Columnists Are Deeply Concerned About the Election

I’m still avoiding “news” about Tuesday’s election, but many people who write for a living are expressing these two points:

  • Republican politicians no longer even pretend to care about morality.
  • The election will be a choice between democracy and autocracy.

They don’t need to mention that democracy may lose.

From “The New Nihilists” by Sarah Longwell for Persuasion:

These midterms are proving how deep the GOP rot runs.

The crop of Republican candidates running in the midterms has taken immorality to a whole new level. [She then cites scandalous behavior by three of their Senate candidates, Lake, Oz and Walker.]

What was the response from GOP leaders and media figures? In essence: “LOL, nothing matters”. 

It’s a baffling turn for those of us who grew up in an era where the Republican Party built its public brand around morality and character….Until a few years ago, the GOP still defended virtue rhetorically, even when it fell short and engaged in double standards….

In 2022, by contrast, the GOP ignores or perverts virtue altogether. [Their leader] has spawned hundreds of GOP candidates who ape his lies about the 2020 election, his corruption, and his combative style. Candidates of low character—like Lake, Oz, and Walker—are the rule in the GOP, rather than the exception. According to the old saying, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue—and Republicans have resolved their hypocrisy in favor of vice.   

From “Well, America, You Were a Good Idea While You Lasted” by Charles Pierce for Esquire:

The GOP have finally abandoned the last shreds of common decency, the rule of law and other American ideals.

It was this weekend that I finally gave up. I have watched the steady descent of American conservatism—and its primary public vehicle, the Republican Party—into the terminal depths of the prion disease it acquired when Ronald Reagan, Richard Viguerie and Jerry Falwell first fed it the monkey-brains back in the late 1970s….

I mocked it and inveighed against it. Better people than I … have spent four decades warning us what was coming unless the prion disease was kept in check….

The public episodes are now too numerous to mention…. They are beyond anyone’s reach. They are beyond logic and reason. They left democratic norms and customs far behind decades ago. They are beyond political compromise. They are beyond checks and balances, and they have drifted off into the void of a space far beyond the Constitution.

From “We Need to Be Clear About Who Pushed Us to the Breaking Point” by Jamelle Bouie for The New York Times:

The Democratic Party is, at this moment, the only viable political party with a serious commitment to free and fair elections. And in a country where power alternates between two major parties, this means American democracy is in real trouble….

It is simply the truth of the matter. If you oppose the effort to nullify Democratic election victories and create systems of minority rule (the Republican running for governor of Wisconsin said, for example, that “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor”), then there’s only one real choice on the ballot….

Democrats did not make democracy a partisan issue. Republicans did. They did when they stood with Donald Trump in the wake of Jan. 6; they did when they embraced “Stop the steal” and election-denying candidates; they did when they made light of the threats against Nancy Pelosi and the assault on her husband.

There is nothing stopping Republican candidates and Republican voters and Republican leaders from pursuing their partisan and ideological goals while keeping their commitment to free and fair elections. There is nothing stopping them from rejecting antidemocracy extremists in their midst and affirming the vital principles of popular sovereignty, rule of law and political equality. There is nothing stopping them, in other words, from making a different set of choices about the kind of political party they wish to be part of.

It’s not Democrats who left the voting public with only one choice if they want to protect democracy as they know it….

Bouie adds that this kind of politics appeals to some:

When politicians and other political leaders … drop the pretense of virtue and embrace a politics of cruelty and malice, in which nothing matters but the will to power — voters act accordingly. Some may recoil, but just as many will embrace the chance to live vicariously through leaders who celebrate vice and hold virtue in contempt.

Others have other things on their mind (by Michael de Adder for The Washington Post):


Ethics as a Serious Game Again

Monday’s offerings at Three Quarks Daily included “Is Moral Equality a Christian Ideal?” by Tim Sommers. Mr. Sommers concluded that equality has a widespread, longstanding status as an ethical ideal not reserved to Christianity. Here’s part of his conclusion:

Moral equality is not based on the obviously false claim that we are all alike – or equal in every way. Nor is it based on the claim that all humans possess some ineffable, transcendent something that we got from God. It’s based on the idea that there is at least one morally relevant way in which we are alike that qualifies us for equal treatment (or treatment as equals) in certain ways.

