Thursday, September 1, 2016

Commands, Contracts, And The Veil of Ignorance (Trump and Clinton Through The Lenses Of Ethical Theory)

As I noted in the first post in this series, this is an election where the encouragement to ‘vote your conscience’ resonates perhaps more than ever. In the service of bringing clarity to our thoughts about this years' candidates, I am posting a number of articles that look at the candidates through the lenses of various ethical theories. I began with virtue ethics; this second post will look at deontological or duty-based ethics. I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through several different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity.

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Deontological theories maintain that morality is not determined by the consequences of a chosen action or by the character of the person acting. Ethical conduct is simply doing the right thing or performing the correct action. There are two main types of deontological theories. One version finds its moral grounding in God; the other finds its foundation in society. 


In Divine Command Theory, one is ethical when one follows God’s will. Theistic or divine essentialism, the most powerful form of this theory, argues that the good is grounded in God’s essential moral properties. God is love, justice, mercy, and truth by nature; God commands us to show love and mercy, fight for justice and commit to truth because in so doing we do what is good. This offers a transcendent, foundational standard for morality. There is an ‘oughtness’ that carries moral weight; there is a divine source of adjudication between moral disagreements. 

Is this relevant to this election? I'm a divine command theory kind of guy, but we have to be careful in its application here. In a theocracy (such as was found in ancient Israel), an adherence and allegiance to the commands of the divine was crucial. In a nation such as ours, where church and state are rightly placed in separate spheres, biblical duties are commanded by God specifically for His people; they are commanded for the lives and within the fellowship of those who claim allegiance to God (i.e. the church).

That is not to say God's will is unconnected from or irrelevant to the secular sphere. We pray that God's will be done everywhere because we believe it is good for human flourishing regardless of one's belief or non-belief. Many of our laws reflect our Judeo-Christian foundation not just because "God said it" but because it's a good call by any standard. Even international human rights often reflect some portion of God's will for how people should live in the world.

However, I believe a commonly repeated phrase is true: we are electing a President, not a pastor. I would like a candidate who seeks God's will, but that's not a requirement for office. That doesn't stop me from voting for the candidates who are most committed to love, justice, mercy and truth. Those candidates are the best choice not because they are necessarily Christian but because they are the ones who are most in line with what I believe to be God's design for human conduct. 

But perhaps you are one who lacks the confidence that either candidate (or our nation in general) is genuinely interested in God's will. This takes us to deontological theories that, while not building on a transcendent foundation, still provide a template with which to think about what kinds of things we - and in this case our President - ought to do. 


Because people are more or less egotistical (said Thomas Hobbes, one of the key developers of this theory), they usually act selfishly, even violently if needed. This type of life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” It will be characterized by a “war of all against all” to survive. To escape this cycle in the “state of nature,” they will need to agree to an enforceable social contract - which will mean introducing some form of government that established laws. (Click here for a look at how this shows up in The Walking Dead.)

A social contract is a set of laws/rules/norms that govern our interactions. Everyone will agree to have his or her freedoms restricted: they won’t be free to steal, kill, etc. The government will enforce laws; social pressure will enforce norms. Morality, then, is the set of rationally acceptable rules/laws/norms which people agree to observe. For those of us in the United States, this is found in laws originating in the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. A good person lives within the boundaries of the social contract; it would follow that a good leader leads from within that contract as well.

The strength of this theory is that morality is clear and easily understood: We live morally when we do what our society has agreed benefits us and others. The weakness is its reliance on the majority to identify the good. That doesn't always work out so well, as it allows for the strong to form a discriminatory or oppressive contract at the expense of the weak. But in this theory, following the contract would always be the moral thing to do. (Hobbes thought that any form of government, no matter how oppressive or unjust, is better than the "state of nature" and ought to be obeyed.)

Enter John Rawls and his contractarianism. He argued that we can address the danger of oppression and discrimination if we can determine what a free and rational people would choose if they attempted to create a just society from behind a ‘veil of ignorance.’ 

He proposed a famous thought-experiment in which a group of people come together to devise a set of principles by which their society will work. These individuals are told that there will be some people of greater and lesser intelligence, greater and lesser degrees of health, greater and lesser pigment in their skin, ability to lead, to follow, to carve wood, to care for babies, etc. In other words, these people would represent a reasonable cross-section of the types found in human society. However, they would not know which attributes they themselves would possess. One might be black, female, intelligent and a leader; another might be white, male, air-headed and artistic. One might be rich or poor; born in the country or city; athletic or musical; raised in Columbus, Traverse City, or Little Rock. 

Rawls thought this ‘veil of ignorance’ would ensure a just distribution of rights and duties in this hypothetical society. If you were in charge of cutting up a pizza to share and knew you would get the last piece, you would do your best to cut it equally. The same principle applies here. People would likely agree to things that would benefit people no matter their situation: freedom of speech; a limited role for a government influenced by or answerable to the people; an equitable social system wherein people have equal opportunity, access to resources; a system that encourages virtue; the protection of religious liberty, etc. This veil of ignorance would encourage people to make laws that would protect them if they were one of the weaker member of society and not punish them if they were one of the stronger.

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Deontological theories have some serious deficiencies; for example, what do we do when socially contracted rights such as religious freedom clash with freedom of speech or sexual freedom? And what do we do if the contract is terrible?

However, there are some strengths that can aid our quest to determine the better candidate. There is a consistent expectation for every person in a given situation because there is always the rule of law; there is an encouragement of equal dignity and respect for all under the law; there is a requirement to follow moral rules or duties regardless of outcome; and there is an allowance that someone can act ethically even if they don’t feel like it (as opposed to virtue ethics) or if the result is unintentionally bad (as opposed to consequentialist ethics, which we will tackle later). And, if you are a Christian, the entire discussion is grounded in the nature and will of God.

Here are some deontological questions to apply to your decision for this year's presidential candidates:

  • Which candidate most values the social contract (the laws of our society)?
  • Which candidate encourages an equal dignity and respect for all under that law?
  • Which candidate do you trust more act with wisdom when rights or duties within the contract clash?
  • Which candidate is more inclined to form a discriminatory or oppressive social contract with the strong at the expense of the weak?
  • Which candidate do you believe is most inclined to view the world as if they are behind a 'veil of ignorance,' genuinely attempting to protect the weak, disadvantaged, and marginalized in our midst?
  • If you are a Christian, which candidate is most committed to promoting God's design for human flourishing? (love, justice, mercy, truth, etc.)

Up Next: Consequentialist Ethics...

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