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The Dangers of Voting Your Heart: An Intrinsically Moral Guide

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 26, 2012

Every four years around this time I feel compelled to say something about voting, because American presidential elections tend to bring the moral questions which surround voting to the fore. This year our choices are somewhat worse than usual, but not so much as to be atypical. Neither is the response of American Catholic voters atypical. Once again most of them are preparing to vote how their hearts tell them to vote—that is, according to personal attitudes that are by now embedded deep in their psyches, attitudes they believe make their decisions easy. My contention is that this merely makes their decisions dangerous.

There is never any guarantee that “personal attitudes embedded deep in our psyches” match up well with our moral obligation to make our voting decisions in accordance with the will of God. And for precisely this reason, there is no substitute for an exercise in formal moral analysis before finalizing our decisions about how to vote. This year I will try to highlight the key elements of this necessary moral analysis.

Discerning the Common Good

The first principle of our political responsibility as voters is to cast our votes in the way that is most beneficial to the common good. This follows from the purpose of the political order in general and government in particular, which is to secure, protect and enhance the common good. The common good, of course, is notoriously difficult to define, but it is not simply the sum of private goods. It refers to the conditions generally necessary for human flourishing, conditions which by their nature benefit the entire community.

Thus all community members benefit first and foremost from a widespread recognition of the natural law. The entire community also benefits from family stability; substantial personal liberty; religious liberty as a fundamental recognition of human dignity and the limitations of the State; opportunities for education, including moral and spiritual formation; protection against criminals and foreign attack; the just resolution of disputes; common access to basic human necessities, such as water; fair access to property ownership; basic infrastructures conducive to the efficiencies and other benefits of interdependence; fair mechanisms for participating in public decisions; and so on. In other words, it is the purpose of government to secure, protect and enhance the common good through a prudent disposition of public affairs within the confines of the natural law.

Most of us understand the prudential character of addressing the common good, and so we understand why people can legitimately disagree about which aspects of the common good are most pressing, the best ways to balance personal liberty with the common good, and in general the most effective policies to pursue. This recognition of the need for prudence leads voters to form an overall impression of which candidate will be best for their community, according to the aspects of the common good which they believe are most pressing at the current time.

But there are three problems with taking the analysis no farther than this “prudential overall impression”. First, of course, the impression can be formed on the basis of serious deficiencies in understanding. A true exercise of prudence depends on a clear recognition of the reality of the factors in play and requires a shrewd ability to match the right solution to a correctly understood problem. But voters everywhere tend to be profoundly influenced (“deep in their psyches”) by certain narratives of what is wrong with the world and how to fix it, narratives typically imbibed as cultural prejudices formed by cultural elites. These narratives may be (and frequently are) wildly inaccurate. Take for example the cultural narrative that social health improves, and social conflict declines, as the influence of religion is minimized, or the cultural narrative that true concern for the needs of the poor is best shown by the multiplication of government bureaucratic programs. Here we have two patently and demonstrably false narratives which are reflexively held by those whose attitudes are formed by what we might call the default cultural worldview.

Second, in forming such an undifferentiated overall impression, the voter is able to selectively weight any aspect of the common good as most important. This approach allows each person the convenience of regarding his vote as a matter of personal preference rather than moral analysis, despite the fact that different problems affecting the common good carry widely varying moral weight.

Third, and closely related to the second point, taking the analysis no farther than this “prudential overall impression” overlooks the most critical aspect of the common good. This is the very moral framework of society, which I included first in my list of aspects of the common good, but which is very often forgotten—and without which the common good is impossible to achieve. I am referring to the natural law. The natural law is the foundational element of the common good. It is therefore the first and only indispensable factor in any effort to vote to maximize the common good.

