A Philosopher's Blog

Rhetoric & Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 27, 2010
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Threats and vandalism have been following in the wake of the health care bill. Given the acrimony surrounding the matter, this is hardly surprising. While the topic of health care provides a myriad of issues to discuss, I’ll be focusing on the ethics of the rhetoric used in the debate.

While the health care reform bill is a matter of considerable controversy, the language used by politicians and pundits often went to extremes far out of proportion to the reality of the situation. Listening to the rhetoric, one would think that the health care bill was a an ultimate battle in the war between good and evil. Pundits such as Glenn Beck tried to link the bill with socialism, communism and the Nazis. There were calls to “eradicate” people and to engage in vandalism. Some even shouted “baby killer.”

While such posturing and rhetoric is part of politics, I will present two moral reasons why the pundits and politicians should reign in such rhetoric.

First, such extreme rhetoric is inconsistent with good decision making. The public depends on the politicians and pundits to provide information about such matters and the use of such extreme rhetoric serves to contaminate the information pool. It might, of course, be argued that politicians and pundits are not teachers and have no obligation to present matters fairly, accurately and objectively so as to properly educate the people. In fact, their jobs are to push a specific political agenda based on their specific interests.

Of course, the matter could be put even more bluntly: politicians and pundits  have no moral obligation to be honest. However, such an obligation seems to universal and being a politician or pundit does not seem to grant a person a special exemption.

It can be replied that the politicians and pundits are being honest, that they really believe what they are claiming when they shout things like “baby killer” , when they claim that the health care bill will lead to death panels, or when they claim that the bill will save America. In this case, I would say that they have an obligation to be better informed and more in control of their emotions.

What would best serve the public good is an honest and calm discussion of the facts without the extremes of rhetoric. Naturally, if something is truly extreme, then it is perfectly acceptable to use language that is proportional. While it can be difficult to sort out this matter, it is clear that more effort could be used in doing this.

Second, such rhetoric is harmful in that it can influence people to act badly, as the current situation shows. As noted above, there have been threats made against members of congress and acts of vandalism have been committed. Given the intensity of the rhetoric and some specific calls for things like vandalism, it seems reasonable to place some of the blame on the pundits and politicians.

It might be objected that people have free will and that politicians and pundits cannot make them do such things. While it is true that even Glenn Beck cannot control minds, it is well (and legally) established that people can be held responsible for influencing others. While some people would act on their own without such inspiration or encouragement, such rhetoric does help motivate people to act when they would not otherwise have taken action. At the very least, such rhetoric can change how people perceive a situation and can thus influence how they might act. As such, politicians and pundits are morally culpable for their influence in such matters. This holds for both the left and the right.


24 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on March 27, 2010 at 8:18 am

    Why is linking the bill with socialism unrealistic?

  2. T. J. Babson said, on March 27, 2010 at 9:04 am

    “How dare you call me a communist!” said the girl in a bright red Che Guevara T-shirt.

    • P.E.N.Name said, on March 27, 2010 at 12:10 pm

      I’m sitting here in my orange “Property of Clemson University XXXL” t-shirt. Would you be shocked that my business shirts are size Med 34? And don’t you dare you call me a Tiger; I’m a Buckeye through and through. 🙂

  3. P.E.N.Name said, on March 27, 2010 at 9:48 am



    “1. (Economics) an economic theory or system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned by the community collectively, usually through the state. It is characterized by production for use rather than profit, by equality of individual wealth, by the absence of competitive economic activity, and, usually, by government determination of investment, prices, and production levels Compare capitalism
    2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) any of various social or political theories or movements in which the common welfare is to be achieved through the establishment of a socialist economic system”

    Referring to George Will’s statement once more. “All politics takes place on a slippery slope”. The health care reform bill and the various gov’t interventions (not takeovers) required to salvage an economy in ‘2005-2008 freefall’ do not equal “socialism”. Indeed, one would have to take a long, slippery ride down a slope that is, arguably, beslimed with ideological BS, before one could in good conscience apply the word ‘socialism’ without choking on all the obvious logical fallacies needed to arrive at that destination.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on March 27, 2010 at 10:11 am

    This is the vision a lot of us find horrific. What do you call it if not socialism?

    • P.E.N.Name said, on March 27, 2010 at 10:37 am

      Are you particularly horrified by the idea of imagining “no countries”, “nothing to kill or die for”, “living life in peace”? Do find that impossible to imagine? Does even imagining a world without greed send shivers down your spine?

      My religion requires me to move beyond imagining to the absolute belief that such a place exists: It’s called Heaven.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on March 27, 2010 at 11:26 am

  6. P.E.N.Name said, on March 27, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    I love Gilmour and Waters.

    That said. . .”We don’t need no education” :)Imagine.

    Home school all the little pricks, I say. Keep government out of home schooling altogether. (“Keep yer dirty gummit hands off my Medicare!) Let each family evaluate itself. Kinda like allowing a large financial institution to choose and pay an agency to come in and evaluate its financial practices.

