Adversarial ethics and Sarah Palin’s “gun sight” ad

There is surely nothing else to add to the debates over Sarah Palin’s infamous attack-ad that seemed literally to “target” 17 sitting members of the House of Representatives, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Interestingly enough, much of what needed to be said was posted in the blog Joe. My. God. back in March 2010. He reprinted the ad (from which I copped the jpg you see here), and highlighted her “Don’t retreat, RELOAD!” tweet. And nine months before Giffords would be shot in the head, he asked, not rhetorically as it transpired, “What will Palin say when one of her supporters takes her literally?”

(Note: at this point I’m not sure we know whether the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was a supporter of Palin’s or if he had even seen the ad in question. But this is not my issue here.)

The ad, the tweet, and the free-for-all debate about political ethics that followed the shooting help us to frame a central feature of ethics within deliberately adversarial institutions (like electoral politics). The aim of these institutions is to regulate contests that will benefit not only the “players” in the competition, but also (or mainly) the larger public outside of the competition. (In economics, such benefits to third parties are called “positive externalities.”) Much of the design challenge for these institutions is to find a set of rules, and a way to monitor and enforce them, that will maximize the likelihood of these positive externalities.

Democratic systems are the quintessential “deliberately adversarial institutions.” Throughout most of human history we have not “selected” leaders through such regulated competitions. Princes and princesses were handed the job from their parents; coup leaders or revolutionaries stole the job in unregulated contests. But in democracies you have to win the job by competing for votes with rival contestants.

Now here’s the point illustrated by the “gun sight ad” debate: we can never expect to design competitive institutions that will “guarantee” positive externalities. And in particular, the regulations will almost always unintentionally incentivize competitive tactics that can enable competitors to win to the detriment of the larger society. So deliberately adversarial institutions always require something like ethics or professionalism or self-regulation on the part of their participants.

And this frames much of the post-shooting debate (or, as Oh. By. God.‘s post from last March reminds us, the post-ad debate): did Palin’s people “cross the line” — that is, violate the ethical constraints that are expected of participants in a “civilized” democracy? And if so, should we actually change the regulations for political advertising?

Over at This Sporting Life, I have talked about how the NFL tries to respond to every unanticipated and unwelcome event, on and off the field, by tweaking the rules or the way they are monitored or enforced. If Roger Goodell, the NFL’s Commissioner, were the czar at the Federal Elections Commission, it would already now be illegal to produce a political ad using gun-sight imagery. But there are special limits on the tools available to the engineers of democratic systems. Many restrictions on political activities — even limits on campaign finance — can be interpreted as limits on free speech. And in many political systems, especially the American one, free speech is protected even in cases where it is clearly “anti-social.”

Yet just because you have a right to do something or say something, that doesn’t mean you ought to do or say it. This is why we are talking here about “ethics for adversaries.” How do we “draw the line,” if not through regulations? [corrected to remove ambiguity] Given that regulations are never enough, how do we ‘draw the line,’ that is, figure out how far we should self-regulate by refraining from partisan, competitive behavior?

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3 responses to “Adversarial ethics and Sarah Palin’s “gun sight” ad

  1. Provocative and measured piece. I’d like to point out that there’s a deep tension, if not incompatibility between two key passages of the post:

    The ending question: “How do we “draw the line,” if not through regulations?” really does not jibe with the (entirely correct) assertion that “deliberately adversarial institutions always require something like ethics or professionalism or self-regulation on the part of their participants.”

    I doubt anything like a coherent ethics governing speech is available within or would be desired by either of the main political parties. Neither party has shown much commitment to “policing their own,” so to speak, on ethical issues except those which form part of their core platforms. They do tend to be quite diligent in one respect: targeting their adversaries for ethical censure, often doing so tendentiously, in ways that in fact provide a bad model: one of hypocrisy, opportunistic manipulation of information, and willingness to go too far for the sake of winning votes. It seems unlikely that “ethics or professionalism or self-regulation on the part of their participants” will emerge in either party.

    When allowed to regulate on speech, is it realistic to expect that either party, in an adversarial system where agreement is lacking on many basic values or how to understand them, will regulate for the common good — the genuine common good, not simply their ideologically bent versions of that notion? No, it’s imaginable, of course, but realistically only a bare possibility, not anything likely. Instead, regulation will be used to secure or consolidate political advantage, a sort of ethical analogue to gerrymandering

  2. Greg, you’ve raised a ton of issues I hope we will be working on in this blog. As for the tension you point out at the outset, I fear I created confusion with an ambiguous choice of words. By “How do we “draw the line,” if not through regulations?” I really meant “Given that regulations are not enough, how do we ‘draw the line,’ that is, figure out how far we should self-regulate by refraining from partisan, competitive behavior?”

  3. In response to your last paragraph, I think it would be appropriate to quote Shakespeare, because it may indeed be the case that “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

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