enact the good policies he promises. I concede that that formulation allows me to cover the bases without really resolving the hardest issues in play. That said, I still think the claim I’m making about case (3) has a certain plausibility about it. (The issue here is similar to the one that comes up when we think about the exclusionary rule in criminal procedure: do we exclude procedure-violating evidence because it’s epistemically unreliable, or simply because, being wrongly acquired, it would be immoral to include it? Same with torture: morally wrong or just epistemically unreliable?)

Case (4) strikes me as less clear than (3), but still seems to point in a determinate direction: abstention. It makes no sense to vote for an honest duffer. But it seems immoral to give political legitimacy to a psychopath who gets the trains to run on time. I don’t know how to decide between the honest duffer and the psychopath, so I’m inclined to decide (4) by recommending non-decision, i.e., by recommending the refusal to vote, or write-in vote for a third option. A case like (4) ought to dampen the enthusiasm of even the most zealous advocate of voting–and throw cold water on any advocate of compulsory voting.

I should lay my cards on the table and tell you that the preceding exercise was inspired less by a purely theoretical interest in CBV (though I have one), than by a response to a specific incident which outraged me, and which I subsequently decided to theorize. I don’t apologize for that, or regard it as a theoretical skeleton in my closet. I’m inclined to think that the issue of CBV could use more attention to and analysis of particular cases. Anyway, here’s the incident in video form.

Jay Webber is the Republican candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s 11th congressional district; Mikie Sherrill is the Democrat. A few months ago, Sherrill appeared and spoke at a demonstration critical of the Trump Administration on immigration policy; her sympathies were clearly with the demonstrators. Some of the demonstrators there wanted to abolish ICE, a view that Sherrill herself doesn’t happen to hold. Though she’s explicitly disavowed the view, Webber wants, for reasons of sheer expediency, to pin it on her. So he’s insisted, over and over ad nauseam, that she once held the view and is now backtracking on having held it only because of the attention he’s brought to it, and through the pressure he and people like him are exerting on her. (Here’s a similar but more ambiguous case that deserves a discussion of its own.)

Webber is lying: there’s no other way of describing the speech acts in question. Pressed to justify his claims, he simply repeats the lie—again and again and again, each time with a renewed conviction that seems as much designed to convince his listeners as to convince himself. How a man can manage to bullshit himself and others in so egregiously obvious a fashion, I don’t know. But here he is, doing it on tape—insisting on it as though all-out fucking nonsense were the most obvious thing in the world. (To be clear: Webber is not the model for Jones in the thought-experiments above, but Sherrill is the model for Smith. In technical terms, I regard Webber as a mere liar, but not a fucking liar.)

I shouldn’t need to make this explicit, but I guess I have to: there’s a big difference between calling for the abolition of ICE and appearing at a demonstration where someone else calls for the abolition of ICE. There’s even a big difference between calling for the abolition of ICE and being a sympathetic participant in a demonstration where some people are calling for the abolition of ICE. A person unable or unwilling to make such distinctions—more precisely, a person positively intent on subverting or erasing such distinctions—has in my view disqualified himself from office. One also lacks a certain moral standing to make such charges if one accepts an endorsement from the likes of Donald Trump.

I take a lie of the sort Webber told to indicate dishonesty as a general trait of character in the person telling it. Yes, it’s “only” one lie, but it’s a bald-faced lie intended as character-assassination, and repeated with a persistence that indicates a propensity to lie about others’ character (a propensity borne out by his performance in this debate with Sherrill). In this respect, Webber’s dishonesty resembles that of Duncan Hunter in this now-notorious ad accusing Ammar Campa-Najjar of terrorist associations, something that strikes me as even more obviously disqualifying for political office than Webber’s claim. (Hunter is probably closer to a fucking liar than Webber.)

I happen to think that Sherrill is policy-superior to Webber, so I regard myself in this instance as being in case (1) above. But I’d vote for Sherrill over Webber in cases (2) and (3), as well. Case (5) is too distant from the actual case to be conceivable, at least by me, but case (4) is just barely conceivable: I could at least imagine someone’s convincing me that Sherrill’s policy preferences were a lot worse than I realized (I disagree with some of them as it stands), and she could in principle adopt some new policy position between now and the election that was problematic enough to put us in case (4). If case (4), arose, I’d abstain. But unless I somehow found myself in case (5), I couldn’t bring myself to vote for someone like Webber.

Maybe all this is just my priggishness, naivete, moralism, squeamishness, policy-illiteracy, humanistic soft-headedness, Democratic partisanship, and/or dogmatism talking, but I don’t think so. My defense of CBV reflects what I take to be the fact that character-based considerations play a subtle, powerful, justifiable, but generally under-theorized role in electoral behavior.

