Thursday, September 01, 2016

Voting and the Lesser of Two Evils

David Ottlinger considers a question about voting:

In my experience, conversations in which people make the titular statement generally have the same form. The person who makes the claim names some reasons that they contend eliminates one candidate from consideration and then do the same for the other candidate. For instance: “I can’t vote for Trump because of his racist comments, but I can’t vote for Hillary because of her corruption.” Now, it is worth pausing over this kind of thought process. Implicit in such a train of thought is the idea that a candidate can be eliminated from consideration by considering them completely in isolation, that is to say, totally apart from any consideration of their opponent.

There are always, of course, more than two candidates in a Presidential election, but we can set that aside and just consider the general point. I also think it is in fact false to think that this kind of behavior always involves eliminating candidates from consideration without considering the others. Consider this kind of situation: I consider a candidate, and that candidate is utterly awful, an Abyss of Corruption. If I were a consequentialist, this would be a good reason to incline me to vote against them. In fact, it sets up a sort of threshold -- I would not vote for them unless their opponent were at least such-and-such awful. Consequentialist reason always in principle allows for exceptions, so I haven't simply eliminated them out of consideration -- there are hypothetical situations in which I might vote for them. But in practice, it can very well arise that the conditions required for any exceptions are so extreme that I can reasonably hold, for practical purposes, that they will almost certainly not occur. A definite and certain conclusion would require considering all of the factors, including the other candidate, but for practical purposes, I can consider them one at a time without a problem. And people can allow for the bare abstract possibility of changing their minds on learning more about the rival, while still not having any reason to think that they will ever actually change their minds.

In reality, too, it's worth remembering that almost no one actually does consider political candidates in isolation -- by the time we get any political candidate, we almost always know at least some of the rivals, or at least know what the candidates for rival candidate are.

But is there really any problem with eliminating a candidate out of hand without regard for the other candidate? Ottlinger thinks so:

I believe the deontic logic of many who refuse to vote for either candidate is misapplied, and I am inclined to think it gets something very wrong about the nature of politics. We may — and I tend to think we do — have a moral obligation to vote and to vote as intelligently as possible. As a corollary, we may have an obligation to keep informed and make the appropriate effort to be fair-minded. But moral compromise inheres in the nature of politics. Almost any candidate will hold some position the enactment of which I find seriously immoral, be it abortion, drone strikes, military interventions, anti-poverty initiatives, taxes etc. It would seem strange to say that voting for virtually any candidate would be immoral.

If this is the problem, however, I don't think there is a problem; it's just not true that moral compromise inheres in the nature of politics. Compromise on means, arguably so; but one of the colloquial names for what Ottlinger calls "moral compromise" is "political corruption". As Ottlinger himself has already noted by this point in his argument, in practice people will vote for candidates who hold some positions the enactment of which they might find immoral for the very obvious reason that how these positions are held matters. Sometimes positions are held, but there is a good reason to think that a candidate would not be able to do anything about them, or that they are at least open to negotiation on the point, or that it's incidental enough to their main focus as to be endurable. None of this is actually compromise; it's just taking into account the fact that in practical terms not everything will need to be opposed with equal vehemence and in every way at all times, so there can be judgment calls about how best to oppose things, and which oppositions to prioritize, even without ceasing one's opposition. But none of this tells us about whether it is ever reasonable to conclude that a candidate is simply intolerable based on the facts about that candidate, and it's not really obvious from anything he says why it couldn't be. If Ottlinger has been out of the loop and sets out to research who is running, and discovers of the first candidate he researches that the candidate's platform argues for the extermination of anyone except whites, would his response really be, "Well, I am still keeping an open mind since I haven't seen what the other candidate says"? That's really what he's committed to saying -- if he doesn't, then he's admitted the line beyond which one can eliminate candidates without considering their opposition, and the only argument is about how extreme you have to get in order to reach it.

(Ottlinger tries to get around this by saying that he would only refuse to vote for any candidate if they were both equally unacceptable to such an extent that they could be expected to deprive the state of its legitimacy. But this won't fly; the scenario requires that you be able to tell, from looking at each candidate, that the candidate is unacceptable in this way, which concedes the whole point against which Ottlinger is arguing. The only question then is whether it's reasonable to have higher standards for politicians than Ottlinger does.)

In reality, when people do this, they are rarely considering the candidate, except incidentally -- it's not chiefly a question of what the candidates do or say, but of what they themselves can in good conscience do or say. This is the reason why not wanting to bear responsibility comes up. Nobody thinks that voters have responsibility for everything politicians do. But they do bear responsibility for voting for politicians when they know what they intend to do (what else is the point of trying to vote well in the first place?), and as with any other case of bearing responsibility, there is going to be a point beyond which they honestly and in good conscience don't think they can bear that responsibility.

Of course, much of Ottlinger's argument is predicated on the assumption that we may have a moral obligation to vote. I don't think this is in fact true, either, but that would be another post entirely.

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