Saint Compromise

October 16, 2012 § 49 Comments

I’ve argued before that to morally evaluate the act of voting in modern mass-market universal-suffrage democratic elections we have to look at more than just the possible election outcomes.  In fact when we consider the effects of a personal act of voting in a national election the effect of your vote on the outcome is negligible.  At the same time the outcome-independent effects of your vote are not negligible.  So it is the latter, not the former, that rightly takes on the primary role in making a moral evaluation of the act.

One outcome-independent consideration I’ve discussed before is that for most people, voting involves formal cooperation with evil.  So even when you, dear reader, are well-formed enough to avoid formal cooperation with grave evil in voting, there is the scandal that most people are not.  I’ve also argued that because the effect you have on the outcome is literally negligible, the particular outcome you prefer cannot be invoked as proportionate reason to materially cooperate with grave evil, especially when that grave evil is some form of murdering the innocent.  I’ve suggested that the main function of democratic elections is not what people think it is: it isn’t a process whereby we choose how we are governed, it is the process by which we pledge allegiance to the liberal consensus which governs us.  If you are going to do it you should at least have a clear-eyed idea of just what the “it” is that you are doing.

But another consideration is that for a great many people, voting in Presidential elections seems to make them stupid.  There are quite a few examples of epic dumb in that editorial and in the author’s comments in the thread below.  I’m lazy, so I am just going to point out the one that interests me most from the author’s comments and leave the rest as an exercise.

It is true that bishops and individual citizens materially cooperated with the Emperor Constantine in many ways, and that the Emperor Constantine did some evil things.  But material cooperation in general is a poor analogy for voting: there are as many different kinds of material cooperation as there are human acts.  One might almost get the impression that the invocation of material-cooperation-in-general is a deliberate canard; but I think we can stick to the charitable interpretation, that the person invoking it is simply being obtuse.

Voting is a specific, personal, concrete act of endorsement of a particular candidate.   When we look at the history of Christendom, there does happen to be a particular kind of act that is very analogous to voting, inasmuch as it involves a personal quasi-sacramental act of personal endorsement.  But I don’t think the example of offering a pinch of incense provides much of a boost to the “you MUST vote for my candidate even though he supports murdering the innocent” shibboleth; because what is notable about such personal endorsements is when Christians refuse to make them.  St. Polycarp’s choice isn’t notable because he offered a pinch of incense to the lesser pagan gods to limit the evil of the greater pagan gods.  So if we are all called to become saints, as the Church teaches that we are, we can add “teach us not to do the saintly thing” to the list of lessons that regular ritualized personal endorsement of evil candidates teaches.

I can see the hagiography for St. Compromise now: “He voted for the lesser evil, even though his personal endorsement had negligible influence”.

§ 49 Responses to Saint Compromise

  • Tom K. says:

    He practiced the heroic virtue of lowering his standards.

  • If you lower your standards enough, EVERYONE becomes a hero. Win/Win I say!

  • […] »Zippy Catholic proposes a new canonization…October 16, 2012 By Mark Shea 1 CommentSt. Compromise, prey for us. /* /* Filed Under: Uncategorized Tagged With: Doings on Other Blogs, Humor 1 Comment « […]

  • Andrew says:

    st. compromise doesn’t have anything on st. scrupulous.

  • @Andrew:
    Are you planning on actually commenting on the content of the post?

  • Andrew says:

    Go back and read Dr. Zmirak’s “epic dumb” article and his follow-up comments, it should be self-explanatory. There’s nothing saintly about scrupulosity.

  • I’ll take that as a “no”. Repeating the word “scrupulous” as an incantation doesn’t actually address any of my arguments.

  • […] rigorously is, by definition, an error in absolute terms.  Setting up a false dialectic between rigorous reason and moral laxity just compounds the error, and the magic j’accuse “scrupulous” doesn’t help […]

  • Tom K. says:

    What repeating the word “scrupulous” does is beg the question. Why is it scrupulous to refuse to vote for Romney? Because there’s no good reason to refuse to vote for him! (The non-swing-state exception simply makes the solipsism all the more evident; not voting for Romney is scrupulous if and only if John Zmirak finds it morally impermissible.)