In my experience, the most prodigious crappers-on-character-in-politics are social scientists who insist that an emphasis on “morals” (as they like to put it) interferes with the objectivity required of a truly wertfrei policy wonk (itself the model of The Perfect Voter). We get this problematic idea from another Weber, Max Weber, who argues for it, among other places, in his Vocation Lectures. This isn’t the place to start a fight with a dead German political scientist, much less to throw the Weimar Republic,  the Third Reich, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War in his face. I’ll just say that it seems to me that in practice the Webers of the world tend to facilitate its Webbers, which seems a bad thing. Oh what tangled webs they weave, when first they practice to deceive.

CBV is not a panacea for all of our political ills, or always the right thing to do, but it isn’t the paradigm of irrational or wrongful voting that so many political scientists have made of it. Call me crazy, but I choose my doctor, dentist, mechanic, accountant, real estate broker, and lawyer(s) as much for their traits of character as for the policy outcomes I expect from working with them (recall that competence is a trait). Mutatis mutandis, I’ve even chosen a couple of wives that way.

Something similar might be said of the instructors I’ve hired as a department chair, the job candidates I’ve preferred in job searches, and the bosses/supervisors I’ve tried to work for (or avoid) both in academia and outside of it. I “voted” for them as much on character-based as on policy-based grounds in ways that seemed to run the two things together. When it comes to specifically political elections, character-based considerations are obviously relevant to the election of, say, a sheriff; sometimes, they tell you when it’s time to get rid of one. Actually, examples like these are really the tip of a little-examined iceberg at the intersection of business ethics, political science, and political philosophy. Maybe a collision would be a good thing.

To choose someone over her competitors for a contested position is often to choose her for her “professionalism,” a trait that denotes the integration of technical competence with epistemic virtue and moral probity. If it’s pointless to divorce character from expected outcomes in so many professional contexts, as it seems to be, perhaps it’s pointless to do so in politics. Or so I’m inclined to think. But if you disagree, feel free to explain why. But you’ll have to hurry. The Hunterdon County Clerk, a very competent and conscientious lady named Mary Melfi, tells me that my mail-in ballot is on its way to my mailbox. In fact, she says it’s supposed to get there sometime today. And I believe her. Go figure.

Thanks to James Boettcher, Roderick Long, Ben Rossi, and Michael Young for pressing the objections that led to this post. No, I haven’t (yet) done justice to all of your objections. But I’m not done yet!

15 thoughts on “Character-Based Voting and the Policy of Truth

  1. “It’s one thing to vote for a political candidate because she’s more honest than her rival; it’s another to vote for her because she’s sexier than her rival.”

    Well, interpreting “sexier” fairly broadly, I can see how, when two candidates are not terribly different in terms of expected effects, one might reasonably prefer the one who has a less irritating demeanour. For example, I don’t think Obama actually scores all that much higher than Trump on either policy or character; after all, while Obama made humanitarian-sounding noises on issues like war, immigration, and gay rights, his actual record on them was pretty dismal — which implies a poor score both on policy and (especially given the hypocrisy) on character. But Obama’s self-presentation was so much less nails-on-the-blackboard aggravating than Trump’s (or than Bush’s, for that matter, although in retrospect Bush’s persona seems nostalgia-worthy in comparison with Trump’s) that I can see preferring him in office just for that reason. (By analogy, if I’m forced to listen to a bedtime story every night, I’d prefer Ian McKellen’s voice to Gilbert Gottfried’s.)


    • Roderick, I appreciate the actual policy Obama effected on gay rights. In 2010 he issued a directive that would, by leverage of Medicare in hospitals, require hospitals to allow same-sex patients to be visited by their life-partner. That was a live issue for me in a hospitalization here in Lynchburg. Obama got gays and lesbians accepted full-square into the US military, which his opponent John McCain never stopped resisting to the end of the accomplishment. (Obama was a man of science, and on that, he was hypocritical on the Keystone Pipeline, but authentic for his continued support for nuclear power in the US after the Fukushima failure.) Mr. Trump does have his honesty, and he has his making hay by fans pleased at his lying, and his honesty shows his depravity and hatred as well as his lies show his depravity and hatred.

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      • Certainly Obama scores higher on that policy than Trump. But his score is so much lower than one would expect from his self-presentation. For example, he continued to have people prosecuted under “don’t ask, don’t tell” despite his stated belief that the policy was both unjust and unconstitutional.

