John Kerry's Nuance and Philosophical Acumen

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At his new philosophy blog, Doing Things With Words, Dan Quattrone argues that John Kerry is the better choice in this election because he examines the issues in a way more along the lines of what someone trained in philosophical reasoning is able to do. He gives a couple examples of Kerry's sophisticated thought that he says gets belittled by conservatives as nuance, which he of course points out is good and not bad. He then argues that Bush and the theocratic side of the Republican Party don't understand the subtlety of thought gay marriage proponents use and therefore have a simplistic view on the matter. I think he gives a better argument for the right to gay marriage than I've seen anywhere before, including what Andrew Sullivan has written, but it's a completely new argument to me, and I wouldn't have thought of it on my own. So what can a conservative philosopher who supports Bush say to all this? I'm all for a better appropriation of philosophical technique and of the debates in philosophical literature for public policy. I guess I think there are some important distinctions in favor of the other side also, and I don't want to overestimate Kerry's abilities in the philosophical arena. I'm not sure philosophical abilities are the best reason to choose a candidate anyway.

I won't deny that Kerry either tries to do what philosophers do or wants to make himself look as if he does, but I don't think he does it well at all. Dan is right that Kerry favored some sort of war and then when it happened decided he didn't like how Bush did it, and that can be consistent, but when you look carefully at his specific statements he's sometimes been opposed to pre-emptive self-defense and sometimes allowed it to be a legitimate option. He's sometimes acted as if large stockpiles of WMD would be crucial to whether the war was just and sometimes been opposed to war for humanitarian aid alone, but at other times he's defended situations where humanitarian aid is the only reason for getting involved or stated that he would have made similar decisions to Bush's with the same intelligence. I don't call that nuance. I call it wanting to have it both ways.

Kerry has stated that he thinks abortion is wrong because human life begins at conception (as if personhood is irrelevant) but then said that a fetus isn't a person and thus abortion isn't necessarily wrong (as if human life is irrelevant). There are probably ways to make this consistent, but a careful look at his language sounds more to me as if he's unsuccessfully trying to sound philosophical but not quite pulling it off. It comes off the way his speeches in black churches do. He latches on to something without understanding it, in that case some scriptural verse taken out of context and without a biblical theological framework to place it in, and someone who really knows the subject sees it as silly. He probably knows the abortion literature better than he knows the Bible (though that's not saying much), and he certainly knows it better than the average person does, but someone who knows it as well as I do looks at his statements and has trouble figuring out what this nuanced position is supposed to be.

So Dan may be right that the ordinary person who doesn't understand philosophy is dismissing him because they themselves don't understand the nuance, but I think the philosopher should be able to see that he's trying to do something he's not very good at and that it's not really as nuanced as it sounds. That's what Dick Cheney (who really is philosophically inclined) means when he makes fun of Kerry's nuance. He's not saying nuance is bad, as you insinuated. He's simply stating that Kerry is pretending to be nuanced but is really trying to have it both ways. I think he's right about Kerry on that in a number of instances. I've just given two. That's not to say that the average conservative blogger who makes fun of Kerry understands Kerry's position at all. In my experience, the average conservative blogger thinks Kerry is a flip-flopper because he believes both that human life begins at conception but that abortion should be legal, which anyone who knows the philosophical literature on abortion will realize is perfectly consistent. What I'm saying is that, even though Kerry is more sophisticated than his opponents allow, it's not always nuance in the end but sometimes just not really settling on a position.

On gay marriage, I think Dan makes an excellent argument that I hadn't considered before. He says that the Constitution makes it clear that there are rights that it doesn't explicitly discuss. I wasn't aware of that before. I'm no legal scholar, but I've read lots of stuff on political thought and especially ethics in the public sphere, and I've just never encountered that before. Let's take that as a given, though. Considering that you can't prove a right, Dan thinks we should assume a right unless we have a good reason to think there isn't one. I'm not sure I want to dispute that, though I think it's equally hard to disprove a right. We might be able to argue that a purported right conflicts with another right (for example a purported right to freedom to have sex with anyone you want conflicts with someone's right not to be raped). That doesn't disprove the purported right, though. It just says that another right conflicts with it, one we're pretty confident of. That confidence gives us what we need, though, since it proves that any such right can't be an absolute right, and thus laws can reflect that. That may be all he needs, since there's no similar support for any right.

The argument then proceeds to say that if there's a presumption of a right then it's a mistake to oppose gay marriage on the grounds that no right to gay marriage is in the Constitution. If there's a presumption in the Constitution of more rights that aren't explicit, and the burden of proof is on those who don't believe in such a right, then we should act as if the Constitution gives such a right. I don't think I really disagree with this argument if it had been intended to give a basis for a law in favor of gay marriage, which a democratically elected legislative body would vote on. I'm not sure a presumption of rights is anything other than a moral presumption for philosophical discourse that we can then use to create new laws. I don't think it justifies claiming that the Constitution itself gives such a right. Given this, I think the argument misses the main argument for Bush's position, which Cheney, though he disagrees, argues is a strong consideration, and that's that judges are making law. That's what Bush wants to stop. I agree with Senator Byrd that it's no reason for having the Constitution do what it's not supposed to do (i.e. the FMA), but I don't see another way to stop the runaway judges from not allowing laws to change in a democratic way, and that's the dilemma Bush faces. That's a proper distinction that philosophers need to make, and I'm not sure Kerry has clearly enough stated why he doesn't agree with Bush there. There's something to be said, and I haven't seen it from him.