Grounds for Moral Analysis

It is the importance of the natural law to the common good which puts serious moral analysis at the center of voting decisions. Again, natural justice is the first principle of the common good. To understand what this means, we must not confuse justice with egalitarianism. Inequality of condition is an inescapable part of being human, based both on our differences in abilities, talents and virtues and on many aspects of time, place and circumstances which are essentially beyond human control. As far as government is concerned, justice consists in equality before the law. If justice demands the protection of a rich man’s property, it also demands the protection of a poor man’s. If justice demands protection of the water rights of a white man, it also demands the same protections for a black man. If justice demands the protection of the life of a forty-year-old, it also demands the protection of the life of the elderly and the pre-born.

In any case, it is not the purpose of government to create Utopia, which nature also teaches us is beyond our capacity. Rather, the first responsibility of government is to secure justice in accordance with the natural law—that is, within a framework of justice which is prior to and higher than government itself, which is accessible to all men, and which all men instinctively use (at least in a general way) to argue about right, wrong and fairness. And if this is the first responsibility of government, it goes without saying that the first rule of government is to implement no policies which violate the natural law. As soon as a government institutes such a policy, it becomes the most pressing business of voters to do everything in their power to reverse it. This supersedes all considerations of prudence, all “overall impressions” of the common good. Similarly, if there are no violations of the natural law which need to be reversed, the next priority for voters is to examine those areas of community life in which the natural law is not being broadly observed, and to consider whether they can be addressed prudently by government as part of its responsibility to secure the common good.

Of course it is not always possible for government to take measures to eliminate even broad violations of the natural law. This will depend on the relative health of the culture, how much the violation touches the common good, and the expected impact on the common good of the proposed corrective measures. Prudence is essential, and disagreement is possible. But it is always possible for government to stop abusing the common good through its own violations of the natural law in its own policies, either directly or in the ways it encourages, facilitates or coerces citizens to violate the natural law. Again, a responsible voter must perform this moral analysis and must put governmental violations of the natural law ahead of all prudential considerations in determining how best to cast a vote on behalf of the common good.

Intrinsic Evils Undermine the Common Good

The reason for this conclusion is twofold. First, we are morally obliged to oppose the intrinsically evil actions of our government. Second, all intrinsic evils seriously undermine the common good. The framework of the natural law is the sine qua non of human flourishing. When widespread violations of the natural law go unaddressed in the community, and especially when government perpetrates or encourages these violations, this operates like a cancer undermining the health of the entire society, and sapping the vitality from all other gains. One thinks immediately of the disregard of human liberty by totalitarian regimes, such as Communist regimes, which subordinate the human person and all natural human associations, including the family, to the State. Everything such governments accomplish is undermined by the fear, inefficiency, lack of human initiative, enforced lies, and even despair which constantly sap the strength of the people and the good they would otherwise achieve.

The exact same thing is true of cultures and states which ignore or offend against the culture of life as embodied in sexual responsibility, marriage, family and the protection and nurturing of dependent persons. In our own country, there has for the past generation or so been a false dichotomy drawn between “social issues” and “life issues”, as if the voter were required to make a purely prudential choice between the two, a choice which could go either way based on the personal assessment of each voter. What has been lost, as Pope Benedict pointed out so forcefully in his landmark social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, is the understanding that the intrinsic violations of the natural law on the life issues are not only gravely evil in themselves but utterly and inevitably subversive of social progress generally. It is necessary to quote all of Benedict’s admonition is section 28:

One of the most striking aspects of development in the present day is the important question of respect for life, which cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples. It is an aspect which has acquired increasing prominence in recent times, obliging us to broaden our concept of poverty and underdevelopment to include questions connected with the acceptance of life, especially in cases where it is impeded in a variety of ways.
Not only does the situation of poverty still provoke high rates of infant mortality in many regions, but some parts of the world still experience practices of demographic control, on the part of governments that often promote contraception and even go so far as to impose abortion. In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other States as if it were a form of cultural progress.
Some non-governmental organizations work actively to spread abortion, at times promoting the practice of sterilization in poor countries, in some cases not even informing the women concerned. Moreover, there is reason to suspect that development aid is sometimes linked to specific health-care policies which de facto involve the imposition of strong birth control measures. Further grounds for concern are laws permitting euthanasia as well as pressure from lobby groups, nationally and internationally, in favour of its juridical recognition.
Openness to life is at the center of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man's true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual.

