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What the heck is a proportionate reason, anyway?

Folks may not agree with my particular conclusions about voting in the upcoming Presidential election, but maybe we can make some progress in mutual understanding of what constitutes a proportionate reason for engaging in remote material cooperation with evil. Inspired by an inquiring commenter, I give you the following:

Suppose we are contemplating doing act X in order to block a big evil E, where X is not intrinsically evil but doing it involves remote material cooperation with evil.

A proportionate reason to do X obtains when (1) X is reasonably effective in stopping E without being excessive, and (2) stopping E does not produce evils and disorders graver than E.

Folks tend to make a reasonable case for (2): that is, they make a reasonable case (lets stipulate, in case you disagree) that McCain winning does not produce evils and disorders graver than those which would follow from Obama winning.

But there is a very strong tendency to ignore (1) completely, treating an act of voting as if it were precisely the same thing as making McCain win by fiat. That isn't the kind of thing that voting is though: it has very little actual efficacy in making one's favored candidate win, and yet it has quite a bit of efficacy in exercising influence over the person who votes himself and those within his immediate sphere of influence.

So whether or not there is a proportionate reason to vote for a candidate depends on understanding not only the outcome dependent results of the act (that is, results which follow from McCain winning over Obama), but also the act's outcome independent results, as well as their relative importance.

Their relative importance will in turn depend on how much influence the act actually has over the outcome: if the act has very little influence over the outcome, then its outcome-independent effects will dominate moral evaluation of the act. This is the part that people find very counterintuitive, because we think of voting as just being about the outcome. Nevertheless, because the efficacy of a vote in determining the outcome of a national election is so infinitesimal, a proper moral evaluation of it is going to be completely dominated by its outcome independent effects.

(Cross-posted)

Comments (36)

Zippy,

But there is a very strong tendency to ignore (1) completely. That isn't the kind of thing that voting is though: it has very little actual efficacy in making one's favored candidate win

You have yet to prove that an act of voting (particularly in swing states) is actually futile.

However, what you seem to keep ignoring completely on your end is the fact that your reasoning here is, at best, conditional

; that is:

IF an act of voting is (as you say) futile, then everything you have said thus far concerning voting for McCain would be true.

Yet, you have yet to demonstrate that this is indeed the case.

Thus, I remain of the opinion:

A vote for McCain in the aggregate particularly in swing states does indeed possess the kind of efficacy required by the criterion under the Principles of Double Effect since an influx of such votes in the aggregate would indeed result in a McCain win so long as people in those states vote accordingly -- which it seems you are so wont to prevent.

You have yet to prove that an act of voting (particularly in swing states) is actually futile.
It doesn't have to be actually futile; it merely has to be the case that its influence on the outcome is very small compared to its influence on the voter himself and his more direct sphere of influence. When that is the case, any legitimately proportionate reasons to vote for a candidate must rest on outcome-independent considerations: that is, voting for him must be the right thing to do whether or not voting for him helps him to actually win the election.

This is a much milder conclusion than what I have argued for previously, of course. But that is because what I am looking for, as with my post on swing-state voting, is common ground.

Also, you are quite wrong in thinking that I am trying to prevent McCain from winning. My personal influence exercised to its greatest conceivable extent is far, far too small to alter the election outcome. It will be what it will be, whether I live or die through November 4th. What I am trying to do is express what I think is true about the morality of voting in national elections, and the consequences of failing to embrace that truth.

Zippy,
You're not trying to McCain lose; you're just doing nothing to help him win, which means that the man furthest from your views is more that much more likely to win. Proportional reason, therefore, means acting on election day in such a way the views you most abhor tend to prevail.

You can see why I'm not its biggest fan.

Michael:

Nothing you or I do between now and election day, or on election day, can change the outcome. I'm a big believer in facing facts as a prerequisite to making decisions, as unpleasant or counterintuitive as those facts may be.

Zippy,

Nothing you or I do between now and election day, or on election day, can change the outcome.

Am I right in saying that based on your statement here, if it were up to you, it would be best that we dispense with all the pageantry and hoopla of the ongoing campaign into November and simply declare Obama President posthaste, no? IOW, Let's have Apocalypse Now!

No, you are not right.

Zippy--we've discussed this before. Your formulation is inadequate. You say:

A proportionate reason to do X obtains when (1) X is reasonably effective in stopping E without being excessive, and (2) stopping E does not produce evils and disorders graver than E.

