Consequentialist Stances & Principled Stances in Voting Strategies
One of the common ideas one hears from my fellow #NeverTrumpers is that their voting strategy is one of principle. Hence, David French has often said something along these lines (paraphrasing): My voting strategy is very simple. In order to earn my vote, a candidate has to meet certain criteria. If no candidate meets those criteria, they don’t earn my vote.
This is supposed to contrast with reluctant or evangelical Trump voters who have a morally compromised pragmatic or consequentialist voting strategy. We might phrase the consequentialist position like this: In order to earn my vote, you have to be less bad than the alternative. Whichever candidate is the least bad candidate earns my vote.
I’ve already written several things on this topic. My earliest thinking on this topic was expressed in a piece I wrote for Arc Digital in 2018: Voting For Trump ≠ Justifying Trump’s Actions. In one sense, you can understand part of my argument there as drawing a distinction between a principled stance (the fixed threshold) versus a consequentialist stance (the floating threshold). But as I’ve thought about this issue more off-and-on over the last two years, I’ve come to think that (almost) everyone has a floating threshold. I’ve already written a few posts which move in this general direction (see here, here, and here).
The more accurate distinction, then, would not be between those who have a fixed threshold and those who have a floating threshold, but how sensitive the floating threshold is to the circumstances. Perhaps I should have titled this post “Not Voting For Trump ≠ Having a Fixed Threshold Strategy” to contrast it with my 2018 piece (though, of course, I didn’t choose the title the original piece).
For consider if Trump were running against Hitler. Would David French, or anyone else, not vote for Trump to stop Hitler? It’s hard for me to believe that he or hardly anyone else would. In fact, the way #NeverTrumpers most likely would object to my scenario is that we aren’t in such an outlandish scenario. Biden isn’t Hitler. This isn’t a Flight 93 election.
But such a response would miss my point: my point is not to suggest that we are in a Flight 93 election, nor is my point to suggest that I am now going to switch sides and argue that we should vote for Trump. My point is only to try and more accurately describe the various voting strategies that people employ. What differentiates the #NeverTrump position from the reluctant Trump voter is not that one is principled and the other is not. When #NeverTrump conservatives frame their position in this way or critique Trump voters in this way, they are confused. Or, rather, they are confused insofar as think that David French’s type of “My voting strategy is very simple…” story accurately captures what’s really going on.
In this sense, the difference is not one of principle versus one of consequentialism. The difference is not even between a fixed threshold and a floating threshold. The difference is either that the reluctant Trump voter has a different factual assessment of the danger or significance of the situation than the #NeverTrumper or the reluctant Trump voter has a floating threshold that is more sensitive to the context (or both). In the latter case, the threshold might be pictured as a buoy — both #NeverTrumpers and reluctant Trump voters have floating thresholds, buoys. One bobs up and down more freely than the other.
Importantly, this is not to say that principles play no role in the decision differences. We might think of the #NeverTrump buoy as being heavier and therefore not as sensitive to the waves (the context). What this heavier weight might correspond to is the difference in how principles are weighted. Thus, we could still say that there is a difference in how principles are weighed between the #NeverTrumper and the reluctant Trump voter. But the difference is not something so crude as one being consequentialist and the other being “principled.”
As Rawls says,
“All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging rightness. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy.”
— A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., p. 26
(Speaking of Rawls, one may wish to distinguish between primary principles and secondary principles. And this raises the question, in what sense might differences in weights indicate differences in principles? I might come back to this point and Rawls’s discussion of indifference curves in a future post.)
**Update: here is that “future post.”
 I acknowledge that there might be some people out there who insist on a fixed threshold, in the same way that there are some who might insist that they would not lie to a Nazi in order to save the lives of Jews. But I think the number of people who would actually do this (as opposed to thinking they would do this when they consider the scenario abstractly) are extremely small and, further, I think that they are misguided.