Moral Truth and the Ethics of Voting: How Should I Vote?

Voting always requires a weighing of consequences. The paramount question for the conscientious voter in 2016 is, “Which outcome among the feasible alternatives will promote the greatest good or prevent the greatest harm?”

Many conservative Americans are agonizing over which vote to cast in the next presidential election, and with very good reason. The only “conservative” candidate with a prospect for victory is an impulsive and unstable narcissist who interprets every event as an act of personal loyalty or betrayal, and whose history gives no evidence that he holds conservative principles or would promote them while in office. And the only feasible alternative is—though more stable, experienced, and competent—still dishonest and firmly committed to furthering the corrosive anti-life, anti-marriage, and anti-market ideology of her predecessor. One candidate is impulsively lawless in speech and thought, the other calculatingly lawless in principle. In the face of such a difficult choice, it is necessary to recall the moral principles governing voting.

The ethics of voting was the subject of my very first publication back in 2001, “Drawing Pro-Life Lines,” a response to the claim of some prominent pro-lifers at the time that voting for George W. Bush was immoral since Bush allowed for exceptions to abortion. This judgment rests on the false assumption that voting for a candidate entails a moral endorsement of everything that candidate professes and does. If that were the case, then it would always be immoral to vote for a candidate who promotes anything immoral. This kind of confusion about the moral principles that govern political choice reflects a kind of moral puritanism that can only end in anger and cynicism, and is one cause of our deplorable set of choices this November. It is crucial to step back from the politics of passion and consider realistically what prudence dictates.

I argued instead that voting for candidates by its nature constitutes remote (rather than proximate) cooperation with the particular actions or positions of a candidate. Therefore a voter may licitly vote for a candidate who supports abortion or euthanasia, but only on two conditions. First, the voter may not vote for the candidate because of that candidate’s position on these issues, otherwise the voter’s cooperation with evil would be “formal,” rather than “material.” Second, the voter may only vote for such a candidate when there are “proportionate reasons” to do so.

In other words, a particular vote for a candidate is rarely, if ever, an intrinsic evil, as murder, theft, lying, and rape are. When it is an intrinsic evil, that is specifically because the voter shares the candidate’s evil intention, and since the sharing of intention is never entailed by voting for that candidate as such, a vote for a candidate never needs to be intrinsically evil. (Votes for candidates, in this way, differ from votes cast directly for intrinsically unjust laws. The latter will inevitably constitute formal cooperation with evil, unless, as John Paul II elaborated in paragraph 73 of The Gospel of Life, the proposed law would serve to mitigate the evil aspects of a preexisting law.) Voting for candidates therefore necessarily involves considerations of consequences (“proportionate reasons”). Catholics, at least, can find this truth regarding the ethics of voting confirmed in a footnote of a 2004 memorandum by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Although some find the language of “proportionate reasons” troubling, because it seems to suggest a full-blown consequentialist or utilitiarian ethical theory, it is in fact a fixed part of the traditional understanding of morality. Not all consideration of consequences equals consequentialism. According to the tradition, there are exceptionless moral norms, such as the prohibitions against murder and rape, which are binding in every circumstance no matter what the consequences. Where those norms are not implicated, however, other moral principles come into play. One of the most important of these is known as the principle of double effect.

The principle of double effect exists to affirm the Pauline principle—that one may not do evil that good may come of it—while also providing guidance in cases where the choice of some good foreseeably but accidentally results in some evil effect or consequence. It holds that the action chosen must meet four conditions: first, the intention of the agent must be good; second, the object (or action itself) must not be evil; third, the evil consequence must not be intended, only tolerated; and fourth, there must be a proportionate reason for the action.

A classic application of this principle is Thomas Aquinas’s argument for the right to self-defense in his Summa Theologiae. Another example is the case of the runaway train where the brakes on the train have malfunctioned, and where you (the engineer) may licitly steer the train away from the rails where the school bus full of children is crossing and onto the rails where a single man is crossing, so long as your intention (to avoid harming the children) is good, your object (steering the train) is not evil, the evil consequence (the death of the single man) is not intended, and there is a proportionate reason for the action.

Although the primary purpose of the principle of double effect is to determine whether certain actions are allowed, there are some cases where such actions might be required. To wage war against an unjust aggressor is sometimes a moral requirement, even when the war will result in great material evils, as wars always do.

