Senator Mitt Romney made history by breaking with his party to vote to convict President Trump. Romney presented a well-crafted and well-argued speech that contrasts dramatically with the style and content of Trump’s speeches. I have, as one would suspect, been somewhat critical of Romney over the years, but I have always endeavored to be fair to him. In 2011 I wrote in his defense when he was attacked for being a Mormon. I bring up these points to set what follows in context and as evidence that my current defense of Romney is not simply a matter of agreeing with him about Trump.
As should be expected by anyone familiar with my views, I think that Trump is guilty of the misdeeds he was impeached for and that he should have been removed from office. My defense of Romney is not, however, based on this agreement—this would be foolish. For those who agree that Trump should have been removed, no defense of Romney is needed. For those who think that Trump deserved his victory, there is no agreement with Romney.
In his speech, Romney argues why his vote was correct and he explains his reason for his vote. The gist of the explanation is that Romney believes that he took an oath before God and this morally and religiously obligated him. Because of his faith and his conscience, he could not break his oath and by following this oath, he was obligated to vote to convict Trump.
Romney is obviously right that he and the other 99 senators took an oath to do impartial justice. The key moral question is whether such an oath is morally binding or not. On the face of it, when one enters into an agreement without being forced or deceived, one is obligated to hold to that agreement. That is, you should keep your word and act in good faith. One could argue on utilitarian grounds that breaking an oath would be justified if the good of doing so outweighed the bad—an argument some Republican senators could perhaps make. This would be analogous to the usual utilitarian arguments about lying in general. Romney, however, invokes a non-utilitarian ethics: he appeals to his religious views.
As Romney presents it, his ethics is based primarily on his faith—he is a devout Mormon. Religious based ethics tend to be deontological. That is, they are generally based on moral rules that define actions as wrong and right, as opposed to weighing various consequences, be they pragmatic or utilitarian. The foundation for these rules is typically and obviously God—God either commands what is right or things are right because of his commands (divine command theory). While I do not know the details of Romney’s moral theory, it certainly seems that he embraces the deontological view: while voting with his fellow Republicans would have been advantageous and voting against them is damaging, he decided to act in accord with his conception of right and wrong. He lays out clearly in his speech his reasoning and, as noted above, there is no reasonable doubt about his faith. As such, the best explanation is the explanation he gave: in following his oath he was led to cast his vote as he did. But did he act correctly? In this matter I follow Aquinas.
As Aquinas saw it, the conscience is the rational activity of applying moral knowledge in particular cases and “every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.” Since people are not perfect, the are obligated to follow their informed conscience to the best of their ability. As such, people can fall into error due to having incorrect information as well as various defects in their conscience. Because of this possibility of error, Aquinas contends that when a person reaches the wrong moral conclusion, they should still be judged based in the extent to which they were guided by the moral light as they understood it. On this view, if a person chooses wrongly, but acted in accord with their ethics and did their due diligence about the relevant information, then they are to be judged accordingly.
Romney seems to have met these conditions: he considered the evidence before him, thought the matter through thoroughly and acted in accord with his long-held and long considered moral principles. As such, while one could disagree with his verdict, one cannot justly judge him as having acted wrongly in being guided by his informed moral conscience. This is not to say that being guided by one’s informed conscience excuses everything—one can presumably have an informed conscience that leads to terrible things.
I rather like Aquinas’ approach and endeavor to apply it consistently. This is one reason why I can get along with people with very different views and still regard them as good people: they make their decisions from an informed conscience and I am obligated to respect that they are making a real and serious effort to do what is right. As such, while I have often disagreed with Romney, I hold that he also endeavors to act from his informed conscience. Not everyone would agree with this.
While his senate colleagues have been somewhat restrained in their criticism, Trump and others have begun relentlessly attacking him. As would be expected, social media is now infested with attacks on Romney, including some rather vile ones. Trump tweeted a video in which it is claimed that Romney was a “Democrat secret asset.” He also attacked both Romney and Pelosi at the National Prayer Breakfast, mocking their references to faith. Trump and his worst supporters are not engaging with Romney’s arguments, they are merely launching ad hominem attacks on him. These, of course, have no moral or logical merit. One would hope that Trump’s attacks on the faiths of Romney and Pelosi would have some consequences among his Christian supporters—but Romney has often been attacked for being Mormon and being suspicious of Catholics has long been a thing in America.
Trump’s response is not surprising; Trump seems to lack an informed conscience and assesses matters in terms of their advantage to him. Other people are assessed in terms of their loyalty to him—the one virtue Trump seems to value in others, though he seems incapable of practicing it himself. As such, Trump did not and cannot accept that Romney acted in accord with his conscience—there is no room for the idea of principled disagreement. One is either loyal to Trump or not. Many of his followers also share this view and this helps contribute to polarization. It must be noted that this is not limited to Trump or his supporters; it is common to regard those who disagree as wicked without considering they might be acting in excellent accord with their own moral light. I see this among liberals as well, as one would expect.
As a philosophy professor I do try to convince my students that they can disagree with a person and still accept that they are not therefore wicked. I also try to convey the idea that people who act in accord with their informed conscience should be judged in this light. As far as why you should act this way, there is the golden rule. You are the hero of your story, but no doubt the villain in someone else’s. Since each of us is somebody’s villain, we should be willing to keep in mind that they think of themselves as we do: the hero. This should give us some reason to pause in demonizing others and to consider that though we disagree, they might not be wicked.