Must a Genuine Pro-Lifer Vote for Romney? Exposing a Critical Moral Fallacy
Some readers have been genuinely confused (and sometimes angered) by my insistence that voters are not morally constrained to vote for whichever candidate offers the immediate lesser of two evils with respect to abortion. Please remember the context of my earlier remarks: To vote for Obama-Biden is immoral; to vote for Romney-Ryan is moral; but it is also moral to choose not to vote for either of these two major candidates (see A Note on Political Choices, and Political Lies). But my assertions are false if, in fact, we have a serious obligation to vote for the viable candidate in any given election whose victory will ensure that a lesser number of innocent people die during the next term.
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It is precisely this obligation which I argue does not exist. I have already offered what I think is the best argument for voting for Romney-Ryan (see The Strongest Argument for Romney), and you’ll note that I do not think the “save as many lives during the next administration as possible” argument is the strongest argument. That argument is utterly insufficient to compel voters who believe that it is better to withhold their votes from Romney-Ryan in order to break the cycle which limits us to choosing the lesser of exactly two evils.
The Key Question and the Right Answer
Let me assure you that this essay is not about how I intend to vote. It is about the moral options available to all men and women of good will. Why, then, do I say that the insistence on saving the most lives over the next four years—which is self-evidently a reasonable goal—does not rise to the level of a moral requirement?
The answer is that while we have a moral obligation to oppose abortion, we do not ordinarily have a moral obligation to prefer some potentially aborted lives over others. If a man’s own child is about to be aborted, he has a clear responsibility to save his child’s life rather than to busy himself with creating the conditions in which far fewer babies will be aborted ten or twenty years from now. But as a general rule, a person has no such obligation, any more than a military strategy must be devised to favor the minimization of deaths over the next six months as opposed to a substantially greater reduction of the death toll in the long run. (A strategy which directly and deliberately kills non-combatants, of course, would always be immoral.)
In this regard, let us consider a hypothetical pro-lifer. This person may discern that, in following the strategy of always voting for the lesser of exactly the two evils presented to us by Democrats and Republicans, we can never break out of the abortion culture generally. This person may discern that we are thus locking ourselves into a box, doomed to retard rather than enhance the potential for significant political progress toward a culture of life.
Now, if what this hypothetical person discerns is correct, who is then responsible for the millions of unborn children who will continue to die, as each decade passes, because voters were convinced they were morally obliged to choose to try to save (say) 100,000 unborn children in the next four years instead of working toward a different sort of political order which might make abortion illegal in (say) twenty years—potentially saving many more lives in the long run? If we assign guilt for lives lost in the short term to the pro-lifer who pursues a strategy he thinks will be superior in the long term, then surely we must assign guilt for lives lost in the long-term to the pro-lifer who insists on a short-term strategy which lacks long-term success.
I hope you are now beginning to see why I am addressing this issue yet again.
Our Actual Moral Obligations
Morally, our obligation is to oppose abortion as effectively as we can, according to our own prudential assessment of what strategy will produce the best overall results. If we think we have a better long-term strategy, we are under no obligation to vote in a way that undermines that strategy just because such a vote is likely to result in fewer deaths in the short term. We have no obligation to prefer to save some of the lives of those conceived tomorrow in preference to those conceived at some later date. We have no obligation to prefer a short-term policy that will save 10 lives to a long-term policy which will later save 100 lives.
In fact, in terms of voting with respect to abortion, we have just three moral obligations. First, we may not vote for any candidate because we wish to continue or increase existing access to abortion (or any other evil). Second, we may not vote for any candidate who regards abortion as a right or seeks to expand the abortion license unless that candidate is, at the very least, less in favor of intrinsic moral evils than all other viable candidates. And third, we must exercise our civic responsibilities in a way which, on careful consideration, we sincerely believe will minimize abortion (or other equivalent intrinsic moral evils, if any exist) most effectively.
Therefore, our hypothetical pro-lifer may sincerely pursue a policy of teaching the Republican Party that it cannot gain the widespread support needed to win elections unless it becomes far more seriously pro-life. Or he may pursue a policy of building momentum for a third party that is substantially more pro-life. Or he may condemn and withdraw from American politics in order to fuel a broader effort to mobilize fellow citizens in the service of a deeper cultural reform. Morally speaking, he may choose any of these strategies, and possibly others, provided he has conscientiously concluded that the strategy in question will address the abortion problem more effectively than the options provided by voting Democrat or Republican.
Make no mistake about this: Even though we are right to be very concerned about what will happen in the near future—and indeed, it is primarily the problems and possibilities of the near future which lead us to read the more distant future in a certain way—we cannot argue that our hypothetical pro-lifer must base his decision on a chronological prejudice.
Toward a Proper Argument
Now, what we might argue instead is that no conceivable option apart from voting now for the lesser evil has a chance of producing greater fruit over any reasonable length of time, and so the best we can do is to take what we can immediately get. That is an argument which should be made, and made vigorously, by anyone convinced it is true. But note very carefully that this will be an argument over prudential judgments among equally-committed citizens—an argument not about absolute morality but about the best strategy. And since this is so, we will no longer be telling people—as some pro-lifers and even some pro-life organizations have very erroneously suggested this year—that any voter who fails to support Romney-Ryan is behaving immorally and quite likely to be damned.
I believe it is the heat of the political moment that makes this vital moral point so difficult to grasp. Is it not astonishing how quickly so many pro-life organizations, which until very recently invested the whole of their resources into condemning and opposing exactly the formal position held by the Romney-Ryan ticket, have now become committed to Romney-Ryan almost to the point of Messianic hysteria? Perhaps once again we have allowed ourselves to be tied in knots by Presidential campaign euphoria, by the domination of our broader perceptions and deeper good sense by the excitement of, well, a horse race.
