President Trump announced that he and Melania tested positive for COVID. His supporters have expressed sympathy and concern for Trump. Most other Americans have followed their moral compass or social norms and have also expressed sympathy and concern—just as they have towards those sickened or killed by the disease. Some critics have pointed out that, like Carter Burke in Aliens, Trump is a victim of his own misdeeds. A few people have rejoiced in Trump’s illness and some hope that he gets extremely sick or even dies.
As would be expected, Trump’s supporters (and those who loath the left) are harshly critical of those who are mean to Trump. Bryon York, for example, insisted that people should pray for their leaders and wish them well and noted that those being mean to Trump would regret their words. Ben Shapiro tweeted “Looking forward to all the kind-hearted expressions of sympathy to Trump and Melania from the blue-checkmark Left.” Dan Bongino tweeted ,”This morning is the strongest reminder in a long time about how sick and disgusting the Left is.”Bongino even put in the work of assembling comments and publishing “Liberal Ghouls React to Trump Coronavirus Diagnosis.”
In general terms, many who support Trump or oppose the left are presenting a moral criticism of the alleged cruelty and lack of empathy on the part of the left. What the left should be doing, morally speaking, is expressing sympathy and concern for Trump—otherwise they are acting wrongly. This sort of moral criticism rests on the assumption that people should be empathetic to those who are suffering and thus respond with sympathy and concern. It also rests on the assumption that engaging in cruel comments and mockery of those suffering is morally wrong. I generally agree with those moral assumptions and hence will not dispute them.
One obvious question is whether these folks hold to these general principles. There is considerable evidence that many of them do not. Trump is well known for his cruelty—it is a feature and not a bug. Trump infamously cruelly mocked a disabled reporter—to the delight of some supporters. One extremely relevant example is when he cruelly mocked Hillary Clinton when she had pneumonia—something that also pleased some of his supporters. Trump also mocked Hunter Biden’s drug addiction. While some of his supporters express tepid concerns about his cruelty, they generally tolerate it. And, of course, many adore this quality and see it as a sign of his strength. Trump clearly does not hold to these principles.
Ben Shapiro made fun of Hillary Clinton’s illness and Dan Bongino declared in 2018 that his “entire life is about owning the libs.” If you look at right-wing media (including the big YouTubers) the lack of sympathy and concern is evident—and this lack is often praised. To “boo-hoo” about social ills or the suffering of migrants is a weakness to be mocked. It should, of course, be noted that there are always exceptions and I do draw distinctions between the various views and groups to the right of center. But those on the right who are calling out the mean left do not seem to abide by the principles noted above—at least when it comes to others.
One easy and obvious reply is to point out that to say that Trump and his defenders are wrong in the criticism of the mean left because they themselves are mean would commit an ad hominem fallacy, sometimes known as the “you, too” or tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with their actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:
- Person A makes claim X.
- Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
- Therefore X is false.
The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with their actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite, but this does not prove their claims are false.
As such, while Trump, Shapiro, Bongino and their ilk can be accused of being hypocrites, the claim that people should be sympathetic and show concern for the suffering of others could be true as can the claim that people should not be mean. It is certainly fair to point out that they do lack a moral foundation to stand on when they make these claims; they are like regular cheaters who feel cheated and cry for fair play. But perhaps they are not hypocrites at all.
In my ethics class I do a brief section on moral consistency and note that what can appear to be an inconsistent application of a principle might not be inconsistent at all. This is because people generally do not explicitly state their moral principles and we must infer them from other things they say and do. In the case at hand, I initially attributed certain moral assumptions about sympathy and meanness to those criticizing the mean liberals. But I could be wrong about these assumptions—they could hold different principles or no principles at all. For example, it could be that their principle is that there should be sympathy and concern expressed about people they value and that people they dislike do not merit such concern. That is, they have a limited scope to their moral principles. This would make their cruelty and tolerance of cruelty towards those they dislike consistent with their condemnation of the mean left. They value Trump and do not value the people they are cruel to, so being mean to Trump is wrong while cruelty to those they dislike is right. This is the sort of thing that would allow a Confederate to consistently argue that freedom is a right while also holding that they have a right to own slaves: the scope of their theory of rights is limited to white people; black people do not count morally. Based on interactions on ethical issues with folks on the right, this often seems to be their view—that is, they do have ethical principles but they have a very limited scope when it comes to who matters morally.
It is also worth considering that the criticism of the mean left is not based on a genuine moral concern about sympathy and meanness. Rather, it is a rhetorical tactic to attack the left using its own avowed principles of being empathetic, sympathetic, and concerned. This is like how many on the right try to accuse the left of being racist when the lefties, for example, support Harris as the VP pick for the Democrats or, for example, say that black lives matter. These are not genuine criticisms—those making them are not fighting hard for empathy or against racism; they are just seen as rhetorically useful ways to take insincere shots at the left.
In closing, those who have consistently kind and sympathetic have the moral foundation to stand on if they call out those who are mean to Trump. Those who have embraced meanness can make true claims, but they have no moral foundation to stand upon—they are shouting their criticism of meanness from deep in a swamp of cruelty and it is hard to take them seriously.