Now that there has been time for cooler-headed reflection, we reached out to a handful of right-of-center philosophers for comment on the recent election. Today launches a six-part series, each featuring one of these philosophers’ reflections. These philosophers are otherwise not associated with Rightly Considered and should not be assumed to hold views expressed by anyone else on this blog.
Today’s post is by William F. Vallicella (PhD, Boston College). Vallicella has taught philosophy at the University of Dayton and Case Western Reserve University. He blogs at Maverick Philosopher and is the author of A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated (Springer, 2002), as well as numerous articles in top philosophy journals. We are grateful for his contribution.
PHILOSOPHICAL ASPECTS OF THE TRUMP-CLINTON CONTEST
William F. Vallicella
Here are some questions that Trump v. Clinton suggest to me. Most of them will arise with any electoral contest, but the Trump-Clinton contest throws them into particularly sharp relief.
A. May One Remain Neutral?
Given the manifest negatives of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, many voted for neither. My first question is whether abstention can be justified when so much is at stake. One reason to think this is that a non-vote, even on an extremely weighty matter, is politically neutral, and has no effect either way.
James N. Anderson has a post entitled A Non-Vote is not a Vote:
One of the reasons put forward by some conservatives for voting for the controversial Republican nominee is that not voting for him would be “a vote for Hillary”. It’s important to understand why this is a really bad argument.
I agree that it is a bad argument, and for the reason Professor Anderson gives, namely, that if the choice is between A and B, one might vote for neither. Note that Anderson doesn’t name any conservative who gives the really bad argument, but if there is such a conservative, wouldn’t charity require us to construe ‘A non-vote for Trump is a vote for Hillary’ as a loose way of saying that not to vote for Trump is to aid Hillary?
Surely the latter — not to vote for Trump is to aid Hillary — is true. Or if not ‘surely,’ then ‘arguably.’ I will now try to argue it out.
There were of course candidates other than Trump and Hillary, but they had no practical chance of winning. So, practically speaking, it had to be either Trump or Hillary. Not both and not neither. Now suppose you are a conservative who voted for neither: you refused to vote for Hillary because she is a leftist, and you refused to vote for Trump because he is an obnoxious vulgarian and ‘no true conservative’ or for some other reason or reasons. By not voting for Trump you aided Hillary. You did not thereby vote for her, of course, but you aided her because you failed to do something that would harm her in however slight and insignificant a way.
Anderson speaks of the “neutrality of a non-vote.” But are non-votes politically neutral? I deny that they are. The situation is one in which not to choose is to choose. You didn’t choose Trump? Then you chose to support Hillary.
Consider a hiring decision. It is down to a choice between A and B. A receives five votes, B three, with three abstentions. A gets the job. Clearly, the abstentions are not neutral. If the three abstainers had voted for B, then B would have got the job.
My thesis is that IF (i) one is a conservative and wants to see the conservative agenda advanced and/or the leftist agenda impeded, AND (ii) one believes that Trump, as awful as he is, will advance the conservative agenda somewhat and/or impede the infiltration of leftist totalitarianism into every aspect of our lives and institutions, while Hillary will go full-steam ahead in implementation of the leftist agenda, THEN to abstain from the choice between Trump and Hillary is to aid the leftist agenda and to work against one’s interests as a conservative, which implies that one’s non-voting is NOT politically neutral.
Therefore, if you are a conservative, then you ought to have done what you could have to stop Hillary; at a bare minimum you ought to have voted for Trump. If you did not, then you aided Hillary contrary to your interests as a conservative.
What is the force of the ‘ought’ in my conclusion? For present purposes it suffices to take it as a merely prudential ought. It would have been imprudent of you, even if not immoral, to have abstained given your acceptance of (i) and (ii) above.
Am I saying that abstention is never justified? No. Suppose the two candidates are equal in point of policies and in point of character. Then one could justify abstention. And if the choice were between Nero and Caligula, then one ought to abstain.
