Vote Your Conscience


“No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another's mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless [. . .]; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.” – William James, “The Will to Believe”


In an episode from season two of The Good Wife, the central character’s law firm has to decide whether to sue someone accused of a horrific sex crime. Evidence for a strong case eventually mounts, and it looks likely that they could win the potential suit.

But there’s a rub. The accused man is someone who has done a great deal of good in Africa. For his promotion of women’s rights and justice for the underprivileged there, he is about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is known throughout the country for this humanitarian work, which has done much good for many people. Pursuit of the case against him could very well permanently undermine the advances gained by his efforts. At least that’s the argument put forth by the man’s wife when she pleads with the firm not to pursue the lawsuit.

The episode makes an illuminating case study in which a moral conflict arises between doing the virtuous or dutiful thing, on the one hand, and promoting the best consequences on the other. This is, of course, a well-known dilemma that often pits deontologists—those who emphasize the rightness or wrongness of the action itself—against consequentialists—those who determine the rightness or wrongness of an action based on outcomes.

Sometimes, such as in the episode described above, doing the dutiful thing would seem well-nigh certain to produce bad consequences overall, whereas other times aiming to maximize utility would call for an intrinsically unjust action. Such conflicts have been the fodder for many an amusing and engaging ethics debate in philosophy classrooms.

The strictest deontologist would suggest that avoiding horrific consequences never justifies violating a particular moral rule. No number of lives saved, for example, could validate torturing the child of a terrorist. But not every rule is nonnegotiable. We’re rather inclined to think that, in the aforementioned episode, bringing the wrongdoer to justice would be the right thing to do.

What about lying to protect Jews during the Holocaust when a German soldier comes to the door? Kant was notorious for insisting that there are no legitimate exceptions to lying, but one could question this conclusion based on Kantian principles themselves. For example, on the basis of what maxim is one considering the lying? Some maxims are universalizable, while others aren’t, so which is it?

The present point, though, is more about this question: What do we do when doing the right thing would be harmful overall? What would a teacher do, for instance, if on the eve of graduation she discovers that a senior has egregiously cheated, a senior with a full scholarship to a prestigious university? Or choose another example when doing the right thing seems unlikely to yield the best outcome.

This is a question neither for the strictest Kantian nor the strictest consequentialist. Most of us, however, fall somewhere in between, and rightly so. And so most of us will likely encounter a scenario where doing what we are convinced is right will not likely produce good results. It may even produce a bad one, or at least contribute to it. In such cases, what should one do?

This is no mere academic exercise, because many people are currently struggling with this very question in the upcoming presidential election. I’m thinking particularly of conservatives who can’t in good conscience vote for Donald Trump, but they are no less opposed to his competition. Such conservatives are finding themselves under increasing pressure to capitulate and support Trump despite their deep reservations.

Popular arguments along these lines come from evangelical leaders like Eric Metaxas who sees Trump as “the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion.” While Metaxas says that Christians “must” vote for Trump, Robert Jeffress does him one better, attributing to pride rather than conscientious principle the motivation for any Christian withholding support for Trump. And here, too, Jeffress points to the probable outcome of such abstention: “I think it would be a shame for people to allow Hillary Clinton four or eight years in the White House.”

Such arguments leave many conservatives who cannot support Trump genuinely perplexed as to what to do. Despite their conviction, do they have an obligation to vote for the one they, or others, consider the lesser of two evils?

To be clear, we’re not taking a position on whether they’re right about Trump’s (or HRC’s) candidacy, but simply pointing out that this sort of dilemma is a real one for many. We would, though, like to offer these specific voters some perspective on this situation.

Radical consequentialism might sanction a vote for one of these two nominees, but we submit that such voters should not support either candidate. The often-repeated refrain, that a non-vote for one candidate is positive support for the other, should hold no water for such individuals. If someone thinks that voting for either candidate is impossible to do in good conscience, we submit that they should refrain from voting, or should vote for a third candidate they can support. The right course of action in such a case, without consideration for the electoral outcome, is to withhold support for either Trump or Clinton.

Both voting for a third candidate and abstaining from voting altogether are potentially legitimate, available alternatives. On occasion we are genuinely forced to choose the lesser of two evils, when, for example, no third option is available. But that is not the case in this year’s election. This is no either/or situation, without remainder. The remaining options provide a way to preserve the courage of one’s convictions and resist the pressure to outsource one’s conscience. The worst case scenario would entail refraining from voting altogether.

To reiterate, this analysis is predicated on the assumption that the prospective voter thinks that voting for either leading candidate would be wrong for them. They should, to our thinking, follow their conscience, and either refrain from voting or vote for a third candidate. Admittedly, doing so may result in, or at least contribute to, a bad outcome. But allowing that consideration to, well, trump would represent a tacit acceptance of an objectionably consequentialist approach to ethics.

Someone might say that it’s not the bad consequence per se that they wish to avoid, but the deontological values that would have to be sacrificed in that case. Their aversion to contributing to such an outcome, then, is more than consequentialist. That’s fine, but if they think that those values are enough to warrant voting for, say, Trump, then they are not the focus of this analysis. However, those who think it would be wrong to vote for either should vote for neither.

One more brief consideration is germane to people of faith in particular. Usually when we do work in moral apologetics, we start with clear cases of moral right and wrong, good or evil, and invite our interlocutors to locate our shared moral ground. From there we can search for what best explains such obvious moral truths. But there’s another way to do moral apologetics using dilemma cases such as the type we’ve been discussing.

Suppose we’re confronted with some really horrible choice between two evils. Either the choice is forced, or it’s not. If it’s a forced choice, the action in question may well produce bad consequences, but still may be obligatory, in which case it ought to be done despite the (at least temporally) bad outcome. That’s a case where choosing the less bad option is permissible. If the choice is not forced, but there’s a viable third alternative, then that option ought to be chosen, despite that it, too, may not contribute to a good overall outcome, or even might contribute to a bad one. We submit this election is just a case for some, and the third option is either a good third candidate or not voting at all.

But what the believer can hold onto in either contingency is faith in a good God who will ensure ultimate good ends and the embrace of justice and peace even when we, owing to our finitude and limitations, are unable to contribute to or effect them on our own. Producing the best outcomes isn’t always our responsibility, but we can rest assured it is Someone’s.