Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Choosing the lesser of two evils

Every election cycle, Christians have the same debate. Should we choose the lesser of two evils? Some Christians take the position that it’s evil to choose the lesser of two evils. However, this reflects a semantic and conceptual confusion.

When we speak of choosing the lesser of two “evils,” “evil,” in this context, doesn’t mean “wicked” or “immoral.” Rather, we’re using the term the way we call a natural disaster a natural “evil.”

When we call a hurricane (to take one example) a natural “evil,” we’re not saying that the hurricane is wicked or immoral. The hurricane is not a sinner or villain. Rather, we’re using “evil” in this context to mean “harmful” or “injurious.”

That is what is meant by the lesser of two evils. In a political setting, which candidate will do the least harm?

And there’s nothing wrong with taking the possible consequences into account. Many Christians operate with a crude deontologism. Because Christian ethics includes moral absolutes, they act as if the circumstances are irrelevant. But that’s simplistic.

Although the end doesn’t justify any means whatsoever, it would be reckless never to take the possible consequences into account. If I’m a hunter, I should make reasonably sure that the rustling in the bushes is a deer or lion rather than a fellow hunter before I open fire.

Motives also matter. It makes a difference whether the person who tripped me was a blind man or a prankster. The blind man had no intention of doing so, whereas the prankster had every intention of doing so. So even moral absolutes can take motives and consequences into account.

This doesn’t mean we always have to choose the lesser of two evils. There are limits to compromise.

But I’m dealing with the opposite position: the idea that it’s always wrong to choose the lesser of two evils. It’s not.


  1. Steve,

    Perfect timing. I am writing a paper for my "English" class about this. I agree with you in principle, but I currently don't plan on voting for McCain. I was wondering if you will elaborate on your limits to compromise in the context of a presidential election. What would be a scenario in which you would vote for someone who has no chance of winning or in which you would not vote at all?

  2. Voting for an obvious loser can sometime be a useful protest vote to send a message to the party. A way of telling the party establishment that it can’t take your vote for granted.

    This is useful if the party can’t win without your vote (i.e. the vote of a particular voting block, like the religious right).

    However, if you have a pattern of casting protest votes, then you never get a candidate who advances any aspect of your political agenda.

    Sometimes a strategic loss is better than a win, if the win is too costly in terms of the amount of compromise involved. But if you get into the habit of always voting for losing candidates because the electable candidates lack the requisite ideological purity, then it becomes throwaway vote.

    To take a concrete case, I think Rudy had the right temperament to be a good wartime president. And he’d probably be pretty good for business.

    But he was a militant, across-the-board social liberal. As such, I could never vote for him. Had he been the nominee, I would be sitting out the election. His priorities are too out of step with my priorities.

    I’ve also touched on some of these issues at a more general level here:

  3. I will not be wasting my time and money voting for another president.

  4. Well then Richard, I hope you won't be wasting your time or money complaining about the president that gets elected, since you won't be participating in the process.