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.

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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.

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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.

Categories: Essay, Essays

50 Comments »

  1. Hi David, I’m unconvinced being unwilling to vote for a candidate requires “deontic” reasoning.

    Why can’t it be consequential with just a different threshold (or analysis of the situation) than you? Or a pragmatic issue? Or a personal issue? There are many reasons to not vote for a candidate (even without knowing about the other candidate). Saying “I can’t” or “I won’t” is not the same thing as saying “it is just wrong” to do so. It is a statement of preference, who they are willing to lend their support toward.

    “I don’t want to personally bear the responsibility” doesn’t imply deontological thinking either. Indeed, it seems explicitly consequential. That you manage to create an argument disconnecting a person’s vote for a candidate, with that candidate’s actions (so the voter does not actually bear responsibility), does not mean that wasn’t their reasoning.

    In fact, a virtue ethics approach could lead one to say the same sort of thing. If two sets of idiots choose to restrict themselves to only the lesser of two evils, and so create a practical reality (in a self-fulfilling prophecy) only one of two evils will likely win, it is a statement about those idiots, not the “virtuous” voter who chooses a good candidate. That voter is still interested in consequences of a sort, just not the same kind of consequences as you (and… ahem… the idiots).

    In the end an election is a question of who you want as your representative. You can game it or you can vote for who you actually want (allowing democracy to take it’s course) including nobody if none of them suit you. And it seems curious to discount feelings as justification in this arena. It is your representative. You get to choose what the qualifications are for being your representative.

    Let me ask (since this is obviously about the current election) what evidence combined with reasons (not just feelings) do you have that Trump constitutes a “threat to democratic values”? He has basically no track record to go on. Whereas Clinton has a track record in government, which is pretty poor. It would seem to me people on the left have plenty of reason (based on evidence) to not want Clinton, but only a visceral instinct not to give Trump a chance to show how bad he could be. I can’t say I would want to discount that feeling.

    Finally, it is ironic is that you construct an argument that a person who votes for a candidate is not responsible for how that candidate acts in office, while ending with an argument that appears to hold voters responsible for the actions of a candidate if they don’t vote for that candidate’s primary opponent.

    Oh yeah, only if said candidate is a “threat to democratic values”? Many view Clinton as a “threat to democratic values”, does that mean they have a duty to vote for her primary opponent?

    (note: I’m coming down hard on the reasoning but it was an interesting read)

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  2. Might a person not have a civic duty to vote which might be outweighed by a moral duty not to vote for the lesser evil of the two main parties but to rather vote for a third party that might not have a chance but would start a crack in the dam. It seems to me that this lesser evil talk has been going on for many election cycles now. Third party candidates might be allowed to participate in television debates with the dominant pair to introduce the public to new ideas. Trump the Disruptor coming from outside the machine might break up the log jam.

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  3. A non-vote can be a kind of vote that is a sotto voce vote.

    The ballot box is nominally private but in practice friends, family or acquaintances will ask ‘how did you vote?’ or ‘who did you vote for?’. I can hardly reply ‘none of your business’.

    Now it may happen that I am a Democrat who secretly sympathises a little with Trump and despises Clinton. I cannot bring myself to vote for Clinton but I cannot possibly admit to friends and family that I voted for Trump, nor can I lie to them about my vote.

    By not voting I am diminishing support for Clinton, because ordinarily a Democrat would have received my vote. I have thereby indirectly increased support for Trump, making my non-vote a kind-of-vote in a way that avoids embarrassment for myself in the eyes of family and friends.

    I am an un-American so my example is hypothetical but a very similar scenario played out here in SA during our recent nation-wide municipal elections. Black people find it hard, for emotional reasons, to justify a vote for the mainly white opposition party, the Democratic Alliance(DA). But they are beginning to despise the ruling ANC, for their endemic corruption, patronage politics, criminality, inertia and downright incompetence. Few are prepared to admit voting for the DA(in the black community little is private) but they cannot bring themselves to vote for the ANC. Thus they stayed away from the polls in significant numbers with the result that four of the five large cities(Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Pretoria) were captured by the DA.

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  4. Dan-K.
    I’d like to know why voting is a “moral obligation.”

    Society imposes on us a strong expectation that we will vote. When I internalise these strong expectations I feel an obligation to vote. I also feel an obligation to not be a free-rider on a society that gives me so much. I therefore feel obliged to give back to society and one way is to help shape the country’s governance with my vote. These are obligations that I respect since I am motivated by sense of duty and responsibility.

    Obligations that are motivated by virtuous concerns, such as duty and responsibility, are surely moral obligations when seen in the framework of virtue ethics(and when not in conflict with other stronger, overriding ethical concerns).

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  5. Hey db,

    “Why can’t it be consequential with just a different threshold (or analysis of the situation) than you?”
    Consequentialism does not have “thresholds”. In a way that’s the whole point. You choose the actions with the best consequences. No action is bared in and of itself.

    ” Saying “I can’t” or “I won’t” is not the same thing as saying “it is just wrong” to do so.”
    Can you give a justification for “I can’t” or “I won’t” that doesn’t imply some form of “it is wrong”?

    “[I]t seems explicitly consequential.”
    It is definitely not consequential as it precludes making a decision based on maximizing god consequences.

