Noam Chomsky, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Ethics of Voting
In an earlier post, I cited some recent comments of Noam Chomsky to the effect that it could be morally and politically justifiable to cast a vote for Hillary Clinton in order to, and only in order to, prevent the election of Donald Trump, especially if you live in a swing-state. This view surprised many who believed that it would not be a position Chomsky would advocate, given his socialist-anarchist politics and his dogged opposition to Democratic as well as Republican regimes. It surprised me, to be sure, even as I agreed with Chomsky on essentials. It evidently surprised many others, because Chomsky recently published a clarificatory piece on his website, co-written with John Halle, that further articulates and expands upon his defense of “lesser-evil voting strategies” (LEVS for short.)
Chomsky’s 8-point argument, on which he elaborates and which I paraphrase, runs as follows:
- Voting should not be understood as a public display of one’s morality. Nor is it a matter of expressing one’s rejection of a corrupt political system caught in the stranglehold of wealthy elites. While moral integrity and opposing a corrupt system are both critically important, this is not what the ballot box is all about.
- The reality today is that voting, particularly in a swing state, is going to “marginally increase or decrease the chance of one of the major party candidates winning.” You can cast your vote for a third-party candidate, but the actual consequence of doing so will almost certainly be aiding or abetting the election of either Clinton or Trump.
- Trump’s positions – from the wholesale denial of global warming to his openness to the use of nuclear weapons – are beyond the pale, as is his impulsive, authoritarian character.
- The suffering of those affected by implementing such policies under a volatile Trump administration would be exponentially greater than those policies that would be implemented under a Clinton administration.
- So this constitutes a sufficient basis for voting for Clinton, if one’s vote would be consequential (swing states in particular).
- Those on the Left should also realize, should they fail to vote for Clinton in sufficient numbers and Trump is elected, that the Left will be accused by the Clintonite Center that “Left-wing purists” helped elect Trump. Furthermore, that accusation would be justified, and with it the claim that the Left lacks concern for those who would be victimized by a Trump presidency.
- Whether Trump wins or not, this accusation will be used as a rhetorical club, on the part of the Democratic Party’s neoliberal establishment wing, against the burgeoning movement in the Democratic Party to shift the party toward the Left. In short, refusing to consider LEV would be counterproductive, a tactical error.
- Therefore, one should conclude that by dismissing LEV, and thereby “increasing the potential for Clinton’s defeat the left will undermine what should be at the core of what it claims to be attempting to achieve.”
Chomsky also considers and responds to possible objections to this 8-point brief (although, in an unorthodox manner, he canvasses them before setting down his formal argument). To the counterargument that advocates of LEV are either patsies of a corrupt Democratic establishment or its agents out to slander the true Left, Chomsky remarks that although some LEV advocates are patsies or agents of an entrenched status quo, not all such advocates are or need be. Moreover that purism about LEV has led to some dire consequences in the recent past. For example, when many of the supporters of Eugene McCarthy where aghast at his being railroaded by Hubert Humphrey’s supporters in high places at the 1968 convention, they sat out the election. Underestimating the dangers of a Nixon presidency, their action – or inaction – prolonged the war they were trying to end. While they were not directly responsible for the continued death and destruction in Vietnam, their refusal was one causal factor that brought about this horrible consequence.
Chomsky is no less antagonistic to what he calls “the politics of moral witness”, which he ascribes to some members of “the religious Left.” (I am assuming he has Cornel West in mind here, although he mentions no names.) The mantra of such politics is “the lesser of two evils is still evil”, and if one ought to refrain from doing evil, one is morally bound to reject both evil options. Chomsky does not contend that voting-as-moral-witness is a kind of smug moral narcissism, where you vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or nobody at all because and only because it makes you feel pure and noble. Doubtless there are some moral dandies who fit this description. The vast majority of those who reject LEV are not. But many of those who refuse to vote for either major party candidate will castigate those who do vote on LEV grounds as willing participants in evil, or at least as enablers.
For Chomsky, this is not only misguided, but morally questionable: “those reflexively denouncing advocates of LEV on a supposed ‘moral’ basis should consider that their footing on the high ground may not be as secure as they often take for granted to be the case.” And this is because the “basic moral principle at stake is simple: not only must we take responsibility for our actions, but the consequences of our actions for others are a far more important consideration than feeling good about ourselves.”
However I think Chomsky moves a bit too quickly here. One could conceivably reject LEVS by inferring that LEV is simply a political restatement of the maxim “the end justifies the means”, which rationalizes all sorts of barbarity on the grounds that one’s cause (i.e., ensuring the defeat of Trump) is just. One’s cause may be just, but that does not legitimate employing intrinsically evil means. It echoes the sentiments of Lenin that “in order to make an omelet you need to break some eggs.” The eggs, in Lenin’s case, were human skulls. One may not do evil so good may come of it. This translates into the following case against LEV:
- Voting for something or someone evil is tantamount to doing the evil yourself.
- Therefore if both candidates are “evils”, it does not matter if one is a greater and the other a lesser evil.
