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Loyalty versus Obsequiousness Through the Lens of Donald Trump


A loyal person is never an obsequious person.

Donald Trump demands loyalty from those around him. It’s why he fired James Comey, why he’s mad at Jeff Sessions, and why he pulled John Brennan’s security clearance. He makes everyone passing through his orbit sign non-disclosure agreements, a kind of explicit loyalty oath by way of legal documents. Even his kids get in on it.

Yet, for someone so concerned with loyalty, Donald Trump doesn’t know quite what loyalty is. I don’t just mean in the sense that he believes loyalty to be unilateral. For Trump, you are loyal to him. But he is never loyal to you. It’s not clear he understands what bilateral loyalty would entail.

No, the real problem with Trump’s notion of loyalty is that he’s confused the term with obsequiousness. The former is a virtue, the latter a vice. Loyalty is earned, and continues through a relationship of respect. I am loyal to you because you deserve my loyalty through your continuing demonstration of the characteristics that earned it in the first place.

Obsequiousness, on the other hand, is evidence of a failure of character on the part of the obsequious. Where loyalty comes from a recognition of the worthy traits of another, obsequiousness comes from an internalized sense of servility. Loyalty is about me recognizing your lofty traits. Obsequiousness is instead about me not having strong and worthy traits of my own.

That Trump in fact demands the latter is a telling condemnation of both his personal character and his abilities as a leader. It is a sign of the deep insecurity that is perhaps the president’s single most defining trait. A loyal friend remains loyal in part by holding you to the standards that earned you his loyalty in the first place. Loyalty elevates both sides in the relationship. But Trump sees no need to be elevated, because he desperately wants to see himself as the best there’s ever been, while at the same time harboring constant and crippling doubts about the truth of that belief.

That’s why he instead demands obsequiousness. He needs his underlings to praise him, to always remain supine. Deviation must be punished, harshly and thoroughly and without remission until the offender resumes his groveling posture and empty flattery. To allow anything else would be to admit that loyalty is contingent on quality, and that Trump is maybe not as quality as his fragile ego has convinced himself he is.

Donald Trump is a failure of a man. He has worldly success, yes, but as a person, as a moral being, as a figure to be admired, he falls breathtakingly short. His confusion of loyalty for obsequiousness is but one piece of evidence that deep down, wherever a tiny remnant of his humanity might be found, he recognizes that truth.

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On Civility in Politics


Shunning is sometimes appropriate, and politics shouldn’t change that.

Should we shun political opponents? Should we refuse to associate with them, or to serve them in our businesses? The matter with Sarah Sanders getting kicked out of a restaurant has a lot of people staking out what strike me as poorly examined positions on these questions, positions rooted in the silly notion that “we shouldn’t let politics come between us.”

The short answers to the above questions is, yes, of course we should shun political opponents — when their behavior or beliefs are of the sort worthy of shunning. And, yes, we should refuse to associate with them or serve them in our businesses — when their behavior or beliefs are of the sort worthy of such refusal. That their behavior or beliefs are motivated by politics, as opposed to some other value system or ideology or motivation, is immaterial, and arguments to the contrary merely grant ugly political beliefs an unearned and dangerous buffer from the kind of moral opprobrium we find perfectly acceptable when applied to ugly beliefs of other origins.

It is, of course, possible for political disagreement to exist without it stemming from shun-worthy beliefs, and this fact is too often ignored by partisans. But that doesn’t mean that all political disagreement is of an honest and respectable sort. Sometimes people are bad people and their bad people-ness is reflected in the political views they hold. In such instances, we should still treat them as bad people.

If you think it’s okay to kick someone out of a restaurant who holds racist beliefs, because you don’t want to associate with someone so morally repugnant, then you should also think it’s okay to kick someone out who channels those racist beliefs or anti-immigrant beliefs through politics. If you think it’s okay to refuse to associate with someone you know to be morally corrupt and dishonest, you should also think it’s okay to refuse to associate with someone who puts their moral corruption and dishonesty to use defending the actions and policies of the morally corrupt and dishonest.

