You Say Yes, I Say No: The Place of Absolutism in Public Life

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You don’t have to be a politics junkie to know that gridlock and discord dominate Washington, D.C. today. It’s easy to criticize this gridlock, because we’ve elected our representatives to keep our government stable and functional, and instead they seem to prefer egoistic grandstanding. Wouldn’t things be better if the political party that you disagree with decided to stop being so absolutist and compromised on some of their political goals? But imagine for a moment how you would react if somebody asked you the same question in reverse: wouldn’t things be so much better if you decided to drop your absolutism and compromise? If you’re like most people, you’ll probably say that you should be absolutist about accomplishing your political goals because your political goals are important. If you were a Democrat, for example, you would probably argue that the political goal of increased access to healthcare is so important that it made sense for the Democratic Party to be absolutist about not abandoning the Affordable Care Act, even when the Republican Party threatened to send the country into default unless it were repealed last fall. In contrast, if you were a Republican, you might believe that the ACA is such a disaster that it made sense to be absolutist about repealing it, even if it meant shutting the government down and threatening default. This is the fundamental cause of political gridlock and polarization: we believe that it is okay for us to be absolute about our beliefs, while thinking at the same time that people who we disagree with should stop being absolute about theirs. In this article, I intend to analyze when absolutism is acceptable in public life, and when it is not.

It would be useful, at this point, to partition absolutism into two different categories: moral absolutism and policy absolutism. While the word “absolutism” may have a negative connotation, moral absolutism, or the uncompromising commitment to one’s basic beliefs about what kind of human action is right and what is not, is a good thing, at least when these morals are well-formed and grounded in correct reasoning. For example, practically everybody holds as a moral absolute that murder is wrong, and that is a good thing. Even if a study came out with conclusive proof that murdering a random innocent person would increase everybody else’s incomes, no reasonable individual would support doing so, because our moral absolutism forbids it.
In the realm of politics, one example of moral absolutism can be seen within conservatism: conservatives believe, for good reason, that we should not leave future generations worse off than we are (though of course liberals and moderates hold this belief too). This is why conservatives are concerned about rampant increases in the national debt, because eventually, a high national debt will cripple the economy, leaving future generations to pay the price. And this kind of moral absolutism is commendable.

In contrast, policy absolutism can be defined as the refusal to compromise over particular policy. We can see this kind of absolutism again in conservatism: conservatives are policy absolutist about the need for spending cuts. For the average conservative, cuts are so important that it’s worth threatening to send the country into default if the President won’t support the amount of spending cuts that they want. Even if the United States is in the middle of an economic downturn, the typical conservative will still be policy-absolutist about cutting spending, as we saw during the recent recession. It may seem that policy absolutism and moral absolutism don’t conflict with each other, because our moral goals will always dictate unflinching support of our policy.

However, the world is not that simple. Recall the conservative belief that we should not leave future generations worse off than we are. This might seem to dictate always supporting spending cuts; indeed, many conservatives seem to believe it does. But this intuition may be wrong. A good deal of economists, such as former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, would argue that cutting spending in the middle of a recession will reduce consumer demand, hurting the economy and lowering GDP. This in turn will increase the debt-to-GDP ratio, hurting future generations. Now there may be reasons why these economists are wrong, but let’s imagine for a second that they are correct. If so, then being policy absolutist about cutting spending actually damages conservatives’ progress toward their moral goal of securing our national finances for future generations. If Bernanke is correct, then conservatives should be opposed to cutting spending in the middle of a recession. It should of course be noted that the question of whether or not spending cuts increase the debt-to-GDP ratio is not an ideological question. It is an empirical question, and if we had all the data and information in the world, then reasonable people would not be able to disagree on whether or not cutting spending in a recession lowers GDP and increases the debt-to-GDP ratio.

This example helps illustrate my main argument: if your moral beliefs are correct, then you should be morally absolutist. However, policy absolutism is problematic, because it can actually undermine our progress towards whatever moral goods that we believe we should pursue. Whenever we come to the realization that the policies we support will undermine our moral goals, we should have no aversion to changing our opinions about the policies that we support. The obvious implication of this argument for the public sphere is that we should not only be open to changing our own opinions, but that we should also be open to other people changing their opinions. While it may seem obvious that we should be willing to change our opinions in response to new data or studies, the political world prizes consistency over evidence, and people who change their opinions are perceived as “unprincipled.” For example, in the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney was criticized for having frequently changed his political positions on issues such as healthcare. I don’t want to speculate as to the reasons for which Romney changed his opinions as he did, but if he changed them because the facts led him to realize that the policies he initially supported were not the best ways to accomplish his moral goals, then he should have both changed his positions and been applauded for doing so.

The fact that political absolutism should give way to empirical analysis has serious implications. When people develop their opinions on a political issue, they tend to use sources that will confirm what they already believed: those on the left get their information on economics from Paul Krugman, while those on the right get theirs from John Taylor. But ultimately, both Krugman and Taylor are empirical economists, and we should have no aversion to consulting the research of either when done honestly and well. Rather, we should seek to be value-neutral in the process of researching on any given political issue, with no pre-ordained opinions on what the facts are. Certainly, we can choose to weigh certain facts and findings differently in accordance with our values: an environmentalist evaluating fracking can intentionally discount the jobs created by the practice and place a higher value instead on environmental protection. However, it is unreasonable is to deny what the facts are in order to confirm what we already believe: if fracking creates jobs, it would be unreasonably absolutist for an environmentalist to deny that this is the case. What would be yet more unreasonable would be for the environmentalist to oppose fracking if it were the case that fracking actually protected the environment in the long run, relatively speaking, because natural gas burns off half as much carbon dioxide as coal (though of course, whether or not fracking reduces pollution in the long run is an empirical question). To cling to a pre-ordained opinion on what the facts are behind any political issue is to be policy-absolutist, and, as this threatens moral goals, it ought to be avoided.

This analysis of course begs the question of how to determine whether your moral beliefs are correct—moral absolutism is only as good as your moral beliefs are. This means that in developing our political opinions, we should spend significant time deliberating what our values are. It should also be noted that it’s perfectly reasonable to be morally absolutist when evidence shows that your morals may not lead to the best outcome. To go back to the murder example, even if murdering one innocent person would lead to an increase in everybody’s income, it would still be reasonable for us to remain steadfastly opposed to murder. What is unreasonable is to be policy-absolutist when evidence shows that your favorite policies may not further your moral goals.
So in the final analysis, we should be morally absolute, provided our moral beliefs are well founded, but we should avoid policy-absolutism where it threatens to undermine our moral absolutes. I encourage you, my reader, to consider whether the policies you support threaten your more fundamental goals, and to examine whether your opponents’ political absolutism undermines his. Raise this point in your next discussion with him, and perhaps you can make some progress in spite of the polarized gridlock that characterizes our political climate today.

Han Tran is a junior from Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School. He can be reached at hdtran@princeton.edu.

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