B. Is a Vote for a Candidate an Endorsement of his Character?
This second question is related to the first. One might resist my first conclusion by urging that the candidates are so morally awful that in good conscience one could not vote for either of them. This seems to presuppose that a vote for a candidate is an endorsement of his character. But is it? This is my second question. The answer seems to me to be obvious. A vote for a political candidate need not be an endorsement of his character as a whole; it can be mainly an endorsement of the ideas and policies he stands for.
Obviously, if you are voting for a candidate as opposed to a proposition, you are voting for a person. But a wise voter does not vote for a person in abstraction from what he stands for, like the conservative grandmother who voted for Lenny the Leftist because Lenny is her beloved grandson. A wise voter votes for a candidate because of what the candidate stands for. The vote is for the person qua vehicle of the ideas and policies that the candidate can be expected to support.
It is also important to realize that a vote for a candidate is also an indirect ‘vote’ for the people the candidate can be expected to appoint or otherwise bring into the government. You could call this the ‘No Hillary without Huma’ principle. All of you who voted twice for Obama ‘voted’ indirectly for two very bad attorneys general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, who played a key role in undermining the rule of law in these United States.
Thus when I voted for Trump, I voted for a particular deeply flawed man because of the policies (some of which) he can be expected to promote, policies which are salutary, as opposed to the policies of Hillary which are almost all of them deleterious. I voted for him despite his character flaws just as, if I were a benighted lefty, I would have voted for Hillary despite her even worse character flaws.
But you don’t have to agree with me that Hillary is worse than Trump character-wise. We should be able to agree that both are on a fairly low moral level. The point is that my wise vote for Trump was not an endorsement of his character as a whole. I voted for him as a vehicle for the implementation of policies that will serve the greater good. This is not to say that character does not matter at all. Obviously it matters whether the candidate can be relied upon to make an honest effort to accomplish what he as promised. But other moral defects will have little effect on the candidate’s ‘vehicular’ aptitude, being an adulterer, for example, or having long ago in private engaged in sexual braggadocio.
C. Does the Act of Voting Express a Semantic Content?
I should think it does. When I voted for Trump I expressed the proposition that I deem him, all things considered, and in the concrete situation in which the choice had to be made, to be better than his opponent for the republic. I also expressed the thought that he is minimally qualified for the job. I didn’t just mark a ballot; I made a statement. In addition, I made a sort of tacit recommendation that my fellow citizens should do likewise. This is because my considerations were objective and impersonal as opposed to considerations such as ‘do I like this guy?’
D. The Problem of the Dirty Hands of Citizens
The problem of dirty hands is usually raised in connection with political leaders. But if a citizen votes for a national leader who can be reasonably expected to dirty his hands when the nation is under threat, and the leader does dirty his hands, does the dirt transfer to the citizen’s hands?
A clear example of a dirty hands situation is one in which a political leader authorizes the intentional slaughter of innocent non-combatants to demoralize the enemy and bring about the end of a war which, if it continues, could be reasonably expected to lead to the destruction of the leader’s state. The leader must act, but he cannot authorize the actions necessary for the state’s survival without authorizing immoral actions. He must act, but he cannot act without dirtying his hands with the blood of innocents. In its sharpest form the problem arises if we assume that certain actions are absolutely morally wrong, wrong in and of themselves, always and everywhere and regardless of circumstances or (good) consequences. The problem stands out in sharp relief when cast in the mold of an aporetic triad:
A. Moral reasons for action are dominant: they trump every other reason for action such as ‘reasons of state.’
B. Some actions are absolutely morally wrong, morally impermissible always and everywhere, regardless of situation, context, or circumstances.
C. Among absolutely morally wrong actions, there are some that are (non-morally) permissible, and indeed (non-morally) necessary: they must be done in a situation in which refusing to act would lead to worse consequences such as the destruction of one’s nation or culture.