        One might think Trump scores higher on honesty than Obama, but I don’t think he really is, since he slides freely back and forth on issues depending on what he think will please his base, and because he lies constantly. It’s just that he seems more honest because when he does awful things he accompanies them with an awful soundtrack, whereas when Obama did awful things he usually accompanied them with a gracious and civilised-seeming soundtrack.


    • Just thinking out loud here:

      I agree with the general point you’re making: preferring one candidate over another on demeanor when they’re policy equivalent is a variation of my case (2), except that instead of honesty’s breaking the tie, demeanor does it. Honesty strikes me as a more obvious tie-breaker, but I agree that demeanor can do it (and agree that Obama beats Trump on demeanor). If two candidates are literally policy equivalent, then it seems rational to go with the one who’s easier to put up with for x years, especially since anyone will do something to irritate you at some point.

      One worry I have about using character to break ties as per case (2) is that if someone has a strong incentive to vote on the basis of a certain trait, CBV incentivizes a bias in favor of seeing ties so as to have the opportunity to vote on the basis of that trait. In other words, if I have a predisposition to vote on the basis of demeanor but am too lazy to do any policy analysis, and I know that character breaks ties, there is the danger that I will simply see ties everywhere so as to vote on the basis of demeanor. I have a hunch that that worry is at the root of a lot of objections to CBV. The problem arises because the precise role of CBV is so undertheorized. (I say that despite defending CBV as a general claim; I’m also trying, in the same effort, to see where it goes wrong.)

      I’m assuming that you’d agree that it’s wrong to vote for someone on the basis of sexiness narrowly understood! As a heterosexual male, I’m bound to find an attractive female candidate sexier than almost any male candidate. But it seems wrong to allow that to figure into my electoral deliberations, even to break a tie. Likewise for unattractiveness: it seems wrong to allow physical unattractiveness to figure as a consideration against voting for someone. One potential problem is that physical attractiveness and demeanor are hard to disentangle (but not impossible, so I don’t mean that as a full-fledged objection). One reason why people prefer Obama to Trump is quite simply that Obama is better looking than Trump. But that’s a bad reason that has to be separated from the demeanor issue.

      Incidentally: neither side in our partisan divide seems to have internalized the lesson that it’s wrong to fixate on people’s physical appearance in moral contexts. One side makes fun of people with disabilities, the other side makes fun of orange skin and weird hair. One side thinks Michelle Obama looks like a gorilla; the other retorts that Obama is so handsome. And neither side seems to have grasped that the sound of a person’s voice is a form of physical appearance. The sound of a person’s voice or their vocal mannerisms can’t be a point for or against them. On the whole, physical-appearance-trait voting really is wrongful voting. A huge amount of our political discourse operates at the grade school level.

      I think your Trump-Obama comparison raises the methodological issue of how to make global assessments of a whole presidency. Instead of making one of my own, I’ll make a methodological point: an officeholder can’t be held entirely responsible for the policies he’s inherited. To take just one: Obama inherited Guantanamo Bay and never managed to get rid of it. But he can’t fairly be held entirely responsible for not having gotten rid of it; he sincerely seemed to want to get rid of it, but ultimately failed, where the failure has a complex explanation. By contrast, Trump is trying his best to perpetuate Guantanamo indefinitely.

      In a case like this, Obama’s speeches aren’t just “humanitarian noise,” and Trump’s pronouncements aren’t just ephemera. Even if both were to fail, their policy statements reveal their ultimate intentions (in this case, even Trump’s). I think Obama beats Trump on this, even though both have presided over the same policy of imprisoning people at Guantanamo.

      Methodological bottom line: it’s a complex task to make pairwise comparisons of this kind for Obama versus Trump, or anyone versus anyone.

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      • Apropos of “political discourse operating at the grade school level”:

        It actually seems an insult to grade school to put things that way. When I was in first grade, I made fun of a girl named Laurie Fisch by saying that she “looked like a fish.” She didn’t, but it was the best I could do by way of an insult in that context. It’s notable that my teacher (a young student teacher in her early 20s ironically named Miss Chirash, which inspired name-calling of its own) took notice and took me to task for saying that. I was obliged to apologize to Laurie and set the matter right. I guess Laurie accepted the apology; at least I hope she did. Meanwhile, I’m happy to say, I thoroughly learned my lesson. (I mean that seriously. In later years, I actually got interested the topic of appearance-morality inferences on theoretical grounds.)

        I try not to brag very much about my moral accomplishments, but I am proud of the fact that I managed to leave this sort of thing behind at age 6. I wonder about someone who hasn’t left it behind by age 72. Seriously.

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  2. Thanks for the citation! I’d almost forgotten about that paper of mine.

