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.


39 comments on “Time to Choose

  1. shoreacres says:

    While the campaign is coming to a close, I suspect election day will bring no resolution, even if we avoid a “cliff-hanger” at the end. The divisions are deep, and the contentiousness has left real wounds. Even I went through a period of thinking, “Where is Harold Stassen when we need him?” Sometimes, age allows a bit of wry humor, even if it doesn’t add much to the wisdom quotient.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Even though at the end of the day I expect the blue and red map will look about the same as it did last time, I agree that we are going through a time of transition that is bringing profound changes. Hopefully we’ll be able to navigate the troubled waters without capsizing the boat.

      Your Harold Stassen comment did make me smile. I thought of Pat Paulsen.


  2. The people always get what they deserve.


  3. valbjerke says:

    North of the 49th, the majority of us simply shake our heads at what seems a circus run amok to the south of us. I find it odd that two such immensely unpopular people can be the front runners in a presidential race. Good luck to all of you regardless as to how it turns out 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Laurie Graves says:

    A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?


  5. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, wow, that’s a lot to digest on a Saturday morning. In the decision of who to vote for, I have to keep reminding myself that we are electing a leader of our country not a spiritual leader. This election is riddled with accusations of immorality and corruption. It’s difficult for almost everyone to wade through it all and come to a conclusion that makes them feel good about the decision.

    Spock (Star Trek) logic says, “The needs of many outweigh the needs of the few.” It’s a dilemma for sure for the folks that are locked into being totally deontologists. I would hope and pray that I would side with deontology but with the scenarios you present there’s no clear cut decision. I hope and pray that I’m never put in the position to have to decide in that kind of decision.

    Have a great consequentialist/deontologist day.


    • Bill says:

      Spock was a utilitarian (consequentialist). 🙂

      The Trolley Problem fascinates me (yes, I am that kind of geek). There are lots of variations of it and it’s become so well-studied and researched that it’s given rise to what is jokingly called “Trolleyology.” It’s easy to get different results by changing the facts a little. What if you know the person on the sidetrack, but not the 5 people on the main track? What if you love the person on the sidetrack, but the 5 others are strangers? What if the person on the sidetrack is a child and the 5 on the main track are over 90 years old? What if the person on the sidetrack is the world’s most brilliant scientist, artist, etc.? What if the Fat Man is the person who put those people on the track? What if the Fat Man has terminal cancer? What if there is a trap door that drops the Fat Man onto the track? The list goes on and on. And there are variables involving similar thought experiments as well. It’s interesting that researchers can often find amazing consistency in answers across all cultures, suggesting that there is an innate morality.

      All of this might sound like typical philosophical noodling, with no real world value. But right now ethicists are helping design the programs for self-driving vehicles, where an amoral machine has to determine which way to veer in a crash situation.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m paying more attention to the down ballot races this year. Right to the ones in our little spot in the state. Have to be careful who we give the “top dog” to work with. It can make a huge difference.

    Liked by 1 person

    • avwalters says:

      Oh we’ve all been on both sides of this one. I had a friend whose health hinged on taking a particularly odious medication–it made her gain a lot of weight. Though I’m in favor of an “honesty is the best policy” way of moving through the world, I didn’t say, “Damn, I hope you’re feeling better because you sure look like hell.” Some did. It was a painful stretch for her.

      By the same token, sometimes I have a “gift” (burden?) that I can see extreme ill health–dangerous ill health–by just looking at someone. The first few times, I said nothing, and within a very short period (days to weeks) they died. These were not deathbed visits; these were colleagues and friends. Several funerals later… now, when I see it, whether I know the person or not, I make the effort to take them aside to urge them to seek medical help. It isn’t always well received, but I do what I can.

      In the matter of our elections, the problem is that no one knows for sure what the outcome will be. How can one be a moral consequentialist without some measure of certainty? At best we can look at past performance as an indication of what any particular individual will do. On that basis, I don’t like either of the duopoly candidates. I have learned, in my own decisions, that I am best served when the choices I make resonate with the who I try to be as a person. With that, I have no alternative. I have to vote third party. Anything else would be ignoring my own internal signals–what kind of a funeral would that be?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Bill says:

        Well said. I tend to agree. There’s a lot to be said for the categorical imperative I think. And I always think of Wendell Berry when we’re in the midst of heated political times like these. As he put it, “if we all behaved as virtuously as we expect our government to behave, we’d have no need of government.” (Or words to that effect).

        Liked by 4 people

    • Bill says:

      Think globally, act locally. Every four years we get all wrapped up in the Presidential election, the results of which don’t affect our day to day lives very much. Meanwhile, voter turnout in local elections is very low, despite the fact that it is at that level that the decisions which most affect us are made.


