The Lesser of Evils Versus the Common Good: On the Poverty of Ideology in the Washington Post

Several days ago, an article appeared in the Washington Post purporting to demonstrate that citizens have a moral obligation to vote for the “lesser of two evils” in elections in which they consider the major candidates to be unacceptable [1]. Given that the article was written by an “an associate professor of political theory” and published by the Washington Post, “one of the greatest newspapers” in the United States [2], one might expect that it would represent the best thinking of those who defend such an electoral strategy, which we will here call “Lesser-Evilism.”  

image by Steve Duplantier

image by Steve Duplantier

However, as the following analysis will demonstrate, in this article the defense of Lesser-Evilism is not formulated carefully; the position of critics of Lesser-Evilism is not presented fairly, but is instead parodied; most of the arguments presented in favor of Lesser-Evilism are either unfounded or fallacious; and no real-world, empirical evidence on behalf of the efficacy of Lesser-Evilist practice is presented.  In the end, the article fails to demonstrate the existence of any obligation to vote for the lesser of evils. Indeed, it fails to demonstrate the existence of any obligation to vote at all, and gives the reader no reason to conclude that voting should be chosen over other strategies for social change, such as mass direct action or the creation of a system of dual power.

The author begins by defining the parameters of the debate. Such an initial step is always a crucial point in the development of an argument, as it is in this case. She begins by asking:

Do we have a duty to vote for the lesser evil when election choices are equally unappealing? Alternatively, do we act rightly if we vote for a third-party candidate whom we prefer on principled grounds even if he or she stands no chance of winning?

As will become increasingly clear as this analysis progresses, the author’s consistent strategy is to represent the opponent’s position as a narrow, subjectivist one, rather than recognizing its basis in a concern for the common good. Thus, she begins by associating her opponents’ position with the “appeal” of candidates, as if elections were popularity contests, and with “principles,” which, as we will later see, she interprets as abstractions or inflexible dogmas that are out of touch with real-world conditions and consequences. Thus, she presents her opponents as rejecting Lesser-Evilism, not because an examination of historical evidence shows it to be a disaster in the real world, but because it “would compromise their moral principles.”

This line of argument continues, as when she asks:

Considered in the abstract, what should a moral voter do? Does she have an obligation to vote according to her conscience — i.e., for the candidate who most closely embodies her beliefs?

Once again, we see a strategy of subjectivization at work. Throughout her discussion, the author assumes without evidence that opponents of Lesser-Evilism make decisions without considering real-world consequences. We are led to believe that these opponents focus narrowly on their own beliefs about what might abstractly be best, even if it is not in reality possible, and then choose candidates according to the degree to which these candidates are committed to the same abstract ideals. A similar analysis is applied to the role of “conscience,” a topic that returns later in the article, and which will be analyzed there. At this point, I will merely point out what is being systematically ignored through the author’s rhetorical strategy.  She presents her opponents as being locked into an abstract deontological (that is, a duty-based) ethics, while, in fact, their arguments against Lesser-Evilism are overwhelmingly consequentialist, that is, concerning the noxious effects of Lesser-Evilism in the real world.

In pursuit of this strategy, the author is obliged to ignore crucial elements of her opponents’ case. We might even say she suppresses these elements, since as a professor of political theory she would normally be expected to have some knowledge of them (though this cannot be verified from the article itself).  In reality, there is a vast spectrum of consequentialist arguments that have been used against voting for the (more or less evil) candidates who are most likely to win in a given election. One is to demonstrate openly the strength of a political movement, so that those in power will be motivated to compromise with it or to form a coalition with it.  A second is to represent the voice of a permanent social, political or ethnic minority that will never be represented fairly by the dominant factions. A third is to act as the parliamentary wing of a basically non-parliamentary movement, such as in the case of many revolutionary and secessionist movements.  A fourth is use voting as means of combatting both evils as part of a strategy of eliminating an unjust and destructive system. A fifth (correlative) reason is to use elections for both organizational and education purposes to build a movement that will become capable of replacing such an unjust and destructive system with a just and humane one. The author must ignore these and other consequentialist arguments in order to construct her straw-person image of her opponents.

