*Guest Post by Graham Floyd. Floyd is an adjunct professor at Criswell College.
Voting involves ethics. Whenever we venture to vote, we are doing so on the basis of value judgments that have been made regarding certain issues such as the economy, foreign policy, or social benefits. But what ethical system should guide our judgments and hence our voting procedure? One often repeated phrase by both candidates and voters is that a person must do what is best for the country. This phrase has broad implications in that we should give importance to those issues that will progress or benefit the country as a whole and the happiness of its people. Some issues are simply more important than others and should be given priority. Some issues should be supported because their outcomes are considered to be desirable, so we should strive to achieve them however we can. In other words, it is only the consequences of an issue that matter. Any issue that achieves less good than another issue is not important, and any issue that obtains a greater amount of good should be obtained by any means necessary.
This ethical viewpoint, known as Consequentialism, was coined by the philosopher G. E. Anscombe in the late 1950’s, but it extends further back to the 19th century. It is most commonly associated with the British system of ethics known as Utilitarianism where one does that act which will achieve the greatest good (that is pleasure) both for himself and for others. While Utilitarianism is based in a hedonistic worldview, Consequentialism is also compatible with an altruistic worldview where one does what is good for others regardless of the cost to self.
The question to be asked is whether or not Consequentialism is a viable ethical method for choosing among political issues and political candidates. For example, should banning abortion be considered an issue of lesser importance than that of economics? Does economic prosperity rank so high in terms of goodness produced that one should ignore the abortion issue and/or a candidate’s position regarding it in favor of sustaining the country’s economic situation and peace? We can even narrow the focus. Do the burdens (single parent, economic distress) that a woman and her child might experience outweigh the life of the child that she is carrying such that it is better to abort the child than to allow the child to live? Should the unborn give up their lives so as to bring about a greater benefit to society or even one individual? Too often we, the voters, choose issues and candidates in this manner. We are willing to overlook the one for the sake of the other. This was the case in America with slavery, Germany with the Jews, and the USSR with the bourgeoisie, and we are well aware of how those situations turned out.
If you object to including such contested moral issues as abortion, consider some further examples. Are social programs, like Medicare and Food Stamps, to be upheld no matter what the cost, even if it causes our country massive debt and leads to economic stagnation? Should a certain class of society be economically and legislatively discriminated against simply because of their prosperity as a means to uphold these social programs? Is a candidate’s economic plan more important than his foreign policy even though his foreign policy would lead to war or a weakening of national defense? If we are going to judge simply by the consequences, not only are we going to muddy the moral waters but we will also find it difficult to determine which things are of greater benefit to the most people.
Consider the altruistic side of the coin as well. Too often we, the voters, settle for candidates that will defeat the other guy or do not belong to a certain party rather than requiring excellence from our candidates. We will ignore flaws in a candidate’s policy so long as he upholds certain sacred polices that we believe are better for the nation. “But there is no perfect candidate,” you may exclaim. “I must choose between the lesser of two evils. I must sacrifice for the good of the country.” But what does that say about we, the voters, that we have allowed such candidates to run for office rather than demanding better? Should we have to sacrifice good policy so that we may get or avoid something else? Why cannot we have both? If we would demand excellence from our leaders in all matters, we would not be put in such a situation where we must “choose between the lesser of two evils.”
It is apparent that we, the voters, will settle for mediocrity and even evil so as to obtain or avoid certain consequences. We will evade our moral responsibility both to others and the nation in order to achieve certain results. Such a mentality implies an attitude of selfishness or false piety. I must conclude that Consequentialism is not a viable method for determining how to vote. It is our responsibility to demand excellence, not to negotiate the good and the right.