Boris Johnson, Lionel Shriver, and selective appeals to consequence

Back in November 2019, in the run-up to the UK general election, the general political fervour which had taken over my life compelled me to watch an episode of the worst show on British television, Question Time. Usually, I would avoid it like the plague, on account of completely vacuous content, and invariable devolution into a shouting match between a brow-beaten panellist and whichever member of the audience decided to skip their double dose of Prozac that day. This episode was no different, but one particular spat that episode brought clarity to my thinking about a certain form of argumentation which has always irked me.

When I argue with people, I like to believe that they are engaging with me in good faith, and I like to believe that they believe that I’m engaging with them in good faith. The fact that these three beliefs are often poorly founded is essentially a truism. I know plenty of people who argue in bad faith, many others who assume that their interlocuter is arguing in bad faith, and as anyone who knows me will tell you, rarely do I myself argue for anything other than my own entertainment.

So, why the assumption of good faith? Generally, it makes arguments more informative and considered. If I think my interlocutor has a reasonable openness to new ideas and genuine belief in their own, I’ll be more liable to argue with them in a manner befitting a grown adult, and less likely to sink into to the morass of ad-hominem and intellectual sophistry.

There are, however, limits to this assumption. One of the most irksome argumentative strategies I encounter is the ‘selective appeal to utility’, where arguments are justified by an ad-hoc invocation of the dread powers of utilitarianism. I use the term ‘ad-hoc’ because, despite my personal distaste for utilitarianism, I have no intellectual problem with people who honestly and genuinely believe that it is the best system of normativity to apply in a particular circumstance. However, we’ve all come across a situation, where an appeal to utility is made by someone who would usually reject utilitarianism as a sensible system of moral philosophy. An example of this could be that of the cultural conservative, who argues against funding LGBT+ education in schools on the basis that such spending would better maximise utility when directed towards the international aid budget, but would be horrified at the suggestion that the tax-exempt status of churches be revoked and the revenue raised be directed towards the very same international aid budget. In this case, it is painfully obvious that his (and it is sadly, almost always a he) opposition to educating children on LGBT+ issues is not born solely of an ardent love of utilitarian moral philosophy.

You may ask why I’m dunking on this sort of intellectual dishonesty. People who make selective appeals to utility are troglodytes for sure, but this is hardly a revelation. In reality, dear reader, I want to focus my ire on a related, but no less sickening, form of sophism which I call the ‘selective appeal to consequence’. This is the use of ad-hoc consequentialist reasoning not to justify one’s preferred course of outcome or policy, but to disregard considerations of intention when talking of moral responsibility and blameworthiness. As we know, under a consequentialist moral framework, the ethical rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the consequences of that outcome, regardless of considerations like obligation, intentionality, etc.

Now, where does this episode of Question Time fit in? The particular occurrence went like this:

Caroline Lucas, of the Green Party, asserted that Boris Johnson is a racist, and backed up her claim by pointing out the infamous ‘letterbox’ line which he made in an article about the prospect of banning the burqa (For ease of reference, I will link to both the episode of Question Time and article at the bottom of the page). At this moment, Lionel Shriver, the American author who I only then learned is a woman, dissented. She argued that Boris’ article, including the use of the term ‘letterbox’, was aimed at satirising the attitudes of Continental right-wingers who were seeking to ban the burqa, and pointed out that Boris comes out in opposition to such bans in that very article. Shriver doesn’t necessarily dispute the proposition that Boris is a racist, only that this particular article is poor evidence for such an accusation. As it so happens, I agree with Shriver on this. That article, being of a satirical nature, is poor evidence of the racism which I believe that Boris Johnson does harbour, and has displayed at sundry other occasions.

Needless to say, Shriver’s interjection is not met pleasantly. A member of the audience, herself wearing a hijab, rants at Shriver that regardless of intention, Johnson’s use of such indisputably questionable language led directly to racial harassment that she herself experienced, and so he is morally liable for the label of racism on that account. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll posit as factual what is a dubious assertion, that there was a causal link between Boris’ article and the harassment that this woman faced. Even if we accept this, I think it is a great stench to argue that Boris was racist in his use of such language, because he was casting aspersion on such language by painting those how use it in an obviously negative light. I won’t go into much depth into why I believe intention should be a factor in ethical consideration, as that would lengthen this post and massively miss the point. In order to elide consideration of Boris’ intention, the audience ember argues that ‘terms have consequences’, and thus the fact that Boris’ article caused racial harassment means he is himself a racist.

The problem, I’m sure many of you will have spotted, is that many systems of moral thought aren’t blind to intentionality. Despite this, the audience member makes an appeal to the consequences brought about the article, and dismisses the idea that Johnson’s intention is a relevant factor. Of course, this is appeal to consequence in order to disregard considerations of intent is selectively made, as this audience member is almost certainly not a consequentialist. The audience member identifies as Muslim, and Islamic moral teaching is stringent in its rejection of consequentialist theories of morality, and in fact places a large emphasis on the niyyah (intention) behind religious and ethical action. If it came to be shown that banning the burqa was consequentially justifiable, I somehow doubt this audience member would be advocating such a policy.

Of course, this entire segment of the show lasts maybe 45 seconds, and it totally irrelevant to the functioning of the universe. There is no point here besides the fact that this form of argumentation is intellectually dishonest, ineffectual, and plain annoying. Don’t selectively appeal to utility to justify your policies, or selectively appeal to consequentialism to ignore intention and make your opponent look evil.

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