(image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – Le Penseur d’A. Rodin (MAMC, Strasbourg)
I will apply normative ethics to this situation. Normative ethics assumes that there is only one ultimate criterion on which moral conduct can be judged e.g. the “golden rule” i.e. “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The two major ethical schools of thought that I will apply to this dilemma are, utilitarianism, which bases ethical decisions on the consequences of the act, and deontology, which is concerned with the purity of the motive behind the action. I will be using the framework of the United States federal election system to address this question using the different ethical methods. What complicates this question is the fact that one has several choices and not one binary choice. One can choose to vote for the greater of two evils, the lesser of two evils, not vote at all, write someone in, or vote for a third party candidate. Obviously voting for the greater of two evils is unethical.
act utilitarianism: a tallying of the pleasure versus pain an act produces.
Voting for the lesser of two evils would be morally correct under act utilitarianism, because if one does not vote for the lesser of the two evils, it is more likely that the greater of those two evils will win and everyone will suffer those consequences. Under this ethical method, one would be obligated to set aside their personal dislike of the candidate they find less objectionable and vote for that candidate in order to increase the overall happiness of society by preventing the election of the worse of the two.
The problem here is that this will never lead to better choices of candidates to vote for, because one is never voting based on who they really think would be best to lead the country–the choice is predetermined based on whichever two candidates run. If both candidates are awful and one cannot distinguish any significant advantage one has over the other, it would be morally correct to not vote, write someone in, or vote third party.
rule utilitarianism: would the action lead to more happiness if it became universal law?
If everyone voted for the lesser of two evils, the lesser of two evils would win every time. One problem here is that which candidate is the lesser of two evils is supposedly objective. So really, this would lead to what most people currently do. In 2016, according to a Pew study, the majority of voters chose their candidate primarily because they were the opponent of the other candidate.
The second problem with deciding who to vote for based on this criterion is that, again, it will never lead to achieving better candidates for office–better meaning candidates running on policies more in tune with the goals and dreams of the people. As a rule, it leads to worse outcomes in the long run. Now if everyone boycotted the election, wrote someone in or voted third party, either there would be no winner and the country would be in a state of turmoil–which could easily have negative consequences–or we could have the first third party candidate in decades which could only be a good thing due to the two-party gridlock that has been plaguing our political system. Therefore rule utilitarianism dictates that one should write-in or vote third party, provided they think that choice would be better for the country than the top democratic and republican candidates. Otherwise, there really is no ethical choice to be made, aside perhaps from not voting. If a large enough number of people don’t vote, the candidates should realize that they do not have the mandate of the people to govern as they see fit, but again if no one votes as is the circumstance rule utilitarianism would require, the consequences would be negative, so it would be most unethical not to vote.
Kant’s categorical imperative: Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end.
The opposite of this is using someone as a tool to achieve something. This means one should vote for the candidate they actually believe would be the best leader. If one votes for the lesser of two evils, they are using their vote for one candidate as an instrument to keep another candidate out of office. Voting for someone you actually want to win, rather than against someone you want to lose, accounts for the intrinsic merit of the candidate. This of course could mean writing a candidate in or voting third party. The danger here in the federal election system of the U.S. is that, unless a large portion of the electorate happens not to vote for one of the top two candidates, which is highly unlikely, your vote is not helping the lesser of two evils win. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the same as helping the greater of two evils win. It is wrong to vote for one candidate who you believe to be the lesser of two evils because it would be using them to beat the candidate you are most afraid of which is morally unacceptable under the categorical imperative.
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