    My guess is that the little home schooled pricks would, for the most part, ‘not’ be the offspring of our wealthiest 25%. “Those” socially advantaged little pricks would go to what would become, by definition, even more exclusive private schools. My guess is the cream would rise even further and the dregs would sink even deeper. And the infrastructure of society that depends on educated people to function at all, the scientists, the mathematicians, the doctors, etc. etc. would crumble.

    But perhaps these are all based on oversimplified assumptions. Chicken-little slippery-slope thinking.

  7. magus71 said, on March 27, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    While both parties do their bit in pissing the people off, I’d say the Democrats get more pissing off done in a shorter time period:


  8. P.E.N.Name said, on March 27, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    What I get from the article:/ “White men” blah, blah, blah. 2/ Bush was so poor he was able to lose an additional 2-3% of die-hard “whites only” male voters to the Democratic Party. Thanks, George. 3/ We all knew that the Democratic conversions were superficial. You don’t ‘convert’ “those types of whites”–you know who I mean– easily or for long.4/ Among whites, 71 percent of men . . .favor a smaller government with fewer services.” No surprise there. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was a crock from the get go.

    I wonder how many of today’s white unemployed have received unemployment compensation amounts far beyond what they’ve paid in to the system? Damn that government! And they must be frustrated because they can’t blame the black president for their unemployment when, in so many cases, their unemployment began before he even entered office.

    So while they’re off work they attend tea parties. Or go to the capitol and yell racial slurs at black congressmen. Tea partiers claim to be affiliated with no particular party. but it’s no surprise that there are (correct me if I’m wrong on this) no black Republican congressmen to slur!

    • P.E.N.Name said, on March 28, 2010 at 12:04 am



    • magus71 said, on March 28, 2010 at 3:01 am

      “I wonder how many of today’s white unemployed have received unemployment compensation amounts far beyond what they’ve paid in to the system? Damn that government!”

      Well, I’m sure the Dems won’t lose their votes.

      • P.E.N.Name said, on March 28, 2010 at 11:50 am

        I would hope that white, unemployed conservatives would be pi**ed that they’re getting ‘something for nothing’ in the case I stated.

        I’m betting that their ‘ideological purity’ extends as far as their individual pocketbooks and the narrow moral frameworks constructed by the leaders of their church of choice. At the core, that’s not moral. It’s not pragmatic. It’s just self-centered. Perhaps it’s the 21st century version of the rugged individualism that this country was built on. I hope not.

        • T. J. Babson said, on March 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm

          PEN thinks conservatives are selfish, but the evidence is otherwise. Wake up and smell the evidence, PEN.

          WASHINGTON — Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden and his wife gave an average of $369 a year to charity during the past decade, his tax records show.


          • T. J. Babson said, on March 28, 2010 at 12:58 pm

            More evidence:

            In a 34-page 1997 federal tax return, Vice President Al Gore and wife Tipper reported giving $353 to charity…That figure is less than one-tenth the typical contribution amount for someone with the Gores’ adjusted gross income of $197,729


          • P.E.N.Name said, on March 28, 2010 at 11:28 pm

            Cheney doesn’t fare too well in that USAToday article, by the way. . . But then again, he’s probably not a real conservative :), right?

            “PEN thinks conservatives are selfish.” Well, if you want to put it that way–but not all of them–only about 46-50%. But for Boehner et al that’s the equivalent of 100%, right: “America has rejected this bill.” Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t come up with some kind of stupid slogan like
            “Let’s strip all the “we”
            From our ‘I’delogy.” 🙂

            Referring to to Arthur C. Brooks’ research and book “Who Really Cares”. Brooks, reaches some very similar conclusions–in fact he may have been the source for some info in the one article. But he’s anything but objective (Strong connections with AEI. You can ask David Frum what AEI does when anyone within their ranks who doesn’t toe the conservative line.) So, we don’t know how deeply he delves into such issues as the specific nature of the “charitable giving” involved.

            I’d be interested to know, for example, how much conservative money goes into charitable giving to churches. My own limited observations indicate that there are more and larger churches being built every year. And bigger parking lots. How does the “charitable” giving for those projects compare to the amounts given to churches to help people in real need? Anyway. . .

  9. T. J. Babson said, on March 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    And people wonder where those accusations of socialism come from.

    After the Senate passed a “fix-it” bill Thursday to make changes to the new health care law, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the influential Finance Committee, said the overhaul was an “income shift” to help the poor.

    “Too often, much of late, the last couple three years, the mal-distribution of income in American is gone up way too much, the wealthy are getting way, way too wealthy and the middle income class is left behind,” he said. “Wages have not kept up with increased income of the highest income in America. This legislation will have the effect of addressing that mal-distribution of income in America.”


    • P.E.N.Name said, on March 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm

      Socialism and “income shift” are not synonymous. When the gap between rich and poor increases, that is also an income shift in one direction or another. ‘Income shift’, ‘slippery slope’ ‘socialism’ are merely free-floating political crap–part of what passes for real debate about a serious subject.

