While Trump has gained much by weaponizing incivility and Maxine Waters seems to have gained little or even lost in her efforts to do so, there remains the question of the ethics of this practice. After all, there is a distinction between a tool that works well (or poorly) to achieve an end and the morality of that tool.
One obvious approach is to embrace the ethics of Immanuel Kant. Kant was rather focused on the dignity and worth of such beings. One of his injunctions was that rational beings must never be treated merely as means to an end, but must always be treated as ends themselves. To treat a rational being with incivility to gain a political advantage would seem to violate this tenet of Kantian ethics. It could, perhaps, be argued that a rational being could be treated with incivility while still respecting its moral worth as a rational being. After all, Kant does claim that a being must prove worthy of happiness by having a good will and it could be argued that a rational being that lacks the good will could be treated with incivility. However, this seems to be rather a stretch—for Kant, a rational being would not forfeit its moral status as an end even if it were evil.
Another obvious approach is the consequentialism of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. On this view, beings count in terms of their ability to experience happiness and unhappiness. This is because for Mill, an action is right to the degree it generates more happiness than unhappiness for the beings that matter. An action is evil to the degree it generates more unhappiness than happiness.
On Mill’s view, the harms done by the incivility would be weighed against the benefits. Unlike under ethical egoism, for Mill this calculation would include all sentient beings impacted. For the ethical egoist, only their happiness and unhappiness matter. Weaponizing incivility seems to have generated considerable positive value for Trump, his supporters and those who have benefited from his election. However, it has clearly harmed those who have been targeted as the objects of Trump’s incivility. Incivility invites retaliation, so while Trump is largely sealed away from reprisal for his incivility, those associated with him can be targeted, such as Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Alan Dershowitz. As such, they are also harmed, albeit indirectly, by Trump’s weaponization of incivility and directly by those who use it against them. While two wrongs do not make a right, those associated with Trump have little moral ground on which to stand when they are subject to incivility—they have chosen to associate with Trump and do not condemn his incivility. To use an analogy, imagine that captain of a sports team is an incredibly bad sport, plays too rough and cheats. While their teammates might not be as bad, they simply go along with the behavior and the referees allow it all to happen. While the opposing teams should not engage in that behavior, the members of the bad captain’s team would have little ground for complaint if opposing teams started retaliating against them if they could not reach the badly behaving captain. Ideally, of course, everyone should be civil—but, as with violence, those who start the incivility have no grounds for complaint if they receive what they have given.
There is also the broader concern beyond the individual targets, specifically the impact on what people regard as social norms and acceptable behavior. There has been considerable attention paid to incivility in the workplace and the research shows that this poor behavior is costly. While there are differences between the workplace and society, it would make sense that many of the harms of incivility in the workplace would also take place in broader social contexts. As noted above, this is already happening. One obvious consequence is that incivility makes political compromise and cooperation between the parties even less likely. Going back to the sports analogy, what enables competing teams to play the sport and not have it degenerate into a brawl is a basic civility. The same is presumably true in politics. The challenge is, of course, that both teams must agree to be civil—if one team breaks the rules and the referees do nothing, then the civil team is at a disadvantage. It could, of course, be argued that the other team should stay civil even in the face of incivility—this is, after all, a key part of good sportsmanship. It could even be contended that by remaining civil, the civil team will shame the other team into returning to civility or, more likely, that the booing of the fans will force them to behave better. The same could be argued in the case of politics—the left should stay civil despite what Trump and his fellows do. In doing so, it could be claimed, they take the moral high ground and perhaps the public will respond by rejecting incivility in favor of civility. In terms of utilitarian ethics, the key question is whether retaining civility in the face of incivility would create more happiness than unhappiness or the reverse. I am inclined to think that two wrongs would merely make things worse. That said, this could be analogous to refusing to respond with violence when attacked—pacifism might occupy the moral high ground, but that ground tends to be splattered with the blood of pacifists.
As I said in an earlier post, I don’t believe there is any sort of correlation between Trump’s incivility and Waters’ call for what amounts to a kind of “resistance movement”. Nor do I think that it’s practical or reasonable to use the words “Wepaon” and “Ethics” in the same sentence. Accepting, for the time being, that this is only a matter of semantics, I will continue.
