October 31, 2016

The Lessons of Three Evils: When Principled Voting is Actually Immoral.

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The Moral Lessons of Three Evils.

Green Party voters like to portray their third party vote for president as morally superior, but it is actually quite difficult to find a moral principle to justify, let alone necessitate, such an act.

The idea seems to be that voting your values is more principled. But while there may be benefits to voting your values, it may nevertheless be immoral, like holding to your pacifism when you can kill a genocidal leader like Hitler, who is irreplaceable due to his charisma. The benefit lies in maintaining your personal integrity, which may make you more pleasant to people with whom you are close; but doing so may also result in the murder of millions of other people, which is much more difficult to justify morally.

When people vote for Green Party candidates for president, they are often refusing to allow the political process to sully their own personal morality. And moral purity often does make the world a better place. But it is all-too-often the virtue of fanatics. It is the virtue of ancient patriarchs, who refuse to break their oaths, even when they bind their people to certain destruction in war.

There is a sort of privileged unconcern involved in this kind of thinking that seems too detached from the consequences of moral action. It is the kind of thing for which oppressed minorities mock white, upper-middle class liberals, knowing the poorest and most marginalized can suffer the worst consequences of other people’s moral purity. There is a kind of selfishness to voters who deem themselves too good for political trade-offs.

And it is all-the-worse when the candidate has neither served at the head of a student government nor a union, neither a city council nor a state, as in the case of the Green Party’s, Jill Stein. Someone building a movement whose success could entail catastrophic consequences to American democracy should be able to demonstrate the capacity to bear the brunt of such decisions in her own political career. But Stein has spent little if any time in the kinds of executive positions this would require. And this highlights a sort of recklessness involved in much moral purity, a recklessness that often springs from the privilege of being able to remain distant from the fallout.

But many third party voters believe that if everyone voted their principles it would result in better leaders and a cleaner system. Immanuel Kant gave the most sophisticated expression of this idea, saying we should act as if we could will the maxim of our action to become a universal principle. So, if the maxim of your action is that you should always vote your principles, we are to imagine this becoming a universal law to which everyone adhered. The problem is that if enough people believe they should act as if their personal principles were to be universalized, and therefore vote Green, their principles will be continually thwarted, as the somewhat-progressive Democrats lose elections to nowhere-near-progressive Republicans. Far from being universalized, progressives principles might thereby fade into oblivion.

Green voters argue that if they throw enough elections to Republicans, Democratic leaders will wake up and change. But it is important to recognize this kind of strategic protest-voting is neither about purity nor principles, but rather the purported consequence that the protest vote will produce better results by transforming the party. Yet, if this is the case, we should expect the Nader 2000 campaign, which so many believe threw the election to Bush, to have transformed the Democratic Party. But far from this view, Stein voters seem to believe that the party has been drifting to the center since Bill Clinton was elected in 1992.

It is one of the great ironies of extreme moral stands that they often result in the very consequences they seek to avoid. And so it is that people who began by wanting to vote their principles drift to an entirely reckless and dubious strategy of trade-offs in their willingness to the trade defeat of the “lesser of two evils” for the hope it will grant them a better candidate next time. It is possible this calculation will prove correct, but we should be clear that when Green voters talk like this, they are engaging in the most morally questionable kind of political trade-offs.

Imagine Bill and Hillary declaring to the public in 2000 that they will be voting for the war on terror, the war in Iraq, outsourcing torture, cuts to social services, Citizens United, and lifting restrictions on assault rifles in order to run their own favored candidate in 2004. We would consider them reckless and immoral, selfish and irrational. But it is just this kind of trade-off Green voters advocate.

Now some will counter that there is no difference between the two parties. But while they may think they are being clever, my friend and author, Idrees Ahmad, has argued they are really being idiotic. There is no virtue in the inability to make distinctions. For it is just this ability to make distinctions that lies at the heart of moral thinking.

My good friend Duff McDuffee is more forgiving, reminding his readers that moral thinking is hard. It involves thinking through the effects of our actions on others; thinking through the precedents our actions will set; thinking through the principles that should guide our actions; examining the moral intuitions that animate our actions; scrutinizing our genuine motivations; and, yes, often painfully deciding on the lesser of two evils.

Most people have little if any training in moral thinking, so all of this just happens in the background. Most of us just believe that if we take a moral stand, it must necessarily be the most moral stand. And this too is a sort of privileging of the self. If we are able to tell ourselves a story in which we are the most moral actor and our actions yield the greatest results, we can free ourselves from the burden of moral responsibility. Anyone blithely making a moral decision whose consequences could be disastrous would do well to ask themselves if this is what they are doing.


If you liked this article, please check out my book, Convergence: The Globalization of Mind, and join the dialogue on Facebook.


Author: Theo Horesh

Image: Donald Trump, Jill SteinHillary Clinton,

Editor: Travis May

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