  • William Luse says:

    What I found most interesting was Smearak’s attitude: utter contempt for those whose consciences make them doubt the wisdom of voting for Romney, e.g.: ” If Miss Manning really doesn’t care whether Obama wins or not, it’s because she has other values that matter more to her than the sanctity of life.” He can even read souls. I wish I could do that.

  • Rodak says:

    In paragraph 2, taking part in an election (i.e. voting) is pledging allegiance to the system (i.e. “the liberal consensus”). In paragraph 5, to vote is to make an “endorsement of a particular candidate.” Both are true, but does each of them own the same set of alternatives?
    If St. Polycarp offers a pinch to the lesser pagan gods in order to limit the evil of the greater ones, doesn’t the simple making of that comparison imply the objective reality of both sets of pagan gods in the saint’s belief system?

  • Rodak:
    Both are true, but does each of them own the same set of alternatives?

    I’m not entirely sure what the question is asking; but endorsing a particular candidate from within the consensus is an endorsement of the candidate, of the liberal consensus of which he is a part, of the legitimacy of the process with all of its implications, etc. Cheering for my favorite football team is both cheering for my favorite team in particular and cheering for football in general: both/and not either/or. My cheering has negligible effect on the outcome of the game, but it has non-negligible outcome-independent effects.

  • Rodak says:

    Zippy —
    Okay. No argument. But what are the alternatives? Would you advocate a ballot with “none of the above” as a choice? Or do you insist that dropping out of the system altogether (also with negligible effect) is the only moral way to go? In other words, is there in your estimation any way (short of universal conversion) for the individual to work for the good as an active citizen (and moral agent) within a social context? Or is it sauve qui peut?

  • Rodak:
    I don’t pretend to give advice about what folks ought to do once they have an adequate grasp of the truth. It is hard enough work getting an adequate grasp of the truth out into the open.

    A few disclaimers: I’m not especially fond of Internet psychoanalysis, and I would not want to suggest that everyone who disagrees with me does so on purely irrational grounds. Of course because I think I am right I have to embrace the idea that when people disagree it is because (assuming I can’t find a mistake in my thinking) they are wrong. But that is the nature of any honest disagreement, and as I’ve said in other contexts the invocation of “free to disagree” or what have you is tantamount to “I’m shutting up now and I wish you would too.”

    So with those disclaimers I can speculate about psychological factors involved in disagreement, and your question raises one of them. I expect that at least some people recoil from the things I say because to accept those things would leave them in a state of not knowing what to do or how to think. Because I am the bearer of bad news – that the reality they thought they understood is inadequate and requires revision – they look to me for some comprehensive answers as to how to think about things.

    But I don’t pretend to have those answers.

    I do know though that nobody will find adequate answers by feeling around on the ground in the darkness. So if I can shine some light in the room that is better than just leaving everyone in the dark, even though my light bulb doesn’t come with a manual that answers every question raised when the real terrain comes into view.

  • Rodak says:

    Sauve qui peut it is, then.

  • Well, it is every man for himself to the extent that everyone has to make up his own mind and is responsible for his own choices, yes. Nothing I can say would change that, even if I had more detailed advice.

  • Rodak says:

    But aren’t you saying that the “extent” goes the whole nine yards?

  • Rodak says:

    For instance, wouldn’t the same principle of the negligible effect of voting pertain to such things as tithing? What good is my couple of dollars, given the immensities of the need?

  • Rodak: no to both questions.

  • johnmcg says:

    This isn’t the first time Prof. Zmirak has determined that people must not care about the unborn if they are not perfectly aligned with the Republican Party.

    It seems to me Prof. Zmirak could serve as the poster child for the point that supporting the lesser of two evils has the primary effect of turning you into the type of person who supports evil.

