During the Trump impeachment hearing some of Trump’s Republican defenders in congress advanced various conspiracy theories. Trump himself is quite the aficionado of conspiracy theories, and is well known for pushing the absurd birtherism. During her testimony Dr. Fiona Hill pointed out that these theories had been soundly debunked and also chastised the House members who were perpetuating them. While Fox News and other right-wing media outlets have tried to question her credibility, Dr. Hill served under Bush, Obama and (obviously) Trump. She has exceptional credentials and an excellent reputation outside the echo chambers of the right. Given her criticism of Putin, one might suspect that some of the rage against her has been fueled by Russia.
There are three main reasons why the pushing of this debunked conspiracy theories is morally problematic. First, they are not true and those who knowingly push them are lying. While one could advance a utilitarian moral argument in favor of lying to achieve ends, pushing these conspiracy theories creates more harm than good—as will be shown in the second and third reasons.
Second, having authorities push these debunked conspiracy theories can corrupt the critical faculties of those who accept them. While one could argue that people could compartmentalize their belief forming, it seems more reasonable to hold that those who become habituated to believing conspiracy theories based on rhetoric and fallacies will become more susceptible to bad reasoning in general. This can be seen as analogous to Plato’s arguments about the corrupting influence of art in the Republic. Plato argued that those exposed to art causing feelings such as pity, lust and anger would be more inclined to yield to the negative influences of these emotions in reality. Likewise, those who become habituated to accepting conspiracy theories and rejecting good reasoning will be more inclined to reason badly elsewhere. While people with poor reasoning skills do provide an advantage to those who wish to exploit them, this exploitation is typically bad for the exploited and others.
Third, these conspiracy theories tend to be toxically divisive and harmful in other ways. For example, advancing the debunked conspiracy theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election serves to distract attention away from the very real Russian efforts in 2016 and their ongoing efforts. Paying attention to and expending resources on debunked conspiracy distracts from real concerns and wastes resources. One could argue that advancing such theories is acceptable because doing so helps Trump and Trump being president will have good consequences. The obvious reply is that if Trump really is such a good president, then he should not need lies to help him—the truth should suffice. Since these theories have been debunked and advancing them is morally wrong, one might wonder why Trump and his defenders keep pushing them.
One possibility is that a conspiracy pusher’s epistemic abilities and critical faculties are hot garbage. That is, the methods they use to form beliefs and assess them are terrible, hence they tend to form false beliefs. If these defects are not their fault, then they cannot be held accountable—they are simply incapable of knowing better. If these defects are their fault (they avoid learning), then they would be to blame. To use an analogy, if someone has cancer because they knowingly engaged in risky behavior like smoking, then they bear some responsibility. If a person has cancer because of a gene, then they have no responsibility for their cancer.
A second possibility is that the conspiracy pushers are willfully ignorant: they have adequate epistemic abilities and critical thinking skills to form good beliefs but elect to not use them in the case of these conspiracy theories. That is, they are willing victims of rhetoric and fallacies. In this case they are to be condemned. To follow St. Aquinas, they have an obligation to do their homework.
A third possibility is that their epistemic and critical thinking abilities are potentially adequate but happened to fail in these cases. This is analogous to a batter taking a swing at a pitch but missing. In this case they are, to follow St. Aquinas, not to be condemned—they are acting in the way they believe is best and have put in the effort.
A fourth possibility is that the conspiracy pushers know they are pushing lies but advance them for pragmatic reasons. A likely explanation would be that they believe that advancing such lies will reinforce the beliefs of a base that already believes them or persuade those who do not yet embrace the conspiracies to accept them in favor of the truth.
In the best-case scenario, the conspiracy pushers are failed thinkers. In the worst case they are liars lying to protect a liar.