Time to Choose

Mercifully, this election season is finally drawing to a close. For those of us who choose to vote, it’s time to make a decision.

For those who enthusiastically support one of the two major party candidates, the choice is clear and none of what follows is relevant. For many Americans, however, the decision won’t be easy. The major parties have produced the most unpopular pair of candidates in American history. According to the pollsters, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are viewed “unfavorably” by approximately 60% of Americans.

Of course those aren’t the only two names on the ballot this year. There are at least three other significant “third party” options on the ballot in most states (Libertarian Gary Johnson, Green Party Jill Stein and Independent Evan McMullin).

Even though they would otherwise choose one of these third party candidates, many voters will hold their noses this year and vote for the major party candidate who they consider to be the “lesser evil.” Their rationale will be: “I don’t want to vote for candidate X, but I have no choice. A vote for anyone other than candidate X is a vote for candidate Y, and Y is much worse than X.”

Many other voters will choose a third party candidate, even if they agree that candidate Y is worse than candidate X. Their rationale will be: “You cannot choose a lesser evil without intentionally choosing evil, which is something a person should never do. A person should always vote for the best candidate, regardless of that candidate’s odds of winning.”

I’ve been watching this debate on social media. I’ve seen lots of posts from people arguing that it is immoral to vote for a third party candidate, as doing so increases the risk that the evil candidate Y will be elected. I’ve also seen lots of posts from people arguing the opposite–that it is immoral to vote for a candidate you know to be “evil” (I use that word loosely, of course) rather than for a superior third party candidate. Sometimes those holding each position claim the moral high ground over the other, even to the point of bullying, shaming and condemning those who don’t agree with them.

I find the debate fascinating. Amid the otherwise ugly spectacle, this election gives us a chance to get philosophical, and to consider one of the most enduring debates in ethics and moral philosophy. Whether they know it or not, these folks are presenting the age old debate between consequentialists and deontologists.

According to consequentialists, the morality of an action is determined by its consequences. So that, for example, whether it is wrong to tell a lie depends upon the circumstances. If the consequence of lying would be to prevent some greater harm, then the moral thing to do is lie.

According to deontologists, the morality of an action is not determined by its consequences. If it is immoral to lie, then it is always immoral to lie. Or to use an example more relevant to contemporary policy debates, a deontologist would say that is always wrong to torture captives, regardless of whether the torture might produce information that could prevent a terrorist attack. A consequentialist would disagree, saying the morality of torture depends upon the consequences of it. If it could save the lives of thousands of innocent people, then torture isn’t immoral.

Immanuel Kant was one of history’s most famous deontologists. He insisted that moral obligations are unconditional and can be determined by what he called the “categorical imperative.” Morally correct conduct, according to Kant, is conduct which one would want to see universalized. So if it is desirable that all statements be truthful, telling the truth is the moral choice. Conversely, only if it is desirable that all statements be lies would lying be the correct moral choice. In other words, we should act, he argued, as we would want all people to act at all times.

Returning now to the presidential election, a consequentialist would argue that choosing the lesser of two major-party evils is the morally correct decision, as it may prevent the occurrence of a greater evil. A deontologist would respond that choosing the objectively best candidate, even if a long-shot third party candidate, is the morally correct decision, as it satisfies the categorical imperative–if we all behaved this way we’d have better Presidents.

So which is correct? Is it immoral to vote for a third party candidate? Is it immoral not to?

The answer is that both are perfectly defensible moral positions. One does not act immorally in choosing either course, regardless of what you may have read on Facebook.

Now that that is settled (at least to my satisfaction), here’s something interesting to think about: Are you a consequentialist? Or are you a deontologist? Do you think the morality of an action is determined by its consequences, or do you think actions are objectively moral or immoral regardless of their consequences? Chances are good that you feel confidently that you can answer that, and thus place yourself comfortably in one camp or the other.

Well, not so fast. The truth is that most of us are in both camps.

Let’s take an easy example: “Is it immoral to cause the death of an innocent person?” Most of us would answer without difficulty: “Yes, it is always wrong to cause the death of an innocent person.” That is a deontological proposition. So we’re by nature deontologists, right?

But consider this famous thought experiment (known as “the Trolley Problem”).

You are standing on an overpass and you see a train hurdling toward five people, who are tied up and lying on the track. If the train strikes them, it will surely kill them all. There is a lever next to you. If you pull it, the train will divert to another track. But a person is tied up and lying on that track. It the train strikes the person, she will be killed. Should you pull the lever, thus saving the five but causing the death of the one?

Given this scenario, over 90% of people say the morally correct thing to do is to pull the lever and divert the train, thus causing the death of an innocent person in order to save five other innocent people.

This thought experiment has been done all over the world, in different cultures, among different age groups, genders, socio-economic levels, etc. and the answers are consistently the same–pull the lever.

So we’re by nature consequentialists then, right?

Again, not so easy. Consider the “Fat Man” variation of the Trolley Problem.

In this variation there is no lever. Instead there is a very large man sitting on the overpass. You know that if you push him onto the track, his bulk will stop the train, thus saving the five innocent people, but killing the innocent fat man. Presented with this scenario, over 90% of people say it would be morally wrong to push the fat man onto the track, even if it would save five lives.

So it seems that in the Fat Man scenario, we’re deontologists again–it’s wrong to cause the death of an innocent person, even if doing so would save five other innocent lives.

There is much debate about why we think it’s OK (even morally obligatory) to pull the lever and send the train crashing into one innocent person in order to save five other innocent people, but not OK (in fact, morally prohibited) to push the fat man onto the track to achieve the same result. Regardless, the studies seem to confirm that we’re not hard-wired to be either consistently consequentialists or deontologists. Our moral intuitions tell most of us that sometimes it’s right to behave consequentially, and at other times deontologically.

Which is all to say, we should weigh our options and vote as we see fit. We should also try to resist the temptation to claim that our decision is morally superior to those who choose differently.