- You cannot justify doing evil for the sake of good consequences: this is “doing evil so good may come of it.” Such actions are still immoral in their very intention. The favorability or unfavorability of the consequences does not matter (e.g., even if torture would yield favorable results, one would still be forbidden to torture. Regardless of the consequences, torture is still intrinsically evil, evil in its very intention, and thus impermissible without exception.)
- Therefore, if there are alternatives to voting the “lesser of two evils”, you must opt for them (in the case of 2016, Stein or Johnson). If there are no alternatives, you must refrain from voting. It may permissible, even obligatory, to take political action in other ways, ranging from demonstrating to nonviolent resistance to armed revolution. But you cannot do evil for the sake of good consequences – that is equivalent to “the end justifies the means.” Murder and mayhem, performed with nonchalance, will follow in the wake of that maxim.
In short, opponents of LEVS need not be moral narcissists or dandies. They might, like Kant and Thomas Aquinas, acknowledge that the moral rightness or wrongness of an action hinges not just on yielding optimal consequences but primarily on the quality of one’s intention. If you intend an end, you also intend the necessary means to that end, and if those means are in themselves morally wrong, you must refrain from acting to bring about the end. This kind of reasoning informs much and maybe most everyday, pre-reflective moral judgments; it also undergirds the Just War tradition’s prohibition of intentionally targeting noncombatants, and the universal proscriptions against torture, terrorism, and the killing of the materially innocent.
If this line of reasoning is sound, then there is a significant gap in Chomsky’s argument in limited favor of LEVS: one may be obliged to refrain from opting for “the lesser of two evils”. But this narrative is not the whole story, and Chomsky might find an unlikely ally in the 12th century Doctor Angelicus of Catholic theology, Thomas Aquinas.
First, while Thomas agrees with Kant and other deontologists that quality of intention is the key factor in determining the moral worth of an action, he rejects the idea that this quality is determined by adherence to a rule of conduct or a set of such rules, such as Kant’s categorical imperative or Rawls’s freedom and difference principles. There is a place for principles in Thomas’s ethics, but it is secondary to the exercise of virtues, or excellences of character and intellect. Following Aristotle, conduct-guiding principles always demand application and interpretation in specific contexts, which in turn demands the exercise of prudentia — practical wisdom or sound moral judgment.
Thus to appeal to an exceptionless moral rule, such as “do not do evil so that good may come of it,” does not so much solve the problem of “how to act ?”as state it, because it does not settle the issue in the context of the particular case. That is: it raises the question “is this proposed course of action a matter of ‘doing evil so that good may come of it’ or not?” And that is not the kind of question that can be answered by appeal to some timeless, exceptionless universal principle or categorical imperative. It is ineluctably a matter of sound judgment, less a matter of following a rule than determining what a rule might mean, and which rule to apply and how to apply it.
Second, Thomas is quite clear in his distinction between intending something and foreseeing something, and also admits that what one precisely intends is not something that can be read instantly off the act itself. This leads to Thomas’s much famous (and infamous, and much misunderstood) doctrine of double effect. In brief, the doctrine states
- One intends an action that has two effects, one good and another bad
- One’s intention is to bring about the good effect
- The bad effect is foreseen but not intended
- The bad effect is not a means to bring about the good effect but is an unintended “side-effect”
- Therefore this action is morally permissible if and only if there is no other means one can discern that can bring about the good effect without producing the bad effect.
The doctrine of double effect is perhaps best known today through a paper by the English moral philosopher Philippa Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect”, which was actually meant as a serious critique of the doctrine. Foot’s version is known as “the Trolley Problem”. It can be summarized thus:
Scenario 1: You are standing by a set of tracks when you see a runaway trolley hurtling forward, clearly out of control. Down the main track you see 5 track-workers: they do not see the trolley or hear you yell to get out of the way. They are doomed to be run over and killed. However you are standing by a switch that, if you throw it, will direct the runaway trolley to a side-track, thus saving the five track-workers. Unfortunately, there is one solitary track worker on the side-track. He cannot see the trolley or hear you yell either. What ought you to do?
Scenario 2: same as scenario 1, except that you are standing on a bridge overlooking the track on which the train is barreling out of control. There is a fat man standing next to you looking out into the distance. If you throw the fat man off the bridge onto the track, he (or his dead body) would stop the trolley and save the 5 workers. What ought you to do?
Foot concludes that there is no morally significant difference between the first scenario, where one throws the switch, and the second, where one throws the fat man onto the tracks. In both cases one does something that saves five innocent people but brings about the death of one innocent person. In each case one knows what one is doing and does it with the intention to save innocent lives. In each case there is a kind of calculus at work: one innocent life is sacrificed so that five can live. If our intuitions sanction the first scenario but balk at the second, so much the worse for our intuitions: there is nothing incorrigible about moral intuition, and, in this case, our intuitions are out of sync with what is actually intended and then acted upon. 
