The Moral Status and Personhood of “Trumpsters”

This inauguration day, we at PEA Soup are happy to announce a new short, timely, and relevant piece of public philosophy for The Pebble. This entry is brought to us by Dane Leigh Gogoshin, a doctoral student in Practical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki. We thank Dane very much for choosing The Pebble. Without further ado, here is Ms. Gogoshin now:

As a new administration takes office in the US, there is an urgent need to adopt a conscientious stance toward those on the losing side, which is now in a vulnerable position. During and leading up to the Trump administration, I’ve observed a severe degradation in the communication tools we use to address our political differences and this has been the case, in my experience, even among academics. It seems we’ve embraced a dangerous fatalism about the point of political conversation. Each side appears to assume that (1) there isn’t a need to argue for something so obvious and/or (2) there’s no point in arguing for it because the opposing side isn’t amenable to reason. The fact that two intelligent, conscientious friends are Trump-supporters has sensitized me to the mainstream media’s (and acquaintances’) condemnation of them as despicable and/or their dismissal of them as full-blooded persons, but what prompted this piece was the news heading, “Teen daughter shames ‘brainwashed’ mom who got punched in face at Capitol riot.” I’ll come back to it shortly.

Regarding (1), one ought to be able to articulate and communicate one’s views which, in turn, ought to be supported by reasons. One might feel that a Trump-supporter is necessarily immoral because one believes that Trump is a racist and a fascist and by supporting him as president, one is supporting racist, fascist policies. First, these terms and claims need much careful unpacking before anyone is warranted in applying them. Second, it seems extreme and unfair to say that by voting for a given candidate, one thereby supports each and every one of said candidate’s previous, present, and future actions and can be judged according to the moral value of those actions. After all, one may have voted for Hilary Clinton without supporting her actions in Libya as Secretary of Defense and for Obama-Biden without supporting their silencing of Occupy Wall Street. So first, “Trump-supporter” does not equate to “moral equivalent of Trump.”

Regarding (2), one cannot eat and have one’s cake too. Either “Trumpsters” are not full-blooded (rational) persons and are thus not morally responsible (i.e. not blameworthy) or they are persons capable of rational discussion. If the former, whence the labeling of them as immoral and if the latter, whence the labeling of them as incapable of rational discussion? The latter implies full moral accountability which, in order to assess, requires knowing one’s reasons for action.

Regarding the news article, its title alone implies much. (1) A teenager’s opinion of a parent has greater legitimacy than the adult parent’s if said parent attended the pro-Trump/election protest. (2) All protesters must have been brainwashed (and a teen is in the position to make that assessment). (3) A person’s attendance at the protest warrants a lack of sympathy (either because it is deserved or because such a person lacks moral patiency) regarding their being assaulted. (4) A brainwashed person is an appropriate target of shame.

Traditionally, we attribute full philosophical personhood and moral (and generally criminal) responsibility only to adults. Teens get closer to adults on the spectrum of these concepts, but they are generally considered to fall just shy of the requisite maturity. Accordingly, that the teen’s opinion so unabashedly outweighs and discredits her parent and not just as a source of authority but as a person, captured my attention. It goes without saying that some parents lack the moral standing to deserve parental authority. Huck Finn’s father, though an extreme and fictional example, leaps to mind. In the article, however, I expected there to be some attention paid to the justification for the teen’s authority, but I found none. It seemed to derive from (a) being in the putatively morally superior camp (anti-Trump) and, possibly more significantly, her mom being in the morally inferior camp, and moreover, brainwashed by this camp, and (b) her mom’s apparent hypocrisy in having counseled her teen daughter against attending BLM protests due to a possibility of violence.

Whether the mom is a full-blooded (philosophical) person (see H. Frankfurt, G. Watson) is a matter of whether she acts (intentionally) on the basis of desires or values she reflectively endorses. Some philosophers (A. Mele) add that these values must not be a result of brainwashing. In “Persons as Things” (forthcoming), Mark Schroeder argues that “a person is constituted by the best interpretation of their behavior.” Interpreting the mom’s participation in the protest in the best way, she cares deeply about a fair democratic election and, believing that the recent election wasn’t fair and that she could exercise her right to contest this result, she joined in a protest even at personal risk (one she hadn’t wished her daughter to take in the BLM protests). Per Schroeder, the mom’s version of her own choices is a salient factor for determining the best interpretation, but it doesn’t appear in this article. If her belief about the election is unfounded, then she lacks epistemic standing. But does she lack moral standing or, if we take the view that she wasn’t manipulated (or that manipulation is irrelevant), personhood? If the value according to which she acted were reflectively endorsed and moral (and assuming she isn’t guilty of a moral transgression, sticking with observables like the fact that she wasn’t violent), then it’s not immediately clear that she lacks either.

