After blogging somewhat obsessively about it for awhile, I’ve put the issue of character-based voting on the backburner to chase other things, but this column the other day by Roger Cohen caught my eye. It describes Donald Trump’s conduct at his July 17 meeting with Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad at the White House. Murad won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to end mass rape as a wartime tactic.
Cohen gives some background:
The Islamic State, or ISIS, forced Murad into sexual slavery when it overran Yazidi villages in northern Iraq in 2014. Murad lost her mother and six brothers, slaughtered by ISIS.
She now lives in Germany, and has been unable to return home, a point she made in her July 17 White House meeting with Trump. “We cannot go back if we cannot protect our dignity, our family,” she said.
As we all know, ISIS is supposed to be the mortal enemy of Western Civilization. Those who resist it, as Murad did, should therefore be considered the heroes of Western Civilization. It doesn’t look like she got a hero’s welcome at Trump’s White House, though; it looks more like she got treated like a contemptible piece of shit. Even if you were cynical enough to regard the whole thing as a mere photo op, you’d think someone committed to faking his sincerity would do a better job than Donald Trump did with Nadia Murad. But Donald Trump isn’t committed either to real or even fake sincerity. To paraphrase AC/DC, if good’s on the left, he’s sticking to the right.
Social psychologists can talk all they want about “fundamental attribution error,” but I think it’s clear that behavior of this kind, especially when repeated publicly over years, gives us a fairly accurate idea of the moral character of the person in question. When confronted with instances of what he regards as “cowardice,” like Scot Peterson, Trump manages to take a dump on the objects of his derision. When confronted with instances of clear-cut valor, like Murad, he manages to turns them into objects of derision as well, if only to have someone to take a dump on. Derision and contempt seem to be the only fixed points of his public persona, with derision and contempt for truth somewhere near the top of his list of priorities. But there’s no point in a drawn-out condemnation. In short, what we’re dealing with is a complete piece of moral trash, bereft of anything that exemplifies moral virtue on any credible account of it. But you already knew that.
In The Ethics of Voting, Jason Brennan argues that “character-based voting is acceptable only insofar as it is a proxy to the quality of the governance a candidate is likely to produce” (p. 84). Cases like Trump’s meeting with Murad highlight the ambiguities of that claim. The Murad meeting is an instance of very bad character on Trump’s part–something that can safely be seen as typical of the man, and predictive of similarly bad behavior by him in relevantly similar circumstances. But what relation does such behavior bear to “policy” or “governance”?
Trump’s supporters like to ignore or downplay his worst behavior on the grounds that the behavior in question bears no significant relation to policy. “Yes, he’s an asshole, but look at the economy! Watch him stick it to the Chinese and the illegals!” By “policy,” what they really seem to mean is “(supposedly) desirable phenomena, abstracted from any account that tracks the causality from agent(s) to outcome.” This approach gives the impression of avoiding one kind of hand-waving by endorsing another. It avoids the hand-waving about the connection between character and policy by endorsing handwaving about the connection between what Trump does and what happens in the real world. The reasoning involved is less “policy oriented” than you might think.
Trump’s critics, by contrast, like to emphasize his bad behavior without clarifying what relation it bears to policy or even to politics as such. “What an unprecedented asshole! Can we afford another four years of this?” Put this way, it becomes unclear whether we’re to condemn Trump’s behavior because it has bad effects on policy, because it’s unworthy of the presidency, or simply because it’s bad behavior, full stop. Given this, it’s unclear what price we’re paying by enduring it right now. If Trump’s behavior bears zero relation to politics, he’s just another troubled celebrity, like Linsday Lohan or Ted Nugent. The way to deal with him would be to ignore him. But his critics act as though we can’t afford to ignore him, conflating “can’t afford to ignore his behavior as such” with “can’t afford to ignore his behavior insofar as it’s relevant to politics.” So there’s some handwaving here, too, driven I suspect by understandable disgust at the man himself.
Brennan is right to want to press the point: we need to get clear on the exact role that moral character plays (if any) in the justifiable judgments we make about politics. But Brennan’s principle, at least as stated above (and discussed in what I’ve read of him so far), is too indeterminate to do any real work to that end. You might as well say, “character-based voting is acceptable only insofar as it is a proxy to the _______ of the ______ that a candidate is likely to produce,” in a context where the empirical literature says all kinds of things about the _________ of the __________ that a candidate is likely to produce, but not in a way that’s apt to resolve a disagreement between people with different ________s in mind. So there’s handwaving here, too.
In the next
three four posts, I’m going to consider three grades of character-based involvement in policy. Why three? Well, ever since Quine, it’s been customary to consider exactly three grades of X’s involvement in Y, and I’m not about to break with that custom. That said, there are obviously far more than three grades of involvement between character and policy, including grades relevant to an ethics of voting. The grades of involvement I discuss in the next few posts are the ones that arise specifically by reflection on the Trump-Murad meeting. Reflection on other sorts of case would likely give rise to different insights.
A secondary point I want to make is methodological: too much of political philosophy today has come to privilege social science and thought-experimentation over all other modes of inquiry; without denigrating either of those things, I think there’s a lot to be learned by unapologetic reflection on actual but relatively ordinary cases (journalistic, anecdotal, historical, and fictional), and milking them for whatever they’re worth. That at any rate is what I try to do here (or rather, in the next few posts). Feel free to judge the success of that strategy, and tell me what you think.