Tara Reade’s claim that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 puts Democrats and the #MeToo movement in a dilemma. Having taken the stance that Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against nominee Brett Kavanaugh was sufficient to stop his Supreme Court nomination, what are they to do with Tara Reade’s claim? Should Biden be disqualified, thus opening the door to four more years of Donald Trump?
From the zeitgeist the Kavanaugh affair helped create came the illiberal slogan “Believe Women” and Biden quickly became a public ally. Now he must deal with its “clumsy imperative”. Reducing an intricate moral inclination to a slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker is always risky business. Unquestionably, women who publicly charge sexual assault are placing themselves in precarious positions. Ms. Ford demonstrated immense courage appearing before the Judiciary Committee, risking a lifetime of harassment and censure, a sentence she is currently serving. We all need to be sympathetic and clear-minded to objectively judge the veracity of women who claim to be assault victims. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. But that is a far cry from believing them because they are women.
The dilemma facing Dems and the #MeToo movement presents a classic example of the clash of two competing ethical systems, utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism, the moral and political philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, is a relatively simple notion that claims that an act is good if it is useful in achieving pleasure and diminishing pain. The highest good, happiness, is achieved when an act results in “the greatest good for the greatest number (of people)”. Hence, if more people benefit from choice #1 than from choice #2, then #1 is the best course of action.
A utilitarian argument is being used by the President and many governors when they argue that the good achieved for both the economy and the people by opening up the economy far outdistances the pain experienced by those contracting COVID-19 and thus is the most just action to take. It is a matter of calculation. In their estimation, a loss of additional lives to the virus is the price we must accept to begin the economic recovery necessary to return America to its former prosperity. Military utilitarians use the term “collateral damage” to describe the possible outcomes deriving from choosing “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Sometimes, they reason, we have to kill a few innocent people in order to liberate many more from their undesirable leaders.
Deontology, best represented by Immanuel Kant, holds that there are moral norms that must be upheld no matter what benefits might derive from a particular action. Some choices are morally forbidden and cannot be justified by their consequences, no matter how desirable they may be. A deontologist would argue that it is morally unjustifiable for a government to risk the lives of its people in order to increase wealth. In summary, utilitarians place the highest value on the good while deontologists favor the right.
Historically, conservatives are more likely to be utilitarian than are liberals. Conservatives tend to be more pragmatic while liberals are more idealistic. On the issue of gay marriage for instance, conservatives objected on the grounds of its consequences, the disruption of social norms, whereas liberals defended it on the grounds of human rights. Each side is guided by its deepest moral instincts.
And so now we see why the Biden-Reade affair is so problematic for Democrats. Liberals, against their nature, are being forced to abandon their rights-based sympathies for sexually abused women in favor of the utilitarian position in order to save the nation from four more years of Donald Trump. This time around they may have to acknowledge that the good trumps the right.