Friday, September 12, 2008

Perfect vs. Good

A fascinating discussion, in which I've been privileged to participate, has been taking place here and here at Mark Shea's blog on the general topic of voting and Catholic morality. Specifically, the question concerns the following matter: is it morally acceptable for a Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports that which is intrinsically evil?

The formulation which seems to be developing among those who think that Catholics should not vote this way might be stated as follows:
  • Catholics must never support intrinsic evil
  • Catholics must never vote for someone who supports intrinsic evil
  • Catholics must especially not vote for someone who supports killing innocent humans
  • Obama supports this intrinsic evil (abortion, infanticide, etc.)
  • McCain supports this intrinsic evil (ESCR)
  • Therefore, Catholics must not, from a moral perspective, vote for either of these candidates.
I'm sympathetic to this viewpoint, but unfortunately, my mind working in the odd way it does, I soon came up with a dilemma, which is this:
  • If Catholics must never vote for someone who supports intrinsic evil, and
  • If contraception is intrinsic evil, and
  • If Catholics must especially never vote for someone who supports killing innocent humans, and
  • If many if not most forms of contraception are abortifacient, and
  • If every candidate running for President, including 3rd party candidates, supports the continued federal government funding of abortifacient contraceptives through Medicaid and other federal programs, then
  • Catholics may not morally now vote for any person who is running for President, and
  • Catholics will be unlikely for the foreseeable future to be able to vote for any person who is running for President without objectively doing that which is immoral.
Now, there are three problems with this sort of reasoning. The first two can be discovered by looking at this excerpt from the statement from the USCCB on Faithful Citizenship:
34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

35. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.

36. When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
The two problems I see here are: 1) It is clear that the U.S. bishops believe that deciding not to vote for any candidate should be an "extraordinary step," not the default mode for voters in America until abortifacient contraception is no longer funded by the government or supported by candidates, and 2) section 35 outlines the possibility of voting for a candidate in spite of his unacceptable position and for other "morally grave reasons." I'll get back to that in a moment, but first, I want to point out that if it were indeed morally wrong ever to vote for any candidate who gives any level of support for any intrinsic evil, the bishops could not permit the option.

The third problem has to do with both the Catechism's words on voting and the notion of limiting evil. The Catechism, #2240, says this:

"Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country..."

And from Father Z's blog comes this letter from the Kansas City bishops on principles of moral responsibility of voting, which contains the following:
Limiting Grave Evil

In another circumstance, we may be confronted with a voting choice between two candidates who support abortion, though one may favor some limitations on it, or he or she may oppose public funding for abortion. In such cases, the appropriate judgment would be to select the candidate whose policies regarding this grave evil will do less harm. We have a responsibility to limit evil if it is not possible at the moment to eradicate it completely.
"We have a responsibility to limit evil if it is not possible at the moment to eradicate it completely." I'm repeating that line because it seems to be particularly germane to the matter at hand, which leads to a new syllogism of sorts:
  • If Catholics have the moral obligation to exercise their right to vote, and
  • If Catholics have a responsibility to limit evil when it's not possible to eradicate it, and
  • If morally grave reasons exist to choose the candidate whose position in favor of intrinsic evil are less extreme and who will work to limit or eliminate other intrinsic evils, and
  • If the decision not to vote at all is not the clear moral choice (i.e., between two candidates who both favor intrinsic evil neither one of whom will eliminate intrinsic evil in any way), and
  • If no candidate even in third-parties is completely free from the support of intrinsic evil, then
  • The Catholic voter may indeed vote for the candidate who, despite a position in favor of some intrinsic evil, is credibly pledged to eliminate or limit other intrinsic evils.
Let's go back to those "morally grave reasons" for a moment. What kind of reasons could be morally grave enough to allow a Catholic to vote for a candidate who expresses at least some level of support for some intrinsic evil?

I think the candidate would have to be seen as being capable of and committed to the elimination of some other intrinsic evil, or of preventing further harm from taking place. So if a candidate were credibly thought to be more likely to appoint SCOTUS nominees who might eventually limit or even overturn Roe v. Wade, that would be a "morally grave reason" that would not make the candidate's support of, say, ESCR or the federal funding of abortifacient contraception, a situation that would mandate not voting for that person.

Of course, now we get to the point where we're talking about prudential concerns. Will McCain, for instance, appoint SCOTUS judges who are strict constructionist and likely to support the right to life? Is it credible to believe that he will? Will McCain and his administration do anything else to attempt to limit or eliminate even some abortions? Is it credible to believe that he will? Are other things McCain supports intrinsically evil or morally unsound? How does that enter into the calculations?

These are conversations we should have, I think. But unless someone can illustrate otherwise, I am starting to think that the idea that Catholics have a positive moral obligation never to vote for any candidate who supports any intrinsic evil is not founded on sound moral theology. I should note that I'm not at all opposed to having the opposite illustrated or explained, especially with recourse to various Church documents, so if you believe I'm wrong here, I'm completely happy to let you prove it!


Alexandra said...

Well, if they don't vote, and Obama gets into office by a slim margin, then they may be responsible for allowing a greater evil to prosper and continue. That's irresponsible IMHO.

Christie Groth said...

I feel horrible as it is...right now we are all picking "the best of the worst". I just can't say that I "would" vote for either of them given a decent option but I may have to choose one of these two where I would like to or not.

Babs said...

We need to realize that politics is a practical science - oriented toward result. A vote is a vote for the RESULT, not any particular candidate.

