The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (4)

Readers of Policy of Truth know that I’ve been doing a series of posts on what I call “The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson.” Scot Peterson was the School Resource Office, or armed law enforcement officer, assigned to guard Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, scene of what’s now known as the Parkland shooting of February 2018. Peterson is often described in press accounts as having “hid” or “done nothing” for the duration of the shooting, and has widely been ridiculed as a “coward” as a result. He was arrested in early June of this year, briefly held in jail, and charged with several counts of child neglect, culpable negligence, and perjury. Here’s a link to the arrest warrant detailing the charges against him (41 page PDF). Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Moral Grandstanding and Character-Based Voting

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. Continue reading

Chris Sciabarra on Objectivism and Disability

Here’s a must-read interview with Chris Sciabarra at Folks magazine, on Sciabarra’s  lifelong struggle with Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome, along with his lifelong attachment to the work of Ayn Rand (and Nathaniel Branden).

One doesn’t usually think of Rand or Objectivism as offering much insight into the nature of disability, but Chris clearly does:

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Heading Out to the Highway (with David Brooks)

The ethics of driving is a topic dear to my heart, having lost my two closest childhood friends (and the wife of one of those friends, who was also a friend) to traffic accidents, and living as I do in north Jersey, where every day’s commute is a near-death experience. I hate cars, I hate driving, and above all, I hate driving in New Jersey, so I’m always open to anyone who’s willing to trash the way “we” drive, ascribe it to “our” moral failings, and demand that “we” do better. (I hijacked a presentation on the Aristotelian virtue of eubolia at the Felician Ethics Conference this past fall to insist that in the modern world, eubolia is a virtue best exemplified by virtuous drivers.)

This anti-driving (or anti-bad-driving, or anti-ubiquitously-bad-driving) attitude competes with another downer sentiment of mine: I can’t stand David Brooks. Just to be clear: I can’t fucking stand David Brooks.

So I opened up this morning’s New York Times, turned to the Op-Ed page, and faced a bit of a dilemma. Here was David Brooks trashing the way “we” drive, describing Jersey drivers as people who “treat driving as if it were foreplay to genocide,” acknowledging that “driving means making a thousand small decisions” (internalized eubolia, anyone?), and getting a few things right. But like so many so-called dilemmas, this one wasn’t an instance of that fabled entity, the irresolvable ontologically-based moral dilemma, and collapsed before long. Because as per usual, Brooks managed to snatch polemical failure from the jaws of success, re-confirming my hate for everything he writes.   Continue reading

Hursthouse on the Repentant Racist: Error, Evil, and Moral Luck

Some of you may have seen this material before, but I don’t think I’ve ever posted it at PoT, so I’m exhuming it in the interest of getting some comments on it, as I’d like to work on the paper a bit this summer, and am hoping to trundle it about at conferences this fall. (Apologies if I’m breaking blind with that claim, but this is the age of the Internet.) I’m particularly interested in getting comments and/or bibliographical suggestions on some of the empirical issues implicitly raised by the paper.

David Potts recently cited Martin Seligman’s claims in Authentic Happiness to the effect that childhood experiences count for little as regards adult experience. I haven’t fully digested Seligman’s claims (and references), but I don’t think that he had childhood upbringing in mind when he wrote Authentic Happiness. At any rate, I’m interested in empirical answers to questions like the following:

  1. What are the longitudinal effects of a racist upbringing? How powerful are they? How amenable to control or reversal? And in what form? Naturally, the longitudinal effects of racist upbringing are a function of the effects of upbringing, so I’m interested in the more general phenomenon, as well.
  2. What is the role of trauma in the production of racial identity in racists? Does trauma explain the production of racial identity? If so, what is the mechanism?
  3. What does racism (or “racism”) look like in small children? I’ve put “racism” in scare quotes because arguably children with racist upbringings may lack the cognitive sophistication to do anything but act as though they believed in the truth of racism. But behavioral racism without cognitive understanding does not strike me as genuine racism. A child who imitates racists is not herself a racist (at least not necessarily).

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From West Philly to Gulshan-e-Iqbal and Back

I was in Philadelphia this weekend, visiting with my friends Sinan and Amy. Sinan was my ‘handler’ at Al Quds University this past summer and the time before; he handles the logistics there that I can’t. Amy is a nice Midwestern gal from Texas (go figure). They met a few years ago in Bethlehem, Sinan’s home town, recently emigrated to Philadelphia, got an apartment, got married, and settled in. They cooked me (well, really Sinan cooked us) a sumptuous dinner of maqluba followed by Palestinian coffee and pastries. We had dessert on a couch in front of a window that looks west and frames West Philadelphia. The window lets out onto a big ledge with just enough room for the two of them to sip wine and watch the sunset.

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Adultery, strip clubs, flirting, and virtue

I’m talking about sexuality in my CORE 350 ethics class at Felician. It’s a minefield. The subject is hard to talk about anywhere, but especially in a classroom–and especially in a classroom at a Catholic college. There’s the simultaneous danger of being so candid that you offend someone, or so anodyne that you sound out-of-touch and irrelevant. Never mind that the professor is himself a walking stereotype of some sort–a divorced middle-aged academic who manages to make everything he says on the subject either sound dreadfully abstract or else really dirty. But of course, that’s what makes the topic so much fun.

Our first text has been the Commentary on the Sixth Commandment (against adultery) from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I’ve tried to impress upon my students the fact that I’m neither hoping to inculcate Catholic moral doctrine in them, nor discussing the Catechism simply to tear it down, but just using it a source of authoritative moral teachings on the subject so as to figure out what to make of what it says. Teaching it is a good exercise for me because I find so much of what it says so ridiculously implausible: I have to work a bit to make it plausible to them. But I’ve been surprised to find some scattered agreement as well. Of course, the same thing might be said about my students’ beliefs about sexuality, as the following conversation illustrates.

Today’s in-class discussion focused on lots of things–marriage, procreation, homosexuality, etc.–but ended with a free-wheeling discussion of adultery. Here’s what the Catechism says about it:


2380 Adultery refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations – even transient ones – they commit adultery. Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire.170 The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely.171 The prophets denounce the gravity of adultery; they see it as an image of the sin of idolatry.172

2381 Adultery is an injustice. He who commits adultery fails in his commitment. He does injury to the sign of the covenant which the marriage bond is, transgresses the rights of the other spouse, and undermines the institution of marriage by breaking the contract on which it is based. He compromises the good of human generation and the welfare of children who need their parents’ stable union.

I was in a casuistic mood, so I decided to ask my students what counts as a case of adultery. I found their answers bizarre, but then, I find most people’s views on sexuality bizarre (except my own). The question was intended to elicit their views, not to to tease out the official view of the Church. Incidentally, some demographics: The class has 30 students in it, and consists predominantly of women aged 18-21, a few men of the same age, a few women in their 30s and 40s, and a few nuns in their 30s, I would guess. Since we’d discussed homosexuality earlier, and the Church’s definition of adultery presupposes heterosexual marriage, the conversation was about heterosexual marriage.

