Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Ethics of Not Voting

This November, for the first time in my adult life, I likely will not be voting Republican in the presidential election. But neither can I support the Democratic nominee for president. Thus, I find myself in an interesting position: do I find the nearest nominee of a third party with whom I align on “must-have” issues? Or, since this is a principled stand for me, do I simply relax and look for ideological purity, and if I find none, refrain from voting? Often, our culture simply takes it as a presupposition that you have an ethical or patriotic obligation to vote. It is more assumed than defended, and usually comes in the form of the statement “If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain.” But is that really true? In this article, I seek to show that there is a particular ethic to not voting, and in some cases, it can be not only permissible to refrain from voting, but even obligatory.

Let’s start with the obligatory cases, since if these succeed, then it follows as a matter of logic that there are at least some permissible cases. Suppose a potential voter has done no research and knows virtually nothing about a referendum issue (say, about a measure to shift funding from one place to another). Should she vote yes or no? Given what she knows, she has no way of reasonably preferring one to the other. Given that the vote at issue can have repercussions that are good or bad, one can make the case that, ethically, if she does not have a clue, she should refrain from voting. That is, not only is it permissible for her to refrain from voting, but she plausibly has an obligation to do so. This is because it is reckless to so vote.

Consider another case, where you face a referendum with two choices, A and B. If you vote “A,” then all homosexuals will be rounded up, tried, and killed. If you vote “B,” this will happen, but only for homosexuals whose last names begin with “C,” and only once per year. It seems that either choice is unacceptable. Notice it wouldn’t help to have an objector tell you, “But a non-vote is just a vote for whichever one would win!,” or “B is the lesser of two evils!,” or “If you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain.” Actually, in these cases, you have an obligation not to vote for either one, and you absolutely do retain your right to complain about it.

So what is the lesson here? We have an obligation to refrain from voting in cases of extreme ignorance, or in cases of two or more exhaustive choices that we can or should reasonably believe violate our principles.

Now consider the current case. I think the principles of the situation prohibit me from voting for either the Republican or Democrat. Thus, I have two major choices: I either refrain from voting at all, or I can embrace a third-party candidate. Now I think we should notice we may not necessarily have either condition in place in order to constitute an obligation not to vote, for me. Why, then, would I not vote?

First, I might refrain from voting as what is itself a protest vote. Contrary to popular belief, I neither cast a vote for Hillary/Donald nor lose my right to protest by not voting. It may be the case that I wish to voice my displeasure in one of the only ways I can: by refusing to play the game at all. This lack of voting isn’t voter apathy; it’s precisely the opposite. It’s precisely because I care that I am even considering this move. I think, then, this move might need to be accompanied by vocal action (whether by letter or in person). It is because I am involved that I retain a moral right to speak to what happens politically. Further, when the votes are tallied, none would be counted from me to a particular candidate; that’s just not how voting works. Neither could my lack of participation be interpreted as support for whomever wins. The hard-core Trump supporters told us he didn’t need us to win; if that’s true, then my position is a “no-harm, no-foul” thing. If it’s not true, as many have said, then we can always say, “we told you so.”

My next moves are to investigate third-party candidates. Currently, I am not sold on any one of them—but it’s only July. And pragmatics are mostly out the window (none of these third-party candidates are going to win the presidential race in 2016). Thus, I can afford to be principled.

Finally, I don’t trust in governments; that’s not where my hope lies. Instead, my hope is in Jesus Christ. I can trust in a God who is in control. This doesn’t mean I won’t vote at all (or even that I won’t vote for someone for president in 2016); I will do my due diligence and vote on issues and down-ticket candidates. Nonetheless, I think I am done with being a registered member of one of the two major parties for a while. The ethics of not voting seem to be relevant.


  1. Well-articulated article, Randy! Thank you! I am in very much the same place as you. The only other thing I am weighing in my vote on a pragmatic level is if a third-party vote might also help bring change to the two-party system in the future.

    1. Thanks for the comment, James! I am not against a third-party vote, and I have until November, so we'll see how it goes! This particular debate is interesting: I am being told by some that if I don't vote for Trump, I am sinning. I honestly have a clear conscience about that (that is, I don't think that I am). Should be interesting to come! :)

  2. My thoughts exactly Randy. I do agree with your point that not voting for the GOP should also be verbalized as to why. I am hoping that IF trump loses by a landslide (which I think he will) the GOP will reconsider the next candidates they set forward next election. If not, then I will also be dropping the party and looking for an alternative that connects with my moral and ethical values.

