Moderate Deontology: Voting for Giuliani

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A few days ago I posted about the differences between deontological and consequentialist views in ethics. Consequentialists think consequences are all that matters in terms of evaluating the moral status of an action. Deontologists think other factors can sometimes trump consequences, and thus you'll end up with situations when doing the right thing requires doing something that doesn't lead to the best consequences.

My main point in the post was to defend a moderate deontological position in one respect. Absolutists think the moral principles that are more important than consequences are always more important than the consequences. In other words, absolutists hold that deontological moral principles always apply, and consequences are irrelevant. A moderate deontologist in this respect will argue that deontological principles are not always absolute in that sense. Sometimes consequences will be so much more important that the principle doesn't truimp the consequences in that case. These deontological principles will then have a threshold. If the consequences are serious enough that they surpass the threshold, then the principle no longer holds for that action. If they are below that threshold, then they hold.

An example of how this works comes from Plato. It's usually wrong to steal, and if you borrow something it's usually immoral to refuse to return it. But what if you borrow your friend's sword, and your friend returns to you asking for the sword after you've discovered that your friend intends to use it to commit a great evil? Plato argues that it would be wrong to return the sword, even though normally you ought to do so. The moderate deontologist explains this in terms of this particular action being above the threshold for the immorality of stealing (or more precisely of refusing to return borrowed possesions).

In the rest of this post, I'd like to apply this line of thought to the first case I presented at the outset of my previous post. I want to say that in those cases a deontologist can say what I want to say without being a consequentialist. The first case was a pro-life voter who shudders at pulling the lever for someone as pro-choice as Rudy Giuliani, even if the consequence of pro-lifers taking such an attitude is that the even more pro-choice Hillary Clinton would be guaranteed to become the next president. Two things matter here. One is that Rudy Giuliani really is preferable to Hillary Clinton according to pro-life criteria, even if both are much closer to the not preferred end of the spectrum. The second is that the moral principles at stake here are not absolutes, and in certain situations above the threshold the principles no longer apply.

As a fiscal conservative with federalist tendencies, Giuliani doesn't think the federal government is the place to further such an agenda. He didn't even further it at the local level when he was mayor of New York City. He simply retained the status quo. Hillary Clinton would much more militantly pursue a pro-choice regime.

Furthermore, Giuliani is also a judicial conservative who, along with John Roberts and Sam Alito, was part of the Reagan Justice Deparment. He has mentioned Alito and Roberts as the kind of judges he'd appoint. He says Thomas and Scalia would also be within the range of judges he'd appoint. He mentioned no other names, and those are the four reliably conservative votes on the Supreme Court. Even if he is being dishonest (or unable to discern differences between moderates and conservatives) and would appoint people like Anthony Kennedy, that would be better for the pro-life cause than appointments from Hillary Clinton, who would be very much in the mold of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

For one particularly telling take on how much is at stake in this election that isn't being focused on in the debates, see Tom Goldstein's analysis of how this election could affect the Supreme Court. A pro-life Republican who is disappointed by Giuliani's stance on abortion will be preventing a solid hold on the court by conservatives by helping elect him, probably for 10-15 years (if it turns out to be a choice between him and Hillary Clinton or him and Barack Obama). If Giuliani gets to appoint even one justice more conservative than Kennedy to replace Souter, Stevens, or Ginsburg, then there will be little chance of a major shift back to the left for 10-15 years.

But it's not just that Rudy preferable to Hillary for pro-lifers. It's that the principle of voting for someone isn't the sort of absolute where you should ignore the moral import of those more preferable consequences when compared with the alternative. What is voting? If voting is indicating that you agree with the person 100%, we could never vote. If it's to signal agreement on most issues (how much is most?) or on the most important issues (how much is most?) you already have some vagueness. We get a "where do we draw the line?" situation. That leaves it open for a threshold type of view rather than the absolutist line that James Dobson is pushing.

