Friday, November 03, 2006

The Appropriate Use of Negative Political Statements

Richard Chappell, the founder of Philosophy et. cetera, is hosting the Carnival of the Liberals next week and has offered some guidelines for submissions.

One of his topics deals with an issue that I have been thinking about for quite some time. Furthermore, since this is "Theory Weekend" I have reason to discuss the topic on more theoretical terms. In short, I'm going to take advantage of the opportunity to write that article and see if I can get this accepted into that carnival.

The set of questions that I wish to address is:

Questions of rhetoric and framing: should liberals aim to persuade others through rational arguments or emotional appeals (or both)? Should we focus on dangers or opportunities? Is it important to improve the tone and quality of political discourse and public debate? If so, how might this be achieved?

My answer will seek to support the following claims:

1. It is important to improve the quality of political discourse. However, in order to "improve the quality" we will need to have some idea of what "quality" discourse is. It is difficult to hit a target if you do not know where it is at.

2. Reason is an important component to political debate. However, it is not the only component. To call the alternative "appeal to emotion" is misleading and begins by poisoning the well against the alternatives to reason. In fact, this is the name of a fallacy - a category of "forms of rhetoric not to be used." I am going to argue that something close to appeal to emotion is not only important, but necessary, in political debate.

I am going to present this in two parts. Part I will be a brief outline of theory. Part II will apply theory to the “attack ads” that seem to dominate contemporary politics (at least here in America).

Part I: The Limits of Rational Arguments In Politics and Morals

I am going to start with a basic formula for human action - one which sits at the foundation for this entire blog.

(belief + desire) -> intention -> intentional action.

Reason, I will argue, is the proper tool for working in the realm of belief. Reason is also the tool to use to match means to ends. If a person wants some chocolate cake for desert, then reason will tell him how to most efficiently get some chocolate cake while doing the least damage to other goals that the agent might have.

However, reason is not the tool for selecting ends. All of the reason in the world - all of the facts and logic in the world - will never imply a change in the agent's desire for chocolate cake.

A change in belief can cause a change in desire. After all, an agent's beliefs and desires are both encoded into the same brain. A change in brain structure in order to accommodate a different belief might also have an affect on the agent's desires. However, these are not matters of implication. No set of beliefs entail a change in desires.

Furthermore, in saying that desires are immune to facts and reason, I am not saying that desires are outside of the realm of facts and reason. It is also the case that no amount of facts and reason entails a change in another person's height. It can entail a change in beliefs about a person's height, but not his height itself. Yet, height is not something that exists outside of the realm of facts and reason. There is still an objective determination to be made as to how tall a person is.

The same is true of desires. Facts and reason do not entail a change in desires. However, the subject of desires is still within the realm of facts an reason. There is still an objective determination to be made as to what other people desire.

Desires are, at least to a certain extent, subject to change through social forces. There is some degree to which our aversion to pain, desire for sex, hunger, thirst, and the like are genetically hard-wired. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution have selected genes that will dispose people to desire those things that tend to cause acts that continue that genetic line through time. My family tree, passing through perhaps over a hundred million biological ancestors, does not contain a single member who died a virgin - at least since the point where sex became necessary for genetic replication.

Desires are not changed through reason (at least in any type of directed sense). They are changed through social conditioning. The major components of social conditioning that I have discussed in this blog are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

We have reason to be concerned with the desires of others. To the degree that others have an aversion to killing us, to that degree our life is more secure. To the degree that they have an aversion to taking our property, or lying to us, to that degree we can trust that our property will be left alone and that the things people tell us are the truth. To the degree that they wish to help those in trouble, to that degree we can expect help if we should find ourselves in trouble.

Where our interest is in changing other peoples' beliefs, we can employ reason. However, where our interest is in molding a particular set of values (desires), our recourse is through tools such as praise and condemnation. We have the power to choose the types of people who share our society with us by choosing what to praise and what to condemn. Given the presumption that even inaction is a choice, we do, in fact, choose (at least to some degree) the nature of our society.

Clearly, a person does not have to be personally praised or condemned for social institutions to modify his behavior. His behavior can be affected by knowing of somebody else praised or condemned for their behavior. Even news of hypothetical praise or condemnation - news that society sees a certain type of behavior as blameworthy or praiseworthy - has an affect.

Refusing to use the tools of praise and condemnation, and limiting our discussion to ‘rational arguments’, means that we are going to concern ourselves only with beliefs, and not with desires. If we leave desires untouched, then even desires that are harmful to others – bigotry, hatred, violence, greed, selfishness, arrogance, dishonesty, rape, murder, theft – are left unaffected.

