America is currently cursed, not only with tribal politics but with tribal morality. Some liberals tend to minimize or excuse offenses against a few women in the broader cause of women’s rights. What is a politician’s wandering hand in comparison to maintaining legal abortion? Some conservatives tend to minimize or excuse offenses against women in the cause of conservative governance. What are a few old accusations compared to cementing a conservative Supreme Court or passing tax reform?
Both sides give personal failings less weight than a compelling public good. It is not always an unserious argument, but in this case, it is a cruel and dangerous one.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has admitted she has “no reason to disbelieve” any of Senate candidate Roy Moore’s accusers. Yet Ivey has announced she will vote for Moore anyway. “We need to have a Republican in the United States Senate,” she explained, “to vote on the things like Supreme Court justices.”
This is worth a pause. One of Moore’s accusers says that in the late 1970s Moore, then a county prosecutor, offered to drive her home. Instead, she alleges, he parked behind the restaurant where she worked, touched her breasts, tried to pull off her shirt, grabbed her neck and pushed her head toward his crotch, leaving nasty bruises and a lifetime of trauma. The victim was 16 at the time. If Ivey truly believes this accusation, she is voting for someone who committed sexual assault on a teenage girl, in order to help secure one Senate vote on a prospective Supreme Court nominee.
This is utilitarianism, unadorned. Ivey believes she is pursuing Jeremy Bentham’s imperative, achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It is a simple, easily stated moral rule.
But what if, as a senator, Moore becomes a rolling scandal of misogyny and intolerance? What if this deepens the image of the GOP as the party of prejudice and male dominance? And what if this costs Republicans control of the House and a few other Senate seats? How would this affect Ivey’s utilitarian calculation?
The main problem with utilitarian calculation in politics reaches deeper. By definition, it means that the rights of the few can be sacrificed to the interests of the many. What if a politician who is currently abusing teenagers demonstrably served a greater public good? At what point does the “but he’ll vote right on Supreme Court nominees” argument end? Three rapes? Four murders? Wouldn’t utilitarian calculations still apply?
In the cases before us — if you believe the credible testimony of the accusers — the rights and dignity of women have already been violated. Ignoring or downplaying those violations in the pursuit of other social goals — conservative or liberal — is an additional form of victimization, this time by the broader society. All are making the statement that some lives, when weighed in the balance, really don’t matter.
None of this is to downplay the difficult task of applying appropriate punishments for differing degrees of guilt. But various traditions of ethics rooted in religion — as well as the Enlightenment theories that informed America’s founding — place a primary emphasis on the rights and dignity of individuals, protected against the shifting interests of the majority.
Political figures guilty of coercion, exploitation, dehumanization, cruelty and the abuse of power should not be trusted with power. Even on our own side.