Reconciled to the King
October 18, 2012 § 29 Comments
There is a certain ritual in which many faithful Catholics engage regularly. In this ritual, we enter into a private booth and make a concrete act. That concrete act is an outward sign of an inner commitment: it expresses in a concrete act of the will what the person has committed to internally.
I am talking, of course, about voting.
Lets take a step back. Voting in its most abstract is just an act of making a personal endorsement of some particular candidate, resolution, law, or what have you. As with all concrete human acts the outer action necessarily reflects an inner commitment of the will.
Some human acts are pragmatic acts. Some human acts are principled or idealistic acts. Voting is sometimes a pragmatic act and sometimes a principled/idealistic act, depending on the context.
For example, if you are one member of a nine member Supreme Court or Board of Directors, chances are that your votes are pragmatic acts. That doesn’t mean that you are willing to violate your principles in how you vote; but it does mean that often your votes may involve material cooperation with evil and you will end up spending significant energy figuring out which votes or abstentions are justified by a proportionate reason. The reason these kinds of votes are pragmatic in nature is because as a practical matter, you have a substantial material say in the outcome.
Other human acts, though, are by their nature principled or idealistic. Praying for a miracle or buying a lottery ticket are both principled or idealistic acts in this sense, because the material chances of your own personal act “paying off” as a matter of material cause and effect are negligible. It doesn’t make any sense to buy a lottery ticket as a “pragmatic” strategy for generating a family income. And it certainly makes sense to pray for miracles, but to treat praying for miracles as material cause and effect would be indistinguishable from witchcraft: God acts in miracles, not you. The point is not that principled acts are irrational or impractical: the point is that treating inherently principled acts as if they were pragmatic is a mistake.
The same applies to voting in national elections, particularly the Presidential election. By its very nature such an act cannot be “pragmatic”. The material chances of affecting the outcome are literally negligible; so if you vote in national elections, it is quite literally irrational to do so as a pragmatic rather than principled act.
This isn’t something I am making up out of my hat. It is a manifest fact about the mathematics of elections, and that this sort of voting is a principled act has been understood by at least some reasonable people since the beginning of the American Republic:
“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” – John Quincy Adams
So there is a basic incongruence in the pervasive idea that we as individuals ought to vote for a less-bad national candidate in order to block the election of a more-bad national candidate. A vote for the less bad candidate is by its nature an endorsement of a bad candidate. Furthermore, it is being done in a context where it makes no sense – it is literally irrational – to treat one’s act of voting as a pragmatic rather than principled/idealistic decision.
As my regular readers know, I myself draw further conclusions. Because the function of these kinds of mass-market universal-suffrage elections is in my view not to decide how we are governed, but rather to build consensus around the liberal secularism under which we are in fact governed – to reconcile us to the king – I take the “extraordinary step,” as the American bishops call it, of not voting in these elections at all. I won’t light a pinch of incense to this Caesar, period, and voting third party still endorses the system which produced what we have now. I don’t back away from this and its implications: and yes, because I think I am right I think everyone else ought to do as I do, and I think the polity would in the long run be better for it. We haven’t gotten to where we are because too many Catholics have drawn a line in the sand and refused to vote for the lesser evil. Yes, because acting imprudently is wrong people ought to do as I do in the moral sense of “ought”. But that is the nature of honest disagreement.
Even if I am a fruitcake in taking it as far as I have, though, that doesn’t invalidate the basic truth here: voting in national elections is an inherently principled/idealistic act, and people who treat it as a pragmatic calculation are making a fundamental error in judgement. If we are praying for miracles, we must be able to come up with something better than “please Lord let the less bad candidate win”.
Thanks for writing this. It cleared up a lot of my fog on why I have so little impulse to vote, but I had a nag that I should. It was confusion over the principled vs. pragmatic acts.
I think I’m with JQA, but at least now I don’t have to argue about it (in my head) anymore.
I agree with your pragmatic vs. idealistic distinction, but I do think you err in equating voting with burning a pinch of incense. The issue with the pinch of incense was not fealty to a wicked polity, but an act of worshipping a false god. Indeed, the same Christians who were martyred for not burning incense to Caesar argued vigorously that they were loyal to the empire, prayed for it and Caesar himself. Many of the martyrs were soldiers who defended the empire with its infanticide, gladiator games and pagan temples.
So, I would agree with you if, as a condition precedent to voting we were required to get blow dried to symbolically renounce our baptisms or something. But I don’t think it follows that one should opt out of the political life of the nation notwithstanding its flaws.