You are not comparing the correct things, and not by the correct factors. You have to properly identify what needs to be proportionate to what.

You should first identify the evil remotely advanced by X. Let's call it R. Then your calculus should say

A proportionate reason to do X obtains when the good effects that are attributable to X (namely avoiding E, which is measured both by the gravity of E and by the efficacy of X in avoiding E) are not outweighed by the level of cooperation in R that is attributable to X (again measured by the gravity of R and the efficacy of X in assisting R).

And here's the bottom line: If a vote has small effect in achieving X by stopping E, it has a correspondingly small effect in cooperating in R. So it is still proportionate. In fact, if there is no efficacy as you claim, it's not even cooperation in R, so it doesn't even need a proportionate reason (if you are correct about voting, which you are overstating).

You can't use vote-weight on only one side of the scale.

Zippy,

No, you are not right.

IF my vote (as well as those of others), as you say*, will do little to affect the outcome of the election; what good does it do us to wait until November and participate in hollow secular liturgy**?

Shouldn't it make better sense to simply skip this costly, delusive episode and jump to inaugurating Obama as President?

For what purpose & to whose benefit does it truly serve to wait 'til then?


* "...my individual vote cannot affect the outcome of the election (which it obviously is in the case of national elections)"
** "...I think the vote is not so much a driver of how the country is governed as it is a secular liturgy the function of which is to get people behind how the country is governed. In terms of the latter it seems quite effective, which is why the Soviets held elections even when there was de-facto really only one choice on the ballot. Our situation vis-a-vis elections is far more similar to theirs than most people appreciate, in my view..."

msb:
You are ignoring a central fact, which is that voting has both outcome-dependent and outcome-independent effects.

Zippy--I'd like to deal with one thing at a time. What part of my formulation is wrong? Isn't it true that the ineffectiveness of the vote diminishes the level of cooperation in the evil, and not just the level of the benefit?

msb,

Before Zippy starts reiterating yet again the same points as he has done elsewhere for the nth time; what he means by "outcome-independent effects" is that:

"...there is always some harm done to the person and those around him in voting for a candidate who supports murdering the innocent."

Fine, I will try to fill in the blanks. Voting for McCain has minimal effect in helping him get elected. Zippy says this takes away the benefit side of stopping Obama's really bad policies. I say, and Zippy apparently does not disagree (because when I say it he starts talking about outcome-independent effects), that it also takes away the cooperation in the evil of advancing McCain's bad policies.

So then Zippy says there is still an outcome-independent bad effect of voting for McCain even if the vote doesn't actually help elect him on Zippy's theory (which is what outcome-independent means), namely, personally tainting onesself by voting for a guy who supports some bad things.

But I say there are also outcome-independent good effects of voting to stop E even if the vote doesn't actually help elect McCain to stop E, and that good effect is the virtuous exertion of trying to stop E. Trying to stop really bad stuff is a good thing to do.

Moreover, it is not clear to me how the "tainting" harm that Zippy alsways comes back to is really cooperation in some kind of evil. Because cooperation is assistance. But what evil and I assisting? The only evil left in his analysis is that the thing I am doing is icky. But the thing I am doing is also good, and it is now so remote that there is nothing clearly indicating that the ickiness overwhelms the effort to oppose E. In short, we are still comparing good and bad on both sides, and not just on one.

So the whole point of Zippy's post was to find some common ground. I am not sure how far that goes. Probably only to the end of my first paragraph in this comment.

Ari:
This post is more general: the point is merely that outcome-independent effects are morally dispositive in national elections, whereas effects which proceed from my guy winning are morally irrelevant in comparison. Even folks who do not believe my more specific empirical claims about what those effects are can hopefully grasp the more general point.

Before Zippy starts reiterating yet again the same points as he has done elsewhere for the nth time

Look who's talking!

msb,

"But I say there are also outcome-independent good effects of voting to stop E even if the vote doesn't actually help elect McCain to stop E, and that good effect is the virtuous exertion of trying to stop E. Trying to stop really bad stuff is a good thing to do."

Zippy will only come back to you with how a voter who ultimately votes for McCain all to stop an (E)vil will presumably end up as the kind of person who votes for "a candidate who supports murdering the innocent."

