Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Politics and Morality

During a very recent discussion it came to light that there are allegations of sexual misconduct against Gandhi, the man who brought freedom from the British Empire to India and set it on a path of democracy. I admit that these allegations were news to me and I was directed, during my conversation, to a webpage that detailed the allegations. Now I don't know the truth of the allegations, what the evidence is for them, who the accusers are or anything like that. But for my purposes here today none of this really matters. My subject is to be the intersection of politics and morality which might raise a belly laugh in some as they ask what morality has to do with politics. Our politicians all seem to have feet of clay, overactive dicks and lots of friends happy to look the other way, you will probably say to me. If they are not abusers themselves then they are people who know things but say and do nothing. They are "enablers" in the parlance of our times. And its certainly not restricted to Gandhi. Martin Luther King was at least accused (some would say smeared) of sexual misconduct. In Britain numerous past and present political figures are mired in variously disgusting sexual accusations. Most famously, the two current presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are completely mired in sexual allegations. Trump boasts that he can just grab any woman he wants "by the pussy" and, what's more, they will let him because he's famous whereas Clinton, it has been alleged, has actively covered for her husband Bill's many indiscretions and even taken action against those he's accused of being involved with to shut them up.

Now, hearing all this, some people despair. I understand that reaction. There are those who think we need standards, moral standards, and that these things should not be voluntary and left to the whims of individuals. For these people standards are not things you abandon when it suits you. Morals, for such people, are not things you forget when its the person who is on your political side that's being accused. Take Trump, for example. There has been widespread condemnation of his recently released tape where he boasts of forcing himself on women and his fame meaning they won't stop him. And yet tens of millions of Americans and many high profile Republicans still support him. They either deflect criticism by saying "But look what Bill did!" or they try to dismiss it as just "locker room talk". Neither of these excuses works though. Trump also has active court cases in progress against him alleging sexual assault and worse and has, or had, friends who are now convicted pedophiles. Can we be sure it is "just talk" in his case? Trump is a man who has a history of sexual misconduct accusations against him and his "locker room talk" does nothing to discourage outsiders or casual observers from believing them. But my point here is this: what if it were Obama who had been caught on tape? What if Obama was accused in court documents of sexual assault and even rape? The same people who sit on their hands or defend Trump now would be demanding impeachment and incarceration! Their morality is not absolute: it shifts with the circumstances.

For some people this is wrong: morality should be absolute. But is it ever? Really? Is it really so beyond your experience that you might give a little leeway to someone you know or support, leeway you might not give to someone else? I submit to you that you recognize this possibility and may even have done it yourself. Of course, you may argue that rape and a casual attitude to sexual assault are so serious that we cannot allow personal preferences to come into play. Whilst in no way wanting to excuse either crime here (and they are both CRIMES) I would say its easy to pronounce from the outside. But its altogether more difficult when you might be the one with consequences. Some of you might read this as me trying to excuse or explain away sex crimes. I'm not. I'm saying the stakes are very different when it is you in the firing line and that morality, like it or not, is changed by the relationships between those involved. I'm saying that if your husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, were accused of such things you wouldn't see it as you do when its some political hate figure you only know from the TV or the media. There has been recent criticism of so-called "situational" morality but I'm afraid that I have to blog here today about why I cannot but see that morality is exactly that.

Morals are a personal choice inasmuch as we can say that anything is a choice at all. You and I, we would like to think, both get to decide what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. This encompasses both a set of general beliefs about these things but also an ability to triangulate cases on the fly as the general principles are applied to specific cases. It is integral to this understanding that you and I need not agree on these rights and wrongs either in general or in any specific case. It can be said that we would even value this ability to think differently and come to differing points of view. This is because if I am forced to agree with you, or you with me, then morals and values are not volitional anymore, they are not free. And we hold it as possibly in the highest esteem that we must all be free to come to our own conclusions without coercion. This, of course, risks the possibility that I may hold a set of moral values I judge much higher than yours. It also risks the possibility that I may choose to hold values much lower than yours or even have very few values at all. But, it seems, we judge the freedom to choose as more important than the consequences of the freedom of choice we esteem so highly. This freedom allows Donald Trump to think its in order to grab women by the pussy and it allows many other politicians throughout history to justify a litany of sexual misdemeanors. It also allows their supporters and opponents to take sides accordingly.