I wouldn’t want Sanders in my house. I wouldn’t be friendly to her if I met her. She’s a morally corrupt and fundamentally dishonest person. She’s exactly the kind of person I choose not to associate with and teach my children not to associate with. That she was kicked out of a private business instead of a house changes none of that.

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Stupidity, Immorality, and Political Differences


We treat people’s political beliefs as indicative of their character or competence, but that’s often a mistake.


Too often in political debate, we assume the absolute veracity of our empirical beliefs. We know that private schools fail to serve the underprivileged, or that immigrants take jobs, or that trade deficits harm the working class.

We admit no possibility that we might not have enough information to justify our views or that conceptual framework we employ to interpret evidence might have imperfections. Furthermore, we tend to think that our views aren’t just correct, but obviously correct. It’s not that the data is murky, but we’ve managed to get the right read on it. No, the data is clear as day, and the interpretive framework we employ self-evident. And if the data is that clear, then there must be something wrong with those who don’t see it. Since private schools are so obviously inadequate, we think, then those who want private schools must want inadequate schools.

Too often, this is how we evaluate the policy proposals of our political adversaries. Because the evidence supporting our preferred policies is obvious, and because the way we interpret that evidence self-evident, we tend not to see differences of political opinion stemming from good faith disagreement about the underlying facts or how best to interpret them. Instead, we see differing political opinion as the result of explicit desires to work against the goals of our preferred policies.

Say we believe that Policy A, which we support, will lead to good Result X. We encounter someone who instead advocates for Policy B. Because of our certainty about the evidence and how to interpret it, too many of us too often see that person’s support for Policy B coming not from a good faith and reasoned belief that Policy B is a better way to get to Result X. Because if what we believe is both correct and obvious, then the advocate of Policy B must know that it will undermine the achievement of X. And if X is a good result, then this person doesn’t just disagree with us, but actively wants something bad to happen.


Unfortunately, this all-too-common way of thinking about political debate leads to serious problems, because it means that our empirical beliefs are essentially closed to critique unless that critique comes from someone who already shares our policy preferences. 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 (he’s too dumb to see his error) or immoral (he maliciously prefers evil outcomes). But, of course, if our empirical priors or interpretive framework are wrong, then someone with better priors will likely come to a different policy conclusion.

Thus individual policy preferences exist as a signal of their holder’s intelligence or moral worth — and a challenge to one’s policy preferences gets interpreted as an attack on the holder’s smarts or basic goodness. Because we believe that certain policy preferences signal moral worth, we adopt our policy preferences based on how we would like to be perceived. And we hold to those policies regardless of their actual, real-world outcomes, or pay so little attention to their outcomes that we never feel the need to revise our political preferences.

Alternatively, we could just assume that people we disagree with differ from us because they’ve read the data one way, while we read it another, and yet both of us are operating in good faith and are reasonable people. This is clearly not the case in every instance of disagreement, yet treating disagreement this way is a pretty good way to go about political debate. Assume the best of your opponent unless you have strong reason to do otherwise.

Let’s say you and I differ on education policy. You’re a strong supporter of public schools, while I think we ought to switch to a system of publicly-financed private schools. It’s possible that I support private schools because I’m either stupid (the evidence is clear, but I’m too dumb to see it) or I’m immoral (I don’t care about poor kids getting a quality education, and so am happy to see only the rich become educated). It’s also possible, however, that I instead want to see everyone, rich and poor, get a quality education, but believe, after careful consideration, that the evidence supports private schools and school choice as the best way to achieve that. I could be wrong about that evidence, of course, but so could you. Debating that is bound to be more fruitful than simply condemning each other as benighted.


We need to be careful, however. Because there is a moral element to politics, and that means we shouldn’t take the above as an argument against seeing any moral angle to political differences. 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. Some policy preferences actually do aim at immoral goals, and some depend on arguments and evidence so blindingly bad that to hold on to them evinces a morally blameworthy level of ignorance. We can see Jim Crow was an example of the former, while anti-GMO policies fall within the latter.

