Most of us sign up to 'package-deal ethics'. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

December 28, 2020   4 mins

Most of us want to be a ‘normal person’. In a recent blog post, the economist Bryan Caplan defines this, admittedly subjective, term as someone who “says what others say, but does what others do.” In other words, normal people are well-meaning hypocrites, whereas Caplan happily acknowledges that he is one of those weird people who is troubled by the gap between saying and doing, and so will think very hard about any contradictions in his own speech and behaviour — sometimes with eccentric results.

And so he has written several books that make very unusual arguments: for open borders, for radical cuts to education spending, and for parents expending less effort in raising their children. But then this is the risk — once you start gnawing away at ideological contradictions that most people don’t think twice about, you may find yourself adopting the kind of positions that ‘normal people’ find odd.

This kind of hard thinking is why I like reading Caplan, despite the fact that on most issues he takes a libertarian stance (meaning I usually disagree with his conclusions). I appreciate the fact that he is one of those unusual people who is very good at resisting what James Mumford describes in his most recent book Vexed as ‘package-deal ethics’ — that is, the assumed obligation to sign up to a pre-prepared set of political ideas, rather than select each idea on its own merits.

Mumford asks us to interrogate package-deal ethics, not because we must be entirely consistent on every point (“consistent worldviews can be wicked!”) but because sometimes the inconsistencies within package-deals can be too grievous to ignore, and may well be the result, not of careful evaluation, but of historical accident.

Mumford is British, but has spent a lot of time living in America, where a fashion for bumper stickers acts as a visible marker of package-deal ethics:

What is most revealing about these stickers is the company they keep on each individual car. You pull up at the traffic lights. On your right is a car juxtaposing ‘Liberals Take and Spend. Conservatives Protect and Serve’ with ‘Pro Guns. Pro God. Pro Life.’ On your left is a car displaying a rainbow flag alongside ‘Buy Fresh Local’, ‘No Nukes’ and ‘Co-Exist’.

Bumper stickers cluster by political tribe, just as politicised emojis and hashtags do in twitter bios. The division has historically been between Left and Right, but the two groups are perhaps more instructively described as ‘Blue Tribe’ and ‘Red Tribe’, given that they self-segregate by culture as much as by politics.

The evolving response to Covid-19 has been an example of tribalism in action. When the virus first emerged into public consciousness at the beginning of this year, there was no political script available to tell each tribe how to respond. Some members of the Blue Tribe took the view in February that an over-reaction to the threat should be interpreted as evidence of anti-Chinese racism, and Nancy Pelosi encouraged people to visit San Francisco’s Chinatown to show support for the Chinese-American community. Meanwhile, members of Red Tribe were urging border closures to halt the spread of the disease.

Nine months on, attitudes have had time to crystallise, and the two tribes have neatly swapped their views on the best response to the disease, with Blue Tribe favouring more lockdown, and Red Tribe favouring less. In the UK, if you know a person’s attitude towards Brexit, you can be fairly confident in predicting their attitude towards lockdown, despite the fact that the relationship between the two issues is not at all obvious.

In Vexed, Mumford tackles the blight of package-deal ethics by looking closely at six controversial issues that divide Blue Tribe from Red Tribe in both the UK and America: euthanasia, the benefits system, cultural sexualisation, gun rights, environmentalism, and the treatment of ex-offenders. Carefully alternating between pointing out inconsistencies on the Right and on the Left, Mumford persuasively argues that, on all of these issues, our assumptions are quite wrong.

Take the issue of euthanasia, which is usually taken to be a part of the Left’s package-deal: if you support abortion access, environmentalism, nuclear disarmament, and LGBT rights, then you must support legalised euthanasia, even though these issues don’t have any obvious connection to one another.

Mumford suggests that this knee-jerk support for legalised euthanasia is based on the Left’s “belief in inclusivity… the commitment to identify the marginalised and protect the vulnerable.” The problem is that such a policy is not necessarily inclusive at all, despite first appearances. It might be inclusive of one group in particular: the incurably ill who know their own minds and want to die in as painless and dignified a way as possible. But it is not inclusive of another, equally vulnerable group that is probably much larger: elderly or disabled people who are not economically active and might, in their darkest moments, understand themselves to be burdens on their families or on the state.

I confess that I once made the mistake of not thinking carefully about euthanasia, and so adopting the position that my package-deal presented to me at the time: uncritical acceptance of the case for legalisation. That is the risk of acting like a ‘normal person’ and going along with the group. It makes for an easy life, but it also makes for bad decision-making.

Vexed is an important book to read in any year, but in this coming year it is more important than ever. We’re at a moment when political tribes are in flux across the Western world. We’ve got record numbers of ethnic minority Americans voting Republican and Tories taking working class heartlands in the North of England. The old division between Right and Left is breaking apart, to be replaced by — what? Somewheres and anywheres? Globalists and populists? It remains to be seen.

For anyone drawn to the emerging political movement sometimes called post-liberalism it is particularly important to be cognisant of the dangers of package-deal ethics. Post-liberals are not (yet) cohesive enough to have formed an ideological package-deal — one bumper sticker does not (yet) predict the next.

And long may that remain true, because package-deal ethics is corrosive to good sense. Mumford reminds us that there are rarely simple answers to complex ethical questions, and obeying a tribe is rarely the best route. He asks us to continually ask “which aspect of the good is being obscured by this bundling of positions?” And I suspect that, in 2021, we will have to ask this question with even greater urgency.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.