In a recent NYT column, Paul Krugman draws on recent work by two political scientists to argue that our democracy is dying. The major symptom of a dying democracy, according to the book How Democracies Die, is that “institutions meant to serve the public [become] tools of the ruling party, then [are] weaponized to punish and intimidate that party’s opponents.” What worries Krugman is some recent actions taken by the Trump administration, including the decision of the Justice Department to launch an anti-trust investigation into four auto makers that have agreed to comply with California’s regulations on emissions. The government of course does have the power to enforce anti-trust legislation, but what’s worrisome is that this doesn’t seem like enforcement – instead, it seems like punishment for dissent. The claim, I take it, is that the Justice Department is wielding the institutions of government as weapons, rather than calling on them to serve the function they were created to serve.
As I was reading this column, it struck me that there is an interpersonal parallel here, where someone weaponizes a normative power that’s intended to be used for the enforcement of moral norms, and uses it instead as a tool for self-serving punishment. What I have in mind is the recently-much-discussed phenomenon of hypocritical blame. Many have tackled the question of what exactly is inappropriate about hypocritical blame, and the question of how to understand the dismissive tu quoque response that seems legitimate in those cases. (See here for a brief discussion of some of those answers.) There’s no consensus – perhaps because of how many sorts of hypocrisy there are, and how many varieties of blame – but maybe we can make some progress by thinking of hypocritical blame as an abuse of power.
To start, let’s narrow the focus to expressed blame, or what’s sometimes called moral address. So, an example of the standard sort of case at issue would be one where you confront me and take me to task for violating a moral standard that you yourself routinely violate. In this sort of case, you are engaged in hypocritical moral address, and it seems like I am permitted to reply, “Oh, come off it” or “You, of all people, have no right to preach about that”. There are two puzzles about this sort of case: (1) what exactly is inappropriate about what you’ve done? and (2) what exactly is the force of my reply?
Sometimes the word ‘standing’ gets used to describe debates about the first question; other times it gets used to describe debates about the second question. I don’t want to legislate how the word ought to be used, so I’ll just say that my interest here is in the interaction between these two questions. Specifically: when a tu quoque reply is called for, what is the feature of the hypocritical blame that does the calling? What is the tu quoque reply saying about the blamer? (Uninformative answer: it’s saying that the blamer lacks the standing to blame. But what exactly does that mean?)
When we examine things from this perspective, we can see that some explanations of why hypocritical moral address is inappropriate are irrelevant, even if true. For example, it may well be – as Wallace (2010) and Fritz & Miller (2018) and others propose – that hypocritical moral address is morally wrong, because it violates norms involving the equal standing of persons. But the “who are you” reply isn’t merely an assertion of moral wrongdoing. As G. A. Cohen (2013) puts it, the reply is meant to be a way of silencing one’s critics – or, better, of pointing out that their blame will have exactly the same effect on one’s behavior as would their having remained silent. (So, no effect at all.)
But even this isn’t strong enough. The tu quoque response isn’t just a way of saying that, as a matter of fact, hypocritical blame will be fruitless. Instead, there’s some normativity: I’m right not to be motivated by your blame. Or: the fact that you are blaming me gives me no reason to shape up. (Careful, though: this is not the claim that I have no reason to shape up; it’s merely the claim that your blame is not among those reasons. See Herstein 2017 for a view along these lines.)
Supposing that the hypocrite’s blame is fitting (i.e., true to the facts), though, why wouldn’t it give me a reason to apologize and shape up? Here’s the hypothesis: the hypocrite is someone who weaponizes blame, attempting to use it as punishment rather than as a mechanism for the enforcement of moral norms. And if we think of blame as a move in a moral conversation, then the hypocrite is abusing it. Their lack of commitment to the relevant norms (see Todd 2019) reveals that they aren’t interested in conversation. They are talking at me, rather than with me.
There remains a disanalogy with the political case, though, which is that the Trump administration isn’t exactly being hypocritical – or, at least, they need not be interpreted that way. As Krugman points out, even if the administration had a track record for worrying a lot about monopolies, the investigation into the auto makers would still be worrisome, since it seems not to be motivated by those concerns, but instead by politics. The problem consists simply in wielding political power for purposes of punishment, regardless of the underlying commitments of those in power.
But maybe this disanalogy, too, can teach us something about blame. Although hypocritical moral address gets the bulk of the attention in discussions about standing, it looks like there will also be cases of lost standing – i.e., cases where the person being blamed can dismiss the blamer – where the blamer’s past record is clean, but where the blamer is nevertheless wielding the blame for purposes other than moral conversation. These cases, too, will count as an abuse of normative power, and deserve to make their way into our discussions about standing.