Retail American politics is not usually the place for high philosophy. But there is a plain philosophical dilemma that confronts the entire project of American democracy, without resolution to which there is no clear path forward for our teetering republic.
When it comes to matters of politics and morality the question is: Do the ends justify the means? That question came up for me as a clip from an interview with philosopher and commentator Sam Harris circulated on social media, in which he seemed to express approval for Twitter and Facebook’s censoring of the Hunter Biden laptop story in the run-up to the 2020 election (a story that later proved to be credible).
Harris seemed not necessarily to think that this was good general practice, but that it was justified on the basis of Donald Trump's existential threat to society.
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“At that point Hunter Biden literally could have had the corpses of children in his basement, I would not have cared. … First of all it’s Hunter Biden, it’s not Joe Biden," Harris said. "(But) whatever scope of Joe Biden’s corruption is … it is infinitesimal compared to the corruption we know Trump is involved in. It’s like a firefly to the sun. … That doesn’t answer the people who say it’s still completely unfair to not have looked at the laptop in a timely way and to have shut down the New York Post’s Twitter account, that’s a left-wing conspiracy to deny the presidency to Donald Trump. Absolutely it was, absolutely. But I think it was warranted.”
The politics of moral relativism
Harris is among the most principled public intellectuals in the United States. For me his integrity is not in question. Yet, his statement embraces the politics of moral relativism.
In a follow-up podcast, Harris offered context and clarification of his remarks. He pointed out that the host in the original interview cut him off as he began to offer an equivocation, stated that he misspoke in using the word “warranted” when he ought to have said “justifiable,” and that in truth his mind is still not made up on the question.
That’s fair enough for me. But what remains for the rest of society to grapple with is the larger question of means and ends.
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“What we are witnessing now among Republicans is not normal politics," Harris said, with respect to the GOP’s willingness to overlook Trump’s refusal to recognize the results of the 2020 election and his pre-election refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
Those facts qualify Trump, in Harris' view, as an existential threat. Yet, in the same interview, he expressed political views in line with many Trump supporters and much of Trump’s policy platform: “Do I think we should have a secure border? Absolutely. Do I think we should be harder on China? Yes. Do I think that much of the left is in the grip of an insane moral panic? I do. … Not only don’t I denigrate many of (Trump supporters') political concerns; I share them.”
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It is issues like these, and in particular the last one (Harris is referring to the anti-liberal, identity-based politics widely viewed as having captured the soul of progressive politics and crudely encapsulated in the term “wokeism”) that leads many Republicans to what Harris describes as “the real Trump derangement syndrome: to be defending the indefensible.”
The justification for supporting Trump
In Victor Davis Hanson's 2019 book, "The Case for Trump," he makes an eyes wide open argument for the means that are Trump’s virtues even while acknowledging his vices.
Hanson wrote: "Trump himself played an ancient role of the crude, would-be savior who scares even those who would invite him in to solve intractable problems that their own elite leadership could not. ... Trump was not that much different from the off-putting tragic hero – from Homer’s Achilles and Sophocles’s Ajax to modern cinema’s Wild Bunch and Dirty Harry."
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For not just Hanson but many other conservatives, Trump is a Julius Caesar ruthlessly defending the republic from the enemies at the gates. He is a John Wayne character, a rugged former outlaw called upon to save or avenge the innocent after genteel men had failed them.
Not all Trump supporters deify him. For many, supporting him is simply rational. The ends justify the means.
For some on the right, averting their gaze from Trump’s and his allies’ wild claims of election fraud was rational because Trump could never be as dangerous as their enemies – even as these claims led to violence in our nation’s Capitol.
And for some on the left, irresponsible demands to defund or even abolish the police were necessary to support a larger argument against systemic racism – even as violence increased in cities across America.
Pundits and ordinary citizens have been trained as effective apologists and deniers of the sins of our own sides because we often see it as necessary to win a larger war. But the fact that we think this way reveals that something vital has already been lost in our culture that needs to be regained.
To return to philosophy, what we have lost is an understanding of moral truth that is connected more to virtue than to the outcomes of our actions.
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Obviously, outcomes are critical. But to focus on the outcomes we want at the expense of how we achieve them is to hollow out the basis for trust in society and ultimately to push our goals further and further away.
It is the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. that “we must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. … In the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”
We have set aside core values
Dishonesty and hypocrisy are destructive. So, too, are demagoguery and denial. Goodwill, honesty and integrity, on the other hand, are constructive. Perhaps there was a time when we used to preach such virtues and hypocritically transgress them. (What golden age of American political morality would not have been accompanied by corruption?) But is it not worse to have come to a time where so many of us scarcely acknowledge these as the standards we believe in at all?
Whether we are animated principally by our desire to realize an anti-racist society, a government free of corruption, or a society where liberty and the rule of law are protected (and these goals ought not to be in fundamental conflict with each other), honesty and integrity in our arguments and actions are what win the respect of not only our allies but our opponents as well.
In a democracy, opponents must be able to respect each other for the rules and norms of society to themselves be respected. If my opponent values the empirical truth, does not call me a racist when I am not, and ultimately wishes me well, my opponent is still my opponent – but not my enemy. We can still live peaceably as neighbors. Yet I have to be such a person as well.
As Sam Harris said, “The integrity of our democracy depends on hundreds of norms like these not being violated on a daily basis.”
If they are, then what options are there for the future apart from violence and chaos?
We must move away from the hollow utilitarianism of modern American politics where the ends justify the means. If we do not, it will not end well.
More from John Wood Jr.:
John Wood Jr. is a columnist for USA TODAY Opinion. He is national ambassador for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress, former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist, and a noted writer and speaker on subjects including racial and political reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnRWoodJr
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How far will American go to get rid of Trump? It will cost us