    1. Robert, thanks for commenting! Your point is well taken; I hope for that, too.

  3. Hey brother! Long time no talk! Thanks for your thoughts as always.

    Over the years I have found a deep affection for the study of ethics. Over those years I have come to realize, like other things, specifics mean everything. I agree with you that there very well may be situations in which one is obligated not to vote (as well as vote) in the grand scheme of voting ethics. However, I'm not persuaded that your aforementioned example is really analogous. Remember, in ethics, the details mean everything. Indeed, if one small seemingly insignificant detail is different, one's obligation may lead elsewhere. Even more, given that I think the Holy Spirit gives us the coup de grâce on ethics, even two identical situations may require different actions. But that's a little off track.

    As I stated, I'm not persuaded that your example is really analogous. In particular, the example of the rounding up and killing of homosexuals. Hypothetically, and given that it is a hypothetical, if no one votes for either, none of those will become law. However, in the case of the current presidential election, SOMEONE will become president.

    But even more than that, do you take an absolutists position on the "lesser of two evils" option? That is, is there no case in which one is obligated to follow the lesser of two evils? It seems to me that if you did accept at least some circumstance in which the lesser or two evils is obligatory, it would be for the value of human life! Should you allow thousands to die or just five? Indeed, if you have the chance to prevent many from dying, even if not everyone, are you not obligated to do so?

    Let me just say, I'm no fan of Trump! He wasn't my first, second, third, or even fourth pick. But I am leaning towards a vote for him because of all the wrong-doing that will likely be allowed by Hilary. Indeed, how about just the perpetuation and expansion of the killing of the unborn? Do you not have an obligation to prevent this? What about the election of Supreme Court Justices (of which the next president might be able to elect four) that might do some good to outlawing or restricting some aspect of abortion? Do you not have an obligation for that? How about an individuals moral right to defend themselves and her desire to restrict of the second amendment? I understand the appeal to vote principled for one's conscience. But sometimes I feel for the practical side in which they would think it quite selfish to throw away a chance to do less evil simply because of one's seeming obligation (or less charitably, one's preference). Indeed, perhaps one's interpretation of obligation is more of a feeling than an intuition. Many people get these two mixed up, but they are not identical (as I'm sure you know).

    Looking forward to your thoughts as always!
    God Bless you bro!

    1. Hey man, thanks for your thoughts here! I just want to clarify, perhaps, and then address what I can. I will say that those on the NeverTrump side haven't necessarily properly defined what we mean when we say the "lesser of two evils." We mean--or at any rate, I mean--that I think the two major candidates are such that I cannot in good conscience vote for them; that is, the act of voting for one of them would itself be an evil. That comes into play big time, since I've seen some people take that as "this person isn't good at their job" or "this person is flawed," both of which are very different things from what I mean.

      The second clarification I'd like to make is that the analogy is *mostly* only supposed to show that there can be times when one has an obligation to refrain from direct participation, and I think it works there. But to allay your concerns, all we have to do is stipulate the same rules for the presidential vote: there will be an option, A or B, because if no one votes, it will go to the House, and same rules for the election, so that one thing or other will come to pass. Is it still permissible to vote for one or the other? I don't think so, anyway!

      I take it that you either accept or are leaning toward either a graded absolutism (e.g., Geisler) or conflicting absolutism (e.g., Luther). I don't accept either of those views, and in fact accept non-conflicting absolutism. I believe all three views have problems, for sure; the fun thing about philosophy is that you basically pick the set of problems you can live with! :)

      But then if non-conflicting absolutism is true, then it cannot, even in principle, be right to commit a wrong intentionally, even if the goal is to do right ultimately. Then there's an epistemological problem: say that, in the long run, a Hillary presidency results in more evangelicals in the church spreading the Gospel and getting the message against abortion, and more conversions occur and fewer abortions occur after a Clinton presidency than after a Trump one. There's just no way to know whether or not this would happen; it's pure speculation. (On a political side, I think it's more than unclear what judges will do in the next four years. While certain liberal judges would likely retire during a President Clinton term, they almost assuredly would hang on, barring death, during a President Trump term, so that Trump does not get to replace them at all. Then, when a stronger Democrat sweeps in, and likely ties the House (since closer districts will tire of Republicans aligning with President Trump), the Democrat president will be able to place stronger liberals than a President Clinton could. Anyway, that's political.)

