Voting and the Lesser of Two Evils
by David Ottlinger
Everyone is saying it — from senior politicians, to top military brass, to hoary political commentators, to editors of The Electric Agora: “I can’t vote for Hillary and I can’t vote for Donald Trump.” I can understand why so many have been moved to make this statement and God knows I empathize with the sentiment behind it. But I doubt that the arguments behind it, when there are arguments behind it, have very much force. And since so many have stated, in such a consequential election year, that they “cannot” vote for a candidate, I think we are owed some account of what forbids them. I want to explore some of the rationales usually given, as best as I can discern them, and suggest ways in which they may be inadequate. If my rebuttals are accepted, I do not see how one can escape the conclusion that we are obliged to vote for the best candidate, whomever he or she should be.
In my experience, conversations in which people make the titular statement generally have the same form. The person who makes the claim names some reasons that they contend eliminates one candidate from consideration and then do the same for the other candidate. For instance: “I can’t vote for Trump because of his racist comments, but I can’t vote for Hillary because of her corruption.” Now, it is worth pausing over this kind of thought process. Implicit in such a train of thought is the idea that a candidate can be eliminated from consideration by considering them completely in isolation, that is to say, totally apart from any consideration of their opponent.
Consider this experiment. An experimenter presents you with a head to head election for, say, the presidency. There are only two candidates, and you are informed that both have a very serious chance of being elected. Accordingly you cannot dismiss the consequences of your vote. Your choice will be of some consequence in the outcome of the race. However, in presenting you with this choice, the experimenter tells you nothing about one candidate. You are not told anything about this candidate’s positions, philosophy of governing, past record or even their age, race, religion, health etc. You are, by contrast, given a more or less full brief on the other candidate. Now, further imagine that some part of what is revealed to you about the unhidden candidate is anathema to you. It may be a commitment to some position you consider patently immoral or some suggestion of corruption in their past, etc. The crucial question is, can you reasonably make the statement that you cannot vote for the revealed candidate, even knowing nothing about his or her rival?
As far as I can tell, those who reject both candidates are committed to answering this in the affirmative. This is because, in my observation, they usually state that the qualities of one candidate are disqualifying, full stop and damn the consequences. Of course the qualities of the other candidate are known to them, but they are also considered irrelevant. The decision not to vote for X has been made without reference to Y. The calculus has gone on in isolation. In this respect, it is not different from the calculus of the subject of the experiment. That person has made his decision, while considering the reasons for and against that candidate in isolation, without any comparison to the rival candidate.
But why would anyone accept such a thought process? I think there are a few explanations. For one I think that those who feel unable to vote for either candidate feel it is immoral to do so. I take it that they believe that giving their support to a candidate who does not share their fundamental values is morally impermissible. As such, they do not believe that they can vote for a given candidate, no matter what the political consequences of such a choice. If a certain candidate is deemed sufficiently inadequate, their rival does not matter.
In philosophical terms, their thinking is deontic. That is to say, they hold that some actions are wrong and impermissible, as a matter of principle. Such actions are not to be performed in any situation, regardless of the potential consequences. Consider, as an example, being told that if you do not kill some innocent person, someone else will kill two innocent people. Consequentialists, those who reckon the morality of actions purely in terms of their consequences, would have to hold that in such a scenario shooting a person would be permissible or even obligatory, as not doing so would result in far worse consequences. (The death of two innocents is substantially worse than the death of one.) But most of us, myself included, are inclined to feel that even under such circumstances, we would not be permitted to take such a step. Killing an innocent is wrong and impermissible. Even if greater harm, even much greater harm, would result from our not performing an action, we are still not permitted to undertake it. Whatever the consequences, I do not have the right to take an innocent life. Analogously, people may feel that the election of Donald Trump may cause considerably more harm to the country than the election of Hillary Clinton, but that they still are not permitted to vote for the latter given their differences in fundamental values. Choosing Clinton may help to avoid serious negative consequences, but that is simply not their decision to make. Voting for a candidate with whom they differ so strongly is not permissible. It may result in better consequences overall, but that is not their decision to make.
This, of course, is not always explicit. However, I think such reasoning can be glimpsed in many comments and stray remarks. One such remark came from columnist Matt Lewis, at Blogging Heads TV. (Blogging Heads always has the advantage of giving us commentators thinking on their feet, which often is revealing in a way that their written commentary is not.) Speaking about a potential Clinton presidency and the possibility helping to bring it about, he remarked: “I do not want to personally bear responsibility [for a Clinton presidency].” This reveals the same logic as above. Voting for Trump is wrong, voting for Clinton is wrong. Voting for Clinton may bring about fewer bad consequences than voting for Trump, but that is not, Lewis seems to say, our choice to make. We are simply not permitted to vote for certain candidates, regardless of the potential candidates.
