Virtue’s silver medalist

October 31, 2012 § 6 Comments

If you’ve come this far with me, there is good news when it comes to discerning what to do about voting in national elections, and I’d be remiss in not sharing it with you.

The good news is that when people say in an unqualified way that it is a mortal sin to vote for X or Y, they don’t know what they are talking about.

Mortal sin requires knowledge, full consent, and grave matter. As far as I can tell, the only action in voting in a national election which could possibly involve all three of those things is formal cooperation with grave evil.

All of what we’ve been discussing for the past few weeks has involved the question of whether or not there is, objectively, proportionate reason to vote for a particular candidate or to vote at all, given that doing so involves remote material cooperation with evil. If you’ve been following along, you almost certainly know by now how to avoid the trap of engaging in formal cooperation with evil. Formal cooperation with evil is almost certainly, by far, the most pervasive moral problem when it comes to democratic elections; and the Bishops’ preaching on how to avoid formal cooperation has probably helped more souls by far to avoid mortal sin than any collection of blogs about making the actual prudential judgement that follows after.

Furthermore, whether you agree with me or not in the specifics, you have doubtless done your best – as have I – to exercise right reason in coming to the conclusions you have reached. If you and me, we still disagree, that means that one of us must be wrong. It could be you, and it could be me, or it could even be both of us; and I don’t think it is me (else I wouldn’t argue as I do: that is just the nature of disagreement). It is important – it is in fact doctrinal – that we must not equate the true good even with evil that is the result of a non-culpable error in judgement. Therefore we absolutely must not adopt the morally relativist position that it is OK in some unqualified sense for me to not vote and for you to vote as you choose: it isn’t.

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.

So if we disagree, one of us may be right and at least one of us is wrong. But odds are strong that if we’ve gotten this far together, whatever error in judgement that remains – and one must remain, as long as we disagree – is a non-culpable error. In the end we can only do our best. In the end you need to make up your own mind, and as I try to regularly remind people, it would be the height of silliness to place too great a moral weight on the pontifications of an Internet clown named Zippy. If my arguments stand the test of your own reason, great. If they do not, well, I think you are wrong, but it isn’t me that you have to answer to. And as long as we can all stand on virtue’s podium I’ll be as happy with the silver medal as with the gold.

A chad never left hanging

October 29, 2012 § 6 Comments

Suppose that when we participated in mass democratic elections we were required to make our implicit endorsement of the legitimacy of the liberal governing consensus fully explicit: that is, suppose that in order for your ballot to be validated, you had to explicitly check off agreement with the following proposition:

I hereby declare that the choices of candidates and resolutions on this ballot are legitimate.  I affirm my support of the process by which they were selected.  I agree that the end result of this election is legitimate, whether my personal selections win or lose.

Suppose that on the ballot was a resolution to limit killing children in medical experiments to children below a certain age.

A few questions are raised by the scenario:

  1. Just how comfortable would you be checking that box?  Just how comfortable should you be?
  2. Does making your endorsement explicit make a fundamental difference morally, or does it just make the voting ritual more honest?

The answers to these questions must take into account that, because of the nature of mass market democratic elections, it is literally impossible to make a pragmatic rather than idealistic/principled choice.

Conservatism, Elections, and the Kantian Chasm

October 27, 2012 § 19 Comments

The conservative disposition is to not rock the boat: things could be worse, and often enough efforts to make things better actually backfire and make things worse.  In general this is a pretty wise and commonsense disposition to have.

Beyond simple incomprehension and outright refusal to grant manifest premises, the most common objection I get to my voting arguments is that if enough people did as I do the bad guys would win.   Sure, the abstract Kantian idea that you should act as you think everyone should act is nice in theory.  But the reality is that things can get worse, and we will never get to the point where everyone refuses to endorse evil.   If we manage to achieve relevance at all, we’ll just get to the point where the moral “idealists” become a large enough body of conscientious objectors that the bad guys will take over completely.  We’ll fall into the Kantian chasm:

Kantian Khasm

There are several problems with this view.

In the first place, as I’ve argued before, reality is not linear.  The idea that if enough people did as I do, all else equal, things would get worse, contains a bad premise.  That “all else equal” works reasonably well in a very narrow range of engineering problems does not imply that it is a useful model of human society. “All else equal” is one of those assumptions that will turn on you and eat you alive once things start to get even marginally complex.

In the second place, reality is not static.   In case you haven’t noticed, for anyone defending traditional morality things aren’t getting better, they are getting worse.   It makes no sense to defend the hill you are standing on when it is sinking into an ocean of nihilistic hedonism, aided and abetted by the very people whose team you support.  The hill we are standing on is one where our society has committed mass murder of the innocent on a literally unprecedented scale.  The Nazis and the Communists have nothing on us when it comes to raw body count, and we’ve explored areas of depravity 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 modern conservatives have decided to live under their own Treaty of Versailles is an admission of abject surrender, dhimmitude under the nihilist-hedonist  caliphate.