It is easy to see that this triad is inconsistent. The limbs cannot all be true. (B) and (C) could both be true if one allowed moral reasons to be trumped by non-moral reasons. But that is precisely what (A), quite plausibly, rules out.
The threesome, then, is logically inconsistent. And yet each limb makes a strong claim on our acceptance. To solve the problem one of the limbs must be rejected. Which one?
(A)-Rejection. One might take the line that in some extreme circumstances non-moral considerations take precedence over moral ones. Imagine a ticking-bomb scenario in which the bomb planter must be tortured in order to find the location of the bomb or bombs. (Suppose a number of dirty nukes have been planted in Manhattan, all scheduled to go off at the same time.) Imagine a perfectly gruesome form of torture in which the wife and children of Ali the jihadi have their fingers and limbs sawn off in the presence of the jihadi, and then the same is done to him until he talks. Would the torture not be justified? Not morally justified of course, but justified non-morally to save Manhattan and its millions of residents and to avert the ensuing disaster for the rest of the country? One type of hard liner will say, yes, of course, even while insisting that torture of the sort envisaged is morally wrong, and indeed absolutely morally wrong. I am in some moods such a hard liner.
But am I not then falling into contradiction? No. I am not maintaining that in every case it is morally wrong to torture, but in this case it is not. That would be a contradiction. I am maintaining that it is always morally impermissible to torture but that in some circumstances moral considerations are trumped by — what shall I call them? — survival considerations. These are external to the moral point of view. So while morality is absolute in its own domain, its domain does not coincide with the domain of human action in general. The torture of the jihadi and his wife and children are justified, not morally, but by non-moral reasons.
(B)-Rejection. A second solution to the triad involves rejecting deontology and embracing consequentialism. Consider the following act-type: torturing a person to extract information from him. A deontologist such as Kant would maintain that the tokening of such an act-type is morally wrong just in virtue of the act-type’s being the act-type it is. It would then follow for Kant that every such tokening is morally wrong. A consequentialist would say that it all depends on the outcome. Torturing our jihadi above leads or can be reasonably expected to lead to the greatest good of the greatest number in the specific circumstances in question, and those on-balance good consequences morally justify the act of torture. So, contra Kant, one and the same act-type can be morally acceptable/unacceptable depending on circumstances and consequences. Torturing Ali the jihadi is morally justified, but torturing Sammy the jeweler to get him to open his safe is not.
On this second solution to the triad, we accept (A), we accept that moral considerations reign supreme over the entire sphere of human action and cannot be trumped by any non-moral considerations. But we adopt a consequentialist moral doctrine that allows the moral justification of torture and the targeting of non-combatants in certain circumstances.
(C)-Rejection. A third solution to the problem involves holding that there is no necessity to act: one can abstain from acting. A political leader faced with a terrible choice can simply abdicate, or simply refuse to choose. He does not order the torture of the jihadi and and hence does not act to save Manhattan; but by not acting he willy-nilly aids and abets the terrorist.
So much for a quick and ‘dirty’ sketch of the problem of dirty hands as it pertains to the leader.
But I voted for Trump, and as we know he said some disturbing things about torture. If he ends up ordering torture for reasons of state, do my citizen’s hands get dirty? I have no answer to this; I merely raise it as a question. For more on the topic, see C. A. J. Coady, The Dirty Hands of Citizens.
E. The Problem of Irreconcilable Conflict: Can Tribalism be Transcended?
Humans are tribal, but tribalism can be transcended. It exists in tension with our extraordinary ability to develop bonds with other human beings. Romeo and Juliet fell in love. French, British and German soldiers came out of their trenches in World War I to exchange food, cigarettes and Christmas greetings.
The key, as Cicero observed, is proximity, and a great deal of modern research backs him up. Students are more likely to become friends with the student whose dorm room is one door away than with the student whose room is four doors away. People who have at least one friend from the other political party are less likely to hate the supporters of that party.
But tragically, Americans are losing their proximity to those on the other side and are spending more time in politically purified settings. [. . .]
