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Do We Have a Duty of Civility?

black-and-white photograph of gentlemen engaged in gun duel

Data shows that American political culture has experienced a steady decline in civility. This downward shift has become a frequent talking point amongst sociologists, political pundits, as well as many average Americans. Most who work on this issue agree this trend is deeply troubling for the trajectory of American society. So, how can we reinfuse our shared political culture with the virtue of civility?

In political philosophy there is a concept often referred to as the duty of civility. This is a moral (as opposed to a legal) duty to take the beliefs of others in your political community into account when deciding how to vote, which policies to advocate for, and which claims you appeal to in the public square. The origin of the duty of civility is linked to 20th century political philosopher  John Rawls, and his formulation of the principle can be found in the text Political Liberalism. In constructing his political philosophy, Rawls was sensitive to the fact that diverse people living in a free society will inevitably hold disparate opinions and beliefs. The challenge, then, becomes figuring out how to show civility to our neighbors, with whom we might disagree sharply over any number of important matters.

To get slightly more technical, the duty of civility specifically claims that people must be able to appeal to “shared” or “public” reasons as justifications for their political stances. These reasons, according to Rawls, are those your fellow citizens might agree with regardless of their particular religious, ethical, or political beliefs. Rawls took these kinds of reasons to be based in the core values of political liberalism, such as the protection of basic human rights, freedom of conscience, and the protection of one’s political autonomy. The thought here is that all reasonable citizens living in a free and liberal society should be able to comfortably endorse these commitments. Thus, if political policies are always grounded in these shared, public reasons, they have legitimate authority over people, independent of the diversity of opinions that inevitably exists within a political community.

Regardless of whether people agree with Rawls that fulfilling the duty of civility demands appealing to shared or public reasons, the general spirit of that duty seems highly relevant to reversing the troubling trend we are currently witnessing in American political culture. One point of academic debate, however, involves what this duty means for citizens living in non-ideal political communities (i.e., our political community). There is disagreement over whether or not our duty to consider the different, and oftentimes opposing, beliefs of our neighbors is contingent on their willingness to do the same. Is the duty of civility only binding if we can expect that compassion, generosity, empathy to be reciprocated?

Certain moral duties do seem to function in this kind of contingent way. For example, consider the moral obligations generated when entering into contractual agreements with others. Let’s imagine that you enter into a contract with your landlord that outlines the duties of property care they incur in exchange for your monthly rent payment. Let’s then also imagine that they fail to uphold these duties in a significant way. Under such conditions, you are potentially released from your duty to continue paying them. The lack of reciprocity entails the suspension of what would otherwise be your moral duty. On the other hand, other kinds of moral duties seem to persist regardless of whether or not the other party involved holds up their end of the deal. For example, if you have a moral duty to give a certain percentage of your income to charity, this duty does not seem contingent on whether others in your society also choose to donate their money.

I believe the duty of civility is more like the latter example than the former. If a desirable goal for our society is to establish a healthier political culture, it is difficult to imagine how this will occur without individuals taking this kind of duty upon themselves. Forcing ourselves to grapple with the reality that many of our well-intentioned neighbors view the world through a substantially different lens will likely shape the way we engage politics for the better. Embracing the duty of civility helps to prevent the steamrolling of the beliefs, opinions, and convictions of others, which inevitably has positive downstream implications for the health and vitality of our public square.

Of course this is not to say that individuals must bracket off all of their particularly controversial beliefs when it comes to public political engagement. Rather, it is to say that thinking through the implications that various policies you advocate for will have not only on you, but also on your neighbors, is an essential exercise in which to engage. If individuals refuse to engage in such a practice unless enough other members of society also agree to participate, it seems unlikely that the duty of civility will ever become enmeshed in our political culture.

So to return to our original question of how to reinfuse our political culture with civility, it seems clear enough that individuals must strive to fulfill something like the duty of civility, and do so regardless if others around them choose the same. At risk of the further degradation of our public square, it seems incumbent on people to strive for morally ideal action, even in the midst of non-ideal conditions.

Race, Gender, and the Civic Virtues: Creating a Flourishing Society

aerial photograph of people in a park

The increasing polarization of American society is perhaps most evident when it comes to issues of race and gender. In 2016, 57% of Hilary Clinton supporters said that it is a lot more difficult to be a Black person in the United States than it is to be a white person, with that number increasing to 74% of Joe Biden supporters in 2020. The number of Trump supporters, however, who thought that it was a lot more difficult to be Black, actually shrank from 11% in 2016 to 9% in 2020.

A similar dynamic has occurred with gender issues as well. Only 26% of Clinton supporters agreed that the obstacles that keep women from getting ahead are now largely gone, a figure that then decreased to just 20% of Biden supporters. For Trump supporters though, the percentage that agreed such barriers were largely gone increased from 72% in 2016 to 79% in 2020, making the issues of race and gender marked illustrations of the increasing divide between liberals and conservatives.

How has this polarization affected American society? In very polarized environments, citizens are likely to become more tribal, increasingly shutting out those of a different political persuasion. We spend more time with people who look, talk, and think like us, making the political opposition more and more unfamiliar.

This uptick in tribalism then allows citizens to become more uncharitable. By interacting less with those on the other side of the aisle, it becomes harder to empathize with their perspective and far easier to see them as either ignorant, or even downright evil.

Finally, as voters become more entrenched, they are likely to be more antidemocratic. Because the political opposition cannot be trusted, citizens are more open to leaders who seize political power in ways that undermine typical democratic processes.

None of these tendencies, of course, will help heal the sharp divide on issues of race and gender. As citizens become more tribal, uncharitable, and antidemocratic, the fault lines between camps will only become more severe.

Furthermore, when polarization occurs on issues of race and gender, the tribal boundaries are increasingly drawn along racial and gendered lines. Black and Hispanic voters remain overwhelmingly Democrat, for example, while white voters lean Republican.

And in an emerging trend, there is now a growing political divide between men and women as well. The gap between how young men and women identify politically is rapidly increasing.

One approach to improving the current political climate is by focusing on educating for the civic virtues. While talk of citizenship or civic virtue might sound quaint or old-fashioned, the civic virtues are simply the habits that citizens need to support a healthy, well-functioning political community. These virtues are especially critical for liberal democracies, as democratic nations ultimately depend on the political engagement of their citizens.

Let’s take the former challenges raised by polarization. To begin with, the civic virtue of tolerance can combat the rise in antidemocratic sentiments. A tolerant person accepts the beliefs or practices of others even if they view those beliefs and practices as objectionable. This acceptance does not require, of course, that the tolerant person takes on these beliefs and practices as their own, but only that they permit others to continue with their ways of life.

Toleration merely requires refraining from coercing and controlling others, but the civic virtue of mutual respect calls people to a deeper appreciation of their fellow citizens. Also called civic egalitarianism, mutual respect encourages citizens to acknowledge the value that others bring to the political process and view them as well-intentioned, rather than regarding them as either ignorant or evil.

Finally, the virtue of neighborliness can help us overcome our growing tribalism. Instead of giving in to permanent transience, we can get to know those around us regardless of their political persuasion. This will then help us to be more empathetic with those whom we disagree as we come to realize that they are our friends and neighbors.

Of course, even if citizens become more tolerant, respectful, and neighborly, this will not solve all of our political problems. Real issues would remain, and civic virtue will not answer some of our deepest and most abiding questions about how to live in community, but decreasing polarization would put us in a better position to tackle those challenges together.

At the same time, though, the civic virtues can do more than simply helping us overcome polarization. The virtue of justice is integral for a well-functioning society, and if we as citizens become more just, this will then help us to tackle both individual and structural injustices related to race and gender.

Civic virtue, then, can play a much larger role than just reducing polarization. Education for the civic virtues isn’t just about getting along, it’s about creating citizens that are equipped to create a flourishing society.

The Empathetic Democracy: Countering Polarization with Considerate Civic Discourse

photograph of two closed doors labeled "Democrat" and "Republican"

Political polarization is at an all-time high, making partisan politics more bitter and divisive than even the recent past. One proposal for mitigating polarization’s rise is a focus on empathy, as empathizing with others can reduce feelings of contempt and encourage us to see things from another point of view. At the same time though, empathy comes with its own risks, calling into question whether it is the right response to the growing political divide.

Political polarization involves more than just political disagreement. It also involves an emotional dimension. Polarized citizens often hold a number of negative attitudes towards their political opponents, actively disliking and distrusting them. According to Stanford Political Science Professor Shanto Iyengar, “Democrats and Republicans both say the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and close-minded.” So not only do polarized voters disagree with one another, but they also have deep feelings of antipathy and contempt towards their political opponents.

One proposal aimed at countering this growing divide suggests that we should focus on building empathy. Not only can empathy help us to find common ground with those whom we disagree, but it can also help us overcome feelings of contempt towards our political opponents. Empathy involves seeing things from another person’s point of view, adopting both their mindset and motivations. And taking on this perspective may enable us to experience more positive emotions towards our political opponents, realizing that we may well hold the same views if we were in their shoes.

Some have even argued that the development of empathy is what makes democratic discourse valuable. By attempting to understand those we disagree with, we have the opportunity to grow in empathy, seeing issues from a perspective that we do not normally inhabit. On this way of thinking, civic discourse is just as valuable for forming how we think of others as it is for forming our political beliefs.

And empathy might provide other benefits as well. It can help to instill civic and intellectual virtues like toleration and open-mindedness, and might even take us from merely tolerating the views of others to a place of mutual appreciation and respect. Furthermore, it can help us harness the benefits of cognitive diversity. Only when we are able to listen to those on the other side of the aisle are we able to work together to find solutions that are better for everyone.

Empathy, however, doesn’t come without its risks. Paradoxically, a growth in empathy can sometimes be connected with a rise in outgroup antipathy. Research has shown that those who are naturally more empathetic might identify more strongly with their family, political party, or nationality, making them less considerate of those outside their group. This selective empathy can then worsen, rather than alleviate, political polarization. As someone empathizes more deeply with those who hold similar political views, it can become more difficult to identify with those on the other side of the aisle.

At the same time though, while it might be more natural to empathize with those that we are already close to, empathy is not simply an automatic reaction like fear or attraction. Rather, we can choose when we are empathetic, making the conscious decision to put in the work to understand those who are different from us. And those who adopt a growth mindset when it comes to empathy are more likely to make an effort even when empathy doesn’t come quite so naturally. So even though it might be easier to empathize with those who vote for the same candidate, that does not prevent us from empathizing with those who cast a different ballot.

Nevertheless, even if we make a conscious effort to empathize with our political opponents, there are still other pitfalls. What if, for example, someone finds the views of their political opponents downright crazy or absurd? If a progressive Democrat attempts to empathize with a Republican and convinced Q’Anon believer, for example, and they cannot understand why the Republican believes the things that they do, then this could exacerbate polarization. The Democrat may be less likely to consider other conservative views in the future, concluding that the perspective of the other side is simply beyond the pale.

Furthermore, too much of an emphasis on empathy runs the risk of failing to acknowledge existing injustices. When coalition-building is the primary goal, harms that have not yet been corrected may fall by the wayside, or even worse, get swept under the rug. Simply empathizing with others is not enough to repair historically broken relationships, and empathy might only serve as a first step in reaching deeper, more meaningful forms of reconciliation.

