On the matter of your moral inferiority…

A self-serving moral judgment is always implicit in any political judgment, for the simple reason that a politics without morality would be the physics of randomly colliding human atoms, of no meaning to anyone, or not authentically political at all.

Ramesh Ponnuru (in “Hate Trump Voters? You’ve Got a Problem. “) attempts to draw a simultaneously moral and political distinction:

Living in a democracy often means thinking that millions of our fellow citizens are making a big mistake, and saying so. That doesn’t have to mean considering them our moral inferiors. To the extent my fellow anti-Trump conservatives are adopting that mindset, they are making a depressing political season even more so.

I think I understand what Ponnuru wants to encourage – forgiveness, empathy, balance, wise strategy, among other things – but on the central question I believe that he is wrong: Thinking that our fellow citizens are “making a big mistake” does and must mean considering them our moral inferiors, in relation to the particular matter if not others, and, when I say so, I cannot help but also imply or  confirm that I believe that in this way, on this question, Ponnuru is my “moral inferior.”

A self-serving moral judgment is always implicit in any political judgment, for the simple reason that a politics without morality would be the physics of randomly colliding human atoms, of no meaning to anyone, or not authentically political at all. To say that in this way, on this question, I view Ponnuru as my inferior, and even to say that I feel morally obligated to say as much, is therefore simply to state the obvious about what I think and believe. It is in no way to suggest that I believe myself to be Ponnuru’s superior altogether. I must believe, however, that his being wrong would stand as evidence against him in some full and fair – and entirely unwanted and pointless – comparison of our moral constitutions. It likewise remains a necessary implication of Ponnuru’s position that those who disagree with it would be, unlike him, in authentically moral as well as political error, or that their position would be, in contrast to his, using his terms, both “unjustified” as well as “counterproductive.” If he were right, or possibly right, then his position would be morally superior to mine, and, on this matter, in this way, he would be my moral superior.

In the effort to avoid such seemingly impolite, but logical, conclusions, Ponnuru divides his thesis into two questions as follows:

People who disdain Trump voters en masse are, it seems to me, confusing two questions: Should an intelligent and decent person back Trump? And can an intelligent and decent person back Trump? I’m a firm no on the first question. But the answer to the second question is yes.

If the two questions are or must be connected, then acknowledging as much is not to submit to confusion, but to attend to necessity. The “should” question is the moral question, and the very firmness of Ponnuru’s “firm no” supports the notion of holding the “masse” of Trump voters in “disdain.” The “can” refers us to mitigating factors: Ponnuru argues that Trump supporters may have made this wrong decision or may be undertaking this wrong behavior for reasons that are not “obviously delusional or hateful,” but a morality that can reject only obvious delusion or hatred would be a morality difficult to distinguish from amorality. It would be like a penal code that punished first-degree murder only, and left everything else to the eye of the beholder (or perpetrator). Put simply, to the precise degree that one’s answer to the first question is firmly “no,” it must become more difficult to answer “yes” to the second one.

On the specific political matter, the fact that “Trump supporter” is not the worst thing I could say about another person does not make it a matter of moral indifference to me. The Democrat who cannot imagine being friends with a Republican, or vice versa, might indeed be making the same type of judgment. He or she might be doing so mistakenly and also immorally. At the risk of someday being judged wrong, or immoral myself, I also cannot help but make such judgments: That risk is the price of admission to any ethical discussion.

More to the present political point, if I believe that anyone who supports Donald J Trump for the office of President of the United States is very likely doing so on the basis of what amounts to moral defect, including for the reasons that Ponnuru goes on to adduce, to say as much is merely to translate the NeverTrump hashtag into into forty-some words. I would be acknowledging that “NeverTrump”-ism is for its adherents very much a matter of mores, and self-reflexively: NeverTrump says, “It is immoral not to view Trump and Trump support as immoral, and morality requires a responsible citizen to say so.” I would be acknowledging that to disagree with another citizen politically sooner or later means to disagree over matters that one takes with the highest seriousness – matters of life and death, of right and wrong, or, in religious terms, of our immortal souls. “NeverTrump” says that Trump himself, his most vocal followers, and many of those whose “firm no”‘s are not as firm as they could be (and instead may reflect the same moral compromises and incapacities that got the so-called “conservative movement” in its current predicament) are in this sense as seriously in error as it is possible for anyone to be in politics on this level.

The disdain the Trumpists and fellow travelers may receive from the rest of us ought to be considered the least of their problems, from their perspective – like the endlessly hurt feelings of a man whose trademarks are the insulting nickname and the attention-getting outrage against common decency. Indeed, if they were capable of taking our judgment of them truly seriously, if they were concerned about their reputations, they would not have ended up where they are.

Those with views we loathe may also sometimes be those on whom we could depend for things far more important to us than the outcome of any, or almost any, election. Yet putting the inescapable moral component of a political difference in perspective, treating the latter rationally and charitably, and with a view toward eventually overcoming it, does not mean ignoring the former. Doing so honestly and effectively relies on just the opposite commitment.


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2 comments on “On the matter of your moral inferiority…

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Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.

Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.

For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:

  1. Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
  2. Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
  3. The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
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He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

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As they war with the right, though, Trump and Kushner would gain no quarter from Democrats—unless Democrats were allowed to set the all the terms. This is Bannon’s central point. Democrats have no incentive to prop up Trump’s presidency for half-loaf compromises that many will suspect are contaminated with seeds of Trumpism. Trump can adopt or co-opt the Democrats’ infrastructure platform outright if he likes, but he can’t easily entice them to compromise with him, and he can’t entice House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to advance a trillion dollar direct-spending bill filled with environmental and labor protections that the GOP exists to oppose.

Which is just to say, Kushner wants Trump to chart a new course that leads to a substantive dead end for at least another 19 months. Bannon’s path, at least, preserves the hope of keeping his base consolidated through the legislative ebb. He can deregulate, scapegoat, and unburden law enforcement to turn his Herrenvolk fantasy into reality—all while keeping congressional investigators at bay.

There’s no real logical rebuttal to this, except to point to three months of chaos and humiliation as indicative of the futility of continuing to do things Bannon’s way. That is really an argument that Trump should get rid of both of his top advisers, but Trump is unlikely to grasp that in a contest between loyalists, both might deserve to lose. Family loyalty, and the beating his ego will take when the stories of his first 100 days are written, will pull him toward his son-in-law. And that’s when the real fun will begin.

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State of the Discussion

bob
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Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country's foreign policy, and [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
CK MacLeod
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Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!" - bob's idea for a possible rallying [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
Wade McKenzie
Ignored
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic

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