“Explanation” Is Not “Justification”: Conservatives Take Heed

Conservatism is the traditional home of “personal responsibility” — a notion strongly linked to individual liberty and freedom to act without undue government interference. From an ethical and moral standpoint, personal responsibility affirms our personhood. In civic life, personal responsibility (and its related doctrines) is the closest thing we have to Kant’s aspirational “kingdom of ends” — a world where we’ve maximized autonomy and ethical autonomous choice. That’s the dream. The reality is that we must also be accountable for our own bad choices and live the consequences, often also bad. Failing to focus on the dream, the conservative advocates of the civic doctrine often sound gruff and fail to appeal to populist sentiment.

In the 2016 presidential race, there is no voice for personal responsibility. Trump has removed it from the Republican narrative altogether. In his populist campaign, he’s blaming everyone and creating victims out of his base— his base got the short end of the stick, at no fault of their own. His base is angry and they’re looking for a protectionist big government to help. And Trump is offering those protectionist big government solutions.

Although the personal responsibility narrative has no voice — no advocate — in he current top-ticket campaign, the vestiges still linger in unflattering ways. That’s where this “explanation is not justification” mantra comes into play — conservatives take heed: this is not “personal responsibility” talk. When people talk of “the Trump Effect” — how Trump’s hateful rhetoric may be contaminating our classrooms and affecting our kids , empowering bullies— that’s not a justification of bullies, it’s a commentator’s explanation for their rise. When people talk about the importance of “rule of law” and perceptions of rule of law in preventing extralegal and vigilante violence directed law enforcement officers, that’s not a justification of extralegal violence, it’s a commentator’s explanation for its rise. If “explanation” were “justification,” social scientists and historians would be the most prolific apologists for evil, ever — there would be no difference between the “is” and “ought“ (a terrible stance). As an explanation, this important commentary cannot be written off, and must be substantively evaluated and substantively addressed. Explanation of external events helps us form opinions about policy that might maximize autonomy and personal responsibility. To discard it as unwarranted justification is dishonest and unfair.

To be sure, we’ve seen social liberals conflating the “is” and the “ought” in the past, and using explanation as a personal responsibility escape. Don’t go there. Don’t swing the other way. When 2016 is over and Trump is toast, we need to be ready to revive the narrative again, or live with the consequences, likely bad.

Edit 10/24/2016: After I wrote this piece, the “Trump Tapes” were released, and we saw explanation as justification from our own Party. The Trump apologists — calling Trump’s descriptions of sexual assault nothing more than “locker room talk” — repeatedly refer to a degenerate culture (a culture in which pop stars grab their own crotches) to explain the context (and the not-so-badness) of Trump’s behavior. It’s the not-so-badness part that’s problematic — explanation as a character defense — which makes this unwarranted explanation as justification. A perverse and over-sexualized culture might explain some bad behavior; it does not justify it. Note the difference, please.

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