[…] not”. Cannot. It is literally impossible to cast a pragmatic vote in a presidential election, just as it is impossible to “pragmatically” base your family income on buying lottery ti…29. All this is nonsense. If you really wanted to remove yourself from a corrupt, implicitly evil […]
…but I do think you err in equating voting with burning a pinch of incense.
I don’t equate them, I draw an analogy between them. You are quite right that they are different in a basic and important way. The pinch of incense involved a personal affirmation of the deity of Caesar (and a concomitant blasphemy against God); voting for President involves endorsement of the governing consensus which, among other crimes, is responsible for (at least) tens of millions of abortions. Given that nobody is holding a gun to our heads saying we have to do it, and that it is literally impossible to do it on pragmatic grounds rather than idealistic grounds, it puzzles me that others don’t conclude as I do. But I’m just one guy and I don’t see all the angles of all things, so I acknowledge that it might be me that’s wrong.
But I don’t think it follows that one should opt out of the political life of the nation notwithstanding its flaws.
I am sure that upon further reflection you will see that I am not opting out of the political life of the nation. If I were, I wouldn’t be writing posts about politics.
But it is interesting that someone like myself, who frequently proselytizes on matters political and moral and their intersection, is seen as opting out of the political life of the nation specifically because of my choice not to make a particular ritual act. I think this tends to reinforce many of my points about the nature of that ritual act.
You are welcome. Glad you found the perspective helpful.
Zippy, you already know this; but apparently it needs to be repeated.
In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” the bishops (including my bishop, Cardinal DiNardo, a committee chairman) have stated the following:
“When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the
conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the
extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation,may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”
Since my Bishop is saying that it is ok for me to vote for the less bad
candidate, what exactly is your objection?
Do you really think that we are obligated to second guess our bishops on this
matter? No snark intended here. I’m under the impression that if my bishop tells me it’s ok to do something, then it’s ok.
I’m under the impression that if my bishop tells me it’s ok to do something, then it’s ok.
Are you under the impression that you have been given blanket permission by your bishop to vote for any candidate whatsoever as long as your reasoning for doing so takes the form of an attempt to limit evil? Or is Faithful Citizenship a starting point, from which we are obligated to exercise right reason in determining a good course of action?
If it is the former then objectively right or wrong standards are literally impossible: all that matters is the subjective meaning the individual assigns to his act. Anyone may vote for anyone, and his decision is not subject to evaluation by objective reason.
But if objectively right and wrong answers are possible in voting then it must be the latter: FC is a starting point for reasoning about voting, not the end point, and you are left to evaluate whether or not my arguments are persuasive.
The question is how invested a typical voter is in his vote.
Perhaps if he does not think or care much, then the vote does not lie heavy on his conscience, and correctly so.
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Voting in its most abstract is just an act of making a personal endorsement of some particular candidate, resolution, law, or what have you.
I’m not convinced that a vote for a candidate is indeed an endorsement of that candidate. At least not of necessity. Technically, it is vote for an elector, who may or may not be obliged by law to follow the instruction of the majority. (Some states have “faithless elector” laws preventing members of the Electoral College from deviating from the popular vote.)
The Electoral College remains, to this day, the effective means of electing US Presidents. We have had several Presidents who failed to gain a majority of the popular vote, one as recent as twelve years ago.
(In this context, let me add that I favor repealing the 17th Amendment, thereby restoring the original elector system for the US Senate.)
I find more convincing the argument that voting constitutes an endorsement of our system our government: that is, to vote is to sign up with republican forms. And one of the particular features of republican forms (dating from the election of 1800) is the Loyal Opposition, a feature so taken for granted that folks today hardly ever reflect on how remarkable an achievement it is for the means of political power to change hands by peaceful means. Under this framework it is possible to cast a vote in opposition without committing treason: it’s that serious of an improvement.
But the vital thing to understand, for the purposes of this discussion, is that it is possible to cast a vote in opposition without any further endorsement. So it’s not necessarily true that “a vote for the less bad candidate is by its nature an endorsement of a bad candidate.” It may be no endorsement at all. Our system does indeed allow for the possibility of a purely “throw out the bums” vote. That new bums subsequently arrive only means that we’ll need to throw them out at the first opportunity as well.
(Honestly it would be enough, for me, to see Kathleen Sebelius thrown out of the office through which he has lied, tyrannized and scandalized the Catholic faith she claims. The woman is a menace and needs to be stripped of all executive authority.)
