Ethics is about doing the right thing. It’s primarily about actions, about how we behave when we interact with others. But it also involves how we think about others. Having racist thoughts, for example—believing someone else is inferior just because of skin color—is clearly unethical. That’s because such thoughts end up influencing our behavior, whether we realize it or not, and because they likely make us more tolerant when others act with prejudice.
But what about hopes, especially when politics is involved? Can a hope be unethical? If you’re a Democrat or Independent who pines for President Trump’s defeat, is it okay to hope that he’ll fail in dealing with the coronavirus, the economy, or anything else because you know that will hurt his re-election prospects?
That kind of question has always been in play, but the Covid-19 crisis raises the stakes considerably. As red states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas reopen their economies, Republicans and Democrats disagree in almost every poll. Republicans are far more likely to support a relaxation of restrictions, usually arguing that the economic damage is just as bad or worse than the health risks. Democrats tend to be more cautious about reopening, fearing a spike in deaths that would outweigh the harm from a deep economic recession. The divide has the awful effect of building on pre-existing polarization to turn the pandemic into a blue vs. red phenomenon.
This creates a huge ethical hazard for those Democrats who oppose Trump’s push to reopen the economy quickly. It’s obvious that the country will be better off if Democratic fears of moving too fast prove wrong, if the virus doesn’t roar back, and if the early reopening brings an early end to the recession. But it’s only natural to want to be proven right, especially when a quick end to the pandemic and its effects will have the secondary effect of improving Republican chances in the election, which Democrats have every right to oppose.
So what are ethical Democrats supposed to hope for when they don’t want to see a Covid-19 spike in deaths but also don’t want to see Republicans reap the election reward of being right?
This kind of quandary is not new. Many Democrats still believe Republicans limited the 2009 stimulus because they didn’t want to see the economy come roaring back, and few Republicans objected when Rush Limbaugh went further and said he wanted Obama to fail. Then-Vice President Joe Biden told author Michael Grunwald that several Republican lawmakers had told him, “We can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back.” And that was when the nation was falling off the last fiscal cliff at the start of the Great Recession.
But now the ethical shoe is potentially on the other foot and no one is talking about it, at least not out loud. So I ask again, what can Democrats ethically hope for? I suppose they can try to thread the needle—hope that the pandemic will end soon and the economy will recover, but that voters will still blame Trump for his handling of the crisis in the beginning. And I suppose you can argue that it doesn’t matter what anyone secretly hopes for; after all, hoping won’t have any effect on what actually happens. But I wonder if it’s a little like those racist thoughts we began with. Does hoping for failure spill over into actions that matter? I don’t know and I’d be interested in your thoughts, either in the comment section below, on Facebook, or in an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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