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Single Issue Politics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 08, 2005

Leading up to election day, I heard again the so-called Catholic argument against single issue politics. This argument states that Catholic voters are not bound by the Church to vote a certain way based on any single issue. Instead, Catholics are obliged to weigh the total potential impact of each candidate on the common good, and choose accordingly. While technically correct, this argument is always used to justify voting for pro-abortion politicians. So isn't there something wrong?

Preparation for Politics

The Church teaches moral principles, not prudential judgments, so it is necessarily true that Catholic voters must apply these moral principles to make the best decision they can among available candidates. This means that the Church will never teach, for example, that it is morally obligatory to vote for an anti-abortion candidate under every theoretical circumstance. In this sense, the argument against single issue politics is not only correct but a truism, confirming what everybody knows but providing no moral guidance. As far as moral voting goes, it is simply a premise waiting for a conclusion. The conclusion, which is never mentioned, is that voters have a serious obligation both to form their consciences in accordance with the moral law and to understand how the moral law applies to politics.

Before we can apply the moral law to politics, we need to understand the nature of government. The unspoken assumption among those who oppose single issue politics seems to be that every political question is highly moral, requiring that we balance the relative moral weight of hundreds of issues before we cast our votes. But this isn’t true. Within reasonable limits, there is no moral conflict among voters with different views on the Federal budget, new roads, tax rates, age limits for drinking or driving or military service, punishments for various crimes, the disposition of public lands, or any of a thousand other issues which make up the bulk of daily political life. These issues require not so much moral judgment as the prudent application of “what will work” to arrange our public affairs as effectively as possible.

For this reason, voters must first learn to recognize the difference between moral and non-moral issues. It is astonishing how often people confuse their preferences with morality. For example, the increase in good roads in the greater Washington, DC area may be vital to my peace of mind, but this gives me no moral quarrel with those who are not similarly perturbed. The health of the Maryland blue crab may be essential to my livelihood or my vision of the ecosphere, but many who share my moral values will be quite unconcerned with the crab’s future. These issues are not unimportant; they are simply morally neutral. As such, they will weigh little or nothing when a real moral issue is at stake.

Arguing About Goals and Means

Next, the prospective voter must learn to distinguish goals (which are often morally-charged) from means (which are often morally neutral). The common good is generally served by a variety of large moral goals which claim the attention of moral citizens. Such goals include resistance to crime, protection of property, freedom of initiative, provision of education, assistance to the poor, encouragement to the family, and respect for God. But these ends are served by literally thousands of possible means of accomplishment, most of which do not on their own have any special claim to moral consideration. A huge area of political activity is concerned with these controversial but morally neutral means to non-controversial but highly moral ends.

We may all agree, for example, that the poor require our assistance, but we may not all agree that the graduated income tax furthers this goal (or furthers it without doing more harm than good). Similarly, we may all agree that crime must be reduced but we may disagree over whether minimum sentences will help us toward this goal (or help us without doing more harm than good). Because these means relate to moral purposes, they merit significant consideration. But the means to an end will seldom be chosen based on a moral imperative. Rather, the question will most often be pragmatic: how well will the proposed means work? The vast majority of all politics consists of wrangling over either morally neutral issues or morally neutral means.

The Moral Sphere of Government

The nature of politics, then, is such that when a true moral issue arises, it will have a very special status. But because moral issues are all around us, constantly affecting our lives, we must know something about the moral sphere of government if we are to discern which moral issues are also political issues. Here, two distinctions may be helpful. The first is the distinction between what we might call ordinary social problems and extraordinary social evils. It is well beyond the scope of government to eradicate all the suffering and solve all the problems of the human condition. While government can certainly facilitate solutions to widespread social problems, such as poverty and ignorance, there is only so much that politics can do to lift a culture by its own bootstraps. This sort of activity is not the primary purpose of government, and the wisdom of various possible initiatives will always be debated. But no one will debate the obligation of government to deal with extraordinary and especially voluntary social evils, particularly moral evils perpetrated by some against the lives and property of others. The public life fails in its essential purpose if government does not exercise first and foremost this negative duty of restraining such moral evil.

The second distinction is between domestic and foreign concerns. People may legitimately disagree over whether their government should commit troops to a foreign conflict or mount a massive charitable relief action elsewhere in the world. But there can be no disagreement about whether this same government must provide for the defense of its own citizens in the face of invasion or coordinate whatever emergency relief is possible following a major calamity at home. Here a very simple rule applies: the first responsibility of government is to the people under its authority. These distinctions are important because they help to define the one essential and primary purpose of government, which is to safeguard the governed. Moral concerns which fall within this sphere have pride of place. They claim a far higher priority than concerns which arise from more extended notions of the purposes of government, about which good men may and do disagree. Such moral issues make the very highest demands on voters.