In the third place, another aspect of the conservative disposition is realism: to face reality as it is actually given to us, and to defend what is good in it without becoming enslaved to some theoretical ideology.  It is this third tendency that makes it worth the bother to even talk to conservatives.  But I think the biggest problem is that, ironically, conservatives have failed to face the full extent of our political reality.   Adopting a semi-Kantian idea that despite our individual lack of influence we should idealistically act as pragmatists is not rational.

The cloak of prosperity has hidden the bodies far enough out of sight that we don’t have to really face them, and the band plays on.

Matthew 18:3

October 26, 2012 § 7 Comments

Little Johnny: “Mr. Zippy, why aren’t you voting for President?”

Z: “Because both choices are very bad, so I refuse to personally support either one.”

LJ: “But Mr. Pontius says that Romney is better than Obama. Isn’t that true?”

Z: “Yes it is true. But giving me a choice between one candidate who supports murdering the innocent versus a different candidate who supports even more murder is not acceptable to me. I reject it as a false choice.”

LJ: “Wow. That’s pretty awful. Mr. Pontius said that Romney was pro-life. I didn’t realize that he really isn’t. But Mr. Pontius says that one of them is going to win, so we have to stop Obama from getting elected.”

Z: “Well LJ, nothing that you or I or Mr. Pontius can do is going to change the outcome of the election. If we all get stranded on a desert island during the election, the outcome is going to be the same either way. I have to be responsible for my own choice of whose team I join, and I can’t support a candidate who thinks there is a right to murder the innocent in any circumstances.”

LJ: “But Mr. Zippy, if everyone did what you do aren’t we letting the bad guys win?”

Z: “No LJ, if everyone did as I do we wouldn’t be faced with a choice between two candidates who both support murdering the innocent.”

LJ: “Wow you really make sense Mr Zippy. I was feeling pretty anxious about the whole thing, but how you put it makes so much more sense than what all the people waving signs and sticking bumper stickers everywhere say. Plus you tell the truth about the candidates rather than hiding what is awful about them.”

Exhibit A

October 24, 2012 § 7 Comments

I wasn’t planning on posting this, because it was just a combox thing until the moderator stepped in. I commented on Bishop Paprocki’s column. For whatever reason, the moderator edited out the link to the video advertisement from Candidate Romney below. So I am posting it here.


So what about the Republicans? I have read the Republican Party Platform and there is nothing in it that supports or promotes an intrinsic evil or a serious sin.


The ad appears to be authentic, and is certainly believable given Romney’s expressed positions.

It seems to me that the good Bishop’s assertion may be technically true, but quite deceptive when it comes to evaluating a candidate’s support for intrinsic (and other grave) evils. I haven’t read the Republican platform and consider it of only tertiary importance, since the candidates themselves tell you what they support, as above. So I can’t say for sure that the claim is technically true; but I leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide just how relevant and/or misdirecting it is, if true.

The good Bishop does tell us that:

… a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.

Obviously that includes Candidate Romney.

I agree with the good Bishop’s assessment of the Democrats. I also think the filter through which he publicly evaluates the Republican party illustrates the point that choosing your political team has morally important effects which are independent of whether or not your team ultimately wins.

UPDATE: I just retrieved the following message from my SPAM folder, which addresses the question of why the link to the Romney ad was not posted:

Dear Zippy,

Thank you for reading our news and for taking the time to comment on our articles! I read your comment asking about why the advertisement you linked to was not included in your original post, and I wanted to take a moment to make sure you have read our disclaimer at the bottom of every article that we post:

The number of messages that can be online is limited. CNA reserves the right to edit messages for content and tone. Comments and opinions expressed by users do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of CNA. CNA will not publish comments with abusive language, insults or links to other pages

As stated above, CNA does not post links to other pages, so that is most likely why the ad was taken out. Some people who want to post a link will post it as such: www(dot)mittromney(dot)com, or whatever their link may be, and those usually are usually left in the comments since they do not link directly. However, our moderators do check out the pages to ensure the content, and sometimes the links will be taken out if the link leads to something questionable or potentially misleading, although I’m sure this was not the case with your link.

