Ethics of Choice: Thoughts on Voting

We’re in the midst of election season and officially have nominees from the two major parties (and two third party candidates that seem to be decently present in the public consciousness). I am among those frustrated with and not pleased with either Trump or Clinton. There’s a lot of talk about voting third-party being a vote for Trump and (at least in Mormon circles) the assertion that a choice for the lesser of two evils is still a choice for evil and therefore is immoral.

I supported Bernie through the primaries, but don’t know what I’m going to do come November (leaning towards Stein, but there’s still time to work that out). I am drawn to (yet also troubled and not quite convinced by) the idea argued here by Matthew Franck. (Here are Dissenting thoughts from Republicans on the Never-Trump side and the Pro-Trump side). Franck asserts that you should simply vote your conscious because your single vote will do very little to influence the outcome of the election and you have to live with the ethical/internal consequences of that choice.

However, this does not assuage concerns I have about the consequences of such a mindset. I think there are some discussions to be had about responsibility and the reasons for voting that influence how you view these sorts of situations. Some questions I am wrestling with:

Am I responsible to primarily vote my conscience? How much responsibility to I maintain for the outcomes if I vote my conscience? Can and should you act as if you are voting in a vacuum? Does privilege allow me to vote my conscience? Is voting for the lesser of two evils in order to have a greater chance at preventing a greater evil a moral choice? Is a vote against the greater evil, but for a longshot candidate less against the greater evil than a vote for the lesser evil, who is far more likely to succeed?

Discussing options of voting behavior seems to depend on understanding (if not agreeing with) what the goals of voting are. Otherwise we could end up talking past each other. Voting is complicated for me and has largely been driven by my moral compass, where I vote for whoever I think is the best fit (based on policy positions and some gut-feelings if I’m totally honest), with little regard for voting for those that may have a better shot, but are farther from my own ideology. Some of this is probably due to voting primarily in Idaho and Utah, where my liberal votes are always in vain (I don’t think I’ve ever voted for a candidate that won a major election, well, besides Obama, but I only sort of voted for him, since Idaho’s electoral votes did not go blue). I try to be cognizant of the outcomes, but strategically voting for the most likely outcomes that are closest to my ideal isn’t a part of my voting calculus. I try to be guided by my conscience in most of my life and voting is no exception—I do my best to study things out and make informed decisions, but it feels wrong to me to vote for a person or platform that, for whatever reason, I can’t in good conscience get behind.

The fundamental reasons I could never vote for Trump are not purely policy related—it’s because he espouses racist, xenophobic, sexist ideas that strike me as morally indefensible (yes, those ideas influence and become policies, but the vehement nature of my disagreement isn’t the virtue of the policy itself, but rather the immorality of the policy. It doesn’t matter how effective torture is or how much safer banning all Muslims from entering the US would make us—both decisions strike me as morally indefensible).

To totally disregard such ethical and moral factors in voting decisions is something I can’t do. So, that leads us to the more complicated question of responsibility for outcomes and the ethics of choosing the lesser of two evils or refusing that choice.

My options are voting for greater evil, voting for lesser evil, voting for non-evil. At first glance it seems like voting for non-evil is clearly the most ethical decision. However, there’s a chance that a vote for non-evil may allow the greater evil to ultimately win the election. If that’s the case, and I did NOT vote for the greater evil, how much responsibility do I have for that outcome? This is where loads of people bring up the Brexit vote and immediate regret that followed as a warning sign for Trump being elected. Yet, the parallel doesn’t quite hold because Brexit happened in part by people voting FOR Brexit thinking it wouldn’t matter. That would be like me voting for Trump because it’d be funny and assuming that no one else would vote for him.

The greater-lesser evil talk seems to be like the train hypothetical where you can pull the lever and kill one person (usually someone close to you) or do nothing and everyone on the train will die. Except to more directly match the election there are three options (and loads of other people are involved in the final outcome). I’ll switch it up a bit, so all the choices require action (since I strongly believe in voting, even when voting for candidates with no shot at winning).

The train is on the tracks and you can go to the right killing loads of people, go to the left killing a smaller number, or go straight (a less popular but legitimate option) and not kill anyone. I’ll choose to go straight, which in the vacuum is easily the most ethical option. However, let’s complicate it a bit further and make the choice of direction up to a plurality vote. If I choose straight, but right gets more votes because the left and straight voters split their decision, am I responsible for the resultant deaths?

I don’t think so. I mean, there might be some responsibility, but I do not have the brunt of it. Why am I more responsible than those that chose left rather than straight? Or those that actually voted for the right?

Come November I’ll vote my conscience, which includes informed decisions about the policy positions of possible candidates. Because my vote matters. Not because it doesn’t.

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