It might also be useful to observe that there are certain aspects of the Pope’s thesis which have been repeatedly verified not only by logic but by social and economic science. For example, to take only the relationship between the family and financial well-being, we really do know the following:

  1. The most important correlate of basic financial well-being in modern societies (and probably any society) is family strength.
  2. Divorce has led to an overwhelming feminization of poverty.
  3. The demographic failure of the hedonistic West is one of the fundamental causes of the decline in Western prosperity.

Once again: Systemic violations of the natural law are always massively destructive of the common good. The natural law provides the essential framework for the achievement of the common good, and it is the indispensable guide for governmental action to secure, protect and enhance the common good. Any government which promotes violations of the natural law commits a fundamental crime against the common good which demands immediate correction. In voting, the first responsibility of citizens is to evaluate government policy against the natural law, and work to correct any violations. Only in the second place is it morally permissible to speak of an overall prudential impression of the best way to vote.

A Contemporary Narrative Debunked

I indicated earlier that one of the things that undermines voter intelligence is the dominant cultural narratives that seep deep into our psyches. One of our most common cultural narratives teaches us that inequality itself is morally objectionable and that its remedy can only come through social engineering at the hands of the modern State. I’ve already given some indications of why this narrative is wrong, and certainly there is no historical example in which economic dependence on the State has led to the general improvement in prosperity its adherents claim for it. For this reason, it is not irrrelevant here to devote some small space to the purpose of undermining this narrative, in the hope of encouraging Catholic voters to examine the roots of social well-being and the role of government more deeply.

Let me refer interested readers to some of my earlier essays on related topics, such as: Intermediary Institutions Represent, Preserve and Shape a Robust Culture and Practical Economics: How Things Work, Why There is Room for Morality, Where to Go from Here. But please note that there is no need here to take my word for it. Not only did Pope Benedict declare in Caritas in Veritate that solidarity cannot be delegated to the State and that a binary view which pits the market against the State is “corrosive of society” (cf. #38-39), but Pope John Paul II, in Centesimus Annus, spelled out the fundamental contemporary problem, which I will quote at length:

In recent years the range of such [State] intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of state, the so-called "Welfare State." This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the "Social Assistance State." Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care. (#48)

To complete the debunking of this dominant Western economic narrative, and to bring us back to the fundamental need for voters first and foremost to redress violations of the natural law, we might perform a thought experiment. Let us consider what it would have been like in the old South if a proposal had gained sway to free the slaves under a regime which would provide for their basic economic needs while encouraging promiscuity, discouraging the formation of stable marriages and families, and facilitating abortion. The result would be a dependent class which lacks the moral capital and family solidarity necessary for social progress—good for retaining votes, but bad for almost everything else. How does this compare with the narrative which dominates so much of fashionable Western thought today?


Over the past few days I have heard from several readers who have stated that I completely missed the point in my analysis of the recent Pew survey (The Pew Survey’s Most Sobering Result), which showed a marked reluctance among Catholics to vote against Barack Obama. They claimed that they would vote for Obama not because of his assault on religious liberty or his promotion of contraception, sterilization, abortion and gay marriage, but because “we must help the poor” or because “he is the best candidate to lead us out of our economic problems”. In light of this analysis, the mind boggles at the lack of moral reflection inherent in such remarks. First, there is an implicit acceptance here of a dominant cultural narrative which is extremely dubious. Second, even if the narrative were correct, these views represent an impermissible preference of a prudential judgment over a moral certainty. The moral bankruptcy boils down to this astonishing assertion: “I don’t care what a candidate does as long as I think he will make us more wealthy.”

