All of the views expressed in this post belong to the author and not to Political Union as an organization.
Suppose you are elected the next president of the United States. After a hard fought campaign, you finally sit down in the Oval Office, eager to do some policy. The first bill, “Bill X”, lands on your desk and as Chief Executive Officer, it is your job to either sign it into law, or strike it down with a veto.
Being a thoughtful President, you turn to your experts to determine what effect Bill X will have on the country. However, while the experts may be able to accurately predict the many effects of Bill X, how do you determine whether Bill X is just? After all, Bill X is bound to restrict the freedom of one group in order to make another, larger group happy, or infringe on the rights of some to increase the prosperity of others. When a bill is not clearly beneficial to everyone in all circumstances, how do you weigh its consequences in order to decide whether to sign it or veto it?
Whether they are conscious of it or not, every principled person who engages in politics has a set of morals that they use to determine whether a policy is just. Moral compasses come in many different forms, with each individual taking their position based on their own unique set of values. Generally speaking, however, when people argue for or against a policy, they do so using one of two types of moral reasoning.
The first, and seemingly most common, form of moral reasoning is consequentialism. Consequentialists hold that consequences are all that matter in ethics. Adherents of utilitarianism (the dominant strain of consequentialism) would argue that actions such as Bill X are morally correct if they produce the “most good” possible.
The second type of moral reasoning is known as deontology. A deontologist would argue that Bill X is bad if it allows any number of inherently morally reprehensible things, even if allowing those things would result in net-positive consequences. These things are most often murder, rape, and theft, but can extend to anything else a deontologist feels infringes upon the natural rights of humans. Libertarianism is one prominent political ideology that frequently utilizes deontological reasoning, given that libertarians often prioritize perceived rights to liberty over other considerations.
Deontological theories clash with utilitarianism on issues such as legalization of drugs. Here, a natural-rights libertarian might say that the government should not prohibit individuals from making their own life choices, even when those choices might be harmful, while a utilitarian could say that legalizing drugs is a bad policy since it will decrease people’s happiness.
Most people don’t exist solely as consequentialists or deontologists but instead are a mix of the two and will often argue from different frameworks depending on the topic. Understanding which principle is guiding a person's argument is a crucial part of discussing political topics effectively. Once you understand which criteria is determining that person’s argument as to whether a policy is just, you can direct the conversation to be much more productive.
An illustration of this could be an argument over a common but heated topic, the abortion debate. When a pro-choice person argues in favor of allowing abortion, they often come at it from a consequentialist framework, citing, for example, the difficulty that the mother will have supporting a child, which will often lead to bad a life outcome for child.
Meanwhile, when a pro-life person is arguing against abortion, they almost always do so from a deontological framework, arguing that because abortion is murdering a fetus and murder infringes on the natural rights of humans, abortion cannot be allowed. If the pro-choice person wants to try and change the pro-life person’s mind, or just have a productive conversation, they need to recognize that no matter how many statistics they cite about raising unwanted children or poor outcomes with adoption, they will never convince the pro-life person to support abortion unless they step into their deontological framework and argue that a woman’s right to choose supercedes any hypothetical right to live. This method of argumentation may not change their mind either, but it at least prevents both parties from merely talking past each other.
Most political conversations today are unproductive because people are unable to identify the moral position that the other person is using, and thus they do not address that person’s argument. People do not respond well or empathize with positions that are outside of their framework and thus stepping into that person’s moral framework and arguing your point within their framework is necessary.
I’ve heard many conversations where people arguing from two different frameworks bring up the points that support their own framework over and over to no effect. In a recent discussion between friends of mine, one was arguing from a consequentialist framework in favor of restrictions on firearms and gun buybacks, citing things such as how it will decrease overall deaths and crime. The other was unconvinced by these arguments, as he was arguing from a libertarian-deontological perspective, arguing that it was inherently immoral for the government to restrict the freedom of its citizens in this way. Because both of them didn’t recognize the different frameworks the other was working in, they both continually presented evidence that only supported their own framework and the conversation ultimately didn’t get anywhere.
For political discourse to progress, it is crucial for people to understand the frameworks they argue from and learn how to identify the frameworks that others are using to support their arguments. Without these skills, people will continue to talk past each other without achieving anything.
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