Here are their answers:

1. Is sexual intercourse with someone outside of the marriage an instance of adultery? –Yes.

2. Is oral sex….? –Yes.

3. Is phone sex….? –Yes.

4. Kissing on the lips…? –Yes.

5. Flirting without physical contact…?–Yes.

6. Ogling a member of the opposite sex…? –Yes (though there was dissension on this one).

7. Going to a strip club…?–No (?!)

I don’t know about you, but these answers make no sense to me. Or perhaps I mean that I can make sense of them–in the sense of figuring out the underlying rationale–but that they strike me as incoherent.

The most glaring incoherence seems to me the one between (7) on the one hand, and (5) and (6) on the other. Let me ignore the apparent incoherence between (6) and (7), since it’s not entirely clear to me that the people asserting (7) were also asserting (6). But the people (young women) most vehemently asserting (5) were also vehement about asserting (7), and that really does strike me as incoherent, or least as wildly mistaken. The claim here seems to be that if you flirt with someone, you are cheating on your marriage because it involves “thoughts or feelings” of an adulterous nature, thereby (I suppose) falling under Christ’s condemnation of the “adultery of mere desire.”

That seems to me an implausible conception both of marriage and of adultery, but let it go for now. I can see the rationale for it, assuming that one adopts implausible conceptions of both marriage and adultery–very rigoristic ones. What is hard to see is why the very person who adopted such a conception of flirting would then turn around to insist that strip clubs didn’t involve adultery.

But that is explicitly what they said. They believed that men go to strip clubs to “admire female beauty,” and that doing so is sexually innocuous, whereas flirting involves something like emotional attachment and lust, which is clearly adulterous. In other words, the average patron of a strip club patronizes, say, The Harem or Satin Dolls in the detached way that a hifallutin aesthete might go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to “admire the beauty” to be found in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner–or, maybe more precisely, in the portraits of John Singer Sargent. Put yet another way, the average patron of the average Jersey strip club is going there for an experience no different from the guy who goes to the Frick Collection to gorge his lustful eyes on Lady Agnew of Lochnaw:

Somehow, I doubt it. I have a sneaking suspicion that my female students have been fooled by their boyfriends into thinking that the strip club experience is more of an exercise in aesthetic formalism than it really is. Who knew that there were so many budding Nick Zangwills in the strip clubs of north Jersey? Let’s hope that the ASA is on the case.

Anyway, the dispute in question turns on a straightforwardly factual matter. If flirting is adultery because it involves the wrong thoughts and desires, then if going to a strip club either involves the same thoughts and desires (or more intense versions of the same ones), on this conception going to a strip club is (even) more obviously a case of adultery than flirting. I leave the rest as an exercise for the social psychologists or strip club enthusiasts out there.

Personally, I take the answers to questions (1)-(3) to be fairly obvious, though I’ve met people who would contest (3), and I suppose Bill Clinton in his own way famously contested (2), as did many of his defenders. It’s an interesting question what exactly ties (1)-(3) together, though I suppose the general answer is obvious: sexual activity (involving contact) by one married person with someone outside of the marriage.*

I don’t think (4) is obvious. I agree that kissing someone who isn’t your spouse is wrong, but personally, I don’t think it’s a case of adultery. (A small minority of my students agreed, but most disagreed.) Part of the issue here turns on turpitude, and part on–for lack of a better term–phenotypic dissimilarity. I think “adultery” should be reserved for serious offenses, and though I think kissing is an offense, it isn’t nearly as serious as having sex with someone. So it ought to be separated somehow. Further, though kissing is obviously sexual I think there’s an obvious phenotypic difference between an act that can in principle lead to orgasm and one that can’t. So I think the concept of “adultery” ought to reflect that. One student pointed out (correctly, I think) that there are cultures or contexts in which kissing on the lips is not thought to be a sexual act at all. There’s another reason for thinking that kissing and adultery are distinct.

I don’t think that (5) is either wrong or a case of adultery. This claim of mine set off a minor firestorm in class. But there’s a bit of an ambiguity here: you may not have realized this before (and neither, I think, did W.B Gallie), but “flirting” is an essentially contested concept. In other words, there’s flirting and then there’s flirting. Here is a standard definition of the term:


gerund or present participle: flirting
  1. 1.
    behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.

The last clause is the key to the definition. X flirts with Y if and only if X has no serious intention of being romantically involved with Y and (I would add) knows that the same is true of Y.

It’s a serious and interesting question whether people are psychologically capable of pulling off flirtation in this sense, and can have knowledge in the requisite sense under the relevant conditions. Maybe so, maybe not. It’s also a serious and interesting question whether, regardless of that, the activity of flirting has any justifiable rationale. Maybe so, maybe not. But if we assume that people can flirt in the defined sense, I think it’s obvious that flirting is not a case of adultery. I happen to think that flirtation has a justifiable rationale: it has essentially the same rationale that joking around has in non-sexual contexts. Flirting is a safe, and I would add, necessary way of acknowledging the presence of sexual tension in relationships that are (or ought) otherwise to be non-sexual, and a safe means of catharsis of the relevant tension. Done properly, flirtation is harmless. It’s just hard to do properly, and harder still in a milieu where no one understands what it’s about, and where it’s equated with adultery. Ultimately, it’s probably safer not to flirt, but better to learn how to do it right.

I won’t belabor the point, but “ogling,” like “flirting” is an essentially contested concept. But it would take a whole new post to get that issue right.

It’s unfortunate that we didn’t discuss so-called “emotional affairs” in class, but alas, we didn’t. The moral status of emotional affairs is increasingly one that we Americans have farmed out to mental health care practitioners, so that the most authoritative answers to questions about them come from sources like WebMD. This makes me wonder whether philosophers should be in the business of competing with rival websites of our own–WebPhD, WebPhil, something like that. But no matter what we say, we’ll never be able to compete with the MDs on reimbursement.

The underlying philosophical issue here is one common to Christianity and Aristotelian virtue ethics, but that involves more psychological complexity than one finds either in the Gospels or the Nicomachean Ethics. Every significant sphere of life, including sexuality, has to be governed in some way by the virtues. But the virtues can’t be understood in a superficially behavioristic or legalistic fashion as demanding conformity with a series of pat prescriptions. They involve acting for the right object, in the right way, at the right time, from the right cognitive, affective, and behavioral dispositions, etc. It’s an enormously difficult job to explicate the latter idea in an informative, non-banal way that’s fully responsive to moral complexity.

Contrary to the Catholic Church, I don’t happen to think that “chastity” is a virtue, and don’t think that “lust” is an offense against it. But some virtues–honesty, integrity, justice, pride–do govern sexuality, and when they do, they require the agent to adopt some beliefs and not others, and by implication, to have some attitudes and not others, and some forms of affect and not others, etc. So one danger is to think that sexual ethics is a matter of mere conformity with a list of behavioral-legal prohibitions. But there’s another danger lurking here: of thinking that full Aristotelian virtue requires suppression of anything that seems like it’s incompatible with observing obvious behavioral-legal prohibitions. In other words, if full virtue proscribes adultery (as I’m sure it does), there’s a tendency to think that full virtue requires the agent to suppress any thought or desire that is, in a vague sense, adultery-positive or adultery-proximate.