I've been through all that dialogue before; so much so, I can almost anticipate Zippy's answers to some extent.

well thank you a--your anticipation is helpful so there's no lag time in the discussion. of course to the extent that you are not representing his answers accurately I do not assume that you are. but just in case it helps I will assume you are for the moment.

my response would be that a voter who votes for McCain to stop Obama also becomes the kind of person who votes to stop much much worse evils.

furthermore, the entire premise of our discussion is that even the outcome-independent cooperation in evil (that of becoming a kind of person who votes for a McCain), is both remote and material. therefore, it is perfectly legitimate to argue that such a cooperation (again not sure how you call this cooperation, but OK) can be overcome with the outcome-independent virtue and purified intent of trying to stop the much much worse evil. the latter is plenty sufficient to ovrcome the former. or at least it is not clear which wins, as zippy wishes it was.

msb,

You don't have to take my word for it; Zippy does have his own website where you can re-visit the very same answers (as I've alluded to in my comments) which Zippy had provided previously to similar questions.

For instance, to corroborate my most recent comment, Zippy had responded thus:

"It is an interesting question, but it isn't one we have to answer in general in order to observe that voting for candidates who support murdering the innocent has a corrupting effect on the citizenry. " -- Zippy Catholic

In any event, I don't think anything you have said thus far has toppled the subject argument.

... the latter is plenty sufficient to ovrcome the former. or at least it is not clear which wins, as zippy wishes it was.

Well, I would say that it isn't clear as an argument from first principles. I think it is clear as an empirical observation of reality.

Also, I expect very few people actually make their decision of whom to vote for without reference to comparative outcomes. So generally speaking people are voting based on a false perception of reality. Someone who thinks through his vote, ignores comparative outcomes, and votes based on outcome-independent effects might well be able to justify it one way or another in odd circumstances (there are thought experiments where this is obvious: e.g. 'vote for Obama or your wife gets it').

But still, what those outcome independent effects are is ultimately an empirical question; an empirical question nobody is even asking or taking seriously, despite the fact that the answers are morally dispositive.

ok well you think it is clear and I don't. but at least we are talking about the same thing now. that's a step in the right direction. thanks!

but at least we are talking about the same thing now. that's a step in the right direction.

Thanks for the discussion, and Pax.

Zippy, I'm trying to clarify a few things in your argument. Implicit in your argument seems to be the following claim:

"In the American political system, a given individual's vote does not count for much."

Is this correct? If so, then what do you think of the following example: assume that the perfect Catholic candidate runs for president with the full support of one of the two major political parties. Many Catholics, however, do not vote for him because they don't want to waste their time voting when the activity has little significance in the grand scheme of the election.

Have they committed a sin? If so, how severe is the sin? If not, why not?

Paul:

In my view, if someone after deliberation decides that his time and energy is better spent serving the common good in some way other than voting, there is nothing at all wrong with that. I think apathy with respect to the common good, a failure to take co-responsibility for the common good, is morally wrong.

If everybody's vote in our American election doesn't count, then whose vote is it exactly that ends up electing the President?

I think apathy with respect to the common good, a failure to take co-responsibility for the common good, is morally wrong.


I think apathy towards a devastating & tragic casualty such as an additional 15 million kids dying under an Obama administration is wrong.

But, hey, so long as I believe my vote doesn't count in a swing state and, more importantly, that somebody as evil as McCain doesn't get elected; it's fine with me.

Zippy,

How does your response square with CCC 2240?

"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."

If voting really isn't that important, why do we have an obligation to do it?

Paul:

We have many, many context-dependent obligations, of which that single sentence lists three illustrative examples. If joining the military is a necessary and efficacious way to take co-responsibility for the the common good under particular circumstances, one ought to do it. That doesn't mean that everyone including the elderly have an unbreakable obligation to join the military under all circumstances. The truncated manner in which people are interpreting that single clause extracted from a single sentence taken out of context seems to me to be very problematic.

In general, I think American mythology about elections has been getting a lot of mileage out of that one mention of one concrete example among others in a single sentence in the Catechism - which itself is a document the entire intent of which is not to lay down plenary rules in the rigorous manner of moral theology, but to teach the Faith to everyman in his context and in a language he understands.

I think apathy towards a devastating & tragic casualty such as an additional 15 million kids dying under an Obama administration is wrong.
I agree. But the people you have been arguing with, including me, are not in the least apathetic about that.

