“Less Bad” Isn’t Good Enough

The case for lesser-evil voting boils down to this: when choosing between X and Y, rational agents who think that X is better than Y ought to choose X. The logic is unassailable. But even if we stipulate that, come November 2016, the winner of the presidential election will be either a Democrat or a Republican and the Democrat will be the lesser evil, it doesn’t follow automatically that rational citizens ought to vote for her.

Illustration by Oona Taper (http://cargocollective.com/oonataper)

From a logical point of view, “better,” “less bad,” and “less evil” are interchangeable, but there is a practical difference. Better choices are less bad or less evil only when the alternatives are, or are thought to be, bad. Theologians and secular thinkers who don’t admit that God is dead sometimes distinguish “bad” from “evil” implicitly, or sometimes explicitly, invoking the religious connotations of the latter concept. For the present purpose, American electoral politics, the difference is rhetorical: “evil” just means “very bad.” However, there is an echo of theological understandings that lesser-evil voters would do well to bear in mind: the idea that there are thresholds beyond which it doesn’t matter how much “less bad” something is—that voting for any evil is something thou shalt not do.

Where to draw the line? I would draw it in a way that excludes proponents of policies that benefit the “1 percent” at the expense of everyone else; and, in elections for Congress and the presidency, I would exclude politicians who think that the United States ought to go on dominating the world, and for whom war is the first, often the only, answer.

I would never vote for any Republican or any Clinton or any Clinton-like Democrat. Thus I am proud to say that I never voted for Barack Obama. Liberals and some self-described leftists disparage such fastidiousness. Some of them even think that the Clintons and other Democrats would be forces for good if only those pesky Republicans would back off. I would suggest instead that my criteria are, if anything, too forgiving: that, in an only slightly saner possible world, candidates who cannot see beyond capitalism’s horizons and candidates who support reckless environmental policies ought to be excluded as well.

But even liberals who have no moral problem voting for Hillary in 2016 should realize that America’s ridiculously undemocratic electoral system gives them options. Unless they live in the dozen or so “battleground states,” they can elude the demands of lesser-evil logic at virtually no political or psychological cost. Most Americans already know whether the Democrat or the Republican will get their state’s electoral votes. The logic of lesser evilism doesn’t compel them to pile on votes for the winner; they can vote, or not, in ways that send a message instead.


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Andrew Levine is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of many other books and articles on political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People.

Source Citation

Levine, Andrew. 2016. “Less Bad” Isn’t Good Enough. Tikkun 31(1): 10.

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