      And then the final ethical question I have for either consequentialists or graded absolutists/conflicting absolutists (I know none of these are identical, so I am not straw-manning here!): Is there some lower-bound such that, were two candidates present, you would not vote for either of them? That is, is it possible, even in hypothetical principle, for a candidate to be so bad that he cannot be voted for, because he does not meet a minimum standard? That is, is there even such a minimum standard? Some graded absolutists have suggested the answer is "no," and that truly frightens me!

      God bless, man, and thanks again for commenting! :)

  4. God bless you too bro!

    "that I think the two major candidates are such that I cannot in good conscience vote for them; that is, the act of voting for one of them would itself be an evil. That comes into play big time..."

    I think this is a crucial point. It seems to me that a vote, intrinsically, is neither right nor wrong. When voting, you must take into account (at least, maybe more) two things, 1) The intentions behind the vote and 2) the likely outcomes of the vote that you are aware of (and/or maybe that you should be aware of). Thus, I would disagree right from the onset that voting for Trump is evil. I might agree with you that it is bad, but you and I both know those are very different assertions. It seems to me that your argument here is something along the lines of, "Trump is evil, therefore voting for Trump is evil". That does not following logically. Or perhaps it's of the lines, "Trump will probably do evil things, and so it's wrong to vote for someone who will do evil things." But I do not share that intuition. In fact, does not God do this all the time? God knows Joe will do evil, but creates Joe and allows Joe to do evil. Why? Because there are morally justifying reasons. Can we not have these morally justifying reasons for voting for Trump? It seems to me that we can. And creating Joe is no more evil for God than voting for Trump is evil for you.

    As I consider it more, I would say I lean towards a graded absolutists view. I've argued that if certain members of Congress had held to a non-conflicting view, it's plausible that we would still have slavery in the US (or at least it would have lasted much longer). If you watch the movie Lincoln, the entire 13th Amendment was predicated upon Thaddeus Stevens' tempering of his moral responsibility such that at least SOME good would be allowed. Should Mr. Stevens push for total racial equality (because that is the right thing to do) even though such a bill would never be passed. Or should he vote for only equality under the law (thereby allowing slavery to continue and the 13th Amendment never being passed)? It seems to me a non-conflicting moralist would have to adhere to the uselessness of his/her actions for the sake of principle. Or again, should we vote on a law where measure A (the more popular one) is: allow all currently illegal drug use or measure B: continue to ban all currently illegal drug use, but allow only for heroin. The non-conflicting absolutist ought to refrain from voting and thus allow all drug use! Why? Because he doesn't like that heroin will be allowed. This is the essence of Democracy, compromise. I think illustrations like these show the outcomes to bring us to a morally unacceptable position.

    It seems to me that this very much depends upon the lens in which you view things. For example, a not non-conflicting absolutists would argue that sitting and doing nothing is more evil than any of the prior alternatives. Where as a conflicting absolutist would say it's not evil at all! Thus, we must give moral illustrations to elucidate the most morally coherent solution.

    1. I do think a vote can be intrinsically right or wrong. Consider the vote on whether or not to abort as many babies as possible. The referendum literally says, "If passed, the government shall abort as many babies as possible within the country's borders." I think it to be intrinsically wrong to vote for this.

      I didn't make an argument for Trump's being evil, but rather attempted to clarify that I viewed him to be minimally unqualified (that this point is incidental, I think, is reflected in the article itself. It takes it as a starting point of application of the aforementioned principles.). Suppose someone has a rare disorder where he involuntarily presses a button (or goes through such a motion); but it is very seldom and at varying intervals. Now suppose we want to vote on whether to place within this person's hand, at random times of varying lengths, a button that will launch nuclear missiles at...Botswana (or somewhere). A vote for this is, ceteris paribus, evil.