In other words, if adultery is wrong, there’s a tendency to think that if a stray thought of adultery floats through my head, that thought is wrong and must be suppressed in the name of virtue. I think that’s a mistake that derives from a mistaken understanding of the way the mind works, and a mistaken account of the nature of virtue. From suppression of that sort it’s a short hop, skip, and leap to repression in the psychoanalytic sense. But repression is a defense mechanism–an offense against honesty, and a subversion of self-knowledge. At a minimum, virtue ethicists have to be more alive then they seem to be to the possibility that virtues can be a means of repression.

Anyway, there’s a lot more to say on this, but I can’t say it all now. I’ve said a bit on the website for my class. I hope to say more in the near future. Our next reading is Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, “Sexual Perversion.” Should be interesting.

Postscript: I edited this post for clarity after the initial submission.

*I rewrote this whole clause for clarity after the original post.

A pre-Thanksgiving expression of gratitude

I’ve always had slightly mixed feelings about Thanksgiving—it’s not like Halloween is for me—but like most denizens of the First World, I certainly have my share of things to be thankful for. I suppose that sense of gratitude excludes the students who repeatedly fail to do the reading in the classes I teach (and text while I explain the reading they haven’t done); my loud and insensitive upstairs neighbors, who keep me up with with their late night and early morning stomping and yelling; the criminals who’ve recently been filling the police blotters with their exploits in my neighborhood; and the near-death experiences I have every day (often twice a day) while driving the Garden State Parkway. But there’s plenty to be grateful for despite all that. This post consists of an enumeration of some of those things–partly to express my gratitude in a public way, partly to induce readers to reflect on similar things in their experience, and partly just to share some of the discoveries involved. Call it a pre-Thanksgiving expression of gratitude.

One of the great joys of blogging is the opportunity it affords for discovering talented, dedicated people you’d never heard of before, and might never have heard of or interacted with but for the grace of WordPress. That goes for everyone who’s contributed to this blog since its inception this summer—co-bloggers, commenters, ‘likers’, and lurkers alike. Thanks to all of you. But I particularly wanted to take a moment to mention a small handful of bloggers and websites I’ve recently discovered through ‘likes’ on PoT, which have recently become big favorites of mine.

One is Brandon Christensen’s Notes on Liberty, which I’ve come to regard as the most interesting and intelligent libertarian blog on the Internet–and for whatever it’s worth (often, alas, very little), I’ve read them all. Between the NoL folks who come here (mostly Brandon) and the PoT heads who go there (mostly me), we seem to have developed a nice synergy between NoL and PoT, and I hope that continues.

When my brain is up to it, I sometimes visit Blogistikon, “a little storehouse of thoughts, puzzles, and problems about ancient philosophy.” It’s an acquired taste, I realize: one of their latest posts is on “relativity in the Peri Ideon,” and one before that was on Aristotle’s conception of opaque and transparent relatives. Frankly, some of it would be all Greek to anyone (when it wasn’t all Latin). But I enjoy it, when I understand it.

A more accessible favorite of mine is Jackie Hadel’s Tokidoki world travel photo blog, which I discovered by means of a surprise ‘like’ by Hadel on one of my posts. (We don’t know one another at all.) The sheer number of photos on her blog is pretty staggering, but the ones of Bethlehem, Hebron, JaffaJerusalem, and Tel Aviv brought back vivid memories for me. The ones of New York struck me as fresh and interesting, despite my having lived here (well, in New Jersey) for decades, and the ones of autumn in Japan not only induced me to want to go to Japan in the autumn, but managed to evoke some nostalgia for an autumnal trip that Kate Herrick and I recently took to southwestern Vermont, of all places. (You’ll have to look at Hadel’s photos to see why.) Hadel’s travel photos make an interesting study in comparisons and contrasts with those of my cousin Jawad Zakariya, who seems to have traveled just about as widely as she has—with eyes open and camera ready for some amazing shots, from Canada to Pakistan and points in between.

Browsing at Hadel’s site, I serendipitously discovered the poems of Kate Houck, which I now make sure to visit every few days, “for the love of words and what they inspire.” And I’m grateful to my Felician College colleague Richard McGarry for my belated but soul-gratifying discovery of the poetry of Mary Oliver. This particular discovery came not through the blog, but the old-fashioned way, after Rich pinned Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to the bulletin board of the faculty lounge, where I happened to see it.  (It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that it’s a direct violation of Felician College policy to pin anything, poems included, to a College bulletin board without the express approval and imprimatur of the office of “Felician College Events and Conference Services.” The operative premise seems to be that college faculty can’t be trusted to communicate with one another by means of flyers or other posted material, unless their communications meet the approval of an “Events and Conference Services” administrator–whether or not the administrator can herself be trusted to understand what the communications are about. “Wild Geese,” was not, I’m afraid, an approved communication, so that in reading it, soul-gratifying or not, I was breaking the law.)

The preceding stuff is pretty ethereal, I’ll admit—political theory, ancient philosophy, travel photography, and poetry. I’m thankful for all of it, but ultimately, Thanksgiving is really about gratitude for elementally material things, like food, drink, clothing, and shelter. To that end, I thought I’d draw attention to this item on world poverty, itself brought to my attention by Kate Herrick. Here’s the abstract from a quietly mind-blowing 2009 working paper by Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-I-Martin, “Parametric Estimations of the World Distribution of Income,” recently discussed at the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

We use a parametric method to estimate the income distribution for 191 countries between 1970 and 2006. We estimate the World Distribution of Income and estimate poverty rates, poverty counts and various measures of income inequality and welfare. Using the official $1/day line, we estimate that world poverty rates have fallen by 80% from 0.268 in 1970 to 0.054 in 2006. The corresponding total number of poor has fallen from 403 million in 1970 to 152 million in 2006. Our estimates of the global poverty count in 2006 are much smaller than found by other researchers. We also find similar reductions in poverty if we use other poverty lines. We find that various measures of global inequality have declined substantially and measures of global welfare increased by somewhere between 128% and 145%. We analyze poverty in various regions. Finally, we show that our results are robust to a battery of sensitivity tests involving functional forms, data sources for the largest countries, methods of interpolating and extrapolating missing data, and dealing with survey misreporting.

I don’t have the expertise to interpret their findings in any systematic or sophisticated way, and I realize that $1/day is a dismally low baseline. But an 80% reduction in world poverty rates over a 36 year period cries out for acknowledgement and gratitude, as well as for causal explanation and indefinite iteration.  It’s debatable whether the cause of the amelioration is capitalism, globalization, or whatever, but the point is, whatever the cause, it can’t be chance. And that by itself is something to be thankful for, even if we still have a long way to go before everyone has in the way of material resources what a small minority of us can be thankful for having.

One last item, simultaneously from the world of spirit and of matter. For fourteen years now, my dear friend Carol Welsh has been fighting a recurrent brain (and now spinal) tumor called an “ependymoma.” She tells her story at her website, “Adult Ependymoma: A Patient’s Story.” That story has so far included “three brain surgeries, one gamma knife radiosurgery, a placement of a shunt, a course of radiation and oral chemotherapy called Temodar,” along with spinal surgery and a diagnosis of breast cancer. In the fourteen years that Carol has fought this disease—or these diseases, however one counts them–I honestly have not been able to grasp how a human being could endure such undeserved punishment and not only survive, but do so with Carol’s grace and equanimity. She is, as far as I’m concerned, the single most awe-inspiring paradigm of the virtue of courage I have ever known.