Were the mom in fact brainwashed, she would lack responsibility for actions resulting from the manipulated beliefs and values (according to Mele, anyway), so wouldn’t be an appropriate target of blame or shame. But she would still retain moral patiency and remain entitled to the resultant protections. If she doesn’t qualify as brainwashed, then she is (until proven otherwise) morally responsible, and unless we can qualify her attendance at the protest as immoral – something the best interpretation of her action precludes – then she isn’t even blameworthy.

I hope to have motivated a case for engaging with rather than dismissing those with whom we disagree and, if not, for doing more work beforehand.

5 Replies to “The Moral Status and Personhood of “Trumpsters”

  1. It sounds as though the article from which you took the headline was more about a teenager judging her mother’s choices than about those choices themselves. Also, we cannot tell from the information provided if the mother’s objection to the BLM protest was the possibility of violence or the protest’s subject.
    Regardless, I agree that we should accord political adversaries full humanity, with all its rights, agency, and accountability. And we should not look upon events like a punch in the face as being what an adversary “deserves.” The universe does not regard our deserts — if it did, the coronavirus would only kill those who “deserve” to die. Rather, we should ask under what circumstances the political beliefs of others should require something other than an agreement to disagree, and how we can honor one another’s humanity even in disagreement.
    Believing a lie because it accords with your politics is another problem. At some point, political beliefs based on lies and actions based on such beliefs require accountability, or we are saying that those who follow liars are, in fact, to be pitied and disregarded as unworthy to be held accountable. To hold such people accountable for believing and acting on a lie does honor their humanity.

  2. Suppose that the mother was blameworthy. i.e. She reasoned in a blameworthily bad way and therefore ended up doing something morally wrong (i.e. participate in the protests at Capitol).

    What follows from this?

    1. Blaming and shaming seem appropriate. At least they are not ruled out on grounds of lack of blameworthiness.

    2. Since they are persons we would disrespect their personhood if we made demands on them which could not be justified to them. This means that if we are not able to articulate reasons for our demand that are accessible to her, we should not make any such demand on her. (e.g. we should not demand that she refrain from storming capitol building)

    However, while it is the case that we ought to make demands only if we are able to articulate reasons (accessible to the target of our demands) for that demand, it does not follow that we ought to articulate those reasons. There is no reason to think the mere ability to articulate reasons on our part generates for us an obligation to actually articulate said reasons

    Now let me try to articulate a reason why there is no obligation to articulate the reasons for any such demands we would make.

    Let’s look at the reason no 2 that you mention: “there’s no point in arguing for it because the opposing side isn’t amenable to reason.”

    You are reading amenable to reason as being a claim about the capacity to reason. This is not the most charitable interpretation of this argument. Someone can fail to be amenable to reason because she is not motivated to respond to her reasons even though she has the capacity to do so. Moreover, (at least) certain ways of failing to be motivated to respond to one’s reasons are characteristic of certain epistemic and moral vices. For instance, an objectionable lack of curiosity, or an objectionable arrogance about the epistemic status of one’s own beliefs, prejudice etc.

    If the other party is not amenable to reason in virtue of her epistemic and moral viciousness, then it would be futile to articulate reasons to her. Plausibly, we would articulate reasons to her only in order to convince her to do the right thing for the right reasons(doing so for other reasons, e.g. to convince third parties would be to treat her as a prop, i.e. a mere means to an end). However, since articulating reasons to her would be futile in terms of convincing her, then there is no obligation to do so.

    Let’s also look at your discussion of 1. It seems to be a strawman to characterise people as saying that people who support trump are the moral equivalent of trump. A more charitable interpretation of reason 1 is that Trump is overall so bad that this overall badness outweighs, by far, any positive reason we might have for voting for him. Moreover, this should be obvious. Trump supporters therefore need not be morally equivalent to Trump, they only need to be obviously wrong (both morally and epistemically) in order for reason 1 to go through. In fact, positing certain epistemic and moral vices is one way to explain why Trump supporters fail to see the obvious.

    Even more charitably, the claim made by reason 1 is not even that it is obviously wrong to support trump, rather, it is obviously epistemically wrong to believe that the election was stolen from Trump and therefore that one ought to storm capitol to force the issue.

  3. @Lauren McGillicuddy

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. First, let me clarify that the referenced news article was, for me, just a helpful trigger for a consideration of these issues – issues at stake irrespective of this specific article. I’m not so sure that the details, in that light, matter too much. For one, the daughter is apparently 18 and so technically an adult. But the news source labels her a teen, I would guess rather intentionally. It seems to me that by making a child’s judgment of her parent’s action into a news headline, they are not only prioritizing the child’s judgment, they are implying that the parent’s actions were so degraded, that even the parent’s own offspring is ashamed. But of course the daughter’s action (publicly shaming her mom) suggests that she is not personally ashamed (as in the way a child might feel privately ashamed when their parents pick them up at school in front of their peers in a very run-down car), but rather making a point of disassociating herself. Also, according to the daughter’s commentary in the article, the mom’s objections to her daughter attending the BLM protests were in fact a fear of possible violence. That’s not to say the mom could not have had other objections, but this isn’t discussed in the article; I wouldn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