    “In fact, a virtue ethics approach…”
    I have to say I don’t understand this paragraph.

    “You can game it or you can vote for who you actually want (allowing democracy to take it’s course) including nobody if none of them suit you.”
    I deny that the later calculus is more democratic. According to traditional democratic theory, the people select leaders and officials to bring policy into line with their interests. That is a fundamental justification for democracy. This demands that voters make compromise and try to enact as much of their preferences as possible. Refusing to vote for an imperfect candidate when you know the other candidate is worse for the country is exactly what is undemocratic. Madison envisioned a system for the arbitration and enactment of compromise.

    “And it seems curious to discount feelings as justification in this arena.”
    I find that statement very surprising. What role is there for feeling that is not just giving way to emotive reasoning?

    “Let me ask (since this is obviously about the current election) what evidence combined with reasons (not just feelings) do you have that Trump constitutes a “threat to democratic values”?”
    He delegitimizes whatever is in his way (the press, elected officials, elections, the opposition) with conspiracy theories and slanders, he constantly lies and spreads misinformation to manipulate public opinion and demagogue the issues, he treats votes as something he is owed and not and not the sovereign privilege of the voter which he must earn, he flouts even the most basic standards of civility and decency, he promotes the narrative that “he alone” can solve the public’s problems as opposed to the public enacting its own will through democratic action, he advocates policies that are not only immoral but flagrantly illegal under domestic and international law and he exhorts his followers to violence. There is no fundamental norm of democracy (honesty, civility, commitment to common good, sovereignty of the people, rule of law) which he has not grossly violated.

    “Finally, it is ironic is that you construct an argument that a person who votes for a candidate is not responsible for how that candidate acts in office, while ending with an argument that appears to hold voters responsible for the actions of a candidate if they don’t vote for that candidate’s primary opponent.”
    There is nothing ironic about having a limited sphere of responsibility. Voters are responsible for making the best possible choice, not everything that happens after they make that choice which is largely beyond their control.

    NB: I’m coming down hard on your reasoning, but I appreciate your comment.

    Dan,

    I can imagine no account of morality (or ethics) that does not include basic citizenship or any account of citizenship which does not include voting.

    Michael,

    “Might a person not have a civic duty to vote which might be outweighed by a moral duty not to vote for the lesser evil of the two main parties but to rather vote for a third party that might not have a chance but would start a crack in the dam.”
    Sure. I just think it is pretty clear we are not in that situation.

    lab,
    Agree with pretty much everything you said.

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  6. david: I’m curious what you think about third parties. In an election like this one, where the third party candidates cannot win the election, is one “morally permitted” to vote for them, on your reasoning? It would seem to me that as you have reasoned here, it would not.

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  7. labnut and David: If one embraces a virtue theoretical ethics and presumes an ancient Greek conception of citizenship, then I can see where the idea of voting as morally obligatory might resonate.

    But in a modern, liberal democracy, the franchise is a prerogative — specifically, the prerogative to have a say in one’s own governance. I certainly can see many reasons why one would *want* to exercise this prerogative, but I can’t see how there could be a moral duty to do so. At worst, one might say that a person who doesn’t vote is foolish or cares insufficiently about his personal sovereignty, but that’s about all.

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  8. Dan,

    “In an election like this one, where the third party candidates cannot win the election, is one “morally permitted” to vote for them, on your reasoning? It would seem to me that as you have reasoned here, it would not.”
    Correct. I don’t think a third party vote (under present circumstances) is justifiable. We have a civic responsibility to rally around a responsible candidate.

    By the way. I hope it is clear that i do not think people who don’t vote are moral monsters or something. I understand very well the fatigue and frustration around our system at the moment. I can understand why a lot of voters feel depressed and defeated and so give up in disgust. I have a lot of friends like that. (Also not saying this is you, but just reflecting in general.) But I do think there exist sufficient moral reasons to vote and vote a certain way.

    The piece was meant to sympathetic and understanding to those who feel they can vote for neither candidate. My point all along has been that we can have political and moral disagreement without shrieking. I aim to be true to that ideal.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dan,

    Sorry these are coming out of order, I didn’t see all your comments right away.

    “If one embraces a virtue theoretical ethics and presumes an ancient Greek conception of citizenship…”
    I am indeed sympathetic to Aristotle, Hume and modern communitarians.

    “But in a modern, liberal democracy, the franchise is a prerogative — specifically, the prerogative to have a say in one’s own governance.”
    I actually don’t think that’s true even on classical liberal theory. This is quite important and I have been thinking about it quite a bit. Of course on classical liberal theory, or–if you don’t like it— bourgeois philosophy, individuals form a social contract in order to serve their individual interests. Leading a good, happy or flourishing life is something I do on my own or at least outside the public sphere. The public sphere exists to protect all of our ability to pursue our private projects. But once we are entered into the social contract we are *contracted* to serve each other’s interests. This has a *moral* force as well as a political one. We are morally obliged to uphold the contract.

    Take Hobbes. Hobbes has a, I think naive, view on which we can just alienate our rights at will. I can just give my right to my king. But once I do so, I no longer have the right to disobey him. I think Hobbes holds not just that obedience should be compelled because a society in which obedience is upheld is better than one in which it is not (though he certainly does hold this) but further that it is wrong, in amoral sense, to disobey authority. We have no right to disobey.