For these reasons, empathy alone is not enough to solve political polarization. But even though empathy is not a complete solution, it can still play an important role. Lessening feelings of contempt and antipathy between political opponents can be the first step to more robust engagement, starting a conversation that can lead to rapprochement even for those who are currently bitter political rivals.

Can Relationship Science Teach Us to Talk Politics Again?

silhouette of man and woman with backs turned to one another

Americans are now more polarized than ever. Too often political discourse devolves into heated disagreements in which both parties learn little about the other side. Quite reasonably, nearly half of Americans have stopped talking to someone about politics, and many have unfriended people on social media or become estranged from their family.

As an ethicist, I value critical thinking and sound reasoning through arguments. Yet I’ve learned the most about productive debate from the science of romantic relationships, which emphasize civil discourse and mutual understanding. Perhaps these tools too can help repair a fractured republic.

Two of the leading researchers are John and Julie Gottman, whose Love Lab for decades has studied thousands of conversations among couples. They are able to predict with over 80% accuracy whether a marriage will result in divorce, just based on observing a brief interaction between spouses. And they’ve identified four ways in which conversations among partners take a dark turn.

Counteract Contempt

The single greatest predictor of divorce is contempt. The Gottmans look for expressions of disrespect, disgust, or ridicule toward one’s partner, which can be subtly expressed through sneering, sarcasm, eye rolling, and mocking. Humans are deeply social creatures adept at sniffing this out, even when the contempt isn’t overt.

Classic contempt is increasingly common in political discourse. Politicians belittle their opponents, calling them “deplorable” or “crooked.” Disrespect is often communicated much more subtly when people debate moral and political issues. Consider the infamous interview Jordan Peterson did with Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4 News in 2018. The uncomfortable encounter is the epitome of a combative conversation, as Peterson and Newman each engage in repeated rounds of offense and defense while exchanging scoffs and sneers.

Now, when individuals or institutions attack or fail you, contempt can seem completely warranted. Politicians often win votes by sharing contempt for the status quo — whether it’s climate inaction or wokeness. But those politicians must work with the opposing party to make lasting change. The same goes for ordinary citizens. We must live with our opponents, but we do have a choice: either lean into the disdain or understand one another with humility. (Indeed, we can see Peterson engaging in a much more productive conversation in less combative contexts.)

The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation, to remind yourself and your romantic partner of what you love about them. Rather than fume about how your partner is frequently late, realize how it pales in comparison to their sense of humor and dedication to your children. Focus on the positives, not the negatives.

The same lesson can be applied to political conversations. You could dwell on how your father is transphobic and cares more about guns than women’s bodies. And he might dwell on how his daughter has lost all respect for authority, family tradition, and the Second Amendment. But what good will that do? The contempt and combative orientation won’t convince anyone to change their mind and it might weaken the relationship — assuming it’s something worth maintaining.

Keep Criticism to a Minimum

Contempt is just one of what the Gottmans dub the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” although I like to think of them as conversation poisons that contaminate discussions. Another conversation poison is criticism, which involves attacking one’s partner. You might say “You’re always running late” or “You keep interrupting me.”

Criticism isn’t as toxic as contempt, unless it’s frequent and persistent. The Gottman antidote is to more often use “I” statements that facilitate gentle start-ups to the conversation that express one’s own concerns, rather than criticism of the other. For example: “I get really anxious and irritable when we show up late to events” or “I don’t feel like my opinion is valued if I’m regularly interrupted.”

Gentle start-ups also improve political conversations. Disagreeing with a person’s political perspective, even critiquing it, can be productive, but “You can’t seriously want to defund the police” promotes moral combat and makes opponents defensive. Instead, focus on oneself: “I’m worried that defunding the police will overall lead to more crime and violence, especially in the most vulnerable communities.” Of course, phrasing a concern in terms of one’s own thoughts and emotions needn’t happen only at the beginning of a conversation. It’s just as important later on, when blood starts to boil and remarks turn to you and your ilk.

Attack Defensiveness

If the conversation does get combative, another common poison is defensiveness. If your partner says “Ugh, we’re always late,” you’re likely to reply “Well I’m trying to hurry, but I’ve been slammed with work and haven’t had time to catch up on my endless to-do list.” It’s natural to get defensive when another person attacks, but the Gottmans would say that it contributes to the conversation being combative. And being in fight mode makes it virtually impossible to see the other person’s perspective, to be charitable and gain mutual understanding.

Most of us want so badly to be heard and understood that we will remain on defense until that goal is achieved. But that maintains a combative orientation by focusing on how one’s opponent ought to change. Rather than fuel the combative fire, the Gottman antidote is to take responsibility. The criticized partner might reply instead, “I know, I’m sorry. How about we talk sometime about how to divide up the household chores better so I’m not always running behind?” From a place of security, flaws are admitted, even if that’s not the end of the story.

Now imagine you’re debating abortion. Your interlocutor proclaims, “Pro-lifers only want to control women’s bodies, since they don’t support funding programs that help poor children after they’re born.” It’s tempting to defend one’s moral integrity from attack, but taking responsibility would help take the conversation in a better direction. Imagine replying “It’s true that conservatives focus more political attention on the unborn. Infant mortality and poverty concern me too. A friend of mine got laid off after having her first child, and food stamps saved them. I’m just concerned about the unborn children too.”

Taking responsibility in politics is different from romantic relationships. Most of us can’t take responsibility for signing legislation or handing down a ruling. But we can acknowledge points on the other side and faults in our own tribe. Paradoxically, letting down one’s guard and just sharing a personal story is an effective tactic for persuasion.

Flee Emotional Flooding

When heated conversations put the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, the alternative to fighting back is flight. A partner might shut down, stop talking, walk off, or avoid the topic in future conversations. The Gottmans call this stonewalling, and its source is emotional “flooding.”

The antidote is physiological self-soothing. Sometimes that can be achieved by taking a break, but not forever and not in a combative way. Storming off is combative, as opposed to “I’m already hangry and now getting worked up. Can we come back to this tomorrow morning, after my big meeting?” The goal is to engage the parasympathetic nervous system which is designed to help us recharge or “rest and digest.” Otherwise, you simply won’t truly listen to one another.

When talking politics, taking a break can be wise too. In some cases, it makes most sense to avoid politics to spare a valued relationship. But we can take this too far by avoiding political dialogue generally, even cutting ties with friends and family members. These forms of political stonewalling are methods of ending relationships, not preserving them, and closing others off certainly won’t change their minds.

Of course, just as some relationships shouldn’t be saved, some political opponents are toxic. Maybe there’s no need to retain a relationship with that high school classmate who always trolls liberals and posts propaganda. The problem is only when avoiding political opponents fuels a tribalistic “us vs. them” mindset that closes off productive conversation.

Anger’s Allowed

The prescription to self-soothe can sound as though one must remain Stoic, free from negative emotions. Should we follow the philosopher Martha Nussbaum who has drawn on Nelson Mandela as an exemplar of reconciliation to argue that anger is poisonous in politics and relationships?

Not necessarily. As the Gottmans are quick to point out, frustration and anger can be healthy in relationships. Not all negative emotions are noxious like contempt or the excessive fear and anxiety characteristic of fight-or-flight responses. The Stoics too recognized that negative emotions aren’t categorically corrupt. Their prescription, like the Gottmans’s, is to identify and respond appropriately to those emotions, whether positive or negative.

Indeed, sometimes anger is productive. Myisha Cherry contends that the emotion is essential to combating racism and other forms of oppression. Try to imagine the activism of Malcolm X or Audre Lorde sapped of rage. Whenever anger toward injustice is apt, it may be appropriate to feel, as Amia Srinivasan has argued. Ultimately, venting and channeling one’s anger can be therapeutic, a way to recover from physiological flooding.

The problem is only when anger morphs into disrespect, when grievances become contemptuous. Martin Luther King’s famous letter from a Birmingham jail is instructive. He clearly expressed frustration with fellow religious leaders and the “white moderates” who criticized his peaceful forms of direct action, but he didn’t become physiologically flooded or stonewall. He was willing to engage respectfully with his opponents while engaging in civil disobedience.

Calls for calm, “rational” discourse can be problematic when used as a weapon for silencing the oppressed, whether in politics or relationships. Alex Zamalin has recently argued in Against Civility that fighting against racism requires forms of resistance that disrupt society. That’s true as far as it goes, but protests, marches, boycotts and other forms of activism are not in tension with civility. The peaceful marches and sit-ins led by Martin Luther King are paradigms of civil disobedience. Other examples include activists who feed water to pigs being transported in hot, overcrowded trailers. Direct action, even disruption of the status quo, can be done out of concern for the oppressed without contempt for one’s opponents. As Ancient Chinese philosophers recognized, civility is necessary for productive engagement with others.

Why It Works

The Gottman approach works because it allows people to be heard. Humans are only receptive to another person’s ideas when there is mutual trust and respect. Show someone disrespect, or come off as an aggressive outsider, and you’ll be shut out. That goes for the salesman peddling his wares or the activist selling her argument for animal rights. As philosophers have long noticed as well, mutual respect is particularly crucial for intellectual opponents to learn from one another.

Modern neuroscience provides additional support for the Gottman approach. The brain only exhibits lasting changes in light of new information if the learner finds the information relevant or significant. Just as a child won’t learn how to throw a football if she despises the game, you won’t appreciate what your opponents say if you hate them — even when there is something valuable to learn.

Consider Daryl Davis, a black jazz musician, who seems to have mastered the Gottman approach and deployed it with the seemingly unreachable: members of the KKK. Davis famously convinced Roger Kelly and others to leave the Klan by befriending them. Kelly told CNN, “We don’t agree with everything, but at least [Daryl] respects me to sit down and listen to me, and I respect him to sit down and listen to him.”

America’s political tribes are not only polarized but fractured. There is little trust or respect — and much contempt for the other side. The relationship is broken. Sometimes ending a dysfunctional relationship is for the best. However, as Gottman and Silver write of romantic couples, it makes sense to repair if at all possible, for “the death of love is a tragedy.”

Your Political Party Isn’t Right About Everything: Intellectual Humility and the Public Square

photograph of cluttered telephone switchboard

Our political affiliations affect us in many ways, influencing how we vote, where we live, and even who we connect with as friends. But let’s take a moment to consider not just how our political affiliations influence how we vote, but also what we believe. Before reading the rest of this article, pause and consider how you would answer each of the following questions:

Is abortion morally wrong in most circumstances?
Should homosexual couples be allowed to marry?
Is illegal immigration into the United States a serious problem?
Should the United States federal minimum wage be raised?
Is it okay to consider race when making college admissions decisions?

Chances are, if someone knows your answer to one of these questions, they could probably predict how you answered the others. If you said that the United States should not raise its federal minimum wage, then you likely also said that abortion is wrong in most circumstances, and if you thought that homosexual couples should be allowed to marry, you probably also think that race should be a factor in college admissions.

But this is rather surprising. After all, these issues are very complex. To decide whether we should raise the minimum wage, we would need to know a good deal of economics, and to settle whether abortion is wrong, we would need to know a fair bit of ethical theory. Furthermore, these questions appear to be unrelated. What does the morality of abortion have to do with the minimum wage? And what does college admissions have to do with illegal immigration? Having a particular position on whether we should raise the minimum wage seems to have very little, if anything, to do with deciding who gets into college.