I have serious doubts about the validity of such reasoning. I am much more inclined to believe that any decision in favor of one candidate can only reasonably be made after comparing said candidate against the other candidates. We can, of course, tell whether some quality of a candidate counts for or against them, in our reckoning, prior to considering the other candidate. For instance, if I am pro-life and a candidate is pro-choice, I know that I am less inclined to favor that candidate. The fact that they support pro-choice positions makes them less desirable, before I make any comparison to rival candidates. In other terms, holding such a position gives me a reason not to vote for the candidate who holds it. But whatever reasons I have to vote for a candidate or vote against a candidate, they must be weighed against the reasons I have to vote for or to vote against the rival candidate or candidates. In philosophical terms, the reasons I have to vote for or against a candidate are always defeasible. That is to say, they can always be defeated by stronger, countervailing reasons. If for instance the candidate I disfavored for being pro-choice has as their only rival a candidate who has a still more staunchly pro-choice position, that should outweigh the reason I had for disfavoring the first candidate. It follows that no candidate can be eliminated from consideration while considered by themselves. Whatever reasons we are given to vote for or against a candidate can always be defeated by reasons to vote for or against another candidate.
I believe the deontic logic of many who refuse to vote for either candidate is misapplied, and I am inclined to think it gets something very wrong about the nature of politics. We may — and I tend to think we do — have a moral obligation to vote and to vote as intelligently as possible. As a corollary, we may have an obligation to keep informed and make the appropriate effort to be fair-minded. But moral compromise inheres in the nature of politics. Almost any candidate will hold some position the enactment of which I find seriously immoral, be it abortion, drone strikes, military interventions, anti-poverty initiatives, taxes etc. It would seem strange to say that voting for virtually any candidate would be immoral.
Consider again Lewis’ statement: “I do not want to personally bear responsibility.” This is rather revealing. It is also misguided. We, of course, do not have responsibility for all the things that politicians do. That responsibility is theirs. Likewise we do not have responsibility for the choice we are presented with, but only for the choice we make. It is not the voters’ fault that they must choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Granted, a person has some responsibility for that situation if they voted for either candidate or did not vote in the primary, but any one person’s influence on the primary is vanishingly small. Fundamentally it is not our fault that we have these two candidates to choose from. But it is our responsibility to choose between them.
Compare this to the person who is deciding whether or not to take the life of one innocent to save two. Like the voter he is faced with two possible outcomes. In one possible outcome, he does not kill an innocent and two other innocents are killed, the consequences are substantially worse. As stated before, it is intuitive to think that in spite of the drastic difference in consequences, the person in this scenario does not have a right to take a life. There is, however, an important difference. If the person takes a life, that person is directly morally responsible for that outcome. I cannot see that voters have anything like the same responsibility for the actions of elected officials. We elect officials based on the information we have but never knowing fully what they will do upon taking office. An official may have to respond to situations which were unforeseeable and react in unexpected ways that may or may not reflect the wishes or values of the voter. In such cases the official, and not the voter, bears the responsibility. Even in the cases of foreseeable events, as when an official enacts policies they promised to enact, the voter can only have an indirect and slight responsibility. Presumably the voter, endowed with all the same powers and responsibilities, would have acted differently. But the voter is not able to do so. They are only able to make the choice they are given.
A person may inquire (pointedly), as to whether there are not cases in which I would refuse to vote for any candidate. The answer is that there are. But even in cases when I would vote for no candidate, my reasoning would be different from the kind I have been criticizing. I would refuse to vote for any candidate if all candidates were equally unacceptable. If Hitler ran against Stalin, I would not be able to vote for either. But my reasoning for voting for neither would be purely political. Both Hitler and Stalin would be expected to rule in such a way that would deprive the state of its legitimacy. The only options then would be to flee or to take up arms against the state. But fortunately this is very far from our situation. I think all reasonable parties must agree that in the current race, there is at least one candidate that would represent a legitimate democratic government and would govern more or less within the law. Accordingly that candidate does represent a politically acceptable option. If the kind of deontic moral principles to which some voters appeal do not apply, I see no bar to voting for that candidate.
To reiterate, I understand why some voters feel unable to vote for either candidate. But, without being condescending, feelings are not justifications. I would urge those who have such feelings to examine the reasoning behind them and test whether or not they stand up to reflection. For myself, I am not happy with either of my choices. But I understand that this is the choice I am presented with and making it is my responsibility. It is no good trying to escape it. Faced with such a threat to democratic values I believe we all have an obligation not just to not join with it, but to actively work against it. We are not responsible for having to make this choice but we will be responsible for making the wrong one. And I believe that would be a heavy responsibility indeed.