In this election, we seem to be faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils. The problem affects partisans on both sides of the aisle. Progressives, turned off by Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, her support of free trade and modest interventionism, and general corruption (Clinton Foundation donations, email server in the bathroom closet, etc.), are debating whether they need to hold their noses and pull the lever for Clinton to stop Donald Trump.
Conservatives are weighing whether to listen to Ted Cruz’s call to “vote your conscience” or to cast their lot in with Trump to stop Clinton. Both groups agree they wouldn’t vote for Trump or Clinton on an up or down vote. However, given the two options, many argue we ought to pick the lesser of two evils.
The basic principle behind such arguments (let’s call it “lesser evil voting,” or LEV) is fairly straightforward: In an election in which there are only two candidates with a reasonable chance of winning, if both candidates are bad, we are morally obligated support the candidate who will do less harm.
Lesser Evil Voting Analyzed
However, we must unpack what this entails to evaluate whether the argument holds water. There are two main implications of using this argument to support Trump.
Not voting for Trump is the same as supporting or aiding Clinton.
According to those using the LEV argument against Never Trumpers on the Right, choosing not to perform one action (i.e., not actively voting for or supporting Trump) is equivalent to choosing to perform the opposite action (actively voting for or supporting Clinton). The logic here is fairly straightforward: If you don’t vote for Trump, that’s one less vote Clinton needs to overcome to win. If you refrain from praising Trump or actively criticize him, you are, in effect, helping Clinton, since that discourages potential Trump voters, thus lowering the threshold for a Clinton electoral victory.
An action’s morality is judged solely based on outcomes.
LEV is a consequentialist view of voting. It holds that the morality of an action is determined by whether it maximizes good effects and minimizes bad effects. LEV says voting should be based solely on the perceived consequences of an action or choice. According to LEV, if casting a vote for Clinton and refraining from voting at all or voting third party lead to the same outcome of Hillary being elected, they are morally equivalent.
Since pro-Trumpers see Hillary being elected as worse than Trump being elected, then not voting for Trump is equivalent to voting for Clinton. A further conclusion is drawn from this: If they are morally equivalent, then if your action helps Clinton get elected you are morally responsible for all that follows upon her election.
Not Acting Is Not the Same as Acting
There is an important distinction between actions and omissions. Advocates of LEV claim that not acting is as much of a voluntary choice as acting; therefore, choosing not to oppose Hillary is the same as helping her. It may be true that not voting for Trump is a voluntary act, but this does not mean omitting to prevent an evil is always morally equivalent to performing the evil.
Sometimes a failure to act is equivalent to acting. If Frank is drowning in a swimming pool, and I choose to do nothing to help him, I am responsible for his death just as much as if I actively chose to hold his head underwater. Why, however, are these two equivalent? It is because I have a prior duty to help those in need to the best of my ability and a prior duty not to drown people. If I can help Frank, I should. The equivalence here comes from the duties I have, not necessarily from the similar outcomes.
However, if there is no obligation, then in such cases not acting is not the same as acting. Even if the results may be the same, I am not responsible when I am not obliged. If I have no obligation to buy Timmy a Christmas present, I am not responsible for any potential disappointment Timmy might experience on Christmas morning. Likewise, and most relevant for voting, we must consider whether we have an obligation to vote for a candidate.
Here, we see that we do not. You do not owe Donald Trump a vote any more than you owe Hillary Clinton a vote. There is no moral demand that you must support a particular candidate. Furthermore, if in good conscience you cannot support Trump, you must obey your prior duty to obey your conscience. When Cruz said conservatives should “vote their conscience,” he was reiterating a basic moral duty. To abandon what we think is right is to throw standards of right and wrong in the trash.
Consequentialism Is an Unworkable, Incomplete Standard
While at first blush we sense the intuitive appeal of LEV because of the seemingly straightforward nature of consequentialist thinking, there are two basic problems with adopting this moral standard.
First, judging an election solely based on its consequences is impossible and unworkable. It is impossible to take into account every possible effect of an action or choice and weigh the various outcomes against each other. This is especially true of arguments for Trump. Since we are voting for someone in terms of what might happen, there is no way to know every possible outcome and effect of a Trump or Clinton presidency.
If Trump is elected, he might appoint Supreme Court justices who are good. Those judges may later rule in ways we see as fundamentally wrong (e.g., John Roberts on ObamaCare and Anthony Kennedy on abortion and marriage). If we are to vote based on possible outcomes, this is not workable.
Moreover, assuming Trump’s previous about-faces on different positions indicate who he is, we cannot be sure he even will appoint the justices he mentioned or implement the positions he has promised. Moreover, how are we to weigh the possible benefits of a good SCOTUS appointment against negative outcomes, such as the damage done to conservatism if Trump represents a true sea change in GOP priorities? Supporting Trump means endorsing a deeply illiberal approach to politics, one in which we see the president as the sole means of accomplishing anything. “I will be your voice” is not the motto of conservative leaders such as Edmund Burke, G.K. Chesterton, Russell Kirk, Eric Voeglin, Bill Buckley, and Ronald Reagan.
Second, sometimes the key factor that determines our moral choice will be the outcomes of the various options. However, this should only come after we have established that the action by which we achieve the desired outcome is not fundamentally wrong. By embracing LEV as our operative principle, we are embracing consequentialist thinking in general; we are saying that the end justifies the means.
Voting and politics are not a sui generis category of moral action where only consequences matter. To ignore the morality of the action apart from its effect means that there could be cases where it would be morally acceptable to lie, cheat, steal, rape, and murder, so long as the positive benefits of murder, rape, or theft outweighed the negative consequences.
Voting for the Lesser Evil Rejects Principles Completely
If we cannot and should not evaluate other spheres of human activity solely in terms of outcomes, why should voting and politics be an exception? Conservatives rightly complain about President Obama’s overreaching executive actions. However, if the only criteria we think relevant are outcomes, we cannot protest Obama’s actions because they are unconstitutional; our only argument would be that we don’t like what he’s using them to accomplish.
A true defender of the Constitution should no more approve of President Trump ignoring the Constitution than he would President Obama or a President Clinton doing the same, regardless of the outcomes. To focus on consequences alone is to argue “It’s wrong because I don’t like the outcome” and “It’s right because I like the outcome.” These are arguments fit for children, not for rational adults. Such reasoning has absolutely no legal force in court or moral force in the sphere of public opinion.
So adopting the lesser evil principle of voting is to reject principle and the idea that actions, apart from outcomes, matter. We should consider possible outcomes when voting, but we must consider the necessary implications of who we are supporting and what this support says about us and our values. To vote for Trump to stop Clinton is still to vote for Trump and everything he stands for.
Given that this election season has become interminably long, our choice cannot be cast as a split-second decision where we have no time to deliberate. When choosing who to vote for in November, remember that your vote is not merely a means to an end. It is a reflection of yourself and the nation you wish to create. If you think Clinton or Trump’s policies, ideology (or lack thereof), and rhetoric are poisonous, remember the advice of P. J. O’Rourke: “Don’t vote! It just encourages the bastards.”