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  10. David: Very good replies. As should be obvious, nothing I can say would serve as any sort of refutation. Just a few thoughts:

    1. I disagree completely about third parties. Indeed, if I vote, it could very well be for Johnson/Weld. Part of the reason why we have the terrible candidates we have is precisely because too many people accept *your* logic, with respect to voting.

    2. I disagree that we have a moral duty to uphold the contract and this strikes me as being flat out at odds with its basic logic. Indeed, it is precisely when enough people think that the contract is no longer in their interest that the right to revolution gets invoked. And regardless, there is no plausible sense in which failing to vote violates the social contract.

    3. But there is a much less formal, common/ordinary point, here. My vote is my business and not yours, so stay out of it. And frankly, this notion that “your vote is my business because it affects me” is more gaseous than substantial. To the extent that everything everyone does has some effect on the other people around, this reasoning leads to the conclusion that there can/should be no private sphere, no personal prerogative at all. I — and fortunately most people – reject this idea.

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  11. One more thing. What exactly is supposed to be meant by your invocation of ‘responsible voting’? Surely that is a matter of what one thinks the most pressing issues are, and that is something about which there can be widespread, reasonable disagreement.

    For example, if one thinks, as I do, that the War on Drugs is one of the most pressing issues — in that it is imperative we stop it — then a “responsible” voter will vote for Johnson/Weld, since they are the most likely to end it. Ditto for if you think that reducing our foreign interventions — i.e. unofficial wars — is one of the most pressing issues. J/W are by far the best on that issue too.

    It’s easy to think that what *you* believe are the most pressing issues and thus, what counts as responsible voting, is generalizable, but this is precisely what reflection should disabuse a person of.

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  12. The effect of third party candidates can result in what is called “Spoiler effect” (Wikipedia). The best example is how Ralph Nader cost Al Gore in 2000 in Florida and gave the election to George Bush. This was called the “Nader effect”.

    So I can see how indeed it is immoral to vote tor a third candidate if it results in a “Johnson effect” or “Stein effect” giving the election to Donald Trump.

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  13. Tough luck. Stop putting up such crappy candidates, then.

    I just wrote an essay about this. People telling me I’m immoral has *zero* practical effect, so all it is is a kind of posturing and signalling.

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  14. I come here as something of a spoiler, because my view on American politics and the status and trajectory of the American government, and the society for which it supposedly stands, is bleaker and more pessimistic than anything I’ve read in these comments so far.

    First, let me agree with Dan that it is a mistake to confuse ‘civic responsibility’ and ‘moral responsibility.’ It can even be dangerous. A nation is a balancing act holding together differing, sometimes conflicting communities for the sake of economic efficiency; it is not a tribe nor an organic develop out from a single community, which means that it can not be held together by custom assuming the weight of moral demand. Politics is not about right or wrong, it’s a negotiation between differences in order to avoid resort to violence. When morals enter politics self-righteousness follows close after and can no longer be constrained; ultimately only violence, state violence or other collective violence, or the threat of violence, or the sanction of law backed by a threat of violence, can put it back in its place.

    However I do share the OP’s somewhat jaundiced view on the possibility for third party success in America – but for purely pragmatic and practical reasons. First, the electoral system has been considerably jiggered by the two major parties, making third party access to the ballot extraordinarily difficult. The Libertarian Party is on ballot in 46 states, and will probably make it to all 50 by November 8, but the Green Party is only on 23 state ballots, meaning they cannot possibly when the presidency through the electoral college. Secondly, third parties in America do not have the access to the wealth needed to campaign properly in a national election – this election will have cost the two major parties some 2 billion dollars. We see this and think “mostly TV ads,” and a lot does go into media, but most of party expenditures are actually for keeping open local and regional offices. Which leads into recognition that the most important asset major parties have that third parties do not is local recognition. No, I’m not talking about Johnson or Stein. I mean the local party leaders and their local political office holders. The presence of these local politicians maintains a web of recognition and contact throughout local communities, a state, an entire region. Finally, for now, consider: a third party president gets elected; now what is she to do, with a Congress where both parties want her out of office? The practical answer is that little will be accomplished unless she sides with one or the other major party; the pragmatic answer is, for a third party president to be effective as such, the third party would have prepared the way by spending millions on local and state elections, years of persuading voters in those elections that they were capable and responsive administrators and legislators, finally developing enough momentum to establish a viable presence in Congress.

    I think too much emphasis is put on what presidents can do; they actually can do very little, especially with government as it has developed since the second World War. It is true that George W. Bush made a hash of things, economically and in foreign policy, but he didn’t do this alone. Indeed, in many matters one could see the shadowy hand of Dick Cheney, and in fact there was a whole group of advisors, policy wonks, and strategists on whom he relied. Without such a clique, Gerald Ford could not get re-elected and Jimmy Carter could not govern properly. Reagan not only brought his own clique to Washington, he re-established clique etiquette and ethics as an integral function of the Executive. Such cliques are necessary to get anything done in negotiations with Congress, and with the two non-constitutional branches of government, the financial sector and the military. What all this means is that a President is little more than a Negotiator-in-Chief. That is why we tend to vote for the person, not the platform, because the platform is just one more chip to be negotiated for – or negotiated away – in the backrooms where real governance takes place (and pretty much always has since the Civil War).

