Joe Rogan, Bernie Sanders, and Bad Moral Philosophy
This week's 'controversial' topic on the moderate left concerns the endorsement of Bernie Sanders by famous bald-man and podcaster Joe Rogan. I don't know much about Rogan, I don't listen to his podcast, and I still primarily think of him as the host of NBC's FearFactor (in turn, I only remember this show because it was on the air right around the time I first developed a fear of vomit and the idea that someone would purposefully make themselves sick and televise it absolutely horrified me; I've since made my peace with that concept and most of the NBC family programming).
From what I know about the ongoing dispute two facts are relevant. First, Rogan's podcast is incredibly successful and his endorsement of Sanders is likely to have some sway with his very large audience. And second, Joe Rogan is kind of a piece of shit. He's not only given a platform to well-known dangerous idiots like Alex Jones and Gavin McInnes (hell, throw in space fascist Elon Musk in that group as well), but he's also said some pretty fucked up racist and transphobic things as well.
The dispute, then, is about whether Sanders should have accepted the endorsement by someone as shitty as Rogan (he did). Two general arguments are levied on either side: those supporting Sanders' decision cite the size of Rogan's audience and what an endorsement like his can do for helping Sanders win the nomination; those opposing the decision (which, I assume includes at least a few of Sanders' supporters as well) claim that accepting such an endorsement is a kind of dirty deal and is tantamount to a tacit agreement of Rogan's own shitty views.
Fortunately for me, I won't be trying to settle this dispute, so those reading who might have been anxious that I'm about to drop a hot take can relax. Rather, what I want to talk about is an article by Vox's Dylan Matthews about that dispute and what I take to be a really, really bad argument.
Matthews' Core Argument
Matthews' argument rests on the fact that anti-endorsement and pro-endorsement arguments mentioned above can be roughly thought of in deontological and consequentialist terms respectively. In other words, those approving of the endorsement (or holding their nose at it) justify their support by referencing the consequences that such an endorsement would have for a successful Sanders campaign. By doing this, they (implicitly or explicitly) argue that the goodness of those consequences outweigh the badness of being endorsed by someone like Rogan. By contrast, those categorically opposing the endorsement (or being critical of it) justify their opposition by appealing to some principle of morality that does not take into account the consequences of the action done.
Crucially, Matthews takes this difference to be indicative of deep, dividing fissures between 'leftists' and 'liberals' with each taking a different school of thought in presenting their arguments (this is a short, and I believe, charitable reading of the claim; the specifics are much, much weirder as I point out below). Roughly, Matthews thinks that when it comes to certain issues, liberals and leftists are speaking past each other with each group using different moral standards of assessment for different contexts. Matthews doesn't make a judgment on which side is correct (which I commend him on since I've decided to take the same route!) in this meta-debate, but believes this is a serious phenomenon that we should be aware of.
Why the Argument is Garbage
But let's stop for a second and ask whether this is so. What's the evidence provided that there is such a deep fissure between leftists and liberals? The most obvious bit of evidence seems to be a collection of tweets that offer some principled objection to Sanders accepting Rogan's endorsement coupled with Matthews' claim that principled objections to certain actions are the purview of 'liberals' ("Most liberals have what I would characterize as a deontological opposition to discrimination. That is, they think that discriminating against or maligning someone on the basis of membership in a protected class — women, trans people, black people, and other racially oppressed communities, etc. — violates a rule that should be inviolable.") The implication seems to be that those 'socialist-identified' Bernie supporters do not make take such stances but that they're primarily driven by consequentialist considerations.
Now maybe Matthews hasn't spent enough time in 'leftist' circles, but principled opposition to a position is decisively not the purview of liberals (ask a leftist what they think about opportunism and you'll hear about an hour's worth of anti-consequentialist polemics). The fact of the matter is that leftist politics full of principled stances (some say too many!) and it's not even clear that the tweets that are used as evidence in this argument are even coming from liberals--I can easily see some of my leftist comrades criticizing Sanders' endorsement precisely on the grounds that the left shouldn't take any endorsement from anyone even remotely right-wing. It literally seems that the only thing that has convinced Matthews that this is a liberal position is his impression that it's liberals that are in the business of offering deontological arguments!
Even if Matthews is right that liberals use deontological arguments sometimes (I agree with him there!), it's just not true that leftists don't use them as well. He might be in a better position if he could defend the claim that liberals make such appeals more frequently than leftists, but this is a different claim from the one offered and one for which I've seen zero evidence.
Likewise, things might be different if he could show that leftists use consequentialist arguments more often than liberals. But not only is there no support for this, but precisely where you would expect there to be some such support the argument gets super weird. After showing that some people oppose Sanders' endorsement on principled grounds Matthews gives us a brief gloss of consequentialism and offers the following:
Here’s how that disagreement plays into the Rogan controversy. Shortly after the Rogan controversy broke out, Sanders fans started pulling out references to Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and arguable war criminal whose counsel Hillary Clinton welcomed in 2016. The objection is straightforward: Kissinger was responsible for the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands of innocent people over the course of his career, between his complicity in the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, his push to carpet-bomb Cambodia, and his support for brutal dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Surely that’s worse than whatever Rogan has said, no? So is it really fair to condemn Sanders for trumpeting Rogan’s support when Clinton trumpeted her connections to a morally far worse individual?