I think Trump’s incivility – i.e., dishonesty, arousing the ire of his opponents, rudeness, and the presentation of a “loose cannon” persona (among other things I’m sure you would be willing to enumerate), are all pragmatic negotiation tactics, either in a large view or to specific ends. I truly believe that the only difference between Trump and other presidents is that the others reserve a lot of their incivility for their “behind closed doors” negotiations, while they generally abide by their PR staff’s instructions as to their public image. Of course, there are different levels of this – but we cannot really know how much of Trump’s visage is a put-on, nor can we know just how uncivil people like Obama or Clinton or others may have been in private meetings with the Cabinet or Congress. (Nixon and LBJ, for example, were extremely civil in outward appearance …)
I think we all got a glimpse of how far Obama was willing to go in the passage of Obamacare. There is nothing civil about the kind of arm-twisting, quid-pro-quo, and outright threats and scapegoating that went on in the evolution of that sausage.
Waters, on the other hand, is not really being uncivil, she is calling for a grass-roots resistance, a public taunting, shaming, and shunning of the current government. I think I said before that she likely sees herself as a modern-day Thomas Paine or Sam Adams – hoping that her call to action results in a groundswell of protest and rejection, and the ultimate Democrat takeover of the government. Like all revolutions, there is a great risk in her undertaking – but I think that in her mind the time for action is at hand, the time for civility is past. In this context, and assuming that she is as passionate about her beliefs as she seems, she is not only justified but Constitutionally obligated to act in the way she is acting.
In a country of over 350 million people, I don’t see any possibility of assessing “Happiness” or “Greater Good” a la Kant or Mills. How can you do this?
Using Obamacare as an example, there were many politicians who were forced into some kind of compromise in order to pass this legislation. I know that there were some who lost their seats in the next elections based on this compromise. Were these people the sacrificial lambs, necessary for the “Greater Good” of the ACA? We also know that there were some huge lies told in order to gain this passage – some blatant word-smithing (is it a tax? Is it a mandate?) in order to pass Constitutional muster, and many, many false promises.
So was it, in fact, a “Greater Good? For whom? Towards the deadline for passage, there was a slight shift in the reportage of this bill – it had ceased being presented “for the good of the country”, and more stress was placed on the legitimacy and/or legacy of Obama and his administration. But now that it’s here, is the majority of the country happier than before? How do we know? Is the ACA, as some have said, doomed as part of the plan, but a necessary stepping stone to “Single Payer”? How do we assess that in terms of Kant or Mill? Some will tout the addition of some 18 million people to the list of “insured” as the greater good and ultimate goal of Obamacare. Others will say that the increase in premiums and inability to choose one’s doctor for so many exceed that good.
I myself am very suspicious – one of the predicted negative outcomes of the ACA was an increase in wait time before being able to see a doctor. I am about to go see an orthopedist this afternoon – after having booked this appointment a full month ago. At the same time, I booked an appointment for a nerve-conduction study even before I made the one with the orthopod, and that appointment is not until August. Is there a correlation? Hard to tell – but it was predicted by competent analysts, and it is happening – and has never happened before … so if this is a real correlation and a measurable result of the ACA, and if this is happening to millions of others like me – is our suffering part of the happiness/unhappiness equation?
So to complete the example – we have a bill that was forced into being against the will of a majority of America, despite our Democratic process and our status as a Representative Republic. The force required a tremendous amount of back-door incivility on the part of the President and his supporters. The result is not as expected or promised – at least by those of us who must live under this law. Was that intentional, or just failure of the law? If it was intentional, is it enough to look toward the greater good of the ultimate single payer system to justify the means to an end? Or should the administration simply have presented civil arguments according to an ideal of “due process”, and let the ACA die in committee?
It isn’t my intent to present a “Well, they did it too!” argument here, but the ACA is a very striking example of incivility as a tactic – what you might call “weaponizing” – and the impossibility of determining the winners and losers as a result of that tactic. Like the Dershowitz example, as illustrated in your linked article, it seems as though the rich and powerful “members of the club” are somehow viewed as undeserving of incivility. According to the article, Dershowitz’s isolation and shunning on Martha’s Vineyard are more acceptable than Sanders’ eviction from the Red Hen, simply because of the “privilege” associated with life on the Cape. Is that a reasonable measure of who may or may not deserve civil treatment? Those who (selectively) hate the 1% would certainly say so.
in current affairs, is it fair to balance Trump’s incivility only against the blowback against Trump supporters? Do we think that Sanders and/or Dershowitz and others are truly miserable victims of Trump’s incivility? Or must we measure the “happiness” or “unhappiness” resulting from his tactics in terms of the legislation he passes?
One example might be his hard line on illegal immigration. This is seen by some as racist, by others as inhuman, and still others as an even-handed application of the laws – laws which, if objected to, should be changed instead of ignored. If the harsh application of the law causes some illegals to suffer greatly, but prevents millions of others from attempting to cross the border in this way – is this a “greater good” for those who might die in the desert or drown in the river, or discover that what they have been told about America is not exactly true?