At this point, the author spells out her defense of Lesser-Evilism. She asks whether the moral voter should not forsake the kind of abstract moral perfectionism that she attributes to her opponents, and conclude that she has instead

an obligation to vote for . . . the one of the two major-party nominees who is more likely to enact policies she believes healthy for society

One must wonder if even readers who have some sympathy for Lesser-Evilism will not begin at this point to suspect that the game is rigged in a rather outrageous manner. For doesn’t the very idea of two candidates both being “evil” imply that neither of them is “likely to enact policies” that are “healthy for society?” It seems that the argument has reached a “caught with one’s hand in the candy-jar” moment.  But the author assures us that it all makes sense. She urges us to bear with her: “Let’s reason this through.”

She continues with the contention that all moral agents have what she calls a “good Samaritan” obligation” (or at least that a lot of people think so, and that what they think seems reasonable). She says that

Society commonly believes that we are all bound by duties of easy rescue

so that

If you are driving in a desolate area and see a pedestrian in distress by the side of the road — say, having an epileptic attack — most of us believe you are obligated to stop and call in for help.

She adds, reasonably, that this duty can be overridden by a greater one. If by continuing on without stopping one could thereby produce a greater good (anything from the author’s example of saving oneself from a sudden heart attack that hits while one was driving through the desolate area to saving Tokyo from Godzilla) then it would be morally permissible to continue on. The author suggests that we

could think of voting as a duty of good Samaritan assistance — circumstances that make intervention expected.  

However, this excursion into American academia’s much-beloved fantasy-land of hypothetical cases does nothing to help the argument. It begs the question of how to interpret the analogous political meaning for “helping” a person with the “medical emergency.” Perhaps “helping the person” translates into making a special effort to go out and vote against the lesser of evils and thereby to combat a certain kind of dangerous sickness. Maybe it translates into cancelling a useless trip to the polls to engage in some kind of direct action that might have a more meaningful and transformative effect in the real world.  In other words, it might translate into what Henry David Thoreau called “casting your whole vote.”

Should we wish to apply this interpretation to the fantasyland game, let’s imagine instead that we’re passing through a desolate area in which two thugs are each mercilessly beating up a victim. The victims are understandably “in distress.” Should we stop and take action to prevent one of the thugs from beating up a victim (maybe the thug who seems a bit more brutal) and then leave, allowing the other thug to continue the attack? Or should do whatever is in our power to disable both of the thugs? Perhaps morality sometimes requires us to be more than a minimally-involved Samaritan.

We might reflect a little more on the implications of the author’s Samaritanism itself. She goes on to conclude that “Voting thoughtfully and responsibly is the civic version of our good Samaritan obligation,” and suggests:

Let’s posit that the machinery of elections enables citizens to choose governments whose policies and decisions can affect society significantly.

The fact that governments have a significant effect on society is a fact that is hardly controversial and is therefore not something that requires “positing.” So, to make this statement coherent and meaningful in relation to the author’s argument, what must be “posited” is the more controversial idea that citizens have the ability to choose governments that have a significant effect on society that is desired by those citizens. But why, if the argument under discussion is supposed to apply to the real world, should she follow a highly questionable analogy with a merely “posited” possibility, in effect, heaping hypothesis on hypothesis, adding epicycle to epicycle. There are a real-world empirical questions concerning how electoral systems are structured and the actual degree to which they “enable” citizens to make such a choice, or “disable” them from making it. If the Lesser-Evilist ideology is part of a disablement process (as it is, which explains why so many are now rebelling, in either rational or grossly irrational ways, against conventional politics), then “positing” this disablement out of existence is a good way to destroy any real-world truth value that the argument might have had. The author’s next statement only compounds the problem:

If that’s true, then a duty to promote the common good imposes a duty to vote with care — in other words, armed with information and a sense of responsibility.

So a positing of a possibility is now followed by a hypothetical statement. We seem to be retreating future and further away from empirical reality.

Next, however, the author makes a reasonable assertion about the real world, one that would not be rejected by her opponent:

Societies need to be rescued from unaccountable, corrupt, ineffective or indifferent leaders.

