The Bus Stops Here

November 2, 2012 § 10 Comments

There are a number of layers to what I think has been established when it comes to voting in mass market universal suffrage democratic elections, like our upcoming Presidential election. People tend to get off the bus at whatever stop doesn’t make them feel uncomfortably sociopathic: nobody likes to be that last lonely person on the bus, disembarking in that barren old tumbleweed town at the end of the line after a long and arduous ride. But since these conclusions have been established sequentially, the more uncomfortable conclusions don’t act as a reductio of prior conclusions: just because you don’t like the final stop or the next stop, that doesn’t invalidate the previous ones.

So welcome aboard!

What the Bishops have focused on (and what I also focused on years ago here) is the first and by far most important bus stop: avoiding mortal sin, the most pervasive form of which, in voting, is formal cooperation with evil. Once our cooperation isn’t formal (or proximate material, but we don’t discuss that much), whether or not we ought to do it becomes a prudential judgement. Avoiding formal cooperation with evil means getting our intentions right; and since most peoples’ intentions are (rightly or wrongly) focused on possible election outcomes and their implications, that is where the focus lies. The good news is that most people who are even bothering to read this can make it here.

The next stop is coming to the realization that prudential judgement isn’t code for a subjective triumph of the will, despite the fact that right liberals (who are generally called “conservatives”) like to use it that way. This mirrors the way their left-liberal cousins use “conscience” as a means to avoid subjecting their views to objective evaluation. Neither “prudential judgement” nor “primacy of conscience” is code for “my subjective assessment is above criticism and can’t be objectively wrong”. This is probably one of the longest standing themes of this blog.

Beyond that comes the realization that it is simply false to suggest that the Church has “granted permission” in some blanket sense to vote this way or that, and that contrary to what is commonly suggested, voting is not morally mandatory. The Church has given guidance in various ways and with varying degrees of Magisterial authority (or not, as the case may be) on how to avoid formal cooperation with evil; but once we have managed not to formally cooperate with evil making a sound prudential judgement based on true premises is up to us. The fact that the Church hasn’t explicitly given further guidance on how to make that prudential judgement in a way that satisfies the cravings of those who want their decisions to be made for them does not constitute evidence that one may simply do as he wills.

Further down the line comes the realization that mass market universal suffrage democratic elections are not merely a matter of choosing what outcome we prefer. They are game-theoretic contests and civic rituals with all sorts of history and implications, most of the consequences of which obtain no matter who wins or loses. Right reason requires us to take this into consideration. The Church gives no guidance on game theory, as something outside of its charism, and explicitly disclaims expertise on what constitutes a good form of governance. This is a huge barrier, and a lot of folks get off the bus before this stop. There is tremendous resistance to focusing on anything other than what outcomes people think are best, or “least evil”. This is in part because of that (essential) initial focus on avoiding formal cooperation with evil, which most definitely does require us to take outcomes into consideration.

Following that is the realization that because our personal, material influence over the outcome is literally negligible – our personal signals are well beneath the real world noise floor of the process – a genuine, objectively correct evaluation of voting under the principle of double effect (we’ve already assumed material, not formal cooperation with evil here) requires us to consider primarily the outcome-independent effects of our personal acts, since our personal acts effectively have no material outcome-dependent effects. Voting in mass-market universal suffrage elections is necessarily an idealistic act: it literally, in principle as the kind of act it is, cannot be a pragmatic act. It is literally irrational, an act which goes against right reason, to vote for President (or other national office or mass market referendum) under some pragmatic “vote to limit evil” calculus based on weighing potential bad outcomes against worse outcomes. Even more people get off the bus here.

Then by applying a concrete understanding of the nature of voting in modern mass-market universal suffrage elections to all of that, I conclude that a proportionate reason to vote in our current circumstances does not exist: not for anyone, because the outcome-independent considerations apply to everyone, and even if there were an exception or two through some loophole in some argument somewhere, the near-universality would preclude the act because of scandal. In fact I think the scandal at the very first bus stop – the fact that the great majority of people formally cooperate with grave evil when they vote – is sufficient to preclude any proportionate reason for anyone who has gotten this far to vote. Just about everyone is off the bus by now.

