Image Credits: Raphael .
I’m a philosophy major who is predisposed against inflicting that world on innocent bystanders. I’m particularly skeptical of those who attempt to devise philosophical systems, e.g. dialectical materialism, and then graft them onto political movements or parties. If I can’t explain something to some Joe at the end of the bar within ten minutes, I think it’s basically useless as a political tool.
So, as a principled matter, I object to efforts to explain the differences between supporters of Bernie Sanders and supporters of, say, Barack Obama on the basis of their deontological vs. consequentialist moral philosophies. That doesn’t mean that I hold it against Dylan Matthews that he made the effort, but I suspect few people have enough prurient interest to risk witnessing that kind of wankfest.
The main problem here really is that it’s making something rather simple several orders of magnitude too complicated.
Some people are more willing than others to break a few eggs in the interest of making an omelette. Others don’t go in for fancy breakfast dishes and don’t have any eggs in any case. This is a question of where people are to begin with.
Are they desperate, marginalized, suffocating from discrimination and lack of opportunity? If so, they don’t have the luxury of talking about omelettes. Any major disturbance of the economy or the social order will hit them first and hardest. They’re only going to look to break things if their circumstances become unbearable, but they’re accustomed to living with severe hardship. Hardship and unfairness are not their primary motivators. They’re focused on survival and quite willing to make compromises. They’ve never known an existence when compromises weren’t forced on them, nor one where they got to dictate the terms.
If, on the other hand, they’ve lived a life of relative comfort and privilege, they may still be animated by a genuine concern for those who are less fortunate. They may be infused with a moral fervor to right injustices. And they may rightly perceive that there are institutional barriers to progress that are so strong that they must be smashed if meaningful improvements are going to be made. In an extreme case, they might justify lining kulaks up against a wall and shooting them so that a more egalitarian agrarian policy will be possible. These folks are not accustomed to making compromises. Their tolerance for hardship is limited, and they don’t have much experience with having to take a bad deal because it’s the best deal on offer.
When I worked at ACORN with inner city black organizers, I didn’t hear the same kinds of conversations that I heard growing up with faculty kids in Princeton, New Jersey. The main distinction could be summed up as the difference between pragmatism and idealism. ACORN looked to leverage a limited amount of power to achieve modest, incremental results. Ivy Leaguers looked to examine root causes and find systemic solutions.
There are, of course, many people who don’t fit into either of these categories. They are neither part of a socioeconomic or racial underclass, nor the children of the elite. They may come at the pragmatism vs. idealism question more as a matter of temperament than experience. Depending on their inherent disposition, they may sort into either camp. And it’s likely that if you examine their moral preferences and try to stuff them into categories of moral philosophy that you will find that one tends towards the deontological and the other into the consequentialist. Personally, I don’t find that exercise very illuminating.
In this case, I think it led Matthews a bit astray. Supporters of Bernie Sanders don’t necessarily care that he’s accepted the endorsement of Joe Rogan. But this is not primarily because they’re more focused on the greater good of winning an election than the hurt feelings of the people Rogan regularly insults. It’s because they don’t have direct experience with being on the receiving end of that kind of vitriol and abuse. In this case, they’re being practical while their critics are being idealistic. That’s a reversal from the general pattern of Sanders’ support. But the constant is that Sanders’ supporters are insulated from the consequences of their actions.
They will casually wave away the careers of thousands of people working in the medical insurance industry just as breezily as they dismiss the feelings of a transgender person who has been insulted by Mr. Rogan. In the interest of the greater good, some people will get hurt.
This isn’t a foreign concept to pragmatists. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that people would get hurt when he led them into the streets. Barack Obama knew that some politicians would lose their jobs if they voted to enact his health care plan. But they crafted their plans carefully and with an eye to taking only smart and necessary risks. And those risks most definitely included making alliances with people of suspect moral or ideological rectitude. What defined them was a willingness to grab progress in small chunks and to take care that the people they sought to represent would not be unduly harmed in the process.
This wasn’t because they were morally confused about whether it was acceptable to judge actions by their intent or their consequences. They would not have rejected progress because it required compromise nor accepted any cost in the furtherance of their goals. They were guided by the experience of being on the receiving end of discrimination and injustice, and this is why they didn’t feel they had the luxury of being absolutists.
The average Sanders supporter is similarly flexible in their ethics. They can be very practical in the furtherance of helping their champion secure the nomination. The difference is mainly in what they’re willing to compromise and how much risk they’re willing to take on. Generally speaking, they’re generous taking risks that will have negative consequences for other people. In this respect, Barack Obama was miserly.
So, I suppose, on the whole, the typical Sanders supporter is more of a consequentialist than a deontologicalist. But the distinction is still highly situational and generally not rooted in moral philosophy.
Now, at the heart of this debate is the question of accepting endorsements. Barack Obama was happy to be endorsed by Colin Powell, while Clinton accepted a thumbs up from Henry Kissinger. Aren’t these blood-stained endorsements more problematic than the endorsement of some dude with a podcast and some unpopular opinions?
The simplest way of thinking about this is that there’s really no distinction here at all. We have three politicians acting in exactly the same way for exactly the same reasons. And, in all three cases, we will find that supporters of these politicians made similar excuses for their candidates. There is something valuable to be gained from the endorsement that outweighs whatever moral taint comes with it.
If you want a more complex version, each endorsement was made for its own unique reason and had its own story to tell about the political movement it was promoting. Powell had reasons for preferring Obama to McCain that involved both policy and identity. Kissinger saw in Clinton a better steward of traditional American foreign policy than the erratic nonsense that was coming from Trump. Joe Rogan says he likes Bernie Sanders’ moral consistency over his long career. Presumably, he sees this as a positive attribute that contrasts with the average poll-tested politician. If he has any policy differences with Bernie, they’re evidently outweighed by his admiration for the constancy of his character.
When looked at in these terms, it’s not clear that we should be so focused on the morality of the one receiving the endorsement as the rationale behind the decision to offer it.
I don’t give a shit what Powell, Kissinger or Rogan think about anything, and I wouldn’t take advice from them, moral or otherwise. But their endorsements can still inform us. Powell had seen what neoconservatism could do firsthand, and he thought Obama’s approach was better than McCain’s. Kissinger didn’t endorse Clinton because she agreed with the bombing of Cambodia or Operation Condor. He endorsed her because Trump is a lunatic. Rogan didn’t endorse Sanders because he’s transphobic or racist but apparently because he’s principled and unwavering.
In each case, the candidate could have decided to reject the endorsement for principled reasons. In no case did that actually happen.
This tells us that neither Clinton nor Obama were so morally outraged by the record of Kissinger or Powell to run fleeing from them. That probably was a strong indicator that they wouldn’t break too strongly from the bipartisan foreign policy consensus of the country. Likewise, Sanders is never going to care more about the eggs than the omelette.
I think we can learn from this without thinking too hard about it. If you want careful, considered pragmatism then you’ll lean one way, and if you want to rip everything up without a lot of concern for short-term consequences, then you’ll lean another way.
What you probably should be looking for is someone who can’t be pigeon-holed into either category. You shouldn’t want a moral philosopher but someone with real moral courage. Martin Luther King Jr. was pragmatic and revolutionary, unwavering yet flexible. But he was also unconstrained by electoral politics. The ideal party leader will not fret over whether their decisions are means or ends-focused, but will move forward with the knowledge that they’ve been entrusted with the eggs. They should break as few of them as possible, but not become paralyzed or indecisive in the face of tough decisions.