The difference between that sort of moral judgment, however, and the kind I’m challenging is where morals enter. We can begin with moral judgments and derive our politics from there. We can say, for example, that it’s morally wrong to lock people in cages because they exhibit non-violent behavior we find off-putting, and conclude policies based on the belief that such a 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 a feather-ruffling means to inoculate one’s ill-considered beliefs against reasonable criticism. 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.


This essay originally appeared on Libertarianism.org.

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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.

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Real Violence, Simulated Violence, and Thinking War is Awesome

Most of us enjoy violence. The top movies each year largely come from genres dependent on scenes of people getting hurt, whether comic book action, crime thrillers, horror, or sci-fi and fantasy epics. We play violent video games, shooting and punching and blowing up imaginary people or the avatars of other players.

But the violence we enjoy is fake. That’s important. I’m happy to watch a movie about people getting beaten up and murdered. I love crime fiction and shooting people in Grand Theft Auto. Yet show me the same stuff in real life — hell, ask me to imagine the same stuff in real life — and it’s not at all the same. In fact, I hate it. Violence — real violence — repels me, as it does most other people.

Things weren’t always like this, of course. Historically, we have countless instances of real violence as entertainment — think gladiators and public hangings — as well as the kind of common, everyday slaughter that indicates a lack of widespread aversion to violent acts. In fact, the growing distaste for violence, which eventually became disgust and outright horror, was necessary to us growing morally, as people and as civilizations. Good people do not commit violent acts — except perhaps in extreme instances of defense of self or others. Much less do they enjoy violent acts, actual violent acts, with real people suffering real pain.

Except, I’ve come to believe, some of us, at some level, still do. My supposition — and it must remain one because I’m not sure how to research its veracity — is that a great deal of foreign policy hawkishness, support for CIA torture, cheering on of brutal police behavior, and so on, is the result of people not possessing an instinctive recognition of the distinction between legitimately-exciting-but-pretend violence and the horror of real violence. In other words, there are people out there who get just the sort of pleasure in carrying out — or, most often, witnessing or thinking about — actual violent acts that you or I get from playing a first-person shooter or watching a terrific action scene. These are the people who, for example, talk about war as if it’s awesome. They get excited at the prospect of another bombing campaign. They love military hardware and can’t wait to see it put to use. Their first reaction to any problem overseas is to call for blowing people up.

This likely results from one or both of two particular failures, one of character, the other of reasoning. The first is a devaluing of the humanity of others, particularly others of different nations, religions, cultures, or colors. This is an outright moral failing. A morally good person will recognize the humanity of others and see violence against them as repugnant. A bad person will think some people are less worthy of basic dignity and so will be less concerned by violence against them.

The second failure doesn’t necessarily reflect on the person’s character so much as it does on the person’s wisdom in putting his moral motivations into practice. Here, the person doesn’t explicitly believe unsimulated violence is okay. Instead, he has a difficult time recognizing recognizing it. His mind treats real violence, especially real violence depected in media such as in news reports, as if it were simulated violence. Of course, if asked about this directly, the person won’t admit to thinking the violence in the news is fake. He’s not stupid. But in the moment, when watching it, or when thinking about a bombing campaign or the brutality of cops busting heads, he’ll subconsciously fool himself and approach it the same way the rest of us do simulated violence.

There’s an interesting difference in how progressives and conservatives go wrong in thinking about violence. By and large, progressives are more concerned about direct violence done by the state than conservatives. They tend to be more wary of war and lament civilian casualties. (Though partisanship complicates this, obviously, causing Democrats to show more support for state violence when it’s perpetrated by a Democratic president.) Progressives also tend to decry police violence against minorities and marginalized groups. But they also overlook a great deal of state violence. Every law and regulation they clamor for, after all, is backed by force and ultimately only carries weight as a law or regulation if there are men with guns prepared to shoot people who don’t comply. So progressives think real violence isn’t okay — or at least pay lip service to being turned off by it — but at the same time fail to recognize the violence baked into their vision for a well-functioning, well-covered, and largely state-run society.

