This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism. This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:
Keeping in mind that this site does not engage in party politics, I still feel prompted to share something in the context of the up-coming election in the U.S. Although most of this will discuss the political climate in the U.S. I also send this out to any readers “across the pond” in the U.K. as they approach the very important vote on whether or not to remain in the E.U. Distributism is based on certain philosophical principles which originate in a scientific view of philosophy. It has become all too common in our political environments to use fear tactics to try and convince people to vote a certain way. These tactics can sound reasonable, but are truly an attempt to get you to abandon reason. Therefore, I want to present certain principles of reason as I think they apply to deciding how to vote.
The philosophical principles of reason which come down to us from the great minds of the past like Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas are those precepts which we must follow when applying reason to anything. The failure to do so will ultimately lead us to accepting absurd things. They are employed by all of our natural sciences. They are employed by all of our ethical reasoning. They are crucial to fulfilling our capabilities as rational beings. Unfortunately, some people throw around some of these principles in an incorrect or incomplete manner. Because we no longer learn true philosophy (even philosophy students seem to spend more time learning about philosophers – both good and bad – than about the actual science of philosophy) many people are ill equipped to see that these are false applications.
“Choosing the lesser of two evils”
This is a frequent claim used as an election draws near. In the U.S. It has long been used by pundits for the Republican party and has recently been used more by those of the Democrat party. The failure to nominate a candidate their voting base can really support has forced them to use this claim. They essentially say, “we know you think our candidate is bad, but he’s not as bad as their candidate.” This call to choose the “lesser” of two evils is usually followed by the next claim.
“A vote for x is really a vote for y”
This is a double-attack on your reason. Not only is your decision not to vote for their candidate or policy wrong, but you will somehow be guilty for the fact that the other candidate or policy won. In essence, the claim is that by voting other than the way they want, you are actually choosing what (presumably) neither of you want. This is used by both of the major parties in the U.S. as an attack against anyone who considers a third party option. It is based on the premise that the candidate or policy you want has no chance of winning, which leads us to the next claim.
“Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good”
Politics is the art of compromise, so why don’t you just compromise and vote for us? Since your position or candidate has no chance of actually winning, you should back down a little and vote for us. By doing so, you’ll get at least some of what you want instead of “wasting your vote.”
All of these arguments sound reasonable, but are actually not so, and a serious look at the principles of reason will reveal why.
When people use variants of the “lesser of two evils” argument, keep in mind that this is only a partial statement of the actual principle of reason. The actual principle is, “If one cannot avoid doing one of two acts, from both of which will follow an evil effect, one is obligated to choose the lesser of the two evils.” Note that the premise here, which is fundamental to the entire principle, is that you cannot avoid doing one of the two acts. For this to apply in the context of an election, you would have to be constrained to only choose one of two candidates and have no other option – you must vote and you must vote for one of the only two candidates presented to you. Is this the actual case in our elections? Do you really only have two choices? I am not speaking of the so-called “practical” choices, by which is meant those choices generally accepted as having a chance to win. If there is in fact another option, then you are not limited by the constraint of the principle, so it simply doesn’t apply. Actually, if one were to insist on applying it to the case of an election, a reasoned expansion of this principle would be that, in the case of more than two choices, you must choose the one from which will follow the least evil effect. Don’t forget that, when electing candidates in the U.S., there is usually a blank line where you can write in the name of a better choice than the ones being presented.
This leads us to the next claim. Is it true that choosing something other than the two “practical” choices is equivalent to choosing one of them? The answer is obviously no. They say that the only choices are A and B because C has no chance of winning. Therefore, if you vote for C, you are effectively giving the election to whichever option they don’t want from the choices of A and B. This is nonsense. They are trying to shift the blame to you for the fact that they didn’t present a candidate you would want to support. They are trying to blame you for all the others who also didn’t want to support their view. This seems to be a mangling of the principle which states, “Things that are identical with a third are identical with each other.”Your actual responsibility in an election is to vote for the candidate or position you think should win. What you vote for represents what you choose regardless of the outcome. You are not to blame for the votes of others.
This leaves us with the only argument that actually deserves any consideration. “Don’t let the best become the enemy of the good” is inherently incorrect, but it can actually be applied in a way that doesn’t compromise the principles of reason. However, this argument must be properly understood in the light of those principles to determine if it actually applies to the current choices.