  7. Great post, Bill. Every time we want to think in black and white, up pops the grey….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      This post was motivated by some Facebook arguments I’ve seen. In one case someone posted an article titled “Ethicists say voting third party is immoral” (or something like that), when in fact only some ethicists would say that. Likewise I’ve seen people scolding others for “selling out” and not voting their conscience. So even though I generally avoid discussing politics on the internet these days, I couldn’t resist trying to debunk the notion that there is a clear moral answer to the question of whether it is immoral/unethical to vote for a third party candidate instead of the “lesser evil.” As you say, it isn’t black and white. The best we can do, I think, is search our own consciences and follow our moral intuitions. I for one expect to sleep just fine, no matter what happens next Tuesday. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  8. I think that politics are usually more grey that black or white, Bill. It is in the nature of what they are. The best that we can hope for is that they are on the lighter side of grey instead of the darker side, and that our leaders are willing to make the compromises necessary to assure that we have a functioning government, which hopefully operates to benefit the majority of people. What we don’t need is the pettiness of obstruction for obstructions sake that we have seen far too often in the recent past. For example: all of the wasted time and energy that was focused on the non-issue of where President Obama was born instead of governing. –Curt

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      We seem to have an insatiable appetite for non-issues. In this campaign it seems there has been precious little said about issues at all. Instead it’s been almost entirely about character and personality–important considerations to be sure, but not at the exclusion of all others. And more than our fair share of non-issues masquerading as issues too. Seems to be the nature of the beast these days.

      We also are bad about exaggerating the faults of the other side and attaching too much significance to the outcome, imho. During every presidential election I can recall I’ve seen the claim that “This is the most important election of your lifetime.” Of course that can really be true only once. 🙂

      Hopefully we’ll learn from our mistakes and keep marching forward.


      • The media never helps, Bill. I, for one, don’t want to find out if this campaign leads to some of the worst results ever. I prefer speculation. If I really need more proof of what might happen, I can go back and read the two party platforms. –Curt


  9. Love your post and all the thoughtful, NICE comments to it! Definitely an unusual little corner of the universe here; HERE, HERE! 😉


    • Bill says:

      Thanks. We’re fortunate to have high quality comments here, from a great group of folks. On this blog, the comments are better than the posts. 🙂


  10. freethnkr1965 says:

    I’m always a little bit afraid of mornings like this. My Google search history this morning: Land ethic – Wikipedia, The Aldo Leopold Foundation, Is Speciesism like Racism and Sexism?, Empathy vs. sympathy, In what way does animal ethics … human ethics, The Philosophy of Food project. Then I pop over here to find this excellent post that just happens to coincide so well with my morning thoughts? Feels like I’m about to blunder into a teachable moment. 🙂


    • Bill says:

      I see that we are members of the same tribe. 🙂


      • freethnkr1965 says:

        One more thought. I find it interesting that in scenarios like this we focus on the moral/ethical appropriateness of the lever-puller and not the fact that someone tied innocent people to railroad tracks.


      • Bill says:

        In one of the variations of the Trolley Problem/Fat Man thought experiment, the Fat Man is the person who tied them up. That makes the moral decision much easier. 🙂


  11. This post has been rattling around in my head since I read it, in part because I was trying to reconcile who I am, a deontologist or a consequentialist. I believe myself to be the former, and yet believe I must choose between the lesser of the two (or more) evils when it comes to putting humans in power in any way, shape, or form. And I think the dust has settled in my brain; ha! MY moral obligations ARE unconditional, as I believe my obligations are, first and foremost, to God. When it comes to people, ALL of whom are flawed, I can only choose the least objectionable candidate, otherwise I could never, ever vote because NO one is uncompromised. In doing so, I am not saying that everything my chosen candidate stands for is okay; indeed, for ME there are many things that any candidate stands for that would be wrong, period, for ME. But God created us all “free moral agents,” and it is not my job to turn people into robots without choice. I can only choose for myself this day Whom I will serve.


    • Bill says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s a complex subject. I have a conservative Christian friend who says that he doesn’t want our political leaders to be Christians. He says the last thing he wants in a President is someone who loves our enemies, turns the other cheek, doesn’t resist evildoers, etc. And Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “I’d rather be governed by a competent Turk than by an incompetent Christian.”


  12. BeeHappee says:

    Bill, for whatever reason I stopped receiving all notifications of your posts, and was wondering why you got so quiet. Well, I am glad to see you are not!! 🙂
    Great post. What I like about the nuances you brought out here is that understanding these choices we make connects us back to our fellow humans, gives us empathy and understanding why someone may believe what they do. Consequentialism becomes quite a dangerous worldview once we give ourselves capacity to dehumanize anyone. You mentioned the version where Fat Man was the one who tied up the 5 people to the tracks – and that decision would be easy in that case. But is it? I am struggling with that.

