What the heck is a proportionate reason, anyway?

October 21, 2008 § 12 Comments

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.



§ 12 Responses to What the heck is a proportionate reason, anyway?

  • Anonymous says:

    “Their relative importance will in turn depend on how much influence the act actually has over the outcome”I don’t disagree, but I suggest that how much influence the act has on the outcome is proportionate to the degree of remote cooperation. I.e. Since the act of voting has very little impact on the result, the degree of cooperation with evil (assuming that one is not voting for a candidate because of the evil) is very very remote; and even more remote if the voter is trying to limit a greater evil.

  • zippy says:

    What is interesting to me about the conclusion is that it effectively rules out justifying the act through any appeal of the form “because if candidate X wins over candidate Y, then…”. Any legitimate proportionate reason has to rest on <>outcome independent<> grounds.

  • Patrick T says:

    If the effect of the vote is so remote and the evil then so small, then couldn’t one also vote for Obama (or whatever the analogy was)?Does defending life with “maximum determination” necessitate evaluating the act on “outcome independent grounds”?If I’m misunderstanding you, I apologize.

  • zippy says:

    <>…then couldn’t one also vote for Obama…<>I suppose if there were good effects proceeding from doing so which prevented some grave evil from occurring, independent of the election outcome. I have a hard time picturing what that could be though. (Well, I could invent a bizarre hypothetical, but I have a hard time picturing what it could be <>in reality<>).<>Does defending life with “maximum determination” necessitate evaluating the act on “outcome independent grounds”?<>I don’t know what the question is asking. It is always a mistake to make a prudential judgment to perform an act based on effects the act <>doesn’t<> have, while ignoring effects it <>does<> have. But maybe I answered a question you didn’t ask :~).

  • Anonymous says:

    I guess the “maximum determination” idea leads me to believe that we must act as though our vote DOES have some effect on the outcome. After all, it is the maximum that we can do. It seems like a bad idea to me to say, “well vote doesn’t REALLY affect the outcome.” Then what’s the point and how can we speak of a moral obligation in any direction?Still confused…

  • Patrick T says:

    oops, that last one was me.

  • JACK says:

    Zippy: Thanks for posting this. Definitely a real contribution to the dialogue if people will engage your thoughts laid out here seriously.And speaking from experience, I can verify what you say. My act of voting has had little impact on the election (particularly when considered from an electoral college perspective, as I always seem to find myself in states where the opposite political persuasion tends to dominate), but it has had a great deal of impact on my own well being and thinking (and thus behavior) in terms of living out my faith in all that I do amidst the cultural influence. I think you have a very serious point here that too many overlook.I also think that this is one of the first elections post ESCR becoming a national issue and that some of the challenge is simply we’ve all been operating on a shorthand analysis of the candidates on pro-life issues which was largely okay not because the analysis was strong or with the right rigor but because one side of the major-party duopoly was, at least on paper, ostensibly not for any intrinsic evils. Unfortunately the shorthand was mistaken as more rigorous than it was and people haven’t adjusted to recognizing the new information the present reality reveals.

  • e. says:

    Zippy,Would you kindly respond to The Chicken’s last post (which you seemed to have missed)?It is as follows:Dear Zippy,You wrote:<>That people actually entertain, as a supposedly serious proposition, the hypothetical of their own vote changing the outcome does demonstrate how far, far away from reality the discussion is though.<>That was the whole purpose of my paragraph, above – to show that a person’s vote may either be very significant or very insignificant in changing the outcome. One simply cannot tell in a secret ballot, therefore, one may assume either case, although, prudentially, it would seem to me that, unless there is evidence to the contrary, it is safer to assume that one’s vote is significant rather than insignificant. A proportionate reason to vote for the lesser candidate must assume that an individual vote is proportionate. What I tried to show above is that in the secret voting in the United States, this is at least 50/50 possible. I think the Slate article is simply wrong in comparing a secret ballot to a lottery where each pick is known, although I was too harsh on and probably unfair to the writer.I was not trying to make a comment on the bad effects on a voter that might result from voting from any one candidate. Given the level of self-delusion in the United States voting population and how poorly people understand the voting process, one could imagine that the perceived effect would be minimal, however, the objective effect could be huge. When a gang member shoots a rival gang member, his subjective sense of self-esteem is enlarged even though his objective sense of self is diminished. If voting for McCain is intrinsically evil, then there would be an objective harm to the soul; if it is not, then there might not be. I suppose the question boils down to whether or not voting for McCain is an intrinsic evil, in itself. Is it possible to vote for someone without supporting all of his policies?Posted by: The Masked Chicken | Oct 20, 2008 5:09:04 PM

  • e. says:

    Scott W.,“Scott W., Hegelian Mambo! Love it!” Posted by: Sleeping Beastly | Oct 20, 2008 7:06:02 PMIt would be best that you correct the record on the above phrase, “Hegelian Mambo”, which you apparently stole from Zippy.

  • zippy says:

    e: I don’t own the phrase “Hegelian Mambo”. It has been out there in the ether for years.I looked for the thread on JA.O and it is still not there. Seems to be permanently gone.Jack:Thanks. It seems to be my calling, at least on line, to be the village nutcase. Hopefully it is sometimes useful.Patrick:<>It seems like a bad idea to me to say, “well vote doesn’t REALLY affect the outcome.”<>I suppose whether or not it is a bad idea to say it depends on whether or not it is <>true<>. <>Then what’s the point and how can we speak of a moral obligation [to vote] in any direction?<>It is an interesting question, which I’ve touched on here and there in comments, but it probably deserves its own post at some point.

  • Hegel says:

    “I don’t own the phrase ‘Hegelian Mambo’. It has been out there in the ether for years.”Didn’t Zippy actually coin this phrase under his original persona at VFR back in the ole days? http://www.amnation.com/vfr/archives/002863.html

  • […] 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 […]

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