Sometimes the laying down of the law and the harsh application of that law is a very moral act – there is absolutely no question as to the consequences of violating the law, and no misconceptions on the part of violators – they are able to make their decisions while being fully cognizant of the risks. I see this as being much better than rolling the dice, hoping to catch a break with a lenient judge and ending up with the opposite:
https (colon) //archive.nytimes(dot)com/www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/featured_articles/20070531thursday.html
There is a tremendous amount of moral and ethical value in the creation and application of laws that apply evenly to everyone – and if there are to be exceptions to these laws, those exceptions should be tried and, if necessary, appealed in open court, with the concomitant establishment of precedent. Or, on the other hand, the revision or recinding of laws that are deemed unethical, immoral, or even impractical. Otherwise, we may find ourselves heavily fined or imprisoned for breaking laws we may have thought were obsolete or being ignored. If we know the rules, we can behave accordingly – and if we object to the rules, we can follow established process. Can you, as a teacher, arbitrarily ignore the grading policy outlined in your syllabus for reasons you determine to be valid as the situation presents? If you are able to justify ignoring the policy for one student, is that fair to the others?
I think that Kant and Mill represent theoretical extremes that cannot be put into practice in business or politics, at least not in their pure sense. There is a certain amount of “moral relativism” that takes place – politicians will routinely compromise their personal ethical standards of lying outright or by omission in order to get themselves elected or legislation passed … in the belief that their election or the passage of the legislation is truly for the benefit of those who do not see that good. Obamacare is a great example. So is much of Trump’s legislation – the tax cuts, for example, which have given raises and bonuses to millions of Americans, increased unemployment (most strikingly among African Americans and Hispanics), and repatriated billions of corporate dollars previously held overseas. Can we (do we want to) apply some ethical standard to the manner in which that was accomplished, or can we be satisfied with the result? On the other hand, can we be satisfied with a kind, honest, and highly civil President who is completely unable to accomplish anything in the face of the uncivil tactics of his political opposition?
The treatment of Kim Jong Un is another really good example of how impractical it is to judge. Kim is a sentient being who can feel pleasure and pain, so by one standard he is entirely deserving of civility. By other standards, the civil approach to him as a means to the end of denuclearization is a noble effort – and within that context there have been decidedly uncivil approaches to that same desired end. Is one more morally acceptable than the other? Or must we hold the achievement of the desired end far above any ethical assessments of the means to that end – and take a “whatever it takes” approach? Trump has certainly taken a lot of criticism for merely being civil to a leader that the world has deemed undeserving – it’s an odd reversal, actually – and yet current news is showing that Trump may have been wrong in extending a civil hand to Kim.
I understand Kant, I understand Mill, I understand the concept of “moral relativism”. I’d really like to understand how these concepts can be applied in any meaningful, even-handed way in the world of politics, economics, business, or even social interaction in a country of 350 million people, or a world of over 7 billion.
The article referenced above, regarding the inconsistency in applying immigration law following any kind of meaningful standard, can be found using the following link:
I purposely broke the link in my post because I didn’t want it to be flagged and held up by the WordPress Police 🙂
Excellently stated. As to
I really believe that’s part of the design. Create soooo many laws that no one can reasonably follow them nor can one reasonably expect so many to be enforced evenly. Thus the selective application of the law is a political tool. This is very apparent in the area of political domains and campaign financing such that in some cases (are you familiar with the pro-Trump duo Diamond &Silk and their dilemma?) you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Keeps and/or helps run the amateurs out the game to the considerable advantage of the connected and wealthy. I think I’ve said this before, but it looks to me like we have effectively legislated ourselves into anarchy.
I can’t disagree. The cynic in me strongly supports that premise, but a more reasonable explanation might be that laws are left alone because they don’t necessarily apply, or that politicians are too feckless or otherwise engaged to take up the causes, or they are afraid to wade into a political quagmire.
If it’s not planned (and I also doubt the capability of our lawmakers to plan like this) it is most certainly exploited for political gain.
Yes, a bit overstated on my part for brevity. But I agree that for the most part, in their origination, these laws aren’t deviously planned to be used this way. For the most part. But as they accumulate they are readily available to be used that way. The road to hell, good intentions, Hanlon’s Razor, etc.
