Lesser-Evil, William James, and Voting (Part 1?)
Last week Jonah Goldberg was critiquing an article by Linda Hirshman in the New York Times, which presented an argument for voting for Biden even if the Tara Reade allegations are true.
I’ve been thinking of lesser-evil arguments in voting for the past few months, as I contemplate how I’ll vote in 2020 and recently it occured to me that maybe I could modify an argument from William James, in his essay The Will to Believe. This was just prior to hearing about Hirshman’s article and, since I think anyone who finds Jonah’s critiques of Hirshman convincing might think those same critiques apply to my argument (or since I wondered whether this might be true), I want to sketch out that argument and how I think it avoids Jonah’s criticisms of Hirshman’s. (However, I really haven’t given too much thought to this yet. Maybe it’s still a bad argument.)
A brief sketch of the argument would look like this:
1. When faced with genuine options, it’s morally permissible to choose the genuine option that is the lesser-evil (or the greater good).
2. The 2020 election presents American voters with genuine options of voting for Donald Trump or voting for Joe Biden.
3. Either Joe Biden is better than Donald Trump or Donald Trump is better than Joe Biden.
4. [Biden is better than Trump / Trump is better than Biden]
5. It is morally permissible for American voters to vote for [Trump/Biden] in 2020.
Someone might raise the following objections to the above argument. All of these, except for the first, Jonah raises in response to Linda Hirshman’s argument: equivocation with James, Flight-93 mindset, utilitarianism/pragmatism, and false binary.
I’ll take these one by one and briefly explain how I would go about trying to answer the criticisms, but a fuller defense would involve a deeper dive into James’s terms and comparing them with how they function in my own argument.
Objection 1: Equivocation. My use of “genuine option” in the argument comes from William James. There’s a very specific way that term operates in his argument for the justifiability of religious faith. One might think my use of the term doesn’t fit with how James uses the term.
My first response would be that it’s okay if there isn’t a 1-to-1 correlation between the terms. The concepts are similar enough, such that, if James’s idea is legitimate, then the idea should be legitimate for my argument too.
My second response would be that I think my argument does accurately rely upon James’s use of the terms (the three criterion) for what constitutes a genuine option. But I’m applying the concept to a different issue that requires analyzing them at a different level.
To demonstrate this I would need to go through each criterion (live, forced, momentous) and explain James’s use and my own. I won’t bother fleshing all of that out here, but I’ll give an example of how I would go about that when dealing with the next objection and, later, the false binary objection.
Objection 2: Flight-93. Since one of James’s criterion of a genuine option is that it be momentous, isn’t my argument just as open to Jonah’s criticisms of Hirshman’s argument and the Flight-93 mindset?
No, because James doesn’t define “momentous” so narrowly that it only includes deciding our eternal destiny or deciding among potentially society-ending alternatives. When James is explaining what he takes to be a momentous option, he chooses an expedition to the North Pole as his illustration — obviously not a matter of one’s eternal destiny or a Flight-93 level of event.
His definition of momentous is in contrast to the trivial: “the option is trivial when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later prove unwise.” On this definition, all that the momentous criterion requires is that, say, you believe the 2020 election is sufficiently significant — though it could probably be shown to be relevantly unique and irreversible too.
So my argument doesn’t require a Flight-93 mindset for it to work.
Objection 3: Utilitarianism/Pragmatism. Utilitarianism is a morally deficient normative theory. (I’m not exactly clear on Jonah’s specific objections here: he seems to suggest it leads to coercion and that it becomes an excuse for doing wrong for a greater good.)
I agree with the common critiques of utilitarianism, but this argument doesn’t require one adopt utilitarianISM. As Jonah wrote last week: “The need to make hard decisions and tradeoffs can be described in utilitarian terms, without subscribing to utilitarian notions of morality.” (Though I haven’t read Hirshman’s piece, I think she could offer Jonah the same reply.)
But then there is no need to understand my argument as requiring utilitarian terms — let alone utilitarianism. Deontological theories commonly recognize some moral principles as being weightier than others (e.g., do not murder as weighing more than do not lie). And this is all one needs to understand by the terms “lesser-evil” or “greater-good” in the argument.
In these deontological ethical theories, including Christianity, choosing the weightier good isn’t choosing “to do wrong for the greater good,” as Jonah puts it. Rather, it is good to choose the greater good. (I think even Ben Howe acknowledges this point in his book The Immoral Majority.)
Objection 4: False binary. Am I not presupposing a false binary — Trump or Biden? What about Amash or simply not voting? This returns to the issue of how James’s criterion fit with my own. One of James’s criterion is that the options must be forced. If voting isn’t binary, then it’s not forced.
To me, this seems like the strongest objection, especially when we look at how James fleshes out what he means by the term ‘forced’. He has in mind something like a “dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing…” And as someone who has always voted for a third party candidate, the false-binary objection has a lot of purchase on me.
If I were to try and harmonize my argument with James, I would probably do so by appealing to something he says later in the essay which is relevant to how he understands the religious option to be forced: “We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve.”
The basic idea behind what James says here applies in my argument. We cannot escape Trump or Biden becoming president by not voting or voting for Amash. We lose the good of the greater-good candidate, just as certainly as if we voted against them.
Further, setting aside whether my use of “forced” is relevantly close to James’s, I think I could still demonstrate that there is a relevantly forced aspect to the situation, such that my argument works.
Here I’m just spit-balling, and this may need a lot of revision. But perhaps it’s also relevant to consider whether our choice will change the outcome. That is, for an option to not be forced for me, I must be capable of… part-causal efficacy(?) in the outcome. Let’s say that Bob is on a bus with 99 other passengers. The bus driver says he will go wherever the majority of the passengers want to go. If there is a tie, then he will flip a coin between the two most popular destinations. 48 of the passengers have voted to go to Disney World and 48 have voted to go to Disneyland and 3 have voted for Busch Gardens. Bob has yet to vote, but he doesn’t wan’t to go to Disney World or Disneyland.
There’s an obvious sense in which going to Disney World or Disneyland are forced options for Bob. In terms of where he will end up, regardless of whether he chooses Busch Gardens or not to vote at all, it’s going to be Disney World and Disneyland. Likewise, there’s a sense in which Trump and Biden are forced options for American voters. Choosing not to vote or choosing to vote for a third party will not be “part-causally efficacious” for lack of a better term.
I may come back to this later or discuss the lesser-evil issue, in light of voting, in other parts— I’ve been primarily thinking about it without the ‘James’ framework up until now. One thing I’d like to address is the weakness or, rather, modesty of the argument. It only aims to show that it’s morally permissible to vote for Biden or Trump, on the condition that one of them is better than the other. “So what?” a Goldberg or a French might say, “We’ve never disagreed with that.” Well, for one thing, I’d like to explore what I perceive as disconnect here between the occasional lip-service and the amount of time spent finger-wagging Trump voters. For another thing, I’d like to explore whether a stronger form of the argument works — making it not just morally permissible, but morally obligatory to vote for a lesser-evil.
But none of the above is meant to say that there are no benefits or no effects in voting for a third party candidate. Particularly with regard to the idea of a forced option, it is only to say that, as regards to who will be president, voting for a third party or not voting doesn’t effect who will be president in the immediate election. Again, as someone who has always been an independent and always voted for third parties, I’m well aware of those arguments. David French has said that he’s working on an article that takes a deep dive into the reasons or benefits of voting third party and I’m really looking forward to it (and also expect to have some disagreements with it).