    So, what sorts of Negotiators, would our two major candidates prove in office? Trump claims to be a “deal-maker,” but his history indicates that he lacks negotiating skills on long range projects, since virtually none of his businesses have survived; his greatest negotiating skill is in getting fat golden parachutes. Also, remember that he would be coming to Washington, not only without a viable clique, but without the skills necessary to form one. Clinton, on the other hand is a brilliant backroom negotiator, but she is willing to negotiate away virtually everything in her platform. Her clique is already largely in place in Washington, so it is unlikely that we will see major course shifts from her in most areas. However, it is well to remember that part of her constituency is now Republican, so some course shifts will probably make her Democratic voters cringe.

    In any event, simple demographics indicate that Donald Trump cannot possibly win this election. This is lucky for Clinton, because it is doubtful she could get elected opposing a moderate Republican. This is the year when Republicans will look back and think, ‘darn, I wish Romney had run again!’.

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  15. Well, that all looks hopeless and ugly, doesn’t it. That’s why I am not voting this year. And I happen to be fortunate to be living in New York, a state Trump couldn’t win if angels suddenly appeared in the skies above Manhattan proclaiming his name. So I actually have that choice without regret, since I know that the majority of New Yorkers will vote Clinton – were it a close race otherwise, I might reconsider, and have in the past.

    Now, one might say here, ‘but john, what if most New Yorkers felt as you do and nobody voted?” That’s a spurious argument. In the first place, the larger number of our fellow citizens do vote in the Presidential election (but not in the ‘off-year’ Congressional elections, when it actually matters). I can trust them to be beguiled by the horse-race; or by the yearning to have their voices heard; or by the flip the coin that leads to the ballot box. Because most people do have a sense of civic responsibility, and others want to bring their morals to voting booth so they can vote with self-righteous fury. Secondly, if we ever do get to the point where few bother voting, then that would be a sign that our government has lost legitimation, and a revolution would be at hand.

    No, the national election is largely empty show (which the media milks for all its worth), and nothing much will change afterward, except that the two parties will have new terms of abuse for their opponents. But one admit that it’s a grand show – a perfect distraction from actually thinking about the continuing decline of what could have been a great nation.

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  16. EJ wrote:

    A nation is a balancing act holding together differing, sometimes conflicting communities for the sake of economic efficiency; it is not a tribe nor an organic develop out from a single community, which means that it can not be held together by custom assuming the weight of moral demand. Politics is not about right or wrong, it’s a negotiation between differences in order to avoid resort to violence.

    —————————————

    God, this is so right. And is the reason why all of this moralizing of politics is not only confused — misunderstanding what a modern nation state is, as opposed to, say a tribal village — but dangerous.

    It’s also why I ceased to be a conservative — it is a political orientation that simply cannot be expressed and exercised in a social contract based modern nation state.

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  17. On the morality of voting, I live in one of those countries where attendance at the voting place (always on a weekend) is compulsory (one can still vote informal or illustrate the ballot with amusing graffiti). For some self-congratulatory justifications, you might read

    https://theconversation.com/compulsory-voting-much-like-democracy-beats-the-alternatives-34765

    “the young in [other jurisdictions] have yet to join the dots about the effect of their failure to vote on the way governments treat them..Many studies have indicated that government attention and spending are directly related to the size of electorate cohorts. Older people vote and so governments spend far more per capita on them than they do on the young.”

    My views of non-compulsory voting is jaundiced by the fact that conservative parties are apparently more likely to win if the weather on the polling day is rainy: “if it had rained less in 2000, Al Gore would have won Florida and become the president of the United States instead of George Bush”

    http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/files/dmUClO/Gomez.pdf

    As to my bid, One No Trump.

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  18. EJ,
    I come here as something of a spoiler, because my view on American politics and the status and trajectory of the American government, and the society for which it supposedly stands, is bleaker and more pessimistic than anything I’ve read in these comments so far.

    Then I think you should broaden your perspective and perhaps live for a while in my country. You will discover what real political and social problems look like. To give you one small example, last week I was mugged again while running(but I gave them a run for their money, if you will pardon the pun). And I am still recovering from injuries sustained when mugged in January! This is only the tip of the iceberg of a long catalogue of political, social, economic and criminal problems. You will return to your country with a better perspective and with a deeper and happier appreciation for its strengths. Seen from my perspective your problems seem quite trivial and your country a wonderful place to live with an admirable political system. But I suppose it is in our nature that our own problems loom large in our minds and seem all important.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. EJ, Dan-K
    A nation is a balancing act holding together differing, sometimes conflicting communities for the sake of economic efficiency; it is not a tribe nor an organic develop out from a single community, which means that it can not be held together by custom assuming the weight of moral demand. Politics is not about right or wrong, it’s a negotiation between differences in order to avoid resort to violence.
    —————————————
    God, this is so right.

