This inauguration day, we at PEA Soup are happy to announce a new short, timely, and relevant piece of public philosophy for Soup of the Day (formerly ‘The Pebble’). This entry is brought to us by Dane Leigh Gogoshin, a doctoral student in Practical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki. We thank Dane very much for choosing PEA Soup of the Day. Without further ado, here is Ms. Gogoshin now:
As a new administration takes office in the US, there is an urgent need to adopt a conscientious stance toward those on the losing side, which is now in a vulnerable position. During and leading up to the Trump administration, I’ve observed a severe degradation in the communication tools we use to address our political differences and this has been the case, in my experience, even among academics. It seems we’ve embraced a dangerous fatalism about the point of political conversation. Each side appears to assume that (1) there isn’t a need to argue for something so obvious and/or (2) there’s no point in arguing for it because the opposing side isn’t amenable to reason. The fact that two intelligent, conscientious friends are Trump-supporters has sensitized me to the mainstream media’s (and acquaintances’) condemnation of them as despicable and/or their dismissal of them as full-blooded persons, but what prompted this piece was the news heading, “Teen daughter shames ‘brainwashed’ mom who got punched in face at Capitol riot.” I’ll come back to it shortly.
Regarding (1), one ought to be able to articulate and communicate one’s views which, in turn, ought to be supported by reasons. One might feel that a Trump-supporter is necessarily immoral because one believes that Trump is a racist and a fascist and by supporting him as president, one is supporting racist, fascist policies. First, these terms and claims need much careful unpacking before anyone is warranted in applying them. Second, it seems extreme and unfair to say that by voting for a given candidate, one thereby supports each and every one of said candidate’s previous, present, and future actions and can be judged according to the moral value of those actions. After all, one may have voted for Hilary Clinton without supporting her actions in Libya as Secretary of Defense and for Obama-Biden without supporting their silencing of Occupy Wall Street. So first, “Trump-supporter” does not equate to “moral equivalent of Trump.”
Regarding (2), one cannot eat and have one’s cake too. Either “Trumpsters” are not full-blooded (rational) persons and are thus not morally responsible (i.e. not blameworthy) or they are persons capable of rational discussion. If the former, whence the labeling of them as immoral and if the latter, whence the labeling of them as incapable of rational discussion? The latter implies full moral accountability which, in order to assess, requires knowing one’s reasons for action.
Regarding the news article, its title alone implies much. (1) A teenager’s opinion of a parent has greater legitimacy than the adult parent’s if said parent attended the pro-Trump/election protest. (2) All protesters must have been brainwashed (and a teen is in the position to make that assessment). (3) A person’s attendance at the protest warrants a lack of sympathy (either because it is deserved or because such a person lacks moral patiency) regarding their being assaulted. (4) A brainwashed person is an appropriate target of shame.
Traditionally, we attribute full philosophical personhood and moral (and generally criminal) responsibility only to adults. Teens get closer to adults on the spectrum of these concepts, but they are generally considered to fall just shy of the requisite maturity. Accordingly, that the teen’s opinion so unabashedly outweighs and discredits her parent and not just as a source of authority but as a person, captured my attention. It goes without saying that some parents lack the moral standing to deserve parental authority. Huck Finn’s father, though an extreme and fictional example, leaps to mind. In the article, however, I expected there to be some attention paid to the justification for the teen’s authority, but I found none. It seemed to derive from (a) being in the putatively morally superior camp (anti-Trump) and, possibly more significantly, her mom being in the morally inferior camp, and moreover, brainwashed by this camp, and (b) her mom’s apparent hypocrisy in having counseled her teen daughter against attending BLM protests due to a possibility of violence.
Whether the mom is a full-blooded (philosophical) person (see H. Frankfurt, G. Watson) is a matter of whether she acts (intentionally) on the basis of desires or values she reflectively endorses. Some philosophers (A. Mele) add that these values must not be a result of brainwashing. In “Persons as Things” (forthcoming), Mark Schroeder argues that “a person is constituted by the best interpretation of their behavior.” Interpreting the mom’s participation in the protest in the best way, she cares deeply about a fair democratic election and, believing that the recent election wasn’t fair and that she could exercise her right to contest this result, she joined in a protest even at personal risk (one she hadn’t wished her daughter to take in the BLM protests). Per Schroeder, the mom’s version of her own choices is a salient factor for determining the best interpretation, but it doesn’t appear in this article. If her belief about the election is unfounded, then she lacks epistemic standing. But does she lack moral standing or, if we take the view that she wasn’t manipulated (or that manipulation is irrelevant), personhood? If the value according to which she acted were reflectively endorsed and moral (and assuming she isn’t guilty of a moral transgression, sticking with observables like the fact that she wasn’t violent), then it’s not immediately clear that she lacks either.
Were the mom in fact brainwashed, she would lack responsibility for actions resulting from the manipulated beliefs and values (according to Mele, anyway), so wouldn’t be an appropriate target of blame or shame. But she would still retain moral patiency and remain entitled to the resultant protections. If she doesn’t qualify as brainwashed, then she is (until proven otherwise) morally responsible, and unless we can qualify her attendance at the protest as immoral – something the best interpretation of her action precludes – then she isn’t even blameworthy.
I hope to have motivated a case for engaging with rather than dismissing those with whom we disagree and, if not, for doing more work beforehand.