There is, clearly, much to consider in deciding how to cast one’s vote. To summarize, there is first the absolute requirement for each voter to perform a careful moral analysis based on the natural law. The purpose is to determine whether there are intrinsic moral evils which require a specific civic response prior to and independently of one’s own prudential judgments about the best way to achieve various political aims in support of the common good. Only after this question is settled can one indulge in the relative luxury of debating the secondary prudential questions with the intention of basing one’s vote on an overall prudential impression.

In the current American case, Barack Obama has already implemented new laws which expand the abortion license, which force nearly all citizens to participate in the evils of contraception, sterilization and abortion, and which attack religious liberty. He also advocates gay marriage, and has worked hard to invalidate the Defense of Marriage Act. All of these things violate the natural law, portending an inevitable destruction of the common good, and marking a fundamental failure of government to perform its proper role. Without advocating any policies of his own which violate the natural law, Mitt Romney has promised to eliminate these fresh initiatives of Obama on his first day in office. On this basis, a morally responsible voter would oppose Obama’s attacks on the natural law by voting for Romney.

An important caveat here is that Mitt Romney has also shown by his past political actions, as well as his recent public statements, that he accepts the status quo of abortion under many circumstances. Although he has promised to eliminate Obama’s fresh violations of the natural law, Romney has also shown himself in the past willing to implement a health plan with some of the same moral problems as Obamacare. For this reason, it is perfectly possible for a moral voter to decide that an alliance with either candidate entails an unacceptable level of cooperation with evil. On this reading, a morally responsible voter would decide to vote for neither candidate.

As another important consideration affecting overall political strategy, I would like to mention briefly the importance of recognizing that the modern State, in all its Western incarnations, has become one of the chief social forces undermining the natural law. This is accomplished through an immoral and utopian legal positivism enforced by a sort of soft regulatory totalitarianism. As I have argued elsewhere, this means that one of the greatest signs of hope in our current situation is the paradoxical bright side of our current economic woes—namely, the inability of the State to sustain the high cost of maintaining a highly regulatory society inimical to both the natural law and the Catholic Church. This, for very good moral reasons, makes significant budget reduction proposals worthy of serious attention, including the one developed by Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Ultimately we must enter the realm of the prudential here, but the strategy of resisting the anti-natural law capabilities of the modern State by taking advantage of the budget crunch does at least recommend itself on strictly moral grounds (see my earlier essay Budgetary Reform: Opportunity Knocks).

In all, however, the most important points are these: First, the moral voter must engage in a formal moral analysis which supersedes his own overall prudential impression. Second, the moral voter has a serious obligation to examine the “personal attitudes embedded deep in his psyche” to determine whether these attitudes have been formed by dominant cultural narratives which he has never examined. As I have often said, Catholics, above all others, should be able to think outside the box. Our hearts are not God’s hearts. Too frequently, our treasure is in the wrong place. And unless we observe these rules, we will be unable to use our right to vote to sustain any positive contribution to the common good.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: impossible - Oct. 22, 2012 12:05 AM ET USA

    Every article on morality of voting and or Catholic social teaching should start with this reminder from the Compendium of Catholic Social Teachding at #69: "With her social doctrine, the Church aims “at helping man on the path of salvation”[94]. This is her primary and sole purpose."

  • Posted by: FredC - Sep. 29, 2012 8:04 PM ET USA

    The the USCCB pamphlet on the upcoming election has, after listing the intrinsic evils: "This teaching also compels us as Catholics to oppose genocide, torture, unjust war, and the use of the death penalty, as well as to pursue peace and help overcome poverty, racism, and other conditions that demean human life." Surely this statement confuses the issues.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Sep. 28, 2012 4:24 PM ET USA

    Very nice article, Dr. Mirus! I just wish more Catholics would read this. The sad thing is, most people vote their bellies or their pocketbooks.