…. Here’s why I think this is worth writing about. I think people, even smart people (maybe, especially smart people), give in to an easy cynicism about moral notions in general, and equality in particular. For example, I received an otherwise smart and insightful comment on a prior article that began, “Rights are clearly imagined.” Well, I don’t think that’s clear. I don’t believe that the hard-headed, realistic thing to think is that moral concepts are imaginary or wishful thinking or a hangover from religion that we are still recovering from. I think cynicism about right and wrong and equality is the last thing we need right now. So, keep in mind, that morality and moral equality are not somehow less realistic concerns simply because they are more abstract and complicated. Maybe, it will help to recall that Hobbes says that the basis of human equality is our ability to murder each other in our sleep. That seems like a realistic concern.

Reading this made me think about what I wrote a few days ago: “Ethics as a Very Serious Game”. Here’s a much shorter (and possibly clearer) version of what I wrote, now in response to Mr. Sommers:

Would it be helpful to think of morality as a set of rules, so that instead of saying things like “breaking a promise is wrong” we’d say “don’t break a promise”? The question whether moral rules are imaginary or wishful thinking wouldn’t arise. We don’t worry about the rules of chess or baseball being imaginary or wishful thinking. They’re the rules. The origin of the moral rules would still be an interesting question (religion was certainly involved), as would whether the rules should be changed. Since morality isn’t as organized as chess or baseball — there’s no official rule book — we could still argue about what the rules are and whether we should obey them.

The metaethical question whether moral judgments are true or false would kind of fade away. The statement “three strikes and you’re out” is true in baseball. The statement “breaking a promise is wrong” isn’t true simpliciter. It is, however, true in morality.

He responded to what I wrote, mainly wondering why we should be moral if what I wrote is true. All I’ll say about that now is that whatever reasons we have for paying attention to morality can’t themselves be moral reasons. Giving a moral reason for paying attention to morality would be going around in circles. Some other justification would be needed, like “God wants us to behave that way”, “society benefits from people being ethical”, “you’ll be a happier person” or “it’s just obvious that we should be ethical”. The answer might also be the one Ring Lardner once expressed: “Shut up, he explained”.

The Ethics of “Sweet Illusions and Darling Lies”

Are we morally responsible for what we believe? To some extent, we are. The acceptance of lies and bizarre conspiracy theories by so many of our fellow citizens makes the issue extremely relevant. The philosopher Regina Rini discusses the ethics of belief for the Times Literary Supplement:  

On January 6, the US Capitol building was stormed by a mob, motivated by beliefs that were almost entirely false, absurd and nonsensical: the QAnon conspiracy; the President’s [lies] about massive voter fraud, and the various conspiracy theories that he and his lawyers peddled in support of overturning the election results.

In 1877, the English philosopher William Clifford published a now famous essay, “The Ethics of Belief”, setting out the view that we can be morally faulted for shoddy thinking. Clifford imagines a ship-owner who smothers his doubts about the seaworthiness of a creaky vessel, and adopts the sincere but unjustified belief that it is safe to send passengers across the Atlantic. The ship then sinks. Clifford (himself a shipwreck survivor) asks: don’t we agree that the ship-owner was “verily guilty” of the passengers’ deaths, and that he “must be held responsible for it”? If we agree to this, Clifford continues, then we must also agree that the ship-owner would deserve blame even if the ship hadn’t sunk. It is epistemic carelessness that makes the ship-owner guilty, even if catastrophe is luckily avoided. “The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief … not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.”

Clifford’s views went out of favour among philosophers for most of a century. Moral evaluation, it was thought, should stop at the mind’s edge. After all, we cannot directly control our beliefs in the way we control our fists. I can’t just decide, here and now, to stop believing that Charles I had a pointy beard . . . And if I can’t control my beliefs, how can I be held accountable for them?


Yet in recent decades, many philosophers have become less impressed by this objection (sometimes called the problem of “doxastic voluntarism”). After all, I can control how I acquire and maintain beliefs by shaping my informational environment. Suppose I do really want to change my beliefs about Charles I’s grooming. I could join a renegade historical society and surround myself with dissenting portraiture. Slowly, indirectly, I can retrain my thoughts and I can be held accountable for choosing to do so.

More to the point, I can also fail to take action to shape my beliefs in healthy ways. The social media era has made this point especially acute, as we can each now curate our own information environment, following sources that challenge our beliefs, or flatter our preconceptions, as we please. Digital epistemic communities are then made up of people who amplify one another’s virtues or vices. Credulously accepting conspiracy stories that vilify my partisan enemies not only dulls my own wits, but encourages my friends to dull theirs. Clifford himself was quite sharp on this point: “Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me … It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive”.