But this is immediately followed by more irrelevant argumentation and question-begging.

One salient way to do that, while not the only way, is to put more of the good ones in power and more of the bad ones out of a job. Elections are the mechanisms that enable this change.

This statement has a rather ironic ring to it.  The third-party position that the author attacks argues precisely that good leaders should be elected and bad ones defeated. That’s why it rejects bad ones, whether they are more or less bad than one another. On the other hand, it is her own Lesser-Evilist position that argues that the greater good is achieved by putting more bad leaders in power, as long as there are other major-party candidates who happen to be even worse. Obviously, critics of the Lesser-Evilist ideology do not believe that elections guided by such fallacious reasoning are a “salient” way to “rescue” society. Rather, they see this as a reliable way to assure that the same inequities and injustices that prevail in society today will continue or even get worse. They claim that this is, in fact, what has been happening empirically in the political system over a long period of time.

Furthermore, the presuppositions behind the author’s phrase “put more of the good ones in power” must be investigated. The phrase is not only self-contradictory, given the Lesser-Evilist position that she is defending, but it also suppresses key issues. One that is suppressed is the crucial issue of the nature of political power and systems of social domination. It can (and should) be argued that there is abundant evidence that the question of whether systems of power are hierarchical, techno-bureaucratic, oligarchical, elitist, authoritarian, plutocratic (or irresponsible and undemocratic in other ways) is more important than the qualities of the individuals who occupy positions within those systems. Also suppressed is the related question of whether political action should be focused more on putting certain individuals into positions within such existing systems of power (ordinarily, individuals who have a stake in perpetuating these systems) or whether it should aim at fundamentally changing the nature of that system.

The author’s next statement appears to be a digression from the main line of argumentation (one might wonder if a passing reference to a figure such as Aristotle is a pro forma gesture for professors of political theory). However, this reference is quite valuable for the light it sheds on the nature of her presuppositions.  

Voting with a sense of responsibility for society is not the same as submerging one’s life in politics, becoming a homo politicus. Unlike Aristotle, I believe that one can have a life away from politics most of the time and still be a virtuous, happy human being.

These statements reveal that the author ignores the ways in which, whether we recognize it or not, much of our activity and a great many of our choices in everyday life must be seen as inherently politicized. The women’s liberation movement forty years ago popularized the slogan “the personal is the political.” It was right. This means that patriarchy is political, the market is political, wage labor is political, education is political, racism is political, sexuality is political, gender is political, child care is political, consumption is political, and everything in everyday life that relates to these is political. Breathing is political. All of our interactions that relate to various forms of hierarchy and domination and to the struggle between justice and injustice, between life and death, are highly politicized. Indeed, as Aristotle himself, as blinded as he was by forms of domination, was wise enough to recognize, everything that relates to the pursuit of the common good is political. To limit the political to the electoral is a highly ideological form of depoliticization, which is, in fact, the implicit goal of this article.

So it is not terribly surprising that we are next encouraged to “get involved,” not by the way we live our whole lives, but rather “at certain points.” These, we find, are electoral points, and our involvement is to take the most conventionally electoral form.  As the author states it:

But at certain points we ought to get involved. When? When elections afford us the opportunity to assist society by choosing governments that we expect to rule fairly — or more fairly than all the other realistic alternatives.

But this is just another reformulation of the position that is being defended, though it tells us a little more about how this position functions ideologically. We are told that even if we can be certain that neither of two major-party candidates will “rule fairly,” we are still obligated to vote for the one who will rule less unfairly. We are also expected to engage in something bordering on Orwellian double-think. We are advised that even if we know that neither of the major candidates will rule fairly, we ought to vote for one of them, knowing that the candidate will rule the other way, which is correctly called unfairly. However, the author acts as a good role-model and shows us that we can avoid focusing on this unfairness by utilizing concepts like “more fairly than all the other realistic alternatives” (“realistic alternatives” that in a two-party plutocratic oligarchy consist precisely of one).

