17 August 2016

Frameworks, Pt. 6

Let's see if we can bring this unruly essay full circle. We began with a general ethical framework for looking at the two major U.S. political parties. Republican candidates, we asserted, tend to be 'deontological' in orientation, and Democrats tend to be 'consquentialist' in their choice of candidates.

That's a couple of pretty big terms. Don't let that turn you off. Let's try to unpack them. Deontological ethics, which has its origins in religious texts and moral codes, judges the rightness or wrongness of a given action by whether it adheres to a given set of rules or, generously, principles. It looks at the character of the act itself, and in certain political iterations at the virtuous intentions of the actor to adhere to those rules. Shorthand version: rule-following is good; purity of intentions is better.

Consequentialist ethics, which is a by-product of the rationalist Enlightenment, judges the rightness or wrongness of a given action by the effects it seeks to bring about. Utilitarianism (see, e.g., Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill) is a species of consequentialism which states that a given political action should produce the greatest amount of pleasure (or good or happiness—however defined) for the greatest number. Consequentialism tends to favor a certain pragmatism in action, but is more concerned with the effects a given action causes. Shorthand: what's good is what's good for the greatest number; what's best is what's good for all.

These, of necessity, are very cursory definitions of these two approaches to gauging political actions, but for purposes of this blog essay, they will suffice.

Generations of philosophy students will be familiar with the old hypothetical thought experiment of being thrust into a situation in a remote village where you are forced to make a decision either (a) to personally execute one innocent member of a group of hostages, or else (b) to do nothing, in which case the hostage-takers will murder the entire village. If you are a confirmed rule-follower who operates under a "thou shall not kill" ethos—that is to say a deontologist—then you will likely choose as a matter personal morality not to kill the innocent hostage. If you are a consequentialist, on the other hand, you might decide that it is better to swallow your pride and sacrifice your integrity and kill an innocent person in the hopes of saving the rest of the village.

Neither choice is particularly savory, obviously. But political decisions, I suspect, can often be like that. Bright-line rules don't always apply. Principles crumple in the face of unforeseen circumstances. I do believe that this type of analysis can help to understand the two major presidential candidates this year.

Within this ethical framework, we've looked at the candidacy of Donald Trump as projecting the image of a strong individual whose every action as President will inculcate a certain set of rules and principles (specifically conservative ones)—regardless of outcome and effect on, for example, the economy or international relations or entire classes of people. Hillary Clinton's image, by contrast, is that of a competent and experienced political actor whose actions seek the input of the broadest manageable coalition of her constituents and therefore will redound to the benefit the greatest number of people—beholden to no hard and fast particular ideological set of rules or principles (right or left).

Philosophically, this is how I see the choice this year. This has been my look at how I believe the candidates propose to govern, not what their specific policies or promises might be. I believe this is an incredibly important analysis because, frankly, no one can predict what sorts of issues or changed circumstances the next president will have to face. Promises are promises and often fall by the wayside in the face of obstruction and opposition or changed circumstances. Likewise, policies are policies, but unreasoning or even forced application of a given set of policies to different situations could have unforeseeable and potentially disastrous results.

[As a footnote, a quick analysis of Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, on this framework might look something like this: like Trump, she appears to be a deontologist, but unlike Trump her operant rules and principles are doctrinaire leftist in orientation. Her intentions might be pure (as, for example, an environmentalist)—and that is her strong allure—but she doesn't have the coalition of constituencies necessary at the outset to be able to gauge what would be the best sort of particular actions to bring about a desired set of results in any given situation. Even a pure leftist cannot rule by fiat in a democratic society.

Gary Johnson, by contrast, looks to me like a consequentialist of sorts, but a wrongheaded one. His policies are libertarian in orientation. He seeks to cut government out of nearly every aspect of life. The inevitable, direct result of radically cutting government regulation and taxes will be increased inequality—whether this is intentional or unintentional is unknown. His actions will directly benefit those few already in a position to maintain or even advance their economic and political interests on their own. It will directly remove protections for the most vulnerable. He seems to believe that such a move will indirectly and at some future point in time benefit the majority—though that can never be guaranteed.]