Consequentialism and the Voter

*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.

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4 Responses to Consequentialism and the Voter

  1. Bob says:

    I have to confess, I don’t understand what you are trying to say here. You seem to assert two things – (1) Whatever considerations are relevant to voting, consequentialist considerations are not, and (2) Compromise in voting is unethical, or unchristian, or otherwise unacceptable. I think you are wrong on both counts. Your main complaint against consequentialism seems to be that it is exceedingly difficult in practice to rank the likely outcomes of different acts, but this kind of complexity is not unique to consequentialism. In fact, it seems to be a basic feature of moral reasoning. At any rate, the consequences of our acts obviously do matter, and our apprehension of the likely consequences of possible acts makes a moral difference in our subsequent decision to act. Whether consequences are all important is another matter, one that you fail to address. If not the likely consequences of Candidate A or Candidate B winning the election, then what are we to take into account in making our decision? What applicable moral principle decisively favors A over B? Neither A nor B is perfect, but then again, there is no such thing as a perfect candidate, and we have no right to expect perfection. Forced to choose between A and B, shouldn’t we choose the least bad (otherwise known as the best) option? Wouldn’t it be better if we had better candidates? Yes, but that is not something we can bring about in the voting booth. We have to choose, and we ought to choose the best (least bad), and we ought to chose on the basis of the likely consequences of A or B winning. There is no compromise because we made the best decision possible for us to make, and there is nothing “muddy” or murky or immoral going about it this way. If you know a better way, it behooves you to make it known.

    • GFloyd says:

      Thanks for the comments Bob. I would like to respond to the issues that your bring up. As for the purpose of my post, I am wanting to respond to people who continually claim that compromise is necessary in voting for issues and for candidates. Certain things are just more important such that we can negotiate with our beliefs and consciences. As long as we get one thing, we can sacrfice the other even if what we sacrifice is a morally good thing. So people will sacrifice the moral position of avoiding murder for the sake of the parent’s social, economical, and/or mental well being. Some people will sacrifice good and beneficial economic policy simply because this candidate is against abortion. I cannot see how this leads to a good country. Women do not suffer economic hardship, but millions of lives are destroyed. We have no abortion, but millions of people starve.

      Now, you claim that ranking actions according to consequences is a basic part of moral reasoning. Our apprehension of the conseqeunces do matter in making decisions. I think not. It is certainly possible to perform a moral act simply because it is good regardless of the consequences. Not murdering is good to do regardless of the consequences it engenders. We do not necessarliy need to apprehend the consequences to know that avoiding murder is good. The same is true of obeying God. We do not need to apprehend the consequences of our act of obedience to know that obeying God should be done. We simply do it. If we stopped to consider the consequences, then we might end up questioning these positions. What if taking a life saves ten lives or a million lives? What if Joshua’s disobedience saves all the Cananites lives? What is the best option here? It seems clear to me that morality does not have to include considereation of the consequences. I would direct you to men such a William of Ockham and Immanuel Kant who built such moral theories. So consideration of the consequences are not necessarily all important, though some believe they are. I do not.

      I also take issue with your claim that there is no perfect candidate. How do you know this? And even if there is no such candidate why do I not have the right to demand perfection? God does. He does not let us off the hook because we just cannot be perfect people. Nor does our justice system let us off the hook simply because it is not possible to be a perfect, lawabiding citizen. This type of repsonse strikes me as an excuse to justify ourselves and our choices in various matters of life. We are called to excellence, not mediocrity both in our spiritual, physical, and political lives.

      Granted, when faced with such choices between less than optimal candidates, we can only do the best we can. But this does not mean that such a situation is good and right. It might be an irresolvable moral dilemma where we can do nothing but what is ultimately wrong in itself. Things would be a lot better for us if we did demand excellence. Not only would we not be put in such situations but we would avoid putting others in that situation. So do not assume that compromise can sometimes be morally right. It may never be right. In fact, no one can be certain we face such a moral dilemma this election or in any election, but that does not mean that people who do see a dilemma should violate their moral principles or even foster that dilemma on others. If we do not demand excellence, we will never get it, and if we accpet mediocrity, we most certainly will. So be morally excellent in all aspects of your life, even politics. This is what we as Christians are called to do.

  2. Bob says:

    Thanks for responding. We clearly disagree about some fundamental moral questions — so be it. However, I am quite surprised by what you say in the last paragraph. It seems clear to me that the possibility of irresolvable moral dilemmas counts strongly against a moral theory. The basic normative question is, “What ought I to do now?” When faced with a forced decision between A and B, if your moral theory recommends “none of the above”, then there is something defective or deficient about your moral theory because it says that you ought to do something you are unable to do (‘ought’ implies ‘can’). The state of affairs that includes the forced decision between A and B may, itself, be a bad state of affairs, but that in no way provides an answer to the normative question. I must act, so there must be a right act, and that is the act I ought to perform. How could it possibly count against me that the state of affairs I find myself in is less than optimal? It seems that you are confusing the normative question for the value question, “What is good? Counterfactually, if we were perfect then we would be better (value judgement) than we are now, but that fact does not mean that we have a moral obligation (normative judgement) to be perfect now, assuming of course that we lack the ability to perfect ourselves now. We do, however, have a moral obligation to improve our character insofar as we are able, and so ‘perfect’ ourselves in that sense.

    • GFloyd says:

      Thanks for your further comments. If such dilemmas count against a moral theory, then in my opinion Consequentialism fails for it provides such dilemmas. I must choose between two situations where the good must be sacrificed, then I cannot come out morally clean. I am also skeptical about your claim that in a moral situation between A and B that doing neither is not a viable option. That seems to me to be a fallacy of the excluded middle. Whether it is a bad option is another question, and such a move might provide an exit to such dilemmas. And why cannot the normative question and the value question be the same? I think we should do what is good all the time, that the right is what is good rather than the other way around or even separate questions. Why do we not have a moral obligation to be perfect? I think we do, and I think this is what God requires, to be holy as he is holy, and that is what I will strive for even if it is not possible to obtain on my own. It seems to me that too many people want to justify doing or allowing the bad simply because we are not perfect or our situation is not optimal. I believe we should demand excellence as God does regardless of the consequences. So in the end, we may have to agree to disagree.

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