Among the many lessons I’ve learned from her, one philosophically interesting one is worth mentioning. We inherit a bias, largely I think from Aristotle, of conceiving of the virtue of courage in fundamentally masculine and militaristic terms. Aristotle tells us in Nicomachean Ethics III.6 that since death on the battlefield is the paradigm of courage, it is “wrong to fear poverty or sickness”; the capacity to face such fears is a mere analogue of courage, not the real thing. Carol single-handedly convinced me–by example rather than argument–of the anachronism and error of Aristotle’s account. It seems to me that William James was right, by contrast, to suggest the need for conceiving of moral equivalents to war, and by implication moral equivalents to the virtues valorized by war.

The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered than the glory and shame that come to nations as well as to individuals from the ups and downs of politics and the vicissitudes of trade.

Having known Carol since college days, I’d say that Carol has for fourteen years exemplified the “better substitute” that James was wondering about. I’m thankful for the privilege of knowing someone with her courage.

Happy Thanksgiving Day, about a week and a half early.

Postscript, December 16, 2014: The Wall Street Journal story about world poverty made it to The New York Times the other day, describing it as “excellent news,” but burying it on the eighth page of the Sunday Business section. “[T]here is agreement,” the Times says, “that extreme poverty has been on the decline since the mid-1990s and that the decline has accelerated since 2000.” It then asks the obvious question: “What’s behind the shift?” But its answer is utterly uninformative:

Rising incomes in India and China are a major factor. Together, those two countries lifted 232 million people out of extreme poverty from 2008 to 2011 alone, according to one World Bank analysis.

OK, but why did incomes rise in India and China? Surely there’s a story there that deserves more comprehensive treatment than it’s gotten. On the face of it, it seems to me that libertarians have a better story to tell here than left-leaning liberals do. Liberals and leftists either need to tell a better story, or concede that libertarians have this part of the story right, and find a way of accommodating libertarian insights coherently within their conception of the economic world.

Jason Brennan on character-based voting: the cases of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump (with several updates)

Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India, recently on a speaking tour in the US and elsewhere, and promoting his nationalist agenda for India wherever he goes. He’s very much the talk of the town, which is a great irony, considering that less than a decade ago, he was in effect barred from entering town: he was denied a visa to enter the United States for his failure to stop the Gujarat riots/massacre of 2002, and boycotted in Europe for much the same reason. Back then, he was a relatively obscure figure, at least by international standards. Now, he’s the Prime Minister of a major world power. Evidently, the principle involved here is that if you play a presumptively culpable role in a massacre, you’re to be treated with contempt until you assume the trappings of power. Once you do, the passage of time and victory in a democratic election jointly wipe the slate clean, and you’re to be treated with respect and admiration, bygones being bygones–even if some of the bygones include a few thousand corpses for which you were plausibly thought to bear responsibility. Wait and win, and you’re out of the moral doghouse. It’s an interesting lesson–about India, about democratic politics, about historical memory, and about justice. Worth remembering for other contexts.

I bring the issue up not (merely) to moralize about Modi (whom I admittedly despise) but as a counter-example to the discussion of character-based voting in Jason Brennan’s much-praised and much-discussed book, The Ethics of Voting. I generally agree with the thesis of Brennan’s book, at least as I understand it, which is that epistemically incompetent voters ought not to vote.  But having edited a symposium on the book in Reason Papers last year, and having read some of the discussion of it there and elsewhere, I’ve been surprised at  how much of what is contestable about Brennan’s argument has gone entirely undiscussed and uncontested by his peers, peer-reviewed and otherwise. Brennan’s discussion of character-based voting is one such example (EV, pp. 84-85), and the case of Narendra Modi conveniently serves to focus the issues.

The discussion of character-based voting comes up in chapter 3 of the book, which is devoted to explication of the concept of “wrongful voting.” “Unexcused harmful voting occurs when a person votes, without epistemic justification, for harmful policies or for candidates likely to enact harmful policies” (EV, p. 68). Brennan’s point is that we ought to refrain from engaging in unexcused harmful voting. It follows that citizens should vote only if their beliefs about the prospective harm or welfare-conductivity of policies are epistemically justified–probably a small minority of actual voters. The two crucial concepts here are epistemic justification and harmful policies. Brennan doesn’t explicate either, but assumes that on some version of both, his thesis turns out to be correct.

One objection to Brennan’s view is that we might vote for or against someone on the basis of character, not knowledge about the welfare-conducivity of the policies they intend to enact. Take some political candidate, X. My beliefs about X’s policies may be unjustified, epistemically speaking; they may be vague, vacuous, or based on very little evidence. But my beliefs about his character may be perfectly on target. Suppose I correctly regard X as (very) immoral, correctly regard Y as morally decent, and vote for Y because I regard X as so immoral that a vote for Y is preferable to one for X even if I’m generally (though not completely) ignorant of the relative policy implications of voting for X versus Y. Assume that Y’s policies will predictably be worse than X’s (though not egregiously so), but X’s past is egregiously unjust whereas Y’s is perfectly decent.

According to Brennan, unless I treat my judgments of X’s past immorality as proxies for predictions about X’s future policies, my vote is a case of unexcused wrongful voting no matter what X might have done in the past. It’s not clear why, however, and he doesn’t make it clear. What if, as a voter, I weight character over policy as a criterion for voting, at least in cases as egregious as those like X’s? Why is that unexcused wrongful voting? Or is it excused wrongful voting?

Let X be Narendra Modi, and ex hypothesi assume the worst about Modi’s role in Gujarat. Further (also ex hypothesi), assume the worst about Gujarat. If I were an Indian citizen voting in the last election, I would have voted against Modi simply because his role in the Gujarat affair put him beyond the pale for holding the position of Prime Minister of India. The issue is not so much that I expect Modi to repeat his past behavior; in fact, it’s unlikely that he will. Given the scrutiny he’s gotten over the years–and the visa denials and boycotts, etc.–Modi is likely to be more careful about how he expresses his nationalist sentiments, and is likely to overcompensate for his past sins, at least in policy contexts.  Nor is it that I think that Modi’s policies are likely to be inferior to those of his political rivals. They may actually end up being a bit better, at least from a free market perspective. The relevant point is simply that Modi ought not to be rewarded for his past behavior, and voting him into office is a reward (a huge one), one that evades the moral significance of that past behavior. Justice demands that we not grant the unearned, and Modi’s past behavior disqualifies him from earning title to the office he now holds.

For purposes of this post, I don’t want to go into the factual details of Modi’s actual (past) behavior. Doing so is unnecessary, since my aim here is to contest Brennan’s discussion of character-based voting, and to that end, Modi simply draws attention to a relevant possibility–viz., the evil political candidate who is likely to enact better policies than the merely decent one. So if you’re not familiar with Modi’s past, or you disagree with my interpretation of it, we can simply imagine a Modi-like figure and use that as a point of departure for thinking about Brennan’s argument.

