Oh, look, another comment on the 2016 election. I can’t seem to escape it. At least I’ve made it a whole year without ever using a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton photograph as a featured image.
One of the things I hear a lot from committed #NeverTrumpers is something like, “I won’t vote for Trump, but, if you decide to, that is okay.” This has always made sense to me, even though I’m not committed to #NeverTrump.
However, I recently realized that, to those on the #TrumpTrain, it looks like madness at best, moral relativism at worst. As one of my favorite Facebook friends put it last night:
“It is curious to me when people say ‘I think it is wrong for ME to vote for Trump, but not for others.’ [T]o suggest… that there is no right or wrong choice seems wrong to me. And not to engage that question in a community where we are all struggling to do what we can to stem the tsunami of destructive consequences for this great nation also seems somewhat irresponsible to me.”
In other words, there must be an objectively correct choice among the awful choices we have. As moral voters, we have an objective duty to discern the correct choice and act accordingly. Avoiding the question, or answering it indefinitely, is thus a form of moral cowardice.
I agree with my friend. I think there is an objectively right or wrong choice in this election. God can see the possible world that unfolds if I vote for Trump (and encourage others to do so), and He can see the world that unfolds if I do not vote for Trump (and discourage others from doing so). One of those worlds is objectively better than the other. The choice that leads to that world is therefore objectively the right choice.*
So I agree that there is an objectively best choice. However, I do not know what it is. I am not God. I cannot see both possible future worlds. I have to guess at the future, based on my prudential judgment.
In a typical American election, there’s not a lot of space for prudential judgments. If the Republican candidate is anti-abortion and the Democratic candidate pro-abortion rights, that is typically enough to determine the objectively correct moral choice with a very high degree of confidence. The evil of legal abortion† is vastly disproportionate to all other issues. Affairs like health care and taxes and religious freedom and even poverty and war are nearly moot in the face of a million babies (babies! killed at a rate faster than Auschwitz!) torn limb from limb for money every year. A voter who does not become (in effect) a single-issue voter in the face of this evil is not acting rationally or charitably. Because legal abortion is very vulnerable in the United States (it is sustained, since 2006, almost exclusively by just five Supreme Court justices, one of them wishy-washy about it), and because creating legal barriers to abortion (including prohibition) is the most effective policy measure for reducing the number of abortions, honest, informed, moral prudence can reach only one conclusion: it would be best to elect the Republican.
Moreover — and I think people miss this too often — the very fact that the pro-abortion candidate is pro-abortion renders the candidate fundamentally unfit to hold authority over anyone. Abortion-rights supporters find their judgement and values fatally undermined on every issue by their willingness to sacrifice an entire class of human beings to Moloch.
Finally, in a typical election, a vote is unlikely to have repercussions beyond the election. Your vote for John McCain simply expresses a preference for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama; the vote carries few practical consequences beyond that, and is not widely understood to signify much else. This closes off one of the few practical avenues of escape for the voter who would rather vote for the abortion-rights candidate with a clean conscience.
I think the argument for voting pro-life in a normal election is so obvious and so overwhelming that doing so is morally compulsory, and that those who support pro-choice candidates will be called to account . I mention this to show, beyond a doubt, that I completely reject moral relativism at the ballot box. I do not treat the phrase “prudential judgement” as an infinitely malleable excuse for any old evil I want to promote; I treat it as a serious burden that must be convincingly answered — and, in most elections, I think there’s only one convincing answer available.
But this election is different in important ways.
Having studied Mr. Trump closely for the past year, I think he is pro-choice. I think he is a liar. I think the odds that he actually appoints good justices to the Supreme Court are around 50/50. I would not be even the tiniest bit surprised to see him get elected on the backs of social conservatives’ votes, then turn around and appoint Peter Thiel to the Court. I think there is strong evidence for all these contentions. Trump has STILL never renounced his support for unrestricted abortion-on-demand throughout the first trimester, which is, y’know, basically indistinguishable from Harry Reid’s position. This casts large chunks of the standard argument for voting Republican into grave doubt.