Now I am certain that I make moral choices every day, and have values that, if you knew about them, you would think less of me. In the political sphere this is obviously true as well because we have case after case, year after year, where people resign or are forced out of various offices due to the public perception of their choices. (This is to ignore those who try to "tough it out" regardless.) But what can we do about it? I've already pointed out that we hold freedom of choice in the highest esteem. Can we, somehow, make people more moral? Can we, as was recently suggested to me, expect more from people in public office? I don't honestly see why. People in office are just people. They are prey to the same temptations and vices as anyone, potentially, could be. They are members of the same moral or immoral societies as we are. "But I am not a person who wants to commit sexual assault" you may, correctly, reply to me. I accept that and it is not my argument here that we could all be horrible people if we really wanted to. What I am saying is that our standards don't bind anyone else. Our choices are not mandatory for others. We could impose absolutes on public office. We could say no one with any allegation against them could be eligible. We could suggest that only candidates who are whiter than white could stand. But could we say that every candidate's thoughts, beliefs and values must pass some quality threshold? Could we hold their morality to account? And, if we could, what then has happened to that freedom of choice we formerly held in such high esteem? We may want to stop Donald Trump from actually grabbing women by the pussy but do we also want to stop him thinking, in his private thoughts, that he thinks its ok? Do we want to start living in the world of Minority Report?

In action, morality is basically a belief or a value we can justify with reasons. Its nothing more than this. When speaking about a moral choice or a value all we do is say why the choice was a good or bad one or the value is a value worth having, what makes it important. This is all rhetorical. Some would want to argue that morals and values can be absolute. I'm not one of those people. For me, this is just rhetoric too. I am not a moral absolutist for I can find no way to ground morals in anything other than people's views about them or their consequences. Morality for me is always a matter of consequences, of perceived goods and bads and of the reasons given for seeing things in certain ways. So, to give a concrete example, I cannot say that grabbing a woman by the pussy is an absolute bad. I do not believe in absolutes. But I can give a reason why grabbing a certain woman's pussy might be bad, and, I think, it would be hard to imagine a case in which it wasn't bad. The important thing here is that I can give reasons for my choices. Morality is a matter of choices that can be justified even if that is only to yourself. (It will often, if not usually, be to some social grouping, however.) In politics this is much more public. You routinely have to justify your choices and values publicly for your electorate will want to know if they share your views or not. And its because of this that I cannot see how there can be any higher standard for the practitioners of politics, the politicians. Let me explain. 

I wrote earlier in the year on my blog about "the shit sandwich conundrum". Basically this is when you have two political choices and they are both, well, shit. Trump and Clinton are, in my estimation, such a choice. Both are equally shitty without redeeming features. Both, in addition, are immoral figures as I judge them. Both are venal, mendacious and self-serving amongst a litany of other "sins". Should we have some kind of morality test for these people? I say no. Let them be whoever they want to be, holding whatever filthy, degrading and disgusting values they choose. But let them be exposed to the voting public so that these views not be hidden away only to be revealed in secret. Let us really know who these people are. Let us know they lie and cheat. Let us know they cover things up. Let us know they regard women as things to fuck and discard or embarrassments to be covered up. My argument is that you cannot impose a moral test upon politicians but you can submit them to other people's morals. And it may be that this is what they fear most. Of course, only in a world where people stopped caring at all, stopped having morals, would this test not work. But then, I suggest we'd all have a much bigger problem than Trump's out of control libido or Clinton's desire for corruption. Indeed, it may be argued that this is the case right now. The problem is not that Trump is a "mutt", as Robert de Niro so eloquently put it, or that Clinton wants to turn the world into a corrupt, corporate hell, its that our world itself is a self-serving, immoral chaos of unjustified beliefs, base urges and gut feelings.

When talking about both politics and morality it is as well to remember that there is no perfect answer or universally acclaimed choice. We should also remember that one person's justice is another's injustice. At any one time there will be people free others say should not be free and those pronounced guilty who others swear are innocent. This is all to re-emphasize, yet again, that this is all rhetorical, a matter of reasons and persuasion. We should be consistent in our judgments, people say. But this is only true until we reach a point where making an exception seems to be supported with better reasons than the consistency we formerly found holding the best of the arguments. If morality is about reasons and reasons are a matter of persuasion then there can be no absolute value, only the most persuasive one supported by the best reasons and providing the most sought after consequences. In that context the most I think we can ask for is exposure, light shone upon our public representatives. We cannot invade their minds and bend them to our will. Whose will would that be anyway? Mine? Yours? But we can force them to be as open as possible. Then, if the public choose a pervert or a sex pest, at least we will know. Democracy means a free public choice not the tyranny of the public.

And, of course, there has been an elephant in the room of this discussion all along: POWER. But that is a blog for another day...

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