Oct 31, 2012

Is Partisanship a Vice?

We're near the end of the long-dragged-out forced march of another national election season -- though "season" has become a misnomer for a process that now takes well over a year.  The main debates are finished -- those two-side televised contests, a lion's share of limelight going to the presidential contenders, a healthy share taken by their sidekick cubs, with scraps, offal, trimmings, and marrowless bones left for the publicity-starved third-party debaters to wrest away or share -- whatever they may decide. I must register my partial relief now that the debates are finished -- merely partial though, because it takes almost no time in our media-saturated environment for the assessments of these back and forth staged deliberative discussions to proliferate.

And, it actually would not be that bad if in fact most of what passes for commentary actually did comprise something like "assessments" -- even admittedly biased ones. What is so galling, so irritating, and so . . . downright depressing is the spectacle, repeated almost endlessly of people I thought I knew better -- and thought more highly of -- blithely in some cases, snidely and smugly in others, and in yet others accompanied by vitriol, rabidity, fear-mongering and ultimatums, engage themselves in what is really just pure partisanship, plain and simple -- all the while concealing that very behavior from themselves, and projecting it onto their political opponents.  Not only is there a visible, palpable viciousness (in the general sense) coloring both their filters and their statements -- there's also a distinctively moral slippage, a continued and unmarked failure, a different and more troubling viciousness --expression of which, and encounter with which, is rapidly becoming a nearly unavoidable dimension of everyday existence.

What is Moral Viciousness?

One of the central categories for a number of traditional moral theories and perspectives -- and not only Virtue Ethics, I'd add -- is that of vice.  What is a vice?  How does a "vice" (in any proper, meaningful sense of the term) differ from merely a bad act or succession of acts, or from some behavior that is simply socially disapproved?  When we get into the complexities of full-blown moral theories, we can find such distinctions elaborated and explained, given higher or lower priority, but I think that in general, you can point towards these basic distinctives of vice:
  • a vice is a trait of a person's character, a disposition, a reliable tendency.
  • a vice bears on some broad but distinctive area of human life.
  • a vice is something that tends to produce, to lead into, behavior bad both for others and for the person committing the behavior.
  • a vice is a quality or habit that is developed over time, through repetition, through habituation, through imitation.
  • vice skews or corrupts a person's understanding of right and wrong, both in terms of their own behavior and motives and in terms of other persons'
Each of these is a significant element of an adequate understanding of vice -- or in personal terms, viciousness -- and worth a bit of further unpacking.  Let's start with the first.  A real vice in a person is not just a single action (though such an action can be a sign of it).  It is a pattern, a disposition characteristically to act, to choose, to see matters in certain ways.  Aristotle, for example, spends a good deal of thought in differentiating several different kinds of bad actions, varying considerably in their moral quality, and thereby in the modes of criticism or other responses appropriate to them (I've discussed this in more detail elsewhere). An action might be of the sort that a vicious person typically does, without the person who actually is doing the action necessarily being vicious.  A person is vicious because the vice has its claws in him or her -- it won't easily let go, or be rooted out.

Second, vices possess a kind of specificity.  The person who is vicious is so with respect to some sort of emotional response, actions, good, relationship in relation to which they tend to get things wrong, to do things wrongly, to misorder or disorder matters.  And, so we can distinguish different vices from each other:  cowardice, for example, from injustice, or bad temper from duplicity.  And, in that general area of human life -- some matter or set of matters with which the vicious person will end up coming into contact over and over again -- the vicious person does things, makes choices, that are bad not only for other people but also for him or herself (not even to speak of the relationships between them and others) -- the third element.  The vicious person may be useful to some other persons, but will be noxious, disturbing, or at the least inconveniencing to yet other persons.  But, he vicious are also in some way injurious to themselves -- if we want to call them "damaged goods," it's partly because they continually damage themselves further, generally without realizing it.  If they fail to flourish, they are partly, and increasingly more and more responsible for that failure.

Fourth, vices don't just "happen" -- although to many of the vicious, as well as to the morally confused, it appears so.  Nor at least in most and in typical cases, does a person deliberately decide to embark on a systematic course of fostering a vice within him or herself.  Rather, vice develops in between these two polarities of complete irresponsibility and total responsibility, through mechanisms for which the vicious person does bear some degree of responsibility -- by choices, which get repeated; through habits, which get strengthened; in indulgence of desires, which get reinforced; via imitation, through excuse and exception, by paving piece by piece, occasion by occasion, a road which becomes smoother and broader the longer one works and rides upon it.

