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 § 29 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.

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