Presidential Debate Questions Should Be About Fictional & Morally Ambiguous Scenarios

American presidential debates are not very good. This is mostly due to the fact that using well-rehearsed distortions of the truth to make your opponent stumble has somehow become a proxy for good policy. We also have a “post-truth” campaign, and that means candidates can dodge tough questions by contesting the premise on which they’re based. “Governor Romney, how do you respond to studies saying that your tax plan can’t do what you say it will do?” “That’s not what those studies say.”

I think the solution is to ask questions about outrageous hypothetical situations that are morally and politically ambiguous. This will give the public real information about how the candidates think, and it will prevent answers that aren’t genuine. For example, why not open the debate with some variation of the trolley problem? President Obama, would you flip a switch so a train ran over a single person instead of five people? Or how about the following scenario:

In a fictional universe a spaceship finds intelligent life on a nearby planet. The species is very similar to us in terms of social and technological advancement. They are friendly and happy to meet us. They excitedly agree to a peaceful and cooperative relationship. However, at the end of the expedition the crew discovers the planet is covered in a plant that releases a chemical toxic to humans. If the aliens wanted, they could easily weaponize it and wipe out the human race. The aliens don’t know this, but as president, you do. What’s your course of action?

The beauty of this type of question is that because the situation is unrealistic, disputing the premise makes you sound like a crazy person. And even if a candidate tries to dodge by asking for more details, the questions they ask will give the public a lot of valuable information. There are also no politically expedient answers because there’s no polling on these issues. Your best bet is to explain what you think is right. If the public buys your response, that’s genuine. You deserve their votes because you’ve made a convincing case for your morality.

Given our surplus of exceedingly clever philosophers and policy writers there should be no shortage of scenarios that are much better than the ones I’ve mentioned. Who can make this a reality? Get Jim Lehrer on the phone.

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