So here are my stipulations: Imagine a Modi-like candidate for office who has behaved disgracefully in an affair like the Gujarat massacres of 2002 (or worse). Imagine that he showed callous disregard for the lives of his fellow citizens when he had the responsibility to protect them. Imagine that thousands of innocents died as a result. Imagine that there is good evidence that his own nationalist political agenda explains the animus for those massacred, motivated those who killed them, and rationalized the killings (using “rationalized” in the colloquial, not Davidsonian sense).

Now fast forward about a decade. Imagine our Modi-like candidate going up for the highest office in the land. Imagine that he claims to have cleaned up his act, having done an about-face from his bad old days a decade ago. Imagine that there is no serious question that his forthcoming policies will revert to the ways of his bad old days.  Assume that his policies will actually be an improvement on what the country currently has, and what the other candidate has to offer. Now imagine a rival anti-Modi candidate who is morally decent (and in particular, critical of Modi’s behavior in Gujarat). Let his policies be relatively indeterminate–not great, but not of the sort that might lead to any policy disaster. (Take the party you dislike most and imagine them enacting a safe and pragmatic version of politics as usual.) Let them just end up being worse at the margins than those of the Modi-like immoral candidate. Brennan’s thesis implies that we ought to vote for the immoral candidate, not the decent one. But why?

Here’s what he says:

To a significant degree, voting for character is voting for wrong reasons. When we elect someone, we give him power. That power can be used for good or bad. The office of the presidency is not an honorific meant to show [that] we respect that person’s character. Giving someone the presidency is not bestowing a medal or a certification of commendation but giving him (some) control of the state, an institution that makes rules, and forces innocent people to comply with these rules using violence and threats of violence. We need to be sure he will do a good job controlling it.

The first sentence refers the reader in a footnote to Russell Hardin’s How Do You Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge and Bernard Manin’s The Principles of Representative Government. I haven’t read either book, so if my objection is answered there, I’d concede my case. But for present purposes my point is that my objection is not answered by Brennan in The Ethics of Voting: the passage above does nothing to answer what I regard as the most obvious objection, posed by Modi-like cases. It begs the question and offers an ignoratio elenchi.

Brennan starts by telling us that voting for character is “to a significant degree” voting for the wrong reasons. But I’d respond that it’s a principle of justice that we ought not to reward wrongdoing. Modi-like people have, to put mildly, engaged in serious wrongdoing. So justice entails that we ought not to reward them. The issue then turns on whether a vote for high office like Prime Minister of India is a reward. I think it obviously is: you reward someone when you give them what they want, and that in turn gives them power, prestige, income, a place in history, an opportunity to enact their values on a wide scale, and other perks they couldn’t otherwise have gotten.

Brennan’s discussion bypasses this last fact. The office of the presidency, he tells us, is not an honorific.  Why not? He gives no argument for its not being an honorific, and doesn’t consider the possibility that it might constitute a reward without being primarily an honorific. To the extent that he thinks he has an argument, he simply adduces a different fact about the presidency that supposedly rebuts the claim that the presidency is in part an honorific–that the presidency involves the exercise of power. But this fact, though true, doesn’t really help his case. Political offices could both confer rewards on office-holders and give people control of the state. The one function is perfectly compatible with the other, especially when control is a reward.

Yes, we need to make sure that those who hold power control their use of it. But we can do this as long as we have very vague ideas about a person’s policies. As long as I know that Modi’s rivals aren’t going to enact crazy policies that will take India to perdition, and I believe that they’re decent people lacking an outright lust for power, I know they will manage to control power somehow. (Brennan basically concedes this point in his paper “The Right to a Competent Electorate,” when he says: “We should not overestimate the damage bad voting can do…Even in the US or the UK disastrous candidates rarely have a chance of winning….” p. 707). The wrongs they do via bad policies may be bad, but I may find them more tolerable than the wrong done by rewarding someone responsible for mass murder with the perks of high office. I may be ignorant about the details of the relative merits of Modi’s versus his rival’s policies. But as long as I know that Modi is immoral or evil, and that his rival is tolerable, I may know all I need to know to vote against him.

In other words: If I am more committed to the backward-looking principle of not rewarding past evil than I am (within limits) to forward-looking considerations about good or bad policies, it seems to me I can justifiably vote for the policy-suboptimal candidate so as to avoid voting for the evil candidate even when the evil candidate is more likely to enact better policies.  When I do so, I’ll have some vague thoughts about policy considerations, but I’ll have epistemically justified thoughts about character, and the thoughts I have need not be proxies for future policies but might instead be motivated by considerations about not rewarding past immorality (assuming that that immorality crosses a certain threshold, e.g., culpable involvement in mass death rather than, say, adultery or smoking pot). I don’t see that Brennan even considers this possibility, much less rebuts it.

A digression: Brennan writes of “the presidency,” but I assume that he means any electoral office, including everything from municipal judge to American presidency to prime ministership, etc., including offices whose perks are enormously large. It’s an odd feature of Brennan’s book that while its topic is “the ethics of voting” as such, his focus is almost exclusively American, as though American voting were the paradigm of the phenomenon of voting as such, and as though empirical work on American voting generalized to voting everywhere. I raised this issue in an editorial context with one of the contributors to the Reason Papers symposium (not Brennan), who told me that as a social scientist it was his view that the default position is that empirical work on American politics ought to generalize to politics everywhere unless it can specifically be proven that it didn’t generalize to some particular context elsewhere. In other words, if Jones cites a study on American voting patterns, Jones can, absent contrary evidence, assume that the American voting patterns generalize to Pakistanis, Indians, Italians, or Palestinians. Generalization from the American case is the default rule. That strikes me as a pretty bizarre methodological assumption, but I’ll let the bona fide social scientists fight over it.

Brennan devotes one more paragraph to the topic, but as far as I can see, it merely elaborates on the conclusion Brennan thinks he’s established in the preceding passage.

So character-based voting is acceptable only insofar as it is a proxy to the quality of the governance a candidate is likely to produce. To what degree good character and good policies are correlated is largely an empirical question. If someone is morally corrupt, there is a pretty good chance he will use the power of the state for personal benefit rather than to promote the common good. Yet a virtuous politician with a powerful sense of justice might still be deeply misguided and committed to all sorts of counterproductive, harmful policies. Having the right values is not sufficient for making good policy, because it requires social-scientific knowledge to know whether any given set of policies is likely to achieve those values…If there is good evidence that a politician is likely to enact harmful policies, one should not vote for her (without sufficient reason) even if she is a good person. Voting on the moral virtue of a candidate counts as good voting only to the extent that the candidate’s moral virtue is evidence that she will enact good policies.

(1) My first and most basic comment on this passage is that it doesn’t address the objection I’ve raised, and doesn’t address what seems to me the most obvious objection that could be raised.

(2) My second comment is that it doesn’t cohere very well with the preceding passage. The first passage told us that voting for character was “to a significant degree” voting for the wrong reasons. The second passage tells us that voting for character can be voting for the right reasons under certain circumstances, and it’s an open empirical question to what degree good character and good policies correlate.

