Political Disagreement over Facts vs. Morals

Too often in political debate, we assume the absolute veracity of our empirical beliefs. There’s no possibility that we might not have enough information to justify our views or that our interpretive framework might have imperfections. Furthermore, because our views are both correct and seem obviously correct to us, they must also be obviously correct to others.

From that bedrock of certainty, we then evaluate policy proposals different from our own to be a product not of differing, but good faith, empirical views or interpretive frameworks, held by reasonable people, but as explicit desires to work against the goals of our preferred policies. Thus if we believe that Policy A will lead to Result X, then anyone who prefers Policy B does so not because they believe in good faith and after reasonable study that Policy B is a better way to get to Result X, but that they instead know or by any reasonable standard ought to know that Policy B will undermine the achievement of X — or more likely specifically desire to undermine X.

This leads to serious problems, because it means that our empirical beliefs aren’t open to critique, unless that critique comes from someone who already shares our policy preferences. Because if our interlocutor doesn’t share our policy preferences, then before the conversation can get off the ground, we’ve already decided he is either stupid or immoral. But, of course, if our empirical priors or interpretive framework are wrong, then someone with the right (or at least more right) priors will likely come to a different policy conclusion.

The result is politics not as an attempt to improve the state of the world but instead as moral posturing. We believe that certain policy preferences signal moral worth, and so adopt our policy preferences based on how the people we want to appear moral to will judge us.

Rectifying this does not mean abandoning morality in politics or ceasing to judge the moral character of our political opponents in any capacity. Because there are policy preferences that are immoral and reflect poorly on the moral quality of those who hold them. We should call those out when we see them.

The difference between that sort of moral judgment, however, and the kind I outlined above is where morals enter. We can begin with moral judgements and derive our politics from there. We can say, for example, that locking people in cages because they exhibit non-violent behavior we find off-putting is morally wrong, and so policies based on the belief that such thing is acceptable are wrong, and that people who prefer those policies are open to moral critique. Likewise with policies motivated by other immoralities, such as collectivism and nationalism.

That’s the kind of moral judgment we ought to be making in politics. Unfortunately, too much of what passes for moral judgment is just feather ruffling and an attempt to inoculate one’s ill-considered beliefs against reasonable critique. The line between the two can be difficult — and personally painful — to draw, but it’s safe to say that most of what passes for morality in political discourse falls on the wrong side of it.