Character-Based Voting and the Ambiguities of “Policy” (Part 1 of 5)

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.

8 thoughts on “Character-Based Voting and the Ambiguities of “Policy” (Part 1 of 5)

  1. If you’re going to argue against me, at least argue against me.

    My position is simple: Political offices are not rewards for character. What matters is what the person does in office. If we knew ahead of time that electing Satan to the presidency would lead to the most just outcomes, we should do that If we knew that electing Mother Teresa to the presidency would lead to disaster–because despite her good character, she’s a shitty leader–we should avoid that. Character matters as a way of estimating how well a person will lead. But in the end, many morally repugnant people turn out to produce good policies and many highly virtuous people neverless advocate and implement bad policies. Policy > character.


    • Thanks for the reprimand-in-advance. Take a compliment, Jason: you’re a good enough philosopher not to have to resort to telepathy. To belabor the obvious: you’re arguing against the first of a series of four posts, three of which haven’t been posted. Intuitively, one can’t comment on posts that don’t yet exist, and one can’t pronounce so definitively on a series only a quarter of which exists. Of course, I’m talking to someone who habitually changes posts after they’ve been commented on, so I can see why my blog-intuitions may not have traction. I hate to sound like the Duke in The Merchant of Venice, but on that issue at least, thou shalt see the difference of our spirit.

      I know you’ll find this incredible, but I’ve actually read your “position.” It’s kind of my point that you’re oversimplifying the issue. Of course, part of the issue is what “the issue” is. “Character matters as a way of estimating how well a person will lead.” Lead at what? Your Mother Teresa example is unhelpful if one doesn’t share your estimation of her character, as I don’t. Obviously, part of the complexity of the issue turns on how we conceive “character,” and what set of traits are involved. While I’m caviling, may I humbly mention that your position above consists largely of assertions? Which is more or less what you do in The Ethics of Voting? Which is not a demonstrative or persuasive argument?

      If there’s a claim in this post or any of the next three that you regard as questionable, or that misrepresents you, feel free to identify it. If you can do better than repeating in other words what you’ve already said in print, be my guest. So far, you’ve just missed my point and pre-empted arguments I haven’t made. Generally, though, I’d counsel patience and a bit of equanimity. Sorry if that sounds a little character based. It just seems awfully apt.


  2. Jezz. I wish Trump had shown some empathy — or even just something other than impatience and boredom. Or maybe fake it a bit (empathy is not one of DT’s strengths to say the least)! He didn’t want to be doing this, did not want to listen to her, did not much listen to her, and it all very much showed. Pretty horrible, though I’m not nearly as grossed out as you or Cohen. Maybe he did a better job with some of the other folks there? It would not have taken much. However, I did not read him as having any particular derision toward Murad, just utter insensitivity/boredom (DT’s typical derisive mode is, uh, rather hard to miss).

    These sorts of incidents are relevant to my voting behavior insofar as I take it that part of the job of being POTUS is being a moral leader on public matters (and you can’t do that very well if you are morally deficient in general, important and obvious ways). That is not super-important to what I consider to be doing a good job as POTUS, but it is hardly nothing (and maybe you’ll move my dial a bit on this, with these posts). That fits with the Brennan principle that you quote (at least because moral leadership is part of being a good leader). But it does not come to mind in considering such questions as ‘what policies is DT implementing and how effectively?’ so you do need an adequately broad reading of Brennan’s principle to see that it is (or could be) relevant.

    You guys are both sorta grouchy! Not that this would prevent me from voting for either of you…


    • I think “inviting a Nobel Laureate who has survived mass rape and murder to the White House to honor her, then publicly showing her boorish insensitivity to the point of asking where her dead family members are” is close enough to derision to make my point. If “derision” doesn’t quite apply because it requires overt mockery (which didn’t happen here), “insensitivity” is too weak. So maybe we lack the right word for the behavior in question–the one exemplified when you invite a Nobel Laureate from Europe, then forget who they are and what they’re doing here. But yeah, Roger and I are more grossed out than you are.

      I’m going to punt on everything in your second paragraph, because that’s what the other three posts are about. Obvious point: I so far haven’t said anything about what the Murad meeting entails about character-based voting or voting for Trump in 2020. (And who knows if I will?) The question I’m raising is what such meetings tell us about the concept of “governance.” My point is that we need a fix on that concept in order to give content to Brennan’s principle.

      As for this…

      You guys are both sorta grouchy! Not that this would prevent me from voting for either of you…

      …I’m troubled by the spurious moral equivalence there, but touched that you might vote for me. Or at least don’t regard my character as a positive obstacle to casting a vote for me. What are friends for?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Character-Based Voting and the Ambiguities of “Policy” (Part 2 of 4) | Policy of Truth

  4. Pingback: Character-Based Voting and the Ambiguities of “Policy” (Part 3 of 5) | Policy of Truth

  5. Pingback: Character-Based Voting and the Ambiguities of “Policy” (Part 4 of 5) | Policy of Truth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s