Friday, October 14, 2016

Queen bee of the Borg Collective

In one respect, the debate about whether to vote for Trump is probably moot. According to Larry Sabato's latest Electoral College projections, Trump is trailing Hillary 341 to 197. Hard to see how he can overtake her. 

The reason, however, this is still worth discussing is because of the underlying issues. These are perennial issues. The contest between Hillary and Trump merely illustrates some perennial issues.

It was poor reasoning that got Trump nominated in the first place. Unless poor reasoning is challenged, that's a problem for the future, not just the past. Unless we wish to repeat the same mistakes, a midcourse correction is in order. Ironically, I often see a certain lack of moral clarity in moral objections to voting for Trump. At this point my concern is not about the vicissitudes of the Trump campaign. His defeat is likely a foregone conclusion. My concern is about moral reasoning. Let's begin with this post:

It's a generally useful way to frame the issues. I do have a few caveats:

The concern of this group can be summed up in two words: Supreme Court.

Certainly that's been emphasized. However, as we've seen under the Obama administration, a president has additional weapons at his disposal to advance his political agenda, viz. DOJ, IRS, EPA.

No longer can we credibly claim a lack of character is a disqualifier from public office.

1. But should character be a sufficient criterion? Speaking for myself, I never considered character to be the major criterion in choosing candidates. 

One problem is that voters often feel that the candidate you vote for is a reflection of the voter. Therefore, Trumpkins defend Trump's character whereas NeverTrumpers disassociate themselves from Trump because they feel that voting for him rubs off on them.

But that takes candidates too personally. We just hire a candidate to do a job, like we hire a plumber to do a job. 

Put another way, I think too many Republicans on both sides of the Trump divide act as though, by electing a president, we're electing a role model. But while it's nice to have a president who's a good role model, that's gravy. That's no more relevant than choosing a plumber because he'd make a good role model. 

Moreover, the political system presents us with forced options. To that extent, who I vote for is not an accurate reflection of my values, but a necessary compromise. 

2. My primary objection to Trump isn't his character. For one thing, he and Hillary are equally odious, so that's a wash. I have other objections to Trump. He's a megalomaniac. And I don't know what his policies are, because he doesn't know what his policies are from one day to the next. In fairness, that's somewhat offset by the fact that someone who's unreliable is preferable to someone who's reliably bad (Hillary). But my biggest concern is that if he became president, we'd end up with two socially liberal national parties. 

Where they differ is in fervently believing the damage done to our gospel witness in choosing Trump outweighs the potential devastation caused by a liberal Court.

1. That's very important. However, we need to be clear that witness is determined by Christian theology and Christian ethics, not public perception. 

For instance, "progressive Christians" complain that "Millennials" are turned off by the evangelical culture wars. If so, that's their problem. 

2. In addition, the objection cuts both ways. Some people, especially men, are turned off by Christianity because they think it's hopelessly idealistic. They tune out what religious leaders say because they think religious leaders don't have serious answers to tough problems. So when we talk about our Christian witness, we need to take into account the fact that some people find the scruples of Russell Moore to be a bad witness. 

This side rejects the concept of the 'lesser of two evils' as being unbiblical since Scripture calls us to reject all evil.

That's terribly ambiguous:

1. Certainly, when Trump supporters defend or make excuses for his deplorable character, statements, and actions, they become complicit in his iniquity. 

2. There's a difference between supporting a candidate's policies and supporting the candidate himself. You can have open contempt for a candidate, but prefer his policies to his opponent's. 

3. There are Christians, especially freewill theists (e.g. Roger Olson), who think Christians are sometimes confronted with genuine moral dilemmas in which all the available options are morally wrong, but some are morally worse than others.

4. However, the lesser-evil principle doesn't, in itself, mean "evil" in the sense of wrongdoing. Rather, it means a choice between bad and worse options, like the choice between letting someone die from gangrene or amputating his limb. That's not a moral dilemma.