Fifth, vice always brings with itself -- really part of what a vice is -- some forms of systematic distortion of moral understanding on the part of the vicious person -- not one which actually gets that person off the hook, it should be noted, since while few choose vice directly, in perfect lucidity of consciousness, all who are vicious do choose the repeated actions that grow and strengthen it - and most are also given ample opportunities to see what they have become or are in the process of becoming, to reevaluate their ordering and understanding of goods, to choose the change their path.  The vicious person thinks that some good things are actually bad, and some bad things good.  They judge matters of a skewed basis.  They leave things out, or add things in, or misread, misapply, misinterpret, misjudge -- typically so whatever the vice they possess can exercise itself within the situation at hand.

Partisanship as a Vice?

How should we define -- or at least adequately characterize and thus understand -- partisanship as a vice?  Certainly we can say that it does take the shape of a habitual, sustained, enracinated response which carries itself forth from situation to situation -- from one election campaign to the next, from this new much-discussed cause or crisis to that one, from one candidate being proffered or scrutinized to the next one, and the next one, and the next one.  The partisan is clearly committed to something -- and it's not just to a party, to a candidate, to a cause, to a platform, to a movement.

There's a personal involvement, one exceeding and transgressing genuine rationality's scope and rule, though also subverting the partisan's reason into its service.  And, it's not just a matter of passionate commitment, or the play of strong emotions -- that's understandable, excusable, even in certain cases  a good thing -- instead, partisanship has to do with a deep inconsistency or irrationality in how a person behaves, with their motives, the selectivity of attention, affection, interpretation -- which then assumes the form of consistently favoring one side in a contest over the other.

Political partisanship is not its only form, of course, but I think in our own times political partisanship represents one of the most insidious and invidious types -- a type of partisanship that is least subject to serious reflection, critique, and conscious character-determination by the part of those who remain within its grips.  It's also one that, in the age of social media becomes at the same time intensely personal and yet depersonalizing.

When we look critically and in any relatively systematic way at partisanship through philosophical lenses, it most typically tends to take place within a few domains -- sometimes in Critical Thinking, the younger and somewhat less developed sibling of Logic and Epistemology, sometimes in Political Philosophy.  If we focus on certain historical figures and texts, particularly those of Early Modern Philosophy -- Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke come particularly to mind -- there are insightful analyses and criticisms of analogues to partisanship, at times coming closer to the view worked out here -- that partisanship is not merely (or even principally) an intellectual but a kind of moral failure.  In my view, Ethics or Moral Philosophy (between which, by the way, I don't draw any meaningful distinction) provides a vantage point which might better illuminate the actual, existential situation of putatively political discourse -- really, partisanship -- in which we find ourselves.

In order to understand partisanship in terms of moral viciousness, I'd suggest that we have to change our primary focuses to some extent, from one set of objects of scrutiny to another.  To be sure, one central dimension of partisanship extends through the structure of beliefs -- notions held, adopted, dwelt upon, repeated, communicated by the partisan and by other people, and likewise notions rejected, rebuffed, but also repeated, claims criticized, parodied.  Partisanship involves an consistently inconsistent credulity -- too much faith granted to one's own side, too little to that of perceived opponents.  But, what we're more interested in is not simply the structure of beliefs, arguments, justifications, and so on, but interlocking structures of five other distinctively human dimensions:
  • that of actions, behavior, passions, or emotions
  • that of desires and motivations
  • that of habits, attitudes, dispositions, and one's own history
  • that of relations to and with other people
  • that of reflection upon oneself and these other dimensions (belief, action, desire, habit, and others), locating and evaluating the self in relation to them.
What makes partisanship such a problematic condition is not simply that the partisan typically has acquired and holds a number of false beliefs about political, social, economic, moral and other such matters -- though that is certainly something bad as such.  Nor is it simply their all too easy credulity towards their own side and intransigent incredulity opposed to the other side -- though again, that's something bad as well.  It's something deeper and more complex -- for that reason harder to bring into clear focus as a whole, particularly for the person who is caught up in it.  And, that is precisely one of the features that places it within the category of moral vice -- the partisan, like other vicious people, remains unconscious of -- and will be resistant to -- the very fact that they are in fact vicious in that respect.

Vice, Moral Blindness, and Partisanship.

There's much more to be written delving into this perennially galling problem of vicious partisanship -- and I'll be doing just that during the next several weeks in several additional posts.  I'm going to wrap this first installment up by describing one general structure essential to the politically-focused partisanship that I've been observing more and more pervading shared social space in recent years. In book seven of the Nicomachean Ethics, contrasting it against mere lack of self-control, Aristotle points out one key feature of vice.

