I generally don’t go out of my way to justify my essays, but sometimes I do such a poor job of making my point that I feel compelled to be more direct.
The “poor job” in question was this post in which I compared Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders with respect to one (just one!) quality, one I didn’t like.
The backlash was horrid, but at least (to paraphrase an old joke) there was a lot of it. What became clear in reading the comments (and in trying to clarify my thoughts through my responses) was that I hadn’t done a good job of arguing the case. The particular combination of sarcasm, humor, and Cassandra-like whimpering thudded heavily to the ground.
Okay. My apologies. As I writer I’m supposed to be better than that. You certainly don’t have to agree with what I write, but it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s at least understandable.
So I’m taking another shot at it.
In my mind, when someone judges an action taken by someone else, they fall into one of two camps (which I admittedly oversimplify):
Those in the first camp subscribe to a philosophy called “consequentialism.” Consequentialism argues that the ends (generally) justify the means, and that the ethics of any particular behavior should be judged within an overriding concept of a “greater good.”
Those in the second camp subscribe to a philosophy called “deontology”. Deontology argues that individual behaviors are independently ethical or unethical regardless of any real or perceived “greater good,” and that the ends (generally) do not justify the means.
I fall into the second camp (but you’ve likely figured that out already, based on any number of previous posts, including this one about Oprah Winfrey.) I believe that there are ethical and unethical behaviors that strike to a moral center, and I believe such things are generally universal. The “greater good,” however, seems to me highly relativistic, and easily justified, and so I avoid the consequentialist approach. (The most famous proponent of consequentialist philosophy, by the way, was Machiavelli, who lays out the approach very neatly in The Prince.)
One FB conversation I had regarding my Sanders/Cruz post dug rather deeply into the topic, and I offered this example. Ted Cruz believes, with all sincerity, that there should be a theological component to the way our country is governed. Most of my readers would vehemently disagree with him—as would I. (Ignore for the moment that his position is also unconstitutional!) Nevertheless, he believes it. He’s not disingenuous about it, and he firmly believes that having such a theological component in government is a “greater good.” Many millions of people agree with him. So what means should he and his supporters use to accomplish their greater good? What if a PAC raises money based on this desire for a limited theocracy? Is that ethical behavior? What if the money is “dark money,” provided by the Koch brothers? Should that be okay in service of their sincerely desired “greater good?” Remember that we’re not talking about deception or insincerity. We know Cruz’s beliefs on this topic, and he is quite sincere about it. So how is his “greater good,” better or worse than yours?
But the dark money is unethical by deontological principles, as is accepting money from the Koch brothers, who expect their donations to provide a certain type of candidate. We justifiably push back on those behaviors.
But that’s just the tip of the problem. What I routinely see in responses to posts is that people are consequentialists when the consequence is one they support, and deontologists when the consequence is one they abhor.
It’s just so easy to fall into that mental crevasse. People who agree with what Bernie Sanders is trying to do tend to respond as consequentialists—the means justify the ends. These same people disagree with what Ted Cruz is trying to do, and so respond to him as deontologists, dissecting and attacking each individual behavior of Cruz’s as unethical.
What I believe we all need to admit is how we so easily play these mental games with ourselves. As many of you pointed out in your comments, Bernie Sanders did exactly that—he admitted that he was declaring as a Democrat because it was the only way he could have an impact. That statement alone tells me that he understands he’s bent his own ethics, just a tiny bit, and if the world were perfect (or at least parliamentarian!) he wouldn’t have to run as a Democrat—he could keep his time-worn (I).
The only comparison I made between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders was to say that they were both taking a path that represented a consequentialist view. In Cruz’s mind it’s okay to run as a Republican because if the Tea Party broke off it would splinter the votes. Bernie has come to the same conclusion with respect to the Democrat’s voting bloc. As someone who views things deontologically, I find the ethics questionable.
Hope that explains my point. But just in case, let me add this afternote:
I DO NOT like Ted Cruz; he represents everything I rail against, and he’s one of the key players in the unrelenting push to supplant the mainstream GOP with extremists. Cruz is not a conservative, and he’s not a Republican by any definition I want to use.
On the other hand, I DO rather like Bernie Sanders (though not a lot of his positions), and I find him to be generally honest and clear-spoken. Having said that, I would have liked to have seen him attempt a third-party bid. Someone has to start a serious effort sometime soon if anything systemic is ever going to change….