Sunday, December 03, 2017

"Convictional inaction"

I'm of two minds about commenting on this. I like and respect Joe Carter. We agree about 95% of the time. So presumably he won't be incensed if I disagree with him on this occasion. It's actually a mark of intellectual respect to take someone's argument seriously enough to carefully assess what they say:

Borland’s argues that voting for a lesser of two evils doesn’t undermine your integrity. But Borland doesn’t seem to understand either the concept of integrity or the principle of “lesser of two evils.” To have integrity means that we have a consistent standard, and that our application of that standard is exemplified by our pattern of behavior. As Paul says, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity” (Titus 2:7).

For example, if you claim that character is important for leadership, both in yourself and also in others, to be a person of integrity requires that you adhere to that standard even when it might conflict with your political preferences. To oppose sexual misconduct in general and yet excuse it when done by politicians is the opposite of integrity—it’s a prime example of hypocrisy.

i) One problem with this argument is equivocation. Joe's argument only works by converting "character is important for leadership" into "character is all-important for leadership". 

Put another way, you can honestly say character is important for leadership without saying that's the only salient standard. In fact, it would be very odd to say there's only one standard we should ever take into account when voting. 

That's artificially abstract. To treat one standard in isolation, when in reality Christians are thrust in a fluid, concrete, and complex situation where they must make many comparisons. When they have to balance many factors.

ii) Another problem, which is endemic to articles like this, is when a social commentator projects his own priorities onto the target audience, then accuses them of hypocrisy because they act contrary to how he'd act in the same situation. "If I were you, this is what I'd do". Again, though, someone can only be guilty of hypocrisy by violating his own standards, and not the standards of the social critic. For Joe, "character is important for leadership" is apparently nonnegotiable. For him it would be hypocritical treat that standard as one of many considerations. It hardly follows that it would be hypocritical for someone else who doesn't share his priority structure. 

Not every standard is ultimate compared to other standards. Take the standard of a Christian family man who wants to protect his wife and kids from the agenda of the secular progressives. What makes that a less important standard? And why can't that be the "consistent standard" he applies in voting? 

iii) In addition, the way Joe frames the issue–"to oppose sexual misconduct in general and yet excuse it when done by politicians is the opposite of integrity"–is a caricature. The principle is not that politicians in general are exempt. Rather, the principle involves a comparison between different alternatives. Usually it comes down to two viable candidates with specific policy differences. Their policies, if implemented, will impact others. 

Furthermore, some elections are more critical than others. Sometimes we're at a tipping-point. 

It's never a once-size-fits all situation. Each election is different. The stakes vary. 

iv) Joe is an ex-Marine. He signed up knowing that he'd have to follow lawful orders, regardless of whether his commanding office had integrity. He'd be deployed according to the foreign policy of whatever administration was in power, regardless of whether the President or Defense Secretary had integrity. So isn't Joe himself more flexible than he lets on to being? 

v) And to be blunt, there are more important things than character for leadership. Jimmy Carter gets higher grades for character than most any other president in recent memory, but he was a terrible leader, and his social views have steadily deteriorated since leaving office, despite his idealism. He always means well. But well-meaning people with bad ideas are dangerous. 


Borland also misunderstands the concept of “lesser of two evils.” He claims, “All voting is voting for the lesser of two evils, and it’s almost never wrong to vote for the lesser of the two.” The basis for his claim is that since both candidates are sinners, we should vote for the “lesser” of the two sinners. This is not the principle of lesser, which itself is not a Christian concept.

The lesser of two evils principle says when faced with selecting from two immoral options, the one that is least immoral should be chosen. But the Bible makes it clear that we are not to choose any immoral option. As Paul says, “Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).

i) There's not just one interpretation of the lesser-evil principle. For instance, there are atheists and freewill theists who think we sometimes find ourselves in situations where we have no ethical options. On that view, it's pointless to say we mustn't choose any immoral option, for the claim is that we don't have the luxury of a morally pure option. Whatever we do or refrain from doing will be unethical. It's a forced option between illicit options. Wrongdoing is unavoidable The only limiting factor is degrees of evil. 

ii) However, another interpretation of the lesser evil principle is not a moral dilemma in the strict sense that we have no ethical options. Rather, it means that we have to play the hand we've been dealt. In a fallen world, it's sometimes a choice between bad and worse alternatives. The best we can do is to mitigate harm. Which option will be the least damaging? Take human shield situations in wartime. On that interpretation, the lesser-evil principle doesn't mean relative wrongdoing. 

This lesser evil principle twists the Catholic moral teaching about the principle of double effect, the claim it’s permissible to cause a harm as a side effect of bringing about a good result when it would not be permissible to cause such a harm as a means to bringing about the same good end. Whether evangelicals should hold to this doctrine is debatable. But it a gross misunderstanding to claim this principle justifies voting for a sexual predator simply because the molester opposes abortion.

i) One issue is whether the double effect principle is in fact a single principle or a family of principles, which are sometimes in tension:

ii) Moreover, the question at issue isn't voting for a politician just become he opposes abortion. It's more complex than that. The Senate is like two opposing sports teams. It's the combined effect that needs to be considered. To have a working majority. And the culture wars are much broader than abortion. 

What Borland is really advocating is consequentialism, the view that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act or of something related to that act. Borland makes this clear when he says that critics of Moore (and Trump):
. . . fall prey to what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum, an argument that reduces itself to absurdity. If one can’t vote for someone who is better (that is, less bad or less evil) or who is equally bad but has better policies, then one should opt out of politics and the voting process altogether! But since that’s not the case, the #Never_____ position fails. It’s that simple.
Note that Borland considers the idea of not voting to be an absurdity. Even faced with two immoral candidates he believes we must choose one over the other. Why? Because of the bad consequences that might come about if we don’t vote for the candidate who supports our preferred policies.

i) I don't know whether or not Borland is a consequentialist. Keep in mind that one version deontological ethics is threshold deontology: 

As I recall, that's Bill Vallicella's position. I myself don't subscribe to threshold deontology or consequentialism. However, the probable results of a particular course of action are often germane to moral deliberation. 

Notice that Joe appeals to consequences to recommend his preferred alternative:

If every evangelical committed to convictional inaction, politics in American would change within four to five years (about two election cycles). Knowing they were truly at the whim of Christian voters, both parties would be forced to make radical changes. Convictional inaction is a nonpartisan approach that solves our political crisis by literally doing nothing.

ii) Nowhere in the passage quoted by Joe does Borland say or imply that consequences are the only consideration. 

iii) There is, indeed, a danger of having no moral floor. Where, as social conditions degenerate, we keep lowering our standards. We adjust our standards to the candidate. 

iv) God hasn't given Christians a moral blueprint. Scripture contains general principles, some specific commands and prohibitions, some hypothetical and real-life examples. This gives us necessary parameters. But there are lots of things we have to hash out on our own, in our fallible, groping, shortsighted way. There's no cosmic computer that will answer all our ethical questions. 

Keep in mind that even with respect to Biblical ethics, there are perennial disputes about the relevance of OT ethics to Christian ethics, or how to interpret the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. pacifism). 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Steve. This is where you shine the best. I talked with my wife about Trump recently - she wanted to dismiss Trump out of hand. I wanted to know if Trump is a good leader or president. We debated. I said "Is the problem his ability to execute the office or is the issue his inability to be a statesman?" It was interesting to talk about. Also, as a Christian, am I imposing my standard on a non-believer? Must I evaluate his candidacy by my personal standards?