An Exercise in Utility

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October 11, 2018 by liebestropfchen

Probably the most interesting phenomenon is the proclivity of President Trump’s supporters to abandon historically conservative principles in favor of unwavering support for his unique behavior. Likewise, many conservatives have a difficult time reckoning feminist support for former President Bill Clinton, who had multiple credible accusations of sexual harassment going back to his time as Governor of Arkansas.

Both sides have accused each other of hypocrisy, claiming the blind support for someone so blatantly against guiding political party principles is beyond comprehension. I have encountered thousands of comments from friends, family, and strangers clamoring for the day when their opponents will “wake up” and stop defending such horrible behavior.

But what if supporting someone who is at odds with one’s personal morals isn’t as simple as hypocrisy? Is there an explanation for why the voters who disparage big government would support a president who aggrandizes supremacy over the judicial and legislative branches? Could something else explain why liberals could forego all deeply held beliefs about women’s rights and the #metoo movement in favor of a president taking advantage of his power dynamics with an intern?

Yes. A deeper philosophical understanding can explain the choices we make, and can also provide a bridge to heal our damaging lack of political discourse.

In Michael Sandel’s Harvard lecture series “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” he provided a philosophical explanation for why our morals can become relative, based on the circumstances or the consequences in question. He told the story of a trolley car barreling out of control down a track toward five men who are working on the track, unaware of the oncoming disaster. The conductor must determine if he is morally justified in turning the trolley down a side track, where only one worker would be killed. When he took a poll of his classroom, the majority determined the conductor was morally justified in turning the trolley toward the one worker, because killing only one person was better than killing five.

Sandel then questioned whether the moral justification would hold true in a slightly different scenario. An observer could push an obese bystander onto the track in front of the runaway trolley, thereby stopping the trolley before it kills the five workers. Despite equal results (kill one man to spare five) the majority of the classroom determined this was not morally justifiable.

So, what changed?

As Sandel explained, people fall into two different categories of moral reasoning, which can lead like-minded people to inconsistent conclusions when trying to determine what is just. Consequentialist moral reasoning concludes it is better to maximize value, such that something (or the actions of someone) which provides the greatest social utility is justifiable. In contrast, categorical moral reasoning concludes that despite any beneficial outcome, if the objective is wrong, then it is not justified. In the cases he provided, a consequentialist would deduce a conductor killing one person to spare five people is maximizing social utility. Conversely, those who believe consciously turning the trolley, or pushing an on-looker, are equally inexcusable murderous acts, would be reasoning categorically.

I believe these theories on morality also describe how men and women can find the sexual improprieties of President Clinton or President Kennedy morally reprehensible, then subsequently deem President Trump’s philandering a non-issue. This looks like hypocrisy, but I would argue it is consequentialist moral reasoning. They believe President Trump’s priorities (i.e., in all ways, he represents his supporters above all others) provides the greatest social utility, and therefore is good for the country.

Sandel’s description of relative moral aptitudes deduces that “Philosophy…confronts us with what we already know. [It] stranges us from the familiar.” When principles which are familiar to us become challenged, the very principle itself can become somewhat murky. One is faced with the discomfort of whether the principle was flawed, and then must decide whether the flaw is categorically wrong, or consequentially justified.

Those who believe Trump supporters are merely “ignorant” or “hypocritical” for overlooking his flaws subconsciously are assuming everyone reasons categorically. Not so. Either by accident, or by design, Donald Trump has appealed to the consequentialist motives in his supporters. Focusing on the promises of his campaign, and how many of them he says to have fulfilled, speaks directly to what they perceive as the greatest social utility coming to fruition. Conservative Supreme Court justices, tax cuts, attacks on Hollywood celebrities (minus Kanye, apparently), snide remarks about Nancy Pelosi, and jabs at the media provide an enticement for them to overlook his indiscretions. Such a philosophy highlights why, in the vast majority of cases, liberals waiting for the Trump supporter to “wake up” and see Trump in the same light in which they see him is an exercise in futility. Unless the Trump voter prescribes to categorical moral reasoning, this president’s actions will continually be deemed justifiable to those who see him “winning” for them.

The same is true of liberals who support Bill and Hillary Clinton despite historical evidence some of their behavior in the White House was the very same behavior for which liberals are now criticizing President Trump: narcissism, attacks on Republican voters, suggestions of a conspiracy against them, misleading statements under oath, and attempts to shut down an investigation by a special counsel. Those who still stand by the Clintons may indeed see their behavior as wrong, but are willing to exempt them from judgment. If consequentialist morality is leveraged, then Monica Lewinsky’s pain, insults of the “vast right-wing conspiracy”, and intense narcissism can be set aside in favor of the social utility the Clintons have provided during their years of public service.

Right or wrong, hypocrisy isn’t the term for what we are seeing in 2018.

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of President Trump’s style of leadership. In fact, I think he is divisive and takes liberties with his bully pulpit I feel the founders of our country would find horrifying. Yet I am tired of our citizens being exploited for television ratings and click bait, and I want to find a viable path forward.

Neither side is likely to budge, so long as liberals and conservatives disrespect the human condition. The primary reason Democrats lose so many elections is because they are not directing attention to the right utilitarian principles of anyone outside the liberal voting bloc. Also an exercise in futility.

While liberals consider identity politics to be the greatest means of achieving social efficacy, conservatives tend to see religious freedom, market-driven economics, and smaller government as the social utility worth pursuing. Many in the media and Washington have exploited the high-level assumption that liberal and conservative values are diametrically opposed, which has fed intense resentment between the parties. Even worse, some constituents (fueled by media, no doubt) are conflating a difference in priority with vindictiveness. In reality, the utilitarian priorities of liberals and conservatives have many commonalities, and the political parties fail appealing to voters on the other side by drawing any correlation.

The intersection of liberal and conservative positions exists where religious freedom meets marriage equality, where a market-driven economy meets economic inequality, where freedom of expression meets political correctness, where systemic racism meets prison costs, where economic patriotism meets progressive tax rates, or where trade wars meet pension plans. President Trump has defended his voters’ principles of social utility, and the only way Democratic candidates can gain his voters is to prove exactly how he damages their benefit.

Consider Tess Clarke, the pro-life Texas woman who plans to vote for Democratic candidate Beto O’Roarke in his Senate race against incumbent Ted Cruz. She told the New York Times, “I care as much about babies at the border as I do about babies in the womb.” She serves as a lesson in utility. Where pro-life meets immigration, the voters will follow.

We must do better to analyze where different visions of a “great” America can become leverage for good policy. The Democratic Party should work toward that ideal, lest they permanently lose all three branches of government for another generation.


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