16 June, 2016
The philosophical principles of reason which come down to us from the great minds of the past like Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas are those precepts which we must follow when applying reason to anything. The failure to do so will ultimately lead us to accepting absurd things. They are employed by all of our natural sciences. They are employed by all of our ethical reasoning. They are crucial to fulfilling our capabilities as rational beings. Unfortunately, some people throw around some of these principles in an incorrect or incomplete manner. Because we no longer learn true philosophy (even philosophy students seem to spend more time learning about philosophers – both good and bad – than about the actual science of philosophy) many people are ill equipped to see that these are false applications.
“Choosing the lesser of two evils”
This is a frequent claim used as an election draws near. In the U.S. It has long been used by pundits for the Republican party and has recently been used more by those of the Democrat party. The failure to nominate a candidate their voting base can really support has forced them to use this claim. They essentially say, “we know you think our candidate is bad, but he's not as bad as their candidate.” This call to choose the “lesser” of two evils is usually followed by the next claim.
“A vote for x is really a vote for y”
This is a double-attack on your reason. Not only is your decision not to vote for their candidate or policy wrong, but you will somehow be guilty for the fact that the other candidate or policy won. In essence, the claim is that by voting other than the way they want, you are actually choosing what (presumably) neither of you want. This is used by both of the major parties in the U.S. as an attack against anyone who considers a third party option. It is based on the premise that the candidate or policy you want has no chance of winning, which leads us to the next claim.
“Don't let the best be the enemy of the good”
Politics is the art of compromise, so why don't you just compromise and vote for us? Since your position or candidate has no chance of actually winning, you should back down a little and vote for us. By doing so, you'll get at least some of what you want instead of "wasting your vote."
All of these arguments sound reasonable, but are actually not so, and a serious look at the principles of reason will reveal why.
When people use variants of the “lesser of two evils” argument, keep in mind that this is only a partial statement of the actual principle of reason. The actual principle is, “If one cannot avoid doing one of two acts, from both of which will follow an evil effect, one is obligated to choose the lesser of the two evils.” Note that the premise here, which is fundamental to the entire principle, is that you cannot avoid doing one of the two acts. For this to apply in the context of an election, you would have to be constrained to only choose one of two candidates and have no other option – you must vote and you must vote for one of the only two candidates presented to you. Is this the actual case in our elections? Do you really only have two choices? I am not speaking of the so-called “practical” choices, by which is meant those choices generally accepted as having a chance to win. If there is in fact another option, then you are not limited by the constraint of the principle, so it simply doesn't apply. Actually, if one were to insist on applying it to the case of an election, a reasoned expansion of this principle would be that, in the case of more than two choices, you must choose the one from which will follow the least evil effect. Don't forget that, when electing candidates in the U.S., there is usually a blank line where you can write in the name of a better choice than the ones being presented.
This leads us to the next claim. Is it true that choosing something other than the two “practical” choices is equivalent to choosing one of them? The answer is obviously no. They say that the only choices are A and B because C has no chance of winning. Therefore, if you vote for C, you are effectively giving the election to whichever option they don't want from the choices of A and B. This is nonsense. They are trying to shift the blame to you for the fact that they didn't present a candidate you would want to support. They are trying to blame you for all the others who also didn't want to support their view. This seems to be a mangling of the principle which states, “Things that are identical with a third are identical with each other.” Your actual responsibility in an election is to vote for the candidate or position you think should win. What you vote for represents what you choose regardless of the outcome. You are not to blame for the votes of others.
This leaves us with the only argument that actually deserves any consideration. “Don't let the best become the enemy of the good” is inherently incorrect, but it can actually be applied in a way that doesn't compromise the principles of reason. However, this argument must be properly understood in the light of those principles to determine if it actually applies to the current choices.
First of all, using the terms employed, the “good” must always be directed toward the "best" or it fails to be good. (“Every agent acts for the sake of an end.”) Therefore, one can accept the merely “good” for now, but only on the condition that is a movement toward the “best.” If this is not the case, then you would be violating the principle which states, “It is never lawful to reject a greater good for a lesser one.” The lesser good can only be accepted as a means to achieving the greater good, and never as an end itself. This is the essence of political compromise. Realizing that achieving the “best” may not currently be politically possible, achieving the "good" at this time with the intention of continuing to work for the “best” may be prudent.
Another consideration for this argument must be kept in mind. At what point does continual compromise from the "best" end up being an acceptance of the merely "good?" If you keep voting for an inadequate candidate on the grounds that "we can't let the other party win," what incentive will your party ever have to stop presenting inadequate candidates? If you continue to agree to legislation that falls short of what you really want, what are your chances of ever getting the legislation you really want? The pundits accuse those who choose to make a stand with their vote of wasting it, but the purpose of voting is to try and get the change you want. What vote could be more wasted than when you vote for something you don't want?
At what point do we wake up to the realization that the political machines of these parties are actively engaged in saying what their base wants to hear just to secure votes, but don't actually mean those things? How many times to we have to see them fail to even try to accomplish what they tell us they will before we accept the fact that it really isn't all the fault of the other party? Remember that this sort of compromise is only acceptable if it is both prudential and will actually help to move from the "good" to the "best."
A final consideration on this kind of compromise is that we have to examine the risks of the other side of the compromise. It is not enough to look at what we've gained, we need to look at what we've potentially lost through the compromise.“It is never lawful to take a risk with the right of another.” “It is never lawful to do an evil act to accomplish a good end.” “A good intention does not justify the use of an evil means for the end in view.” If your side of the compromise would fall into any of these categories, then the compromise cannot be made. Remember that your vote represents you. Your beliefs and values. “All human acts must tend towards the good of man.”
I am also reminded of something posted by Ryan Grant. There is another claim that says that you have no right to complain if you don't vote. Of course, this is also nonsense. The officials of government have a moral responsibility in the exercise of their office. This is true even if those officials are not democratically elected. Citizens always have the right to complain about injustices regardless of how those officials came to hold their offices. In some election campaigns, there were movements of people who wanted a ballot option for “none of the above” as a way of indicating their dissatisfaction with all of the candidates. However, if you believe that elections are useless, because of the corruption of the political parties, the media, the voting process, or the ballot counting process, then why should you bother to vote even to say “none of the above?” Justice in government is a human right, not one just for those who engage in the system of voting.
Finally, I would like to point out how ironic it is when I hear Republican pundits heap scorn on those who would even consider a third party candidate. They seem to forget that their party was once the upstart third party in a political climate dominated by two other parties. The "Grand Old Party" is significantly younger than its chief rival. Why is it that they don't address the growing popularity of third party candidates among their voter base? The Republican party was propelled to electoral victory because the voting public got sick and tired of the fact that neither of the major parties of the time were putting forth candidates and positions that truly reflected their views. Well, the same thing is happening today in both of the major parties. It is common for pundits of both parties to lay the blame for an electoral loss on the votes "stolen" by a third party candidate. The truth is that these votes were not stolen because they didn't "belong" to any candidate or party. They never "owned" our votes and they shouldn't take them for granted. If they want our votes, then they should present candidates and positions we want to support. If they want to keep our votes, then those candidates better use their time in office actually trying to accomplish what they were elected to accomplish. In other words, voters need to remember that parties and individual candidates need to earn our votes, and need to keep doing so. If they fail to do this, then why shouldn't we look elsewhere and be proud of doing so?