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Should Republicans and Democrats Be Friends?

photograph of stuffed Republican elephant and Democrat Donkey face-to-face atop American flag

America’s polarization crisis extends to its friendships: a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that only thirty-one percent of Democrats have at least some friends who are Republicans, while only four-in-ten Republicans said they have some friends who are Democrats. Should we be alarmed by this? Should we be friends with people who hold views we believe to be immoral?

It seems that we have dueling intuitions about the moral permissibility of friendship with those who do not share our values. Consider a peaceful neo-Nazi — someone who has genocidal beliefs but will never act on them. I think most people believe it is wrong to be friends with such a character, and I can think of three arguments in support of this belief. First, there is the “signaling” argument. Being friends with the neo-Nazi will likely be interpreted by others as expressing approval for, or lending credibility to, their beliefs. One ought not signal one’s approval for beliefs one takes to be immoral, so one ought not be friends with the neo-Nazi. The second argument is the “incentive” argument. The idea is that withholding friendship from the neo-Nazi might incent him to abandon his beliefs, which is something we ought to encourage him to do insofar as we believe his beliefs are immoral. If one ought to withhold friendship from the neo-Nazi for this reason, then one ought not be friends with him. Finally, there is the “disesteem” argument, which is that disesteem — that is, feelings of disdain or disapprobation — are an appropriate response to the neo-Nazi’s immoral beliefs, and these feelings are incompatible with genuine friendship. If we ought to A (in this case, feel certain emotions towards the neo-Nazi), and A is incompatible with B (in this case, be friends with the neo-Nazi), then we ought not to B.

So, we certainly have intuitions, backed by reasons, that support not being friends with individuals solely because of their moral beliefs. On the other hand, consider a Kantian and a consequentialist. These two may have fundamental moral disagreements over a host of issues, such as our obligations to the foreign poor, the morally optimal distribution of all-purpose goods, the morality of lying, the morality of infanticide, and whether it is morally permissible to intentionally kill one person in order to save five. Only one of them can be right, so one of them has immoral beliefs. Yet we do not think it would be wrong for them to be friends.

I will assume that Democrats and Republicans have moral disagreements, for example over abortion. The question is whether friendship with someone of the opposing party is like the Kantian’s friendship with the consequentialist or like being friends with a neo-Nazi.

It might be argued that the neo-Nazi’s immoral beliefs include immoral beliefs about how others can be permissibly harmed, which distinguishes them from the beliefs of Kantians and consequentialists, or Republicans and Democrats. But from a Republican’s perspective, Democrats impermissibly believe that it is permissible to harm the unborn; and from a Kantian perspective, consequentialists impermissibly believe that it is permissible to intentionally kill one in order to save five. Furthermore, since the neo-Nazi is peaceful, her genocidal beliefs cannot be distinguished from the others in terms of disposing her to act violently.

The Kantian’s friendship with the consequentialist also nicely illustrates why the distinction between cross-party friendships and friendships with neo-Nazis cannot lie in the sheer number of disagreements, or their moral importance. The Kantian has a large number of fairly fundamental moral disagreements with the consequentialist, including over what makes actions morally right or wrong. Nor can the distinction lie in the idea that Democrats (or Republicans) shouldn’t believe that Republicans (or Democrats) as such hold moral beliefs, while they should believe neo-Nazis hold immoral beliefs. Either the Kantian or the consequentialist should believe that the other’s beliefs are immoral, yet they are seemingly still permitted to be friends.

Nor can the distinction lie in the confidence with which we hold the moral beliefs that differ from our opposite party friend. Plenty of people are just as confident that consequentialism (or Kantianism) is the correct moral philosophy as that racism, or racially motivated genocide, is morally right or wrong. Yet confident consequentialists should not disdain friendships with Kantians and vice versa. On the other hand, we should not be friends with a neo-Nazi just because he is not confident about his genocidal beliefs.

