Readers of this blog know of my obsession with the topic of character-based voting. Suppose that we accept some workable distinction between matters of character and matters of policy with respect to politicians and political candidates, each a potential consideration for or against their continued stay in office or their candidacy.* What role should judgments of character play? Is it ever justifiable to vote for or against a candidate (or support or remove a sitting candidate) on grounds of character abstracted from considerations of policy? Clearest version of the question: can a person’s moral character ever be bad enough to disqualify him or her from office independently of anything we know about their views on policy, or even in defiance of the knowledge that they have the “right” views on policy?
A long-standing consensus in political science (and to some degree political philosophy) has asserted that “policy>character.”** The quasi-mathematical formulation seems to imply that while considerations of policy and character both have some weight, those of policy always exceed those of character in political deliberation. I can’t say that I’ve done an exhaustive study of the matter, but I’ve done my share of reading in both political science and political philosophy. I so far have not seen a credible argument for this claim. Political scientists seem to assume it a priori, and leave matters there. Political philosophers argue against character-based voting by over-simplifying the issues, and arguing against strawman versions of character-based voting. If anyone can find or make a sound, cogent argument for “policy>character,” I’d be much obliged.
It’s worth noting that almost no one in the world of ordinary work hires by adopting any equivalent of a “output>character” formulation. Matters of character (however ill-conceived the moral framework, however epistemically impoverished the information used) almost always play a significant, sometimes the determinative role. Hiring a person is different from–a little more complex than–buying a robot. No simple arithmetic formula is going to capture the normative considerations involved, unless the person doing the hiring is himself a robot, and/or is programmed by someone whose mental processes operate in robotic fashion. It’s not clear why political elections should be so different in this respect from ordinary hires.
WELLSVILLE — Kansas Rep. Mark Samsel was arrested on a charge of misdemeanor battery in connection with an incident that reportedly took place Wednesday, April 28, while he was working as a substitute teacher for Wellsville USD 289.
Samsel, 36, of Wellsville allegedly was involved in an incident with a student that school administration reported to authorities. An investigation was conducted by the Wellsville Police Department and the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, which led to Samsel’s arrest on a charge of misdemeanor battery, according to a news release from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.
Samsel was booked into the Franklin County Adult Detention Center at 3:42 p.m. Thursday, April 29, and was later released on bond.
I grant that some of the commentary on Samsel’s alleged behavior is as stupid as the behavior itself. My aim here is not to discuss the Samsel case per se (I regard him as innocent until conclusive proof of guilt emerges), but to use it as a realistic thought-experiment. Imagine that a hypothetical Samsel ends up being guilty of all the accusations and criminal charges made against him. Now imagine that this hypothetical Samsel is up for re-election, running against candidate Ramsel.
- Samsel runs against policy-equivalent candidate, Ramsel-1. Voters vote for Ramsel-1, using considerations of character as a tie-breaker.
- Samsel runs against a candidate, Ramsel-2, who has little or no track record on policy. Samsel’s own track record is mediocre or unremarkable, neither particularly bad nor particularly good. Further, there is no indication that Ramsel-2’s policy views are themselves particularly bad (or particularly good). What’s clear is that Ramsel-2’s character is superior to Samsel’s. Voters vote for Ramsel-2, using considerations of character as the relevant fact that resolves the epistemic indeterminacy they face.***
- Samsel runs against a candidate, Ramsel-3, whose views on policy are slightly worse than Samsel’s have so far been. But voters take Samsel’s behavior to be a proxy for future untrustworthiness and instability that calls Samsel’s past successes into question. Ramsel-3’s views are not so much worse than the prospect of Samsel’s untrustworthiness and instability to put Ramsel-3 out of the running. On the contrary, the reverse is true: Samsel’s untrustworthiness and instability is so egregious that it disqualifies him as a viable candidate, even against a policy sub-optimal candidate.
- Samsel runs against Ramsel-3, except that voters’ reason for voting for Ramsel-3 is a matter of moral desert. Ramsel-3 may be policy sub-optimal relative to Samsel (at least so far), but Samsel deserves punishment of some sort (or deserves the imposition of reparations that make it impossible for him simultaneously to pay the reparations and reap the rewards of office), whereas Ramsel-3 by hypothesis does not. So voters decide to punish Samsel by voting against him, treating Ramsel-3’s expected policy sub-optimality partly as a sunk cost, and partly as a problem to be remedied (on the supposition that Ramsel-3’s policy views are not so fixed that they can’t be influenced in a more positive direction).
- We can imagine a scenario that’s a complex hybrid of (3) and (4) above.
Defenders of a categorical “policy>character” view are committed to thinking that the voters in the preceding scenarios are doing something irrational. What is it supposed to be? Without an answer to that question, the view suffers from a major lacuna that calls into question the reasonability of the motivation for it. Suffice it to say that I haven’t seen an answer. Always looking, though.
*I’m not suggesting we should. I’m just supposing for present purposes that we do.
**The consensus is slowly unraveling, at least in the sub-specialty of electoral studies. As well it should. But that’s a topic for another post.
***Scenarios (1) and (2) are slight variations on one another. Both involve tie-breaking, but of subtly different kinds. In (1), voters have the relevant information of policy equivalence between Samsel and Ramsel. In (2), they lack it. Hence in (1), there is policy equivalence; in (2), there might be. In (1), character breaks a known tie. In (2), character serves as an insurance policy in the context of a gamble on policy.