    Reading it over I’m embarrassed to see it contains some fairly confusing typos, such as “Suppose still further that Abel and Abel [instead of: Abel and Mabel] remain dispositionally identical,” and “my argument doesn’t turn on a murderer’s being worse than a murderer [instead of: worse than a non-murderer].” Ah well, hopefully context will make it clear enough.

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  3. Irfan, I also doubt claims of voting on “overall assessments.” I think they have a prioritization of issues and don’t want to reveal it. Especially to someone like me with such express and loud prioritization.

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    • Agreed. That’s part of the point I was making to Roderick above, and part of why I’m in favor both of CBV and of single-issue voting.

      The epistemic demands of PBV with respect to ex ante global assessments of political candidates strike me as nearly impossible to meet. If Jason Brennan et al are demanding electoral competence of that variety, they’re demanding something that no one can satisfy, not even his favorite economist. CBV and single-issue voting relax the demands of so-called global assessments without being nearly as objectionable as their critics have claimed.

      Simple point: you can’t engage in ex ante policy analysis of a candidate’s position on even a single policy issue unless you have some confidence that the candidate will enact the policies she promised to enact. If she says p before the election but does ~p once coming into office, all bets are off. The confidence you have that she’ll live up to her promises is a matter of character judgment, not “policy analysis.” It’s a real-life political judgment about what a real-life person is going to do, not an item in a problem set where every contingency has been assumed away for purposes of the exercise.


  4. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  5. Just a couple of quick points.

    (1) It is a little hard for me to come to grips with character-based reasons for voting for a particular candidate without more of an indication of which character traits matter and why. As it is really plausible that virtually any (good) reason can be a tie-breaking reason, this is of no help. At one point, you indicate that more honest candidates are better because they will be better at assessing policy. I’m not sure this is right, but even if it were, this looks to be something like a case of what Brennan would call using character as a proxy for likely policy outcomes. Obviously, something like the virtue of being civic-minded (or something in this area) would be especially relevant – and maybe, if you push someone like Brennan, almost uniquely relevant, since this amounts to the relevant sort of good will for being any agent of the state (or similarly “public” institution). But I’m guessing that something this narrow does not map onto the more-empirically-minded literature very well. And I’m not sure that this narrow conception of relevant character-based reasons is not too narrow.

    (2) I suspect that values-based reasons for voting are super-important (and can be good reasons) but it is difficult to see how they fit in for you (or for Brennan or, more generally, in a correct account of the relevant good or appropriate reasons for voting for some candidate and the relative weighting of such reasons). Such reasons do not seem to reduce to character-based or policy-based reasons in all cases (or in the most interesting ones). Here’s an initial stab at characterizing at least one type of (irreducibly) values-based reason: candidate A does a good job of promoting favored (relevant) value-set X in public discourse, so I’m going to vote for her. (What is at stake here, ultimately and in some functional sense, is which set of competing values will “win” or “predominate” in a public arena that is disputed in this way. Which is not to say that mere expression or advocacy of the values, even if ineffective, does not come to an intrinsic values-based reason as well.) One might vote on the basis of this sort of reason even if one took A to be hypocritical in her advocacy of A, provided that one thinks she would nevertheless consistently advocate for it (maybe her political self-interest demands this in the context). Of course, most often, in such cases, such a candidate will be good at choosing the sorts of policies that one prefers given her values-advocacy – so that there is also typically an indefinite sort of policy-based reason involved. And, since often there is not too much hypocrisy in the advocacy (and as well an adequate background of commitment to the public interest), often there are (relevant) character-based reasons in play as well. But, however messy the reality here usually is, the reasons – the relevant states of affairs to be realized or promoted or advocated for “for their own sake” – seem distinct.

    (I suppose I’m hungry for the beginnings of a good positive account that is explanatory at the fundamental level. Not satisfied with the rough-but-clear-enough CBV/PBV distinction and not satisfied with just clearing enough intuitive or logical space so that one can drive a truck through Brennan’s qualifications regarding CBV. I’m so demanding…)

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    • You are demanding. It seems to be a character trait of yours.

      Well, I guess I’m succeeding if I’m stimulating your appetite for “a good positive account that is explanatory at the fundamental level.” As I say in one of the versions of the paper I recently gave:

      In this paper, I argue both that Brennan’s argument for that claim fails, and that the issue is more complicated and more interesting than might be surmised by the short shrift he gives it.

      That said, I’m not in a position to provide the kind of positive account you’re looking for. I’m just trying to motivate the need to provide one.

      As for which traits matter and why, off the top of my head, here are a few categories of traits that seem relevant:

      1. Traits that either qualify or disqualify for office, whether as proxies for policy or not. My example above was honesty. Extreme dishonesty is disqualifying; extreme honesty is rare enough to count as a positive qualification.