    God, this is so wrong. 🙂
    We are a social web, bound together by a complex tangle of mutual expectations that go far beyond economic efficiency. Only Karl Marx would have agreed with you.The strands of the social web that bind us together are cultural, they are moral and they are emotional.

    Social webs tend to coagulate into regions of similar interests, creating fault lines between regions. Political systems and economic interests attempt to bridge the fault lines. This can only work for as long as the strands of mutual expectations between regions, based on cultural, moral and emotional expectations, still exist, even if somewhat attenuated. If they do not exist, the fault lines are unbridgeable. This is why Brexit took place.

    The sociologist, Christian Smith, makes a strong case for moral expectations being the primary bonding force in society. This is what he says(Moral Believing Animals):

    … that the most adequate approach to theorizing human culture and social life must be a normative one that conceives of humans as moral, believing, narrating animals and human social life as constituted by moral orders that define and direct social action. Human culture, I have suggested, is always moral order, and human cultures are everywhere moral orders. Human persons, I have claimed, are nearly inescapably moral agents, human actions necessarily morally constituted and propelled practices, and human institutions inevitably morally infused configurations of rules and resources.

    Building on this model, in the foregoing pages I have suggested that one of the central and fundamental motivations for human action is to act out and sustain moral order, which constitutes, directs, and makes significant human life itself. This book has argued that human persons nearly universally live in social worlds that are thickly webbed with moral assumptions, beliefs, commitments, and obligations. The relational ties that hold human lives together, the conversations that occupy people’s mental lives, the routines and intentions that shape their actions, the institutions within which they live and work, the emotions they feel every day—I have suggested that all of these and more are drenched in, patterned by, glued together with moral premises, convictions, and obligations.

    Modern liberal society is downplaying the force of mutual moral expectations. As the demand for individual freedom grows so are the bonds of mutual moral expectations weakened. Thus the bonds that hold society together are weakened and fault lines develop in the social web. Part of this process is to deny or limit the validity of moral expectations and to weaken the institutions that maintain moral expectations. Moral relativism or consequentialism is the natural outcome of this process.

    As the self regulatory moral order is weakened we are increasingly forced to a regime of external regulation, based on a dense network of laws, rules and regulations. Deontology has reappeared in a different form with the difference that absolute authority has been replaced by governmental authority and governmental authority regulates us in even more minute detail, creating resentment and resistance. Thus we navigate the deontology of laws, rules and regulations with the compass of consequentialism. We become scofflaws as we each appropriate for ourselves the right to judge by consequences to ourselves.

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  20. labnut: Modern nation states are too large and too heterogeneous for what you are talking about. part of the reason why ethical theorizing migrated from virtue based accounts to law-like duty based accounts is precisely because as the polis got larger and more diverse, one could rely less and less on common understandings, values, customs, and other informal forces to function as mechanisms of self-regulation.

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  21. Hi David, just to be clear my last sentence was not meant to be sarcastic. I realize it could be read that way, but it wasn’t.

    “You choose the actions with the best consequences.”

    There are different factors one can emphasize in such calculations and so forms of consequentialism. Off the top of my head: for the individual or the society, for security or freedom, for pleasure or eudaimonia, for our nation or for all humans (or all living things?), for the short term or the long term (and what counts as long term?). The mixing and matching of these can create different thresholds (to generate labels of right or wrong) for any different issue.

    There is no such thing as some pure, one-size fits all consequentialist formula.

    “Can you give a justification for “I can’t” or “I won’t” that doesn’t imply some form of “it is wrong”?”

    I can’t vote for a guy who wears a toupee. Not that there is anything wrong with wearing one, or people voting for a person who wears one, or that one gets elected. But personally, I would just feel uncomfortable watching presidential speeches from a guy with a rug. It would be too distracting, make me feel uncomfortable. That is an example and not my actual position BTW. We could swap “wears a toupee” with “can’t walk” or “has health problems” or “doesn’t look/feel presidential”.

    We had a real life example with Ted Cruz’s failure to back Trump. Apparently he “can’t” or “won’t” support someone who insults his wife and father. Maybe he thought it would be “wrong” to do so, but he wouldn’t have required that.

    And there are pragmatic issues too. I won’t vote for someone who has no chance of winning, or I won’t vote for candidate X because it will mean an increase in a certain tax (which would effect my pocket book).

    “I have to say I don’t understand this paragraph.”

    Your thesis connects voting with moral theory, and argues voting the lesser of two evils is inherently deontological. I pointed out how that is not true, giving an example of virtue ethics, which is not deontological, has some concern with consequences, and could still result in people making statements/choices you claimed were deontological.

    “According to traditional democratic theory, the people select leaders and officials to bring policy into line with their interests. That is a fundamental justification for democracy.”

    According to theory voters would be informed and vote for the most competent candidate that represents their interests and not the “lesser of two evils”, discounting all other candidates off hand, as demanded by a specific set of parties seeking power in a flawed voting system. So there’s that.

    “What role is there for feeling that is not just giving way to emotive reasoning?”

    Instinct is different than emotions. That said, my argument would allow for emotive reasoning as well.

    “There is no fundamental norm of democracy (honesty, civility, commitment to common good, sovereignty of the people, rule of law) which he has not grossly violated.”