Because these issues are both complex and unrelated, someone that is not familiar with United States politics would probably expect that people’s opinions would be all over the map. Just because a person thinks that homosexual couples should be allowed to marry does not mean that they will think that illegal immigration is not a serious problem. But this, of course, is not what we find. Instead, the answers that people give to these questions are highly correlated. If someone thinks that affirmative action is okay, then they are much more likely to think that the minimum wage should be raised.

The reason we can predict how people will answer is because of our political affiliations. Republicans and Democrats tend to give diverging answers to the above questions, and so the party that you typically vote for can be used to predict what your answers will be. So just by knowing what party you vote for, we can anticipate what you think about issues ranging from abortion to affirmative action to minimum wage laws.

Perhaps this is not much of an issue. After all, maybe the political party you chose is the right one, and it gets things correct the vast majority of the time. But is this really plausible? Let’s examine a couple possibilities.

It could be, for example, that one political party is simply more intelligent than the other. There has been research suggesting that Republicans IQ scores might be 1-3 points higher than Democrats, but other research has shown that, once we take socioeconomic status into account, those differences disappear. And both Republicans and Democrats make the same sorts of logical errors when evaluating arguments for and against their respective positions.

It could also be that one side has respect for experts and defers to their opinions while the other does not, enabling the former to be right far more often than the latter. But again, the evidence here is mixed at best. While Republicans may be less likely to listen to the experts when it comes to anthropogenic climate change, their views on economic policy are more aligned with economists than those of Democrats.

So maybe there is not a good reason to think that one political party gets things mostly right, while the other side gets things mostly wrong. But if we do not have a strong reason to think that Democrats are consistently better at answering political questions than Republicans, or vice versa, then we are faced with a bit of a dilemma. If our opinions on many complex and unrelated political issues are best explained by our party affiliation, and we have no reason to think that one side is right more often than the other, then maybe we ought to be less confident in our political beliefs.

One way to put this plan into action would be to become more intellectually humble. Not only does intellectual humility reduce polarization and increase empathy, but most importantly for our purposes, intellectual humility increases how open we are to considering opposing points of view. Maybe if we were all a bit more intellectually humble, we would be less likely to simply parrot the beliefs of our chosen political party.

But even though it might seem obvious that we could all benefit from having some intellectual humility, some have argued that this comes with certain political drawbacks as well. In order to thrive, democracies not only need their citizens to take care when forming their political beliefs, but democracies also need their citizens to put those beliefs into action by becoming civically engaged. But at the same time that intellectual humility opens us up to reconsidering our political beliefs, it also makes us less politically involved. As our confidence that our way of seeing the world is correct decreases, we also lose some of our motivation to make sure our views are politically enforced.

Is there any middle ground here? Can we stay civically engaged while at the same time growing in intellectual humility? Perhaps there is a way to balance the two considerations, but it will likely transform our current forms of political participation. Instead of engaging in politics like overly confident activists, we might think long and hard about a single issue before taking a stand. Instead of dreaming up grand ways that the government should transform society, we might admit that any utopian vision likely has many unforeseen flaws. And instead of rushing to judgment, we might admit that we do not know the answers to many of the questions our society faces.

Are Voters to Blame for the Polarization Crisis?

drawing of political protest crowd

Even before Donald Trump was elected president, political polarization was on the rise. In his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama said that one shortcoming of his time in office was his failure to curb polarization. He acknowledged that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” calling it “one of the few regrets of [his] presidency.”

Even though Obama was aware of the growing political divide, it still would have been difficult to anticipate what would happen next. During the Trump presidency, the United States became one of the most, if not the most, polarized democracies on Earth. In the summer of 2020, 76% of Republicans thought that the U.S. government was doing a good job dealing with the pandemic, while only 29% of Democrats agreed. Across the nations surveyed, this was the largest such divide. Americans strongly distrust those who vote for the other party, a trend that only worsens amongst younger voters.

Who is responsible for this growing political impasse? To many, the answer is obvious: irrational voters are to blame.

To begin with, polarized citizens are less likely to listen to opposing views, looking primarily to party identification to guide how they vote. Hearing less and less from those who disagree, their confidence increases that they are in the right, further deepening the political impasse.

In this way, extreme polarization can become a vicious cycle. Voters increasingly pay attention only to what supports their existing political views. The news stories they hear, and the policy proposals that they take most seriously, come from those with whom they already agree. Whether this is because they are uncomfortable with the uncertainty, or simply like belonging to their political tribe, avoiding the opposition only exacerbates the political divide.

Even when voters do hear things that challenge their views, they often engage in motivated reasoning – evaluating information in a way that favors their prior beliefs.

Suppose I believe that district-based public schooling leads to better results than school choice programs. I am presented with two studies, one that provides evidence in favor of mandatory public schools and the other that supports school choice vouchers. Because of my previous beliefs, I engage in some motivated reasoning. I more closely scrutinize the second study, identifying several methodological flaws. I walk away more convinced than ever that school choice programs are inferior to mandatory public schooling.

So there you have it. Not only do citizens listen primarily to their own political party, but when faced with information that might challenge their political opinions, they reason in a way that merely confirms their beliefs. Because of their irrationality, it seems voters are at fault for our descent into toxic partisanship.

While this assessment might seem straightforward, some question whether the blame should be laid so squarely at the feet of voters. Citizens face a number of challenges in deciding how to vote. Political issues are complex, requiring competence in things like history, sociology, and economics to fully understand.

Voters have limited time and resources. They cannot become experts in every area necessary to make good political choices. Inevitably, they must rely on others to sort through all the relevant information.

Because they depend on others to help them determine how to vote, citizens must decide who to trust. Should they trust members of the other political party, politicians and pundits that they already think are mistaken about many issues? Or should they trust those that share their perspective, those that they already think advocate for better policies? From this perspective, the answer should be clear. Surely, they should trust those they believe to be more reliable. In fact, it is rational for them to do so. Why trust someone who you think makes a lot of mistakes rather than someone who you think makes good choices?

What about motivated reasoning? Voters, as we have discussed, do not have the time to evaluate all the relevant evidence. When their evidence conflicts, they may have to make a choice about what to inspect more closely. From their perspective, the evidence that challenges their beliefs is more likely to be misleading, so it makes sense to scrutinize that evidence more closely. Using our example from before, it is rational for me to take a closer look at the study that supports school choice, leading to finding more flaws with that study rather than the one that supports district-based public schools.

If all this is right, then political polarization is a predictable consequence of the challenges that voters face. Due to their limited time and expertise, it is rational for citizens to trust their political party and be more critical of evidence that challenges their beliefs.

But if voters are not to blame for political polarization, who is?

Perhaps polarization is more a product of our current political culture than individual voter behavior. Democrats and Republicans each have their own newspapers, magazines, and cable news networks, creating conditions where citizens only hear the same views and opinions parroted. To make matters worse, both liberals and conservatives are quick to vilify those who disagree with them, undermining trust in anyone that doesn’t stick to the party line. Even when voters are behaving rationally, these dynamics encourage citizens to become more and more entrenched.

Regardless of who is to blame, recognizing the challenges that voters face makes it clear that cultural change is needed to turn the tide of political polarization. Helping citizens productively navigate the complex political arena will require reestablishing social trust and focusing on our shared values. As it stands, voters might be doing the best they can with what they have. They are simply being set up to fail.

Civility, Testimonial Injustice, and Commitment to Philosophy

black-and-white photograph of man and woman yelling into megaphones

The American people are extremely politically polarized. Polling shows that this divide is only increasing, particularly on issues of race and gender. Recent revelations that have come out as a result of whistleblowing about the practices of Facebook confirm what many of us probably already expected based on our own personal experiences — social media makes these chasms even wider by contributing to the spread of false information and creating echo chambers for groups of like-minded extremists to speak to one another at the exclusion of any dissenting voices or disconfirming evidence.

The state of politics today has many people longing for an imaginary past in which those who disagreed did so respectfully. In this utopia, we focus exclusively on the merits of arguments (the good kind) rather than simply attacking people. We recognize that dissent is healthy, and we appreciate the insight of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty when he said,

the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. 

Here, Mill illustrates a certain kind of learning process — one that is employed by Socrates in his conversations with the citizens of Athens. To understand which conclusions we ought to adopt, we ought to listen to the arguments that people make. If we identify an error in reasoning, we can calmly point it out and everyone involved will be the better for it, as it might bring us all that much closer to truth. Perhaps, like Socrates, the finer points of our arguments will be met from even the staunchest dissenter from our position with a “that is undeniable” or “that is perfectly true” for good measure.

So, is it “philosophy to the rescue!”? One way of responding to our current predicament is to insist that everyone needs a strong education in logic and critical thinking. People need to develop the ability not only to recognize the commission of a fallacy when they see it, but also to frequently (and in good faith) reflect on their own body of beliefs and attitudes. We need to collectively get better at checking for cognitive bias and errors in reasoning in both ourselves and others.

On the other hand, we might ask ourselves whether the above account of Plato and Mill is an accurate description of the circumstances in which we are likely to find ourselves. A more compelling insight might be one from 18th century philosopher David Hume who famously said, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Hume makes the argument the reason alone does not and cannot motivate us to act — it is our passions that do that. If this is the case, then if we want to arrive at a common understanding or come together in motivation toward a common cause, we need to understand the complexities of one another’s psychologies; we need to recognize the common forces that might potentially move us to action. We might have arguments for our positions, but is it really those arguments that motivate us to act in the ways that we do?

Moreover, to insist that what’s needed now in contemporary culture is more civil discourse may be to fail to recognize certain obvious facts about the way that the world works. In an ideal world, it might be the case that we could all offer arguments, and expect to be heard and understood. However, the non-ideal world in which we find ourselves is a world characterized by power dynamics and replete with testimonial injustice. Groups with power are more likely to be listened to and believed than groups without it. The claims of the rich, for instance, are often given a considerably larger platform than the claims of the poor. What’s more, those on the desirable side of the power dynamic are more likely to describe themselves and to be described by others as “rational.” Often, these descriptions confuse the category of the “rational” with the category of “positions held by the powerful.”

Philosophers from antiquity have identified the capacity to reason as the essence of a human being, but, just as reliably, the concept of rationality has been weaponized to create “us” and “them” groups which are subsequently called upon to insist on “rights for me but not for thee.” Consider, for instance the Cartesian philosopher Nicolas Malebranche’s description of the way women’s minds work:

…normally they are incapable of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover. Everything abstract is incomprehensible to them. They cannot use their imagination for working out tangled and complex questions. They consider only the surface of things, and their imagination has insufficient strength and insight to pierce it to the heart, comparing all the parts, without being distracted. A trifle is enough to distract them, the slightest cry frightens them, the least motion fascinates them. Finally, the style and not the reality of things suffices to occupy their minds to capacity; because insignificant things produce great motions in the delicate fibers of their brains, and these things necessarily excite great and vivid feelings in their souls, completely occupying it.

Indeed, many figures in the history of philosophy who argue that rationality is the essential human function are also quick to insist that not all human beings participate in this essence. For Aristotle, for example, groups that are not capable of engaging in the kinds of practical deliberations requisite for virtue, namely women and “natural slaves,” are the kinds of beings that are rightly ruled over.