    Finally and more crucially, though I agree completely with the idea that believing something simply because it accords with one’s politics irrespective of the evidence, is troubling. However, it isn’t clear that someone could “believe a lie” if they knew it to be a lie. Some might ignore evidence or see evidence where there is none because of their (political) biases; is this a problem of morality or rationality? It’s a very tricky situation when the integrity/credibility of the entity providing the information (be it news sources or the government) people rely on for forming their beliefs has been compromised (even if just because of inherent conflicts of interests and news sources producing conflicting results). But I sense that what you’re suggesting is that we ought to hold someone accountable when they act on false beliefs. This runs counter to most notions of moral responsibility for which we have to meet certain epistemic requirements in order to be blameworthy. If those beliefs are a result of brainwashing – then an agent is (again, per Mele 1995), not morally responsible for actions resulting from the brainwashed beliefs.

    @Murali

    I do not presuppose that the mother was blameworthy merely by virtue of being present at the protest. (Here’s an interesting post on moral considerations of protests: https://www.publicethics.org/post/uncivil-disobedience-in-hong-kong.) She did not breach the Capitol nor was she physically violent (she did, as it happens, get into the personal space of the woman who then punched her in the face, but she was not violent). My point was that in the most charitable description of her, she acted for a moral reason: in support of democracy, I ought to protest an unfair election. You can certainly argue that her belief was unwarranted, perhaps in part due to her poor choices and/or misfortune – she didn’t do her due diligence, she had the misfortune to find an equal number of news sources stating that it was fair and that it was unfair, she was blinded by political bias from the correct news sources, she was brainwashed by people seeking power – but the point is that she acted (on the charitable view) for what she believed to be right. If you think she was crazy or brainwashed for believing and then acting on this, then again, you can’t also claim that she’s blameworthy.

    If we think others are wrong, I do think we have an obligation to state our judgment and the reasons behind it. After all, this is how we can act as and treat others as persons and, of course, it is the only hope for reaching legitimate consensus. We also bear an obligation to solicit from an agent we find blameworthy prior to blaming, shaming or punishing them, what their reasons for acting are; after all, how else will we know why they acted and thus whether they’re blameworthy? It’s not enough for someone to act in a way that you find bad (e.g. merely attending the election protest); after all, I find a sociopath’s antisocial behavior bad. But to call something immoral is to have taken the agent behind it to be morally responsible (so I can’t call the sociopath’s behavior immoral). Moral responsibility is generally taken (see C. A. Campbell, P. van Inwagen, S. Wolf, etc.) to be a necessary condition of moral evaluations, judgments, and acts. We can’t say that what someone did was morally objectionable without also taking them to be morally responsible, in other words. A morally responsible person is capable of acting for reasons. We then have to evaluate their reasons for acting to make a moral judgment.

  4. @Murali

    To your straw man criticism: you say that my characterization of “anti-Trumpsters” as assigning “Trumpsters” the same moral standing as Trump is a strawman. But it’s not, and this is why… The “anti-Trumpsters” are assessing the protesters without knowing their motives solely on the basis of their own beliefs about Trump’s badness. You assert that his badness is so extreme that it’s obvious (i.e. doesn’t need articulating or defending). Besides the fact that “proof by obviousness” is a logical fallacy, at what point does someone’s badness (a) become an absolute and (b) doesn’t require articulation/defense? It’s a slippery slope to assume that a person’s badness is obvious since if it may be merely asserted, it becomes a label that can be used to isolate and punish anyone who doesn’t share this opinion. Obviously ; ) the other side can (and does) also claim the “obviousness” of the badness of the opposing side’s policies and candidates. There’s no dialogue, no taking the other side’s (not to mention those who don’t belong to either of the only 2 major parties’) concerns into account and addressing them. There’s a lot of unproductive labeling and shaming going on. There’s also the problem of relative badness as well. It is often the case that American citizens cast negative votes, whereby their vote for a given candidate is their attempt to prevent a perceived worse candidate from winning. (This was apparently a big factor in the 2016 election.) Perhaps a protester doesn’t even support Trump but believed that Russia’s putative interference in the 2016 election was enough to cast doubt on the integrity of the current election. We cannot know a priori that among the tens of thousands of protesters who showed up on Jan. 6th there were those who did so solely for the sake of contesting what they believe to be an undemocratic election. So when one presupposes that a protester is immoral by mere association – they are doing exactly what I said is problematic in my post. They are either (1) deeming them immoral by mere association with something they find immoral (Trump) and denying them of their possibly right reasons (even if said reasons are based on poor evidence) and or (2) depriving them of their agency – assuming that they are crazy or brainwashed – in which case blaming is unfitting.

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