Why U.S. Politics is Immoral

ByDavid Livingstone Smith

Not too long ago, one of my philosophy classes was scheduled for open discussion. I anticipated that my students would be keen to discuss topics that were going to be covered on an impending exam, but once I got into the classroom, I was astonished to discover that they wanted to talk about the Republican primaries instead.

“If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny,” one young man remarked, while others nodded in sympathy. Then, another student spoke up, and remarked in a tone of voice that seamlessly fused sadness with disdain, “These people don’t make any effort to appeal to reason.”

The source of students’ bewilderment was the stark contrast between the behavior of our presidential hopefuls and the ideal of rational persuasion traditionally championed by philosophers. They knew (thanks to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) that it is easy to laugh at our politicians’ rhetorical antics, but felt that there is something deeply repugnant at work in U.S. politics that should not be buried under heaps of levity, however pointed. In the Socratic dialogue that ensued, we put philosophical reasoning to work to probe this issue more deeply.

My students eventually settled on the conclusion that much of U.S. politics is immoral. The argument for this view proceeded more or less as follows: We normally think of politics as immoral when politicians pursue immoral ends, for instance, when they advance unjust policies, or when they resort to blatantly immoral means, such as lies and deceptions, to manipulate the populace. But there is another, less tangible and more pervasive form of political immorality — one that permeates political discourse and which is rarely identified, much less called out for what it is.

We can approach it by way of a thought experiment. Suppose that a neuroscientist (we can call him Dr. White) invents a device which, when surgically implanted in a person’s brain, prevents that person from performing violent acts. The device has no effect on people’s aggressive desires; it only prevents them from acting on these desires. Suppose that White implants the device in Lindsey, who hates her boss and earnestly wishes to murder him. The device works, and prevents her from translating her potentially lethal desire into action. Now, contrast this with a more realistic vignette. Lindsey (sans White’s device) hates her boss and wants to kill him, but rather than yielding to her impulses, she deliberates about what to do, concludes that no matter how vehemently she hates her boss, murdering him would be wrong. Consequently, she decides not to kill him. I think that you will agree that Lindsey acted morally in the second scenario, but not in the first one.

How can we explain this difference? Outwardly, Lindsey1 and Lindsey2 behaved in exactly similar ways, but Lindsey2 was responsible for her behavior, whereas Lindsey1 was not. The right conclusion to draw from this is that morality isn’t just about what people do; it’s also about why they do what they do. So it looks like if we want to understand morality, we need to look more deeply into the conditions under which a person can be said to be responsible for her actions. One requirement for moral responsibility is that a person’s actions flow from their intentions. But this isn’t enough. To see why, imagine that White invents a more advanced intracranial contraption which controls a person’s intentions rather than just their behavior. Enter Lindsey3. Planted in Lindsey3’s brain, the device makes it impossible for her to even want to harm her boss —or anyone else for that matter. Lindsey3 is uniformly kind and gentle, because (thanks to the device) she intends to be. Although Lindsey3 does what she intends, this doesn’t make her responsible for what she does.

In order for a person to be responsible for her actions, it is a sine qua non that she is capable of engaging in a process of rational deliberation to arrive at a judgment about the right thing to do. That’s why we exempt Lindsey3 (as well as non-human animals, children, people under the influence of drugs or hypnosis, and the insane) from moral responsibility. Without engaging the capacity for intelligent reflection and if one is merely going through the motions — one’s actions have the appearance of moral responsibility, but lack its substance.

All of this has an important implication for our treatment of others. It implies that we have a moral obligation not to weaken other people’s capacity for autonomous rational deliberation. Unless we take this stance toward others, we are undermining their capacity to act as moral agents. A person who tries to influence others by tantalizing them with unrealistic promises, frightening them with stories of false or exaggerated threats, or otherwise obfuscating the issues, is attacking their capacity for moral responsibility. This sort of conduct is obviously immoral, for a person cannot coherently uphold virtue while undermining the very conditions that make virtue possible.

And this, of course, brings us back to presidential politics. It brings us back to the speechmaking and campaign ads, to the debates in which colorful but contentless slogans replace honest analysis, and other appeals to the irrational that displace even the pretence of careful reflection about the momentous concerns that confront our nation and the world. Much of what passes for political discourse is an attack on the moral integrity of the populace.

By the end of the class, many of my students had reached the unsettling conclusion that something is rotten at the heart of American politics — something that is the exclusive province of neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican, and that is as evident in mindless chants of “Yes we can!” as it is in fantasies about American exceptionalism and free-market mysticism. I think that it is fair to say that we emerged from class as more enlightened and discerning citizens but, paradoxically, as less optimistic and more forlorn about the prospects for our particular brand of democracy.

Photo Credit: cfishy