In light of the weaponized history of the very concept of rationality, it is no surprise that there might be barriers to genuine rational discourse and debate — people may not recognize the biases they bring to the discussion and they may not be self-reflective enough to understand that there may be voices to which they are less likely to listen or to treat as credible. If this is the case, we run into another problem for civil discourse. When people have been the recipients of testimonial injustice often enough, they may no longer be calm about it. They may be angry, and that anger may be justified. Demands, then, for “rationality” may just be tone-policing by the group to which people have always listened.

What lessons should lovers of philosophy learn from all of this? Evaluation of arguments is, after all, what we do. Should these considerations encourage us to give up our most deeply-held convictions as philosophers? Probably not. But it should prompt us to be more reflective about the broader social and political landscapes in which we make and, perhaps more importantly, listen to arguments.

Biden, Trump, and the Dangers of Value-Free Science

President Joe Biden observes dosage preparations during a tour of a vaccination center

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the Trump administration lived in tension with scientific advisors. Because of concerns that Trump politicized science in ways that put life at risk and undermined public trust, the Biden administration is launching a 46-person federal scientific integrity task force to investigate areas where partisanship interfered with scientific decision-making and to come up with ways to keep politics out of science in the future. While risk to scientific integrity is an important concern, the thinking behind this task force risks covering up a problem rather than resolving it.

Critics seeking “evidence-based policy-making” have accused the Trump administration of letting politics interfere with issues including, but not limited to, coronavirus, climate change, and whether Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama. They also argue that this interference made the response to COVID-19 worse and led to a higher death toll. Jane Lubchenco, deputy director for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted, “What we have seen in the last administration is that the suppression of science, the reassignment of scientists, the distortion of scientific information around climate change was not only destructive but counterproductive and really problematic.”

But it isn’t clear scientific integrity can be defined in a way that is free from political interference or that it should be. Consider the memo from Biden on the subject which states that “scientific findings should never be distorted and influenced by political considerations.” While this might mean making sure that findings and data are not suppressed or distorted in ad hoc and arbitrary ways, this approach also sounds like an attempt to enforce a value-free ideal of science, which, according to many philosophers of science and scientists themselves, is neither possible nor desirable.

For starters, it isn’t clear that we can completely separate politics from science even if we wanted to. According to philosopher Helen Longino, what we take as evidence for something requires assumptions that are informed by our values. These assumptions often cannot be (and are not) empirically measured, and so “there are no formal rules, guidelines, or processes that can guarantee that social values will not permeate evidential relations.” Such assumptions can dramatically affect the methods taken by scientists including what protocols to follow, what sorts of things to measure, and for how long.

For example, in his book A Tapestry of Values, Keven Elliot provides an example of Woburn Massachusetts in the 1970s when several people became ill and it was noted that the local water had taken on a strange color and taste. Eventually it was discovered that barrels of industrial chemicals were found buried near the city’s wells. Proving a direct link between these chemicals and the many cancers and illnesses in the city proved difficult. A department of public health report about a connection between the two was inconclusive. Later, citizens of the community managed to get a separate study commissioned with significantly more input from the community and which later found that there was a significant correlation between consumption of water from the contaminated wells and the health problems people experienced. As Elliot notes,

“assumptions about the appropriate boundaries of the geographical area to be studied can be very important to scrutinize; if a study incorporates some heavily polluted areas and other areas that are not very polluted, it can make pollution threats appear less serious than they would otherwise be. Similarly, analyzing health effects together for two neighboring towns might yield statistically significant evidence for health problems, whereas analyzing health effects in the two towns separately might not yield statistically significant results.”

In other words, there are many cases where values are needed to inform the methods of research that is taken.

Consider an example from the headlines this week. On Monday it was reported that less than 3% of all land on Earth is fully ecologically intact. Philosophers Kristen Intemann and Inmaculada de Melo-Martin have argued that measuring climate impacts requires values because “impact” depends on judgments about what is worth protecting. As the paper that inspired this week’s headline makes clear, “there is no clear definition of what is meant by intactness and the term is used loosely in the scientific literature.” For some scientists measuring the intactness of an ecosystem is done by measuring anthropogenic influence, whereas for the authors of the paper measuring whether an ecosystem is intact will involve measuring the habitat intactness, faunal intactness, and functional intactness. Depending on how this is measured, we find that the amount of land that is intact varies from 3% to 25%. The decision regarding which of these measures to use is quite significant and will inevitably depend on our values. Whatever we decide, the findings will have an enormous impact on our policies.

Philip Kitcher has argued that science is not just about finding truth, but finding truths we deem significant, which makes democratically-informed values highly desirable. The decision of whether agricultural science should focus on efficiency and maximizing crop yields or sustainability and maintaining future output is something that we might want to be politically-informed. Another area where values are desirable involves cases of inductive risk. As I’ve previously explained it, inductive risk involves cases of dealing with the risks of real world consequences relative to the uncertainty you have in your current conclusion.

A really good example of this thinking at play is the public health advice when it comes to COVID. From social distancing, to mask-wearing, to vaccine use, the guidance has always been a matter of weighing what is known relative to risks of being wrong. This has been pretty blatant. Experts need to weigh the risks of, for example, using the AstraZeneca vaccine despite not knowing a lot about its connection to blood clots because the alternatives are worse. In a case like this, regardless about how you may feel about the scientific findings, when scientists say the benefits outweigh the risks, this is a value judgment, and therefore it is a fair question whether political or ethical values other than those of scientists should be relevant to science in way that doesn’t damage the integrity of the research.

For these reasons, many philosophers have argued that trying to bury values under the rug and pursuing a goal like value-free science isn’t helpful. If, in your attempt to banish political interference, values are only made more subtle and difficult to notice, you only make the problem worse. It’s possible that efforts to secure scientific integrity may stop short of the value-free ideal; the aim may not be to weed out all values, but only “improper political influence.” But then the word “improper” takes on huge significance and requires a lot of clarification. Thus, there is a larger moral question about how much influence democratic values should have over science and whether it is possible to provide an account of integrity that may be politically informed but not just as politically controversial at the end of the day.

“Stand Back and Stand By”: The Demands of Loyal Opposition

photograph of miniature US flag with blurred background

An incendiary essay is currently making the rounds. Glenn Ellmers’s “‘Conservatism’ is no Longer Enough” is a call to arms: “The United States has become two nations occupying the same country.” The essay details a kind of foreign occupation:

most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term. […] They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.

Given this dire situation where there is “almost nothing left to conserve,” “counter-revolution” represents “the only road forward.” Those brave enough to grasp this grave truth also possess the clarity of vision to see that “America, as an identity or political movement, might need to carry on without the United States.” For if true patriots fail to find the courage to mobilize and take action, “the victory of progressive tyranny will be assured. See you in the gulag.”

While it may seem irresponsible to grant such obvious propaganda additional attention, Ellmers’s essay is worthy of consideration for two reasons. First, this is not your run-of-the-mill internet debris. It bears the seal of a prominent conservative think tank. Published by The American Mind with direct ties to the Claremont Institute (where Ellmers graduated and serves as fellow), the essay is endorsed by a body with not insignificant cachet. The various fellows and graduates, for instance, have ties to major universities. It would be a mistake to see this as obscure preaching to a small flock; this narrative is emblematic. It’s an intellectualized hard-right manifesto serving as mission statement for the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy whose name Ellmers invokes.

Second, the essay provides a compelling framework by which to understand the motivations behind a number of recent events — the various efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election, the January 6th Capitol riot, as well as voting legislation in Georgia (and elsewhere) attempting to restrict the franchise to “real” Americans. Like Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election” (another Claremont fellow whose work was published by the same body), Ellmers’s essay paints the current political moment as a desperate choice: fight or face extinction, rush the cockpit or die.

Ellmers’s essay has received attention in no small part due to its eerie similarity to Weimar-era German political writings. Echoing the kind of language used by Carl Schmitt – the constitutional scholar and jurist who embraced National Socialism – Ellmers emphasizes the need to declare a state of emergency and purge those who have infiltrated the state and subjected American politics, all in an act of restoration and purification. “What is needed, of course,” Ellmers claims, “is a statesman who understands both the disease afflicting the nation, and the revolutionary medicine required for the cure” — a pronouncement which seems strikingly similar to Schmitt’s explanation of the role of the sovereign to normalize the situation by embracing the responsibility to deliver the miracle of the decision – that is, the extra-legal authority to say whether everyday legal norms should apply.

Likewise, Ellmers’s essay seconds Schmitt’s conviction that the basis of politics rests on distinguishing friend from foe and treating them accordingly. For any state to continue to be, it must be willing and able to forcibly expel those who might undermine its fundamental homogeneity in order to save itself from corruption from within. Again, following Schmitt, Ellmers issues a dire warning on the supposed political virtue of tolerance and questions our blind faith in democracy’s ability to assimilate conflicting and antagonistic viewpoints and house them under the same roof.

Lost in all the fascist rhetoric is an important philosophical problem. The challenge is familiar to students of political obligation: how can citizens feel any tie to the law when it isn’t their team who’s making the rules? It is what David Estlund has called the “puzzle of the minority democrat”: how can those in the minority consider themselves self-governing if they are subject to laws they have not explicitly endorsed?

This is no small thing; resolving this tension is the key to the bloodless transition of power. Ensuring citizens can adequately identify with the law and see themselves sufficiently reflected in their government is a necessary component of the exercise of legitimate political authority. We need a compelling answer for how citizens might still see themselves as having had a hand in authoring these constraints even when their private preferences have failed to win the day. Why should those in the minority sacrifice their own sense of what is right simply because they lack numbers on their side on any particular occasion?

Our answers to this puzzle often begin by emphasizing that democratic decision-making is essentially about compromise. Majority rule acknowledges our basic equality by publicly affirming the worth of each citizen’s viewpoint. It privileges no single individual’s claim to knowledge or expertise. It grants each citizen the greatest share of political power possible that remains compatible with people’s basic parity. From there, explanations begin to diverge.

Some accounts emphasize the duty to live by the result of the game in which we’ve been a willing participant. Others highlight the opportunity to impact the decision, voice concerns, and engage in reason-giving. A few maintain faith in the majority’s ability to come to the “correct” decision.

Regardless of the particulars, each of these accounts makes a virtue of reciprocity; individual freedom must be balanced against the equally legitimate claims to liberty by one’s fellows. When we refuse to acknowledge this, we usurp others’ right to equal discretion in shaping our shared world and thus violate our moral commitment to the fundamental equality of people.

These considerations about how best to accommodate deep, and potentially incompatible, disagreement have important implications for our politics today. For example, the ongoing debate over reforming the filibuster is a conversation about, among other things, the appropriate portion of power those in the minority should wield. Different people articulate different visions of the part the opposition party needs to play. But we seemingly all agree that this role must be more robust than one wherein those in the minority simply bide their time until they can rewrite the law and install their own private political vision. Instead, we must continue to articulate the significant demands the concept of loyal opposition makes on all of us. Responsible statesmanship is not solely the burden of those who wear the crown.