In contrast, all I am proposing—all I have ever been proposing—is that this is too important an issue to permit mutual recriminations based on sloppy moral reasoning. I have discussed the matter primarily in terms of abortion—the great intrinsically evil scourge of our time—but there are other serious intrinsic evils looming which will eventually demand similar consideration. With respect to such evils, good Catholics must enter into the “campaign spirit” without jeopardizing the Holy Spirit, which usually means that, having formed ourselves well, we must keep our eyes wide open. We must be steadfast in our refusal to be blinded by partisan fury, organizational self-interest, or righteous rhetoric.
Instead, we must retain our ability to think outside the box. We may find that nothing outside the box promises much, either now or in the reasonably foreseeable future. Or we may find that pursuing some alternate strategy outside the box is not incompatible with also voting within the box. But if we do not begin by considering and respecting all the moral options, then we will surely end by failing the most important practical test of Christian politics: The test of effectiveness.
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Posted by: dover beachcomber -
Mar. 31, 2018 3:52 PM ET USA
I concur with Randal. This is a splendid, concise essay.
Posted by: feedback -
Mar. 29, 2018 11:52 AM ET USA
Thank you for this article. Characteristic of the young age is the willingness to rebel for the right causes and to face challenges in the process, along with a radical affinity for the truth. Our secularized culture, which forcefully promotes falsehoods (75+ genders, etc), offers great challenges to the young Catholics and many occasions for them to stand up for the truth. However, I'm afraid that the upcoming Synod will be an exercise in secular Political Correctness. And I'd love to be wrong.
Posted by: garedawg -
Mar. 28, 2018 11:53 AM ET USA
Formal Catholic education is not the answer to everything. I sent one boy to a large state school in one of the most liberal college towns in the country, and he became very active in various university ministries and really caught on fire for his faith. The other boy went to a very solid school on the Newman list, but starting skipping Mass and questioning the Church's moral teachings (fortunately he is now getting back on track after graduation.) So, you never know.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Mar. 28, 2018 5:34 AM ET USA
Jeff, this is one of the most important articles, in my estimation, that you have written in years. It covers all the bases, and does so with a compassion not often seen in the modern Church. No sneering, no name calling, no elitism, just a broad laying out of the facts, an interpretation that the Church Fathers and Doctors could assent to, and a brief scheme for proper formation of pre-adults. The crux of the problem in the West is an inadequate educational system, blinded by the secular.
Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 -
Mar. 28, 2018 12:48 AM ET USA
Where in the bible does it say "elders learn from your children"? Where does it say anywhere "teachers learn from your students? The only people saying such stupid things are Pope Francis' cronies.
Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Nov. 04, 2012 12:50 PM ET USA
Please read EWTN National Catholic Register piece: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/is-there-a-lesser-of-two-evils1/.
Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Nov. 01, 2012 2:37 PM ET USA
This is no time for theory. 2 choices before us. Not choosing ignores present administration's demonstrated actions consistent with Socialism. Only 1 choice w/ hope of reestablishing personhood, religious freedom, and improving individual rights. Not to vote is wrong, irresponsible, & immoral. There is only 1 moral choice in this election. We don't live in a perfect world. I wish we did. We make choices everyday between the lesser of two evils. This is a choice about the greater good.
Posted by: garedawg -
Nov. 01, 2012 10:38 AM ET USA
I'm faced with an interesting situation at the state level. Our Republican candidate is pro-gay-marriage, and of course the Democrat is as well. I am considering voting for the Democrat just to keep the Republican from advancing his political career and poisoning the rest of the Republican Party. Some things do need to be killed in the womb, and this guy's political career is one of them.
Posted by: djpeterson -
Oct. 31, 2012 5:35 PM ET USA
Thank you Jeff for a very sober assessment. It is a daunting situation. Those who choose the lesser of two evils should realize we can expect very little or nothing on behalf of unborn children.
Posted by: chasann113163 -
Oct. 31, 2012 1:37 PM ET USA
Thank You Agnesday, you hit the nail on the head. An Obama Biden win will not only be a disaster for the pro-life movement and Catholics but I believe it will open a door that will do harm to the whole Christian Community.
Posted by: veniteadoremus1822 -
Oct. 31, 2012 1:27 PM ET USA
Given your reasoning, it would be justifiable for a Catholic to withhold his/her vote from every candidate in nearly every major election. Do you really think this is a sound proposition? I believe your opinion here is severely misguided.
Posted by: Thomas429 -
Oct. 30, 2012 9:31 PM ET USA
Does not the arguement that we should not continue supporting the "lesser of two evils" in the hope that a party may change its position open us to a charge of being complicit by failing to act? Especially when comparing the absolute wrongs of abortion, sodomy, euthanasia, and or same sex marriage and the potential wrongness of reducing the government's role in caring for the sick, disabled, and otherwise impoverished? This governmental largess is not charity.
Posted by: impossible -
Oct. 30, 2012 8:18 PM ET USA
Perhaps Mr. Mirus and Bishop Burns can collaborate on condensing their misguided opinions into an effective October surmise/surprise for Obama/Biden. For proper guidance on this matter, I will look to scholars like Cardinal Burke and George Weigel rather than to pedantics, no matter their intentions. Oh yes, let's consider Archbishop Chaput's writings as well.
Posted by: AgnesDay -
Oct. 30, 2012 4:23 PM ET USA
Dr. Jeff--if Romney-Ryan is not elected, it's no secret who will be. This is a murdering machine of a current administration, and I do not see how people of good will can shirk their responsibility by refusing to vote. I refused to vote for Nixon in 1972, likewise for McGovern. Ultimately the results were the same both ways. In this case, a Romney-Ryan administration is in no way the moral equivalent of Obama-Biden.