So which is it? If it’s an open question whether good character and good policies correlate, they might well correlate, and there are (as Brennan himself seems to admit) commonsense reasons for thinking that they do correlate. If so, why is voting for character “to a significant degree” wrong? Why is it wrong at all? And how can we know to what degree it’s wrong if it might turn out to be right?

Perhaps Brennan means to say that we don’t know whether it’s right, and if we don’t, it can’t typically be epistemically justified to use character as a basis for voting since no one has the social scientific evidence in hand to demonstrate the relevant correlations. But since he himself admits that there is plausibility in the idea that character and policy are correlated, it’s not clear that the claim about epistemic justification follows. Is p only epistemically justified in political contexts if we have a peer reviewed study (or set of them) showing us that p is the case? If I infer that a habitual liar and promise-breaker will be an unreliable implementer of good policies, is that inference epistemically unjustified? Why isn’t banking on a “pretty good chance” good enough?

I don’t mean that there’s an outright contradiction or inconsistency here; I mean that there’s a failure of exposition that leads to an obvious and unresolved puzzle in the reader’s mind about what Brennan is saying. The failure of exposition arises from the legalistic character of Brennan’s writing: we’re told that something is wrong “to a significant degree,” but not told what that phrase means; later we’re told that the issue is empirically undetermined, but we’re told one contestable claim is highly plausible. From one perspective this looks like very careful, rigorous writing, but from another it looks like a confusing way of covering all the bases so as to avoid being held to any particular claim; it also seems to put the author in the position of dialectical victory no matter what objection is made, simply because the claims in the text are so elliptical that they can be made to say anything that the author wants them to say–without saying anything a reader can pin down.

(3) Third comment: there is such a thing as epistemic virtue. Why not consider the possibility that we ought to vote not on the basis of predictable policies per se, nor on the basis of character minus epistemic virtue, but on candidates’ moral plus epistemic character? I’d be curious to know the state of the social science literature on this subject. What evidence is more easily and effectively available to voters–information about a candidate’s epistemic virtue, or information about the predicted outcomes of the policies he can be predicted to enact during x years of a term when the issues he faces are themselves partly unpredictable? Having the right values may be sufficient (or as close to sufficient as matters) for making good policy (or at least for predicting good policy) if the values in question are both moral and epistemic.

(4) If there is good evidence that a politician is likely to enact harmful policies, perhaps one should vote for her as long as she is a good person, the other candidate is an evil person, and the harmful policies are not that harmful. The preceding claim seems incompatible with Brennan’s thesis, which entails that we ought not to vote for politicians who will enact harmful policies simply because the other candidate has a bad character. Brennan adds the parenthentical “without sufficient reason” in the penultimate sentence of the passage as though to include the Modi-like case I have in mind–in which case my Modi-like case wouldn’t be a counterexample to his thesis, but something he’d already thought of, and carefully baked into the thesis ab initio.

But Brennan’s parenthetical seems inconsistent and ad hoc. Either Brennan’s point is that character is relevant to voting (only)** when it is a proxy for future policy, or not. If the first disjunct is the case, Modi-like cases are a counterexample to Brennan’s view. On the other hand, if we go by the second disjunct, i.e., if there can be sufficient reason to vote for character when character  is not a proxy for future policy, it is unclear what Brennan has been saying in this section of the book, or why he thinks what he has said is a response to the objection under discussion in the section. If “voting on the moral virtue of a candidate counts as good voting only to the extent that the candidate’s moral virtue is evidence that she will enact good policies,” the “only” implies that there cannot be a reason for voting on the moral virtue of a candidate when there is no evidence of a connection between character and expected policies.  [And if there cannot be a reason, there cannot be sufficient reason. Hence the reference to “sufficient reason” is incoherent.]*

On the whole, though I generally agree with Brennan’s thesis in The Ethics of Voting, and regard it as an important contribution to the literature, I’m not crazy about the way in which he deals with objections in the book. The issue of character-based voting is merely a case in point, but in my view a clear one. Though one blurb for Brennan’s book describes it as “beautifully clear and eminently readable,” this particular section is neither. I don’t think the failure is mine as a reader but his as its author.

*I added the bracketed sentences a few hours after I originally posted this.

**Added for clarification’s sake a day after the post went up.

Postscript, October 9, 2014: A belated afterthought: doesn’t Brennan’s view entail that voter disenfranchisement of convicted felons is only justified to the extent that being-convicted-of-a-felony is a proxy for high-likelihood-of-wrongful-voting by the felon? After all, Brennan’s view is that the relevant issue as regards the right to vote is always the voter’s epistemic justifiedness or competence (on a rather narrow understanding of competence that is operationalizable and excludes, e.g., “softer” moral considerations considerations of empathy, etc.) That is the motivation for Brennan’s rejection of character-based voting.  But there is nothing about being a murderer, rapist, or robber that a priori excludes competence or epistemic justifiedness in the relevant sense. So it seems to follow on his view that felons ought not to be disenfranchised qua felons. They ought to be enfranchised, regardless of their crimes, and we ought then to give them a chance to become competent voters. Since felons currently lack the right to vote, they haven’t had practice either at voting or at acquiring the necessary skills for it. But dispositionally, they might be fantastically competence under the right conditions. If they can achieve Brennan-competence (once we arrange the remedial conditions), they ought to be allowed to vote. Right? Practically speaking, that would be a bit of a headache, but such considerations don’t otherwise faze Brennan (consider the practical headaches of administering a nationalized poll test, though to be fair, we do have precedents to work from, e.g., the NAEP Civics Assessment) so why not?

Postscript, December 8, 2014: Here’s an excellent background essay, by William Dalrymple, on the Modi phenomenon, written for Britain’s New Statesman in May 2014, well before the elections that brought Modi to power. It’s journalism at its best, and has a richness that no thought-experiment could hope to have.

Postscript, December 9, 2014: This article in The New York Times, “Modi’s Campaign Stop in Kashmir Is Notable for Lack of Unrest,” provides some useful specification of the point I’m making in the post. For one thing, note that the real Modi’s behavior resembles that of the hypothetical Modi I describe: he’s not been alarmingly nationalistic or anti-Muslim, and he’s promised (perhaps credibly promised) policies that advance the economic prospects of Kashmiris, including the poor. And yet, the article ends, unsurprisingly, with this:

But as the crowd filed out afterward, a knot of well-dressed men stood nearby and watched with smoldering eyes.

“I didn’t go, because that man is a criminal,” Ahtisham Shah, a 40-year-old manager at the local office of a telecommunications company, said of Mr. Modi. “He still has to answer for the massacre in 2002.”

Asked if any of them would vote in the next round on Sunday, all five men shook their heads.

“To hell with India and to hell with Pakistan,” said Basharat Ahmad. “Kashmir is an independent country.”

The guys with the smoldering eyes aren’t voting because there’s no credible anti-Modi candidate to vote for, and, as they see it, any vote is a vote for India anyway. But ignore both things for the moment. Imagine that there was an anti-Modi candidate to vote for, and imagine that the smoldering-eye guys put aside their “to hell with India and Pakistan” attitude long enough to vote. (I’m not giving advice; I’m just imagining the possibility.) Should they, as per Brennan’s suggestion, not vote on character, even if the candidate in question “has to answer for the massacre in 2002”? Better yet: should we, as per Brennan’s suggestion, regard them as wrongful or incompetent voters if they do? Should they be required to pass a Brennanite competence test before being regarded as competent to vote for or against Modi? Isn’t there something nearly obscene about the suggestion that they should be disenfranchised for their failure to pass a Brennanite poll test?

