Thursday, August 08, 2019

An Ethical Duty of Civility?

The National Conference of State Legislatures publishes a magazine called (appropriately) the STATE LEGISLATURE MAGAZINE. Their July/August 2019 issue contains an article titled, "Is There an Ethical Duty to be Civil to Our Rivals?" My spontaneous answer is, "Yes, of course, you betcha." And, indeed, one recent survey finds that 93% of Americans believe our nation has a "civility problem." So, if the vast majority of Americans think we need more civility, why do we have a shortage of it? The article points out that inflammatory remarks and "negative campaign strategies" often backfire, causing the public to react against the perpetrators of "uncivil attacks." When this kind of behavior becomes too prevalent, it not only lowers the general tone of political discourse but tends to damage "the public perception of government and public officials overall." The article does suggest, however, that sometimes a "middle ground" between civility and "extreme incendiary language"—flavoring one's assaults on the opposing position with a dash of snark—can be effective for winning support.

Granted that the past is a different country, nevertheless I feel a certain nostalgia for the historical eras—if they actually existed—when even men preparing to kill each other in duels exchanged challenges in unfailingly courteous language. It costs nothing to be polite instead of rude, and claiming the high ground makes one's opponent look worse in comparison. Does this constitute an "ethical duty"? I think so, because a pervasive attack-mode verbal culture may lead to concretely harmful actions. Ben Shapiro, by the way, makes a distinction between "inflammatory" speech (which, he acknowledges, is still wrong) and speech that actively incites to violence. This strikes me as a valid distinction in principle, but in practice it seems that drawing the line between the two would be difficult and delicate.

Maybe the unpleasantness all too prevalent in political discourse arises from a version of the Prisoners' Dilemma, which you've probably heard of. Here's the Wikipedia explanation of it:

Prisoners' Dilemma

In short (if I understand the setup correctly), the prisoners will achieve the best outcome for both of them if both behave generously. Since they aren't allowed to communicate, though, if each assumes the other will turn informer then betrayal appears to be the optimum strategy. Do politicians and pundits fear that if they're the first to act nice to their opponents, they'll place themselves in a position of weakness?

What would highly advanced extraterrestrial visitors think about the behavior of our public figures? Imagine a society like that of Vulcan, or what Vulcan at least claims to be. Its purely rational citizens would argue the merits of each controversy on logical grounds, and theoretically the discussion would reveal the obvious solution to the problem, which rational beings would naturally agree to carry out. A hive-mind species would presumably have no trouble reaching consensus quickly, because they would all have the same factual knowledge and complete access to each other's opinions and motives. Klingons, on the other hand, would probably wonder why we don't settle political disagreements through trial by combat. Now, although that wouldn't be rational, it would certainly make election campaigns more exciting while not necessarily discourteous.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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