"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Trump and the problem with the Trolley Problem

When all you have is a hammer…

Via Chris Gertz' The Pietist Schoolman, Adam Johnson, a "moral psychologist" [which seems to be some brew of science and philosophy], goes after the Trump Tape and also a Christian academic named Wayne Grudem, who previously defended voting for Trump on moral grounds.

I suppose I could get into the particulars of the argument, but weaponizing one’s professional expertise in service of one’s politics should be fraught with a concern for its risibility, although as we know from Philip Tetlock’s work, experts are seldom held accountable for being wrong [perhaps wrong even most of the time].

In this case, any attempt to psychologize Trump or especially Wayne Grudem lies in dangerous proximity to violating the Goldwater Rule, which forbids psychologists from pronouncing on people whom they've not personally interviewed, as many infamously did in sliming Goldwater in 1964. For Trump to argue that Bill Clinton has done far worse doesn’t require a GED let alone a PhD to explain, and as for Dr. Grudem, he may be putting things on hold waiting for more shoes to drop, but his argument was defensible based on the information available at that time.

And perhaps still is. As pioneering conservative evangelical Dr. James Dobson of the Focus on the Family empire put it

“Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn. Mrs. Clinton promises she will not.”

This is where Dr. Johnson’s invocation of the Trolley Problem

“one person dies, but five survive”

is a false premise–nobody died from Trump’s actions, but many [unborn] will die from Hillary’s—especially if she succeeds in repealing the Hyde Amendment, which will put the US government in the business of subsidizing abortions. For many, the moral calculus remains a simple matter of arithmetic.

1 comment:

Tim Kowal said...

A trolley problem is running headlong into an entire moral-psychologist's blog viewership. What do you do?


Yes, Johnson's setup is a false premise. And worthless besides.

The conundrum is not that hard -- it's only hard when you state it in abstruse terms (deontology vs. consequentialism) and interpose it within a philosopher's puzzle like the trolley problem. The conundrum is we have to choose between VISIONS via a proxy of two PEOPLE.

The VISIONS can be evaluated very straightforwardly -- and thus this is just like every other election.

The PEOPLE are both nasty, both associated with accusations of immorality and criminality.

Usually the candidates' pennies shine up pretty good so you can just make the choice on vision and maybe who you think has slightly better character.

The moralists in this election -- and at the most amoral time in perhaps our whole history we're suddenly all very fussy moralists -- have made this election all character. But like every election, there's hardly any daylight between the candidates' character -- just instead of two shiny pennies we have two gum-smeared, diseased arcade tokens.

So in the end, this should be no different than any other election: make the choice on vision and maybe who you think has slightly less awful character.

My guess is the reason that isn't happening is we're not really visionary people after all. We're shiny penny people. And GOPe sorts are the shiniest penny people of them all -- they won't lend their vote even against the most ghoulish vision until they get their penny.