November 25, 2016
As the smoke clears from the election, many of those outraged by the unthinkability of one side refusing to accept the results of the election are now refusing to accept the results of the election. Granted, there is a major difference between a candidate him or herself refusing to accept the results and the more adamant of their supporters doing so as they process the grief of their defeat, but between the laughably desperate allegations of hacking and petitions urging electors to reject the results of their state in favor of the national popular vote, it does provide a shining example for a broader discussion of situational ethics, moral legitimacy, and a cool twist on argument ad hominem. Also, it involves Lady Gaga, which in my opinion is just icing on the cake.
For those who haven’t heard, Lady Gaga, along with some other celebrities, has been endorsing a petition encouraging electors committed to Trump to switch sides to support the results of the national popular vote, which Clinton won. The petition represents a perfect example of situational ethics, a term I’m borrowing here to mean the taking of different ethical positions dependent upon whether the position is helpful or harmful to your immediate interests. In other words, for a Democrat, this would be arguing that a position or action is ethically justified when it benefits the Democrats, but morally reprehensible when taken by the Republicans. For example, the Democrats had no problem blocking judges when they held the Senate and Bush was president, but are outraged that the Republicans are doing the same. Republicans did the same switch, but in reverse. Though I don’t like to deal in assumptions by attributing actions to certain people in hypothetical situations, I feel fairly confident saying that if Clinton had won the electoral college while losing the popular vote, Lady Gaga would not be urging electors to defect.
Because of its situational nature, Lady Gaga’s argument lacks moral legitimacy. In order for a source to have moral legitimacy, they must take the same position regardless of whether it would help or harm their interests. An action is right or it is wrong; it is not right when it benefits one side and wrong when it benefits the other. The electors should either honor the results of their state or of the national vote. When such positions change based on the immediate interests of those taking the position, it is hard to see their arguments as anything other than self-serving. Therefore, I don’t take the Lady Gaga’s arguments particularly seriously.
However, I do think that it is important to separate the argument from the source. Even if the reasons an individual has for making an argument are self-serving, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the argument. Even a broken clock is wrong twice a day, and it is entirely possible for people to make the right argument for the wrong reasons. In some cases, such as Senate judicial confirmation, it may be more important for there to be consistent application of the rules rather than any specific set of rules. However, in the case of Lady Gaga’s petition, I think the point that she makes is worthy of examination, even if she is making the point for partisan reasons.
Because I don’t suspect the electoral college is going anytime soon, I don’t want to spend too much time discussing its merits or arguments for or against it here. However, just because something won’t change doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right. Traditionally, I have been a defender of the electoral college because it appeals to my nerdy side. I haven’t felt the need to really justify its use because popular votes/electoral college splits were so rare. Now that two of the past five elections have ended in such splits, this dismissal of the ultimate significance of the electoral college must be reconsidered. The increasing frequency of split elections could be a coincidence, though I believe as our politics have become more polarized and more divided, the likelihood of such a split in any given election has increased. As such, though I don’t believe the electoral college inherently benefits one side or the other, I do believe reexamination of its use is warranted. I just don’t think Lady Gaga, or any other grieving Clinton partisan, is the one to be making that argument.