So far, then, Clifford’s 150-year-old diagnosis seems precisely to explain the epistemic culpability of those who stormed the Capitol on a wave of delusion and lies. But there is a wrinkle here. Clifford thought that credulity – insufficient scepticism toward the claims of others – was the most troubling intellectual vice. But the epistemic shambles of QAnon show a more subtle problem. After all, if there’s anything conspiracy fanatics possess, it is scepticism. They are sceptical of what government officials say, sceptical of what vaccine scientists say, sceptical even of what astronauts say about the shape of the Earth. If anything, they show that critical thinking is a bit like cell division; valuable in proportion, but at risk of harmful metastasis. In the eyes of QAnon devotees, we are the “sheeple” who fail to “do the research” of tumbling down every hyperlinked rabbit-hole.

Conspiracy aficionados are all too willing to think for themselves – that is how they end up believing that Democrats are Satan-worshippers or that 5G phone towers cause Covid-19. And that’s where Clifford’s moralizing – “No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the universal duty of questioning all that we believe” – goes wrong. The ethics of belief should not be a Calvinistic demand for hard epistemic labour. Conspiracists work at least as hard as the rest of us, pinning notes and photos to their bulletin boards late into the night. Hard epistemic labour is just as prone to amplifying epistemic mistakes as overcoming them.

In fact, we should not be focused on individual intellectual virtue at all. The epistemic practices that justify our beliefs are fundamentally interpersonal. Most of our knowledge of the world depends essentially on the say-so of others. Consider: how do you know that I live in Toronto? Well, it says so right at the bottom of this column. But that’s not the same as going to Toronto and seeing me there with your own eyes. So even this simple belief requires trusting the say-so of me or the [Times Literary Supplement].

Perhaps you want to be an uncompromising epistemic individualist, refusing to believe until you’ve verified it yourself? Well, you’ll need to come to Toronto to check. But how will you find Toronto? You can’t use Google Maps (that’s just more say-so from others). Maybe you’ll set out with a compass and enterprising disposition. But how do you know what that compass is pointing to? How do you know where the North Pole is, or how magnetism works? Have you been to the North Pole? Have you done all the magnetism experiments yourself? The list goes on.

No one lives like that. We are all deeply, ineradicably dependent on the say-so of others for nearly all our beliefs about the world. It’s only through a massive division of cognitive labour that we’ve come to know so much. So genuine epistemic responsibility isn’t a matter of doubting all that can be doubted, or only believing what you’ve proven for yourself. It’s a matter of trusting the right other people. That takes wisdom.

Not everyone in the Capitol mob was a QAnon believer. Some were white supremacists aiming to violently uphold a president who refused to condemn their hate. Others were merely insurrection tourists. Still, many do seem to have genuinely believed they were fighting a monstrous regime of Satanic child-harmers. Those beliefs did not appear in a vacuum. A Bellingcat investigation of the social media history of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot by police while attempting to storm the House of Representatives, suggests that she held relatively mainstream political views until about a year ago, when she veered off into deep QAnon obsession. She put her trust in the wrong people, and all her epistemic labour only made things worse.

That is the most delicate and important lesson to draw from last week’s horror show. QAnon believers are culpable for their bad judgment. But that culpability extends far beyond them, through to everyone whose actions fed their dangerous beliefs. It’s not enough to insist that responsibility falls entirely on the believer, because we are all dependent on others for our knowledge, and we must all trust someone. That mutual reliance means we are all our neighbour’s epistemic keeper.

Most obviously the blame for last week’s catastrophe extends to politicians who cynically courted and channelled [lies] to support their false allegations of election fraud. Donald Trump spoke to the mob moments before their assault, declaring “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong”, and ordered them to march against the Capitol. That evening, after Congress regained control of its chambers, senators such as Josh Hawley continued to flog “objections and concerns” about the presidential election which had been dismissed by numerous courts and Trump’s own Justice Department.

But manipulative politicians are not the only ones to blame. The culture of the internet played a big role as well. An investigation of QAnon’s origins by the podcast Reply All found that the conspiracy began life as a joke on the ultra-ironic website 4chan. In 2017, “Q” was one of only several fake government source characters being played, tongue-in-cheek, by forum participants who all understood it was a game. Gradually the Q persona became the most popular, and then outsiders – who didn’t get the joke – stumbled onto Q’s tantalizing nonsense. Within a year, thousands of people looking for anything to fill the gap left by their scepticism toward authority developed a sincere belief in Q. Behind the scenes, someone, with cynical political or commercial motives, was happy to oblige.


