A Thought Experiment: Joe Biden and Segregation

Joe Biden speaks at the “We Decide: 2020 Election Membership Forum” in Columbia, S.C., June 22, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus
“Let justice be done, even if the world perishes”

To make the case that Biden is unfit to become president because of his association with segregationists — and it’s not an unreasonable case to make — one needs to state what political outcomes he should have been willing to give up so as not to negotiate with people who hold despicable beliefs. Absent articulating these outcomes, it’s not clear why anyone should take arguments against Biden’s associations seriously. The following thought experiment should help to make this clear: You’re currently serving as the United States representative to an environmental commission in charge of negotiating a climate treaty. There’s a lot at stake. If you fail, there’s a nearly universal scientific consensus that global temperatures will rise further and endanger virtually all species. If you succeed, you’ll stave off a potentially species-threatening event.

By way of bizarre circumstance, the chief negotiator across from you is a warlord and mass murderer, whose army of thugs raped, murdered, and plunged an entire region into chaos. Your options are binary: negotiate or don’t negotiate. (Trying to avoid the dilemma by pointing out how unlikely it would be that you’d ever find yourself in such a situation is a moral dodge and as such is not worth consideration.) If you negotiate, you’ve done so because the stakes are so high that failure would be unthinkable and thus you’re willing to overlook the chief negotiator’s grotesque moral actions. If you do not negotiate, you’ll likely condemn nearly all species to extinction. The second of the two, refusing to negotiate, is more interesting because after only a few questions it forces one to calibrate one’s moral threshold for engaging those who hold odious beliefs. In other words, just how much less bad would he have to be before you negotiated? What’s your threshold for speaking with him? What if he ordered the mass murder of civilians but forbade rape? What if he was against mass murder and rape, but preferred victims of his armies to be left with two stumps of the attackers choosing?

Enter Joe Biden. Biden has come under intense criticism from Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio, Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Biden shouldn’t be president”), and others for his political alliances and even friendships with segregationists such as Mississippi’s James Eastland and Georgia’s Herman Talmadge. Biden responded to intense criticism of these relationships with a Kissinger-like dogged pragmatism, stating: “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished.” Now let’s revisit your role as climate negotiator. If you claimed you would not negotiate with a mass murderer and you condemned Biden for forming alliances with segregationists, your positions have some (minimal) degree of moral consistency.

If, however, you agreed to negotiate and you condemned Biden for negotiating (in his particular case, not just negotiating but successfully negotiating and “getting things done”), then it’s incumbent on you to justify this disconnect. If your reasoning is that more was at stake in the climate negotiations, then what’s your threshold for negotiating? How much more has to be at stake before considering whether to negotiate with someone who holds morally repugnant beliefs? What if only Guam would be an uninhabitable furnace but everyplace else would be just fine?

Unless you want to claim that segregation is morally worse than mass murder and rape, the decision of whether or not to negotiate could not be based on the beliefs and actions of the person with whom your negotiating. (Some readers will insist there’s no moral difference between mass murder and segregation. While this demonstrates a profound failure to triage moral issues, the case does not need to be made that one of these is more egregious than the other, only that they’re both really bad.) Therefore, the decision to negotiate must be rooted in the potential benefits of the negotiation. In the case of a climate treaty, it would be averting a global climate disaster. In Biden’s case, you would have to find the fruits of his negotiations sufficiently commendable so as to justify his actions.

In the latter case, however, there is very, very little emphasis on what, exactly, it was that Biden accomplished. And there is overwhelming emphasis — and coverage — on Biden’s associations. Of course this would not be a problem for those who claim one should never, ever negotiate with someone who holds deplorable views. (Think of positions expressed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, as opposed to Machiavelli or Hobbes.) But this is not the narrative that’s being forwarded. The narrative that’s dominating the media landscape, particularly on the intersectional left, is that Biden’s former associations, political alliances, and friendships should de facto disqualify him from becoming president.

One way to think about whether or not Biden is unfit to become president because of his association with segregationists is, hopefully, now more clear. You can start to answer this question by completing the following sentence: If you’d be willing to negotiate with a mass murderer to avert global extinction, it would be reasonable for Senator Biden to negotiate with a segregationist to . . .

Dr. Peter Boghossian is full time faculty in the philosophy department at Portland State University and coauthor of the forthcoming book, How to Have Impossible Conversations


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