Some moral traditionalists, strict defenders of human dignity, contend that it is not at present worthwhile supporting or voting for either of the major American political parties. Democrats support abortion and same-sex marriage, and Republicans support preemptive war and the use of torture in interrogations. To the extent that both parties promote grave moral evils, this view holds, there is no compelling reason to support one over the other.
This kind of thinking is, I believe, incorrect and potentially harmful. To the extent that it succeeds in persuading others, it could deter the nation’s most morally serious voters from participating in elections at all. Alternatively, it might induce them to cast their votes for candidates or parties that cannot be accused of promoting a grave moral evil, but that equally stand no chance of winning elections and holding public office. The effect of either action would be to leave the common good more at the command of less morally serious voters, with the very real threat that political outcomes would be worse than they otherwise need be.
To begin with, we might observe that this position, to the extent that it counsels not voting at all, is in tension with what ought to be considered a prima faciemoral obligation, namely, the obligation to vote in elections in political systems that permit such participation. Such an obligation follows from an uncontroversial principle: citizens have a duty to protect the common good to the extent that they can, especially when such protection requires only minimal exertion.
The act of voting has an admittedly small power to influence the common good, but this is no reason to deny that it is generally obligatory. To discount the obligation on the grounds that the influence of a single vote has an infinitesimal impact on the common good would be equivalent to denying the obligation to pay taxes on the same grounds that one’s contribution is insignificant in relation to the nation’s aggregate revenues, a conclusion that few would find persuasive.
A different but still morally significant problem arises if one invokes the supposed implication of the major political parties in grave evils as a reason for voting for some minor party not subject to such a criticism. Here there is no question of failing in the obligation to vote. Nevertheless, the moral obligation to vote is an obligation to cast one’s vote in a manner seriously calculated to advance the common good. Again, an analogy to the use of one’s money might be enlightening. Most would agree that a man has a general obligation to use some portion of his money for the relief of the poor. Truly to fulfill that obligation, however, requires that he use his money in a way that will tend materially to help the poor and that will not simply lend some hollow symbolic support to them.
The voter inclined only to support a morally “pure” third party has to contend with similar questions. Such a voter might advance the common good over time by helping gradually to promote the fortunes of that party and its sound principles. On the other hand, such voting might involve the serious costs of entrusting public offices, and hence the common good at the present moment, to the worse of the two parties allegedly both implicated in grave evil.
We must weigh such considerations if we are to vote responsibly. Even to begin such deliberations, however, is to abandon, as we must, the attractive but unrealistic position that there is no good reason to support a candidate or political party that is somehow involved in promoting grave moral evil. Almost all humans now living are forced by present circumstances to occupy political systems that are rife with problems that are grave moral evils from the standpoint of a traditional respect for human dignity in the fullest sense: divorce, sexual license, pornography, and abortion, to name a few. In fact, these are only the evils most likely to confront a person living in a developed Western nation. If we consider other nations, the evils might also include things such as slavery and murderous ethnic or religious persecution. It is thus difficult to think of any nation in the world at present in which the major political parties are not, to some degree or another, involved in what moral traditionalists would have to regard as grave moral evil. In view of these facts, it is more reasonable to assume that we are to participate actively in voting even when it involves supporting, for morally serious reasons, a party that can be accused of being complicit in some grave evil.
This is not only the situation confronting us now; it is also, I think, the situation that often confronts the morally earnest citizen throughout history. Given our fallen nature, it is difficult to find any period in any country in which citizens did not have to grapple with the problem of weighing the proportionate reasons for voting for parties that were, to some extent, implicated in grave evils.
I will let a single historical example illustrate what I think is the strange naivete of finding no worthwhile difference among such parties. In 1860, American voters faced four choices for President: John Breckenridge, an open defender of southern slavery; Stephen Douglas and John Bell, who favored trying to keep the peace by ignoring the question of slavery; and Abraham Lincoln, who opposed slavery extension but held that slavery must be respected in states where it already existed. Since chattel slavery of millions of human beings is a grave moral evil, all of these candidates were involved in that evil to one extent or another. Yet it ought to be evident that the morally responsible choice was to vote for Lincoln, since that was a vote to contain the evil to the extent realistically possible at the time.
The view that there is no worthwhile difference between two parties or two candidates who both support grave moral evil overlooks the fact that not all grave moral evils present an equal threat to the political common good. One can easily imagine a situation in which voters are faced with the tragic choice between two dominant political parties, one of which advocates a program of sexual libertinism, and the other of which insists on traditional standards of sexual morality but also a program of genocidal persecution of an unpopular ethnic minority. Both parties stand for grave moral evils, yet who can doubt that the morally responsible course is to recognize the proportionate reasons to support the former party over the latter?
These differences can be significant, and worthy of the responsible voters’ attention, even in cases in which the grave evils do not differ in kind. Suppose a nation has started a war, a war evidently unjust in its origins and that is not progressing toward victory. Suppose that the party responsible for the war promises to resort to war crimes—deliberately targeting non-combatants—to break the will of the enemy, while the opposition party merely claims it will continue to prosecute the war according to the traditional laws of war. In this case both parties are deeply implicated in promoting the same grave evil: immoral destruction of innocent human life. Nevertheless, the policy differences between the two would surely constitute a proportionate reason for supporting the party that proposes to continue the unjust war but according to lawful modes of combat. Moreover, this would be a morally defensible vote even if there were a third alternative, for example a peace party that promised to end the war but that one knew had no chance of winning the election. To say otherwise is to say that the additional lives that would be snuffed out by the most aggressive party are not worthy of the citizen’s consideration.
In sum, morally responsible, prudent voting seeks to defend the common good to the extent realistically possible, even if that means only preventing further damage to an already highly degraded common good, and even if that means preferring a party already implicated in grave evils—supporting that party not because of those evils but despite them, in order to achieve the attainable good, or to limit the spread of evil.
This approach to politics need not be viewed as low or morally compromised. In his classic work Utopia, Thomas More presents a character, Raphael Hythloday, who vehemently defends the view that it is a waste of time for wise men to serve as advisers to kings, because kings almost uniformly seek to do injustice, both to their own subjects and to foreign rivals. In response, More as author has himself, as a character in the dialogue, argue that such political activity is worthwhile, even if it succeeds no more than in making what is bad less bad than it otherwise would have been. This view, moreover, is not just one that More defended in print but one on which he staked his life of public service. It is also the view not of a moral minimalist but of a figure most contemporary defenders of human dignity would recognize as a deeply serious man.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press). This article has been republished from Public Discourse.