I hope this is helpful to you.
God bless,

Choosing Team Litterbug

October 22, 2012 § 30 Comments

One of the biggest intuitive difficulties most people seem to have with my voting polemics is reconciling the fact that your personal influence over the outcome of a national election is negligible with the fact that election outcomes are determined, at least in the final and formal step of holding the election itself, by mass aggregations of personal influence. [1]  I’ll note that this isn’t peculiar to any argument of mine in particular.  It is a manifest fact that both are true: your vote has negligible influence, and the outcome of the final step (the election itself) is determined by a process of aggregating votes. [2]  If we haven’t wrapped our intuitions around those simultaneous truths we haven’t properly understood the mechanics and implications of mass market universal suffrage democratic elections.

It has been suggested that Presidential elections represent what in game theory [3] is called a tragedy of the commons. [4]  Littering is an example of a tragedy of the commons: one person tossing a gum wrapper does negligible harm, using the tiniest bit of public space as a garbage receptacle; but the aggregation of all the litterbugs in the world creates non-negligible problems.   While I think that understanding applied to elections leaves out some important considerations – game-theoretically, national elections are contests over which team can build the biggest sand pile – there is some truth to the characterization of elections as tragedies of the commons.

There is no real ‘solution’ to the tragedy of the commons barring some way of changing the aggregate behaviour of large numbers of people.  As individuals with negligible personal influence at the scale of national elections, we don’t have the power to do that.  But the suggested personal action in the face of a tragedy of the commons is to act as we would prefer other people like us to act.  Then at least we set an example for the people around us, even though we are quite literally powerless to stop the large-scale tragedy.

Human beings are social and tend to join with others in thinking and acting a certain way.  We don’t have the personal influence to make Team Litterbug or Team Worse Litterbug disappear, replaced by something better.  But we do get to decide if we personally are going to join Team Litterbug or Team Worse Litterbug; and the material and other consequences of our personal choice are independent of which team actually wins.  We can’t choose whether Team Litterbug exists or not, and we can’t choose whether Team Litterbug wins or loses.  But we do get to choose whether or not we are personally going to be a Litterbug.

This seems to be at one and the same time obvious and extraordinarily counterintuitive, based on the relentless resistance I encounter to this manifest point.

This next is the part that really bugs people, but it follows quite directly.  Because the consequences of our choice are independent of which team actually wins, we can’t justify our choice based on the relative merits of Team Worse Litterbug losing.  We have to justify our choice on the absolute goods obtained by the mere act of  joining Team Litterbug – whether they win or lose –  versus joining some other team, or no team at all.

To which I say, “Give a hoot — don’t pollute!”


[1] This process has a signal to noise ratio, like any real process.   People seem to think that 500 votes in this State or that can influence the outcome.   I would suggest that that level of “signal” never actually determines the outcome, not even in Florida in 2000, because a signal that small cannot be accurately resolved by the system (“hanging chads”, anyone?).  For those of you who have no signal processing background and are interested in following up on the concept, I recommend that you explore the precision/accuracy distinction and ask yourself how meaningful, in terms of accuracy, the down-to-one-voter precision of our real-world electoral process actually is.  The appearance of a 500 vote decision in a Presidential contest is most likely indistinguishable, as a real world problem, from rolling the dice to see who wins.  I apologize in advance for any constitutional crises created by mathematics.

[2] I would contend that almost everything important has already happened by the time the ballots go to print; but that is a different discussion.

[3] That would be von Neumann’s game theory, not manosphere game theory.   The fact that I have to make that distinction is another strike against the latter use of the term “Game”.

[4] The “tragedy of the commons” is arguably a multiplayer iterated version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  If you aren’t familiar with game theory and would like an easy-to-follow introduction for a general audience, I recommend the book The Prisoner’s Dilemma by William Poundstone.  (I added this footnote because some comments took me to be referring to the tragedy of the commons in some more general and fuzzy sense, rather than the mathematical sense).

It is harmful to act unreasonably

October 20, 2012 § 6 Comments

Quite a few people protest that when we vote for a candidate, we are not endorsing that candidate.   This protest is wrong.   When we vote for a candidate we are endorsing that candidate for that office.   That is precisely what voting for a candidate intrinsically is, as a concrete act.

I think what is happening here is that people are confusing the object of an act of voting with their intentions.   Remember that the object of an act is the actual objective (as opposed to subjective — thus the term “object”) concrete behaviour we choose.   Our intentions are the subjective meaning we attach to our act: in the case of voting this – making sure our intentions are good – is where all the discursive action is in the talk about limiting evil.  When someone says “I am voting for Romney to limit evil” he is referring to his subjective intentions, and it is important to have good intentions.  That is why documents like Faithful Citizenship focus on how you can go about having a right intention when it comes to voting.

As Catholics though – as anyone who apprehends the natural law, for that matter – we know that good intentions, while absolutely critical, are not sufficient to justify a concrete act.  When I say that the voter is endorsing Romney for President I am referring to the actual concrete behaviour he chooses: the object of his act.  He intends to limit evil.  How does he act on that intention?  By endorsing Romney with his vote.