Most importantly, though, what Bush's position reveals is that he has thought this through philosophically and come to the same conclusion Dan has about one thing. He originally didn't want to do this, and he took lots of criticism from the religious right over it. You don't undermine your base unless you really mean it, and he receive much ire from his base over this. Bush distinguishes between sin and crime and didn't want to see homosexual unions labeled a crime. He's no theocrat or theonomist, despite what his detractors claim. His reasoning here, both in his original statements and in why he changed his stance, shows that. It's not an enforcement of religious views. It's an attempt to stop judges from determining laws on the issue. I think it's a misguided one, and therefore I prefer a view more like Kerry's or Cheney's, but it's a lot more philosophically sophisticated than anyone who thinks it's theocratic has grasped. Those who really are theocratic despise Bush. I know because I've engaged in many fruitless conversations defending him against their charge that he's a secularist and not even a Christian. He doesn't seek to outlaw all abortion immediately even though he thinks abortion is generally wrong. That's not theocracy, and they think he's given in to the secular mindset because of his philosophical nuance.

Regardless of what you think of Kerry and Bush's philosophical acumen, one thing really bugs me about this whole argument. As I said above, it's important to be able to have some philosophical ability to make proper judgments on complicated issues. Are philosophical abilities the best way to choose a candidate, though? I've argued that Bush's abilities on this sort of thing are much better than his opponents allow and that Kerry's aren't as good as his supporters allow, but I'm not sure I'm willing to compare them with respect to each other. I just don't have enough information. If it turns out Kerry is better, as Dan wants to say, is that sufficient reason for voting for Kerry? I don't think so, for a few reasons.

For one thing, Bush surrounds himself with people who are excellent at this sort of thing. One thing that impressed me most when he first received the nomination in 2000 was his choice for a running mate. I was then very impressed at his cabinet choices. No matter what you think of the views of the people he surrounds himself with (I happen to agree with them on many issues myself, but I know many people very much disagree with them on important issues), it's hard to argue against the claim that a number of them are very smart people with good training at philosophical reasoning and making important distinctions. Dick Cheney and Condi Rice are the first two that come to mind out of the inner circle, but Ted Olson and Paul Wolfowitz at a level just lower than the cabinet also seem clearly in that category. If you're surrounded by really careful thinkers who share your basic values and thus will be respected and listened to, then it doesn't matter if your philosophical ability is less than theirs. Bush does at times depart from their advice, as the gay marriage issue shows he's departed from Cheney, but in this case he does have a philosophical reason for doing so. It's not mere theocracy (or even theocracy at all).

Another reason I don't think philosophical ability should be the only or even primary reason for voting for someone is that some highly trained philosophers take what seem to me to be morally abhorrent views. Some philosophers are very smart and make careful distinctions but think we shouldn't have laws against most abhorrent behavior. By abhorrent behavior, I don't mean thinks that disgust us. I mean things that really take advantage of people and in fact oppress them. They're so libertarian that it approaches anarchism. I find that morally abhorrent, and I'd rather have a philosophically immature president who shares my moral views but doesn't have as sophisticated arguments for them than someone like that. On the other end, some people have fairly sophisticated arguments and nuanced views but go so socialist that they have the government basically doing extremely inefficiently what the free market does much more efficiently and, with proper safeguards, doesn't allow much of the oppression that the socialization was supposed to prevent. I think that's such a bad idea that I don't want to support it unless the choice is between that and something worse. So I'd rather take someone philosophically immature who agrees with me on what sort of government we should have over someone quite sophisticated but takes what I see as the wrong view.

I'm not saying I think Bush is philosophically immature, but even if he is that wouldn't necessarily count as a reason to prefer Kerry if he's more sophisticated philosophically. The reasons I don't prefer Kerry are more complicated than I can list simply, but I do think there are clear reasons. For one thing, someone who takes Kerry's view on abortion will tolerate the status quo, and I think the status quo is bad. Some people claim to want abortion to be safe, legal, and rare, but I've never seen anyone who says that endorse any limit on abortion. Kerry opposed the one President Bush signed into law, and there's no way the objections to it have any basis, since no one can seriously make the claim that inducing labor and then killing the child in the process is safer for the mother than simply giving birth and putting the child in intensive care. There are no medical reasons for the procedure being called partial-birth abortion. That was an easy place for Kerry to prove that he wants to limit something that he has admitted is a tragedy, and it makes me simply not believe that he wants to do anything about it. Also, he has made it clear that he won't accept any justice on the Supreme Court who wants to limit abortion in any way, and that's further proof of his real view. I much prefer Bush on that issue.

