I, along with some other philosophers, was recently interviewed about voting for an article by Olivia Goldhill of Quartz. While I certainly stand by what I said, interviews do have inherent problems. One common problem is the lack of depth. In some cases, this is due to the interview being short. For the Quartz piece, I spoke to the author for about five minutes. In other cases, the interview might be longer, but the content must be slashed down to fit in a limited amount of time or space. An interview I did about D&D alignments and the real world was about thirty minutes long; but only a few minutes were used in the final broadcast. Another problem is that material aimed at the general public typically has to be simplified. This is because most people are not experts on the subject at hand. As such, I need to expand a bit on my quote in the article.
After briefly discussing the difference between deontological and utilitarian approaches to voting, I presented my soundbite view of the issue
“As a citizen, I have a duty to others because it’s not just me and my principles, but everybody. I have to consider how what I do will impact other people. For example, if I was a die-hard Bernie supporter, I might say my principles tell me to vote for Bernie. But I’m not going to let my principles condemn other people to suffering.”
Interestingly enough, my position can be taken as either a deontological approach or a utilitarian approach. For the deontologist, an action is right or wrong in and of itself—the consequences are not what matter morally. For the utilitarian, the morality of an action is determined by its consequences. Looked at from a deontological perspective, acting on a duty to the general good would be the right thing to do. The fact that doing so would have good consequences is not what makes the action good. From the utilitarian perspective, the foundation of my duty would be utility: I should do what brings about the greatest good for the greatest number.
In the upcoming election, I intend to follow my principle. While I voted for Sanders in the primary and prefer him over Hillary, I think that a Trump presidency would be vastly worse for the country as a whole than another Clinton presidency. Hillary, as I see her, is essentially a 1990s moderate Republican with a modern liberal paint job. As such, she can be counted on as a competent business as usual politician who will march along with the majority of the population in regards to social policy (such as same sex marriage and gun regulation). Trump has no experience in office and I have no real idea what he would do as president. As such, I am taking the classic approach of choosing the lesser evil and the devil I know. If I was voting for the greater evil, Cthulhu would have my vote.
It might be objected that my approach is flawed. After all, if a person votes based on a rational assessment of the impact of an election on everyone, then she could end up voting against her own self-interest. What a person should do, it could be argued, is consider the matter selfishly—to vote based on what is in her interest regardless of the general good.
This approach does have considerable appeal and is based on an established moral philosophy, known as ethical egoism. This is the view that a person should always take the action that maximizes her self-interest. Roughly put, for the ethical egoist, she is the only one with moral value. The opposing moral view is altruism; the view that other people count morally. Ayn Rand is probably the best known proponent of ethical egoism and the virtue of selfishness. This ideology has also been embraced by Paul Ryan and explicitly by many in the American Tea Party.
While supporters of selfishness claim that the collective result of individual selfishness will be the general good (a view advanced by Adam Smith), history and reason show the opposite. Everyone being selfish has exactly the result one would suspect—most people are worse off than they would be if people were more altruistic. To use an analogy, everyone being cruel does not make the world a kinder place. More people being kind makes it a kinder place.
This is not to say that people should not consider their interests, just that they should also consider the interests of others. This is, after all, what makes civilization possible. Pure selfishness without regulation, as Hobbes argued, is the state of nature and the state of war—which is not in anyone’s interest.
It can also be objected that my approach is flawed because it perpetuates the two party lockdown of the American political system. While many people are unaware of this, there are many third party candidates running in 2016. Perhaps the best known is libertarian Gary Johnson. He received 1% of the popular vote in 2012 and is polling in the double digits in some polls. It is all but certain that he will not win, thus a vote for Johnson merely helps either Trump or Hillary get elected (depending on whether the person would have otherwise voted for one of them). Nader’s ill-fated bid for president enabled Bush to win the election, something that is often regarded as a disaster (but, to be fair, Al Gore might have done worse). While voting for a third party candidate can be seen as, at best, throwing away one’s vote a case can be made for voting this way.
Like the approach I took in the interview, the argument for voting third party can be based on utilitarian considerations (one can also make a deontological argument based on the notion of a duty to vote one’s conscience). The difference is that the vote for the third party would be justified by the hope of long term consequences. To be specific, the justification would be that voting for a third party candidate could allow the greater evil to win this election. And the next election. And probably several more elections after that. But, eventually, the lockdown on politics by Democrats and Republicans could be broken by a viable third party. If the third party is likely to be better than the Democrats or Republicans, then this could be a good utilitarian argument. It could also be a good argument if having a viable third party merely improved things for the population. The deciding factor would be whether or not the positive consequences of eventually getting a viable third party would be worth the cost of getting there. Naturally, the likelihood of viability is also a factor.
I am split on this issue. On the one hand, there seems to be a good reason to stick with voting for the lesser evil, namely the fact that third party viability is quite a gamble. There is also the concern about whether any third party candidate is better than a lesser evil. On the other hand, voting for the lesser evil does lock us in the two party system and this could prove more damaging than allowing the greater evil to win numerous times on the way towards having a viable third party.