Haidt is right that tribalism can be transcended, at least to some extent, and that proximity and interaction can facilitate the transcending. But he is far more optimistic that I am.
What Haidt ignores is that there is no comity without commonality, as I like to put it. You and I can live and work together in harmony only within a common space of shared values and assumptions and recognized facts. But that common space is shrinking, and in some subspaces nonexistent. Take any ‘hot button’ issue, Second Amendment rights, for example. What do I have in common with the anti-gunner who favors confiscation of all civilian firearms, or only slightly less radically, wants to ban all handguns? To me it is evident that my right to life grounds a right to self-defense, and with it a right to acquire the appropriate means of self-defense. This right is protected, not conferred, by the Second Amendment. If you deny any of this, then we have no common ground, at least not on this topic. On this topic, we would then be at loggerheads. If you then work politically or extra-politically to violate what here in the States are called Second Amendment rights, then you become my enemy. And the consequences of enmity can become unpleasant in the extreme.
In a situation like this, proximity and interaction only exacerbate the problem. Even the calm interaction of scholarly argument and counter-argument does no good. No matter how carefully and rigorously I argue my position, I will not succeed in convincing the opponent. Nor will he succeed in convincing me. This is a fact of experience over a wide range of controversial topics, and not just in politics. The only good that comes of the dialectical interaction is a clarification and deeper understanding of one’s position and what it entails. If you think, say, that semi-automatic weapons ought to be banned for civilian use, then you and I will never find common ground. But I will perfect my understanding of my position and its presuppositions and better understand what I reject in yours.
After we have clarified, but not resolved, our differences, anger at the intransigence of the other is the likely upshot if we continue to interact in close proximity whether in the same academic department, the same church, the same club, the same neighborhood, the same family . . . . This is why there are schisms and splits and factions and wars and all manner of contention.
Anger at intransigence can then lead on to the thought that there must be something morally defective, and perhaps also intellectually defective, about the opponent if he holds, say, that a pre-natal human is just a clump of cells with no claim on our moral consideration. One advances — if that is the word — to the view that the opponent is morally censurable for holding the position he holds, that he is being willfully morally obtuse and deserves moral condemnation. And then the word ‘evil may slip in: “The bastard is not just wrong; he is an evil son-of-a-bitch for promoting the lie that an unborn child is just a clump of cells, or a disposable part of woman’s body like a wart.” The arguably false statements of the other get treated as lies and therefore as statements at the back of which in an intent to deceive. And from there it ramps up to ‘Hillary is Satan’ and ‘Trump is Hitler.’
The cure for this unproductive warfare is mutual, voluntary, segregation via a return to federalism. I develop the thought in A Case for Voluntary Segregation.
So while Haidt is right that proximity and interaction can promote mutual understanding and mitigate hostility, that is true only up to a point and works only within a common space of shared assumptions, values, and recognized facts. Absent the common space, the opposite is true: proximity and interaction are precisely what must be avoided to preserve peace. Peace through avoidance and disengagement and withdrawal.
Another notable contemporary who holds entirely too sanguine a view is Sam Harris. See Sam Harris and the Problem of Disagreement: Is Conversation Our Only Hope?
The Problem and Some Possible Solutions
The problem is what to do in the face of the many seemingly irreconcilable conflicts within the body politic.
a. There is what I take to be Haidt’s rather silly liberal solution, namely, that what will bring us together is proximity and interaction. He assumes that if we all come together and get to know each other we will overcome tribalism. This strikes me as utopian nonsense. It is precisely because of proximity and interaction that many decide to self-segregate. The more I know about certain individuals and groups the less I want to have to do with them. The thugs of Black Lives Matter, are just one example among many. Political opponents of this ilk need to be defeated and marginalized. Clearly, there can be no peace with those who work to undermine the rule of law and demonize police officers. (It goes without saying that bad cops must be dealt with severely, e.g., the death penalty for any cop who murders under the cover of law.)
b. At the other extreme we find the ‘alties’ and neo-reactionaries with what could be called a white-tribal solution. Those on the Alternative Right have a sound insight, namely, that there are unassimilable elements and that they must be kept out of any polity with prospects for survival. For example, Sharia-supporting Muslim are unassimilable into the U. S. because their values are antithetical to ours, perhaps not all of their values, but enough to make for huge problems. Islam is as much a political ideology as a religion, and its political ideas and values are antithetical to ours.