We might try to appeal to the admittedly vague idea of reasonability to distinguish between cross-party friendships and friendships between Kantians and consequentialists on the one hand, and friendships with neo-Nazis on the other. The thought is that the disagreements that occur in the former cases are reasonable, but not in the latter case. It’s not clear that all would agree that this feature does distinguish them, since many people think the beliefs of people of the opposing party are unreasonable. For these people, if reasonability is what distinguishes friendships between Kantians and consequentialists and friendships with neo-Nazis, then cross-party friendships will fall on the side of friendships with neo-Nazis. These people will have to conclude that people of the opposing party do not deserve friendship, that being friends with them lends credibility to their views in a morally problematic way, and that disesteem that is incompatible with friendship is an appropriate response.

More fundamentally, if it’s true that having what we take to be immoral beliefs unfits a person for our friendship, it’s hard to see why they should be unreasonable immoral beliefs. What’s doing the work in our intuition that we ought not to be friends with people because of their beliefs is the moral character of their beliefs, not their rationality or reasonability. Just because a prima facie compelling argument can be given for consequentialism and not Nazism does not make the consequentialist’s beliefs less morally heinous from the point of view of the Kantian.

Another suggestion is that neo-Nazi beliefs are somehow simply worse than, for example, the beliefs of Democrats as viewed from the perspective of Republicans, or the beliefs of consequentialists as viewed from the perspective of Kantians. However, the “signaling,” “incentive,” and “disesteem” arguments are not based on Nazis’ ideas being particularly heinous in the eyes of others, but just on their being believed to be immoral.

We’re left, then, with a troubling conclusion. If one ought not be friends with neo-Nazis solely because of their beliefs, then there is in principle no way to distinguish such friendships from cross-party friendships, insofar as each member of a cross-party friendship believes that the other side holds immoral views.

Still, perhaps we ought to deny the claim that we should not be friends with neo-Nazis, at least in its unqualified form. Some former Nazis strike up friendships with neo-Nazis in order to de-program them; ought we condemn that action? Similarly, if a Democrat believes his Republican friend is racist, might he not justify his friendship on the ground that he is likely to be more successful at persuading his friend to abandon his racist beliefs by remaining friends? A friend of this conception of cross-party friendship might point out that withholding friendship is but one way, and perhaps not the most effective way, to incent others to abandon their beliefs; that simply because feelings of disesteem are appropriate does not mean they are morally required, all-things-considered; and that there are ways to signal one’s disapproval of a friend’s beliefs.

Note that even if these counterarguments are successful, they will not justify a “de-politicized” or “de-moralized” friendship — a friendship wherein at least one person believes the other has immoral beliefs, but decides to do nothing about it. But this raises a further problem, which I can only gesture at: if genuine friendship requires accepting the friend as they are in some sense, then the kind of cross-party friendship that seems morally permissible may not be genuine. In the end, then, it may turn out that genuine cross-party friendships are morally impermissible.

Bothsidesism and Why It Matters

Image of many protesters in Charlottesville

In early December, Kelly Craft, the new US ambassador to Canada, stated in an interview that she believes “both sides” of climate science. When asked directly whether that meant that she believed that human-made climate change was a real phenomenon, she stated that “both sides have their own results, from their studies, and I appreciate and respect both sides of the science.” As many pointed out, this position is misinformed: there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human-made climate change is indeed a real phenomenon; indeed, it was expressed by a recent report conducted by hundreds of scientists from the US itself. This is not to say that there are not unresolved questions about climate change, nor is it to imply that there is universal agreement amongst scientists with regards to the facts about climate change. And there are of course those who continue to deny that climate change is occurring, or occurring for the reasons that scientists have stated. Nevertheless, the mere fact that there are two sides to an issue does not mean that both sides are equally well supported by evidence or that there are no reasons to prefer one side over the other.

Recently, there seems to have been an increase in the amount of, for lack of a better term, bothsidesism. One such instance that many found particularly egregious was Donald Trump’s comment in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests last year that there were “very fine people on both sides,” which many interpreted as Trump lending his support for, or at the very least failing to condemn, white nationalism. More recently, PayPal banned a number of accounts associated with the far-right group Proud Boys, but at the same time also banned accounts belonging to a number of anti-fascist groups. As The Guardian reports, many found PayPal’s grouping together of these two sides as a failure to distinguish between groups that spread hate speech and those that attempt to fight against it. As was the case in the aftermath of Trump’s remarks, PayPal’s actions were interpreted by some as another instance of catering to the interests of the far-right.