First of all, using the terms employed, the “good” must always be directed toward the “best” or it fails to be good. (“Every agent acts for the sake of an end.”) Therefore, one can accept the merely “good” for now, but only on the condition that is a movement toward the “best.” If this is not the case, then you would be violating the principle which states, “It is never lawful to reject a greater good for a lesser one.” The lesser good can only be accepted as a means to achieving the greater good, and never as an end itself. This is the essence of political compromise. Realizing that achieving the “best” may not currently be politically possible, achieving the “good” at this time with the intention of continuing to work for the “best” may be prudent.
Another consideration for this argument must be kept in mind. At what point does continual compromise from the “best” end up being an acceptance of the merely “good?” If you keep voting for an inadequate candidate on the grounds that “we can’t let the other party win,” what incentive will your party ever have to stop presenting inadequate candidates? If you continue to agree to legislation that falls short of what you really want, what are your chances of ever getting the legislation you really want? The pundits accuse those who choose to make a stand with their vote of wasting it, but the purpose of voting is to try and get the change you want. What vote could be more wasted than when you vote for something you don’t want?
At what point do we wake up to the realization that the political machines of these parties are actively engaged in saying what their base wants to hear just to secure votes, but don’t actually mean those things? How many times to we have to see them fail to even try to accomplish what they tell us they will before we accept the fact that it really isn’t all the fault of the other party? Remember that this sort of compromise is only acceptable if it is both prudential and will actually help to move from the “good” to the “best.”
A final consideration on this kind of compromise is that we have to examine the risks of the other side of the compromise. It is not enough to look at what we’ve gained, we need to look at what we’ve potentially lost through the compromise.“It is never lawful to take a risk with the right of another.” “It is never lawful to do an evil act to accomplish a good end.” “A good intention does not justify the use of an evil means for the end in view.” If your side of the compromise would fall into any of these categories, then the compromise cannot be made. Remember that your vote represents you. Your beliefs and values. “All human acts must tend towards the good of man.”
I am also reminded of something posted by Ryan Grant. There is another claim that says that you have no right to complain if you don’t vote. Of course, this is also nonsense. The officials of government have a moral responsibility in the exercise of their office. This is true even if those officials are not democratically elected. Citizens always have the right to complain about injustices regardless of how those officials came to hold their offices. In some election campaigns, there were movements of people who wanted a ballot option for “none of the above” as a way of indicating their dissatisfaction with all of the candidates. However, if you believe that elections are useless, because of the corruption of the political parties, the media, the voting process, or the ballot counting process, then why should you bother to vote even to say “none of the above?” Justice in government is a human right, not one just for those who engage in the system of voting.
Finally, I would like to point out how ironic it is when I hear Republican pundits heap scorn on those who would even consider a third party candidate. They seem to forget that their party was once the upstart third party in a political climate dominated by two other parties. The “Grand Old Party” is significantly younger than its chief rival. Why is it that they don’t address the growing popularity of third party candidates among their voter base? The Republican party was propelled to electoral victory because the voting public got sick and tired of the fact that neither of the major parties of the time were putting forth candidates and positions that truly reflected their views. Well, the same thing is happening today in both of the major parties. It is common for pundits of both parties to lay the blame for an electoral loss on the votes “stolen” by a third party candidate. The truth is that these votes were not stolen because they didn’t “belong” to any candidate or party. They never “owned” our votes and they shouldn’t take them for granted. If they want our votes, then they should present candidates and positions we want to support. If they want to keep our votes, then those candidates better use their time in office actually trying to accomplish what they were elected to accomplish. In other words, voters need to remember that parties and individual candidates need to earn our votes, and need to keep doing so. If they fail to do this, then why shouldn’t we look elsewhere and be proud of doing so?
In their attempts to convince others to vote for a particular candidate, many people are using arguments that invoke the fundamental principles of reason from the philosophical sciences. Unfortunately, many of these invocations use these arguments in an improper way. I addressed some of the most common in a recent article titled Reasoned Voting. I recently came across another use of a principle of reason in support of voting for a particular candidate which, in the interest clear reasoning, I would like to address in this follow-up to that article. The principle is known as “Double-Effect.”
The main goal of these articles is not to convince or dissuade people about voting for a particular candidate or party. It is to foster a better understanding of the principles being invoked because an improper use of these principles can have bad results.
Doing something, even something good, for a bad reason is not something we should be willing to accept because that would be acting contrary to our nature as rational beings. Therefore, even if you continue to support a given candidate, it should not be because of a faulty application of the principles of reason.
