I’m sick to death of this election. The most distressing aspect of this election cycle is that it’s revealed the extent to which American Catholics, particularly those of a conservative bent, have embraced utilitarianism. For some, it’s a half-hearted utilitarianism — “Oh, we have a lot of qualms about our candidate, but we’ll manfully swallow them to prevent The Evil Candidate from being elected” — but it’s utilitarianism nonetheless.
A Priest Endorses Utilitarianism
Nothing so forcefully illustrates this as the final paragraph of this op-ed from the Wall Street Journal by James Freeman, “Doesn’t Clinton Embarrass the Democrats?”:
Voters who wish to reject the Clintonization of America’s governing institutions have a choice on Nov. 8. They can feel good about themselves by writing in the name of a third-party candidate. Or they can do right by the country by selecting the only person who can stop the Clintons: a very flawed candidate named Donald Trump.
Not only is the argument utilitarian, it sneers at third-party/write-in voters as vain fools voting their self-images. Ad hominem much? The kicker: the paragraph had been posted on Facebook by a priest whose name I shall not mention … and who ought to know better than that.
That Freeman and the WSJ would be for Trump is no surprise. Remarking on the last debate, Freeman comments, “Mr. Trump, for his part, deviates from many Republicans on trade and immigration but has otherwise embraced a growth agenda of lower taxes and regulatory relief for an economy that sorely needs it.” In other words, Freeman and (by extension) the Journal believe the only cure for our current economic doldrums is a hair of the dog that bit us in 2007.
But the point I’ve been struggling to make is that the individual voter is not responsible for who wins. Voters are only responsible for their own choices and the reasons for them. How the rest of the country votes is beyond their control. However, the act of election is properly ordered towards putting the best candidates in office, not keeping the worst candidates out. A party that puts forward an absolutely horrible candidate for The Most Important Office in the Land and expects the non-partisan to vote for him/her because “s/he’s not That Other Person” is a party that deserves to lose.
And when the democratic process throws up two candidates so visibly unfit for office and demands we choose “the lesser of two evils” instead of seeking a good third person, it’s irrefutable evidence that neither the system nor the people who uphold it are working towards the common weal. It may be unrealistic to expect perfection. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t demand better, that we must settle for whatever mess of pottage the two-party system in all its human brokenness offers us. We Americans take it as articles of faith that choice is good and the more choices, the better. Why, then, do we put up with a two-party system when we don’t have to by law?
In Catholic moral teaching, the morality of the act matters as much as the morality of the result. We may not intentionally do evil that good may come of it (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1789). Occasionally, doing the right thing will put you in some kind of danger, or at least will discomfit you. Occasionally, evil will occur that we can’t reasonably prevent, and it will sometimes come from something good we’ve done. And sometimes, all foreseeable outcomes suck. Catholicism is no escape from moral ambiguity.
Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law. (CCC § 1787)
Conscience and Voting
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, people must act in accord with their consciences, even though their consciences be ill-equipped for the decision (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-I, Q. 19 A. 5). And if your conscience really can’t let you vote third-party, I understand. (No, really, I do; this election is the ultimate trolley problem.) But it bothers me that Freeman — and, implicitly, the priest who endorses his opinion — has the chutzpah to pat himself on the back for voting according to his principles and patronize me for voting according to mine. —Yes, I personalize Freeman’s ad hominem, because I’m part of the group which he belittles; ad hominem attacks are by definition and nature personal.
Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, § 16)
Freeman’s sneer can be restated by a maxim from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation: “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.” No phrase better encapsulates the self-referential incoherence of utilitarianism: How can our sense of morals simultaneously discern the right thing to do and tell us it’s wrong to do it? Utilitarianism tries to overcome this difficulty by making the morality of the act contingent on the social utility of the consequence. But if the subjective conscience can err about the objective morality of an act, it can also err concerning the objective social utility of the consequence — we’re on no firmer ground than before.
Dystopia by Little Steps
“[In] order for the will to be good ..., it must will the good for the sake of the good” (STh II-I, Q. 19 A. 7 ad 3). It isn’t sufficient merely to wish to do less harm or slow down the progress of degeneration; it’s meretricious to vote for Barabbas One on the grounds that s/he’s marginally less debased than Barabbas Two when you need not vote for either one. When you settle for the lesser of two evils, evil still wins. You must will the good for the sake of the good.
No, voting for the lesser of two evils is not “doing right by the country”; it’s doing your country a grave injustice. It’s voting for Dystopia by little steps; it’s voting for national death by a thousand cuts. Vote for Trump, if you must; vote for Clinton, if you can do so and sleep at night. But don’t pat yourself on the back for your pragmatism. Weep for your country; because if this is the best we can do, then we’re doomed as a nation, as a society, and as a culture.