The Value of Secrecy in Congress

photograph of C-SPAN floor vote TV coverage

During both of the most recent impeachments, an old argument resurfaced. Afraid of retribution, many spoke out to advocate a way Republican members of Congress could get rid of Trump and keep their own seats. They suggested that the impeachment vote in the House and the Senate should be done in secret. Republican voters would know some Republicans voted to convict, but the blame would be diluted, spread across all 50 or so Republican senators. And so each Republican senator would individually be unlikely to lose his or her seat.

But this raises a question: if it would be good to convict Trump secretly, why not make the votes on all sorts of controversial issues secret? The people would know what laws were passed of course, but no one would be allowed to see committee meetings. No congressional sessions or votes would be broadcast on TV. You would vote in your representatives and then for two, four, or six years, you would simply trust that they voted in the way that was best. Members of Congress could pass legislation that might be unpopular to their constituency, but important for the nation at large. And neither ordinary citizens nor lobbyists could influence the legislative process after election day.

Many, however, are horrified by this idea. Making acts of Congress secret would be akin to government by aristocracy, rule by the elites, not democracy. Transparency is vital because it allows citizens to accurately judge whether their elected representatives are actually representing them instead of simply voting their own interests.

Let’s consider the arguments on both sides here and see if we can develop a better understanding of the issue. What are the benefits of congressional secrecy? And, are the costs to democracy too severe?

The first reason why one might think congressional votes should be secret is because this secrecy would allow Congress to stop acting only along party lines. Congress is extremely partisan nowadays and this hasn’t always been the case. Furthermore, this unwillingness to cross the aisle leads to difficulties in Congress achieving popular political ends. For example, nearly 60 percent of Americans supported Trump being convicted and removed from office after the second impeachment trial. Even more Americans, including 64 percent of Republicans, support stimulus checks. But, no Republican members of Congress voted for Biden’s stimulus check, despite voting for Trump’s. And finally, a majority of Republicans support increasing the minimum wage, but Republican members of Congress vote against it when the issue is raised by Democrats. Voting against political opponents seems to be more important to members of Congress than passing popular legislation.

The fact of the matter is that Congress isn’t beholden to your average voter. Nor even the average voter from their party. Members of Congress are beholden to the partisans of their party because of the primary system. According to a study from the Social Science Research Council, primary voters tend to prefer politically extreme candidates. And if candidates can’t make it past the primaries, it doesn’t matter how popular they would be in the general election. (Some have suggested primaries are responsible for Trump’s nomination.) In any case, if Congressional votes were more often secret, congresspeople could give lip service to extremism in the primaries while looking to what’s best for the country when they actually vote. Those extreme partisans wouldn’t know who betrayed them. Thus, legislation that is broadly popular, but not popular among extreme partisans, could be passed and perhaps we’d be better off.

But, partisans and primaries aren’t the only reason Congress doesn’t pass popular legislation. Another problem congressional secrecy, especially in committee meetings, could solve is the influence of lobbyists and donors. As I have written elsewhere, money in politics is a seriously corrupting influence. Lobbyists and donors frequently control the legislative agenda. But, again, this hasn’t always been the case. The number of lobbyists skyrocketed in the 1970s with the passage of so-called “Sunshine Laws” meant to improve government transparency. Some of these are good: Freedom of Information Act requests allow the people to have access to a great deal of information about the operation of government that would be otherwise hidden from them. But, they also allowed lobbyists to flow in from the lobby through the previously closed doors of committee meetings. As is argued by the Congressional Research Institute (a think tank, not part of Congress), these laws “enormously enhanced the ability of ‘outside’ lobbyists and powerful entities to influence the legislative process,” and so they claim “all legislative transparency overwhelmingly benefits special interests and the powerful.”

Think of it this way: before, lobbyists and donors could monitor how congressional votes shook out. If particular members of Congress voted how the donors wanted, they would get more campaign donations, and if not, they wouldn’t. This influence has always been around. But since the passage of the Sunshine Laws, lobbyists can monitor the entire legislative process: they can write the legislation, follow along with congressional committee meetings to make sure no revisions are made they don’t like, and display their approval or disapproval to members of Congress throughout the process. Of course, ordinary citizens can do this too, but they tend not to have the resources to lobby as powerfully as massive corporations or billionaires. If the relevant “Sunshine Laws” were reversed, many of these problems would go away, and if congressional votes were made secret too, lobbying would become a very bad investment. Donors could spend money on lobbying and campaign donations and hope that the legislator feels pressured by it, but they would never be sure if it worked. Thus, the influence of money in politics would be diminished.

However, there remains an enormous counter-argument to making the acts of Congress secret. I have been making a very utilitarian case for secrecy. It would achieve better results for the American people. But that may not be the only thing that matters. One might argue that the ends aren’t the only things that matter; the means do too. Making the acts of Congress secret would allow lawmakers to ignore the interests of the people in favor of their own opinions and values. It would allow members of Congress to lie to the people about how they voted with little to no consequence. Perhaps transparency should be considered a virtue such that if maintaining transparency means lobbyists and donors get their way, so be it.

One might say getting something they consider important, like removing Trump from office, or getting stimulus to the people, or raising the minimum wage, isn’t worth the cost of allowing Congress to be unbeholden to voters. Is a democracy led by representatives who can ignore the voters really a democracy at all? Many political philosophers, like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have argued that government derives its power from the consent of the governed. One might hold that doing what the people want, even if it’s wrong, is more important than doing right, if it means ignoring the will of the people. A government that doesn’t act for the people may not be much of a government at all. And why should we think representatives know better than the population at large? They are only human. And more than that they are an unrepresentative sample of the country, being more white, more male, older, and wealthier than the American population.Thus, on this view, making the acts of Congress secret is untenable: it is valid only according to a consequentialist framework and anyone who disagrees with such a framework will abhor the fact that legislators will be incentivized toward dishonesty and away from democratic principles. As Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, to act “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue,” nothing more, nothing less. This is a far higher standard than simply weighing the consequences and one we should strive for.

Making the acts of Congress secret would be an enormous change and not one to be taken lightly. As I have shown, your thoughts on this issue can vary significantly based on which moral framework you follow. The case, at least in the short term, is clear for the consequentialist. But for the virtue ethicist or deontologist, things are far murkier. Answering this question, as with many moral questions requires us to consider which of our values cannot be crossed? Which do you value more, if one has to be sacrificed: transparency and democracy, or the people’s welfare? In any case, something needs to be changed so that the problems of political partisanship and the influence of money in politics are resolved. Making the acts of Congress may be one solution but there are surely others. Perhaps we should reform the primary system. Perhaps we should overturn Citizens United to diminish the power of donors and lobbyists. The number of ethical solutions is only limited by our creativity, something which must be trained by continual practice and reflection.

The Broader Moral Issue Behind the Filibuster

black-and-white photograph of U.S. congress in session

This week, the American Rescue Plan became law after being passed along party lines despite overwhelming bi-partisan support from state and local figures as well as voters (according to opinion polling). The massive stimulus measure has been taken as an indication that “the era of big government” is back, and indeed given the challenges faced with COVID-19, the threat of climate change, the urgent need to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, it isn’t particularly shocking that a significant share of voters now want government to be more proactive. It should be no surprise then that the Senate filibuster continues to be a lightning rod of controversy as more Democrats have called for reform. But is this just politics or are there more subtle moral concerns at stake when it comes to changing the filibuster?

Those who oppose getting rid of the filibuster tend to point to three general reasons to keep it. The first is that the filibuster is in keeping with the general philosophy behind the Constitution, specifically to prevent swift passage of laws. The second is that the filibuster protects minority rights. The third reason is more political-practical in nature; warning of the dangers of what would happen if the other side were able to do as they wish, and nothing could be done to stop it.

In response to the first reason, two important points need to be noted. In a 1995 article defending the filibuster, Bill Frenzel notes, “The Framers created our system based on their profound distrust of government […] Their intention was to prevent swift enactment of laws and to avoid satisfying the popular whimsy of each willful majority.” However even if slow government was the goal of the Constitution, it isn’t clear that the filibuster was a good means of accomplishing this. James Madison argued requiring more than majority support would reverse “the fundamental principle of free government,” while Alexander Hamilton argued that such requirements serve to “substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”

What is more important, however, is that the Framers of the Constitution were influenced by 18th-century political philosophy and were responding to 18th-century problems. So, the question is whether such conditions still hold today, and if we should be bound by what the Founders wanted? The answer appears to be no, as even Thomas Jefferson argued that the Constitution should be revised and updated to meet the needs of new generations. While it is tempting to think about political philosophy in a-temporal terms as establishing stable institutions to protect an invariant set of fixed human rights, we might instead consider political institutions the instruments that allow the public to conduct its business.

In response to the second reason — the protection of minority rights — the question is always one of which minority and which rights we are talking about. If we are talking about the rights of a minority of citizens against the tyranny of the majority, then we already have a solution to that; it’s called the Bill of Rights. If we are talking about the rights of a minority of Senators, then we need to ask how far those rights should be extended. The right to review and debate legislation is important for any legislator in the minority, but whether there is a right for a minority of lawmakers to effectively veto legislation is another. Senator Raphael Warnock, for example, recently posed this very question, asking whether the minority rights of Senators should outweigh the voting rights of citizens.

If we put aside the first two reasons, as, by themselves, they aren’t reasons to keep the filibuster specifically, we must address the actual perceivable consequences of making changes to lawmaking policy. For example, Mitch McConnell recently warned of a “scorched earth Senate” where Republicans would use every rule at their disposal to halt the chamber and once returned to the majority would pass all manner of laws unacceptable to Democrats with “zero input” from them.

First, it is worth noting that most other legislative chambers do not have a filibuster rule like the Senate, despite hailing from nations which rank high on the democracy index. For example, prior to the 1990s the Legislative Assembly of Ontario was far more permissive about the length of speeches, allowing one member to tie up the legislature for weeks, culminating in a 17-hour long speech. The rules of the legislature were later amended to limit the time for members to speak, but even after this filibuster was eliminated, there were plenty of opportunities for obstruction. For example, one member was able to tie up the legislature for hours by introducing a bill whose title included every lake, river, and steam in the province. The title had to be read aloud by the member and the clerk.

Despite eliminating the chance to filibuster, the sky did not fall in Ontario. Just as McConnell has threatened to tie up the Senate using tactics like having bills be read aloud, legislators in Ontario resorted to new tactics and procedural moves to obstruct which were only permitted until they also became a nuisance. Yet, what follows from jurisdictions that allow for the easy passage of legislation based on a majority vote? Firstly, it means that administrations are far more able to enact the platforms they run on. Thus, voters more often see their political preferences be reflected in law.

But this also means that a newly elected government can always repeal and replace what came before far easier. This can be problematic because it creates greater instability and uncertainty. Sometimes this happens as a major piece of legislation can be repealed in short order by a new government who may choose their own policies. Good examples in Canada include a national childcare program that was almost enacted before a newly elected Conservative government cancelled it. In Ontario, the Liberal government’s cap and trade program was abolished quickly by a new Conservative administration.

While the swinging pendulum of political winners does mean that laws and programs can be enacted and repealed more frequently, it is rarely a free-for-all either. Certain programs, policies, or laws simply have too much public support to allow new governments to wipe the slate clean. For example, even when Conservative governments enjoy large majorities and could easily do so, you don’t see them repealing programs like public healthcare because the public would not stand for it.