      I am not sure I have communicated non-conflicting absolutism well, or perhaps I do not understand the examples. That view is not that there are no compromises (e.g., perfect or nothing), but rather that in cases of apparent moral conflict, there is at least one right thing to do (i.e., moral norms do not conflict). Graded absolutism is that there are only wrong options, but that you should choose the least wrong, and for that you will not be blameworthy. Is it wrong to vote for a law that curtails abortion but does not get rid of it? No, since it's already here. But suppose it wasn't here, and the law read the same way. Well, then, yes. But I don't see two conflicting moral norms. Non-conflicting absolutists will argue that not voting is wrong, but only in cases where they think voting is the moral norm. But this article just is an argument for the lack of applicability, at the very least, of this norm in certain cases. That is, at least some non-conflicting absolutists do not take voting as a moral norm in all cases.

      "It seems to me that if one is to hold to non-conflicting absolutism, they must look their choice dead in the eye and confess that they are willing to allow millions to die for their principles of non-conflicting absolutism."

      This is probably fairly uncharitable. I mean, no one is saying, "I believe that this theory is right, therefore babies can die for all I care." Instead, what's being said is, "I have an obligation to do X, and it doesn't follow that if I do X, but not-X occurs, and not-X entails 1, that I am willing for 1 to occur." And I think that seems fairly straightforward. Suppose a bill were drafted such that all slaves would be free, except 25% must be imprisoned for life. The remainder may go free. I would claim it is wrong to support such a bill. Any opponent who retorted, "Ah, so you're willing for everyone to remain in slavery just to satisfy your personal need for just and fair treatment?!" would be missing the point.

      My point is really just this: "Let us do evil, that good may come," is just a philosophy I cannot get on board with. My conscience is clear with a non-Trump vote (and non-Clinton, of course). It wouldn't be otherwise.

      Now please don't misunderstand: I don't think that voting for Trump is necessarily an evil for anyone who does it. If you believe that the man is minimally qualified for president, I really cannot (and do not want to) tell you you're wrong, morally, for voting for him (if that's what you decide you want to do).

    2. Part 1 (I really do try to condense!)

      "I do think a vote can be intrinsically right or wrong. Consider the vote on whether or not to abort as many babies as possible. The referendum literally says, "If passed, the government shall abort as many babies as possible within the country's borders." I think it to be intrinsically wrong to vote for this."

      But I would say that's not intrinsically a vote anymore, you've added details. I'm talking about just the base idea of voting, in and of itself is not right or wrong, you've got to add properties to it. But when we do that we can compare it to other values. For example, "The government is going to abort as many babies as possible because a new virus has been discovered found in any and every baby that will wipe off the face of the earth the entire population. And the only way to save the world is to abort babies until we figure out a cure. (which you would need to do fast or else everyone still dies as you need population growth!).” Now maybe it would still be wrong to abort babies in this case, but maybe it wouldn’t be. I argue it complicates things because of the details, and details matter. But it seems to me that the non-conflicting absolutists doesn't care as much about the details. It seems too simplistic and reductionistic.

      Well if your argument isn’t “Trump is evil” than it must be the second thing I said, "Trump will probably do evil things, and so it's wrong to vote for someone who will do evil things." But as I said, I don't share that intuition nor see the justification for it.

      I'm glad you clarified more the different positions. This is the first time I'm hearing of them so more details always help. In particular, it seems as if a mutual brother of ours is of the view that it would be wrong to curtail abortion even if it doesn't get rid of it. Thus, I thought that to be a position of all non-conflicting absolutists. But it seems that's not right. Thus, my statement about letting millions die for their principles doesn't apply quite as much. So I could see how that would be uncharitable. Although, I wouldn't say it's totally resolved yet either. For you say, "Suppose a bill were drafted such that all slaves would be free, except 25% must be imprisoned for life. The remainder may go free." That's not analogous because we're missing details! In this case, I would argue we're comparing the values freeing some and imprisoning some for life. What if the law were more modest claiming, "All slaves will go free except 25%." Which is different then throwing them in jail for life. Would you allow 75% of slaves to continue to be enslaved because you couldn't also free 25% at this time? More importantly, if YOU were one of those 75% slaves, would you want the person voting to vote "no" such that you are still enslaved simply because they couldn’t also free the 25%? I doubt it! So it seems to me it comes back to this all-or-nothing mentality. If you're comparing equal wrongs and asking which one we should vote for than I might agree with you, after all, they're both equally wrong! But when you take away the prison aspect you've taken away justification for not voting in my opinion. In this case, you have a chance to save 75% and moreover, you have an obligation to do so.