To some degree, I think this debate suffers from equivocation. When some people hear "the lesser of two evils," for them, that has the connotation of a moral dilemma. Here's how the SEP entry defines it:

The crucial features of a moral dilemma are these: the agent is required to do each of two (or more) actions; the agent can do each of the actions; but the agent cannot do both (or all) of the actions. The agent thus seems condemned to moral failure; no matter what she does, she will do something wrong (or fail to do something that she ought to do)…At the intuitive level, the existence of moral dilemmas suggests some sort of inconsistency. An agent caught in a genuine dilemma is required to do each of two acts but cannot do both. And since he cannot do both, not doing one is a condition of doing the other. Thus, it seems that the same act is both required and forbidden.

There some philosophers and theologians think moral dilemmas, in that sense, are live possibilities. They think we are sometimes trapped in situations where, no matter what we do or refrain from doing, we will fail to do what we ought to do or do what we ought not to do. Freewill theism gravitates to that position. 

That, however, is not intrinsic to the lesser-evil principle. Rather, that depends on your view of providence, or lack thereof. That depends on placing "the lesser of two evils" within a larger framework in which events are said to generate moral dilemmas. 

By contrast, a Christian who subscribes to meticulous providence (e.g. Calvinism) doesn't view "the lesser of two evils" as equivalent to a moral dilemma. The lesser-evil principle doesn't have the same invidious connotations for him.

That's abstract. That doesn't settle the issue about whether or not to vote for Trump. But for the sake of moral clarity, we need to introduce that distinction. How we apply it is a different question.

Now I'll comment on an older post that's still getting some buzz:

The nomination of two historically unpopular candidates prompts the anguish that yielded this Clinton “endorsement” from columnist P. J. O’Rourke: “I am endorsing Hillary, and all her lies and all her empty promises. . . . She’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” By endorsing Clinton as “the second-worst thing” that could happen to America, O’Rourke assumed, with most Americans, that voting is a forced choice, guided by pragmatic principles. The goal is to do what’s best for the country (or my portion of it) by choosing a good president—or at least thwarting a bad one.
Is this the right perspective?
In ethics, the label for O’Rourke’s approach is Consequentialism (or Utilitarianism). The simplest version of Consequentialism says an act is good if it brings the greatest good (or least harm) to the greatest number of people. Most Americans are Consequentialists. A reading of Proverbs shows the Bible has concern for consequences. For example, Proverbs 3:1–12 insists that those who trust and fear the Lord will see that he makes their paths straight. That is, obedience normally leads to good consequences—and bad decisions lead to trouble (Prov. 26:4, 6). But in biblical ethics, taking Scripture as a whole, obedience to God’s moral law, and the pursuit of godly character are far more prominent than calculation of consequences.
When it comes to voting, there are two major problems with Consequentialism. First, no human can predict or fully assess the consequence of any action. Full assessment requires omniscience, which is an attribute of God, not man. Second, consequentialism tends to decay into lawlessness when people do whatever it takes to achieve their desired result. Biblical ethics places far more stress on law and character, which are both grounded in God’s character. Christians have long probed candidates for signs they value biblical morals that reflect the character and wisdom of God. I do not mean candidates must be examined for genuine faith and obedience. But Christians want leaders who at least unwittingly approximate godly morality. We prefer that candidates not be murderers, liars, or thieves.
We also believe that character matters. Candidates need qualities like wisdom, justice, love, mercy, even humility. No one knows what crises or agonizing decisions presidents will face. But we do know that character is the chief architect of our actions. As David Jones has observed, people with character “think issues of right and wrong really matter. [They] love the right and hate the wrong and can be counted on under stress to do the right thing.” 
An honest president will tell the truth when truth matters most. A courageous president will set the right course when it’s hardest to do so, when the price may be highest. Christians have always insisted that character matters, and rightly so. 
If Consequentialism is the proper approach to the vote, then it’s proper to vote against Trump because he will exacerbate racial tensions or to vote against Clinton because she will destroy families. If Consequentialism is correct, the vote is a forced choice: pick the candidate who will likely cause less damage.
But is a disciple of Jesus forced to vote for the less offensive candidate? I don’t think so. If we set aside the Consequentialist approach, we no longer have an obligation to vote for the candidate we believe will do more good or cause less harm. We may instead see our vote as an endorsement of a candidate whose policies and character we generally approve. And if we believe no one merits such endorsement, then we are free to abstain or vote for a minor party candidate and leave the consequences to the Lord. To say it another way, the question, “Who will do the most good for the country?” is valid, but it’s not the only question. One believer may believe it is right to vote for the lesser of two evils. Another may conclude, “I cannot vote for a candidate I consider evil.”