For instance, it would be a completely moral action for me to vote for Hillary in a primary if she's a weaker candidate in the general election, in order for a RESULT, which is, that that the ethically superior candidate might win. A vote is not your stamp of approval for any one person. It is not a marriage, or a contract, or a vow to a particular individual. It is a tool for a result.

Once Catholics understand this, I hope they will understand that they are bound to vote in any way that furthers the culture of life, and limits the culture of death.

Jeff Miller said...

The problem with voting none of the above is that one of the above will become president. It isn't an intellectual exercise.

It is too bad that the Supreme Court has usurped power in a way that a election can have an effect for a generation.

You brought up the issue of contraception but also hasn't pretty much even so-called pro-life presidents supported the incest/rape exemption? This is also support of intrinsic evil.

There is also danger when we vote to limit evil, that is we can make less of an effort to be upset by the evil of the candidate we do support. McCain's support of non-embryo creating ESCR is still gravely evil. It does not reduce his support of evil that Obama supports this evil in a wider scope along with other evils. We must never excuse away support of evil and we must continue to speak up at our displeasure at this.

Red Cardigan said...

Absolutely, Jeff. But again, that's where some prudential matters come in. If, in a post-Roe world, a group of Catholics were to form a lobby to work for the elimination of a rape/incest exemption (and also clarification of the "life of the mother" exemption according to Catholic principles), it would put them in a different position to be able to say "I voted for you *despite* your rape/incest views which I reject; now I want you to listen to my concerns on the matter" than to say, "No, of course I didn't vote for you, because I don't ever vote for cannibals and people who permit the killing of babies; I see you as morally abhorrent, but I still want you to listen to my concerns on this issue, though I doubt very much a morally abhorrent baby killing cannibal such as yourself will ever do the right thing." Which group will be listened to, I wonder?

Paul said...

The only modification I would add relates to "If no candidate even in third-parties is completely free from the support of intrinsic evil, then...".

It could be that the threat from a more-extreme candidate is so pressing and immediate that I could vote for a less-extreme candidate that had a practical chance of being elected instead, rather than pick a wholly-acceptable 3rd-party candidate.

Or it could be that there is a 3rd-party candidate who is worth encouraging, because of the effect (e.g.)that will have either on future policy decisions, or on the next election.

Which of those situations applies would depend on the circumstances.

John Thayer Jensen said...

test post - I have been trying to post on this subject but it doesn't want to take my post. Let's see if this works. If so, maybe there is something in the content that it does not like??


John Thayer Jensen said...

Though my wife and I are American citizens, we live in New Zealand. We could, in theory, vote, but (a) the process is astonishingly difficult, and (b) as regards the presidential election, our state is Hawai'i and there is no question who is going to win from Hawai'i - not only because Hawai'i is solidly Democrat, but also because Obama is from there - he's a Punahou boy!

Nevertheless, if we did vote, I think we would vote for the best-qualified - or least-unqualified - candidate - in this case, we think Ron Paul.

I don't personally think that considerations of "he can't win so why vote for him" are really applicable. It seems to me that I cannot determine who will win, so my vote is an expression of who I would want to win. And I really don't think I would want either Barack Obama or John McCain to win. Whether Ron Paul can win or not is not up to me - but I could not in good conscience say - which is what my vote is saying, I think - that I want McCain to win (if I voted for him). I do not. Would this not be a sin against the eight commandment?

And witholding my vote from him is just one more tick against his winning.

As it happens, we are holding national elections ourselves on the Saturday (your Friday) after the American elections. Again I am in a 'safe' district. I would, nevertheless, be able to vote for the National Party candidate (Dr. Paul Hutchison) - but if there is a candidate for the new pro-life, pro-family "Kiwi Party" in our electorate (improbable), I will vote for him or her. My view is that my vote is my way of saying who I want to win.

And I want that vote to be honest.


Paul said...

jj said: "It seems to me that I cannot determine who will win, so my vote is an expression of who I would want to win."

I would just start to wonder on what grounds I should want someone to win. But if think to myself: "Given the world as it is on the day I have to vote, what choice made then would offer the greatest possible good?" then I do not see how I could go far wrong.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Paul said:

'I would just start to wonder on what grounds I should want someone to win. But if think to myself: "Given the world as it is on the day I have to vote, what choice made then would offer the greatest possible good?" then I do not see how I could go far wrong.'

Yes, I agree with you - but I'm afraid that sometimes these great questions - like which of my choices might bring the greatest possible good - are a bit far from my feeble brain. I really don't think I know much about these people except what they say and do. And, honestly, I just imagine, what if Obama or McCain had the power to do the things that each of them say they want to do? Well, I guess for me, Ron Paul seems the best of them and I just don't see that I could live with the others.

Kind of vague, I suppose. But what I mean is that I don't see how I can decide on the basis of 'my vote will cause so-and-so to lose' - 'coz I don't think it's so! My vote is just who I want of who is standing.


Maria said...

FYI: I like Ron Paul, too, but he isn't running in the presidential general election.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Maria said:

"FYI: I like Ron Paul, too, but he isn't running in the presidential general election."

Ah - well then I guess it's a good thing we are not going to attempt to do an overseas vote :-)

Kind of shows how much attention I pay to politics.

I posted a little note about the whole thing on my blog a couple of days ago that might conceivably be of interest - though it's not really about the election but about the 'culture war' that surrounds it:


Annie said...

As I understand the gospel, I am called to listen to the Holy Spirit, (to listen to my heart), to do right and not to worry about the results, rather putting them in God’s hands. To vote for either candidate is to support evil, more or less. Ron Paul seems to me to be a man who is most in line with God’s will. As he will not be a candidate on the ballot, I believe I am able to write him in.