The success of e pluribus unum depends on the nature of the pluribus. A One cannot be made out of just any Many. The members of the manifold must be unifiable under some umbrella of common values, assumptions, and recognized facts. One nation cannot be made out of many tribes of immigrants unless the many tribes of immigrants accept OUR values, American values. The tribalism is overcome or at least mitigated by acceptance of a unifying set of American values and ideas to be enforced in the public sphere.
The alt-rightists, however, do not really offer a solution to the problem of transcending tribalism since their ‘solution’ is to embrace an opposing tribalism, and a race-based one at that. They are right about the reality of race, as against the foolish notion that race is a social construct, but they push this realism in an ugly and extreme direction when they construe American identity as white identity, where this excludes Jews. American identity is rooted in a set of ideas and values. Perhaps we could characterize these ideas and values as Judeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman with certain Enlightenment corrections and adjustments. It must be granted, however, that not all racial and ethnic groups are equally willing and able to assimilate and implement these ideas and values. Immigration policy must favor those that are.
c. Another extreme view is secessionism which may or may not take an alt-right form. The topic is large and above my current pay grade. So I won’t say anything more about it except to note that it strikes me as thoroughly impractical, a fit topic for debating societies, but nothing more. It’s like monarchism or anarchism. Anarchism is to political philosophy as eliminative materialism is to the philosophy of mind. That is to say, it is an untenable stance, teetering on the brink of absurdity, but worth studying as a foil against which to develop something saner. To understand in depth any position on a spectrum of positions you must study the whole spectrum. So by all means develop secessionist theories! Just don’t pin your hopes on implementation. Political theory ought to examine every option; but political practice has to focus on what is concretely possible in the present circumstances.
d. A middle path suggests itself. To liberals we ought to concede that diversity is a value, but at the same time insist that it is a value that has to be kept in check by the opposing value of unity. For example, Muslims who refuse to accept our values must not be allowed to immigrate. They have no right to immigrate, but we have every right to select those who will benefit us. That is just common sense. The good sort of diversity is not enhanced by the presence of those who breed terror-prone fanatics. Muslims ought to stay in their own lands and work to make them livable places.
What we need, then, to mitigate tribal hostility is not more proximity and interaction, but less, fewer ‘conversations’ not more, less government interference in the lives of citizens, a more robust civil-society buffer zone between individual and Leviathan, more toleration, voluntary segregation, a return to federalism, greater respect for the constitution, a total stoppage of illegal immigration, and a reform of current immigration law.
Will this happen? It could happen especially now that Hillary the leftist has been sent packing, but don’t bet on it. The totalitarian, race-baiting, liberty-destroying, religion-bashing Left never gives up. They will resist any return to federalism. They will continue to use the power of the state to attack the institutions of civil society, as witness their use of state power to violate the consciences of caterers and florists, the Little Sisters of the Poor, et al.
So perhaps in the end federalism, like secessionism, is just another topic to talk and write about. But at least federalism has some chance.
e. Finally, there is that extreme form of withdrawal that could be called world-flight, or renunciation of the world.
In the wake of recent events, Rod Dreher renews his call for the Benedict Option:
It is now clear that for this Court, extremism in the pursuit of the Sexual Revolution’s goals is no vice. True, the majority opinion nodded and smiled in the direction of the First Amendment, in an attempt to calm the fears of those worried about religious liberty. But when a Supreme Court majority is willing to invent rights out of nothing, it is impossible to have faith that the First Amendment will offer any but the barest protection to religious dissenters from gay rights orthodoxy.