Conservatives, on the other hand, seem more likely to recognize the pervasiveness of state violence, but care less about violence itself. They’re the ones — again, I’m dealing in broad generalties here — who champion bombing compaigns and respond to police bruality with, “Well, he/they had it coming.” Unlike progressives, they appear not to care about the harm. Or, worse, they see the violence as righteous and just. As deserved.

As I write this, it occurs to me that these opposed attitudes to real violence get sometimes flipped when the subject is simulated violence. By and large, cultural progressives don’t mind violence on television, in the movies, or in video games. They may not want their children watching or playing particularly violent media, but they don’t see it as the downfall of society or even much of a threat to their own kids’ wellbeing, and so don’t call for its censorship. Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, are frequently among the first to blame video games after a school shooting and say how Grant Theft Auto leads to more crime. Much of their ire at the media is, of course, more about displays of sex and alternative sexualities, but a good portion of it is reserved for violence. To risk too much of a generalization, progressives hate violence when it’s real and conservatives hate it when it’s fake.

I’m not quite sure what to make of any of this. And, like I said, it’s all based on general impressions on my part. I don’t know how one would set about proving or disproving that neoconservatives champion war in part because they get excited at the prospect of bombing people. Certainly, none of them would admit to it. But if I’m right, even a little, then it raises serious concerns about governing the country. It’s one thing to disagree about the data on which policy produces better results. Reasonable people can have rather divergent opinions. Likewise, we can have meaningful conversations about the proper distribution of state power versus personal freedom. But there’s no rational or moral groundwork for the view that violence engaging each other via violence is okay. It’s just not, full stop. And if there are people out there who don’t only think it’s okay, but at some level think it’s fun, then we’ve got problems. Big ones. We can, and must, be better than that.

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The Incoherence of Denying Thick Libertarianism

If political philosophy is a branch of moral philosophy (and it is), then to have a political philosophy assumes having–even if only in an inchoate form–a moral philosophy.

If that’s true, then the claim (and it’s a rather common one) that libertarians should only concern themselves with permissible state action and take no stand on relationships and power structures outside of the state’s control is, I fear, rather incoherent. Because being a “thin libertarian”–as this view is called, in opposition to “thick libertarianism”–means (1) having a moral theory justifying your libertarianism but (2) believing that moral theory doesn’t also have something to say about relationships and behaviors outside of (the proper sphere of) politics.

Put another way, anyone who claims to be a libertarian (or claims any other political philosophy, for that matter) is a libertarian because she holds certain moral views about how people should–or are permitted to–interact with each other. Views such as, “Initiating aggression is always wrong” or “People have equal moral worth, and so should be treated equally or given equal say.”

Those moral beliefs then lead the libertarian to hold certain politicalbeliefs about the legitimate role of the state–or, for some, beliefs about the state’s inherent illigitimacy. But if those moral beliefs are strong enough to motivate a political philosophy, they also must be strong enough to lead to conclusions about human interactionoutside of the political sphere.

This means that anyone who is libertarian because of foundational moral beliefs (which is most of us who have thought deeply about our political views), must be a thick libertarian–even though they (likely) believe that the state should not enforce many (or most) of the conclusions their moral philosophy leads to. Because the very nature of a moral belief is that, if we believe something to be a moral truth, then we believe people ought to follow it. And if we believe people ought to do something, then we ought to want them to follow it. Or, at least, think the world would be better if they did follow it.

Of course, just because two different moral philosophies may both lead to libertarianism, it doesn’t follow that their non-political views (the “thick” part of their “thick libertarianism”) will be identical, or even compatible. That’s okay! But that pluralism should not lead us to think that libertarians should remain silent about moral questions outside of the (proper) realm of politics.