So would a filibuster-less Senate be a disaster? Certainly McConnell is right that even if Democrats pass all the legislation they want, Republicans can just as easily repeal it next time they’re in power and further enact all sorts of reforms that would be objectionable to Democrats. However, in the long term the back-and-forth of major legislative reforms, repeals, and replacements would not be sustainable. It is in the public’s interest to have some degree of stability even if it takes voters a while to realize this. However, this kind of legislative experimentation might make it easier for the public to connect policies and ideas with real-life consequences. It’s one thing to vote Republican if you know little can get done, it is another thing to vote Republican if you know they can and will take away your healthcare. And if they do, your future voting preferences might change. In essence, eliminating the filibuster reveals how important it will be for voters to be more informed advocates when it comes to policy and to be less inclined to knee-jerk defenses of ideology.

Reforming the filibuster may not be merely a matter of exacerbating political problems, but rather it reveals and identifies a moral one. In a time where political reform is easier without the filibuster, what kind of changes to political culture should result? What are our responsibilities to be informed when we vote? Given that fellow citizens may not agree with all of our policies and may have the option to repeal them in the future, are we obligated to seek input from opponents in order to ensure that policies have enough support not to be undone after the next election? Would a scorched-earth approach with “zero input” from the other side ever be a good thing? In essence, are we not forced to ask how we can better “get along” with opposing voter blocks and what would that look like? Could this actually lead to more compromise and less polarization? And in our present political culture, where is the line drawn between pure obstruction and a meaningful challenge from the voting minority? And if some obstruction is welcome to protect the rights of the minority, how far should those rights go?

As I said, even if you eliminate the filibuster there are other tactics that can be used, just as they were in Ontario. The issue will not just go away. The debate for the nation is not whether a legislative tactic should stick around, but about the kind of political culture we should have.

Wrongs that Are Wrong to Forgive?

Charles Koch portrait photograph

On November 13th, The Wall Street Journal published that Charles Koch, one of the infamous Koch brothers who have wielded an unprecedented influence over the media coverage and political direction of the U.S. in recent decades, now regrets his role in dividing the nation and contributing to our present circumstances. This apology was met with a range of reactions, from indignation, skepticism, and generous calls for attitudes approaching gratefulness that he may change his ways. Koch’s reversal raises questions about when it is appropriate, obligatory, or impermissible to forgive someone for the harm they’ve caused or the wrong they’ve committed.

These standards are complicated because the paradigm case of forgiveness involves close, personal relationships. Because we each are obviously not perfect, there are times when we fail to live up to our commitments to one another and this can cause harm and disappointment in those that we care about. If a friend breaks a promise, for instance, and shows regret, forgiveness can provide a way to move forward. The show of remorse can take various forms (some people prefer apologies, some are moved by a commitment to behave differently in the future, etc.), but no longer holding a wrong-doer “to account” is a form of forgiveness that we recognize easily from our day-to-day lives.

In this model, forgiveness could be “for” both the person who was harmed as well as the wrong-doer; forgiveness helps the shared relationship. In other cases, forgiveness can be a lightening of the emotional load of the person who has been harmed. To carry the weight of having been treated badly can be difficult. It can erode your faith in others or occupy more of your mental energy than you’d like. Forgiveness, in these circumstances, can be a lifting of the emotions wrapped up in blaming the one who hurt you. It could be a good thing for the person wronged.

Another model of forgiveness focuses more centrally on the person who failed. Instead of forgiveness functioning as a way of letting go of the labor tied up in ongoing blame, this model emphasizes forgiveness as a sort of gift we can give to one who has committed a moral wrong. It can seem like we ought to forgive, then, either for our sake as the harmed, or for the person who harmed us’ sake.

But there are other cases where it can seem wrong or inappropriate to forgive. For instance, offering forgiveness could be bad for those harmed, if they seem not to take themselves or their value seriously. Forgiveness could also be bad for the wrong-doer; not holding one to account may inhibit one’s development morally, for instance.

For wrongs that don’t fit these paradigmatic cases, things can be more tricky. When a group is harmed, for instance, either by a government or individual, forgiveness may not be as appropriate as it might be in the interpersonal case.

For example, in the 1990s, President Clinton made an apology for the U.S.’s “past sins” when visiting a number of African nations. This was a case of a representative of the government of the U.S. apologizing (attempting to accept fault and demonstrate regret) to a diverse group of people (past and present, foreign and domestic) regarding the ills of American slavery. The relationship here is obviously more complicated than the interpersonal one.

In his book, The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal writes about a former Nazi, complicit in the murder of a number of Jewish people, attempting to apologize and seek forgiveness from him, seemingly as a representative of all Jewish people. His standing to accept the apology and offer forgiveness is fraught, and many of his friends and family suggest it would be wrong to offer it.

These examples are significantly different from the interpersonal cases because the blame and accountability take on a different form. Likewise, when a person like Charles Koch causes harm, it is similarly difficult to map our standards of forgiveness to his behavior. Given the scope and depth of the bigotry and divisiveness he has supported, that forgiveness is no one individual’s to offer. And while Koch has made the initial step of expressing regret over dividing the country, he also continues to fund those same causes. This lack of genuine commitment to reparation and altering his behavior make the task of determining the appropriateness of forgiveness easier.

Political Fragmentation and Experimentation

image of US map with flags of states

On Tuesday September 22nd, the conservative lawyer and political commentator David French published his new book Divided We Fall. The book provides a careful diagnosis of current American polarization, a chilling prognosis of where this polarization might lead us, and ends with a prescription that we reinvigorate American federalism by devolving power out from the federal government and back to the states.

I found Divided We Fall especially interesting because one of my favorite books published this year was Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. French and Klein end up discussing and addressing many of the same issues; French from a more conservative position and Klein from a more liberal one. As such, it is fascinating to note where they agree and where they disagree.

Both think political polarization is increasing and that other forms of division are aligning along the political spectrum. Increasingly if you disagree with someone about who should be president, then you also likely live in a different state, read different books, watch different shows, shop at different stores, and disagree about religion.

Democrats don’t just support more redistributive taxation, they also live in cities, tend towards secularism, shop at Whole Foods, read The New York Times, own a copy of Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, watch Game of Thrones, and are terrified of the political power of the oppressive conservative right. Republicans, in turn, don’t just support free-market deregulation, they also live in rural and suburban areas, regularly attend church, eat at Cracker Barrel, watch Fox News, own a copy of Tim Tebow’s Autobiography Through My Eyes, watch Walking Dead, and are terrified of the cultural power of the ideologically intolerant progressive left.

The number of ‘landslide’ districts are increasing. People increasingly live around those with similar political views. As such, those they meet in real life are likely to agree and reinforce their views. Layered atop that geographical siloing, we also find ourselves in curated online environments surrounded by those of like mind.

Both books provide an excellent overview of these issues. French’s delves more into the cultural differences between liberals and conservatives, while Klein spends much more time discussing the historical polarization between the democratic and republican parties. But the essential diagnosis is quite similar.

Though French and Klein agree almost entirely on the diagnosis, they disagree partially on the prognosis. French and Klein both worry that American politics is on a trajectory to grow increasingly bitter, and become increasingly dominated by hate and fear. However, French takes his prognosis several steps further and argues the situation could grow so bad that we should currently take seriously the possibility it leads to secession. The discussion of secession is the weakest part of the French’s book. But since I don’t want this to turn into a book review, I’ll put my particular criticism aside (interested readers can keep an eye out for a forthcoming blogpost in which I review French’s book at greater length). Whether or not you take seriously the possibility of secession, however, both French and Klein agree, and are right to agree, that the health of our democracy is compromised by continual polarization into fear-filled communities.

Now here is what is fascinating. French and Klein agree on the diagnosis and much of the prognosis, and yet, their prescriptions are radically different, indeed they are almost opposite. French calls for a renewed Madisonian federalism. He thinks that as Americans grow further and further apart ideologically, it is less and less tenable to adopt one-size fits all political solutions at the federal level. Klein, in contrast, calls for reforms to increase the effective power of the federal government. Klein thinks that we should make it easier for the government to pass sweeping federal policy because if politicians were forced to actually govern they would need to find actual solutions and, more importantly, it would create track records of policy to which voters can hold politicians accountable.

Interestingly, even here, there is a profound agreement about what is needed for reform. French and Klein both think that we need greater policy experimentation. We need policy proposals to be put into effect so that we can see what the effects are. French wants to see this occur synchronously between states. He wants California and Tennessee to both attempt sweeping health care reform. In each state attempting different solutions, what works can get more broadly adopted. As more states adopt the successful policies they can each try different refinements giving us even more useful data about what works best in what sort of states. Klein wants to see this experimentation occurs asynchronously between administrations. When democrats are in control let them pass Obamacare, when republicans are in control let them actually repeal it, and then let the American people decide which approach they actually liked.

There are lots of arguments one could make for either proposal, and you can hear many of these arguments made in this discussion between David French and Ezra Klein (given how much I liked both books I was super excited that French showed up on Klein’s podcast).

French’s central argument against Klein is that sweeping federal policy is just too dangerous in a fractured political climate. If you see the future of your nation at stake, then seeing the other side empowered to enact sweeping federal change will drive your political tribe out of its mind. And given that you receive your news from the news sources sanctioned by your tribe, you won’t even end up with the meaningful data that allows you to see when the other side’s policies actually were not so bad.

Klein has several arguments against French. Perhaps the strongest being that federal action really is just necessary. We can’t wait forty years to see the effects of state by state climate reform, we need a massive federal response to global warming and we need ten years ago. We can’t wait three years to see which state’s COVID response worked best, we needed a unified federal strategy back in March.

Both French and Klein have a point, and it is useful to just note that I think there is a plausible middle ground between their views. Perhaps what we need is a federal government that can do more, but chooses to do less. Where the federal government is able to pass sweeping policies where a federal response really is needed, but which also leaves to the states anything that need not be done at the federal level. This solution would be a form of subsidiarity — the view that problems should be tackled by the most local form of authority competent to handle the problem. Thus, if states really can adopt healthcare reform, then they should be empowered to do so. But if we require national coordination to solve the free-rider problem of fossil fuel use then the federal government should be ready and able to act.

Klein and French both draw our attention to the current problem of political polarization. It’s scary to think their solutions differ as much as they do, and makes it clear there might be no perfectly good options before us. But I think it is clear that something at least needs to be done. For now, I’d start by reading both books!

Treating Principles as Mere Means

photograph of US Capitol Building with mirror image reflected in lake

With the Republican about-face concerning Supreme Court Senate votes, hypocrisy is once again back in the headlines. Many accusations of hypocrisy have been directed at Senator Lindsey Graham, whose support for a Senate vote for President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee so clearly clashes with earlier statements — he said in 2018 that “if an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process has started, we’ll wait till the next election” — that his behavior seems like the Platonic form of a certain kind of hypocrisy. Graham has responded with a hypocrisy accusation of his own, writing to Democrats on the judiciary panel that “if the shoe were on the other foot, you would do the same.” Amidst this controversy, it’s worth taking a step back to ask what force the accusation of hypocrisy is supposed to have.