    Well you have your democratic party talking points down. Ignoring the fact that Clinton has actually advocated and engaged in some of the things you ascribed to Trump, nothing you said (especially the quote above) gives me reasons based on evidence that he constitutes a “threat to democratic values”.

    Regardless of being a blowhard that says anything to get elected, how will his election to office pose a general threat to those values?

    “Voters are responsible for making the best possible choice, not everything that happens after they make that choice which is largely beyond their control.”

    You are engaged in special pleading to wash the hands of those who hold their nose to vote for Clinton (who has a terrible track record, and some pretty odious pledges for the future), while smearing anyone who chooses to vote for better candidates with anything Trump might do (which is equally beyond their control).

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Hi Philip Thrift, I disagree with your position. I’d supply more details but am currently writing a piece for Agora on that very topic (coincidentally started before David published his). It is a common idea to be sure, but flawed.

    Hopefully you will like/hate the essay 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Hillary Clinton is a terribly-flawed progressive. But look at the Supreme Court nominee she would make to replace “Notorious RGB” or other judicial appointments and the ones Trump would make. Putting a Nazi/KKK in office just to punish the Democrats for having a crappy candidate is no moral claim.

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  24. labnut,
    pretty much what Dan said.

    I have communities to which I belong; but I don’t have much in common with the Latino communities around here. I don’t share their language, their culture, their religions, their heritage. But it is in my interest as well as theirs that policies conducive to their prospering be enacted. And although the accepted moral norms in those communities trend against certain social positions I see in my interest, as opposed to theirs, this year it looks likely that the weight of the various interests will lead to their voting heavily against the candidate I certainly have no interest in seeing elected, Donald Trump.

    In public discourse, all of this is often expressed in hyperbolic and ‘morally’ charged language; but those who really are morally outraged over growth of Hispanic communities here (likely to vote for Trump) are blinded thereby to what may be their real interests, since such growth might not only strengthen the economy but also stabilize larger, heterogeneous community structures – cities, states, etc.

    What determines interests is a complex matter we can’t get into much here. However, at the end of the day, the negotiation between interests keeps our society stumbling along in a reasonably stable pace.

    I know that’s not how many would like to see politics; but it works, and most alternatives offer worse rather than better.

    As far as comparison with other cultures is concerned, I’m well aware that I would probably be more unhappy in most other cultures; but I must address what problems I face where I face them.

    BTW, I was mugged too, back in 1984. Since the miscreants were of a different ethnicity, I was a raving racist for the following week. But I decided I would not judge a whole group of people for the actions of a few, and got over it. And I can see that I even share some interests with the muggers themselves. I want a strong enough police to apprehend them, but I wouldn’t want a police state, and neither would they.

    DanK,
    Thanks! Yes, I attended their first American performance, at CBGBs in ’77; it was wild!

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  25. Operating on your logic, we will never get better candidates.

    And reductio ad Nazi arguments have pretty much lost all credibility. Trump is neither a Nazi nor a member of the KKK or even anything close. This sort of hyperbole is not only unhelpful, but it plays right into the Trump narrative.

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  26. Thanks! Yes, I attended their first American performance, at CBGBs in ’77; it was wild!
    ——————-
    Alas, I was too young. I saw my first CBGB shows in the mid-1980s.

    I think you and I need to do a dialogue on Punk.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. Dan-K
    Modern nation states are too large and too heterogeneous for what you are talking about. part of the reason why ethical theorizing migrated from virtue based accounts to law-like duty based accounts is precisely because as the polis got larger and more diverse, one could rely less and less on common understandings, values, customs, and other informal forces to function as mechanisms of self-regulation.

    Yes, that is a good point.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. EJ,
    Politics is not about right or wrong, it’s a negotiation between differences in order to avoid resort to violence.

    Avoiding the resort to violence is a deeply moral concern. Resorting to violence is one of the most stark moral failures. If avoiding the resort to violence is not about right and wrong, then what is?

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  29. dbholmes,
    There is no such thing as some pure, one-size fits all consequentialist formula

    I would go further and argue that there is no such thing as some pure, one-size fits all ethical formula.

    Real life ethical thinking follows what I call the cascading waterfall model. We start at the top level (1) Moral rules and ask if our ethical question can be resolved at this level. Obvious ethical question are automatically resolved at this level and there is no need to pursue it further. If we fail to resolve it we drop to the next level and weigh our question against our Virtues(2). More subtle and complex questions might defy resolution at this level, especially when we have conflicting virtues, and then we drop to the next lower level, (3) Outcomes. To guide us in the choice of outcomes we might appeal to (4) Principles and finally (5) Care.

    The process is often iterative as we re-visit the higher levels in our reasoning process.

    Cascading levels for moral decision making:

    1) Moral Rules: An action is right if it follows certain fundamental moral rules.
    2) Virtues: An action is right if it conforms to a model set of attributes inherent in a particular community.
    3) Outcomes: An action is right if good consequences outweigh bad consequences.
    4) Principles: An action is right if it follows the principles of respect, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice.
    5) Care: An action is right if it acknowledges the importance & value of interpersonal relationships.

    By following this process in moral decision making we subject the moral question to a many-sided examination, bringing the full range of our knowledge, intuitions and experience to bear.

