I watched some of the vice-presidential debate tonight, in an act of uncharacteristic attention to politics. Which is to say, it’s not a kind of game I am familiar with the finer details of. Early on, one of the debaters was given two minutes to answer what sounded like an easy question, and proceeded to just openly and brazenly not answer it and instead talk about how bad the other party was for nearly the whole time in such an overt fashion that I felt embarrassed for them. They answered at the end, technically but not very informatively.
My first impulse was to hold this against them. But my caricatured impression of politics plus my boyfriend’s amusement at my indignation suggest that not answering the question is to political debate as running on grass is to soccer. So even if we have some broader norms suggesting that one should answer the question in such circumstances-or should have such norms—still these debaters have no reason to expect viewers to hold it against them if they don’t answer the question. And given that, and the importance of winning, shouldn’t they, morally, totally ignore the question, whenever there is something more politically advantageous to say? And then shouldn’t I not be annoyed, and in fact fully support that, since they acted morally?
That all sounds plausible, in a way. But suppose it is definitely genuinely worse for the world for debaters not to answer the question. And the social costs from people like me (but eligible to vote) thinking worse of them are the very thing that determines whether or not they answer the question. That makes it seem right for me to punish them. So should I rightly punish them, while they rightly do the thing I’m punishing them for (and I agree that they are right)? Should they agree that I should punish them, while also thinking that they should go ahead and do it?