In earlier columns, I have explored some suggestions for why hypocrisy is morally objectionable and rejected them. In this column I want to consider a theory first articulated by the philosopher Eva Feder Kittay. This account says that hypocrisy is morally objectionable because it involves treating important religious, political, or moral principles as mere means.

Immanuel Kant famously intoned against treating persons as mere means, or using them as mere instruments for the satisfaction of our own desires. What’s wrong with this is that it involves a kind of category error — it treats persons, beings with the capacity to rationally order their lives, as if they were things.

Clearly, however, this can’t be exactly what Kittay means when she talks about hypocrites treating principles as mere means: principles are not persons. Yet there is a link here. The kinds of principles Kittay is concerned with — moral and religious principles — are supposed to be adhered to because they are right, and not because they are useful to the adherent. Kant expressed this point with his distinction between categorical and hypothetical imperatives. A categorical imperative is one that is binding on you regardless of what you happen to desire. You can’t claim that some moral principle — “don’t kill innocents,” say — is not binding on you because you happen to want to kill innocents. That principle provides a reason for you not to kill innocents regardless of what you happen to want. By contrast, a hypothetical imperative — for example, “go to the store” — is only binding if you have some desire that will be promoted by acting according to the imperative. If there were nothing you wanted that you could get by going to store, that imperative would not be binding on you.

So, when Kittay says that hypocrites treat principles as mere means, she means that they treat categorical imperatives as if they were merely hypothetical. The hypocrite will adopt and discard moral principles as it suits them. Sometimes that adoption will be merely rhetorical — some hypocrites are entirely conscious that their pretense of principle is a charade. But other hypocrites will sincerely adopt moral principles, only to discard them whenever holding to them becomes inexpedient. In the case of Senate Republicans, their hypocrisy lies in their adoption of the principle of not confirming Supreme Court justices during an election year when it was convenient for them to do so, followed by their abandonment of this principle when it was convenient to do that. In doing this, they treated what seemed to be a categorical imperative — one that was binding on them even if they didn’t want to adhere to it — as if it were hypothetical.

What’s wrong with treating principles as mere means? For Kittay, the problem has to do with trust. According to her, we trust that when people claim to hold to certain categorical principles, they hold to them as categorical. We rely on this belief in our dealings with them, assuming, for example, that they will hold to those principles even if it is inconvenient for them to do so. Moreover, their assurances of commitment are all we have to go on; we can’t look into their souls to see what their true attitude toward their principles is. Hypocrisy reveals that there can be a deep divide between what people say they are committed to and what they are actually committed to. Thus, hypocrisy shows us that the part of our lives structured by principles is actually quite fragile, depending as it does on our trust in what people say. We therefore have strong incentives to expose and condemn hypocrisy. As Graham’s Democratic challenger for his Senate seat recently tweeted, “Senator Graham, you have proven that your word is worthless.”

There is, I think, another point to be made about how hypocrisy undermines categorical principles. What hypocrisy reveals is that for at least certain people, categorical principles are a mere mask for the unvarnished pursuit of power, wealth, and self-aggrandizement. The trouble is that compared to such people, those who voluntarily restrain themselves in accordance with categorical principles are at a distinct disadvantage. This puts pressure on everyone to abandon their principles. Thus, hypocrisy tends to erode everyone’s commitment to categorical principles as such. And if we think that categorical principles are good on the whole — that they help solve certain coordination problems, for example — then this is a bad thing for everyone.

So, what Senate Republicans have revealed with their latest hypocrisy is that for them, politics is a game of power untempered by principles. But when Republicans throw their principles overboard when it is convenient for them to do so, this increases the incentives for everyone else to do the same. And that, I will wager, is worse for everyone in the long run.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

photograph of bar graph made of various colored blocks

I want to draw your attention to a truly awful misuse of statistics. Published on the Markets section of the CNBC website, it looks like this:

For context, the preamble to the introduction of the chart states that,

“The US economy added a record number of jobs in May as it appeared to bounce off the bottom of the coronavirus recession, and now the chart of jobs gains and losses is starting to look like a ‘V’.”

“V-shaped recovery,” the article explains, is “a sharp fall in economic activity followed by a dramatic rise.” And while it would be great if that’s what this chart showed, it does not. Forget for a moment that it does not say what kinds of jobs have been lost and which have been gained. What’s far more misleading is that even if the change to the number of jobs in America was an increase of 2.5 million from the previous month, that would still mean that the total number of jobs lost since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic was approximately 18.2 million. That does not sound like a dramatic rise in economic activity and, when plotted properly, looks nothing close to a “V”.

The saying “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” comes most directly from Mark Twain (although its origin is unclear). Statistics can be a powerful and informative tool if used correctly, but they are also subject to misinterpretation and manipulation. It is unclear whether the above case was the former or the latter; perhaps most charitably we can chalk the misrepresentation of data up to an overeager hopefulness about the economy. Other recent events, however, have seemed to fall much more clearly into the third variety of Twain’s category of lies, representing cases in which statistics have been intentionally manipulated in order to promote a particular agenda.

Consider, for instance, a recent op-ed by Heather MacDonald. In response to the ongoing protests of police violence against black Americans, MacDonald argues that the apparent problem is overblown, and that, in fact, “there’s no evidence of widespread racial bias” by police officers. In making her case she provides plenty of statistical support, making reference to The Washington Post’s police shootings database. Her reasoning goes as follows: there are an enormous number of incidents of police encounters with individuals every year, and only a minuscule percentage of them result in someone being killed. Therefore, the recent killings that have been the impetus for the protests are not “representative of the 375 million annual contacts that police officers have with civilians.”

Several news outlets have pointed out that this is bad reasoning. For one, the statistics from The Washington Post database clearly show that Black Americans are being killed by police officers at rates that are massively disproportionate, a fact that, far from debunking the view that there is widespread racial bias by police, reinforces it. Fox News opinion-stater Tucker Carlson similarly massages the data in a recent op-ed. In it, he attempts to show that the protests are overblown by appealing to the statistic that since 2015, “of the 802 shootings in which the race of the police officer and the suspect was noted, 371 of those killed were white, 236 were black.” Again, what Carlson fails to mention is that, given how many more white Americans there are, the rate in which Black Americans are killed by police is still double that of whites.

While these op-eds exemplify poor statistical reasoning, it is also difficult to interpret them charitably as honest mistakes. Carlson in particular has vocally opposed the protests, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement in general. But while it is perhaps not surprising that someone like Carlson would take the line that he takes, there is a reason why misusing statistics can be seen as one of the worst categories of lies.

There are different reasons for thinking that lies are morally wrong, but many involve a kind of disrespect of the autonomy of the person being lied to; in other words, by lying to you I impede your ability to make well-informed decisions, and in turn your ability to achieve your goals. Of course, some kinds of lies seem worse than others. Perhaps we can think of our three categories of lies in the following way. Take “lies” to be those straightforward cases in which I tell you something I take to be false, and in doing so attempt to deceive you. What Twain refers to as “damned lies” might be thought of as what some have called “bald-faced lies,” namely lies that are so obvious that they are not even intended to be deceptive. For instance, say that I have lost my favorite mug, but then catch you drinking from it in the break room. If I ask you whether you, in fact, took my mug, you may respond with a bald-faced lie, saying that you have no idea what I’m talking about while taking a sip. Here it seems that, at the very least, you have no preconceptions about getting away with lying; at worst, your lie is so transparent that you can’t be said to even be trying to deceive me.

Finally, misusing statistics seems to be a particularly egregious method of lying as one is not merely intending to deceive one’s audience, but is doing so in such a way that they purport to be expressing views that are supported by independent, objective evidence. By lying with statistics I thus attempt to shift responsibility for my claims from myself to the numbers. We can see this kind of behavior in those op-eds from Carlson: instead of taking ownership over claims that he is making, he takes himself to merely be a conduit for statistical truths, and thus if one has issues with those truths, he cannot be held accountable for them.

What is the best way to combat statistical lies? Perhaps most straightforwardly by paying attention to the context in which statistics are presented, and to take care not to mistake numbers for objectivity. Misusing statistics may be a particularly effective way of spreading misinformation because it may seem that numbers are incapable of lying. Of course, even if this is true, people who generate and present those numbers are more than capable of lying with them.

How Words Translate to Action: The Ramifications of Trump’s Rhetoric

photograph of packed arena at Trump rally

“[The coronavirus] has more names than any disease in history,” President Donald Trump said at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday. “I can name kung flu. I can name 19 different versions of names.”

Saturday’s rally was not the first time Trump used racist rhetoric to divert criticisms toward his administration for its mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. Since March, the president has cast China as the “invisible enemy” and bragged about his early ban on Chinese travelers in almost every public appearance. In addition, he repeatedly used the phrase “the Chinese virus” despite concerns from public health experts, and again referred to the coronavirus as “the China virus” in a self-congratulatory tweet in May.

Critics of Trump have argued that his words have contributed to the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans. From March to April, the New York Police Department documented 25 hate crimes against Asian Americans, marking a stark increase from a total of 3 incidents in 2019. Meanwhile, STOP AAPI HATE — a database that San Francisco State University and Asian advocacy groups created in late March — has recorded more than 1,700 incidents ranging from verbal assaults to stabbing. Still, the president has defended that his words have been anything but racist: “It’s from China. That’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate,” he said at a press briefing. How could have his words have translated into real hateful and discriminatory actions?

Although the president argues that he only intended to convey his disapproval of China’s pandemic response, literature on the philosophy of language elucidates the connection between Trump’s words and hateful actions. With the benefit of hindsight, we can study such language — and the phrase “the Chinese virus” in particular — and learn how to respond to similar rhetorical moves as the president escalates his attacks on China and on other minorities.

When Trump justified the phrase “the Chinese virus” in March, he took advantage of the vagueness of language. Compound nouns — like “spa water,” “arm pillow” and the “Chinese virus” — are ambiguous, because the relationship between the two nouns, like “spa” and “water,” is unclear. Although Trump claimed he meant that the disease originates from China, “the Chinese virus” could also signify ‘a virus carried by Chinese people’ or ‘a virus of Chinese people.’ The president acted as if the intention of the speaker — which he promised was not racist — controls how words are understood.

Contrary to Trump’s defense, however, many philosophers of language argue that the meaning and effect of words are also governed by how they are used in society. Of course, in regular conversations, words communicate a speaker’s transparent intent. However, should Trump’s press conferences and tweets — or any politician’s speech for that effect — considered to be in context of a typical conversation? Often in political discourse, words affirm belief systems and the communal practices in which they are embedded.

Specifically, when one uses words that have been shaped by social practices, one legitimizes the connotations and value systems attached to them. One can insist that they only meant the inside of a city when using the phrase “inner city,” but the racist ideology associated with that term persists nevertheless. “There are tools like a hammer or a screwdriver which can be used by one person; and there are tools like a steamship which require the cooperative activity of a number of persons to use,” philosopher Hilary Putnam writes in his paper the Meaning of “Meaning.” “Words have been thought too much on the model of the first sort of tool.”