    Probably the worst part is the closing, where Prof Zmirak talks about how he will do his little part (by voting for Romney) to confront the evil of abortion. I think Planned Parenthood would be quite pleased indeed if most pro-lifers considered their duties to the unborn discharged if they just vote for Romney.

  • Rodak says:

    johnmcg — I agree with what you say. But, contra Zippy, I also think that most pro-lifers consider their duties to the unborn (or to the hungry, the homeless, etc.) discharged if they just tithe. I don’t see the categorical difference that is implied by Zippy’s “No” without further explanation.

  • […] Catholic: Saint Compromise; The Function of Universal-Suffrage Democratic Elections; Hypergamy; Hypergamy: social-behavioral […]

  • Rodak:
    …contra Zippy…

    This is an example of imputing something to someone (in this case me) without citation. I realize that you’d have to post a lot fewer comments if you didn’t get to do that to people, and you’d also have to document your claims far more precisely than is your wont; but it is nevertheless against the rules here.

  • Rodak says:

    Zippy — You’re correct. Because my comment was poorly worded I did inadvertently impute something to you that you haven’t stated. My apologies.
    What I do impute to you, however, is that a “No” without explanation in response to my contention that there is a correlation in the social context.between tithing and voting is not warranted in that my suggestion is not logically implausible.
    To any given moral agent it may be understood as both a duty and a good-in-itself to participate in “free” elections, just as tithing may be perceived that way by the faithful.

  • Mark Windsor says:

    My liberal friends say that if I vote for anyone but Obama, it’s actually a vote for Romney. My conservative friends say that any vote not for Romney is, in reality, a vote for Obama. Therefore, by voting for neither of them, I am voting for both and my votes cancel each other out.

    The only reason I see to vote for Romney is that he might just unwrap the HHS mandate.

    I’m just very tired of having to choose between degrees of evil. This country is screwed no matter who wins. Zippy is welcome in my bunker…Zmirak stays outside.

  • […] to do that. Some people (see #4) think voting the lesser of two evils is the best way to do that. Some think that there is no proportional good that justifies cooperation with grave moral evil. Both routes are permitted by the Church. Only one route is permitted by Romney partisans who think […]

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Voting is a specific, personal, concrete act of endorsement of a particular candidate.

    Is it indeed all that? Am I obliged to endorse the particular candidate for whom I cast my vote? Or is it possible to cast a vote without endorsement?

    Imagine that a given voter walks into his precinct on Election Day with the clear-eyed understanding that, whichever candidate is elected, he will immediately and firmly orient himself in opposition to said candidate. He foresees no outcome where the political arrangements of his nation will produce a governing coalition which he could in good conscience join. In either case he will join the opposition, and his concrete vote is cast toward a more favorable constellation of political arrangements (i.e., being part of the influential right-wing opposition to a center-right chameleon, rather than being part of the impotent right-wing opposition to a leftist).

    Legislation in this Republic is produced by a convoluted process bearing little resemblance to our original constitutional structure. The role of Congress is much diminished. The role of the Executive is somewhat more sizable. The role of the bureaucracy is immense, dominant even. And the role of the courts is often decisive. Nevertheless it is that constellation of political arrangements which ultimately produces the legislation under which we live. And however attenuated the constitutional structure, that legislation is still susceptible of evaluation as wise or foolish, just or unjust, wicked or righteous.

    The Obamacare legislation was both foolish and unjust. The political arrangements that produced it are intelligible; and it was a close-run thing. At numerous points along its path to enactment, a mere handful of votes could have forestalled or derailed it. (Please note the margins of victory in those races.)

    I go back to the question I asked below: To what extent is the Christian obliged to uphold the political order under which he lives? I think there are strong scriptural indications (drawn from political arrangements far more gruesome than our own) that “none at all” is a profoundly unchristian answer; but I grant that it remains an open question whether refusal to participate in major elections amounts to that unchristian answer.

