AFTER A BITTER and often abusive election, Donald Trump’s choices for leadership posts indicate that we are headed for four more years of highly partisan politics. Notwithstanding the fact that 2.8 million more voters preferred Hillary Clinton, Trump has appointed extremists who are more likely to exacerbate the wounds opened by the election than to heal them.
When George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, on the basis of a Supreme Court decision preventing a full recount of ballots in Florida, there were also questions about the legitimacy of the election. Liberals talked then, as they do now, of moving to Canada. We survived the Bush years and saw Barack Obama elected president, although we are still living with the legacy of Bush’s unnecessary and ill-fated invasion of Iraq.
One difference between Bush and Trump is that Bush talked a lot about ethics — so much so that I wrote a book about his ethical views, and why they were largely misguided. It would be difficult to write a similar book about Trump, who has concentrated on appealing to the self-interest of Americans, especially those who yearn for the days when America was “great.” The interests of outsiders — whether people in need of asylum, or work, or those whose lives will be endangered by climate change — don’t seem to count. Also ethically disturbing is Trump’s recklessness about the need for evidence before making assertions, whether about Obama’s birthplace, or climate change, or that Clinton’s lead in the popular vote is due to millions of illegal votes.
My friends tell me that I am lucky because, as an Australian citizen, I can always move there. But if Trump does not fulfill America’s commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, Australia will suffer at least as much as the United States. People appalled by the election outcome need to stay involved with US politics. But what kind of involvement should we have with an administration that doesn’t seem to have much interest in either ethics or evidence?
We should, in my view, start with a willingness to engage in dialogue and a readiness to treat members of the Trump administration as human beings, no doubt with views different from our own, but still with a concern for both ethics and truth. In saying this, I take a lesson from my late friend and fellow animal activist, Henry Spira. It is hard to imagine more polarized opponents than animal experimenters and the animal rights movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Yet Spira’s campaigns against major corporations abusing animals succeeded where other opponents of animal experiments had had zero impact on reducing animal suffering. Whereas opponents of experiments on animals routinely portrayed experimenters as sadists torturing animals, Spira realized that to get major corporations to change what they were doing, it was no good saying, “We’re saints and you’re sinners and we’re going to clobber you with a two-by-four in order to educate you.” Instead Spira always started with the assumption that the people he was trying to reach would, like most human beings, do the right thing if they could be shown a better way to achieve their goals. He ended up persuading corporations like Revlon, Avon, Bristol-Myers, and other major cosmetics companies to fund the development of alternatives; eventually that enabled them to stop testing on animals.
Like Spira, I believe that willingness to engage in dialogue should always be the opening move. Sometimes that cooperative gesture will be spurned. On other occasions dialogue will commence, but it will become evident that it is going nowhere. Then we must change tactics. Even then, the initial willingness to engage in dialogue gives one firmer ethical ground than one would have by starting out with the assumption that there is nothing to discuss.
If dialogue breaks down and there is nothing left except resistance, that too must follow ethical standards. We should try, wherever possible, to work within the law, always remembering that the ultimate aim is to persuade the majority that we are right — and in unfair or gerrymandered elections, we will have to persuade even more than the majority. As a last resort, we should look to the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Civil disobedience can be an ethical political tactic, but if it is to be compatible with democracy, it should be nonviolent. Those taking part in civil disobedience should show their respect for the law and their commitment to the rightness of their cause by their willingness to be arrested and accept the penalty that the law imposes for their actions.
Some have said, in the aftermath of the recent election, that the Democrats tried to play fair and lost to Republican dirty tricks, so now the Democrats should play the way the Republicans did. In the short-term, that tempting strategy may bring some gains. In the long run, though, we must continue to try to stand for the value of reasoned, evidence-based discussions. Regrettably, it has become apparent that not everyone shares that value. Nevertheless, we must appeal to those who do, and try our hardest to ensure that they remain a majority of the electorate. Otherwise democracy has no future.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is “Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter.”