Understanding the Conservative Debate Over Trump, Part 2
In the last post I presented the basic structure of a lesser evil argument in favor of voting for Trump. The argument was laid out as follows:
Premises 1A-a (the lesser evil principle) and 2A-a (the empirical claim) are the most obvious targets for a conservative NeverTrumper. In this post, I’m just going to focus on the challenge to 1A-a.
There are potentially three objections to this premise. I will start with the weakest and move on to the strongest.
First, someone might object on the basis that they misunderstand how the phrase “lesser evil” is functioning in the argument. They may think it is making a stronger claim than it is: a false assumption that Trump or his opponent are evil. But the term “evil” shouldn’t be understood in strong sense, as if Trump and his opponent might be independently described as evil. Affirming the premise that Trump is the “lesser evil” than Biden doesn’t commit anyone to affirming that in an ordinary moral judgment we might say “Yes, Trump is evil!” The argument would work out the same way if we substituted the term “greater good” for lesser evil. But the reason to prefer “lesser evil” language over “greater good” language is that it emphasizes the fact that neither choice is ideal. The point is only that Trump is not as bad as the alternative.
The second objection is to reject the premise on deontological grounds. Sometimes David French gives the impression that choosing a lesser evil in this case is morally illicit in principle. But I’m skeptical that very many people, including David French, would actually want to advocate for this when we consider more extreme scenarios. Consider whether if Trump were running against Hitler we would say that it is wrong to vote for Trump on the basis that even if he is far less evil than Hitler, Trump still doesn’t meet our minimum requirements for the sort of good character that our leaders should have. I don’t think that sort of ethic is supported in Scripture or by reason.
The third and strongest objection is to reject the lesser evil principle as stated in favor of a more qualified lesser evil principle that might be something like the following:
It is permissible to choose the lesser evil, except when even the lesser evil will destroy the good being aimed at.
Suppose that one day all of the referees for the NFL go missing. A game is scheduled to take place between the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots (I’m not familiar with football, so if for some reason this wouldn’t happen in the real world let’s just assume it for the sake of argument). And let’s say that the NFL has only managed to find 14 people who would be willing to act as officials. Half of these people know slightly more about football than the others, but none of them know enough about football to even understand all of the various calls that might be made throughout a regular game.
Would it be permissible for the NFL to substitute the group of seven people who knew more than the other group of seven? While we might be tempted to say that this is permissible because we don’t think there are any moral obligations in regard to these sorts of issues for a game, that analysis is at too high a level for the purposes of this analogy. Just assume that there are certain goods which belong to football as a MacIntyrian practice that we don’t want to lose. In other words, if you wanted to preserve this particular match and the integrity of the practice itself (since we don’t know when, if ever, our missing referees might turn up), you should refrain from choosing either group and simply wait until the old referees can be found or new ones adequately trained.
Furthermore, if you had reason to believe that going forward with the game in this instance had a likelihood of doing long-term damage to the goods of football, and if we assume that we should preserve the goods of the practice, then we shouldn’t choose the lesser evil in this scenario.
Supporting this objection with premises that connect it to voting for Trump would likely move us into similar (if not the same) arguments that would serve as the basis for an objection to premise 2B-a (notice that the node references have changed with figure 2). This is due to the fact that this objection, at least in this context, is not substantively different than arguing that Trump isn’t the least evil option, which will be the objection to 2B-a. Thus, I won’t bother trying to flesh out 2A-a, at least right now. When/if I get to 2B-a, fleshing out that argument should suffice for understanding how one would support 2A-a.