    Finally, my own religious tradition, of course, takes a far less cynical view of the republican form of political arrangement than, say, the Roman Catholic tradition. (The Presbyterian church is, indeed, precisely a republican form of church government. On Sunday at my church we are voting on the elevation of several men to the diaconate.) But to my knowledge the Catholic Church has never rendered a formal judgment against republican forms in civic life. I think Zippy may well be right that in large part national elections today amount to a “pledge allegiance to the liberal consensus which governs us.” But what of it? Did God say “seek the welfare of the city into which I sent you in exile, except if it is a city governed by a liberal consensus“?

    One thing we can all agree on is that the liberal consensus is not eternal. On the contrary, there is ample evidence to suggest it is in its death throes. What will follow it, for our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, can only be guessed at. What need not be guessed at, however, is that our political decisions today will strongly influence it.

  • Paul:
    Is it indeed all that? Am I obliged to endorse the particular candidate for whom I cast my vote? Or is it possible to cast a vote without endorsement?

    No, I don’t think that is possible. Voting just is an endorsement of a particular candidate for a particular office.

    (Please note the margins of victory in those races.)

    I note that some people win the lottery too. But it is not rational to base personal acts on those kinds of odds.

    … but I grant that it remains an open question whether refusal to participate in major elections amounts to that unchristian answer.

    Thank you.

    I think Zippy may well be right that in large part national elections today amount to a “pledge allegiance to the liberal consensus which governs us.” But what of it? Did God say “seek the welfare of the city into which I sent you in exile, except if it is a city governed by a liberal consensus“?

    For me the threshold at which the specific form of governance (which is not at all the same thing as the common good) lost my support was tens of millions of abortions, objectively worse than the atrocities of the Nazis; along with the realization that these atrocities are a product of the liberal consensus I am being asked to endorse with my vote.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    There is an argument, hardly unknown to Catholics, that the embrace of the abortion regime was concurrent with the illegitimate transformation of our form of government from the republican into something else.

    I note that some people win the lottery too. But it is not rational to base personal acts on those kinds of odds.

    It all depends on the local specifics. As I’ve said, our “national” elections are in fact a whole series of state-level elections; and our states vary immensely in population. The lottery odds in Wyoming or Alaska are simply not comparable to the lottery odds is Georgia or Virginia, much less Texas or California. Moreover, the intelligent voter can, with reasonable accuracy, determine ahead of time whether any given election is going to be close enough to bring the odds down to a range whether “negligible” may not describe the influence of his own vote. It’s not like anyone was surprised when the Minnesota senate race in 2008 was extremely close (maybe even within the margin of fraud). I think you’re painting with too broad a brush on this negligibility point.

  • Paul:
    There is an argument, hardly unknown to Catholics, that the embrace of the abortion regime was concurrent with the illegitimate transformation of our form of government from the republican into something else.

    I’m familiar with it, in part because that is what I thought for a long time too. I understand the narrative that true liberal democracy was usurped in the US; I just don’t believe it any more. It isn’t an accident that all the liberal democracies are abortion regimes, independent of structural variations like our Supreme Court. (Also I should point out that abortion is just one example here; it hardly exhausts the list of liberalism’s crimes).

    Furthermore, as I’ve suggested before, it hardly matters even if it is true. We have to start the war from here.

    The lottery odds in Wyoming or Alaska are simply not comparable to the lottery odds is Georgia or Virginia, much less Texas or California.

    That doesn’t turn playing the lottery into a winning income strategy in any of those states. If we are going to pray for miracles, why not go big? Why set our miracle sights on something so pathetic as “Romney wins?”

  • Tom K. says:

    Why set our miracle sights on something so pathetic as “Romney wins?”

    Well put.

    Although I’m reminded of the folks who brought a relic of the True Cross to Florida to pray for a Bush victory in the 2000 Florida recount, I don’t think it’s occurred to many Catholics to hope for a miracle in national politics.

  • Linebyline says:

    As someone who’s struggled a bit with scrupulosity, I find the idea that not voting for Romney is scrupulosity to be so far off the mark that it would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive.

