Promoting vs. Honoring

If I might be allowed an overly broad generalization, it often seems like political action is locked between two main views. In the past I’ve often called it the Kantian versus the Utilitarian.[1] That’s not entirely fair. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that we have a tension between promoting values versus honoring them.

Consider abortion. Many people think it wrong. Some people might go to protests over the issue and do things to signal their opposition to abortion. But some of the same people might oppose actions that would actually reduce the rate of abortion (say free contraceptives) for other reasons. They may not even focus on policies that actually reduce the rate of abortion.[2] Likewise someone might want peace but consider honoring that value so important that they wouldn’t condone war even if it brought peace.[3] On the other side people might get into the situation of the ends justifying the means so killing is fine if it leads to an end to killing.

These issues, despite how they appear, are harder to adjudicate than they sometimes seem. If murder is wrong and you had a time machine should you kill Hitler? (Ignoring all the time travel paradoxes) If murder is inherently wrong then it would be just as wrong to kill Hitler as it would to kill anyone else. 

Those whose intuitions tend towards the Kantian or honoring style of treating values tend to see them as inherently important regardless of consequences. Those who think in terms of consequences tend to view ethics and values through a lens of promoting those values as best they can. Of course few people are fully tied to one style of ethical reasoning.

You can see these tensions with how those on the religious right have viewed Trump.[4] The first wave of reaction was extremely opposed to Trump. Those loosely associated with religion (i.e. irregular Church attenders) were far more positive to Trump. The reasons for this tended to be tied to his breaking of most important rules religious people held to.[5] That is there was a focus on honoring rules. Once it became clear Trump was going to win the primaries this shifted. People started asking themselves what the consequences of a Clinton versus a Trump Presidency would be. While hardly universal (Trump did very poorly in Utah compared to other red states) most religious conservatives embraced Trump because they thought an immoral bully protecting them was better than a bully attacking them.[6] The shift is thus from honoring values to promoting values. Even if few think Trump honors important social values they think he’ll do a better job promoting them relative to the alternatives. 

Note how much of Trump’s opposition from the right through the left take a similar view. Many attack him because of his rule violations. Yet just as often we see fear about the consequences of breaking social norms. That is the focus is often on how violation of rules leads to people not following those rules leading to bad outcomes. It’s a very utilitarian type argument.  

We we look at how (thus far) the actual opposition to Trump has gone (instead of why they oppose him) it’s different. It’s been primarily about virtue signaling. Going to marches, no matter how large, doesn’t usually lead to change. It hasn’t for abortion opponents despite years of protests often with large numbers.[7] That’s not to say protests don’t serve a purpose. Often they unify a base which has a utilitarian aim. But by and large they are tied to views about honoring rules rather than promoting rules. That’s why talking to someone who thinks protests are helpful is so confusing to someone who thinks in terms of promoting values rather than honoring them. There’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about ethics. Neither side understands one an other. 

I don’t have any big conclusions to draw from this. However I suspect you, like me, won’t look at things the same way once you see this fundamental divide in human thinking about politics and ethics. It’s very helpful when analyzing the news to understand these very different ways of thinking. Now for those of us who don’t tend to think of ethics in terms of either honoring nor promoting things get a bit more complicated. But it’s very interesting how much these two categories do explain. Most importantly they clarify why we so often talk past one an other when discussing ethics or politics.

[1] Kant founded what is called deontological ethics. Your actions are determined by rules. Ultimately your ethics are your duty or obligation to these rules. Utilitarianism is the idea that what you should do is what brings about the greatest happiness for the most people. John Stewart Mill popularized the notion and it led to many reforms like women’s suffrage. It was the standard view for political thinking up through the late 60’s and 70’s in the west. (Ignoring Marxism) Since then modified Kantian views have tended to be very dominant, especially in the left. John Rawls is a great example of someone who adopts a more Kantian like approach.

[2] Opposition to birth control among pro-life Evangelicals is an example of this tension. Evangelicals don’t have the theological background of say Catholics on birth control issues. Catholics fit a little better into the honoring tension I’m discussing though. Contraception might reduce abortion, and abortion is arguably a greater evil than people using birth control. Yet because what matters is honoring the rules and not achieving better ends that’s what gets focused on. Evangelicals are a bit trickier since many oppose more liberal birth control dispersal because they think it’d increase the amount of pre-marital sex. So in part this is a more consequentialist view. One can debate the actual type of thinking of course. Few people fit fully in one category or the other.

[3] Pacifists in World War II are a great example of this type of thinking, although you often see it even in contemporary debates. Again in the weeds things get more complicated. For instance a common attack on military intervention is that it radicalizes more people – a more utilitarian type of argument.

[4] I’m here including most Mormons as members of the religious right. There are of course lots of politically liberal Mormons. Indeed they’re probably overrepresented in the main LDS oriented blogs. Yet among American Mormons polls show most are Republican oriented.