On the war on terrorism, Kerry may have a sophisticated view, but I'm not sure he's articulated it well. I certainly don't understand it. He says things that do really seem to me to indicate that he isn't sure what he thinks. It's fine not to be sure what you think, but people who are sure what they think prefer someone who is, and that's why some people like Bush and some hate him, leaving most people lukewarm at best about Kerry. I know what I think, and I think Bush is generally right. I think, given the information the entire international community had, he probably made the right decision to invade Iraq. I still don't have access to everything he knew, and I'm not sure what I would have done, but the arguments he gave have not to my mind been refuted. I don't think the law enforcement model Kerry has put forth will be as effective in stopping terrorism, and his hesitation at any sort of preemptive effort to stop terrorism scares me.

On the economy, I think Bush has done much good to stave off what could have been much worse. He inherited a bad economy, it got worse with 9-11, and it's been able to recover a great deal in many ways. There's been some debate on the jobs issue, but the jobs numbers really aren't all that bad unless you compare it to a time when there wasn't just a huge recession and a war going on. The tax cuts have seemed to have been effective at a number of things they were supposed to achieve and absolutely have helped the little person more than they've helped anyone else. I know, because I'm one. Most of the rhetoric I've seen from Bush's opponents on any of these issues has been at best misleading. There are places for dispute, but I don't see his general approach on this issue as all that bad, and I don't see Kerry offering anything better, especially given that the tax increases he proposes wouldn't even come close to the insane amount of spending he wants to implement.

I'm all for helping people who need help, and I'm not really in agreement with most conservatives who think it's wrong for the government to be involved with that, but this health care proposal of Kerry's just seems crazy to me. Why does the government need to provide health care for every single person? New York has a great plan that allows my family to get coverage for free. I'm not sure it's what I'd endorse, and there are problems with it. It doesn't cover people who can't get insurance from their employer but make more money than I do. I have friends who couldn't benefit from it while they were teaching as adjunct faculty and trying to finish their Ph.D.s, and adjunct faculty get diddly for pay. I benefit from it because of a bigger family and because of a lower income because my wife doesn't work. I'm not sure exactly how I'd change it, but I might make it based more on the inability to get insurance from an employer in addition to income constraints being raised a bit for those not working in a traditional employment situation, though there would need to be a way to prevent people from working part-time just to get government health insurance (e.g. they need to demonstrate full-time student status). This would be much, much better than having the government provide health insurance to all John Kerry's rich friends (I don't really mean this part, but it's worth pointing out that if this conspiracy theory is a good argument against Bush on tax cuts, which it isn't, then it's a good argument against Kerry on health care). Bush realizes that something needs to be done about health care, and he's not willing to go as far as Kerry. I'm not sure of the details of what he wants to do, but it seems much closer to what I just explained than Kerry's plan does.

There's much more I could say, but I'm not trying to engage in discussion on these issues. I'm just trying to explain why someone who shares my position on these issues and has thought carefully about them from a philosophical perspective might still support Bush even if they thought he was less inclined to philosophical distinctions and nuance than Kerry. Basic moral convictions should be the basis of whether you support one candidate or the other, not whether you think the person has better skills at how to arrive at those views. What a president will do derives from the views, not the skills. The skills just give a better way to examine those views and perhaps modify them slightly or give better reasons for them. They don't necessitate arriving at the right views, as demonstrated by the vast amount of disagreement among philosophers on basic moral issues.

Update: Doing Things With Words has responded, and I've returned the favor.

Update 2: Donald at Back of the Envelope chimes in.

Update 3: Vacuum Energy enters the fray. This earlier post is also relevant.

: Another followup from prosthesis on stem cell research.

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4 Comments

I saw a bumper sticker yesterday evening as I drove home from work, one that reminds me of Kerry's supposed "nuanced" arguments:

"Just because nobody understands you doesn't mean you are an artist."

Thanks for the link. There's too much here to talk about in a comment, but I'll have a post in the next day or two in response.

No, Mario Quomo is an example of a politician who (wrong as he may be) shows an acumen for philosophical reasoning; John Kerry is simply a self-contradictory mess. Amazingly, all of his vaunted nuances just happen to allow him to cover competing interests that he needs to court in order to win.

Obfuscation through the use of verbose philosophical langauge and contradiction dressed as subtlety don't strike me as all that deep.

And even if it were true that Kerry is actually a master of philosophical reasoning and nuanced thought, it's not self-evident that those qualities make for the best presidential choice. Some nuanced, philosophical thinkers have trouble coming to conclusions and making decisions. Those are not neccesarily qualities one would want in a president.

The burden is still on Kerry to make us believe that his brand of nuanced, philosphical thinking would make him a good president. He hasn't done too well on that score so far.

i think kerry isnt a good candidate. Bush is the total leader

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