    Scrupulosity is when you see a pair of boobs on YouTube and spend three hours torturing yourself over whether it was a mortal sin that you didn’t turn your head away fast enough. Scrupulosity is living in constant fear of damnation over inconsequential lapses of judgment. Scrupulosity is a serious spiritual disease that causes a lot of people a lot of pain; I speak from experience, and I know that plenty of folks have it a lot worse than I do.

    Deciding not to sacrifice your principles to do the expedient thing is not scrupulosity, even if there may be legitimate reasons to do the expedient thing.

  • Linebyline:
    Deciding not to sacrifice your principles to do the expedient thing is not scrupulosity, even if there may be legitimate reasons to do the expedient thing.

    All I would add to that is that the notion that voting for Romney (or Obama, for those so inclined) is the expedient thing, in the sense of having some practical utility, is an illusion.

  • Micah Murphy says:

    “I’ve also argued that because the effect you have on the outcome is literally negligible, the particular outcome you prefer cannot be invoked as proportionate reason to materially cooperate with grave evil, especially when that grave evil is some form of murdering the innocent.”

    I’m honestly asking this, not meaning it with any snark, but where in moral theology does it say that the impact of our participation relative to the collective impact we’re acting in conjunction with is a factor in calculating the moral licitness of our actions? Could the fact that my vote bears little responsibility for the election of the person for whom I cast it actually increase my moral responsibility for cooperation with evil rather than decrease it? It doesn’t seem to make sense to me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it increases it or decreases it. I don’t think it’s a factor at all. If I join 1000 other people in shooting at an innocent man, I am as guilty as if I was the only shooter. Likewise, a man is guilty of murder who contributes to the murder of a man, even if he doesn’t issue the final blow. Thus, I think the relative negligibility of my impact is irrelevant. The dimension of my preferred outcome that must be measured is not the effective impact I have in making it happen, but is the proportion of the outcome I reckon will happen if I, along with the others who collectively make it happen, do in fact make it happen.

  • Micah Murphy:
    I think one of the things you might be missing in the various linked arguments is the distinction between outcome dependent effects and outcome independent effects. I’ve posted on this quite a bit over the years. Here is one place where I make the principles involved more explicit.

  • Micah Murphy says:

    I’m afraid that, if people are confused about Catholic moral principles on voting, it’s because of abstract philosophies using algebraic variables, rather than concrete examples. I can’t connect with your abstractions enough to understand what you mean in that link.

  • Micah Murphy says:

    For instance:

    “Proposition: Under double-effect, if doing X has evil effects which obtain whether or not our sand pile is larger than their sand pile, I can only justify doing X on the basis of good effects which obtain whether or not our sand pile is larger than their sand pile.”

    What is the evil effect of voting for Romney that does not depend on his pile being bigger than Obama’s?

  • Micah Murphy:
    What is the evil effect of voting for Romney that does not depend on his pile being bigger than Obama’s?

    An actual example linked from the post above: John Zmirak decided to vote for Romney. Concomitantly, he decided to publicly slander and berate all Catholics who disagree with him. This effect of his decision obtains whether or not Romney actually wins: an outcome-independent effect.

    Now obviously that particular effect isn’t necessary (although it is very common). But the general point is that the choice to vote has both outcome-dependent effects and outcome-independent effects. The effects on yourself and on the people around you are significant; the effect on the outcome is insignificant. Therefore moral evaluation rests primarily on the outcome independent effects of your choice to vote, not the outcome dependent effects. The effects of you participating in building your team’s sand pile are morally significant; considerations of what happens if one sand pile turns out bigger or smaller than the other are morally insignificant.

  • Micah Murphy says:

    I’d prefer to have an example of an evil effect that didn’t rely on my being John Zmirak for me to see the point. I can’t imagine my being a jerk over my vote, but I’ve also seen some 3rd party and non-voters being uncharitable about it, so I think it’s flawed reasoning. What is the *intrinsic* evil effect of voting for Romney that does not depend on his pile being bigger than Obama’s?

    “The effects on yourself and on the people around you are significant; the effect on the outcome is insignificant.”

    My voting will not, as far as I can tell, have any impact on the people around me. I guess I don’t know what you mean.

