"We were promised an election, not a damned trolley problem."
Such has been my one-liner about the 2016 presidential race.
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The big problem with the concept of "choosing the lesser evil" is that, in speaking the phrase, we reduce a fairly complicated, nuanced and lengthy moral discourse down to four words. There are, so to speak, a lot of conditions and considerations that go into the discussion before you come out the other side with the conclusion, "Thus, to choose the lesser evil is permissible" or even "Thus, to choose the lesser evil is a positive good."
A moral argument in complicated circumstances is a structure built carefully upward from a firm foundation, all of its pieces working together like a truss to support one another and ultimately to support the weight of unforeseen future circumstances that will test it. Having dismantled the relatively intricate structure of the argument, reduced it to nothing but its shadow painted on the ground, we dubiously free ourselves to follow the traces of that shadow and build upon it, taking "choose the lesser evil" as the postulate of a new moral system -- sometimes building a structure that would be completely unrecognizable to the original architects, unless they happened to peer at it from just the right angle -- and that, the direction from which the light fell upon it.
But we want our philosophical structures to make sense from every direction, especially the directions that look toward it from the darkness.
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I find it interesting that "Choose the lesser evil" is being deployed both to justify voting for the GOP candidate and to justify voting for the Democratic Party candidate. It is being deployed from both directions to say, "Even though you think you have to vote for [candidate] because [particular evil], I'm here to tell you that you may vote for [other candidate] because [different particular evil].
I am detecting a common error in the arguments: the notion that picking between the two major candidates is equivalent to some sort of referendum on which evil is worse (or which set of evils is worse).
As if "Choose the lesser evil" means "That which I choose, I declare its evils to be lesser."
Coming down to specifics right now because it's too exhausting to keep talking in generalities. Here's the notion I'm talking about:
- That choosing Mrs. Clinton means "I say that mass deportations and other bad things that Trump champions are worse than abortion and other things that Clinton champions."
- And that choosing Mr. Trump means "I say that abortion and other Clinton-championed causes are worse than mass deportations and other Trump-championed causes."
We then devolve into an argument about which kind of devaluation of human life is the worse kind of devaluation of human life, complete with arguments that the other side is pro-degradation because it has a different favorite kind of degradation.
And that's not even getting into the wrinkle of both sides turning and attacking the ones who say, "I refuse to choose either."
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It's almost impossible to find a discussion of the moral nuances of voting that doesn't come at it from one side or another. I thought this was a pretty good piece laying out advice from Bishop Flores of Brownsville, TX. The direction it comes from is "You might think you have to vote for Mr. Trump because Mrs. Clinton clearly supports legal abortion. But maybe that's not so, because it isn't that simple, and Mr. Trump's policies also represent an assault on human dignity." I'm not highlighting the piece because I think this particular direction is the direction that most needs highlighting. I'm highlighting it because it digs, a little, into the not-so-simple structure that gets simplified as "Choose the lesser evil":
Prudence judges circumstances in light of principles that are rightly ranked in terms of gravity. Keeping that in mind, circumstances are different this year. It is not possible now to take the issue of immigration policy only as a matter of having diverse positions on a badly needed reform of the system. One could argue that in prior elections there was a dispute between the parties about whether a reform was needed, and about what principles would guide a possible reform.
This year, there is a proposal on the table to proceed with mass deportations of undocumented men, women and children. One cannot in conscience countenance a program of mass deportation. It is a brutal proposal. In some instances, particularly dealing with the Central American mothers and children, and deportations into some parts of Mexico, we are dealing with placing them in proximate danger of death. I consider supporting the sending of an adult or child back to a place where he or she is marked for death, where there is lawlessness and societal collapse, to be formal cooperation with an intrinsic evil. Not unlike driving someone to an abortion clinic.
So, even as a Catholic finds the radical pro-abortion platform of the other party beyond reprehensible, there is no comfort for the conscience of a Catholic on the side of a radical program of mass deportation. Both positions are assaults on the dignity of life, and in the case of mass deportations, can be linked to no. 24 of Faithful Citizenship (FC), “treating the poor as disposable.” Overall, I think we have to look at nos. 35-38 of FC very carefully. We should all read it and think about its implications between now and Election Day.
I think it is worth citing number 36 in particular: “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”
It seems that if a Catholic votes for either major candidate, he or she must do so with a conviction that the evil the candidate supports can be successfully opposed, and that other aspects of their policy proposals are sufficiently good to warrant voting for them. Thus if a Catholic votes for a pro-abortion candidate or for a pro-mass deportation candidate, for what FC calls “morally grave reasons,” because the candidate is deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods there should be conscientious commitment by the voter to oppose strenuously the pro-abortion agenda or the pro mass-deportation agenda respectively And there are other factors that FC rightly asks us to think about, including a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue.
And note, that I have not even addressed the issues of targeting innocents (who may be relatives of evil-doers) in military actions, or indiscriminate use of drones in warfare. Nor have I mentioned a great many important issues raised in FC and which we must take into account.
The bishop reminds us not to fall back on a simple formula, like "Choose the lesser evil." Rather, we should return to the source (the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount) and to its development in American pastoral theology (Faithful Citizenship, a.k.a. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call To Political Responsibility, a teaching document to U. S. Catholics advising us how to exercise our political voice.)
We are in the situation described by paragraph 36 of that document, but not in the way that faithful Catholic voters expected to be. The document reads:
36. When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
I submit that most pro-life voters imagined that this describes an election where every viable candidate is a pro-legal-abortion candidate.
Instead we have the (much more realistic, technically ever-present, but now extremely obvious) situation where every viable candidate openly supports an intrinsic evil, but it's not the SAME intrinsic evil.
Thus we are divided, and distracted into arguing about which intrinsic evil is the worse intrinsic evil.
This is a fool's discussion.
"Intrinsic" evils do not permit us to distinguish between a greater or a lesser evil. That is what "intrinsic" means.
It means that whichever way we go, we walk in the valley of the shadow of death.
We may as always distinguish prudentially between a greater or a lesser danger, but not between a greater or a lesser intrinsic evil.
And if you'll take a look at paragraph 36, you will note that the U. S. bishops do not advise U. S. Catholics to vote for the candidate whose evil is deemed lesser.
Instead they advise us that we may (a) choose not to vote for either candidate or (b) may vote for the candidate that is less likely to advance the evil parts of his/her agenda and more likely to advance the good parts of his/her agenda.
In other words, if we are to vote at all, we are obligated to consider the structures of platforms and of power as wholes -- not merely their foundations. How would each candidate be constrained in their political goals by opposing parties, by checks and balances, by the slow lurch of bureaucracy? Who can inspire the masses to support them, and what can that inspiration accomplish? Do the respective platforms contain (besides the rotted planks) sound, achievable goals that further justice and mercy? What role will competence and incompetence play in the advancement of the good and evil parts of the agendas? What role will self-interest play, and how strong is it in each candidate?
"Choose the lesser evil" is not going to work as a slogan this year. We have a much harder decision ahead of us all.