How to Advance Civil Liberties Without Blowing Up Earth

A newly expanded take on dealbreakers and their role in democracy

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My colleague Robert Wright poses a difficult question. It's easy to say that some transgressions, like killing innocents, are so objectionable that they render any politician who commits them unfit for support. It sounds good to avow that "some actions are so ruinous to human rights, so destructive of the Constitution, and so contrary to basic morals that they are disqualifying."

But what if an election were held between that very sort of man and a significantly worse opponent -- someone who we knew, "through the magical powers that are permitted in thought experiments," would take office and shortly thereafter "start a war that killed a million people. Or 10 million." In fact, what if the opposition "would go nuts and nuke half the world or the whole world"? Says Wright, "If you'd rather see half the human species extinguished than vote for someone with a low regard for civil liberties and a high regard for drone strikes, just say so. But if you wouldn't, then it seems to me you're admitting that, actually, you've got a bit of consequentialist in you -- that your 'dealbreakers' aren't really absolute, unconditional deal breakers."

I admit it.

If the choice before me were to vote for Barack Obama, or to condemn half of humanity to death by nuclear explosion, I would cast my ballot to reelect the president and save planet Earth.


Reflecting on the centuries-old debate between utilitarianism and alternative ethical systems, I've never been able to embrace the absolutist version of either position. I think torture is morally wrong in all circumstances. If I knew with certainty that torturing a Minnesotan chosen at random was the only way to prevent every child on Earth from being instantly incinerated I'd pull teeth, but I'd refuse to torture the Minnesotan against her will even if doing so would result in 25 people being cured from terminal cancer. I am not sure what that makes me other than inconsistent. And yes, it is fair to say that there is a bit of consequentialist in me, among many other things.   

I can hardly complain about tricky hypotheticals.

I posed a thorny one here. Basically, I ask progressives, if Obama were caught using anti-Hispanic slurs and talking about his hatred of Mexicans, would that be a dealbreaker for you? For those who say yes, I proceed to ask why it isn't a dealbreaker that he orders the extrajudicial killing of Muslim Americans, kills hundreds of innocents in drone strikes, and much more? Some defend Obama's policies on the merits; others concede that yes, those policies are worse. The conversation isn't an attempt to change their behavior on election day. My purpose is to force uncomfortable reflections on how these issues are treated. I don't think they get their due.

My hypothetical and Wright's hypothetical are different in a subtle but important way. I ask people to reflect on how they'd react to a made up fact that has, we're presuming, already happened (recordings of Obama using racial slurs). Whereas Wright asks me to imagine that I somehow know, by magic, that Obama's opponent would destroy the Earth, and asks how I'd behave now, knowing that future. The case for utilitarianism is at its strongest when all future outcomes are known "through the magical powers that are permitted in thought experiments." Yet thought experiments presuming perfect knowledge of the future have severely limited applications to reality.

In reality, consequentialism makes less sense, because it cannot be practiced with the same precision and rigor. At worst, it overrides our moral compass as we erroneously persuade ourselves that the thing we want to do is a utilitarian winner, wisdom-containing norms and sense of virtue be damned. This is particularly easy to do when imagining all the terrible things you just know are going to happen if the guy from the party you don't support gets elected. The partisan mind takes over.

In a world where all counterfactuals were fully known I probably wouldn't have dealbreakers. As I said in my initial piece, I am not a purist, and while I think there is value in voting one's conscience, my attraction to dealbreakers is largely in the norms that surround them. If a candidate were to improbably announce that if elected governor, he'd urge an inexpensive research study to investigate whether sex between men and young boys should be decriminalized, the vast majority of Americans would immediately withdraw their support, deeming it a dealbreaker, regardless of how wonderful the man's other positions seemed to be. In doing so, they'd reaffirm that in the U.S., attempts to normalize child rape are beyond the pale. There is real value in that (though not enough to suffer nuclear Armageddon if that's the alternative).

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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