The author next moves in a slightly different direction. First, she takes aim at those who would vote “carelessly.”  This seems like another digression from her main line of argument, which targets “idealists” who are motivated by moral scrupulousness. However, her discussion of these electoral slackers also reveals a great deal about her mode of analysis:

Some may argue that we are under no duty to cast a ballot, because in a nation as vast as the United States, each single vote is too inconsequential to affect the outcome. . . . Consider that most of us believe it would be wrong to vote carelessly, without information and with prejudices, as philosopher Jason Brennan argues in his book “The Ethics of Voting.” Going to the ballot box utterly unprepared and making a minimally informed decision makes a mockery of democracy. If others were to do that as well — and we have an obligation to behave as if our own behavior were the model for everyone’s behavior — then cumulatively, those uninformed votes would elect bad governments. And that would harm society, abandoning our duty of care.

There are several flaws in this part of the argument. First, there is a possible contradiction.  The author invokes Jason Brennan [3] to attack those who would argue that there is no duty to vote at all because voting is “inconsequential.” But the argument quickly jumps to those who do vote, but vote carelessly. If those who vote carelessly are a subset of those who think voting is inconsequential, then the argument that voting “makes a mockery” out of democracy, cannot be used against them before empirical evidence is presented against their position, since if they are right, then there is really no electoral “non-mockery” out of which to “make a mockery.” But there are more serious problems with the analysis of careless voting.

There is a claim that “most of us,” which presumably includes most Americans, think it is wrong to vote carelessly. This may or may not be true, but it is certainly questionable, and perhaps unlikely. Almost half of the citizenry do not vote at all in presidential elections, and even fewer do so in other elections. We might assume that many who vote do so carelessly by the author’s standards. It is not unusual to hear voters saying that they vote because it is “their duty as an American,” or because it makes them feel that they live in a “free country.” I suspect that research would show that many of these habitual voters are not well informed. It is possible that most voters may think that it is wrong to vote carelessly in the same sense that they think it is wrong to exceed the speed limit on interstate highways. That is, they might say it is wrong when answering a survey question, but they have no intention to stop voting carelessly or skipping elections completely, and they do not feel guilty about such minor peccadilloes. The problems just pointed out are certainly not central to the argument, but they would seem to be an example of “theorizing carelessly.”

Furthermore, this section of the article contains a quasi-Kantian universalization argument that is incoherently confounded in the same sentence with a consequentialist argument. A universalization argument says basically “Do what you would hypothetically want everyone to do,” while a consequentialist argument says, basically, “Do what will actually produce the most good.” The quasi-Kantian argument thus holds that we should make our behavior a model for others. But this argument doesn’t work against the person who holds that voting is inconsequential.  If such a person thinks that voting is a waste of time he or she could show quasi-Kantian benevolence by wishing that others should also not waste their time voting. As ethical theory texts often point out, this kind of argument doesn’t work against people who would recommend their own behavior to others (like universalistic ethical egoists, to take a more serious case).

A more significant part of this argument is the claim that uninformed voters harm society by the fact of their voting without being informed. This may or may not be true, but in any case, it begs the question.  It is likely that minimally informed voters, were they more than minimally informed, would vote much as they already do.  If the typical voter obtained more information [4], it would probably be from the same general range of sources of information that he or she typically accesses. Thus, voting patterns would not be likely to change significantly.  Furthermore, if voters use the political system, for example, to pursue their economic self-interest or their desire to oppress and exploit others (from an Aristotelian perspective, for purposes that do not exhibit “civic virtue”), being more informed about how to do this would hardly serve the common good.

The issue of voting “with prejudice” is an extremely crucial one, and differs fundamentally from that of merely being “informed.” The author shows no sign of facing this issue’s far-reaching implications concerning the need for the critique of ideology and an understanding of the manner in which systems of social domination operate. Instead, she takes the existing political order at its word, and assumes it to be (as it is conventionally stated) “free” and “democratic” enough to be considered legitimate, so that political processes that assure its perpetuation need not be challenged. She is thus able to move on to another reiteration of her basic position:

Just as we have an obligation not to vote carelessly, we have an obligation not to fail to vote responsibly, as long as it is not too costly to us personally.  Our own vote may be just one vote, but we must behave as we wish everyone to behave. Cumulatively, many informed votes will make a difference, even if one single vote will not. If we have a duty of easy help, voting with care is one of those duties.