Zippy,

What I am particularly concerned with is the perlocutionary effect of posts such as the one you have here which basically discourages a vote for McCain even in swing states.

I don't know about you, but even the hope (even if considered faint or even futile) of preventing the deaths of an additional 15 million kids being killed under an Obama Presidency is something worth preventing even if it means a vote for McCain, however worthless or wickedly delusional.

What I am particularly concerned with is the perlocutionary effect of posts such as the one you have here...

Well, I'm not even slightly concerned about the effect of my posts on the outcome, though of course I am concerned about their effects (and the effects of everything I do) which are not mediated and attenuated through their negligible effect on the election outcome. I think concern over the effects of our personal acts as ordinary citizens on the outcome are entirely misplaced: a product of our desire not to feel unimportant, and the modern democratic mythology which counterfactually holds that our individual free and equal will and consent is important and influential in areas where, in truth, it is not. A two party system is not, frankly, all that different from a one-party system; other than in the short term cycles which result and the strength of its illusional support of modern political mythology.

It may be worth pointing out that the Catechism is universal, so it also applies in nations under a one-party system.

Zippy, I agree that the obligations to pay taxes, vote, and defend one's country are not the same type of obligation. For instance, I can think of several reasons why a person is excluded from the obligation to defend one's country: if a person is a child, disabled, or a cleric, or if one's country has enough soldiers or is in a time of peace. It also seems reasonable that citizens would be obliged to defend one's country if the United States re-instituted the draft.

Voting, however, seems to be a different beast. Unlike taxes or defending one’s country, I can’t think of a free country that mandates its citizens to vote (perhaps you can correct me on this one!). Because exercising the obligation to vote is not so closely tied to the requirements our government places on us (like taxes and often military service are), it seems that it is a different type of obligation.

But that is all somewhat beside the point. ISTM that according to your account it is possible that an election can take place without a single Catholic voting, even if the candidate meets the card-carrying Catholic test. But if that is the case, then how can voting be called an obligation? Perhaps I am taking a quote out of context; but directing me to a previous blog entry that makes the same claim without a supporting argument doesn’t help me to understand either how that quote is out of context. Right now, I am perplexed because it seems that, in your account, there can be an obligation that nobody is obliged to do.

ISTM that according to your account it is possible that an election can take place without a single Catholic voting, even if the candidate meets the card-carrying Catholic test.
Why would that be the case? That is, why wouldn't a Catholic vote in happy solidarity for such a candidate?

Lets say it isn't a democratic vote but a Catholic monarchy, and the good King has asked his Catholic subjects to come out and parade carrying signs of support against a wicked and scheming aristocracy that wants to force the king to legalize abortion. Wouldn't there be an obligation in that case for at least those who can do so reasonably to go carry a sign for the good King, even though the sign-carriers have no say over the legislative outcome?

My point, again, is not that a vote is no act at all; though it is true that it is a relatively minor act, like carrying a sign in a parade only less so. My point is that, contra modern democratic mythology, a vote's moral, cultural, and political significance has basically nothing to do with the influence of the voter's personal choice over the outcome of a national election, and a lot to do with other things. So there is no proportionate reason to engage in 'tactical' voting for national candidates who support policies of murdering the innocent.

Zippy currently writes: "My point is that, contra modern democratic mythology, a vote's moral, cultural, and political significance has basically nothing to do with the influence of the voter's personal choice over the outcome of a national election, and a lot to do with other things. So there is no proportionate reason to engage in 'tactical' voting for national candidates who support policies of murdering the innocent."

Zippy previously wrote: "I've said before that if one actually had the power to choose the winner, there may be a proportionate reason to choose McCain."

That is right, Ari. Until you grasp the fact that both of those statements are compatible, you will continue to misunderstand and misrepresent my position.

As an American, you have a constitutional right to vote. Or not. If you're opposed to McCain and Obama, don't vote for either one them. Period.

Enough already.

As an American, you have a constitutional right to vote. Or not.
Right. But what is legal is not, as we all know, coextensive with what is moral; and it is the latter which is all-important, because it represents what we actually ought and ought not do, as opposed to what some political authority says we ought or ought not do.

Zippy,

Understood, and agreed. But if you're opposed to both for moral reasons, then you can't, in good conscience, vote for either. Your right to vote or not is, nonetheless, your own, to do with as you wish.

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