    Before I say the next bit, full disclosure: I’m an independent former-Republican who’s pretty ticked at the GOP for always letting us down. I’d happily vote 3rd party or forgo voting if I thought I could live with myself if Obama survived re-election.

    I can say that as far as outcome-dependent effects go, I see Romney as the lesser of two evils and, applying the logic in Evangelium Vitae 73, I think it’s justified to vote for him (with the right intentions, etc.). Is it necessary to vote for him rather than a third party candidate? Probably not (I live in a solid red state), but I would hate for voters in Virginia or Ohio to follow your logic. Assuming they, like I, cannot discern any outcome-independent evil effects, Romney’s proportionally less evil policies make him morally electable.

  • My voting will not, as far as I can tell, have any impact on the people around me. I guess I don’t know what you mean.

    Then I would gently suggest that you start by not making it about yourself, and observe what their voting choices do to the people around you. For example, in 2008 some devout Catholics handed me a flyer after Mass that told lies to try to whitewash John McCain’s record on ESCR.

    Once you’ve observed that other peoples’ voting choices do affect them and the people around them, turn on the introspection and I am sure you will see that it is true of you too.

    Setting aside whether these various effects are good or bad, your decisions are affecting what you post right now. Notice that this is independent of the ultimate election outcome. Consider how you might act differently if you were to do the rational thing by exercising your right to vote idealistically rather than pragmatically.

    Once you’ve concluded from your observations that decisions of how to vote do in fact have outcome independent effects, the rest follows.

  • Micah Murphy says:

    Sure, my decisions are affecting what I do right now, but right now, they are not causing me to sin. I’m simply engaging in a friendly intellectual discussion. Likewise, I strive always to be objective and truthful about the candidates, so I don’t think I can be likened to the McCain-supporters you addressed.

    I’m sorry, but with all due respect, I can’t accept your arguments, most especially because they seem illogical to me, but also because every bit of guidance I can find from the bishops, from reputable theologians, respected priests, et al., indicates that voting for Romney is acceptable in the right circumstances.

  • Sure, my decisions are affecting what I do right now, but right now, they are not causing me to sin.

    I didn’t say they were. We’ve merely established that voting in fact has both outcome dependent and outcome independent effects. Because your vote has negligible effect on the outcome, it is the outcome independent effects which are dispositive in morally evaluating your decision.

    I understand that this is counterintuitive to most people. Most people, like yourself, are completely unaware that voting has outcome independent effects. Now you’ve seen that it does.

    But despite being counterintuitive it is both true (in my understanding, though I could be wrong; so far nobody has managed to show where it is wrong, and quite a few people have been trying earnestly for years) and also consistent with Church teaching.

  • Since you didn’t find the direct approach helpful on the sorites question, I can point you to a parable I wrote about the invocation of the bishops’ teaching on material cooperation with evil.

  • […] that it never occurred to them to explore.   It isn’t the conscientious objector who refuses to endorse the lesser evil and the liberal consensus that forces it upon us who is admitting defeat and surrendering.   That […]

  • […] a pinch of incense” to him. Refusal to do this is not just praiseworthy but obligatory, and one should prefer martyrdom to such hellish compromise — especially when Caesar is a serial-killer of unborn […]

  • […] Zippy Catholic: A chad never left hanging; Conservatism, Elections, and the Kantian Chasm; Matthew 18:3; Licensed to Gripe; Reconciled to the King; Three cheers for the lesser evil!; Saint Compromise […]

  • […] So in the end, I am left with the inescapable impression that for a great many people, votes are just what I say they are.   Those of you who do vote on November 6th might want to keep your noses alert; because you just might smell incense. […]

  • […] post by a fellow by the name of “Zippy Catholic,” whose main point seemed to be that any vote for any candidate is an act of idolatry. voting isn’t a mere show of support, it’s an act of latria–a “pinch of […]

  • Scott W. says:

    At the end of the day, when you find yourself thinking that Romney would have turned the country around and not guffawing at the thought, there’s a problem.

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