It might be argued that there is a better third choice: refuse to cooperate and keep one’s conscience clean, letting God or fate take responsibility for the consequences. This refusal begs the question, because the refusal to choose is also a choice, and acts of omission can be as immoral as acts of commission. Conscientious objection to committing an immoral act is always a moral requirement; however, conscientious objection to an act that is not itself immoral and which would avoid a great evil because that act has some materially evil consequence is often self-indulgence in a false moral purity at the expense of others. Conscientious objectors to a just war free ride on the great and difficult sacrifices of others.

If what I have said so far is true, then voters have a moral obligation to vote for the candidate that is most likely to promote the common good, or most likely to do the lesser harm to the common good. One might argue that these analogies fail because in the case of a just war or a runaway train the consequences of one’s actions are certain, whereas in casting a vote the consequences are extremely uncertain. The always-thoughtful Matt Franck, with whom it pains me ever to disagree, suggested something like this in a recent article at Public Discourse. He rightly points out that one’s individual vote will never determine the outcome of an election, and then concludes from this—wrongly, in my view—that the calculation of consequences has little or no role to play in the moral consideration of voting.

Franck writes: “This invitation, to vote as if the weight of the world were on my shoulders alone, is what I refuse to accept. The reason I decline the invitation is not just that the weight is not on my shoulders [because “[a] one-vote margin of victory in any election … is an exceedingly rare occurrence that most of us will never experience”]. It is that this is really an invitation to a kind of consequentialism in the ethics of voting.”

I have already argued above that the consideration of consequences in voting does not constitute consequentialism. But Franck’s argument does pose a dilemma for my argument: how can the principles of voting rest upon a consideration of consequences if every individual vote is inconsequential? However, this dilemma also cuts against Franck’s own argument, for if voting is inconsequential then why does one have an obligation to vote at all, especially when voting is private and therefore loses even its expressive value? Thus most public choice theorists have concluded that voting is irrational.

Not only does the public choice position rests upon an individualist view of rationality that is incompatible with any meaningful notion of citizenship, it also rests upon the assumption that it is “rational” to be a free rider, taking when one can and giving only when one must. The voter who chooses not to vote because his individual vote will be inconsequential is making a personal exception for himself which he would not want others who otherwise share his political views to imitate, and this conflicts with the impersonality that most moral norms require.

The moral obligation to vote is not principally rooted in the calculation that one’s individual vote might affect the outcome of the election (it will not), nor is it simply a free-standing duty to express oneself (most voters do not think so). In good part, the obligation to vote is the solution to a collective action problem: although each individual has an incentive not to cooperate and is unlikely to alter the final result, everyone is better off when everyone cooperates. It is the necessity of solving this collective action problem that generates the obligation.

The ground of the obligation to vote points to the principle governing how one should vote. That principle is precisely the one Franck seems to repudiate in the passage I quoted above: one always should vote “as if” the outcome of the election, and the consequences of that election, depend upon one’s vote. (I say “seems” because later in his piece Franck seems to concede that while the calculation of consequences in voting is ordinarily valid it does not apply to “our present predicament” where both candidates are simply evil. See a similar argument by Greg Brown.)

Two further things should be said about this “as if” principle. First, it properly captures our common belief that voting is not the expression of subjective preferences but is guided by moral norms that we expect others to follow. We argue about the best vote to cast, but not about the best flavor of ice cream to choose. Second, the “as if” principle is itself governed by consequentialist considerations. It rests on a realistic appraisal of what is the best (or least bad) possible in concrete circumstances, and not on the best outcome we can possibly imagine simply. The paramount moral question in every voter’s mind therefore should be this: which of the most likely outcomes will promote the greatest good or avoid the greatest evil? If this is not the paramount question for the conscientious voter, then what is?

Does it follow from the “as if” principle that one is morally obligated to vote for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton in the next election, since it is virtually certain that one or the other of them will be our next president? Not necessarily, but the reason for refusing to vote would have to rest either on the justified belief that both choices are equally bad (and those who hold this belief should study with care Jeane Kirkpatrick’s classic essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards”), or, if one believes that one of the candidates really is worse than the other, on the justified belief that casting an inconsequential vote will have better long-term consequences than the short-term worst outcome (and those who hold this belief should offer a feasible strategy for moving ahead). Such considerations are missing in Alasdair MacIntyre’s widely circulated essay against voting in the 2004 presidential election, leaving the ground for his opposition unclear.

These kinds of difficult calculations indicate that predicting consequences is often very difficult. But that is not a good reason not to try, especially when the outcome of our choice is so consequential, as it surely is in the coming election. We should not let a false view of moral purity undermine our ability to act for the good as citizens and human beings. It is only when we are clear on the principles that guide how to vote that we can know for whom to vote.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.