Philosopher Lynne Tirrell offers a relevant example in her 2012 paper Genocidal Language Games. According to Tirrell, for years preceding the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu majority called their Tutsi counterparts “cockroaches (inyenzi)” and “snakes (inkoza).” These were mindless slurs at first, Tirrell explains, intended to insult an individual rather than to convey the ethnic inferiority of the Tutsis. But these words were said in the context of a culture where snakes are public health dangers and cutting the heads of snakes is considered a rite of passage into manhood. When the conflict between the two groups intensified, these slurs helped connect murdering the Tutsis to a celebrated act of killing snakes. In retrospect, a Hutu calling his Tutsi neighbor a “snake” or “cockroach” was participating a linguistic practice embedded in ethnic discrimination and legitimizing hatred toward the Tutsis. “What we do with our speech acts often outstrips our own mastery, and in cases in which the social functions of speech have been co-opted, we can see that participants might not see the full scope of the games that they are playing,” Tirrell explains.

Tirrell’s account of the Rwandan genocide is instructive not because Asian Americans are at the risk of getting massacred, but because it illuminates how words can activate longstanding discriminatory sentiments and help authorize actions. Like the insults hurled against the Tutsis, Trump’s attacks on China are embedded in the context of oppression against minorities. His administration’s nativist agenda has rekindled centuries of discrimination against Asian Americans, dating from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

In addition, the phrase “the Chinese virus” draws on a history of nativist attempts to scapegoat immigrants about public health. During a smallpox outbreak in 1900, the government exclusively imposed a quarantine on San Francisco’s Chinatown and called it a “laboratory of infection.” In English, metaphors are often used to compare a nation to a body — such as “head of state,” “body politic” and “arm of the government” — and Trump has frequently equated immigrants to an illness penetrating it. They bring “tremendous infectious disease,” “communicable disease” and a “tremendous medical problem coming into a country,” Trump has said.

“Like the ordinary farmer in Rwanda who did not think that calling his Tutsi neighbors ‘snakes’ and ‘cockroaches’ would help authorize the killing of his neighbors, people who repeat the phrase ‘the Chinese virus’ may not realize its pernicious impact,” Tirrell explains. “I don’t think we should assume that there is a war planned against the Chinese in America but I do think that it sows the seeds of discrimination by connecting Chinese people with the virus.”

By rebaptizing the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” with the authority of a president and insisting on the phrase, Trump has affirmed the racist and anti-immigrant narratives behind it. Calling coronavirus “the Chinese virus” had the effect of connecting practices one would take against the spreaders of a deadly virus — such as shunning them, kicking them out and even attacking them — to those who appear Chinese. One might argue that this rhetoric convinced people to rationalize discriminatory and hateful actions against Asians as fighting the virus.

The power of words can seem mysterious and insignificant, particularly in light of a rapidly spreading disease that has taken more than a hundred thousand lives. However, literature on the philosophy of language shows that words do make things happen. Though Trump’s coronavirus rhetoric cannot — and most definitely should not — be censored, we must acknowledge and discuss the damages inflicted by his anti-Chinese narrative.

AMC, Face Masks, and Avoiding Political Controversy

photograph of empty movie theater with lights up

American cinema giant AMC made waves on social media recently when announcing its policies regarding the wearing of face masks in its theaters. Like a lot of businesses that are planning to reopen during the easing of restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, AMC initially stated that they would take preventative measures in spacing out patrons in movie theaters and requiring employees to wear masks. Controversy arose, however, after the CEO Adam Aron reported what the chain’s stance would be with regards to requirements on the moviegoers themselves, one he stated in an interview with Variety:

“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” said Aron. “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example.”

Soon afterwards, however, the company reversed course. In a press release, they stated that in response to “an intense and immediate outcry” from their customers, and “with the full support of our scientific advisors” that they would instead be requiring all guests to wear masks in their theatres. Indeed, as wearing masks is considered by experts to be a good way to help prevent the spread of the virus, especially in enclosed spaces like movie theatres, AMC’s update policies appear to be a step in a better direction.

While AMC’s updated policy is one that better reflects current scientific advice, it is somewhat disheartening that the outcry had to occur for them to change their policies. However, Aron stated that what motivated AMC’s initial policy decisions was not necessarily a distrust of the recommendations of scientists, but rather an attempt to avoid a “political controversy” (of course, one might also read this as “an attempt to avoid losing customers who don’t want to wear masks”).

Say that an issue is politicized if one’s stance on it is a marker of a certain social or political identity. Politicized issues are not hard to find. Consider recent discussions in the US and the UK with regards to the removal of statues of figures who engaged in the slave trade: one’s stance on whether statues should be taken down or preserved can be taken as markers of one’s position on the left- or right-wing of the political spectrum, respectively. Many scientific issues in particular have also become politicized: one’s stance on global warming, for instance, will typically cause others to categorize one as being more left-wing if they accept the scientific consensus, or right-wing if they reject it.

It is perhaps not surprising that in America the wearing of masks has become a subject of political controversy, with those who refuse to wear masks tending to be more on the conservative end of the spectrum. Motivations for refusing to wear a mask include a belief that the dangers of the virus have been overstated, and that a mandate to wear a mask is perceived to be a violation of personal rights (at least in the minimal sense that one believes one should not be required by the government to do things one does not want to do). It seems clear that when it comes to scientific matters, what one ought to do is to follow the best available advice from the scientific experts. And, of course, there are important moral concerns surrounding how a refusal to wear a mask can put others at risk of serious harm. These are all important issues that have been and will continue to be discussed for a long time. And because the issue of wearing face masks has become politicized, these discussions will inevitably be political in nature: in taking a stance on the issue one risks being affiliated with progressive or conservative views, and thus risks offending those who do not accept such views.

But let’s say that you don’t really want to take a political stance. Maybe you’re exhausted by the endless debates, and fighting, or maybe you just really don’t want to risk making anyone mad at you by taking a side. You might be sick of all the politics, and just want to sit this one out. Can’t you do that?

This is perhaps what the CEO of AMC was trying to accomplish, and as the backlash to their attempts to avoid taking a political stance indicates, the answer appears to be that remaining neutral was not an option. While it may be one’s intention to avoid taking a stance on an issue that has become politicized, in some cases refusing to take a stance will itself place one on the political spectrum. In AMC’s case, while the choice to leave it up to moviegoers to decide whether to wear masks may have been intended to be politically neutral, that one should not be mandated to wear a mask is precisely the stance associated with the political right. Additionally, while it may have again been intended to not take sides on the scientific issue of whether masks are good preventative measures, given that the current recommendations by scientific experts is that people ought to wear masks in public, letting one’s customers decide again constitutes a rejection of the scientific consensus.

You might think that it is unfair to drag someone into a politicized dispute that they did not want to be part of. To which one might respond: too bad. Consider the following analogy: say that you and I are sitting in a dark room, arguing over whether we should turn the lights on. We both get tired of arguing, and decide that, to avoid further conflict, we will both refuse to take sides. In doing so, however, we have committed to a side, whether we wanted to or not: as a result of our refusing to decide, the lights remain off.

This is obviously a simple analogy for more complex situations. But what it shows is that controversies over politicized issues are not always the kinds of the things that one can avoid. Sometimes neutral ground just doesn’t exist.

Political Animosity and Estrangement

balck-and-white photograph of protester with "Don't Separate Families" sign

It can be extremely difficult to navigate the current political climate. This task can be especially daunting given the changes occurring within families, where differences in party identification can strain relationships. Heated debates have turned into feuds which last far longer than election night, and now many Americans are wondering whether political affiliations are justification enough to permanently distance themselves from certain family members. Growing political animosity has prompted many to consider the ethical dimensions of cutting off one’s family on the basis of their politics.

These questions of estrangement were recently addressed in a New York Times ethics advice column. “Can I Cut Off a Relative with Hateful Views” explores this idea in the case of one woman who has a friendly relationship with her brother in law however, recently he has become “so radical in his political and world views that I am no longer comfortable maintaining a relationship. He has a blog and is an occasional radio host, so his are very public opinions that are filled with hate and even calls to violent action.” The anonymous individual asking for advice outlines that she feels angered by his hateful speech and wonders about the ethics surrounding deciding to cut off contact by declining invitations to meet up, or if she should clearly let him know that his behavior offends her before taking such actions. The author discusses the importance of discourse between disagreeing family members and stresses that although it is acceptable to cut ties with one’s family over political differences, one should have a conversation addressing why.

This story is one of many which deal with relationships that were complicated due to politics, various similar stories were shared in a Washington Post article which described how holidays have changed for American families since the Trump election. Some stories describe how the election brought their family closer together, while others resulted in rifts that may never heal. Drew Goins writes about a mother from Denver, Colorado who reports the difficulties associated with alienating oneself from family members and also the necessity to do so given circumstances. Cynthia Dorro’s adopted daughters are nonwhite immigrants and her side of the family’s votes for Trump resulted in confusion concerning how best to support her children, “My parents’ votes for Trump tore through me like a bullet… knowing that more than half the people in my home state cast a vote in support of divisiveness and bitter hate toward people like my children has left me unable to even contemplate a visit there.” Now Dorro spends holidays exclusively with her husband’s side of the family which she describes as “devastating, and I can’t really characterize what we do as celebrating the holidays anymore.” Dorro’s is one of many stories which demonstrate the heartbreaking nature of politics on pushing families apart, but not all Americans share this story. Julann Lodge describes his family becoming closer due to a rejection of Trump and his policies, “The Republican members of my family have left the party because they are horrified by the direction the GOP has taken… Now, we are all united in opposing racism, lies and environmental devastation. Trump has united my family more than he will ever know.” Beyond families which go separate ways and those who are closer than ever before, politics has also become an unmentionable topic between relatives of different parties not wishing to quarrel. A St. Louis family describes their love for each other which has fueled an avoidance of all politics related topics which might drive them away from each other, “My aunts and uncles are almost exclusively Republicans. But we love each other deeply, so we all grit our teeth and promise ourselves we will behave. Most of us avoid any mention of politics at all; when someone ignores the unspoken rule, everyone else just kind of drifts out of the room.” These narratives from families across the country illustrate the ways in which their family dynamics have shifted due to the rise of Trump, but others are still confused about when they should draw the line between not speaking about politics, limiting visits with certain family members, and cutting people off altogether. These questions result in a debate which goes much deeper than relationships between feuding family, but rather explores the political polarization occurring in America since the 2016 election.

The Pew Research center emphasizes this rising political animosity according to their survey research. “In choosing a party, disliking the policies of opponents is almost as powerful a reason as liking the policies of one’s own party.” These negative factors which influence individuals political affiliation have fueled the unrest between people from different parties and further research shows that adjectives such as close-minded, lazy, immoral, dishonest, and unintelligent were utilized by almost half of both democrats and republicans to describe members of the opposite party. In fact, growing animosity between parties has been consistently increasing since 2004, and the Pew Research Center found 30% of Democrats believe that the opposite party is a threat to the well-being of the nation, while 40% of Republicans say the same of democrats.

These statistics on political divisiveness and the impressions opposite parties have of each other speak volumes about the ways in which family relations have changed since the election of 2016. Not only do these statistics allow us to better understand what the parties feel about each other, but they provide a mechanism through which we can better interpret policies and learn how to open conversation between people who may be political opposites, but who can ultimately choose to unite with one another against hateful rhetoric. Individual stories of families choosing to maintain a level of distance due political differences is telling of the enormous influence of political polarization at the national level on relationships between individuals.