[5] I hopefully don’t have to list the rules he broke including vulgar talk, sexual harassment, serial adultery, dishonest business practices, and potentially even abortion. 

[6] I’m not saying these views are fair or correct. However it seems they are pretty widespread. 

[7] Civil rights protests are usually held up as the classic example of successful protests. But they were extremely focused in a way that many other protests were not. They also had an important role of demonstrating to the masses of America how especially southern police & laws were victimizing the innocent. Most protests since then haven’t had that demonstrative function. In recent decades most protests have also been far more inchoate to the degree they often seem a grab bag of goals and frustrations of a wide swath of a movement. To the degree protests since the civil rights protests of the 60’s have been successful it’s been primarily by raising the cost of a particular action. (The recent successful protests of an oil pipeline are an example of that) My point is less about ‘success’ though than to merely note the difference between a protest with an utilitarian focus versus a protest focused on demonstrating honoring a law.

5 comments for “Promoting vs. Honoring

  1. I think you’re right about why the religious right went with Trump over Clinton. They had a perception that she would be a significant challenge to their values. The perception that Trump would be at least somewhat committed to defending their values was popular.

    Beyond that, to be honest, I don’t quite understand the promoting/honoring values dichotomy. It would seem that most cultures do a good amount of both honoring and promoting different sets of values. There are simply numerous cultures in the US who have a wide range of values, many of which conflict. Plus, most people’s values aren’t developed out of careful philosophical rumination, but simply because of a surrounding culture. Their friends and family think a particular way, and they mimic those patterns of thinking to gain attention and validation. To add to that, there is an ever-ending supply of writing and information to confirm whatever biases different people have.

    I’m not entirely sure that voters’ choices were even informed entirely by values. Although most everyone has some sort of value set, most are incapable of articulating their values to the extent that they can justify actions based on them. To add to that, people often hold contradictory values. Many Trump supporters may be or have been at some point vehemently opposed to authoritarianism. Yet they turn a blind eye to Trump’s repeated praise of authoritarians and his undoubted authoritarian tendencies, which is showing already in his first week as president. People voted for Trump for a wide range of reasons. It may have been a single issue, a vague perception that he would somehow be better, subconscious distrust of women as leaders, subconscious racism, some sort of general image that Trump conveyed, tribalism, etc.

    Trump of course is a valueless person. He is an absolute narcissist who craves attention, controversy, outdoing his foes, and winning (according to his often contradictory and incomprehensible criteria) at all costs.

  2. I completely agree with this framework. It explains why the people with whom I initially made Trump jokes gave me cold stares after his nomination, something I was very puzzled about.

    I think the shift between Kantian and Utilitarian is largely due to matters going from academic to real. It concerns me that so many people, particularly members of the Church, engage in moral signalling during discussions but when it comes to action, choose the Utilitarian vs. the principled road.

    This is a fascinating case study for me and this framework goes a long way to helping me think through this. Thanks!!

  3. I don’t think these trends come out of conscious philosophizing. Likewise I don’t think people are always terribly consistent (if only because they’re not being philosophical). I do think they do reflect some common trends on how people view rules and values. I’d actually say the philosophical tendencies of deontology and utilitarianism likely reflect basic psychological stances towards rules.

    My point was just recognizing these two stances helps one understand why others do that. It was primarily something that came to me when I noticed how people were talking past one an other over the marches after the inauguration. It was something I first recognized when getting frustrated with how people dealt with the abortion issue.

    While I hinted at it above, one thing that can confuse things a little is that sometimes the ‘honoring’ approach is hard to distinguish from ‘virtue signaling’ which is much more about group identity and boundary maintenance. You see that with how people with a concern about the environment will do things that really don’t change outcomes much if at all but are more about showing they honor the rules. Often virtue signaling is designed to be easily seen and being costly in some sense is often valuable for such signaling.

    The same thing pops up in religion a lot with tokens of virtue that one uses to signal commitment. Things like going a bit extreme over modest dress or what foods you use. Indeed there’s a lot of crossover there since I’d argue many aspects of contemporary political behavior really are old religious behaviors.

  4. Evangelicals voted for Trump because they felt he wouldn’t last a month in office and they’d get the president they really wanted — Pence.

    This is anecdotal but a lot of my conservative Christian friends are repulsed by Trump, but more repulsed by Hillary, and are hoping Trump augers in soon.

  5. most religious conservatives embraced Trump because they thought an immoral bully protecting them was better than a bully attacking them.

    I’ve mulled over this for a while, and here’s what I’m currently concluding. Most of the religious conservatives saw that Secretary Clinton had a strong set of values that she stuck to. They saw that there would likely be fights between her and them on those issues. But with Trump, they didn’t see someone who stuck to any set of values, and took a risk that someone who is apathetic on so many issues, wouldn’t butt heads with them.
    Yes, Trumps is personally immoral, but he might not encourage any laws which they deem to be immoral.

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