Tuesday, October 04, 2016

A Moral Philosopher's View of the 2016 Presidential Election

I have been looking at this year's presidential election through the eyes of a moral philosopher, and have found it distressing.

First, there is the issue of basic moral wrongs - issues about which it would be difficult to argue that there is a principled partisan difference. There are three that I tend to mention as elements of this basic morality.

  1. Honesty - the moral obligation to speak the truth, which includes making a good-faith effort to discover what the truth is before speaking.
  2. Keeping promises - doing what one says that he is going to do.
  3. Repaying debts - a special case of keeping promises.
We all have many and strong reasons to promote a society that obeys these basic moral principle. Unlike issues such as abortion, public education, or a minimum wage, I would expect surveys among Republicans and Democrats to show nearly universal agreement as to the importance of these values - at least in principle. "Should a person pay his debts?" and "Should a person basically seek to know and tell the truth" are not claims where there is a "left" versus "right" difference of opinion.

Yet, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gets by with telling one falsehood after another without any sort of condemnation from a large part of the population. On September 24, the New York Times listed Trump's falsehoods for just the previous week in "A Week of Whoppers from Donald Trump". According to Fact-checking the first Presidential Debate, Trump clocked in at 34 false claims (keeping his pace of 1 false claim every 3 minutes) to 4 total false claims in 90 minutes for Clinton.

Many people claim that their reason for opposing Clinton is because she is dishonest. They claim, at least, that honesty is important and dishonesty is reason for condemnation. Yet, if this were they case - if they really cared about dishonesty (as opposed to caring about something else and using "dishonesty" as a socially acceptable cloak of concealment), then they would be far more opposed to Trump than to Clinton. In fact, given Clinton's record in comparison to other politicians, she would have to be preferred to just about anybody of either party. That is not to say that she has been totally honest, and "one of the most honest politicians around" is generally a low bar to clear, but she does clear it.

The issues of keeping promises and paying debts are related. A person contracts for other people to do a certain job. Those people do the job (increasing the net wealth of the person they did the job for, usually). The individual who contracted for the work has made a promise to pay the workers for that work, and thereby puts himself under an obligation to pay the bill. All of us recognize the obligation to pay our bills. Few of us - and none of us who are considered moral human beings - simply refuses to pay due to the fact that we can get away with it.

According to an investigation by USA Today published Thursday and a similar investigation by The Wall Street Journal published later in the day on Thursday, Trump's companies are facing hundreds of claims that Trump has stiffed people he contracted with for decades. (CNN, "Reports: Donald Trump Stiffs Contractors" (June 11, 2016) - with links to reports from the Washington Post and USA Today)

Apparently, the moral principles of "keep your promises" and "pay your debts" mean very little to Trump.

At the same time, one of Clinton's guiding principles during the Democratic primary has been a refusal to over promise during the campaign. She sought to give people an honest accounting of what she thought could be accomplished during the next four years. This hurt her in a contest against a candidate who promised far more than he could possibly deliver. Many voters went for the pie-in-the-sky promises of the one candidate to the "what I think I can actually deliver" promises of the other.

The relevant point here is that, in spite of the cost, Clinton refused to give campaign promises that she thought she could not keep. This demonstrates that she is a person who respects the obligation to keep promises.

Ultimately, one of the ways we can describe Trump is as a thief - a person who collected millions of dollars worth of goods and services from others to enrich himself, then refused to pay what he owed for those goods and services. This made him wealthier, and those from whom he stole the labor and materials - many of them small business owners and the common workers they employed or could have employed if they had been paid - poorer.

Here, again, the claim that Clinton is the least trustworthy goes so far contrary to the available evidence that we have reason to believe that there is something else going on in the minds of those who make this claim - some other reason that is motivating their action - and they are using "trustworthiness" as a convenient smoke screen behind which they can hide an unpleasant truth.

Again, I am not talking about principles about which people on the political left and right may disagree. There is no question of the merits or demerits of honesty, keeping promises, and repaying debts that is like what we find regarding infrastructure investments, environmental protection, and Obamacare. Yet, in this election, we have one (and only one) candidate with utterly no respect for the principles of honesty, keeping promises, and repaying debts - or any moral principle but his own advantage, by the looks of things.

If we take seriously this question of why some people, contrary to all available evidence, hold that the candidate who is by far the most honest is the least honest, and who is by far the most trustworthy is the least trustworthy, we do have a possible answer.

A reasonable story to tell suggests that some people have an aversion to having a woman in power. However, "having a woman in power" is not considered a legitimate reason to reject Clinton. They look for a legitimate-sounding reason, and latch onto "dishonesty" and "trustworthiness" to give their bigotry a cloak of legitimacy.

I am not saying that these people consciously oppose having a female President and are engaged in conscious deception to prevent her from winning the election with what they fully recognized to be trumped-up charges. Instead, what is happening is that their opposition to having a female President is found in their emotions, not in their beliefs. They think of her being President and this makes them uncomfortable - gives them a sense that something is wrong. Many likely also believe that it is morally wrong to reject a candidate because she is a female and that they need a more socially acceptable reason. This drives them to imagine that Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy - contrary to all evidence. They take snippets of evidence that support this conclusion and blow it out of all proportion. It "feels like" she is dishonest and untrustworthy - and they draw this feeling from their emotions rather than from the evidence. In fact, this feeling is actually coming from a discomfort at having a female President.

We have evidence that this does happen - and that both men and women are afflicted with this form of rationalization.

We have the observation that people see Clinton as dishonest when the objective evidence is that she is among the most honest of politicians, and the fact that people find her untrustworthy when again without evidence.

We have the observational evidence that people see her as more dishonest and more untrustworthy than a person who makes a false claim every 3 minutes and has enriched himself by taking from and then refusing to pay thousands of average American workers and small business owners.

We also have a great deal of empirical evidence about how implicit bias works.

There is research in which recruiters are provided with identical resumes - where the only difference is that one contains a male name and the other a female name - who choose the male candidate and claim he is better qualified. The "difference in qualifications" that they see in the resumes exist only in their imagination.

We have studies where there are two standard resumes - one showing more experience and less education, and another showing more education and less experience. One resume is submitted with a male name, and another with a female name. When the resume with the male name has the more experience, recruiters say "experience is what we really need in this job" and they send the offer to the man. When the resume with the male name contains more education, recruiters say "education is what we really need in this job" and they send the offer to the man. Clearly, they are not, in fact, basing their decision on education or experience but on "being male". However, they fool even themselves into thinking that they are grounding their decision on a more socially acceptable criterion.

We have observations that need explaining and a well supported theory with which to explain it. It is not an unreasonable hypothesis.

Here, too, it is important to stress that implicit bias is not a "conservative" problem. It is a problem in the way human brains function - the brains of liberals as well as conservatives.

Regardless of the merits of this hypothesis, the observations pertain - that we have a great many voters abandoning fundamental moral values of honesty, keeping promises, and repaying debts in order to prevent a female from being President. As a moral philosopher, I find this to be wrong on a fundamental level.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A bit off topic but this is an interesting video on why belief in an afterlife is so dangerous