Some may still draw the line differently from where I would draw it and not vote for Rudy, but that's not Dobson's position. He frames it in terms of an absolute prohibition on ever voting for someone who happens to be pro-choice, which I think implies an obligation to vote for a Nazi who is pro-life on the abortion issue over someone like Rudy Giuliani, which is frankly nuts.

A much more reasonable view of voting is that it indicates which of a set of candidates is the one you want your vote to count toward. It doesn't mean you think that person is the best person who could occupy that position. In some cases you won't find someone who agrees with you more than yourself, but it isn't immoral to vote for someone other than yourself. There's a moral issue that too often gets ignored when it comes to voting. The point of having voting to begin with is to give people a say in who governs them. But if all the members of one party voted for their truly favorite candidate, and all the members of the other party voted for one person, even if it's not their favorite, the second party would always win. Some people call it pragmatism to vote for your party candidate as the lesser of two evils when a third-party candidate would be preferable to you. In a sense it is, but it's not pragmatism in the crude form of merely concerning yourself with consequences and ignoring other important moral issues. It's because of a more important moral principle that we should do such things to begin with.

So voting is thus inherently a pragmatic venture. If it were a matter of indicating whose moral views are closest to yours, it would be absolutely immoral for most anyone to vote for any of the Republican or Democratic candidates. You should instead write in your own name. But that view is results in disastrous consequences for a number of reasons. The public good requires selecting a candidate other people know something about and will also consider selecting. The public good requires us to indicate which among a selection of candidates is the one we prefer the most, not which candidate agrees with us on everything or agrees with us fully on the issues most important to us.

So I conclude that the kind of pragmatism that allows a pro-lifer to vote for Giuliani over Clinton in the general election is compatible with a reasonable version of deontological ethics and does not require consequentialism. Consequences do play a role in the reasoning, but it's because the situation under discussion involves consequences that overcome the threshold for the moral rule of not voting for someone who disagrees with your principles on a very important moral issue. Given that the consequences are very important and that he is preferable to a pro-lifer, it seems to me that it is in fact a violation of a more important moral principle to sit out the election or to vote for a third-party candidate, although perhaps not as bad as actually pulling the lever for Hillary.

This took longer than I expected, so I will cover the Ron Paul case separately.

6 Comments

As a consistent third party voter, I would ask you to consider the following:

Your vote never determines the outcome of the election. Even in an election for mayor of a small town it is unlikely that you will cast the deciding vote. So if the goal of voting is for the individual to have an influence on politics, then it is always a waste of time. If this is how we understand voting, then all individual votes are wasted (you have to convince a very large number of people to vote with you).

Instead, I tend to think of voting as a sort of opinion poll. We are collecting statistics on which candidate the people think is best, of those on the ballot. It is in our best interest, as a country, to have accurate statistics on this subject, so the voters should stop trying to figure out what their vote is going to DO (because it isn't going to do anything, individually) and answer the question: which of these candidates is best? I see no good reason for restricting oneself to the major parties; in fact, I think that to do so is to contribute to the brokenness of the system, and the maintain the status quo, ensuring that real change for the better does not occur and the establishment remains entrenched. For this reason, I think that it may well be immoral to refuse, on pragmatic grounds, to consider third-party candidates: if the status quo is bad, the voter has a moral obligation to say so through his ballot. A vote for the opposite major party does not acheive that unless the issues you care about are issues the major parties differ on. To those who oppose big government across the board, the major parties are just the same: the major parties just squabble about what big government should use our money and its enormous and constantly growing power for.

You are, of course, right, that we can't refuse to vote for any candidate that we have any disagreement with, because we will always disagree with something. But that isn't an argument for voting for the lesser of two evils: if you really think both candidates are evil (and not merely that one candidate is worse than the other), you have an obligation to stand up and be counted, and the only way to do this is to reject the choice and vote third party, none of the above (in states that count those), or write-in.