A problem arises because he votes for Romney as a putatively pragmatic act[*]; and voting for Romney as a pragmatic act is not a reasonable thing to do, despite his good intentions.  Voting irrationally has all sorts of harmful effects on the person who does it and on those around him.  Most importantly it reinforces attitudes and manners of thinking, in the voter and in those over whom he has personal influence, which are false: that is, in opposition to the truth.  Reinforcing untruth is harmful to individuals and to the common good[**].

The harm of voting irrationally obtains whether or not Romney wins: outcome-independent harm.  So the rest follows.  Voting pragmatically (as opposed to acting in a principled/idealistic way) with reference to the outcome in Presidential elections is harmful to individuals and the common good.  Because this harm is independent of the election outcome, any proportionate reason to justify it would also have to be independent of the election outcome.  If as an objective matter you actually do have a proportionate reason to join Team Romney, that proportionate reason cannot be because things will be better under a Romney presidency than under an Obama presidency.   It must be some good obtained simply by joining Team Romney, whether he wins or loses.


[*] Someone who is gung-ho Romney without reservations doesn’t have this problem.   But he does have other problems, to wit, formal cooperation with evil.

[**] Note that I have altered my position from four years ago, having fired a neuron or two in the interim.   Four years ago I didn’t have a reason to think that the outcome-independent harm to the pragmatic presidential voter was strictly necessary: it was just something I observed empirically.  I have now identified why that harm is in fact universal for the pragmatic-outcome presidential voter.

No, you don’t have to vote

October 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve posted about the Catechism’s rather mild exhortation to vote before.   Quite a few people seem to interpret both the Catechism and Faithful Citizenship as if they constitute a categorical command to vote always and everywhere, no matter what historical cul-de-sac we happen to find ourselves in.  Sure Faithful Citizenship is just a USCCB paper of dubious Magisterial status, so we can ignore it; but the Catechism after all is a universal teaching document.  It applies to the citizens of Banana Republics, dictatorships with only one name on the ballot, the good old U S of A, and everywhere in between.  So golly, isn’t it dissent from the Magisterium to (gasp) exercise prudential judgement in deciding whether or not to vote for Saddam?

No, it is not.

As the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendour puts it:

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.

(Emphasis mine)

No, you cannot invoke Magisterial documents as a way of avoiding the question of whether or not to vote, and whom to vote for.  It is always our task to use right reason to verify that a positive precept – including the positive precept to vote as a derivative throwaway example of a civic act, a commonplace  example of the general precept to act for the common good which is not limited to the three examples that the Catechism places in the same sentence – applies right here and right now.

If you don’t agree, we can play the time-honored Catholic game of “my document has greater Magisterial authority than your document.”   But rather than playing ping-pong on a hermeneutic of discontinuity, I suggest that it would be wiser to interpret the lesser-authority Catechism in the light of the greater-authority Encyclical.

Licensed to Gripe

October 19, 2012 § 4 Comments

That’s a good post by Zippy that Alissa pointed to. Zippy should address the issue I often run up against whenever I share with others that I intend to abstain in one or more elections:

Respondent (look of self-righteous disgust on his/her face): “Well then I have to say that you have no right to complain about anything if you choose not to vote.”

My response is usually a form of the following:

“I beg to differ with you on the point because you are dead wrong. I am a natural-born U.S. citizen, with deep roots and both feet firmly planted in this country. Whatever happens inside or outside this country in the name of the United States, socially, and/or, politically, affects me on a personal level, and my family on a family level. That, in and of itself, gives me every right to complain whenever wrongs are committed in the name of my country. Whether I choose to vote in any election or not.”

Indeed, I’ve had numerous people say to me, “Well, since I don’t vote I guess I really have no right to complain about anything.” Those individuals usually get a different version of the same speech.

In my view it is those who choose to vote who have no right – or at least a much more attenuated right – to complain.  They have personally endorsed the governing consensus and the process by which that governing consensus is made legitimate.  Someone who refuses to personally endorse the governing consensus in a concrete act has greater right to complain, not lesser.
  • Someone who refuses to work for Planned Parenthood has a greater right to complain about abortion
  • Someone who refuses to fight in an unjust war has a greater right to complain about the unjust war
  • Someone who refuses to eat processed food has a greater right to complain about processed food
  • Someone who refuses to buy products made in sweatshops has a greater right to complain about sweatshops

I could keep making this list forever.  But the point is that one entry on this potentially infinite list is

  • Someone who refuses to endorse the political consensus by voting has a greater right to complain about the political consensus

Integrity matters, and it is more than a little rich for the unscrupulous to lecture conscientious objectors about their “right to complain”.

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

October 19, 2012 § 6 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.

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