Although these cases are different – the first involving Craft’s treating “both sides” of climate science as equally legitimate, and the second involving the equivalent treatment of far-right hate groups and those protesting against them – they have something important in common. In these cases there are, broadly speaking, two sides to some issue. The balance of reason and evidence, however, supports one side over the other: there is overwhelming evidence to believe that human-made climate change is a genuine phenomenon, for example, and overwhelming reason to believe that white nationalist hate groups are morally reprehensible. Bothsidesism occurs, then, when the mere fact that there is more than one side to an issue is, itself, taken to imply that there is a reason to remain agnostic with regards to an issue, or else to imply that both sides are equally worth considering.

We need to be careful here: there are many issues about which there are competing views, and in which it may very well be appropriate to say that one appreciates that there are good arguments on both sides. The problem I have in mind is not like this. Instead, the problem with bothsidesism is that a disagreement is presented as a legitimate one, with both sides deserving equal discussion, simply because there is disagreement, and not because there is, in fact, good reason to consider both sides.

Legitimate disagreements, on the other hand, are driven by a search for the right answer to a question, and so both sides are given careful consideration because one wants to figure out which one is right. Many recent incidents of bothsidesism, however, appear to not be driven by any concern for the truth, but are instead motivated by political or other practical concerns. After Craft’s remarks on climate change, many pointed out that her husband is a multi-millionaire coal magnate, and thus Craft herself is presumably highly motivated to deny the existence of climate change. Critics of Trump after his Charlottesville remarks argued that Trump was trying to prevent the alienation of a key demographic of votes, while critics of PayPal argue that they are motivated by monetary concerns, not wanting to lose users who might have far-right political affiliations.

There are many potentially moral concerns surrounding the kind of bothsidesism considered here. First, there are always potentially bad consequences in spreading misinformation – in these cases, this misinformation involves the implication that both sides are equally well supported by evidence. Second, a consequence of the spread of this information is an emboldening of those holding the minority view. For example, as Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman at The New York Times argued, Trump’s “equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists” after Charlottesville “buoyed the white nationalist movement.” Continuing to believe that there are equally good arguments on both sides of the climate change debate could have disastrous consequences of its own, as continuing to debate an issue that has received scientific consensus threatens forestalling important actions related to preventing further environmental damage.

Some have proposed that the best way to deal with certain types of bothsidesism is to refuse to engage in debate, thus refusing to give a side that is not worth consideration and kind of consideration at all. For example, in response to a recent report from the UK by Ukip MEP Stuart Agnew denying the existence of climate change, MEP Molly Scott Cato created a petition of “politicians, scientists, academics and campaigners” to pledge to “refuse to debate those who deny that human-made climate change is real.” Cato’s goal is to stop giving a “voice to the pseudoscience of climate change deniers; we must urgently move the debate on to how we address the causes and effects of dangerous climate breakdown.” Refusing to debate the existence of climate change thus prevents climate denial from being given any sort of legitimacy, and thus can prevent the harms associated with failing to take action with regards to climate change.

Again, we should not conclude that there are no legitimate cases in which there are two sides of an issue that deserve equal consideration; nor should we think that it is always appropriate to refuse to engage in debate when we disagree with a minority view. But when views are motivated not by a concern for the truth, or when the motivations behind holding one’s views are morally reprehensible, giving such views equal consideration simply because they are contrarian can be actively harmful.

The Alt-Right and the Dangers of Political Self-Identification

Americans on both side of the aisle were inflamed after Richard Spencer’s racist, nationalist speech to his think tank, the National Policy Institute, seemed to mirror the rhetoric of fascism that shrouded Donald Trump’s campaign. Following the November 19th speech at NPI’s conference, Spencer’s supporters responded with Nazi salutes, and President-elect Trump disavowed this endorsement, but most notably, media coverage of the event gave undivided attention to Trump’s supporters on the “alt-right.”

Continue reading “The Alt-Right and the Dangers of Political Self-Identification”