This raises a number of issues:

1. We see the familiar trope of casting the issue in terms of "pragmatism" or "consequentialism". Let's take some examples:

i) In a classic hypothetical, should you euthanize a healthy human to harvest his organs to save five sick people? Take one life to save five lives? That would be consequentialist reasoning because the sole justification is the value of the results. And what that overlooks is other values. It's generally wrong to take an innocent life, even if that has beneficial results. Normally, that's murder.

ii) There are exceptions, like human shield situations in wartime. Now, war often confronts us with the dilemma of taking lives to save lives. And that inevitably includes the loss of innocent life. That is justified in part by taking fewer lives to save more lives. And if that was the only justification, it would be consequentialist reasoning. 

However, ethicists often think an addition justification is required when we knowingly take innocent lives. That usually involves appeal to the double effect principle, or some variation thereof. So that is not consequentialism, inasmuch as that requires some additional warrant over and above taking fewer lives to save more lives.

iii) A while back, Trump suggested that we should target the families of terrorists to deter ISIS. That's consequentialism, because it simply ignores the question of whether the children of terrorists ought to be fair game. 

iv) Now let's consider two versions of the ticking timebomb scenario:

a) Torture a terrorist to make him divulge the location of the bomb

b) Torture the terrorist's 5-year-old son to make the terrorist divulge the location of the bomb

(a) is not necessarily consequentialism. A justification for (a) is that by becoming a terrorist, he has forfeited his prima facie immunity not to be tortured. By contrast, (b) is consequentialist. It disregards the innocence of the child. It is only concerned with the value of the results. 

You can still disagree with (a), but you can't object to it on the grounds that it represents consequentialism, because that oversimplifies the justification. There's an additional justification. You can take issue with that, but it's a different objection. 

My immediate point is not to adjudicate these examples, but to use them to clarify the definition of consequentialism. "Consequentialism" is not the same thing as taking "consequences" into consideration when making decisions. That's a linguistic trick. The fact that a philosophical value system uses the word "consequentialism" as a brand-name doesn't mean anyone who takes "consequences" into account is a consequentialist. It's just a synonym for results or outcomes. For a consequentialist, results are the sole consideration. 

2. Some Trump supporters argue that character is irrelevant because both candidates are equally odious. So they focus on policy differences. That's not consequentialism. In principle, character might be consideration, but since, in the current matchup, each candidate is equally bad in that respect, that cancels out the relevance of character–so the comparison shifts to other considerations. If they are morally equivalent in reference to character, but morally distinguishable in reference to policy, that becomes the salient difference. 

i) If all things are equal with respect to their character

ii) If other things are unequal with respect to their policies

iii) We should vote for the candidate whose policies are more beneficial or less harmful

That's not consequentialism. One can still disagree, but that will be a different kind of objection. 