I do qualify the result in one way: if a person has a completely ulterior motive for voting – say a girl he wants to date won’t accept a date unless he votes or whatever – then he may (assuming it doesn’t involve doing evil in a similarly ulterior way) have a proportionate reason. It is for this reason that some radical change in voting laws – say a mandatory requirement to vote or face a fine – could easily change the prudential calculus. It is for this reason that (mass market) voting is disanalogous to paying taxes, serving in the military, jury duty, running for a local school board, or any of thousands of other possible civic acts: a prudential judgement proceeds based on the consequences of acting, and this entire analysis, once we’ve gotten past the initial step of avoiding formal cooperation with evil, is a prudential analysis. I can’t draw some bright boundary of how every possible prudential judgement of every possible civic act is going to come out: they each have to be made in their own right.

I’ve dealt with other various objections that come up. In the spirit of previous grand series of posts here at Zippy Catholic, I will list those objections with links to their refutations in this post, following the break. You may have to read the comment threads to get the full gist of the refutation. I’ll update the post and list if and as needed.

  1. Those who don’t vote have no right to complain!
  2. The Church says we have to vote, what gives?
  3. Gosh, if I thought like you do I’d have to conclude that the government is illegitimate and we don’t have to obey its laws.
  4. Aren’t you saying that everyone who votes will go to Hell?
  5. Can’t we all just agree that it is OK to vote or to abstain, depending on how your conscience leads you?
  6. If enough people do like you do, the bad guys will win!
  7. Your arguments are so complicated that they can’t be right. Morality is supposed to be easy to understand!
  8. If this is all true, the Church would have told us about it! Either you are wrong or I’m going to have an ecclesiological panic attack!
  9. Evangelium Vitae says that a legislator can vote for a “three exceptions” abortion law under certain conditions. Isn’t voting in a Presidential election the same kind of thing?
  10. Aren’t you kind of a sociopathic nut, all on your own in this? [For the most part, yes, at least when we are talking about making it all the way to the last stop. I'm not completely alone in this, though. In any case, since when is popularity a reliable gauge of truth?]

§ 10 Responses to The Bus Stops Here

  • William Luse says:

    It’s a good roundup of your thoughts, something I’ll be returning to now and then.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    “the great majority of people formally cooperate with grave evil when they vote ”

    Do they?
    Doesn’t formal cooperation requires an explicit intent?
    You can’t formally cooperate if your ideas are hazy, as I suspect plenty of people’s are.

    Isn’t it that I formally cooperate with evil if and only if I intend the evil the Evil Candidate is standing for?

  • Do they?

    Yes, they do. They tell you as much: “I support Obama because of abortion rights” or “I support Romney because he will use enhanced interrogation” or what have you.

    The scruples of our provincial part of the blogosphere about avoiding formal cooperation with evil are not shared by the vast majority of American voters.

  • Gian says:

    From a comment from The Catholic Thing site:
    John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (#73) states the moral obligations and restraints on legislators: “when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law…” This must also apply to other decision-makers, such as voters, since if it didn’t there would be a untenable moral situation where voters (who have less control over legislation) have stricter moral obligations than legislators (who actually draft and pass the legislation). Clearly voting for an option to restrict abortion is licit for a Roman Catholic.

  • Evangelium Vitae specifically addresses a legislator making pragmatic choices as part of a small legislative body. People who extrapolate from legislative bodies to mass market democracy are making a category mistake, as I’ve explained in many places, for example here.

    Even more egregiously, people attempt to say that their personal conclusions, importing their own (false as it happens) assumptions about equivalence between different kinds of acts, have the Magisterial authority of an encyclical. It is one thing to reason and take ownership of one’s reason. It is another thing entirely to pretend that one’s personal extrapolations are Magisterial.

  • [...] Zippy Catholic: The non-voter as traitor; The Bus Stops Here [...]

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Contrary to the thesis of liberal consensus, Hadley Arkes at The Catholic Thing:
    The matter is given a deeper import in this country by the fact that we don’t have a multiparty system in which the voters simply determine the strength of the parties that will negotiate after the election in order to determine just who forms the government. That decision in this country is made by the public at large at the polls.

  • [...] and even demonic decision procedure tout court, at any scale and in any context.  So there are bus stops even further down the line than I [...]

  • Scott says:

    The truth is, the founding fathers of this country threw the vote in at the last minute. It was supposed to be a constitutional oligarchy. It kind of works like that anyway. The individual vote is so far removed from having any impact, there is certainly an argument just not bother. How many true “commoners” are there in elected office.

    Well written article.

  • […] liberalism “down in the streets”, with the superman exercising his free and equal Voice at the ballot box, tempered by a judiciary that insures equality and protects the sheep from the culinary choices of […]

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