      2. Traits needed to regulate the external goods or perks that come with officeholding (power, money, influence, the availability of compliant, often sexually attractive employees or interns). Integrity and honesty are relevant here.

      3. Traits that are instrumental to getting good policies effected, or instrumental to striking the right balance of principle and compromise in policy-making. Competence is the most obvious. Also a commitment to justice: a just person knows when to compromise, and when not to. Perseverance: two people can mouth a commitment to the same policies, but only one may have the determination to see it through to the end. Productiveness (in the sense that contrasts with laziness).

      4. Traits that bear on the ethics of discourse, e.g., openness or receptiveness in the Millian sense. Democratic politics is fundamentally about discourse. A good politician has to know how to talk to and listen to his constituents in a respectful way that sincerely suggests that he might learn something from conversations with them. He can’t take the arrogant or dogmatic attitude that he already knows what needs to be known about politics because he reads Congressional Quarterly, the Journal of Econometrics, and Politico, (etc.) and/or that his constituents are too dumb or ignorant to be useful sources of information.

      One of the things that genuinely impressed me about Mikie Sherrill (having met her) was that she really had that kind of openness. Having moved to a new district, I would say that the Democratic candidate for Congress there lacks it, which is one reason I don’t intend to vote for him.

      To elaborate on my point (1) above: though honesty is a moral trait, CBV isn’t limited to moral traits. If you have good evidence that a candidate expresses or suffers from a personality disorder or debilitating mental illness, that’s disqualifying. I’m inclined to think that a citizen can have sufficient evidence of a candidate’s having or suffering from a personality disorder to attribute the disorder to him in a politically appropriate as opposed to clinically appropriate way.

      If you look at the criteria for DSM-5 personality disorders, it seems eminently possible to attribute a disorder to a public figure on all criteria except whether the person in question suffers “clinically significant distress” from the disorder. For political purposes, I would say that a person who has all features of a disorder but “clinically significant distress” can defeasibly be said to have the disorder whether or not you know whether he suffers “clinically significant distress” from it. Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, and Adolph Hitler all strike me as fundamentally disordered people whose prima facie obvious psychological disorders disqualified them from office.

      A couple of little points. You say:

      At one point, you indicate that more honest candidates are better because they will be better at assessing policy

      My point wasn’t that honest candidates are better at assessing policy, but that they’re better at conveying policy to their constituents, who in turn have to assess the policies that the candidate proposes. I can’t assess the policies you propose unless I believe that you’re telling me the truth about your proposals. But I can’t believe you unless I regard you as basically honest. There’s no way to assess the policy proposals of a pathological liar. That’s why an honest candidate is preferable to what I called a “fucking liar,” treating that as a technical term.

      On this:

      I’m not sure this is right [that honesty is necessary], but even if it were, this looks to be something like a case of what Brennan would call using character as a proxy for likely policy outcomes.

      I would regard that as a concession on his part. What I’m contesting in his account is not that character is a proxy for likely policy outcomes, but that CBV is largely wrongful voting. What he says is that he would accept CBV if it were a proxy for policy; he then turns around and says that it is largely wrongful voting, which implies that on the whole, he doesn’t think it is a proxy for policy. I’m not disagreeing with the conditional claim about character as proxy for policy; I’m contesting his entitlement to deny the antecedent.

      I actually have another blog post coming out on civic mindedness, probably next week, so I won’t say much about it here. The point I make is that if, according to Brennan, “we” have a right to a competent electorate that votes on the basis of a commitment to the common good, competent electors ought to have a justifiable expectation that candidates have the same commitment. But “commitment to the common good” is a trait. So if it’s justifiable for voters to expect a commitment to the common good in candidates, CBV is justifiable. And it’s got to be justifiable. It can’t make sense to insist that voters have a commitment to the common good, while claiming that candidates need not have one.

      On your point (2), I have to think about it more, but what I’d say for now is that I don’t regard CBV and PBV as exhaustive considerations. There are probably other ways of characterizing the considerations that go into casting a justifiable vote besides them.

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  6. Pingback: Character-Based Voting and Leadership Effects (1 of 3) | Policy of Truth

  7. Useful background on this post:

    Incidentally–or maybe not just incidentally–Bob Grant was the spokesman for the City of Paterson, and my principal contact there when I did my research into the 9/11 celebration rumors back in the early 2000s. I think he and I had much the same horrified reaction to the rumors, as did some of the reporters working on the story, among them John Chadwick and Hilary Burke. I wonder whether that experience permanently sensitized us to the dangers of defamation and rumor-circulation in politics.


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