3. But we also need to be careful how we frame the issue. Presumably, we vote for a candidate for much the same reason we hire a plumber. We vote for one candidate rather than another based on what they say they will do, because one candidate has better policies than another. That's the function of politicians. To implement, maintain, or repeal certain public policies. So that's naturally how we evaluate them, just as we evaluate a plumber based on whether he can get the job done. It would be odd to complain that I chose a plumber on "pragmatic" grounds. So what? I hire a plumber because my drain is clogged. My criterion is someone who can unclog the drain. Yes, it's all about results. 

Sometimes results really are all that matters. If I have cancer, I pick an oncologist who can give me good advance in terms of treatment and prognosis. There are situations in which it might be best to let nature take its course. Sometimes treatment is pointless. But it would be pointless to undergo treatment unless you think that will improve your condition. Likewise, there's no point in voting at all unless you think the consequences of voting matter.

Ironically, some people justify not voting for president this time around on "pragmatic" or "consequentialist" grounds. Indeed, I myself won't be voting for Trump–much less Hillary. 

4. When I vote for a candidate, that's a policy-endorsement, not a candidate-endorsement. Moreover, the political system presents us with forced options, so even then, it's only a policy-endorsement in a highly qualified sense. 

5. Then there's the issue of probabilities in decision-making. Take OT safety regulations about covering a ditch or fencing a roof. It's not inevitable or even probable that any particular individual will fall down any particular ditch or fall off any particular roof. But the uncertainty of the outcome doesn't obviate the duty to take reasonable precautions against gratuitous hazards. 

Although life is unpredictable, we still have an obligation to make provisional plans. Otherwise, we're like the fool in Proverbs, who never prepares for future eventualities. 

Cancer is life-threatening and some cancer treatments are life-threatening. So it's a calculated risk. If the risk of death by cancer is greater than the risk of death by complications from cancer therapy, then that end justifies that means.

6. Having said all that, I remain a NeverTrumper. One reason is because the Trump political phenomenon is a personality-cult. Throughout the campaign, we've seen one person after another become assimilated to Trump. Eventually they give in, submit. Trump is the queen bee of the Borg Collective. That's unhealthy. We see the same group mind on the Left. I refuse to be a drone in the Borg Collective–be it for Trump, Obama, or Hillary. 


  1. "But should character be a sufficient criterion? Speaking for myself, I never considered character to be the major criterion in choosing candidates. "

    At some point character is a sufficient criterion. If a candidate's character gives us reason to doubt his sincerity in his policy proposals then character is a sufficient criterion.

    Take your plumber analogy as an example: "But that takes candidates too personally. We just hire a candidate to do a job, like we hire a plumber to do a job."

    If the plumber has demonstrated such poor character that you have some reason to doubt his honesty when he diagnoses your plumbing issue, the cost to fix it, and/or the quality of his repair then it's obviously not taking it too personally to allow the plumber's character to be disqualifying.

    Trump has, I would argue, demonstrated such poor character that he can't be trusted in regards to his policy proposals. He has demonstrated such poor temperament that I can't trust him to properly address our national and international issues without getting us into even more serious problems.

    1. But as I said in my post, that's somewhat offset by the fact that someone who's unreliable (Trump) is preferable to someone who's reliably bad (Hillary)

    2. At this point we know enough about Trump to know that he isn't just unreliable, rather, he's reliably bad. He consistently attempts to sabotage his own party for the sake of his own image (e.g., attacking Paul Ryan and others down ballot). He consistently lacks self-control (e.g., attacking miss universe all week after the debate, taking apart his teleprompter last night). He consistently demonstrates a lack of concern for conservative principles in favor those close to him (e.g., paid maternity leave because his daughter said so) or in favor of what sounds popular or good at a gut-level (e.g., violating constitutional rights in regard to no-fly lists).

    3. Look, I'm anti-Trump, but there's an equivocation here. He's not an ideologue the way Hillary is. He's not reliably bad in the sense that Hillary is a SJW. She's on a leftwing crusade–he's not.

      That, in itself, is not a reason to vote for him. Indeed, I won't vote for him. But they really aren't comparable.