The person who lacks self-control -- and who thereby ends up doing things that are bad, wrong, shameful, harmful -- knows what the right action or emotional response, the alternative to what they end up falling into, would be.  They still know that what they do find themselves doing, and on some level choosing, cooperating with, permitting themselves to be tempted into, is actually wrong.  Practical reason is functioning more or less properly within them -- they're just not following it, overcome by desire of one sort or another.  They know the good, but do the bad -- which means they recognize the good they do not do, precisely as good, and they realize the bad they do, precisely as bad -- and they are also aware (often painfully) that they have done the bad and not the good they ought to have done.

In the vicious person -- at least with respect to the matters in which they are vicious (e.g. danger and fear for the coward, money and expenses for the stingy person) -- there is some corruption, some bad ordering, some consistent failure within their reason, within their stock of moral principles and practices, extending itself practically throughout their being, into their habits, attitudes, desires, ultimately their entire affective life.  The vicious person gets things seriously wrong not only in their actions, not only in their desires and emotional responses, not only in how they order various goods in relation to each other (in terms of their priority and value) -- they get things wrong intellectually as well, in how they understand, how they evaluate, how they reason out, how they represent to themselves and others, important matters of moral life. 

The vicious person -- and this is one reason why it always becomes difficult for them to change their condition -- crosses some threshold, beyond which they become blind to their own viciousness.  They become unable to perceive the wrongness, the badness, the baseness, the harmfulness -- and in a certain sense, the falsity -- of their own behavior.  They become unable to detect the flaws in their own practical reasoning, their own moral evaluations, their own judgements, inferences, and decisions.  They become chronically incapable of adequate self-examination, blinded to the patterns of action, desire, and reasoning that they not only bear but superimpose successively onto situation after situation. 

At the same time, the determinate defect of moral character vice consists in does not make a person less likely to engage in any moral reasoning -- it just renders them more and more unlikely to do well, to get things right, with it.  The coward does not refrain from judging, and actually considers the courageous person to be the one who has gotten things wrong.  The vicious person sees their own condition as the good one and other conditions as the bad one, so the coward likely calls their own behavior acceding to in lieu of standing up against wrong simply "prudent," or in our time "non-confrontational," "loving," or the like.  Other person's cowardice, though, they may very well recognize as such, particularly when they would have liked the other person to be courageous (to stand up for the coward, for example), and they may excoriate the other person for exactly the same failure they exhibit but do not see in themselves.

There is something precisely like this blindness, this corruption of practical reason, at work in those in whom partisanship has established itself as a vice.  They never view or acknowledge themselves as partisan -- or at least, if they do admit such a failing, they do so in a merely episodic manner, ineffective in promoting any sustained self-reflection that might bear fruit in regret and resolve to change that condition.

It is other people -- perhaps a few who go too far on one's own side, but primarily all of those on the other side (or sides) -- who are clearly partisan, who cling unreasonably to political positions, to principles, to interpretations of others, they have no real right to hold.  It is the others who are gullible, all too easily accepting as facts assertions that fit into the matrix of their desires, their interests, their prejudices, their wishful thinking.  It is the others who display hostility, who cynically resort to rhetoric and dirty tricks, who adopt unfounded skepticism towards their opponents' own assertions.

The others will do anything to win -- obstruct when in the minority, ram measures through when they hold the majority, crassly buy votes with unfulfillable promises, unfairly transfer risk, income, wealth, opportunities from one group to other, take quotations out of context -- the list could go on and on.  What's most revealing about this is that these sorts of allegations or accusations are -- at least in our political system -- partially true.  They're not entirely unfounded.  There is something to them, not least since in the ages of mass politics, parties and movements, not to mention the broader penumbrae of their supporters, constituents, and fellow-travelers, encompass such a wide spectrum of people of differing moral conditions and states of development or depravity, that at any given moment, you're bound to find someone saying or doing something morally (and intellectually) repugnant, someone acting opportunistically, someone cynically making deals contrary to the common good.

But, such people can be found on both main sides of the political (and associated cultural) divide, and at least by my observation in roughly similar proportions.  So, it ought to strike one as peculiar when one notices those with whom one identifies or aligns oneself maintaining that such faults lie almost entirely with those of the other side.  It ought to set ringing some ethical alarm bells, raise and wave a few moral red flags.  And yet, that rarely seems to be the case.  Instead, these imaginary imbalances of ill-will and immorality, tilted towards the other and away from oneself, are uncritically accepted -- and reproduced in conversation, in reporting,  in social media interaction -- as an evident reality.  That ought to be -- but, understandably (if this is a matter of vice), isn't -- realized to be a sign that something is amiss.

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