Again, we see a vacillation between quasi-Kantian universalization and consequentialism. However, the major problem is that the entire course of the argument (or series of assertions) continues to beg the question. We are most of the way through the article and no real evidence has been given that voting for the lesser of evils is really a form of “help” at all.

At this point, the author once again changes the direction of the argument, this time to repeat the point that the consequences of voting make it worth the trouble. Almost unbelievably, she does this by repeating the same analogy of stopping to help a person in distress and explaining how this fits into her abstract model of justified action. All we gain from this digression is the idea that “informed and responsible” voting is worth the trouble if engaging in it actually produces a significant good for society. And, of course, we can accept this purely hypothetical idea just as easily as we might accept the purely hypothetical idea that if “informed and responsible” voting caused a meteor to crash into the earth and destroy it, we should probably not vote.  Unfortunately, the argument for Lesser-Evilism has not come down to earth any more than this hypothetical meteor has. However, the section that follows is perhaps the most enlightening one in the article, particularly if one is interested in the nature and critique of ideology.

As was noted earlier, the important role of “conscience” in this discussion needs to be explored further. Near the end of the article, the author returns to this theme. She begins by informing the reader that “Sometimes the desire for a clean conscience leads to immoral behavior.” This must hardly strike the reader as a revelation. It has long been a commonplace that superego injunctions, known popularly as the urgings of “conscience,” are the internalization of forces such as paternal authority, repressive morality, religious taboos, coercive law, public opinion, and so forth. No one who has given any thought to ethical issues would advocate uncritical capitulation to socially conditioned guilt feelings. But what is significant in this discussion of conscience is the central role it plays in the author’s strategy of distorting her opponents’ position. She asks:

What about the option to vote for an ideologically attractive but electorally marginal candidate? This option may be attractive for someone who desires to keep his hands clean by not lending support to candidates he finds morally reprehensible. [5]

This brings us back to the fundamental misrepresentation in the article, which is the idea that those who reject the lesser of evils ideology do so because they are afflicted with that classical and indeed stereotypical symptom of neurosis, an obsession with “clean hands.”  More literally, this means that they are allegedly obsessed by their desire to achieve a kind of moral purity and to escape from feelings of guilt.

But the search for a clean conscience may result in immoral behavior. If our vote is part of a set of votes that will contribute to the defeat of the realistically electable “lesser evil,” therefore electing the “more evil” candidate, then we force society to pay a high price for our clean conscience. Sometimes, our concern for feeling morally impeccable should give way to a concern for what type of society we can help to create for the sake of all, including ourselves.

This is simply a false depiction of most of those who oppose Lesser-Evilism. Anyone who has first-hand knowledge of oppositional politics, or even anyone who has second-hand familiarity through the literature of oppositional politics, knows that those who reject the Lesser-Evilist ideology base their opposition overwhelmingly, not on a self-regarding consideration of guilt and conscience, but on the other-regarding grounds that it inflicts great harm on society and causes untold suffering for the victims of a system of global injustice. Unless the author has successfully psychoanalyzed a representative sample of the opponents of Lesser-Evilism and can demonstrate that she has more insight into their motivations and goals than they do themselves, we must conclude that her depiction was simply concocted for the sake of argument. However, even if (as may certainly be the case) some of her opponents do exhibit the bad character traits that she attributes to the entire group, this is nevertheless an example of the fallacy of hasty generalization, and still constitutes a case of unjustified stereotyping. Furthermore, to whatever extent some of her opponents may exhibit such character flaws, this has nothing to do with the validity of the many arguments and analyses that they present, so she also commits the fallacy of ad hominem argument.