Prof. Rini’s analysis sounds right. The next question, of course, is: how should we respond? Millions of people are being immoral with regard to what they believe. Is there anything to be done about it? We have laws against some immoral behavior, like theft and assault. Although we can’t have laws that control what people believe, we can have limited government regulation of the companies that distribute those lies (such as Facebook, Fox News and your local cable TV company). The public can also exert pressure on companies, TV networks, for instance, that give certain politicians and pundits repeated opportunities to lie in public. And in our personal lives, when we hear somebody say something that’s simply not true, we can speak up, even though it’s easier to stay quiet.

Beyond Moral Judgment by Alice Crary

Sometimes you (I mean me) finish a book and decide you shouldn’t have bothered. I’m not sure about this one.

It began with an interview. Richard Marshall spoke with philosophy professor Alice Crary as part of his End Times series. This is part of what she said (or wrote, since the conversations are at least partly via email):

“Moral realism” is a label that I deliberately don’t use in describing my image of ethics. Not that . . . the term is obviously ill-suited to capture things I believe. It is, for instance, a conviction of mine that that there are morally salient aspects of the world that . . . lend themselves to empirical discovery. A case could easily be made for speaking of moral realism in this connection. But that would likely generate confusion. When I claim that, say, humans and animals have moral qualities that are as such observable, I work with an understanding of what the world is like, and of what is involved in knowing it, that is foreign to familiar discussions of moral realism. These discussions are often structured by the assumption that objectivity excludes anything [related to] human subjectivity. Moral realism is frequently envisioned as an improbable position on which moral values are objective in this subjectivity-extruding sense while still somehow having a direct bearing on action and choice. . . .

A great deal of my work has been devoted to investigating the grip on the contemporary philosophical imagination of conceptions of objectivity—of the sorts operative in these conversations about moral realism—that take the expulsion of everything subjective as their hallmarks. I have repeatedly argued that restrictions these conceptions impose on what kinds of things count as objective are not justified . . . I have tried to show not only that we should reject the restrictions but also that doing so is urgent because necessary for getting morally and politically salient aspects of our lives into view. . . .

 I favor a “wider” conception of objectivity. I mean a conception loose or wide enough to encompass, inter alia, ethical values. . . .

I attack the view—which I describe as narrowly rational—that it is in theory possible to grasp any real connection of thought from an abstract, ethically neutral vantage point. I do so to show that there are ethically decisive considerations that this view leaves us unequipped to recognize, and I take an interest in work in the different humanities, as well as in literature and the other arts, because such work affords resources for uncovering things inaccessible to an abstract gaze. . . .

The upshot is that [for many philosophers, or most] there appears to be no room within ethics for humanistic thinking or artistic expression as such, and this represents a massive and practically catastrophic contraction of ethics. Within my ethical writings, alongside showing that this contraction is philosophically unjustifiable, I bring out how it is morally disastrous—among other things, by identifying harms to human beings and animals that it leaves us incapable of registering.

So I bought and read her book.


To sum it up, if I can, Prof. Crary says that being ethical and understanding ethics both require us to pay more attention to our feelings or “sensitivity”, what might be called our human reactions to what we experience as we go about our lives, and less attention to strictly ethical propositions, concepts and rules. She discusses cases in which people’s pre-existing ethical views (for example, that ethical people must follow certain rules) make it impossible for them to properly appreciate and evaluate people’s behavior, including their own. 

I’m not sure if her views are controversial among philosophers. The idea that feelings underlie ethics has a very long philosophical history, going as far back as ancient Greece (or consider, for instance, the title of Adam Smith’s 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments). That’s one reason I’m not sure I should have read her book.

Another reason is that the book isn’t well-written. It’s repetitious, with lots of descriptions of what she has already argued and what she’s going to argue next. Her sentences also tend to go on and on, requiring frequent backtracking to see how the various clauses relate. I kept reading party because I expected her to show how her approach to ethics yields different ethical views. But the chapters that primarily provide examples amount to saying that various characters in literature deserve more understanding than they get from other characters (works by Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Henry James portray people who are too “moralistic”) and that feminism requires awareness of the social, cultural and economic contexts of women’s lives.