This is especially the case, as it seems to me, given the Left’s relentless and characteristically dishonest assault on Second Amendment rights. The only real back up to the First Amendment is the exercise of the rights guaranteed by the Second. You will have noticed that the Left never misses an opportunity to limit law-abiding citizens’ access to guns and ammunition. What motivates leftists is the drive to curtail and ultimately eliminate what could be called ‘real’ liberties such as the liberty to own property, to make money and keep it, to defend one’s life, liberty and property, together with the liberty to acquire the means to the defense of life, liberty and property.
[. . .]
Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito explicitly warned religious traditionalists that this decision leaves them vulnerable. Alito warns that Obergefell “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy,” and will be used to oppress the faithful “by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”
It is time for what I call the Benedict Option. In his 1982 book After Virtue, the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre likened the current age to the fall of ancient Rome. He pointed to Benedict of Nursia, a pious young Christian who left the chaos of Rome to go to the woods to pray, as an example for us. We who want to live by the traditional virtues, MacIntyre said, have to pioneer new ways of doing so in community. We await, he said “a new — and doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”
Throughout the early Middle Ages, Benedict’s communities formed monasteries, and kept the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness. Eventually, the Benedictine monks helped refound civilization.
I believe that orthodox Christians today are called to be those new and very different St. Benedicts. How do we take the Benedict Option, and build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile, and under increasingly hostile conditions? I don’t know. But we had better figure this out together, and soon, while there is time.
Last fall, I spoke with the prior of the Benedictine monastery in Nursia, and told him about the Benedict Option. So many Christians, he told me, have no clue how far things have decayed in our aggressively secularizing world. The future for Christians will be within the Benedict Option, the monk said, or it won’t be at all.
Obergefell is a sign of the times, for those with eyes to see. This isn’t the view of wild-eyed prophets wearing animal skins and shouting in the desert. It is the view of four Supreme Court justices, in effect declaring from the bench the decline and fall of the traditional American social, political, and legal order.
There is a potential problem with the Benedict Option, however. Suppose you and yours join a quasi-monastic community out in the middle of nowhere where you live more or less ‘off the grid,’ home-school your kids, try to keep alive and transmit our Judeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman traditions, all in keeping with that marvellous admonition of Goethe:
Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast,
erwirb es, um es zu besitzen!What from your fathers you received as heir,
Acquire if you would possess it. (tr. W. Kaufmann)
The idea is that what one has been lucky enough to inherit, one must actively appropriate, i.e., make one’s own by hard work, if one is really to possess it. The German infinitive erwerben has not merely the meaning of ‘earn’ or ‘acquire’ but also the meaning of aneignen, appropriate, make one’s own.
So now you are out in the desert or the forest or in some isolated place free of the toxic influences of a society in collapse. The problem is that you are now a very easy target for the fascists. You and yours are all in one place, far away from the rest of society and its infrastructure. All the fascists have to do is trump up some charges, of child-abuse, of gun violations, whatever. The rest of society considers you kooks and benighted bigots and won’t be bothered if you are wiped off the face of the earth. You might go the way of the Branch Davidians.
Is this an alarmist scenario? I hope it is. But the way things are going, one ought to give careful thought to one’s various withdrawal options.
It might be better to remain in diaspora in the cities and towns, spread out, in the midst of people and infrastructure the fascists of the Left will not target. A sort of subversive engagement from within may in the long run be better than spatial withdrawal. One can withdraw spiritually without withdrawing spatially. One the other hand, we are spatial beings, and perhaps not merely accidentally, so the question is a serious one: how well can one withdraw spiritually while in the midst of towns and cities and morally corrupt and spiritually dead people?
We are indeed living in very interesting times. How can one be bored?
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- Election Reflection I: William F. Vallicella - November 20, 2016
- Congratulations, Donald J. Trump - November 9, 2016
- Censor This. - October 7, 2016