      The old “slippery slope” gets refined. Now there’s the “tipping point” that initiates the “slippery slope”. The image of the “slippery slope” implies that a disastrous trip to the bottom is inevitable. Too many people have lived too long to know that’s a complete load. Even conservatives deny it every time they say we should have let the big banks fail or the big automakers tank. Yes, things might get bad for a while, but somehow, Dorothy’ the so called “slippery slope” cannot possibly have an inevitably disastrous outcome when talking about letting the free market run its course. 🙂 Disaster only arises when the other party’s ideas prevail, right?

      A “tipping point implies something more like a seesaw. One side goes up, the other down. Apply a little weight and the direction is reversed. No catastrophe. Just playground fun. Too realistic for some.

      “Redistribution of wealth” sounds an awful lot like “income shift”, doesn’t it?
      So the word “wealth” has disappeared from the equation. Why? Presumably because the word has,with time, accrued some negative connotations. Madoff was wealthy. Ken Lay was wealthy. Wall Street CEO’s are wealthy. More and more , the wealthy come across as crooks. In fact, it’s ironic that many in the middle class still aspire to wealth. Another strike against the word “wealthy”: Many of the wealthy also have come to be seen as profligates. Houses, jets, cars: eight of each. And a side of fries.

      So the onerous term “wealth” is replaced with “income”. Because that, we’re told, is something people earn. It is not, for example, given to them because they need it to survive. Even if their dire circumstances are not of their own doing. In either case, those who oppose redistribution of wealth, even in the case of federal disaster relief for example, are still against it, and those who are for it are still for it.

      No. This is “income” people earn. Like the multi-millionaire farm owner gets when he sells off for residential development sector after sector of the farm his grandfather owned and passed down to him . A farm that our new “income” maker never worked on. But see, the lines are very clearly drawn, in words of black on white. Do not “shift” farmboy’s “income”.

      Ultimately this new phrase is like poorly stored, old, cheap wine in newly labeled bottles that’s sold to suckers for premium prices . Let’s drink it to the lees. Salut.

  10. magus71 said, on March 28, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    This county’s self confidence is shattered. We’ve beat ourselves into the ground. No one else could have done it.

    The self-flagellation started in the 60s, with the attacks on time honored values. The college hippies became enamored of Marx. No matter what anyone says, there’s a hint of Marxism in the air now that’s never been quite this strong. We don’t need Gulags for Marx’s ideology

    Cold, hard facts don’t matter so much anymore as does engineering social constructs and government programs that prove an ideology.

    Rome was not built in a day, and neither was it destroyed in a day. The crazy thing to me is that all of this has happened so quickly. It’s as if the administration knows it has to work quickly, so that perhaps the shock of what’s happened will have worn off by 2012.

    • P.E.N.Name said, on March 28, 2010 at 8:19 pm

      I thought this country’s “self-flagellation” started well before the Civil War. It could have been as early as 1808, when this seemingly innocuous bit from Article V of the Constitution took effect: ” Provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year 1808, shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article. . . .” And the first slave owner began to lament the fragility of his already disappearing homeland.

      Or perhaps it was immediately thereafter when the 14th amendment was passed (Psst! I hear it’s illegal. . .)Then there was that horrifying 15th amendment. Or those damn Progressives passing the 16th amendment in 1909.(Psst! there are still some who say it wasn’t legally ratified.) http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1115/is-u-s-income-tax-invalid-because-ohio-wasnt-legally-a-state-when-the-16th-amendment-was-ratified
      The bottom two or three paragraphs there are of most use. Based on our history it’s not hard to imagine how long we’ll be hearing claims that the recently passed healthcare bill is unconstitutional.

      Then there was the Social Security Act. From the beginning it was attacked as socialism.
      Oh, then there were the anti-war rallies of the 60’s, the race riots of the 60’s. And that other socialist program Medicare. Then Medicare Part D passed, shockingly during a, conservative administration. {To be sure, they weren’t ‘true’ conservatives–or so we hear from some who look in the rear-view mirror at recent history.)

      So many of the above events attacked “time-honored values”. . . So many clearly were centered around “equality for all”. . .and not just blacks. So many centered around political power and the dollar.

      You claim, “The crazy thing to me is that all of this has happened so quickly.” The America of the past that some now long for began fading about twenty years after the country was born. Ironically, right now it resembles the country promised in the founding document more than at any time in our history. By my measure, this self-destruction (what I would call maturation) you’re lamenting began some 200+ ago.

      But take heart. We ain’t down yet.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 28, 2010 at 8:42 pm

      Our confidence is still reasonably good. However, we are in a tough situation. But, this is nothing new and our fate is not really fate, for it lies in our hands. The financial folks have done some serious damage to our economic strength and our education system has been degraded badly, but these are not irreversible wounds.

      • magus71 said, on March 29, 2010 at 1:16 am

        If you can find confidence in our government’s ability to govern, except of course amongst Obamabots, I commend you.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 29, 2010 at 3:16 pm

          Given that the approval rating of congress, etc. is not at 0%, it seems safe to infer that I could find at least one person who is confident and not an Obamabot. Unless, of course, “obamabiot”= “anyone who has confidence in the government’s ability to govern.”

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