Some Republican politicians have accused the Democrats of playing politics in the Kavanaugh hearings. This accusation is obviously true. But, it is true in a manner analogous to how an accusation by the Yankees that the Red Sox are playing baseball would be true: it is the game that is being played by both and to pretend otherwise would be absurd.
This does not, however, entail that what the Democrats are doing is not morally wrong. To conclude that the Democrats are not wrong to play politics with a hearing because the Republicans also play politics with hearings would commit a fallacy, possibly two. If the “reasoning” is that the Democrats are not wrong because the Republicans do it as well, then this would be an ad hominem fallacy. Just asserting another person (or group) also did something does not entail that doing it is thus justified. To illustrate, if someone stole my bike and I responded by stealing their laptop, this would not make my stealing any less wrong. Naturally, this could lead far afield into a discussion of the ethics of vengeance, but that is a matter for another time. It suffices that the Democrats cannot get moral cover simply by asserting that the Republicans do bad things.
If the “reasoning” is that the practice of playing politics is commonly done, then this would be the common practice fallacy. Even if a practice is common, this does not entail that it is good or right. For example, people commonly cheat on their partners, but this does not make it right. But, to accuse the Democrats of playing politics is not much of an accusation. As noted above, playing politics is what politicians do and hence more is needed to claim that the Democrats are being truly wicked.
A more serious criticism of the Democrats is that they have accepted Blasey’s claim that Kavanaugh assaulted her because they have unethical motives. For example, Senator Lindsey Graham launched into a ferocious assault on the Democrats’ wicked ways. Kavanaugh also expressed fury against the Democrats for their alleged misdeeds and endorsed the notion that they have been wickedly conspiring against him. This situation raises a general issue about the relevance of motives to the truth of a claim and a specific issue about whether the Democrats’ motives are relevant to the truth of Blasey’s accusation.
The motives of the Democrats are, obviously enough, relevant to morally assessing them. If they do not care about Blasey or sexual assault and are merely exploiting her for their own political advantage, then these motives would indeed be wicked. Even if they did care, if their main motivation was political gain, then this motive would be morally problematic. However, if they do care about Blasey and sexual assault and are sincerely concerned about the character of the nominee, then their motivations would be morally commendable. Their motivations are, however, irrelevant to the moral assessment of whether their actions and their consequences are morally wrong or not. After all, a person might take a morally good action for wicked reasons or do something that has terrible consequences from laudable motivations. To illustrate, a person might kill a mass shooter and save a crowd of people because they have long wanted to slaughter a person and not from any desire to protect others. To illustrate the second point, horror movies are replete with those who are trying to do good, but who end up creating monsters.
Motives can, of course, be difficult to sort out, in part because rational people try to claim laudable motivations even when they are moved by baser reasons. As such, a proper assessment of motivations requires considering not only a person’s words but also their deeds. For example, those who have quickly exploited the Kavanaugh situation to aid in their fundraising for upcoming campaigns should have their motives questioned.
While it is tempting to see all politicians (Democrats and Republicans) as having nothing but wicked motives, there are presumably at least some of them who have decent motives. And, of course, most people see their side as being good. Fortunately, this essay is not focused on sorting out who is naughty and who is nice, but on the relevance of motives to truth. It is to this that I now turn.
Those who loath the Democrats might be tempted to accept the following argument:
Premise 1: The Democrats assert that Kavanaugh assaulted Blasey.
Premise 2: The Democrats’ have immoral motivations to make this claim.
Conclusion: Therefore, the claim is false: Kavanaugh did not assault Blasey.
While the content might make this emotionally appealing to some, it needs to be assessed in terms of the quality of the logic. Put in an abstract form, here is the reasoning:
Premise 1: Person P makes claim C about Subject S.
Premise 2: Person P’s motivation to assert C is immoral.
Conclusion: Claim C is false.
Premise 1: Sally tells Sam that deer ticks carry Lyme disease.
Premise 2: Sally’s motivation in saying this is to torment Sam, a hypochondriac who has found a tick on his skin; this is an immoral motive.
Conclusion: Therefore, deer ticks do not carry Lyme disease.
Presented this way, the lack of connection between the premises and the conclusion should be evident: the ethics of a person’s motivation to make a claim have no relevance to the truth of that claim. This sort of “reasoning” can also be seen as an ad hominem: because of an attack on the person’s motivations, the claim they make is rejected. It must be noted that this matter is distinct from making a moral assessment of the person. A person’s motives are relevant to moral assessment and one cam justly suspect that a person who routinely acts from wicked motives is a bad person.
At this point it might be wondered if a person’s motivations are always irrelevant to assessing their claims. On the one hand, they are irrelevant to the truth (or falsity) of their claims. On the other hand, a person’s motivations are relevant to assessing their credibility in making claims. This matter will be addressed in the next essay in the series.