Sunday, June 12, 2016

Moral Clubs - Adopting Incoherent Principles to "Fit In" with Others

I am beginning to suspect that a proper understanding of our moral life is going to require room for something like a "moral club".

A moral club is not to be understood as a club that is moral, or even a club that concerns itself with the discovery and practice of that which is moral. In fact, a "moral club" should be understood as a derogatory term, since it refers to a club (and its members) whose practices with respect to morality are flawed in an important way.

A moral club is a group of people who adopt a moral stance for no apparent reason other than the fact that the club has adopted it. The moral principles that we find in a moral club might be (and perhaps are by definition) completely incoherent. However, that does not matter. What matters is that the club has adopted them and, for that reason alone, individuals in the club insist on cheering for those principles.

What brings this thought to mind is a set of attitudes that I find among many who support Bernie Sanders.

Towards the start of the Sanders campaign, there was a time when the members of this club feared that Sanders would win a majority of the popular vote, and even a majority of the delegates, yet lose the nomination. This is because the Democratic Party has a component called "superdelegates" who, early in the campaign, were lining up in great numbers behind Hillary Clinton. Consequently, it was conceivable that Sanders could end the primary with more than a majority of the committed delegates, but have the super-delegates award the nomination to Clinton instead.

Claiming that this violates the principles of democracy, the members of this club raised objections to the superdelegate system, claiming that it would be immoral for the superdelegates to take the election away from the candidate who won the most popular votes and/or committed delegates.

Yet, when the campaign ended, it turned out that Clinton had won the primary in terms of both popular vote and committed delegates. At this point, Sanders began to campaign for the superdelegates to overrule the will of the majority. Yet, at this point, Club members raised no moral objections. The moral wrongness of overruling the majority simply vanished.

Also, under the banner of defending democracy, the members of this club asserted that closed primaries are unfair. It prohibits those who register as independents from having a voice in selecting the Democratic Party candidate for President.

It should come as no surprise that, in exit polls, independent candidates tended to prefer Sanders over Clinton. At the same time, actual Democrats preferred Clinton over Sanders.

The incoherence of moral views within this club are such that it is reasonable to expect that, if Democrats preferred Sanders and Independents were voting for Clinton, that this moral club would have argued that the Democratic Party candidate should be selected by Democrats. After all, no other organization in existence allows non-members to come in off the street and choose the club's officers and representatives.

At the same time that these club members are protesting against closed primaries because they are undemocratic, they are raising no objections against the caucus system, which is even more undemocratic.

The caucus system requires that candidates gather, discuss the various candidates, and take a vote. The caucus system takes a considerable amount of time and is only available to those who have the time, have the ability to travel, and are healthy enough to participate. Many people who are busy, lack the ability to travel, or are not healthy enough to participate are excluded from the electoral process. They are not permitted to help select the party's candidate.

In three separate cases in the 2016 primary we saw how undemocratic this process was.

Two states held both a caucus and a primary.

On March 5, the Democratic Party of Nebraska held its caucus. Sanders defeated Clinton by a vote of 57% to 43%. However, on May 10, Nebraska held a (non-binding) primary. In that primary, Clinton defeated Sanders by a vote of 53% to 47%. Sanders won a state that would have gone to Clinton if not for the excessive burdens that the caucus system placed on eligible voters.

On March 26, the Democratic Party of Washington held its caucus. Sanders defeated Clinton by a massive 73% to 27%. However, on May 24, Washington held a (non-binding) primary. In that primary, Clinton defeated Sanders by a vote of 54% to 46%. Again, in spite of showing massive support for Sanders, the caucus failed to report the will of the voters. Sanders won, again, by using a system that kept those who would have otherwise voted for his opponent away from the polls.

On June 7, North Dakota held a caucus, while geographically similar South Dakota held a primary on the same day. Bernie Sanders won the North Dakota caucus 64% to 25% with only 394 votes cast. At the same time, Clinton won in South Dakota with 51% of the vote to Sanders' 49% with 53,000 votes cast.

With all of this evidence piling up showing how undemocratic the caucus system is, the Sanders club raises no objections against the caucus system.

One conclusion that we can draw from this is that the Sanders Club has no interest in democracy. It simply uses the term as a rationalization for those things that it supports for other reasons.

However, what is more significant here - and what deserves to be pointed out - is that there is nothing that makes sense of this particular set of views. This is particularly true in light of the incoherence of both, at the same time, being against the use of superdelegates on the grounds that it can be used to overrule the will of the people while, at the same time, supporting a candidate whose only chance to win the nomination requires using the superdelegates to overrule the will of the people.

There has to be something else at play to make sense of these incoherent views. One hypothesis that comes to mind is that of the "moral club" that I mentioned above. Club members simply check their capacity for reason at the door and adopt whatever principles the Club advocates, without even a thought towards coherence and rationality.

The goal here - the desire that is driving behavior - cannot possibly be any type of moral principle. Instead, the best explanation in this case seems to be a blind reason-numbing decision to follow the moral club - an attitude that comes with a refusal to even question the ideas that the club might put forward and blind oneself even to inconsistencies and incoherence that are floating right on the surface.


Unknown said...

I didn't really agree with your original critiques of Sanders, but I totally agree with this point. The people have spoken. AS much as I can't stand Clinton, I can no longer support Bernie's continuation of his campaign.

To Bernie: Here's a quarter, man. Buy a clue. It's over. Time to use your energized base to defeat Trump.

As bad as a Clinton administration would be, a Trump administration would be an unqualified disaster.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I do not agree with unqualified majority rule - with its persistent problem of a tyranny of the majority. I somewhat like the super delegate system as a failsafe if the people should select somebody wholly unfit to be President. The Republican primary shows us that this is certainly possible.

My objection has to do with people adopting a completely incoherent and inconsistent set of attitudes in order to purchase membership in a group. Regardless of how the contradictions get resolved, the current set of principles wears its incoherence right on the surface - where they are being completely ignored.