I can't say this strongly enough: the argument presented by "Sanders fans" is not a consequentialist argument! It is a charge of hypocrisy which is something entirely different. What they're saying is not "the consequences of having this endorsement will be better than the consequences of taking the principled line that you advocate" but rather "you are a hypocrite by taking issue with Rogan but not taking an issue with Kissinger" or "you weren't so principled when your favored candidate was being endorsed by shitty people."
Matthews is right that they may also claim that on top of that that side was willing to get an endorsement by someone who's responsible for hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, but this doesn't make the argument a consequentialist one. Rather what this points to is the depth of hypocrisy. The same thing can be said about the back and forth about Colin Powell. How Matthews misses this is, frankly, confusing.
All this is to say that there's nothing in here that should convince anyone of the claim that leftists are more likely to engage in consequentialist arguments. We're still left with just Matthews' impression that this is just what leftists do.
Let's Give Him the Data
Let's engage in some fantasy and give Matthews the data. Suppose Matthews had gathered a representative group of tweets on one side by explicitly self-identified liberals who give explicitly deontological reasons against the endorsement, and a representative group of tweets on the other side by explicitly self-identifying leftists giving explicit consequentialist reasons defending the endorsement. Hell, let's make it even more robust and say that instead of tweets, Matthews did a proper controlled social psychology experiment that showed a correlation between being a leftist and supporting a consequentialist argument in this case and being a liberal and supporting a deontological argument in this case. Wouldn't this show that there's a deep philosophical fissure between leftists and liberals?
No! At best it would show that when it comes to the question of Bernard Sanders' acceptance or rejection of an endorsement some people favor consequentialist reasoning and other people favor deontological reasoning. To support the more robust claim one would have to show that there's a strong correlation between being a leftist and reasoning consequentially and being a liberal and reasoning deontologically in general.
Now, some people have tried to argue something analogous with studies about how people reason in trolley cases, but these, too, face some serious problems. Most notably, it's notoriously difficult to prove that those studies tell us anything more than how, say, conservatives and liberals reason differently in trolley cases. One can willingly accept that some groups might be more sensitive to consequentialist reasoning when it comes to deaths by train, but it's a further step to the broader claim that those who reason in such a way in those cases reason the same in all other moral cases.
Likewise, even if we could say that there's a political divide with respect to this issue that can be boiled down to philosophical differences (something, which, to stress again, has not been proven), it doesn't follow that there's anything even close to a deep fissure along these lines (which is not to say that such a fissure doesn't exist). For all we know, leftists and liberals reason morally in every single other domain. It's doubtful, but nothing about this article should make anyone think otherwise.
Some Speculation of my own
I've been pretty hard on Matthews for not providing support, so let me make some speculative claims of my own for which I'll provide zero empirical evidence (or really any kind of argument).
I think Matthews' hot takes are the result of certain general view that there are profound, deeply different ways of moral reasoning that map onto different political views. I don't know why people find this view to be appealing (though I suspect Jonathan Haidt's work is at least partially to blame; though, I should say I'm not familiar enough with it to comment here). I bristle at any kind of essentialist views about politics and this is no exception.
However, I can imagine that such a view might be comforting to the extent that if it's right, then the things that divide us politically can be seen as a kind of misunderstanding or speaking past each other ("Oh, you're just sensitive to the consequences and I'm sensitive to the rules!"). If that's right, then the solution to our deep political issues become a matter of tinkering, clarifying, and ironing out and not of any fundamental class conflict, racism, or bigotry. And while I would love for this to be the case since it makes good work for moral philosophers, I'm just skeptical.
Part of why I'm skeptical is that this view requires that people have some pretty clear and consistent moral views. Leftists have to always (or most of the time, or consistently, or...) reason by appeals to the consequences; liberals have to always (or most of the time, or consistently, or...) reason by appeals to principles. And I just don't think this is true.
I suspect that the majority of people don't have coherent, systematic ways of morally reasoning that can be mapped to their political views. Rather, like Thomas Nagel says in his "War and Massacre" piece, I think that all people who are not trying to win an argument or acolytes of Kant of Mill are generally sensitive to both consequentialist and deontological reasons. I've personally never met a single person who only reasoned in one way or found only one way of reasoning convincing (and I hope I never do!)
Furthermore, I believe that we're kind of pluralist and opportunistic about when we employ different kinds of reasoning and why. Sometimes we offer deontological reasons in support or against a particular view, and other times we employ consequentialist reasons. This isn't to say that this necessarily makes for bad reasoning. Indeed, I'm more inclined to think that both kinds of reasoning might be necessary to truly understand the depths of our moral landscape and that it's the moralist who fetishizes systematicity that is likely to get things upside down. But I think it should push us away from these essentialist psychological views.