My answers: they should vote on character; we should not regard them as wrongful or incompetent for doing so; they should not be required to pass a Brennanite competence test as a necessary condition of being considered competent; there is something obscene about Brennan’s suggestion (even if, as he likes to brag, he managed to make the suggestion in a well-known “peer reviewed” philosophy journal: I have to wonder how many of Brennan’s “peers” at Phil Quarterly were Indian or Kashmiri Muslims).

If Brennan didn’t intend any of the preceding conclusions in The Ethics of Voting, he might want to make that explicit, but nothing about the text of the book or any of the articles of his that I’ve read excludes my interpretation or even considers the possibilities I’ve raised.

Postscript, March 28, 2015: Reports are now coming out of India that suggest I may have been too charitable in my predictions about the situation of Muslims in Modi‘s India, not that that affects my argument at all.

Postscript, March 30, 2015: OK, so I guess I was being really over-charitable to Modi.

Postscript, April 27, 2015: I find it depressing that Barack Obama has chosen to write a laudatory essay on Modi for Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” issue (April 27, 2015). Frankly, I find George Wallace’s moral rehabilitation more impressive than Modi’s. The rehabilitation doesn’t stop Wikipedia for telling us (accurately) that Wallace is “remembered” for his segregationist stance (not his subsequent rehabilitation). Meanwhile, this is Obama on “Narendra”:

When he came to Washington, Narendra and I visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We reflected on the teachings of King and Gandhi and how the diversity of backgrounds and faiths in our countries is a strength we have to protect. Prime Minister Modi recognizes that more than 1 billion Indians living and succeeding together can be an inspiring model for the world.

Yes, they can.

Postscript, November 27, 2015: The controversy over Donald Trump and the post 9/11 celebration rumors induces me to revisit the topic of Jason Brennan’s critique of character-based voting (see here as well). Also relevant (though perhaps less clearly so) is some of the commentary on the recent elections in the Bihar province of India, where Narendra Modi’s BJP was unseated by its rivals. In thinking about both controversies, it belatedly occurs to me that Brennan is operating with either an overly narrow or an equivocal conception of “governance.” Go back to the last passage of Brennan’s that I excerpted. It begins like this:

So character-based voting is acceptable only insofar as it is a proxy to the quality of the governance a candidate is likely to produce. To what degree good character and good policies are correlated is largely an empirical question.

The second sentence seems to presuppose that good governance is reducible to the enactment of good policies, so that if a judgment about character is indeterminate with respect to the enactment of good policies, it’s irrelevant to judgments about whether to vote for the candidate in question. I’m not sure how Brennan understands the term “policy,” but on the ordinary understanding of the term, good governance isn’t reducible to the enactment of policies. It certainly can’t be the case that “good governance” can be understood by this formula:

S engages in good governance if and only if, for every policy P that S enacts (or proposes or broadly speaking facilitates), P is a good policy.

What about the good policies that S fails to enact? Is the failure to enact or propose (etc.) a policy a failure of policy on Brennan’s view? Charitably read, I think he’d say “yes.” At any rate, his view doesn’t prevent him from saying “yes,” so I’ll give him that.

But what about actions unrelated to policy? Here, it seems to me, he faces a real problem. His view seems to be that either a politician is in the business of enacting/refusing to enact policies, or he’s not on the job at all. But this strikes me as a reductive and oversimplified conception of politics.

Arguably, some of what political leaders do is essentially discursive. They talk to us, and often this talk has little or nothing to do with policy–or at least need not have much to do with policy. In their discursive capacities, politicians play (or as I see it, ought to play) the role of public intellectuals: they comment authoritatively on matters of public concern in a responsible way. Arguably, in doing so, political leaders also serve as models of civic virtue: they don’t just comment authoritatively on matters of public concern, but deal with those matters in ways that self-consciously exemplify a concern for truth and justice in public affairs. They give speeches, they answer questions at press conferences, they visit distressed places under their jurisdiction, they interact with people in a face to face way, and they’re recorded as interacting with people in that way. This isn’t just PR or show business. It’s a form of interaction that’s essential to leadership. In other words, a successful politician isn’t just a technician or policy wonk, but a leader–a public figure who functions as a moral exemplar, at least in certain limited respects. And good governance isn’t just policy wonkery; it’s leadership.

So character is bound to be relevant to governance whether or not it’s relevant to policy. The details of a person’s sex life may or may not be relevant to being, say, President of the United States or Prime Minister of India. But a person’s attitude toward (say) race relations certainly is relevant to both offices, whether or not those attitudes are proxies for any policy that the relevant individual proposes, enacts, or doesn’t propose or enact. The next president of the United States might well conclude that no new policies of any kind regarding race need to be enacted during his term. Suppose ex hypothesi that this is the correct decision as a matter of policy. Suppose ex hypothesi that the president successfully plays the political game so that he gets his way, and no policies are passed. That is ex hypothesi the optimal policy outcome, but it’s not the end of the story: it certainly matters how he pulls it off, e.g., how he defends his decisions, and how he deals with critics.

Once we cross a certain threshold, an asshole is not a good leader, and not a practitioner of good governance, even if he enacts the greatest policies in the world. (I’ll grant that we have to tolerate some degree of assholishness in almost any political leader, but even in politics, there’s such a thing as crossing the Asshole Rubicon, and once we do, all bets are off. Bright lines may be hard to draw here, but I think it’s obvious that Modi and Trump crossed the Rubicon a long time ago.) This is a subtly different point from the one I had originally made. My original point was backward-looking: having crossed a certain threshold, we shouldn’t reward wrongdoers with the perks of political office given their past misdeeds. My present point is present- and forward-oriented: we shouldn’t regard character merely as a proxy variable for predictions regarding policy-enactment, narrowly understood. We need to employ a broader conception of governance than that.

The topic of assholes brings me to Donald Trump (and Narendra Modi). Put it this way: imagine that Donald Trump becomes president, but that (miraculously) while in office, he changes his tune and enacts perfectly reasonable policies, even with respect to Arab and Muslim Americans. But imagine that he continues to comport himself as he currently is doing. Would he make a good president? No. His current comportment would undercut his claims to good governance even if he was enacting the right policies, and declining to enact the wrong ones. My point is not that ill comportment would undermine the policies per se, but that demeanor is an autonomous desideratum in a political leader, and that judgments of character are, in an obvious way, a proxy for it. You can’t be a good leader if you systematically disrespect and insult the people you govern, even if you enact the right policies in the process.

Incidentally, in saying that good character and good policy-enactment is an empirical matter, Brennan seems to be implying (as he often does) that identification of the correlation is a matter of consulting double- or triple-blind peer review social science studies. But if that’s what he means, he needs to deal with some obvious but unacknowledged questions.