But Prof. Crary may have the (edited) last word (almost):

The idea is that, if the person’s thinking . . . expresses her moral outlook, then, even where it deals with what we are inclined to think of as a “non-moral” topic, it is rightly brought under the heading of moral thinking. . . [Being indifferent] to subject matter . . . allows [moral thought] to range over . . . any topic (e.g. the ways in which humans live and work with animals, the role of luck in human life, the role of . . . games in the cognitive development of children, the manner in which sibling rivalries . . . affect major life choices, etc.) . . . I submit that once we remove ourselves from the artificial atmosphere of academic moral philosophy , where a preoccupation with moral judgments is generally granted the status of a disciplinary requirement, this broad understanding of moral though will strike us as entirely natural . . .

Within contemporary moral philosophy, it is generally assumed that moral differences take the form either of disagreements about whether to apply a moral concept or of disagreements about whether some moral concept . . . is one we ought to operate with in the first place. In contrast, . . . moral differences may exist between people who inherit and develop different ways of thinking and talking about the world even where there is no question of a disagreement of either of these types. . . . 

Once we acknowledge the possibility of these additional kinds of moral differences, we are obliged . . . to consider not only individuals’ moral judgments but also mode of thought and speech that do not employ moral concepts, and the sensibilities that inform these additional modes of thought and speech. What becomes apparent is that proper respect for . . . moral conversation involves concern with . . . individuals’ entire personalities, the whole complicated weave of their lives [44-45].

I don’t disagree.

Why Indeed?

Another in what has turned into a series of selections from Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems (1976):

A set of unifying beliefs that assert the virtues of the fundamentals of social organization will be found in any stable society. . . . In the market-oriented polyarchies [where there is “rule by the many”], the beliefs show a distinctive character. They are greatly influenced by inequality of wealth and by the existence of a dual set of leaders who enjoy a privileged position in politico-economic organization [that is, government leaders and business leaders]. Many of the unifying beliefs of the society are those beliefs communicated by a favored class to all other classes, with enormous advantage in a grossly unequal competition of ideas.

. . . Deep-seated beliefs and attitudes that persist over time, some people will say, have to be understood as the product of random “spontaneous” social forces. What does that mean? It cannot mean that they arise without cause. Perhaps, then, it means that they arise without deliberate intent. No person or group or government plans them. They are unintended consequences of mutual influences of persons on each other.

Granted. Yet we know that, although people do indeed influence each other’s attitudes in countless unintended ways, they also intend a great deal of control over attitudes, beliefs and volitions. Parents and teachers, for example, teach children — explicitly and through their own behavior as example — the virtues of obedience to authority. In most societies, they also teach children that improvement in their position in life will and ought to depend on their own personal qualities (rather than on an alteration in social structure).

Moreover, many of the unintended influences of people on each other reinforce the intended indoctrinations, as when someone who repeatedly challenges authority makes his friends so uncomfortable that they gradually drop [them]. Much unintended mutual influence among persons is therefore patterned control rather than random, because it reflects a pattern in intended influence, which is itself not random.

Why the particular pattern of intentions that we perceive? Why the emphasis on such a theme as obedience to authority (rather than a skeptical, only conditional, and selective acceptance of it)? Why deference toward the wealthy (that does not even discriminate between earned and inherited wealth)? Why individual responsibility for improvement in the quality of life (rather than social cooperation to improve polity and economy)? Why genialized privilege for the wealthy and powerful (rather than offsetting constraints and responsibilities to balance their advantages in wealth or power)? Why so profound a respect for property as to lead many people to think it immoral to steal a loaf of bread to save one’s family from hunger?

These are not random themes. They confer advantages on persons in the favored social class. How do they come to be “spontaneous”? How do they come to be near universally taught? They have been endlessly communicated to the population — explicitly and through behavior as example — through the church, the media, the schools, the family and the pronouncements of business and government leaders. Since they have been in this way communicated for centuries, they have passed into folklore and common morality, with the result that almost everyone joins in the intended and unintended or “spontaneous” processes by which they are passed on to the young and reinforced for the old [230-231].


Maybe there’s more skepticism about our common beliefs than there was in 1976. If so, such skepticism hasn’t translated into very many progressive government policies. In the US, at least, with a few exceptions, it’s been the reverse. But as skepticism justifiably grows, will our politics lean toward the alternatives Lindblom put in parentheses? I sure hope so.

(A giant blue wave 40 days from now would help.)