Refusing to affect (through the use of praise and condemnation) character traits such as these leaves the world worse than it would otherwise have been.

Part II: Praise, Condemnation, and the Political Attack Ad

In this part, I wish to apply what I said in Part I to the phenomenon of the “negative campaign ad” which seems to have dominated contemporary politics. I wish to argue that there is a fundamental problem with these types of campaigns. However, the problem is not that they are negative or that they contain elements of condemnation. The problem is that they are all (or, at best, almost all) fundamentally dishonest.

The average negative campaign ad is, in essence, 30 or 60 seconds of lies and distortions for the sake of obtaining a personal objective. They are deceptive oversimplifications of what another said or did - intentionally twisting what was actually said or done by removing its context in order to promote public belief in a proposition that is not true. In short, they are instances of “bearing false witness” against another – testifying that another person has said or done something that the other person has not and would not have said or done.

If the opposing candidate had actually done the deeds described in these advertisements, then condemnation would be completely appropriate. Yet, as any fair-minded person viewing the advertisement can readily see, these ads in fact distort what the victim of the ad was trying to accomplish – lifting it out of its context.

A clear example is the claim that Democrats do not wish to allow the Administration to listen to phone calls from Al-Queida into the United States. As I have said before, this is a flat-out lie. What Democrats want is for those who are picking telephone calls to listen to are actually listening to Al-Queida calls into the United States, and not using these tools to spy on personal or political enemies.

When a candidate uses or endorses these types of advertisements, we should immediately draw the conclusion that this candidate has no love of the truth. If your child or your spouse lies to you, the first thing you start asking yourself is, “What else are they lying about?” Once a person proves himself to be a liar, we immediately discount everything else that person has to say. When a candidate uses one of these slanderous attack ads, this too should immediately cause us to ask, “What else is this candidate willing to lie about?”

Is it at all wise to give the power to make laws to somebody who thinks that deceptive manipulation of others for the sake of personal power is a perfectly legitimate activity?

The reason these attack advertisements exist and are so common is because we, as a society, reward those who create these advertisements. Though we moan and complain about them, as a matter of fact people tend to reward those who produce these types of advertisements with volunteer campaign help, cash contributions, and votes. If we reward an activity, we promote a love for that activity, at which point we are fools to expect anything other than to be surrounded and flooded by examples of the behavior we are encouraging.

If we are going to encourage behavior, it would seem somewhat more practical to discourage dishonest manipulation of the public by those who will hold political power over that public.

If we wish to reduce the incidence of this type of behavior the best thing to do is to condemn those who practice it. If we reacted to deceptive attack ads the same way that we reacted to a sexually explicit email to an underage page, then we would likely find these attack ads degreasing in number in future years, instead of growing substantially more common.

In order to promote an adverse reaction to these politically deceptive ads, one useful tool is to turn our condemnation on those who reward those who engage in this type of behavior - those who are ultimately responsible for the fact that this is becoming more common. We need to turn our attention on those who work for, contribute to, or speak favorably of candidates using negative attack ads and say, “You are a part of the reason we have this problem – because you have decided that the most important thing that you can do with your time is to reward people in the midst of proving that they are manipulative liars.”

The important distinction to make here is the legitimacy of making accusations that are true and holding a person morally accountable for wrongs he actually performed, versus the lies and distortions in these slanderous campaign advertisements. Ultimately, the test is not whether the claims being made are ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ – but whether they are true or false.

There is no reason to refrain from speaking a negative truth simply because it is negative. In fact, there are important reasons to condemn any trait that is harmful to others – such as the deceptive manipulation that appears in these attack ads. If we do not condemn these activities – if we continue to reward those who engage in them – then we are fools if we expect anything other to have a government (and a society) in love with deceptive manipulation.


It is important to improve the quality of political discourse. However, what political discourse is not missing is more 'niceness'. It is missing honesty. Many candidates, through the types of advertisements that they run, are proving that they have no moral objection to maliciously deceiving others for the sake of personal gain. Yet, we live in a society that rewards this malicious deception with campaign help, contributions, and votes. It is no wonder that we find more and more people engaging in this type of behavior.

It is important to condemn those whose traits lead to actions that tend to harm our society. We should be condemning those who engage in malicious deception, not rewarding them. Importantly, we should be condemning those who support or contribute to malicious deception and its practitioners.

There is nothing wrong with condemnation - as long as it is honest condemnation that targets the wrongs that people actually perform.

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