    I was just listening today to Dr. Peter Gray who advocates freedom to learn for children, and one of the things he mentioned as lacking in our ‘education system’ is morality/ethics. There is a human mind now, ethical or unethical, deciding how we use GMO, and who we clone, and how the amoral machines will work, and who will live or die. Those levers are already being pulled every day, it is not just a hypothetical.

    Tonight, you see, I chose to be a Candy Fairy, who takes away all my kids Halloween candy- for their own good, right?-, and I am already feeling guilty about being so utilitarian. 🙂


    • Bill says:

      I like to consider myself a deontologist as well. I get a little uneasy with situational ethics, even though I completely understand the attraction. As for the evil Fat Man scenario, the original question was whether it was ever acceptable to cause the death of an innocent person. Most people would say that causing the death of a would-be mass murderer in order to save the lives of his intended victims is not only morally acceptable, but morally obligatory. Of course pacifists would disagree. Pacifists are deontologists and many base their conduct on the “divine command” theory of ethics, which is thoroughly deontological. I’m not sure where Kant stands on that specific question, but I’m pretty sure he’d say don’t push the evil fat man. Applying the categorical imperative could lead to either result: we should seek to universalize non-violence, but we should also seek to universalize prevention of mass murder. In his most famous example he says that it is always wrong to lie, even when lying might prevent a murder.

      For me ethics is the most interesting part of philosophy. I’m especially interested in the evidence of our innate moral reasoning. That’s just the kind of nerd I am. Ethics was once a fundamental part of human education. Now it’s an elective at the college level only. I think we’d do well to eliminate a math class (or two) and teach ethics to children.

      As you mention, we’re having to teach ethics to artificial intelligence, which is advancing at an almost incredible speed. Machines don’t have a moral compass. They just obey their programming. So we have to program in the ethical code they’re to follow. How does a self-driving vehicle react when it has to choose between running over a woman pushing a baby carriage, or turning into a crowded sidewalk?

      Liked by 1 person

      • BeeHappee says:

        Thank you, Bill. Yes, I have trouble with pushing the “villain Fat Man” to the oncoming train. I find it troubling on at least a couple points: one, our determination assumes that we know all the facts. What if after we push him off we find out Fat Man did tie up the 5 people to the tracks, but he did it in order to save a city of 10,000 that the five people were trying to explode. Does that then make me the next villain in chain for someone else to push off the cliff? 🙂 Do we continue the cycle? Second, if we believe in the seed of God in every creature, it does become extremely difficult to come to such judgements and such actions. I really felt I had to quit law studies due to these feelings.

        I tested kids on the trolley problem. I thought it was interesting to see that perhaps when we are younger we think more utilitarian. Perhaps as we grow older we tend to move toward deontology. I wonder if they did the surveys by age groups.


      • Bill says:

        To the best of my knowledge the Trolley Problem results have been consistent across all tested groups, which is why it is considered such strong evidence for innate moral intuition.

        Some of your concerns are supposed to be eliminated by the assumptions we’re supposed to make, but I suspect those kind of doubts influence the answers nevertheless. For example the fact that the overwhelming majority of people say it is immoral to push the fat man onto the track to save 5 lives, even though the same percentage of people say it is moral (in fact, morally obligatory) to pull a lever that creates essentially the same result has been very puzzling to those who study the problem. The dominant conclusion was that our moral prohibition against battery (unauthorized touching) overrides the consequentialist impulse to sacrifice his life to save the others. In other words, it was the fact that we’d have to push him that causes people to object to it. But interestingly someone did a study using a thought experiment in which the fat man was standing on a trap door and pulling a lever would drop him onto the track, stopping the train and saving the 5 people. The surprising result was that, even though the percentage wasn’t as high as in the case of the pushing scenario, a majority of people still said it was immoral to pull the lever and drop the fat man onto the track, leaving the inconsistency between the fat man scenario and the original scenario unresolved. My pet theory is that people say it’s wrong to push (or drop) the fat man because we sense there is a risk he would be killed by the train and it would still kill the other people too. In other words, even though we’re told to assume that we’re certain his bulk will stop the train, we still harbor some doubt of that. As I said before, I find the problem fascinating. By the way, perhaps I should have mentioned that the test takers are also told to assume that their own weight is insufficient to stop the train. Most people would say it is morally acceptable or obligatory to jump in front of the train ourselves (rather than push someone else in front of it) if that would save the 5 people.


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