Are moral grounds a good reason to refuse to vote among the viable candidates?

As someone with friends of many different political persuasions, I’m always interested when overlaps occur. In this cycle, I have some friends, who might be considered on the right, most notably fellow Patheos blogger Mark Shea, arguing that since neither candidate is consistently pro-life, he cannot bring himself to vote for either of them. I have other friends, who would be considered left, who are so disturbed by President Obama’s record on civil liberties, especially around his continuing many of the invasions of privacy and freedom established in the name of the “war on terror” that they cannot bring themselves to vote for him again. And I have friends on both sides who are fed up that Obama hasn’t ended the war yet, and disgusted by the use of drones.

Most of the time I lean towards pragmatism, choosing the lesser of two evils — or, rarely, the better of two goods. Why not make your vote as effective as possible by choosing the option you prefer among those that have any real chance of winning? But I would never argue that you should vote for someone you profoundly don’t believe in. And I have no problem disclosing that I have not only voted third party, I have been in the leadership of a third party.

What I find interesting about the talk this year is that it’s driven not by political calculus or social goals, but rather, by morality. People are repulsed by the idea of casting a vote that seems to be saying they endorse something they consider to be morally inexcusable.

Here’s my thoughtful friend Mark Shea in the National Catholic Register explaining why he won’t be voting for either candidate:

My vote will not affect the outcome of the election. But it will affect me and change me either into somebody who does or does not say yes to grave and intrinsic evil. Make that choice enough—and in enough souls—and the destiny of a nation is determined. I think the experiment of subsuming my conscience to the demands of elites who do not care about God or man (judging from their bipartisan advocacy of grave evils worthy of hellfire) has helped get us, over time, to the pass in which we now find ourselves: stuck with a political system that routinely holds us hostage and tries to compel us to assent to grave evil in the interest of the perpetually-out-of-reach “greater good”.

(He also admirably and clearly explains at length how Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) has said definitively it is not an evil act or an act that should bar one from communion to vote for a candidate that is pro-choice. I highly recommend reading the whole piece.)

And then here’s “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama” by Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic, which was being passed around by multiple friends of mine on the left last week:

[S]ome actions are so ruinous to human rights, so destructive of the Constitution, and so contrary to basic morals that they are disqualifying. Most of you will go that far with me. If two candidates favored a return to slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers, you wouldn’t cast your ballot for the one with the better position on health care. I am not equating President Obama with a slavery apologist or an Islamic fundamentalist… What I am saying is that Obama has done things that, while not comparable to a historic evil like chattel slavery, go far beyond my moral comfort zone. Everyone must define their own deal-breakers. Doing so is no easy task in this broken world. But this year isn’t a close call for me.

Friederdorf then lists the drone strikes, the extrajudicial killing of American citizens, and sending troops into Libya without Congressional approval as his deal-breakers. He says he’s voting for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. To the best of my knowledge, Mark Shea has not said how he’s casting his vote.

I’m honestly not sure how I feel about all this. One part of me, reading either of these articles, feels like this is exactly right — that if a citizen feels their government is acting immorally, they should refuse to participate. But another part of me worries that the path of moral purity tests is a slippery one, leading potentially to more division and partisanship, and more cynicism about leadership. My own leaning is to look to what I agree with, and give less weight to my differences with a candidate (or any person for that matter.) And I’m entirely comfortable with my vote this year. But I know that has limits. Is the extrajudicial killing of American citizens in a permanent state of war not a limit for me? Apparently not. But I know I could reach one.

What do you think? Are moral grounds a good reason to refuse to vote among the viable candidates? (And no comments arguing about my use of the term viable please. By that I mean they have an actual statistically meaningful chance of winning.) Are they a bad reason? Have you ever done it? Would you? Again, I’m less interested in which “side” is “losing” your vote, and more interested in the motivations and reasoning.

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Mark Shea

    I would contend there is no other basis on which anyone casts a vote, unless it’s the sort of person who thinks “he has a nice face” and pulls the lever. But even that is, at bottom, a moral vote since the person typically means, “I think his nice face means he will be a nice person who tries to do good.” All voting is, in the end, choosing somebody you hope will do more good than evil, or the attempt to move Your Guy into position to stop That Guy from doing evil. What is that but voting on the basis of morality?

  • Rena Dunsworth

    Even Lincoln had his bad points. He ordered the killing of all of a race of Indians, and they were killed. Obama is not perfect, but he stands for issues that affect me deeply: Medicare, SSD and student loans just to name a few. As far as the drones go, I’d rather see them use drones than get more Americans killed. War is dirty, get used to it. People forget that he got the bad guy. He gave the head nod that got that done. He’s not perfect, but he’s a whole lot better than the opposition.

  • Alex

    From a utilitarian, consequentialist perspective, moral grounds would only be a good reason for refusing to vote among the viable candidates if there were no morally significant differences between a vote for one viable candidate and a vote for another.(1) Otherwise, refusing to choose among them is an indulgence in the Fallacy of Gray. Also, a candidate’s “position” on an issue is often distinguishable from the actual effect of voting for that candidate — even presidents don’t get to do everything they would like do.

    For example, I consider ownership of one’s own body the single most fundamental of rights, and therefore regard forcing a woman who desires to terminate her pregnancy to carry it to term as a form of aggravated rape (aggravated because most rapes last a matter of minutes, not months). To me, forced intercourse, forced gestation, and forced birth are equally horrifying and unforgivable violations of the victim’s autonomy, and there is no “point of no return” in the process at which the woman’s consent is no longer required or cannot be revoked. (Once a fetus is viable outside the womb, such revocation should be implemented by induced labor or c-section, rather than an abortion, but that’s already how both our laws and medical practice stand.)

    Obviously, the political position euphemistically referred to as “pro-life” is morally repugnant to me, roughly on a par with advocating slavery (another system under which a class of people are denied ownership of their own bodies, and rape is tolerated on a massive scale). However, if I had resided in Pennsylvania in 2006, that would not have prevented me from choosing between the forced-birth advocates Rick Santorum and Bob Casey in the senatorial election: a vote for Casey was a vote for Democratic control of the Senate, while a vote for Santorum was a vote for Republican control, and one of those outcomes was clearly preferable to the other from the standpoint of women’s right to control their bodies.

    In the current presidential election, one of the candidates is far more likely to appoint Supreme Court Justices who will maintain and, hopefully, extend the legal rights established in Roe vs. Wade; the other is far more likely to appoint Justices inclined to curtail those rights. That undeniable fact has infinitely greater moral weight than the question of whether the candidates have been “consistently” pro-choice or pro-coercion throughout their careers.

    (1) Note that I said there had to be no morally significant differences between a vote for candidate A or candidate B, not between the candidates themselves. When an election is not close, one’s vote may be morally insignificant regardless of the character of the candidates. I would have a great deal more sympathy for someone declining to vote in the current presidential election if that person lived in Utah or Vermont than I would have for someone living in Ohio, Virginia, Florida, etc.

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  • Spilly

    Imagine for a moment years in the future when technology, education, understanding-all aspects of our way of life should have enormously advanced. Just 100 years from now almost everyone who is living on this planet will be dead. People will probably look back on our current state and think “Wow, we sure have improved!” I do not vote. Not because of morals or because I think I might be making a passive protest or statement. I do not vote simply because the political system/ parties/ voting blah..Is so old fashioned, cliche and drawn out, not to mention-and this one is important-it’s kind of a waste of my time. I’d rather be focusing on my work, education and the things that are actually important to me. You do the math.