But from Thomas’s standpoint, Foot is too quick to assimilate the intention that guides the moral agent in scenario 2 to the intention operative in scenario 1. Only if one describes the intentions of the agents too broadly do they seem identical: as endorsing the maxim “one is saving 5 people, albeit by sacrificing one person.” This is far too general a description to be useful. In scenario 1 the moral agent intends the end of saving 5 people, by intending the means of throwing the switch which, alas, will kill one person as something foreseen but not intended. In scenario 2 the structure of end-means intentionality is significantly different. Here, the moral agent likewise intends the end of saving 5 people, but does so by intending the death of the fat man, as a means for bringing about the desired good end. The problem is that if you intend a (good) end, you also intend the (necessary) means, which, in this case, involve not just foreseeing but intending the death of an innocent bystander, and by initiating the causal sequence that stops the trolley, you are effectively committing murder. “Lesser of two evils” rationalization is thus fully beside the point in scenario 2. On the other hand, it is basic to the reasoning in scenario 1. Whether “lesser of two evils” thinking is morally sound or not depends entirely on the context of action, and the quality of intention in performing that action.
Return now to Chomsky’s defense of LEVS. Chomsky needs to address the counterargument that LEVS are morally questionable at best and forbidden at worst, because they embody “doing evil so that good may come of it”, employing evil means to bring about a good end. But this implies forming an evil intention in acting, and it is the quality of intention that determines whether an action is itself good or evil. The end does not justify the means. The “politics of moral witness” is thus not only permissible but obligatory – the only kind of politics that matters.
This counterargument confuses a part of political ethics – the ethics of voting – for the whole. It may be that one’s political actions need to conform to the demands of “the politics of moral witness”, but that does not mean that voting needs to follow its lead. For voting for candidate A neither entails nor even implies that one’s intention is to place a stamp of approval on a set of policies or a candidate’s character. If one’s intention can avoid a straightforward endorsement, one can also avoid “doing evil so that good can come of it.”
A clarification is in order. Everything hangs on whether LEVS are analogous to scenario 1 or scenario 2 above. I would argue that LEVS resemble scenario 1: just as one intends the means of throwing the switch to save the lives of 5 people, without intending the death of the other track-worker as a means, one can intend to “pull the lever” for Hillary Clinton as the “lesser evil” without intending the anticipated evils that her administration might bring about – as long as a Trump administration would be far more catastrophic, and there are no other reliable means for bringing about a good outcome short of employing a LEV strategy. But there is no clear analogy with scenario 2: one does not so much vote for Clinton as an effective vote against Trump. One foresees many bad things happening with Hillary Clinton in the White House. But one does not directly intend them. If this is the only effective strategy available, a vote for Clinton – even if you are vehemently opposed to her neoliberal bent and that of the DNC in general – becomes even more defensible, if not exactly obligatory.
Voting is primarily a strategy, ultimately in the service of a political vision. So, in the section above, where I elucidated the “moral witness” argument, premise 1)
- Voting for something or someone evil is tantamount to doing the evil yourself.
is false. Voting is, ultimately, like a strategic move in chess: it can, for example, be described as “losing a bishop”, but it is more completely and accurately described as “sacrificing a bishop now in order to gain an advantage toward the endgame.” Voting is neutral between “voting for” and “voting against.” The operative intention is inescapably context dependent. Therefore there is no deep practical contradiction between opposing most, even all, of a candidate’s policies and voting for that candidate, on the grounds that failing to do so would result in the victory of something far worse.
It would be premature, though, to simply declare the Chomsky-Thomas defense of LEVS to be vindicated without making the further point that being in a situation where you are forced to opt for “the lesser of two evils” is a bad one that needs to be addressed and rectified. If the 2016 election has shown anything, it has revealed that the prevailing political institutions and practices in the USA have been so thoroughly corrupted as to make LEVS a practical necessity. That is, in the longer run, an intolerable situation. Dismantling it, by reforming election law to undercut the monopoly power of the RNC and DNC, by preventing any future possibility of a presidential candidate as unqualified and destructive as Donald Trump, and by myriad other means, is itself a moral as well as a political duty. It is at this level that “the politics of moral witness” needs to kick in. LEVS may be an unfortunate necessity in unfortunate circumstances. But remaining content with, or complacent about, “unfortunate necessities” is itself a tell-tale sign of a wider political failure.
 Thomas introduces the principle of double effect in his treatment of using violence in self-defense. Summa Theologica (II-II, Qu. 64, Art.7).
 Philippa Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect”, in Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 1979)
 Foot’s immediate purpose in formulating this case was to challenge the distinction, canonical among Catholic moral theologians, between terminating a fallopian-tube-pregnancy or removing the cancerous uterus of a pregnant woman, and aborting a pregnancy for any other reason. In either case, a good is aimed-at, one aborts a fetus, and the end-result is the same in terms of good and bad effects. For Foot, the difference cited by Catholic theologians is a difference that makes no difference. For what it’s worth, I think Foot is right about abortion for the wrong reasons: her piece evades what I think is the central issue of the moral status of the fetus – “fetal personhood” – and the sui generis state of being pregnant, where the fetus being totally dependent on the pregnant woman could justify abortion without regard to whether the fetus is a “person” or not.