    I submit that well rounded, ethically mature people all intuitively follow some version of this process.

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  30. As a strategy the 3rd.party vote has its points. If enough people do it for a specific candidate their agenda may be taken on board by one of the major parties hoping to gather up that constituency. Not of course that they should be trusted to follow through on any commitment. Lesser Evilry is a counsel of despair and from my perspective there’s not much to choose between the candidates. HRC is in the pocket of Wall Street and her cabinet would reflect that. Bill the Bimbo afflicted relaxed financial regulation. That was a good idea. To sum up: Wall Vs Wall St. The one will never happen the other will certainly happen. It’s almost a Pascalian wager.

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  31. EJ, Dan-K,
    “A nation is a balancing act holding together differing, sometimes conflicting communities for the sake of economic efficiency; it is not a tribe nor an organic develop out from a single community, which means that it can not be held together by custom assuming the weight of moral demand. Politics is not about right or wrong, it’s a negotiation between differences in order to avoid resort to violence.”

    Agreed but it doesn’t have to develop out of a single community to have common points of custom. And people also negotiate between differences because that’s a thing that people do.

    Labnut,
    “We are a social web, bound together by a complex tangle of mutual expectations that go far beyond economic efficiency. Only Karl Marx would have agreed with you.The strands of the social web that bind us together are cultural, they are moral and they are emotional.”

    Agreed but I think Marx would at least partly agree with you too.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Very good discussion. Was going to come in on Hobbes (David Ottlinger made some claims in a comment), but that would divert things to historical and meta questions about rights etc..

    Dan summed up my general reaction:

    “It’s easy to think that what *you* believe are the most pressing issues and thus, what counts as responsible voting, is generalizable, but this is precisely what reflection should disabuse a person of.”

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  33. Dan-K
    Modern nation states are too large and too heterogeneous for what you are talking about. part of the reason why ethical theorizing migrated from virtue based accounts to law-like duty based accounts is precisely because as the polis got larger and more diverse, one could rely less and less on common understandings, values, customs, and other informal forces to function as mechanisms of self-regulation.

    No, on further thought, I still disagree with you.

    It is true that ‘ ethical theorizing migrated from virtue based accounts to law-like duty based accounts is precisely because as the polis got larger and more diverse, one could rely less and less on common understandings …‘ but that is only part of the story.

    Let me illustrate what I mean with an example. You are travelling on an open, dry, well fenced, straight highway with good visibility, little traffic and a 100 km/hr speed limit. You know, from past observation, that speed traps are very rare on the highway. This is modern deontology, a law established by a recognised authority. Do you obey this speed limit?

    99% of people will say no, if honest, and if pressed for their reasoning they will say something like this – it is completely safe at my speed and under these conditions, I am a good driver, I don’t take risks, this speed limit is ridiculous, don’t the authorities have better things to do, this is just a revenue collection scheme. Sound familiar? Be honest!

    We proclaim our right to decide on the applicability of the law, that our interests come first, we declare there will be no adverse consequences, we question the validity of the law and we question the authorities’ bona fides. The only reason we obey the law is if there is a real possibility of being caught by the speed trap. This is moral consequentialism as it is really practised and it turns us into scofflaws.

    This has become typical of our approach to modern laws and it can have dramatic consequences as shown by the Great Recession. This is what I mean when I say we navigate modern deontology with the compass of consequentialism. So when you say ‘migrated from virtue based accounts to law-like duty based accounts‘, this is true, but you have omitted to consider the manner we ought to navigate modern deontology, via virtue ethics or via consequentialism.

    Laws can derive their force from
    1) a fear of consequences, i.e. consequentialism
    2) a sense of duty, respect, responsibility and consideration, i.e. virtue ethics.

    But when you ‘migrated from virtue based accounts‘ you left behind virtue ethics and you were left with no other rationale than consequentialism.

    I grant that we need laws to harmonise our behaviour in complex societies but we still need virtue ethics to give these laws their force. Instead we have left behind virtue ethics and resorted to consequentialism which brings a host of unintended consequences(pun intended). Society deals with the unintended consequences by increased regulation and increased enforcement. And a vicious cycle of evasion sets in.

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  34. David,

    I’m not familiar with most of the theories behind your reasoning but I think you bring up important issues like 3rd party voting, possible short and long term consequences, strategic voting to keep someone out of office (and by implication different voting systems).

    I think that working to convince others is good but that using ideas of obligation or righteous responsibility can work just as much for as against you considering the complex motivations involved. So I think I agree in part with some of the comments, and I haven’t really thought it through, but when I hear about electoral obligations I often wish we had a system where abstention was considered a legitimate choice for citizens and a position worthy of being counted.

    By the way, I live in Canada and I hope Trump will lose badly like our last conservative leader who also played the ethnic prejudice and law and order cards, and like our last separatist provincial leader who tried the Muslim prejudice card and lost badly. Sadly in the last case the Liberals who were voted in won a big majority and decided to drop most of their election platform and instead dialed up neo-liberalism and austerity for the middle and lower classes.

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  35. Hi Marc. “… Sadly in the last case the Liberals who were voted in won a big majority and decided to drop most of their election platform and instead dialed up neo-liberalism and austerity for the middle and lower classes.”

    et to Brutus?

