While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are currently the leading candidates for their respective political parties, there is considerable dislike for both of them. Many of my conservative friends express true horror at the prospect of a Trump presidency. Some have expressed a willingness to vote for a Democrat over Trump. Others have said they would either write in a name or not vote at all.
My liberal friends are less horrified, but many of them express the view that Hillary Clinton is evil and, not surprisingly, tend to back Bernie Sanders. B. York, who argues that Hillary would be the lesser of two evils relative to Trump, asked me to address an important moral question about the upcoming election: “is there value in supporting the lesser of two evils?” As I was asked to put aside the facts of the issue (that is, whether Hillary is really the lesser evil or not) I will focus on this issue in general terms and leave the bashing and defending for others.
While there is a multitude of approaches to ethics, the two that fit the best here are consequentialist ethics and action ethics. I will consider each in turn.
While there are many forms of consequentialist theories of ethics, they all share the basic principle that the action that should be taken is the one that maximizes positive value for the beings that are morally relevant. A consequentialist has to specify the measure of value as well as define who counts (this is defining the scope of morality).
This view has considerable intuitive appeal: if something has positive value (like cake), then having more of it seems preferable to having less. Likewise, if something has negative value (like cancerous lesions), then having less of it seems preferable to having more. People also seem to intuitive accept that there are entities that count more or less. For example, we tend to value our fellow humans more than we value mosquitoes.
Perhaps the best known example of consequentialist ethics is utilitarianism of the sort professed by John Stuart Mill. According to Mill, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Mill is rather generous in terms of who counts—happiness should be brought to “…all mankind and so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.”
A significant competitor to utilitarianism of the sort advocated by Mill is ethical egoism—this is a consequentialist approach in which each person limits the scope of morality to himself. Ayn Rand, a favorite of the Tea Party and Paul Ryan, is perhaps the best known ethical egoist. As she saw it, each person should act from selfishness.
As should be expected, a consequentialist approach would provide an easy way to make a moral argument in support of voting for the lesser evil. Doing so would make it more likely that the least harm would be done to those who matter morally. As such, voting for the lesser evil would be the least bad choice. It would also be the rational choice—at least under the stock definition of rationality that focuses on maximizing value (which is simply a consequentialist position).
There are two main alternatives to voting for the lesser evil (aside from voting for the greater evil) on the assumption that an election has only two truly viable candidates. At the presidential level, this is a reasonable assumption—the election is effectively locked down by the Republicans and Democrats. One option is to not vote at all. This has the consequence of reducing the chances that the candidate you regard as the lesser evil will win, thus microscopically increasing the chance that the one you regard as the greater evil will win. As such, a failure to vote is effectively choosing the greater evil.
The second option is to vote for a third candidate you regard as non-evil who will not win. This could be a real third party candidate on the ballot or a write in candidate. The consequence of this is about the same as not voting—it is effectively choosing the greater evil if you would have otherwise voted for the lesser evil. It can be argued that some positive result might arise from voting for a third candidate—it might make a statement headed by whoever is elected (but probably not) or encourage a third party to run in the next election to challenge the chokehold of the two party system (but probably not). In light of the above, the ethical vote is to vote for the lesser evil—assuming the consequentialist approach. If there actually is a non-evil third candidate that could win, then the choice is obvious: vote for that candidate.
While a voter who decides to vote based on consequences would have selected her moral approach to the decision, the voter would still need to decide on a measure of value, estimate which candidate would do the least damage, and sort out who she thinks counts. Any two consequentialist voters could make radically different assessments. For example, a voter who is concerned about all Americans would probably assess Trump and Hillary differently from a person who is only concerned about white Americans. As another example, a Wall Street voter who places the most value on maximizing her profits would certainly assess the consequences of voting for Trump differently from those of voting for Hillary.
While the consequentialist approach is intuitively appealing, there is also some weight to the view that some actions are just wrong (or right), regardless of the consequences. Those who accept action ethics hold, as Kant claimed in the Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, that “the moral worth of an action is not in its expected effect nor a principle of action motivated by its expected effect.” Put roughly, the action itself is good or bad. So, if a person chooses an action that is good, “this good is already present in the person and there is no need to wait for it to appear in the result.” Likewise, bad actions are already bad and are not bad because of harmful consequences.
While this could be debated, voting in favor of a candidate one regards as evil would seem to be a morally wrong act, albeit a very weak form of wrongness. This assumes that supporting evil is evil. This seems reasonable and an analogy can be drawn to the legal notion of aiding and abetting a criminal. Voting for an evil candidate is aiding them, thus making one a party to their crimes.
Voting for the lesser evil would be less evil than supporting the greater evil; but would still be an evil action. Fortunately, a person can avoid supporting even the lesser evil by not voting or casting a vote for someone who is not evil. As such, if a person regards the only viable candidates as evil, then the right thing to do would be to not vote for any of them—thus avoiding the risk of becoming a party to their evil.
This can, however, be countered by pointing out that one of the two viable evils will win the election, so the voter should vote for the lesser evil. This is similar to situations in which doing something wrong is justified on the grounds that someone else would do it or do something even worse. For example, consider a common fictional villain move: the villain offers the hero a choice between killing one person or “making” the villain kill many people. While a consequentialist approach would generally favor killing the one, choosing the lesser evil would still appear to be an evil action. The hero is, obviously, not to blame for the villain killing the many—that is all on the villain. Likewise, if a voter decides to not vote for any evil and the greater evil is elected, the responsibility lies on the candidate for being evil and those who supported the greater evil.
The criticism can be raised that making the moral choice of not voting for any evil would be the wrong choice if it helps the greater evil win the election. This criticism is, not surprisingly, almost always based on consequentialist considerations: the choice was wrong not because the person supported evil, but because the voter’s failure to back the lesser evil contributed to greater evil. Going back to the villain example, the choice not to kill the one person was wrong not because the hero killed the many, but because his choice resulted in the death of many rather than one.
My own moral view is that voting for a person I regard as evil is an evil action. However, in the case of politics I have to think of more than just myself and my moral choice—I must also consider what will happen to others. As such, I am willing to bear the tiny burden of voting while holding my nose to try to protect others from what I regard as a greater evil. So, it is wrong to vote for even the lesser evil, but worse not to. As is to be expected, the lesser evil is the lesser evil. So, my advice is that if your regard the two candidates as evil, vote for the one you think is the lesser evil.
If you think they are equal in their evil, do not vote for either. Going back to the villain example, if the villain offers two equal evils (the hero kills everyone or the villain kills everyone) then choosing neither evil is the best choice: everyone is dead either way, but at least the hero is not a murderer if she refuses to murder. In the case of the candidates, if both are equally evil, then voting for either would be worse than not voting for either. This is because the evil of your choice would be added to the evil of the candidate being elected, thus creating more evil.