The Warped Ethics of Voting for the Lesser Evil

Centrist Democrats and even some prominent, erstwhile, progressives are using the infamous “lesser evil” argument against the “Never Biden” advocates on the left. Essentially the argument runs something like this: “not voting for Biden is equivalent to voting for Trump”.

The reasoning is relatively uncomplicated: “If you do not vote for Biden that is one less vote Trump needs in order to win. If you dare abstain from adulating Biden or brazenly disparage him, you are, essentially, helping Trump because such disparagement may dissuade potential Biden voters and thereby lower the requirement for a Trump victory”. Jimmy Dore rather handily corrected the poor arithmetic of the lesser-evilists!

Typically the proponents of lesser-evil-voting maintain that an action is considered morally good or evil depending upon good effects being maximized and bad effects being minimized. Therefore we are to vote for a candidate based upon assumed results. Since Biden Boosters believe that a Trump victory is worse than a Biden victory, then not voting for Biden is the same as voting for Trump! The reduction then continues to the even more absurd conclusion; not voting at all is the moral equivalent of voting for Trump. The lesser-evilests are actually telling us that the following acts are all morally equivalent:

* voting for Trump

* not voting at all

* voting for a third-party candidate

A further conclusion is yet drawn: “If they are morally equivalent, then, since your action helps Trump get elected, you are morally responsible for all that follows upon his election”. It is a strange ethic indeed where morality is defined exclusively by consequences.

The lesser-evilists tell us that not doing something is as much a voluntary choice as is actually doing something. They are not altogether incorrect in this assertion. The evilists tell us that deciding not to oppose Trump is morally the same as helping him. It is certainly true that not choosing Biden is a deliberate act but this does not necessarily infer that omitting the prevention of an evil is always the moral equivalent of committing the evil.

Sins of Omission

Most American voters learned somewhere in their childhood to distinguish between “sins” of commission and omission. An illustration is in order:

It is certainly clear that if someone were to hold a pistol to another person’s head and pull the trigger, they would have clearly committed the immoral act of murder. Now imagine a scenario where someone has taken a little motorboat onto the lake. While dozing, the person hears a loud motorboat speeding by, followed by a rather large splash. The person looks up and sees that a child has been thrown overboard. The child is only a few yards away and is thrashing wildly about and screaming for help. If the person in the boat simply sits and watches the child die, they are as morally guilty of murder as if they had shot someone in the head.

These two events are morally equivalent because human beings are obliged to assist others who need help and, of course, have an obligation not to murder people. Therefore, the moral equivalence arises from obligations, not because of the similarity of the end results.

Neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party owns anyone’s vote. Consequently, no one has a moral obligation to vote for their candidates. Since votes are not owned, they cannot be taken, for example, by a third party candidate like Howie Hawkins.

There is no moral imperative for supporting any given candidate. If there is no moral obligation, then omission is not the same as commission. There is no responsibility where there is no obligation, even if the results are the same. Moreover, if in good conscience, a person cannot support Biden, they must obey their prior duty to obey their conscience. As Martin Luther warned long ago, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe”.

The Problem of Ends and Means

Initially, lesser-evil-voting seems rather attractive. It appears devilishly simple primarily because it focuses on the results of a decision. Attractiveness aside, some fundamental problems arise, however, when using it as a moral yardstick.

Choosing a candidate based upon preconceived outcomes would be neither possible nor workable. It is just not possible to evaluate every result of a decision and then compare those results against each other. This is especially true of arguments for Biden who attacked Anita Hill, opposes single payer healthcare, supports the death penalty, and wrote the 1994 crime bill which led to mass incarceration and the growth of the for-profit prison industry, voted against gay marriage, for DOMA, for job killing trade deals like NAFTA and the China Trade Bill. He voted for the Iraq war and helped write the USA Patriot Act. He voted to repeal Glass-Steagall and to end bankruptcy protection for students. He backed the Transpacific Partnership, supports fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline and openly supported Paul Ryan’s cuts to Social Security and Medicare. He will not even support the fight for a $15 an hour wage.

Biden’s prevention of corroborating witnesses from testifying for Anita Hill certainly calls into question what kind of Supreme Court justices he would appoint! Since he is considering appointing businessman Michael Bloomberg and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, both billionaires, to powerful leadership positions, it is not altogether unreasonable to question any comments he has made in terms of supporting working people.

When making a moral decision, the possible outcomes must be evaluated with respect to the available choices needed to reach desired results. Any decision, however, should only be made when it is clear that the action itself, which is intended to bring about what is hoped to be achieved, is not itself morally wrong. Adopting lesser-evilism as a moral standard is tantamount to saying that the ends justify the means!

Of course, voting is not a unique area of human activity where only the outcomes seem to matter. Ignoring the morality of an act itself, while neglecting the attachment to its results, means that there could be circumstances where it would be morally acceptable to commit just about any heinous act, from lying and stealing to rape and murder, as long as the well-intended results somehow “compensate” for the initial odious action.

Voting is not just a means to an end. It is much more. It defines the very character of the voter.

Focusing solely on results presents these kinds of propositions: “It is wrong because I do not like the result” and “it is right because I like the result”. Such propositions are, at best, childish.

Espousing lesser-evilism as the moral measurement for voting ignores the ethical canon that actions themselves, separated from results, are critically important. Of course, likely results must be considered when deciding how to vote. It is nevertheless vital that the policy implications of the candidate who is to be chosen are evaluated and to what extent these implications reflect the actual values of the voter. Voting for Biden in order to prevent Trump’s re-election nevertheless means voting for Biden and all that he represents.

Bearing up under this election cycle requires promethean forbearance! An electoral decision must not be fleshed out in the blink of an eye. When deciding for whom to vote, hopefully in November, it must be recalled that voting is not just a means to an end. It paints a portrait, sometimes in Dorian Grey fashion, of the voters themselves as well as the society they hope to define.

The two corporate-owned parties lack any clear vision for America. They have no real leadership and they inspire no hope for the future. They have given Americans a view of the world that is clouded by war, poverty, ignorance, fear and violence.

A different vision for America is possible. A vision where America leads the world in spreading peace instead of war; hope instead of fear; sustainability instead of disaster; freedom instead of occupation. A vision whereby there is an America in which every person, regardless of their race, creed, color, age, gender or sexual orientation is valued and lives in dignity and every person is free to reach their full potential.