American Idol, or the material cooperation with evil two-step

October 19, 2012 § 4 Comments

Have you ever been to one of those contests where the popularity of the different contestants is measured by an applause meter?

Lets suppose we are evaluating, morally, how a particular audience member acts during the event.   If the event were a political election, most people apparently think that the primary consideration is what happens if the contestant he supports wins versus the other guy winning.  If he happens to be especially tall or have an especially loud voice – if he is a swing voter – then the outcome of the contest becomes of paramount concern in making a moral evaluation of how he acts.

I contend that this is a manifestly ridiculous way to look at the morality of individual conduct during the popularity contests we call elections.  It is literally impossible to vote pragmatically in a national contest: someone who thinks he is doing so has made an error in judgement.

The bishops have given some instruction on how to make sure that our intentions are good when we vote or abstain, by reiterating the principles involved in licit remote material cooperation with evil.   If our intentions are bad then all of the considerations I’ve been talking about are beside the point.   But that doesn’t relieve us from the requirement to continue to use our reason, even after we have made sure that our intentions are good.  Documents like Faithful Citizenship are a starting place, not a blanket permission slip to do whatever we want as long as we can check off the “good intentions” box that it tells us how to check.

Once we have gotten our intentions right as far as who we are supporting and why, we still have to evaluate our act as an objective matter.   That means applying the principle of double effect: and it means applying it to a sorites, because that is what a mass-market universal suffrage national election is.  The bishops do not pretend to have any special mathematical competence, and certainly have not asserted any doctrines with respect to game theory: it is up to us to competently discern the morally right thing to do.

It is manifest, though counterintuitive because of our political indoctrination, that our individual participation in the great liberal popularity contest has effects that are independent of the outcome of the contest.   And because we are just one small face in an inconceivably large crowd, a crowd which would not fit into any physical gathering space on earth, it is clear that appeals to being an especially tall or loud “swing voter” do not change the moral evaluation in the slightest.

To rationally evaluate an act of voting for President under the principle of double effect – as the next step after we have already satisfied the requirement not to formally cooperate with evil in our intentions, per Faithful Citizenship and other teachings on licit material cooperation with evil  – we need to focus on the outcome-independent effects of our conduct, not outcome-dependent effects.   The outcome dependent effects are crucial for verifying that our intentions are in fact good: that we are not formally cooperating with evil.  But they do not constitute a blanket permission slip to just do as we will once we’ve determined that we have good intentions; and because our personal influence over the outcome is negligible, outcome-independent effects are dispositive in this further, necessary step in moral evaluation.

Obviously our intentions in choosing Barabbas or his other brother Barabbas are crucial, as a first step in moral evaluation.  But joining the team cheering for Other Barabbas has effects whether or not Other Barabbas wins.  Our sphere of personal influence is the people immediately around us in the crowd; not the grand schemes of our contestant if he beats the other guy.   And our moral responsibility is for, yes and firstly, our intentions; but once those intentions are good we are responsible for the actual non-negligible effects of our act.

§ 4 Responses to American Idol, or the material cooperation with evil two-step

  • [...] been thinking. I suppose some of those people may be in battleground states, but I still think the math is massively against saying that my impact has been anything other than negligible on the o…. However, if my impact on a single person is to get them to think about the impact of voting on the [...]

  • c matt says:

    I can see where such analysis leads to one of two viable options – not to vote at all, or to vote for a non-intrinsically evil candidate regardless of electoral viability. Is your conclusion that the outcome-independent effect of “endorsing the system” is so bad that it trumps the outcome-independent effect of voting for a good candidate (as opposed to just a less evil one)?

    To use your “pinch of incense” analogy somewhat, if one of the options were to offer incense to any god of your choice, including God, but you had to offer incense as part of the national ritual, could St. Polycarp have done so?

    I am just trying to get a handle on why you seem to conclude that not voting is really the only objectively correct option, regardless of the actual choices available.

  • c matt:
    Is your conclusion that the outcome-independent effect of “endorsing the system” is so bad that it trumps the outcome-independent effect of voting for a good candidate (as opposed to just a less evil one)?

    In practice I can’t recall ever being faced with the dilemma of a “good” candidate. I don’t think there has ever been a non-three-exceptions-or-worse candidate on any ballot I was eligible to cast. Certainly it is a very rare occurrence.

    Furthermore, all positive obligations come with qualifiers. Veritatis Splendour puts it like this:

    In the case of the positive moral precepts, prudence always has the task of verifying that they apply in a specific situation, for example, in view of other duties which may be more important or urgent.

  • Cane Caldo says:

    “Barabbas or his other brother Barabbas”

    I wish I didn’t get that pop reference.

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