Monday, March 10, 2008

Political gain

One not infrequently hears the claim that a politician did something "for political gain", and the claim is said in a context that suggests that it follows that there was something sordid, ignoble or even wrong about it. But why accept such an inference? Suppose that politicians promote their political capital in order to enact policies that they think are good for the country. If so, then the claim that a politician did something for political gain need not be a criticism: one might as well say that the politician did it for what he or she thought was the good of the country.

It may, of course, be that people who use that phrase are cynical: they do not believe that politicians are trying to promote the good of the country. But I doubt that such a cynical thought can be very often justified. Even if a politician is misguided, stupid, greedy or power-hungry (and most of us exhibit these traits at times), it can still be the case that the politician is nonetheless trying to promote the good of the country. Such a hypothesis is both charitable and consistent with what we know about human nature.


Heath White said...

Mightn't there be a Gricean implicature going on here? As in, "He did it for political gain [as opposed to any good purpose]."

Alexander R Pruss said...

It is interesting that one typically uses the phrase about people whose politics one disagrees with, which meshes well with the hypothesis that there is the implicature that political gain in this case is not itself a good purpose.

But if so, then there is a different kind of mistake here, a mistake of attributing bad or selfish intentions to those who advocate policies that one thinks are bad. It seems quite reasonable, instead, to see many (though maybe not all) policies that one disagrees with as aimed at genuine goods (equality, elimination of poverty, justice, etc.), but as failing to achieve these goods. If so, then even when a politician one strongly disagrees with does something for political gain, it is quite possible that this politician does it for a good purpose--namely for the genuine goods at which the politician's allegedly mistaken policies are aimed at.