Where the principle commonly called “the lesser of two evils” is used to decide between two choices, the principle of double-effect only applies to a single choice. It is the method used to determine if a particular choice can or cannot be made. Thus, we have seen questions like “can a Catholic vote for Trump/Hillary?” Some commentators have attempted to answer these types of questions pertaining to the upcoming election using the principle of double-effect, but I believe these attempts are a misapplication of the principle.
The principle of double-effect answers the question of whether or not a specific single act is permissible when it is known that the act will produce not only a good, but also a bad effect. In the context of the political election it is proposed that, because we know a candidate will do both good and bad things, double-effect applies to the question of whether or not we may vote for a specific candidate. However, I believe that this is a misunderstanding of the principle as it applies to the question at hand.
The principle of double-effect addresses the following question.
The first two conditions determine whether or not double-effect applies to a particular act. If not, the act must be examined in light of other principles of reason. The second two conditions answer the question of whether or not an act to which double-effect does apply may or may not be done.
A fairly common example of how the principle is legitimately applied is the question amputating a limb infected with gangrene. Amputating the infected limb will remove the threat to life, but it will also result in the loss of the limb. Can we amputate the limb?
First: The act is amputation of the limb. This act is indifferent because the goodness or badness of it depends on the end toward which it is directed.
Second: Both effects will proceed immediately from the act. The moment the act is performed, both the threat to life and the limb will be removed.
Third: We only desire the good effect. If we could remove the gangrene without doing harm, or with less harm, we would do so.
Fourth: The good of preserving life is greater than the evil of losing a limb.
From this we can see that the principle of double-effect applies to this case, and that the reasonable conclusion is that we may amputate the limb.
Those who attempt to apply this principle as an argument for casting your vote for candidate X seem to do so on the basis of campaign promises. Even though it is likely that X will do some things we consider bad, X has promised to do other things we believe are good. We believe there is due proportion between the good and the bad that X will likely do while in office. Therefore, they conclude, the principle of double-effect shows that we can vote for candidate X. I will explain two reasons why I believe double-effect just doesn’t apply to the question of your vote. Note that I am only addressing the question of whether or not double-effect applies to the question of your vote, there are certainly other factors that do.
Double-effect applies specifically to “an act that produces two effects, one good and one bad.” We are examining the effects of specific individual act, so the act in question must clearly be the cause of those effects. In the case of amputation, both effects are produced by the act of amputation – they are both unavoidable effects of the act and the act is clearly the cause of those effects. Can we say the same thing about your vote? Is your vote the cause of both the good and the bad that candidate X will do while in office? The answer is obviously no. You cast your vote based on various things like campaign promises and position statements, but your vote does not actually cause any of those things to actually occur. Whether candidate X keeps or breaks every campaign promise, whether X does exactly what you expect or the opposite of what you expect can not reasonably be attributed as an effect of your vote. It is an effect of the free will of the candidate while in office.
I know that some will argue that your vote is the cause of the candidate getting elected and therefore, by extension, it is the cause of what the candidate does in office. I maintain that double-effect still doesn’t apply even if we accept the argument. The principle of double-effect states that both effects must proceed immediatelyfrom the act. This is clear in the case of amputation. Both effects are immediate. They happen simultaneously and there is no delay between the act as the cause and its effects. In regard to your vote, none of the effects can be considered to proceed immediately from your vote. Even if we were to say that the effects in question will take place over a period of time, they don’t even start to happen when you cast your vote. The candidate won’t even get sworn in for two months after you cast your vote. X could refuse to be sworn in or die before doing so. Amputation guarantees that both the limb and the disease will be removed. Your vote does not even guarantee that candidate X will win the election. Clearly, double-effect does not apply to the question of your vote.
In the end, as stated in the previous article, you must exercise your prudential judgement. Faced with the fact that the candidate is not ideal, is it prudential to vote for X rather than one of the several other available candidates? Is it prudential to (once again) compromise on what you really want and vote for X as a step toward a greater good to be more fully achieved in the future? There are many factors to consider for this important decision. I hope that these articles will help clarify the good and bad points some are making on the subject. These decisions are unfortunately difficult and complex. The principles of reason exist to assist us in understanding the factors that go into making a good decision. It does not help if our thinking gets muddled by the improper application of these principles, even if those doing it have the best intentions.