    This is what I expect from Clinton et al.

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  36. Hi Philip,

    “…look at the Supreme Court nominee she would make to replace “Notorious RGB” or other judicial appointments and the ones Trump would make.”

    That makes an arguably strong pragmatic case (an in some corners moral case) to support voting for Democrats this year, particularly Hillary as POTUS… though her decision to choose Kaine as VP who is openly anti-abortion on a personal level and has supported financial restrictions makes that argument a little bit less certain.

    “Putting a Nazi/KKK in office just to punish the Democrats for having a crappy candidate is no moral claim.”

    Well, according to the thesis of the essay “I can’t vote for a Nazi/KKK member” or “I can’t vote for someone supported by modern Nazis/KKK members” is deontic and so problematic.

    Whether that argument holds or not, I agree with Dan that tagging Trump and all Trump supporters with that label is errant (from a historical context) and plays into Trump’s narrative (in a modern context).

    I happen to support the ACLU which also defends (and as such is supported by) modern elements of the Nazis and the KKK, that doesn’t make the ACLU (or its supporters) are Nazi or KKK sympathizers.

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  37. Here is another way to look at the debate about the lesser evil, but from a virtue ethics rather a consequences or deontology point of view.

    Given, for the sake of argument, that both candidates are profoundly unsuitable, either because of policy, behaviour or character, then one of the three following conditions hold if I vote, regardless of whether /she/he is the greater or lesser evil:

    1) I am willing /him/her to win.
    Willing an unsuitable person to win is a contradiction of my values. That makes me a hypocrite, because I believe in one set of values but support an opposing set of values through my actions.

    2) I am not willing /him/her to win
    I am behaving as if I wish one person to win when in fact I do not wish that. My vote is still an act of hypocrisy.

    3) It is my duty to support the democratic process with my vote, regardless.
    By voting, I strengthen the democratic process, and by failing to vote, I weaken the democratic process.

    No matter who I vote for and regardless of my intentions, I am being a hypocrite. But if I do not vote I am failing my democratic duty, thus weakening the democratic process.

    Here we have two conflicting virtues, integrity and duty. The first has to do with character and the second, in this instance, has to do with consequences(weakening/strengthening the democratic process). Which one should predominate, integrity or duty, character or consequences? To answer I must consult my conscience and ask what kind of person am I? Is integrity at the core of my being? Personal integrity can have painful consequences(though not in this case). It is a character building experience to practise integrity regardless of consequences(even if not painful).

    There will come a time when integrity has painful consequences and one will be tested to the core of one’s being. Choosing integrity over consequences in the smaller matters is a form of training, of preparation and commitment for the time of severe testing of one’s principles.

    You might reply that no candidate is ever perfect and that any candidate is a compromise where my some of my principles are unmet and that therefore I should never vote. No, not quite true. The answer is contained in the title to the essay: ‘Voting and the Lesser of Two Evils‘ where the operative word is ‘evil’.

    This can mean one of two things.
    1) Real moral evil.
    There is a level of profoundly unprincipled behaviour that we call evil. This is much more than just wrong, it is profoundly wrong. Once this bar is passed no person of integrity should vote for /her/him because a person of these characteristics should never hold office. What is this level? That is answered by consulting the facts and our conscience. Hopefully our conscience has not atrophied through disuse. Consequentialism has that effect.

    2) Metaphorical evil.
    Here we are talking about knockout policies, that we profoundly disagree with. This is most often what we mean when we use the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’.

    The real question, then, is whether either or both of the candidates have passed over either of these two bars. Whichever notion of evil is involved the reasoning is the same. I am an un-American so I can’t make this judgement.

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  38. Michael,
    Yes. It is a dated article(2004) but what the great Alisdair McIntyre said then is even more true today since the system is rather more broken now than it was then. For him a non-vote would be a vote against the system whereas I am saying a non-vote would be in keeping with the character of a virtue ethicist. Since both conditions are true a non-vote is even more imperative. My reasoning would allow a vote for a third party candidate whereas his reasoning would not allow a vote at all.

    Why should we reject both? Not primarily because they give us wrong answers, but because they answer the wrong questions. What then are the right political questions? One of them is: What do we owe our children? And the answer is that we owe them the best chance that we can give them of protection and fostering from the moment of conception onwards. And we can only achieve that if we give them the best chance that we can both of a flourishing family life, in which the work of their parents is fairly and adequately rewarded, and of an education which will enable them to flourish. These two sentences, if fully spelled out, amount to a politics. It is a politics that requires us to be pro-life, not only in doing whatever is most effective in reducing the number of abortions, but also in providing healthcare for expectant mothers, in facilitating adoptions, in providing aid for single-parent families and for grandparents who have taken parental responsibility for their grandchildren. And it is a politics that requires us to make as a minimal economic demand the provision of meaningful work that provides a fair and adequate wage for every working parent, a wage sufficient to keep a family well above the poverty line.

    The basic economic injustice of our society is that the costs of economic growth are generally borne by those least able to afford them and that the majority of the benefits of economic growth go to those who need them least.

    In this situation a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote cast for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives. The way to vote against the system is not to vote.

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