May 30, 2008 § 47 Comments
Lydia has posted at What’s Wrong with the World on the question of the moral essence of voting. After reading the interesting post and the discussion which followed, I posted the following comment in the thread:
I think there may be a thought process that goes something like this, at least among Catholic moralists and those who even bother to follow such things. (Which, let us grant, is laudible in itself: most people just vote however they choose without consciously reflecting on what a vote is at all. That is, most people don’t even consider the possibility that they might be doing evil simply by choosing to vote at all, given some particular ballot option permutation space).
The thought process:
Premise 1: Voting as an act is never intrinsically immoral: it is just throwing a lever.
Premise 2: Voting as an act is nothing but remote cooperation (material or formal) with whatever specific things a candidate actually does as an elected official.
It follows that the only thing that voting always is, is remote material cooperation with the things a candidate actually does as an elected official. It would be formal cooperation in those cases where I will some specific thing the candidate does: so if I will that Obama issue an executive order authorizing abortions on military bases I am formally cooperating in that act, and if I will that Obama withdraw the troops then I am formally cooperating in that act; but in general, I don’t will everything that he does or has promised to do. Therefore under its moral aspect – unless I am formally cooperating with one of his specific acts and that act is evil – a vote is simply remote material cooperation, and this exhaustively describes its moral parameters.
It further follows that the moral aspect of voting resides solely in (1) avoiding formal cooperation with specific evil acts on the part of the candidate (everyone will of course claim this as a matter of internal forum: will claim that they don’t want Obama to authorize abortions on military bases, and because they don’t want it they aren’t choosing it and don’t intend it); and (2) a prudential evaluation of the external consequences of the candidate actually being elected.
I think there are a lot of problems with this narrative, though it dominates contemporary Catholic thinking on the subject. Those problems start with the fact that it assumes an antiessentialist theory of what a vote is in the first place, leaving moral evaluation of (say) voting for Obama in the realm of strictly material external consequences; and the narrative goes downhill from there. Another problem is that ‘voting’ may simply be an inadequate moral specifier of a species of act, much as ‘firing a gun’ is an inadequate moral specification of a species of act. “Voting for Obama” may be deontologically more akin to “firing a gun into a living baby’s brain” than to simply “firing a gun”.
As I mentioned on my blog, I don’t feel as though I understand with clarity the deontology of a vote: I don’t really know what a vote is with enough clarity to give an even semi-rigorous definition. But I have intuitions of what a vote is not, and Lydia’s “intuition pumps” in this post are pretty helpful in clarifying my own intuitions on the subject.
May 28, 2008 § 19 Comments
I really don’t know.
Superficially I know, of course. To vote is to choose to add one to some tally, just as to fire a gun is to choose to pull a trigger on a loaded weapon.
But those aren’t morally interesting descriptions. I am much more interested in the answer to questions like “What is a vote for Barack Obama?” and “What is a vote for John McCain?”
I tend to think it is something like “choosing that Obama become President and carry out some omnibus list of things he has promised to carry out, and which I am morally certain he will in fact carry out unless something unexpected thwarts him”.
There of course will be things I am unsure that he will carry out, unexpected things may happen (like a dog knocking the victim down before the bullet hits). That is the nature of every act, really.
I don’t know what the nature of a vote is. But I am concerned that a great many people do not seem to care about the question, or think it irrelevant, or assume that it has a straightforward (and not coincidentally permissive) answer.
May 28, 2008 § 3 Comments
Necessity is the mother of moral heresy, to be more specific.
Some arguments I don’t like to see:
Torture is immoral because it isn’t necessary: it doesn’t actually work.
Abortion is immoral because it isn’t necessary: adoption is always an option.
Atomic bombings of civilian cities are immoral because they aren’t necessary: the Allies needn’t have insisted on unconditional surrender.
Suppose, though, that in a particular case one of the acts in question really is necessary: suppose that life on Earth as we know it will be utterly destroyed if we don’t undertake the act.
It doesn’t matter. It is still wrong to do it.
These moral arguments from (non) necessity are essentially a way of marketing an idea which is unpalatable to a particular audience by hiding the essence of the idea. More bluntly, they are a lie; a subterfuge. They hide the fact that morality is the Cross. That is why I don’t like to see them.
May 24, 2008 § 9 Comments
You don’t hand a suicidal man a loaded revolver unless you hate him.
You don’t give a thief the combination of the bank safe unless you hate him.
You don’t give an angry cuckold a knife and access to his wife’s tied-up lover unless you hate him: unless what you will for him is damnation.
You don’t turn a bunch of Jews over to the Nazis unless you hate not only the Jews, but the Nazis too.
And you don’t turn over executive power in America to a man whom you know with moral certainty will unilaterally issue executive orders authorizing particular abortions which are now illegal unless you hate both the children he is about to kill and yes, the man himself.
May 22, 2008 § 6 Comments
It may be worth pointing out that, should Obama be elected President, it is a virtual certainty that more particular actual abortions will be authorized directly by his personal executive orders than acts of waterboarding were authorized by President Bush.
I’m just saying.
May 21, 2008 § Leave a comment
May 21, 2008 § 41 Comments
A reader asked me via email about the Doug Kmiec kerfuffle. I have to plead a combination of ignorance and ambivalence on the subject: I simply haven’t studied the matter closely enough to be able to address it as a particular matter. I do expect that denying him Communion was a misapplication of Canon Law.
However, an interesting and more general question is raised by the hubbub. Clearly it is abstractly possible for a Catholic to vote for Barack Obama without formally supporting his abortion platform. But abstract possibility and actual possibility are not the same thing. It is abstractly possible for this world to be a Harry Potter world: for example, it is abstractly possible for things to appear and disappear at my command. The thing is, though, that in this actual world, they don’t.
And it is upon precisely this kind of actual impossibility, as distinguished from abstract impossibility, that the Catholic doctrine of intrinsic immorality and formal cooperation with evil rests.
Let me explain.
One way to describe an intrinsically immoral act is as an objective behavior (object) which it is actually impossible for a fully informed person to choose with a right intention. He may claim the conceivability of the contrary, and the contrary may indeed be conceivable, that is, abstractly possible in much the same way that a Harry Potter world is abstractly possible. But it isn’t actually possible for him to choose that behavior with a fully informed good will.
Formal cooperation with evil is a broader category of acts which, as I understand it, includes intrinsically immoral acts but also other acts besides: to formally cooperate with evil is to do anything whatsoever with a wrong intention.
And yes, ignorance can excuse partially or even (in the case of invincible ignorance) completely the culpability for an evil act. But an evil act remains an evil act even when the imputability of its evil to the acting subject is in doubt: as Pope John Paul II tells us, and I’ve repeated many times, “It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.“
The point, for my purposes here, is that formal cooperation with evil and intrinsic evil rest on an actual connection between a morally good, fully informed will and particular objective behaviors. That is, they rest on the fact that in actuality one simply cannot choose an intrinsically immoral behavior (either directly or by proxy) with a fully informed and morally good will. In particular, avoidance of intrinsic evil and formal cooperation with evil does not rest on the mere conceivability or abstract possibility of having a good will under the circumstances: it does not rest on a fundamental option disconnected from an actual concrete choice in the actual world we live in.
Now I can conceive the abstract possibility of voting for Obama without intending his NARAL agenda (recalling that to intend something is to make it an object of choice, not to want it: we choose things while wishing we did not have to choose them every day). I can conceive that because God gave me the gift of a very powerful and creative imagination.
But I have a much more difficult time conceiving of it as an actual possibility.