When Gallup polled Americans about their views on adultery in 2013, 91% of the respondents said that it was morally wrong. While surveys are inductive generalizations and thus can always get things wrong, it is reasonable to believe that most Americans think adultery is wrong. Interestingly, this moral view shifts under the influence of partisan politics.
When Bill Clinton’s sex scandal was in the news, the overwhelming majority of Republicans regarded his behavior as immoral. While many of the surveyed Democrats also regarded Clinton’s actions as wrong, many also did not. Not surprisingly, this reversed in the case of the revelations of Trump’s adultery: Democrats overwhelmingly condemn it as immoral while the Republicans are underwhelming in their condemnation.
This is, of course, consistent with J.S. Mill’s discussion of liberty. As he noted, people tend to think that liberties should be allowed or restricted based on their likes and dislikes rather than on the basis of a consistent principle. The same applies to moral assessment along partisan lines: people tend to assess their side far more favorably than the other side, even when the moral offenses are the same. As noted above, while Americans overwhelming claim to condemn adultery, this condemnation is dampened considerably by the influence of partisanship.
From a logical standpoint, this behavior seems to be irrational. After all, if an action is wrong, then the fact that it is done by a Democrat or Republican would not change the ethics of the action. This is because party affiliation does not seem to be a morally relevant difference in determining the morality of an action, such as committing murder, theft or adultery. To illustrate, if you were told that Bill committed adultery or murder, it would be odd to need to inquire into his party affiliation before deciding whether the murder or adultery is immoral.
This sort of partisan effect on morality is not limited to moral assessment of actions and people, but also impacts people’s avowed principles. Research by Pope and Barber show that people are generally quite willing to shift their views in ways inconsistent with their professed ideology, provided that the shift is motived by party affiliation. This certainly helps account for what Mill noted, namely that most people do not have a view of liberty based on principle but based on their likes and dislikes of the moment. So, for example, most Republicans usually profess that the liberty of local rule is both correct and a conservative principle while condemning the imposition of state or federal power as an evil of the Democrats. But, they easily shift their view on local rule when the party takes a position on a specific issue, such as local gun or fracking laws. Most Democrats presumably do the same—shifting their views with the party, even when these views do not match liberal ideology.
On the one hand, some might praise this flexibility and contend that it could be the basis for compromise. After all, if party members can so easily shift between positions irrespective of ideology, then it would seem they could shift to the same position and reach an agreement.
On the other hand, there is the concern that such flexibility does more to show a lack of principles than a willingness to compromise. This is supported by the fact that the Democrats and Republicans are often unlikely to compromise because they tend to simply follow their own party and oppose the other party. Put crudely, while such tribal loyalty makes the Democrats and Republicans morally flexible within their parties, it also interferes with compromise on matters they would otherwise agree on. As such, even if the Republican party adopted a liberal view on, for example, tariffs, then the Democrats are likely to oppose it because it would now be a Republican position. This sort of tribalism is especially concerning since Americans tend to have considerable agreement on issues when they are considered apart from party affiliation. As noted above, the vast majority of Americans condemn adultery—except when it becomes a partisan issue. The same also seems true of such things as gun control. As such, the country is engaged in many utterly needless and senseless conflicts over tribalism when there is, in fact, considerable agreement. The challenge, then, is getting Americans to be less ruled by tribalism and able to agree on what they actually already agree on. Perhaps this can start by an agreement that adultery is bad, whether it is Bill Clinton or Donald Trump having the affair.