image by Steve Duplantier

image by Steve Duplantier

After falsely reducing her opponents’ position to their desire to avoid guilt-feelings and their quest for moral purity, the author remarks, “That’s a noble reason for action.” However, this motivation does not in fact seem very noble and one must wonder how honest the author is in claiming that she thinks that it is. It seems that such motivation, rather than being “noble” is tainted by egocentrism and is ultimately irresponsible. The effort to pin this serious charge on her opponents is, in reality, a means of morally discrediting them. We live in a world in which the biosphere is being pushed toward collapse, millions of species are being driven to extinction, a billion people suffer needlessly in absolute poverty, more human beings are enslaved and trafficked than ever before in history, billions are faced with displacement by social and ecological crisis (need I go on?).  In the midst of such vast suffering and devastation, to focus on one’s own subjective feelings such as “desire for a clean conscience” would be morally outrageous. Various traditions have called this deluded view “Phariseeism,” “spiritual materialism,” and “spiritual narcissism.” Ethically, our foremost concerns must be, not our own moral purity, but rather the fate of the Earth, our fellow human beings, and all other living beings on the planet. And such concerns for social and ecological justice, in various forms, are what motivates the vast majority of those who not only reject, but fight actively against Lesser-Evilism. They do so on behalf of the greater common good.   

At the conclusion of the article, the quite specific agenda behind this weak attempt to disguise rationalization as rational argument becomes clear:

If we have a duty of aid toward society, our duty becomes even more stringent when there are real prospects that a scarily unpredictable leader would take power, a candidate who, if elected, could harm society.

It’s all about scaring us into accepting the Trump vs. Hillary double-bind.

What is striking about this article is that it purports to demonstrate an obligation to vote for the lesser of evils based on a supposed concern for conditions in the real world, yet it becomes lost in a tangle of assumptions and abstractions and fails to engage with that real world [6]. It never begins to undertake the kind of systemic analysis of existing political and electoral systems and of the actual state of the planet that leads many to see an alternative to both greater and lesser evils as an urgent necessity.

We must certainly learn how to use our moral imaginations. But rather than fantasizing about hypothetical events on hypothetical desolate roads one might use one’s moral imagination to consider, for example, the following real-world, historically-based scenario. Imagine you live in a country with two major political parties, both of which support slavery. Some will advise you to vote for the better (or rather, the less evil) of the leading candidates, while others will urge you to put your efforts into creating an alternative that is a radical break with an unjust social order. Should one, in this situation, pin ones hopes on voting for the lesser of the evil, pro-slavery parties, or should one devote one’s efforts (perhaps one’s life) to creating a third, anti-slavery party, or, even better, into creating a militant direct-action movement aimed at immediately freeing every slave possible, and at doing all in its power to wipe slavery off the face of the earth as rapidly as possible?

Of course, human beings have faced precisely such a choice, not on any hypothetical deserted roads, but rather on those real historical roads on which the real agents of history have walked.  Everything in this Lesser-Evilist article implies that, at a crucial fork in that road, voting for the less evil of the pro-slavery parties would have been the moral course of action. It implies that only “noble” but misguided idiots would have failed to recognize their obligation to do so. It thus exemplifies perfectly the kind of abject failure of both moral reasoning and moral imagination that is so typical of Lesser-Evilist thinking.


[1] Julia Maskivker, “Yes, you do have an obligation to vote for the lesser of two evils. Here’s why.” (Washington Post, June 1, 2016). This response was written shortly after the article’s publication (revised, June 4).

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica.

[3] Whom I discovered to be, among other things, a Professor of “Strategy” at Georgetown.

[4] Since the author uses the neutral term “information,” with no qualification, this could range from engaging in a careful critical-historical analysis of politics to spending more hours at conspiracy-theory sites on the internet.

[5] Emphasis added in this and the next citation of text to indicate subjectivizing and psychologizing language.

[6] Indeed, this article is an almost shockingly perfect example of the way that ideological thinking demonstrates the dialectical principle that “It is what it isn’t.”  It begins with an attack on opponents of Lesser-Evilism as abstract idealists who are out of touch with the real world and detached from the practical implications of political choices. As the argument proceeds, it becomes clear that the author’s Lesser-Evilism is itself a form of abstract idealism (masquerading as realism) that is sadly out of touch with the real world and oblivious to the practical implications of political choices.

Posted on June 6, 2016 .