Finally, I’m also not persuaded on the pragmatic point. At least not as an absolute irrationality. Two out of the last three presidential elections have been close enough that a few thousand votes in a few decisive counties carried the thing. In an earlier comment I adduced four or five other recent elections that could have swung the other way based very small numbers of voters. If you live in Ohio, Virgina, Colorado, Florida, even North Carolina, you cannot rationally foreclose on the possibility that your vote could very much matter, pragmatically. Chances are, of course, that it won’t matter; but this cannot be stated as an absolute.
I should say that you are by far my most articulate and rational opponent on this issue. You might well be the only opponent who actually understands my arguments and whose opposition is genuinely to my actual arguments.
I’m not convinced that a vote for a candidate is indeed an endorsement of that candidate.
I don’t think invoking the indirection of the electoral college helps. If as a practical matter we really were choosing electors on their own merits -qua- electors it would have more traction.
As it is, the protestation that a vote is not an endorsement of the candidate strikes me as one of Anscombe’s “little speeches”. Sure, the meaning we subjectively attach to our vote – our intentions – might be protest or limiting evil or whatever. And it is important to have good intentions. But our actual concrete behavior – the object of our act – is an endorsement of a particular candidate drawn from the governing consensus by our political process.
And one of the particular features of republican forms (dating from the election of 1800) is the Loyal Opposition, …
That may be the theory; and viewed theoretically it is indeed elegant. What we actually have in reality though is not Loyal Opposition. What we actually have in reality is Go Slow Liberalism and Go Fast Liberalism.
Finally, I’m also not persuaded on the pragmatic point. At least not as an absolute irrationality.
Playing the lottery though isn’t an “absolute” irrationality either. Somebody wins. Although in that sense the irrationality here is greater than the irrationality of playing the lottery, because no one person has ever decided a Presidential Election.
Tom half jokingly modeled the math as a probability. At some point it might be fun to model it as a signal to noise ratio. But the main point is that your personal “signal” is so infinitesimally small, even aggregated over your whole life, that you have literally no reason not to act as an idealist rather than a pragmatist.
That makes pragmatism literally irrational: it is doing something you have no rational reason to do. The lottery winner might claim otherwise, but that is because he makes a category error, chalking up a miracle of Providence – the fact that he in particular won – to a material cause.
At bottom the reason most people find my arguments counterintuitive despite their clarity and decisiveness (hah!) is because materialism is in the air we breathe.
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[…] Tonight, election night, I happen to be in Chicago. It’s like Christmas here. My hotel room is eighteen floors in the air, but that doesn’t stop the cheers and car horns. Maybe Christmas is a bad example. It’s probably more like New Year’s. People are so excited, and they have no idea for what reason, except their team won the big battle. Personally, I didn’t even vote; thanks to Zippy Catholic. […]
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[…] cannot become a substitute for fathers, daycares cannot become a substitute for mothers, and formal decision procedures cannot become a substitute for […]
If you can’t tell, I’m reading your archives. You’re distracting me from ‘real work’, which is something I’m struggling with, prudentially – is studying for my comprehensives more or less important than attempting to improve my soul by reading these archives, in this moment? Or am I just being lazy? It’s a difficult question.
I might argue (in the manner of having fun with sophistry, rather than as something I seriously hold for personal use) that it is possible for someone to vote in national, mass-market elections as a practical matter, especially in battle-ground States, simply because, while for you a (roughly) 1000:1 chance is ‘negligible’, his own prudential judgment sees it as not negligible. Perhaps your probability training is in business, and his is in social medicine, or something similar, where small chances take on greater or lesser degrees of importance.
He (or you) may still be objectively wrong about the pragmatic value of the vote (e.g. he expects the election to be close, because he live in FL, and it ends up not being so), but it should be possible for him to weight small probablities differently than you do.
Of course, there exists some epsilon probability of practical difference at which we can be pretty sure he’s merely using this as a smokescreen to hide idealistic behaviour, perhaps even from himself.
That is basically right: the fundamental contention is that (in liberal societies) the “outcome influence” curve approaches zero orders of magnitude faster than the “bad outcome independent effects” curve, or, alternatively, the “endorsement of liberalism” curve; and that they intersect somewhere around the size of a corporate board of directors, or at best a small assembly of aristocrats.
The Iron Law is another way of expressing this.
None of this applies if the whole point of voting simply is (independent of outcome) to personally endorse our ruling class and their political philosophy of liberalism.
I think the biggest argument is how it affects the voter – defense of their choice, cheerleading for their choice, etc. It really is a personal endorsement, a “you picked this.”