People of good conscience may disagree about the evidence (though, to be sure, plenty of Trump people are plainly arguing in bad conscience on this), but it must be conceded that, if one judges Trump to be lying through his teeth about the whole abortion-and-religious-freedom thing, it must follow that the clear-cut prudential judgment that obtains in normal elections suddenly becomes really cloudy.
But it gets worse for Mr. Trump. In this election, with the future of the imploding Republican party quite clearly on the November ballot, my vote is going to have consequences beyond the election itself, breaking another of the supports that sustains the clear-cut argument for Republicans in normal elections. By voting for Trump, I appear to validate the new shape of the Republican Party. What long-term effects does this have? How does it shape our politics in 2020 and beyond — particularly if I go ahead and validate TrumpGOP but he still loses (as he very probably will)?
Relatedly, as Rachel Lu often asks, what does this do to the credibility of our movement long-run? Let’s imagine:
I cast my vote for Trump. Months later, I’m at a campus protest, trying to convince a college pro-choicer that I and the rest of the pro-life movement really do care about women. She asks whether I voted for Trump… and stops listening when I honestly admit I did. And I can’t even blame her, because I did actually vote for a candidate who manifestly believes women are objects for his personal use. (This goes double if Trump loses, as he very probably will even with my help.) Multiply by 50,000,000, rinse, and repeat. Was it worth it, casting a vote that might, with considerable luck, elect a man who might, with considerable luck, do what is necessary to reverse Roe vs. Wade?
Maybe so! People can reach different conclusions about this in good conscience. It’s impossibly difficult to predict the future, especially in the middle of a party realignment like the current one. It’s credible for someone to think we can all vote for Trump and everything will work out just peachy. But it’s also credible for someone to think that our personal and collective support for Trump will do more harm than good. Since we’re not God, and can’t look into the worlds where we made different choices to compare them, this is ultimately unprovable and unknowable; we have to take the evidence available and go with our best guess.
In short, this election is full of prudential judgments that are an order of magnitude more difficult than the ones we’re used to dealing with in elections. It is therefore entirely possible for one voter to make one prudential judgment (Trump is a good, honest man who will appoint good judges and not discredit our movement) and for another voter, who shares the exact same principles and has seen the exact same evidence, to make another prudential judgment (Trump is a liar who will appoint Hillary-esque judges and all we’ll have gained by voting for him is deeply undermining ourselves), and thus draw absolutely different conclusions about this election. Each voter must do what he thinks is right, but, since the underlying propositions involve predictions about the future and are thus by their nature unprovable, what is morally right for one voter might not be morally right for another voter.
Thus, a #NeverTrump voter can quite reasonably say, “I think voting for Trump is wrong, but you might reach a different conclusion, and that’s okay.” It’s not moral relativism or cowardice. It is appropriate humility in the face of a bewilderingly cloudy future.
The one good thing about this election is that we’re all going to get a bunch of great papers published on voting ethics in the next two years.
*I think this is an oversimplified model of voting morality, because it reduces voting to an absolutely utilitarian act, and stark utility is almost never the sole measure of morality… but this utilitarian model is how most people think about voting, it’s at least close to how I think about voting, and it will do for our purposes in this post.
† Those who are not regular readers of De Civitate should be aware that “unborn child = person” and “abortion = murder” are generally taken for granted around here. If you disagree, you may reach very very different conclusions about moral voting behavior. Fair enough! Frankly, while I think your pro-abortion position is clearly incorrect, I think your arguments are much stronger than the absurd position I’m arguing against here: that abortion is murder and should be outlawed but it’s still okay to vote for people who support keeping abortion-murder legal.
UPDATE: My Facebook friend — whom I may now reveal as the learned Doctor (and national treasure) Janet E. Smith — has replied to me here. Take a look! Weigh the arguments!