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.