This grand question may now be added to the list of hermeneutical challenges that have roiled our society in recent years, alongside such classics as ‘Does baking a wedding cake imply complicity?’ and ‘Can we have statues of slaveholders?’ I proposed in an earlier email
that, whether we like it or not, the MAGA hat is provocative. I think as a general class high schoolers are interested in provoking, but I don’t know whether those
high schoolers were. Half of America will say it doesn’t matter what they thought they were doing: they did it, and that’s the story. The other half is anxious that such an approach ignores the people involved, leaving their intentions outside the frame of reference. Those are caricatures, yes—or are they?
There are few more basic problems of ethics than knowing what someone is doing when we see them acting in a particular way. We’re confident that we know what we are doing, because we’ve thought it all out: we are searching through this abyss of a kitchen drawer looking for our car keys, to let it warm up before we go get our coffee. Our interest in getting coffee sets the frame for a whole sequence of actions, which make those little moments intelligible to us: keys, cars, and then (at last) coffee.
But while we might know what we’re doing, someone else observing us might not. Oh, they might watch us agitatedly throwing knickknacks on the floor while we mutter in disgust. But they don’t know what we’re about: we might be looking for keys, or for a pocketknife. Someone who knows us well might know both are in the same bottomless drawer, and still not know what we’re about. (‘Is it coffee that he wants, or murder?’) They can’t really know what we’re doing unless they know why we’re moving in those particular ways: and that simply is not self-evident in the vast range of cases (if ever). Understanding why we’re behaving in a particular way requires making some reference to our desires, history, aims, and the like. We’re pursuing our car keys because we need coffee, and we need coffee because we stayed up too late writing a newsletter. Without knowing about the coffee, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about how to interpret our actions—but know about the coffee, and the matter is closed. (Well, kind of. There’s always deception, both of our selves and each other, and the possibility of reinterpretation.)
This is a common problem to moral philosophers, and to husbands and wives everywhere. (And it is an especially acute problem when those husbands and wives are moral philosophers—Christ have mercy.) Alasdair MacIntyre names the challenge with uncharacteristic lucidity: “The same action,” he writes, “can…on different occasions express different desires, and the same desire can be expressed in different actions.” One way to think about this is that actions are underdetermined or opaque. We do something, but what we do could have a wide range of meanings, depending who we are, what we want, the situation we are in, and so on.
Responsible practical action takes into account those variables and fits the action to them, in a way that aims to limit the possibility of misinterpretation by others. We know, for instance, that running through the house brandishing a machete is not generally an act that signifies hunger, and so we rule that out as a course of action when we need food. But there are limits to how much of that work we can or should do. Endlessly qualifying one’s thoughts to avoid being misconstrued generates bad prose—and endlessly working to avoid being misunderstood paralyzes.
Let’s set aside the difficulties of this indeterminacy for our debates about the ethics of symbols, though.
I have a hypothesis that this flexibility of meaning erodes as a relationship progresses. Eventually, we interpret what the other is doing though expectations and habits and patterns: we know what’s happened, even if they protest, because the explanation fits. Jealousy and suspicion, for instance, fill in the gaps of otherwise indeterminate or ambiguous behavior, seeing meanings and significance within an act that the other person protests are not there.
If this is right, then the virtue of charity might involve reawakening our awareness of how underdetermined our actions are, through a steadfast refusal to allow person’s history to determine how we understand what they are doing. Charity requires holding open the possibility that what seems to be is not—that those around us do not do what they seem to do, an ironic inversion of Paul’s struggle in Romans 7. Marriage therapy seems to work something like this: by peeling back layers and layers of interpretation that have built up over the years, couples can enter anew into a kind of uncertainty about what’s happening, creating a space into which newer and hopefully better forms of action will enter. While ‘starting over’ doesn’t seem like a real option, such work makes us more alive to the fact that we do not know as well as we presume what the other is doing when they act.
None of this explains the meaning of MAGA. But it might explain ourselves.