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Supreme Court nominee judge Brett Kavanaugh arrives with Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) for the second day of his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 5, 2018. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

55% of GOP Say Sexual Assault Not Disqualifying for SCOTUS; What Is *Wrong* With Them?

It seems to me that social psychologists ought to look into what is wrong with self-described Republican voters that they take such completely amoral stances

Juan Cole

 by Informed Comment

What in the world is wrong with self-identified Republicans in the United States. I mean, look, I’m a historian and a world traveler. I get that different people have different ways of looking at the world, different norms and customs. It is to be expected.

But the blatant amorality of GOP voters, at least as they represent themselves in the polling, baffles me. Morality ought to be equally distributed across parties, like immorality. People are people.

But as Newsweek notes, an Economist/YouGov poll has found that 55% of Republicans hold that even if Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a woman when he was in high school, that would not disqualify him from serving on the Supreme Court.

Note well. They didn’t ask them if they disbelieved the charges and therefore didn’t think he was disqualified.

The question was, if he were actually guilty, should he serve? And a majority of Republicans said he should not be disqualified for this reason. Another 18% said they just didn’t know whether it was disqualifying. Really? Attempted rape shouldn’t keep you off the court?

71% of Democrats said that sexual assault is disqualifying. Are they more capable of ethical reasoning, or are they just being partisan and hoping the Democrats can keep their 5-4 majority on the court, which Kavanaugh would permanently throw out?

Lawrence Kohlberg, influenced by the Swiss child psychologist Piaget, put forward a 6-stage structural theory of children’s morality.

Stage 1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation.

Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange.

Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships.

Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order.

Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights.

Stage 6: Universal Principles.

In stage one, children think something is wrong if there is a significant chance you will be punished for doing it. I think the corollary is that if the likelihood of punishment is remote, at this stage of ethics, a stage 1 child might do something more mature individuals would consider wrong, just because they are sure they can get away with it.

In stage two, they still think and act as isolated individuals, but they can understand that there are differing definitions of what is wrong. Some in this school would say that at level 2, a person is willing to help out a buddy by doing something generally considered wrong, but no one else–assuming the buddy is willing to scratch the first person’s back in return.

In stage three, teens learn to put the welfare of another person, say a family member or close friend, above individual greed. They might agree that it would be moral to steal an unfairly high-priced medicine for the sake of an ill loved one.

In stage four, the teen comes to value an orderly society, and sees morality as doing what is necessary to uphold that web of relationships. Nationalists among older adults are often stuck at this stage. They value their own society and its norms and stability so much that they are willing to sacrifice the welfare of outsiders for its sake. The Soviet Union was full of people who thought like this about morality.

Persons at stage five put rights above an orderly society. The emphasize rule-based decision-making, not solidarity and orderliness. But like Rousseau, they would accept the outcome of the General Will if it operated in a procedurally just way.

Stage six have been castigated as ethical cowboys. They see general ethical principles that are higher than procedural justice. Stage six ethical thinkers insist on universal, consistent rights. Kohlberg saw Gandhi and Martin Luther King in this light.

I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I went through a phase when I read a lot of Kohlberg and his school. I would say that Brett Kavanaugh comes very low on this scale. He repeatedly lied– about the legal drinking age when he was 17 (it was 21); about what the sexually charged terms in his Yearbook meant (devil’s triangle is a menage a trois or 3 positions in one night; bouf is anal intercourse); about not being a fall-down drunk, which some of those close to him say he was. It also seems to me that he told all these lies because he knows that the Republican majority in the Senate will vote for him no matter what, and therefore he risks no punishment from lying. He has the moral sense of a kindergartner.

As for putting a proven sexual predator on the court, the majority of Republicans who hold that it should be done may be functioning at level two (they’ll do a favor for Kavanaugh if he’ll rule for their interests– low taxes, low services for everyone but the well off, curbs on workers and minorities, and an end to abortion). That would be level 2. Or those who think it is necessary to put him on the bench to preserve social order might be reasoning as high as level 4.

But no level 5 would say, put someone guilty of sexual assault on the Supreme Court, since that would contravene general moral principles and basic fairness.

As for level 6, people of that sort, who i wouldn’t imagine are more that 5 percent of the population, might even lead a movement against putting attempted rapists on the Supreme Court. Of course, some Democrats who supported such a movement might only be doing it out of concern for social order and social solidarity (level 4).

We see this low level of Republican ethical reasoning in lots of area, from approval for Trump despite his own immorality, to their willingness to treat Muslims in unfair and even unconstitutional ways.

So I am genuinely shocked by this poll’s results, and can’t figure out what produces them. Has the Republican Party just started attracting ethically challenged individuals, so that it is mostly 4s and below?

I recognized that not all the 71% among the Dems may be taking this stance on principle. Some of the Democratic opposition to the unethical stances I mentioned above could also be Stage 4 order and solidarity rather than higher ethical thinking about principles. Still, across the board Dems take more principled stances.

Is there some sort of elective affinity here? Democrats become known for compassion, so they attract more ethical people?

It seems to me that social psychologists ought to look into what is wrong with self-described Republican voters that they take such completely amoral stances.


© 2021 Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His newest book, "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires" was published in 2020. He is also the author of  "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East" (2015) and "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East" (2008).  He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. 

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