Political Disputes Are Moral Disputes

Writing for The Stone, (‘Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?‘, New York Times, 13 July 2015), Alex Rosenberg claims:

Moral disputes seem intractable….With some exceptions, political disputes are not like this. When people disagree about politics, they often agree about ends, but disagree about means to attain them. Republicans and Democrats may differ on, say, health care policy, but share goals — a healthy American population. They differ on fiscal policy but agree on the goal of economic growth for the nation….this is often a matter of degree. Political disputes can have moral aspects, too. The two sides in the debate over abortion rights…clearly don’t agree on the ends. There is an ethical disagreement at the heart of this debate. It is safe to say that the more ethical a political dispute is, the more heated and intractable it is likely to become.

These claims misunderstand political disputes and thus mischaracterize the nature and quality of the disagreements they give rise to.

Political disputes generate as much heat and light as they do because, very often, their participants do not share goals–opponents on either side of a political divide are well aware of this. I remain entirely unconvinced Republicans have a ‘healthy American population’ as a political goal, as opposed to ‘maximizing profits for the healthcare businesses – insurance, hospitals, doctors etc.’ Nothing in their actions and pronouncements suggests such an ascription would be remotely plausible. Only a commitment to shoehorn their views into some predetermined template of ‘acceptable political views’ could animate such an understanding of their political goals. Similarly, I do not think Republicans share the goal of ‘economic growth for the nation’ with me. Their concern appears far more limited, only extensible to a privileged–economically and morally–subset of the population. In these circumscribed political spaces, I find moral and metaphysical principles at work: that there exists a category of people termed ‘undeserving’, the members of which are not entitled to the benefits of the nation’s social and economic arrangements. These are not the principles that animate my political viewpoints.

A ‘political goal’ is not a simple scheme for power sharing; it speaks to a possible arrangement of social, economic, and moral goods, and the animating premises for the arguments made on its behalf rest invariably on some larger vision of how the world should be. In short, political goals are infected with normativity; they seek to conform to the ordering of some table of values their proponents have in mind. It might be that in a particular sphere of politics, some goals have to be artfully disguised in order to make their realization more plausible; this can generate the illusion of ‘agreement on goals-disagreement on means’ which Rosenberg so charitably ascribes to contemporary political conflict.

Rosenberg makes a concession to the intractability of political disputes by admitting the moral nature of some subset of them, but he has mischaracterized them sufficiently to not notice the glaringly obvious conclusion we can draw instead: political disputes are just as intractable as moral ones; the reason for this is that at heart, that’s what they are.

Letters to the Editor, Big Mouths, and Getting Slapped Down

By definition, a blogger is a bigmouth. He or she wants to say things out loud, write them down, and have others read them. As I noted in my ‘Happy Birthday Blog’ post last year, I intended this blog to be a ‘letter-to-the-editor plus notebook and scrapbook space,’ one where I could sound off and be sure of my ‘complaints’ being published. Part of the reason for that desire was that my publication track record with letters to the editor was pretty dismal: 2-for-God knows how many. But one of those two got me into trouble.

In 1988, having finished my first year of graduate school and cohabitation with three other graduate students in a small tw0-bedroom apartment, I was ready for a change. My living quarters felt both cramped and expensive. An advertisement for a graduate resident assistant at my graduate school promised deliverance; I’d get room and board. And not just any old ‘room and board’, I’d have my own room. I promptly filled out an application, sent it in, and was called in for an interview.

The interview went well. I met the director of student affairs and a couple of the current resident assistants; I was quizzed about hypothetical disciplinary situations and my responses seemed to evoke favorable responses from my interlocutors. I emerged from the meeting feeling mildly optimistic about my chances. A day or so later, one of the resident assistants contacted me to tell me that he thought my chances were outstanding, that I had ‘impressed everyone.’ I was ecstatic. A better living and financial situation awaited.

Around the same time, an event described as ‘World Week’ was being staged in our graduate school. This was a pretty generic business, designed to cater, somehow, to the diverse international student body: there were posters, food stands, music performances. You get the picture. But on the very first day of this carnival of conviviality, I noticed something amiss: a poster, issued by the Chinese Ministry of Tourism, featuring a Tibetan landscape with the slogan: ‘Beautiful, Mysterious, Tibet’.

I was enraged. An occupied territory being advertised thus? Why had the organizers permitted this propaganda mongering? I walked over to the nearest computer lab, sat down and dashed off a letter to the student newspaper, one brimming with pique at this slight to the Tibetan people, finishing off with a flourish: ‘It is ironic that an event which purports to increase our knowledge of other cultures has served instead to showcase the organizers’ ignorance.’

A few days later, my letter ran in the student newspaper. I picked up a copy, saw my letter and my name in print, and feeling absurdly pleased, carried it home with me to show to my roommates. My elation didn’t last long. My friend, the incumbent resident assistant, accosted me in a hallway a day later: ‘Are you fucking nuts?! Do you know who organized World Week? R____, the director of student affairs, who interviewed you for the RA job. He’s mad as all hell. He can’t believe someone wrote such a nasty letter to the student paper.’ My response was equal parts incredulity and dismay: ‘Are you serious? He’s not going to hire me for the RA position because of this?’ Was the director of student affairs really so thin-skinned?

Two days later, I had my answer; I received a polite rejection letter in the mail. No rent-free room; no room of my own on campus. Back to the shared bedroom, the suburban commute. And whenever I ran into R___ again on campus, he walked past me with nary a trace of recognition on his face. I never applied for a RA position again.

But I’m not sorry I wrote that letter to the editor.