    3. Part 2

      “My point is really just this: "Let us do evil, that good may come," is just a philosophy I cannot get on board with. My conscience is clear with a non-Trump vote (and non-Clinton, of course). It wouldn't be otherwise.”

      Yes of course, Romans 3! I totally agree with that. I cannot in good conscience get behind doing evil for a good (whether it definitely will or only probably will come). The problem is, it seems your defining evil through the lens of non-conflicting absolutism. But that’s the argument in question. The question is, why does _____ fit with Romans 3? In particular, why does voting for Trump fit with doing an evil for a good? I think we both agree that saying Trump is evil isn’t a good reason. But similarly, we haven’t seen the reasoning behind why voting for someone who might do evil is also evil. Why think that THAT is evil? There’s an assumption there that needs to be brought to light. As I previously said, I suspect it has to do with a misunderstand of doing something bad vs. doing something evil. Would you agree that it’s morally acceptable to do a bad for a good to come about - given that we both agree you should NOT do an evil so a good can come about?

      Don’t get me wrong, I never want to find myself in a position where I’m defending Trump! I personally, based on what I’ve seen and heard, don’t like the guy. Indeed, I have a lot more negative to say about him than positive. But it seems in your last paragraph you seem to adhere to a sort of relative obligation that is found in verses like 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14. I think that’s totally fine for the adherent, but it does not apply objectively to others by definition. Yet, when we’re talking about Conflicting/graded/non-conflicting views, are we not talking about objective right and wrong? Are we not talking about how everyone should act? If voting for Trump is really evil, how can someone’s conscience change an evil to a good?

    4. Thanks for the comments! Yeah, my clam is certainly not that the abstract *voting* is intrinsically evil (otherwise this is what I would be claiming), but rather that there can be an obligation not to vote (given the examples above. I do distinguish between "evil" and "wrong," where the former deals with moral values and the latter with duties. I also hold that a violation of ones duties is itself an evil. So, Trump is such that he does not meet, in my view, minimum standards for holding the office he would hold; I perceive a personal duty not to vote for any such candidate. Thus, it would be wrong of me to vote for Trump, and *that* act of voting, being contrary to my duty, would be itself an evil. This connects to the "relative obligation" part in your last paragraph: there can be situations where one has an obligation that differs from another person's obligation; but that is consistent with non-conflicting absolutism. :) What's objective about the duty is that whomever is in that situation faces that obligation. So, anyone who perceives that Trump is not minimally qualified, and is not a conflicting absolutist, for example. Or, in normally functioning situations, a person should not violate their conscience--even if one person perceives a problem and one does not. Why? Because there is an objective duty not to violate your conscience (in normal circumstances).

      The slaves analogy was constructed to mirror what is, I think, the situation as I take it: doing a wrong (which is itself evil) to do a right; something I take to be an evil. In your modified scenario, if I understand it right, I would vote for the measure, because it is a decrease of a pre-existing evil and wrong; it is not voting to put a new evil or wrong in place. But voting for Trump or Clinton is not like this. It is placing a new evil/wrong into existence, it is not *itself* the reduction of evil or wrong (and it wouldn't be even if this were the net result!). This is my take on it, anyway. :)

  5. Sorry, had to post it in two!

    I, however, don't find it unclear on the abortion issue. Very simply, if Hilary is elected, we know that abortion will continue (and may increase, or at least become more socially acceptable). Under Trump, we have good reason to think that he, and those he elects, will fight against it. Thus, I think any un-clarity (not a word? hah) is unjustified skepticism. And not just abortion, but many other socially liberal positions (which I think we both find morally objectionable) will increase.

    I did notice however that you didn't really address the abortion issue. I'm sure you didn't do this purposefully, but I don't think it fair to play the skepticism card to avoid the moral implications of a view. It seems to me that if one is to hold to non-conflicting absolutism, they must look their choice dead in the eye and confess that they are willing to allow millions to die for their principles of non-conflicting absolutism.

    So it seems to me this argument would need to do a couple of things.
    1) Prove that voting for Trump is evil. And one would have to appeal to more than one's personal conscience for any objective application.
    2)Give appropriate moral illustrations where non-conflicting absolutism works out.
    3) Those illustrations are more intuitively true than illustrations for other positions.


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