- Norman Young
When Politics Becomes Pascal's Wager
The Senate is moving forward. In just a few hours, Senators will decide whether to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as the next Supreme Court Justice. While Republican political pundits have the option to reserve judgment until after the political dust settles, Senators have no such luxury. They must decide. And even indecision is a decision. Many "never-Trump" media figures are staying out of it. Some avoided the uncomfortable Kavanaugh topic altogether. Others relegated their opinions to ancillary matters, or tried to stake out a middle ground.
No middle ground exists on the Kavanaugh issue. There are only two possible answers and only one important question: Ford or Kavanaugh—who do you believe?
Several Republicans, in order to avoid the appearance of malice toward women, claim that they believe something may have happened to Christine Ford, but that Kavanaugh did not do it. They mansplain that memory is unreliable, and that the mind can sometimes play tricks on you. This is condescending nonsense. Of course the mind can err, but there is also such a thing as certainty. Both Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh claim that they are 100% certain about the alleged incident. One of them is lying.
No answer can be found in the facts of Ford's case because there is no corroborating evidence and few of Ford's claims are falsifiable. But, a lack of relevant information does not negate the need for an answer, and the stakes are extremely high for both sides. Democrats cannot afford to let the legal linchpin of their social policies (Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges) be overturned. Republicans cannot afford to pass up the opportunity for an originalist Supreme Court. This leaves the Senate facing an existentially significant 50/50 wager.
When Blaise Pascal faced a difficult existential question ("does an incomprehensible God exist?"), Reason could not help him find the answer. But, he still had to decide what to believe. To make his decision, then, Pascal considered the results of each choice. If he answered "yes," he lost nothing, and could gain everything. If he answered "no," he gained nothing, and could lose everything. So, after weighing the possible outcomes, Pascal chose to believe in God.
In the absence of facts, Republicans and Democrats have resorted to Pascalian reasoning regarding the allegations of Dr. Ford. Democrats assure us that believing Dr. Ford loses nothing, but could gain everything. Republicans insist that believing Dr. Ford without evidence gains nothing, but could lose everything.
"What's the downside of believing Christine Ford? An angry white man might lose the job he thinks he's entitled to? Big deal. That's a small price to pay to make sure no rapist ever sits on the Supreme Court!"
"Taking down Brett Kavanaugh on unsubstantiated allegations is, at best, a gross violation of a juvenile delinquent's Due Process rights. At worst, it gives unlimited veto power over political appointments to any woman willing to lie about her political enemies."
This is a crappy situation. But America is stuck at the table and forced to play this out. There is no avoiding the wager. It is time to place bets and roll the bones.