You've got some interesting counterfactuals here. If everyone were willing to vote for third-party candidates, then they would have more chance of winning. If no one were willing to vote for them, then they would have none. As it stands, enough do vote for them that they have little chance of winning but a significant chance of affecting which major party candidate does win. If a hard right candidate absorbs the vote from a moderate conservative enough for a liberal candidate to win, then I think it's reasonable to conclude that those hard right voters caused the liberal winner to win. The same goes for the opposite case, where a hard left candidate absorbs a moderate liberal's votes and causes a conservative to win.

Given that, then I do think the collective action of those who insist on voting for third-party candidates causes an outcome that those very voters shouldn't want. Convincing enough third-party voters not to do it would have an effect, and therefore I think it's worth trying.

So I don't accept the argument that one person's vote doesn't have an effect. While that's literally true, I don't think it's morally relevant. One person's non-recycling has little effect on the environment, but it's still immoral to be wasteful, and one reason is that it's going to have a cumulative effect given that a lot of people will use the same reasoning to be wasteful, and that result is terrible.

I think in the case of Giuliani vs. Clinton or Giuliani vs. Obama, I wouldn't think the "lesser of two evils" label is strictly accurate. I would say that both outcomes are unfortunate, and both are more unfortunate than a candidate I'd agree with more, but any of the candidates running are less fortunate than the ideal candidate. So the question is really how close the two unfortunate candidates have to be to each other to be worth a miss or a third-party vote. My contention is that if there's a noticeable enough difference for me to prefer one of the two, then that person isn't strictly speaking the lesser of two evils but is in fact the preferable among two unfortunate choices.

By the way, I would vote for Hillary Clinton if it came down to a choice between her and someone who agreed with her on everything except for wanting to imprison Jews merely for being Jews. I wouldn't see an absolute against even voting for her. But there'd be a much higher threshold against it than there is for Giuliani.

Well, I'm definitely a stricter deontologist than you are, and that's the real root of the disagreement here, but what I'm interested in that I don't think has been adequately answered on your view is, why bother voting? Wasted vote arguments drive me nuts because I think most of them lead to the conclusion that all votes are wasted. The goal of voting isn't to vote for the candidate who wins, but rather to vote for the best candidate, and convince others to also vote for the best candidate. If the candidate doesn't win, he doesn't win, but at least you did your duty as a citizen of a democracy, and it's not your fault. If you vote for the lesser evil when there is a good candidate on the ballot, then you are in some degree responsible for the government being evil.

My principle contention is that if you think the country would be better off if everyone took the third party candidates seriously, then you should be the first to start taking them seriously, because it has to start somewhere.

Since I haven't seen a third-party candidate I liked, I'm not sure I can say that I think the country would be better off if everyone took the third-party candidate seriously. My best guess is that if everyone immediately took them more seriously, better candidates might run in third parties, and then it might be a better situation. But with the long, slow process of some people starting somewhere and eventually working toward more taking it seriously, I think enough damage could be done that it wouldn't be worth it in the long run even with the eventual arrival of what could be a better result if it were done now.

As for the motivation to vote, I think we ought to be motivated to vote because voting brings us to cooperate with others in order to have an effect collectively.

Well, if that's what you think I don't have an objection to your decision to vote for major party candidates. The people I object to are the people who think one or more minor party candidates are better and wish that others would take them seriously and then vote for the "lesser evil" themselves anyway.

There are occasions when I think a third-party candidate is better when I'll vote for the GOP candidate, but I don't consider that a "lesser of two evils" scenario, just one where two candidates are good enough but one is better, and I'll vote for the one I agree with a little less because I think it leads to better enough consequences. But I don't expect it to happen in a presidential race anytime in the near future. But in these case I don't think I'd call the person an evil. I wouldn't even call Hillary Clinton an evil. Some of her views would be disastrous, but I don't consider a vote for her to be necessarily evil, and thus I don't consider it to be the lesser of two evils when you compare her with someone like Hitler (voting for whom I would consider an evil).

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