Friday, December 15, 2006

Tim Johnson and our Deontological Politics

Even as the press and bloggers speculate about the ramifications of Senator Johnson's health crisis, politicians of both parties have studiously avoided any such discussion, out of the understandable impulse to avoid seeming utterly callous to Johnson as a person and to his family. This strikes me as the utterly correct political (and human) judgment, but it's worth inquiring why.

It certainly would matter enormously if, through death or incapacitation, a Democratic Senator were replaced by a Republican, even where, as in Johnson's case, the Senator is among the most conservative members of the party. Control of the Senate carries with it enormous consequences, including, among other things, the ability to control the legislative agenda on Iraq and to schedule judicial confirmation hearings in the Judiciary Committee. Certainly partisans of both parties believe that who controls the Senate has life-and-death consequences for a great many people.

The politicians' reluctance to talk in such terms, however, reflects a kind of repulsion towards crass utilitarianism of the sort one encounters in reactions to the trolley problem and other puzzles. It is why Pat Robertson seemed like such a ghoul when he prayed for the "retirement" (read "death") of liberal Supreme Court Justices. Whether it's good or bad (and how to judge that) for our public life to be deontological in this way I won't say (nor do I know). But the fact of it seems hard to deny.

8 comments:

Caleb said...

Your circumspection is commendable, but after mulling about this for a while, I feel like I could venture a guess as to why politics is (occasionally) deontological.

I think that the legal process is incredibly deontological. We treats things (procedure, doctrine, stare decisis) as ends in themselves when we KNOW (or should know) that we are really using them teleologically - or at least, as a means to our true end. The discussion about standing further down the board is a prime example of this; we talk about standing, but what we really mean is, should the Supreme Court be able to duck this question? (Or, should they be able to get out of ruling in our favour?).

Politics, on the other hand, is a more telelogical arena; where these various doctrines and processes are used as means to an end. I think that this process must occur openly; that is, nothing should be an "end" in the political realm, except perhaps the citizen and the polis. Pat Robertson, should be able to say openly that he is hoping to use his political power to bring about some sort of Conservative Theocracy, and others should be able to say - just as openly - that they are planning to use their power to oppose them.

Where we get into trouble, is when these two fields mix; as in a question of power in the Senate after the (potential) death of a Democratic Senator. In this case, the question seems much more like a legal one (what is the process for determining who has power when that death makes a majority into a tie), than it does a political one. In that case, being deontological makes sense. (And, I might add, is kind to the Senator and his family).

In another case (say the impeachment of a president for lying about adultery), the line might suggest that we should talk about it more teleologically (or at least openly).

I'm not saying I have a better way to draw the line than "it feels more like one than the other", but I think we can at least hope for judges and politicians who have a good sense of how to do that.

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