JIm Balter says
“I think Trump’s incivility – i.e., dishonesty, arousing the ire of his opponents, rudeness, and the presentation of a “loose cannon” persona (among other things I’m sure you would be willing to enumerate), are all pragmatic negotiation tactics, either in a large view or to specific ends. I truly believe that the only difference between Trump and other presidents is that the others reserve a lot of their incivility for their “behind closed doors” negotiations, while they generally abide by their PR staff’s instructions as to their public image. …
I think we all got a glimpse of how far Obama was willing to go in the passage of Obamacare. There is nothing civil about the kind of arm-twisting, quid-pro-quo, and outright threats and
scapegoating that went on in the evolution of that sausage. ”
The degree of your intellectual dishonesty is mindboggling.
Alan Dershowitz is hardly an associate of Trump. His crime was to point out that in some cases the law favors Trump’s position.
Very true. In this country, in this climate, the mere support of a single policy or defense of a single action marks you as one of “them” – and in Dershowitz’s case, can undo decades of passionate supply of leftist causes. I wonder if he even saw that coming.
Litmus Test Culture. Saves people from having to think too much. A third cousin to racism, sexism, etc. Somewhat closer in relation to religious bigotry. Similar to pearl clutching. The less people know of or understand their own belief system, what its underpinnings might be, the more necessary to the individual‘s ego the subject is, the greater the need for these primitive tools. And you can’t truly say, at least in my NSHO, that you understand your belief system until you’ve spent considerable time trying to undermine it yourself. Poked and prodded, seriously looked into the depths of evil, or what you were taught was evil, and considered it as an alternative. And doing so on your own time, from your own research and exploration. This is not something that many people are willing to do (most likely that is a good thing, whole other can of worms there). Especially as in doing so you never know if or when you have finished, as you most likely never will.
“… until you’ve spent considerable time trying to undermine it yourself…”
When I was a sophomore in college, I remember a Sociology professor saying something in class like, “The human brain does not like to be empty – so it fills itself up as quickly as it can. Unfortunately, (he continued), once it is full it becomes lazy, and doesn’t like to change what’s in there already.”
That was almost a half a century ago, and things have not changed.
It would be nice if people would just take the first step towards what you say in your NSHO – which would simply be a serious effort to even understand opposing points of view – by seeking them out from the source. Not even trying to undermine your own system, but to make sure that you’re at least informed correctly about the other side.
Whenever I think of this, I am reminded about the debate in Congress during the Bush administration, when the House was trying to pass an emergency bill to extend unemployment benefits for some people for some 90 additional weeks. The Democrats wanted to just borrow the money, the Republicans wanted to cut spending in a laundry list of areas to consider. The takeaway from this? “Republicans hate the poor”. I remember reading about this in the NYT, the WSJ, Huffington Post and other publications, and I was incredulous at the over-simplified, inflammatory sound byte that people were just accepting as fact.
Today the misinformation is all about the “children, being yanked screaming from their parents, only to get lost in the system, because Trump and his supporters hate brown people!”
Liberals whose diet is restricted to liberal media believe what they are told about Conservatives, and don’t even ask, “Really? That sounds a little extreme. I think I’ll read the text of the speech or the bill, or see what the WSJ or other conservative media have to say …”
The opposite is also true.
JIm Balter says
“I was incredulous at the over-simplified, inflammatory sound byte that people were just accepting as fact”
The inflammatory oversimplification is all yours.
“Today the misinformation is all about the “children, being yanked screaming from their parents, only to get lost in the system, because Trump and his supporters hate brown people!” ”
Do you have *any* self-awareness, *at all*?
That children are being yanked screaming from their parents and getting lost in the system is a fact. Racism, xenophobia, and callousness play a role.
““Really? That sounds a little extreme. I think I’ll read the text of the speech or the bill, or see what the WSJ or other conservative media have to say …”
I do all of that, as well as reading a large number of right wing blogs. The fact is that the right wing is extreme, and conservatives are deeply intellectually dishonest.
JIm Balter says
Dershowitz supported the invasion of Iraq but claimed otherwise (https://www.counterpunch.org/2007/01/31/a-hawk-in-drag/). He’s had a testy relationship with the left for quite a while,largely stemming from his own extreme arrogance.
“Support “, not “supply”. Autocorrect….(sigh)
JIm Balter says
It is civility that has been weaponized by the right … they called it “politically correct” and demonized those who exercised it, and now accuse those critical of intolerance of hypocrisy (ignoring https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/25998-the-so-called-paradox-of-freedom-is-the-argument-that-freedom). Civility got us Neil Gorsuch instead of Merrick Garland because right wingers cheat. Whining about Maxine Waters (and Michelle Wolf) in this context is stunningly hypocritical and intellectually dishonest.