Moralistic Language
January 6, 2011

I tweeted yesterday a link to (Matthew Yglesias linking to) a petition to “Tell Senator Jeff Sessions to Stop Supporting Child Sex Trafficking”. The pretext turned out to be pretty anodyne, so it seems like this specific petition was deliberately misleading. Considering the gravity of their accusations towards Senator Sessions, that’s pretty morally appalling behavior from Change.org.

What I want to write about, however, is the broader issue of using this kind of moralistic language when speaking about policymaking. I was reminded of this because of yesterday’s tweet, but I think a much better example is Ezra Klein’s assertion about a year ago that, by threatening to filibuster health reform, Joe Lieberman was “willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score”.

This claim drew widespread condemnation from across the media, for obvious reasons, but as far as I can tell Klein’s statement was factually correct. The causal link between not passing the bill and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths seems fairly well-established by the medical and policy literature, and Lieberman could reasonably have been expected to understand this link at the time of his threat, so while I doubt his motive was to kill people I think he would have been responsible (in an ethical sense, not a legal sense) for the deaths if he had successfully filibustered the bill.

Matthew Yglesias pointed all this out at the time, and concluded that “there’s a reason [people are uncomfortable with this argument]: stark moralistic language works”.

I’m really sure this last statement is true, however. One problem is that both sides of pretty much every national policy issue can claim with some justification that the other side’s policy preference “will cost lives”. I can easily imagine such arguments for both sides of policy debates over taxes, energy, the environment, health care, national defense, infrastructure, the deficit, or pretty much any issue that requires government allocation of funds. The argument in favor of allocating funds says that the allocation will save lives, and the argument against allocating funds says that the effects on economic growth will have worse consequences than the problem the allocation is trying to solve. It’s worth noting too that these two arguments do not neatly divide into left/right; for example, liberals are generally pro-allocation for health care, infrastructure, and the environment, but anti-allocation on invading countries and cutting upper-income taxes.

I guess my point about moralistic language is therefore that it isn’t effective because it depends on your belief in the premises of the argument. If you believe that health reform will save lives, then Ezra Klein’s moralistic language will persuade you, but you’re probably already in support of health reform. If you don’t believe that health reform will save lives, then Ezra Klein just looks irresponsible.
Of course, when you throw around moralistic language with blatantly false premises, like Change.org did, everyone thinks you’re irresponsible.