This explains why the most critical moral issues will always revolve around very specific actions that are morally wrong. The focus here is on evils which a government performs, encourages, permits, or fails to combat among or against those subject to its power. It is morally wrong, for example, for a government to deliberately fail to protect its people from attack, to accept bribes to look the other way while evil is committed, to institute mock marriage for homosexuals, or to take children away from their families to be raised by the state. To cite a few more examples, it is morally wrong for government to fail to act against such evils as criminal conspiracies, the selling of women into prostitution, black marketing of kidnapped children, denial of basic human services based on skin color, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and procured abortion.

Identifying Moral Issues

But I have gotten ahead of my argument by offering specific examples before indicating how we know what they are. Since this is a discussion of the Catholic argument against single issue politics, I will adopt the easiest and most direct solution. A public issue is identified as a moral issue whenever it involves actions which are contrary to the natural law or, more specifically, held by the Christian moral law to be evil. In most cases, these issues are fairly obvious to those schooled in the tradition of Christian thought. When in doubt, appropriate documents of the Magisterium can be consulted.

Opponents of single issue politics nearly always assign moral responsibility to the individual voter without providing for his moral formation. But I have no fear of dilemmas arising among voters who have actually taken the trouble to form their consciences according to the official teachings of the Church. The Church may teach both that innocent human life must be protected and that assistance must be rendered to the poor. These are important general goods which can be addressed in innumerable morally neutral ways. But she will not teach both that abortion is an intrinsically evil criminal act and that government must increase prescription drug benefits by 10%. The first is a moral issue in its own right; the second is one of many possible means to a loosely defined moral end.

Among those who form their consciences properly, situations in which multiple moral issues pull in opposite directions will be extremely rare, if not non-existent. Should such a conflict occur, it can be settled by an “urgency” test. Urgency is determined by a combination of the clarity of the moral teaching, the certainty of its application, the degree to which the problem falls within the scope of government, the imminence and quantity of the potential damage, and the gravity of the problem for those affected. Genuine dilemmas can obviously arise in theory. But in practice, it is extremely unlikely that a difficult moral choice will remain between two candidates once we’ve stripped away our own rationalizations and false moral prejudices.

Examples

Four final examples may clarify how the points I’ve raised work together to ensure a moral vote. A voter may ask, “How can you vote for candidate X who claims to be pro-life when he obviously doesn’t care about the poor?” This question is too vague to be useful. Politically speaking, we cannot judge candidate X’s credentials on any issue without looking at policy. So now the question becomes, “How can you vote for candidate X who is attempting to outlaw abortion when he is not in favor of tax incentives for the poor and a free prescription drug program?” Immediately we see that outlawing abortion is a moral issue in its own right, whereas tax incentives and prescription drug programs are morally neutral means to a very general end.

Again, a voter may say, “I cannot vote for pro-life candidate X when he has no plan for eliminating the widespread poverty in Appalachia.” Here the comparison is between a moral imperative to stop an attack on the lives of persons (abortion) and a general moral concern about a social problem endemic to a particular region which may or may not be within the power of government to change.

Yet again, a voter may ask, “How can you consider candidate X’s positions more moral than candidate Y’s when candidate X won’t lift a finger to combat AIDS in Africa?” Here the comparison is between a domestic moral imperative and an imperative which is not within the primary responsibility of the United States government (even supposing it is within the political sphere and carries equal weight, both of which may be questioned).

Finally, a voter may state, “I cannot vote for pro-life candidate X when candidate Y is the only one willing to eliminate the unjust execution of prisoners on death row.” If we grant that the term “unjust” actually applies in some cases (it necessarily applies only if the prisoner is innocent of a grave crime), then we would apply the urgency test. The clarity of the Church’s teaching on abortion, the ease of its proper application and the quantity of the potential damage (hundreds of thousands as opposed to scores of deaths each year) force us to make abortion the higher priority, even though both issues are squarely within the scope of government and have equal gravity for those affected by the evil in question.

Moral Citizenship

There are public evils which public authority has a moral obligation to avoid, mitigate and work to eliminate. Such genuine moral issues trump everything else on all political agendas. The rule is simple. No amount of morally neutral or morally irrelevant agreement or disagreement with a particular political candidate can overbalance the requirement to vote for or against that candidate when a political moral issue is at stake. Moral issues are fundamentally different from other political issues. They demand the attention and resolve of all voters regardless of their differing opinions on morally neutral questions or on questions which go beyond the fundamental responsibility of politics. The problem in sorting out single issue politics is not that there are so many conflicting moral issues, but that there are so many conflicting moralities. This may be true even among Catholics, but it is not morally responsible. The solution is not more confusion, but formation of conscience.

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