First of all, there are many, many situations in life in which we have pre-scientific beliefs but no scientific studies to consult on the matter. Is his view that in every such case, we should simply ditch our pre-scientific beliefs on grounds of unreliability? Or is it sometimes permissible to use the pre-scientific beliefs as a guide to action? The first claim is really implausible, but the second claim sits uneasily with his rejection of character-based voting. He himself admits without consulting “the social scientific literature” that “[i]f someone is morally corrupt, there is a pretty good chance he will use the power of the state for personal benefit rather than to promote the common good.” Well, yes, that’s a matter of pre-scientific common sense. But what social scientific literature proves that it’s true? What social science literature has ever taken the population of “someones” as its sample?

Second, we know that a great deal of social science is unreliable. (Much of it is trivial as well.) To what degree, then, can we assume a priori that social scientific findings are, regardless of subject matter, more reliable than pre-scientific beliefs? I don’t see any reason to think that social scientists have the inside track on the nature of moral virtue. If they don’t, I don’t see any reason to think that their findings are always more reliable than pre-scientific beliefs on questions related to virtue.

Third, Brennan exaggerates the univocality of social scientific findings. Social scientists disagree with one another in both interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary fashion. Unless Brennan can show us that one branch or sub-branch of “social science” has a monopoly on the truth about politics, the appeal to social science strikes me as a bit of dogmatism and a bit of intimidatory hand-waving.

Since Brennan admits that character is something of a proxy for judgments about good governance, but also admits that it has variable weight, and can’t exclude the possibility that it sometimes might be highly weighted, and has no principled reason for preferring global reliance on social science over pre-scientific beliefs, and has an overly narrow conception of governance, I conclude that he lacks a coherent objection to judicious character-based voting. (Proviso: Brennan has a new book that’s either forthcoming or just recently out from Princeton University Press, called Against Politics. For obvious reasons, I haven’t read it, so I don’t know whether he discusses any of what I’ve said in this post there.)

Postscript, December 10, 2015: This critique of Trump is useful because it very clearly enumerates moral defects of Trump’s that aren’t necessarily proxy variables for predictions about policy.

In the article, Hillyer argues that Trump has a long record of undermining or abusing those weaker than him who get in his way. To the extent that Trump hasn’t broken any laws, that gives us a clear inference to the conclusion that Trump is immoral in his personal/business dealings, but yields no clear predictions about any particular policy conclusion. Hillyer goes on to argue that Trump mistreated his workers, but even if we grant that, we can’t infer that Trump’s economic policies would necessarily slight workers; after all, Trump is sufficiently opportunistic to change his tune and plump for pro-worker legislation.

Suppose you’re against eminent domain. Can we infer from Trump’s reliance on eminent domain that Trump would favor the expansion of eminent domain as a matter of policy? No, not really. Given his opportunism, Trump could just as easily restrict eminent domain if he found that desirable.

Maybe all of this proves that we shouldn’t vote for Trump because his impulsiveness and opportunism would make for bad policy. Maybe, but to be consistent, a defender of Brennan’s thesis would need to adduce social scientific evidence to suggest not only that impulsiveness and opportunism make for bad policy, but that they make for worse policy than intentionally aiming at bad policies (cf. Hillary Clinton, at least as viewed from a libertarian free market perspective). Note that this social science couldn’t just leave its findings at some set of generalities; it would have to be sufficiently tailored to the Trump vs. Clinton option to allow us to decide between them. I’m skeptical that any existing social scientific literature can yield such a conclusion.

The real reason why we shouldn’t vote for someone with a Trump-like track record is that electing someone to political office confers a reward on the person, and justice forbids rewarding someone’s past malfeasance whether or not the past malfeasance is a proxy variable for the person’s enacting bad policies in the future. In short, we shouldn’t vote for a Trump-like or Modi-like candidate simply because they don’t deserve our votes.

Postscript, December 12, 2015: More on the same theme. Consider Megyn Kelly’s now-famous misogyny question of Donald Trump back in August. The latter half of her question had an indirect sort of connection to policy (roughly, “how do you answer the charge that you are part of the war on women?”), but the first part did not. After quoting some of Trump’s remarks, she asked, “Does that sound [to] you like the temperament of the man we should elect president….”? (my emphasis).

As I see it, the first half of the question would have been entirely fair and appropriate on its own, even without the tie back to policy. Arguably, an avowed, explicit, egregious misogynist does lack the temperament of “the man we should elect president” even if he promises do great things for women (as Trump did, in answer to Kelly). Other things equal, misogyny of Trump’s variety ought to be a reason for voting against him (or not voting for him), whether or not the misogyny predicts any particular policy position he might take as president.

Suppose that other things aren’t equal, however. It’s an interesting question what a voter should do if faced with an out-and-out misogynist whose policy positions are, all things considered, appreciably better than the non-misogynist. To keep things relatively simple, imagine a pro-choice misogynist running against an anti-abortion non-misogynist (and suppose ex hypothesi that abortion ought to be legal). Unless you take avowal of an anti-abortion position to be prima facie evidence of misogyny on its own, I’d be inclined to say that the pro-choice policy position trumps the misogynistic defect of character, so to speak. Of course, if you regard an anti-abortion position as evidence of misogyny, then the choice here is between two misogynists, so that the dilemma is resolved from the outset. But though I’m pro-choice on abortion, that approach seems implausible to me.

Postscript, December 26, 2015: So Modi “surprises” us again, though this move comes as a less of a surprise to me than some of stuff I’ve described in the postscripts above. Given Modi’s character, however, it’s hard to interpret: is it a sincere step forward, or just play-acting? It seems obvious to me that one can’t easily disentangle the policy-related issue involved here (discussed near the end of the article) from an issue of moral character: is Modi honest or trustworthy? If he is, his trip to Lahore seems like a step forward in Indo-Pak relations. If he isn’t, there’s no way to know where he stands on policy, because we can’t trust anything he says or does.

Brennan might claim that the preceding observation is consistent with the letter of his claim in The Ethics of Voting (as it is), but I would say that it contradicts the spirit of his claim: if  judgments of intellectual character are relevant to virtually every prediction we make about a candidate’s prospective policies, it makes good sense to vote for intellectually virtuous (honest, intellectually responsible, non-demagogic, etc.) candidates, and makes good sense to figure out whether a given candidate is in fact intellectually virtuous (honest, responsible, non-demagogic, etc.).Other things being equal, we should vote for the intellectually virtuous candidate, the more the virtuous the better.

If so, it makes no sense to come out against character-based voting, pointlessly adding the proviso that character-based voting is OK as long as it’s relevant to policy. How could a candidate’s honesty, candor, probity, conscientiousness, accuracy, trustworthiness etc. be irrelevant to policy? We might (accurately but in this context a little tendentiously) call those policy-relevant traits of character, and think of them as the policy-makers’ analogue to the intellectual virtues required to do good science. If policy-relevant traits of character are always relevant to policy, then a ban on character-based voting that allows for them is either toothless or misleading or both.

Thanks to Faisal Jilani and Aftab Khawaja for the discussion on Modi that inspired this post, and to Fawad Zakariya for driving home to me the moral significance of what happened in Gujarat. The usual caveat applies.