La philosophie dans l’isoloir

Some scattered thoughts on lesser-evil voting. Let’s say we have a choice between Grendel and his slightly more ferocious mother, Mrs. Grendel. In the US, this is a fairly realistic simulation. The lesser-evillists insist that we must vote for Grendel. Their sincerity is not to be doubted, but their logic has some gaps. There are several fundamental propositions, each, I think, quite fallacious.

1. A non-vote for Grendel equals a vote for Mrs Grendel

Naively, the voter on election day has four broad categories of choice:

a. Stay home
b. Vote for Grendel
c. Vote for Mrs Grendel
d. (Possibly available to some and not others) Vote for a third party which actually stands for something you believe in, with the full awareness that your candidate is unlikely to prevail.

The lesser-evil argument is that options a) and d), being non-votes for Grendel, in fact undergo a kind of quantum collapse and somehow are transmuted into votes for Mrs Grendel.

It is not quite clear how a non-vote is supposed to become a vote. Moreover, it is not quite clear for whom the non-vote is actually a vote, particularly in the stay-at-home case, option a).

Naively it would appear that the stay-at-home non-voter’s non-vote, were it to be multiplied by -1 and become a vote, might equally well be a vote for Grendel or Mrs Grendel or a third party. That is, the non-voter non-voted equally for all of the above; who then gets his virtual vote? Perhaps each gets a third, and his distributed virtual vote cancels out and turns back into a non-vote again?

Clearly, that is an unacceptable outcome, and the lesser-evil evangelist will tell you that Mrs Grendel certainly gets the whole enchilada. But on what basis this assertion is made does not clearly appear.

It gets worse. Perhaps the abstainer did in fact quite intentionally cast a vote for a candidate who is implicitly on the ballot in every election: namely, the Hon. Mr. None Of The Above. That is, the abstention is not just a mere nullity, a non-action, a thing that didn’t happen, but an actual statement of preference on the voter’s part, just as a physical ballot cast would have been; and perhaps the preference could be expressed as “Away with all these pests; come up with something better, or don’t bother me.” In this case the lesser-evil alchemist, with his alembics and retorts, boils away the voter’s actual intent and transmutes his actual vote for None Of The Above, not just into a non-vote, but into a specific vote for Mrs Grendel.

Option d), the third-party vote, complicates the picture further, because it’s not in any sense a non-vote at all; it’s a downright vote, a ballot marked, a lever pulled, a box checked; there’s nothing virtual or implicit about it; one needn’t surmise or infer the voter’s intent; he has made it plain. Here the lesser-evil alchemist accomplishes two successive transmutations: the first, a liquidation of the actual vote into an essential non-vote; the second, of the newly-minted non-vote, into a vote for Mrs Grendel. Neither of these procedures is entirely straightforward; the second, for the reason mentioned above, namely that it is not obvious for whom (if not None Of The Above) a non-vote should be accounted a vote; the first, because the voter has in fact cast a vote and therefore recorded a concrete, explicit, non-conjectural preference, which is, one might have thought, what elections are meant to be about.

The Philosopher’s Stone in the lesser-evil alchemist’s lab, curiously, is none other than Mrs Grendel. More precisely, it’s the operator’s conviction that the only thing that matters in the world is stopping Mrs Grendel, even if it means that her anthropophagous offspring will spend the next four years sojourning in the mead-hall by night, tearing our arms and heads off and eating them raw. Since Mrs Grendel is the only thing that matters, then it follows that everything else – all other considerations, all the preferences and priorities and principles of actual individual human beings, for instance – are flattened out, boiled down, into The Mrs Grendel Question. Because of course, she would have devoured a few more heads and arms than Junior, as everybody knows. This assumption about Mrs Grendel and her appetite brings us to Fallacy Number 2.

2. Alternate universes are knowable

Turning from the Grendel family to some actual families: the lesser-evil activist will tell you, with sublime confidence, that Hillary Clinton or Al Gore would certainly have done, or not done, this or that. But this is basically sci-fi; it’s a claim to know “what would have happened if”, which can’t in fact be known. Particularly in the muddled arena of politics. There are some things that might be said about the parallel world with a modest degree of confidence – Clinton would probably have had nicer things to say about gay people, and given her background, would probably have paid at least lip-service to the experts during the COVID pestilence.

But then, of course, there are other areas where the what-if is a good deal less clear. What if Clinton had had a more aggressive policy toward Russia? What if she had insisted on intervening in Syria? Neither of these what-ifs seems intrinsically less likely than the kind words for gay people and experts.

It is of course possible and even plausible that Hillary Clinton might have been better in some ways than Donald Trump. But it is also possible and plausible that in other ways she might have been worse – if only because more effective. I for one do not understand how the alternate-universe theorist, summing over this nearly infinite range of variables, can have such a clear birds-eye view of a universe which did not in fact come into being.
What voter who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 did so because he was expecting what we got? Moreover, can we state with any real confidence that electing him was in any way better than re-electing Bush Pere? After all, we know what each of these guys actually did while in office; the infinite airy ambit of conjecture is thus restricted to the mundane finitude of fact.

At this point I imagine that my imaginary lesser-evil interlocutor will object, but the Democrats are always a little bit better, on average, than the Republicans! A careful look at the history might throw some shade on this confident belief. For one thing, nearly all the dire things that have happened on the political plane in my lifetime have taken place with solid bipartisan support. And Joe Biden, in particular, has been up to his neck in every one of them. Similarly, looking at the actual track record of Hillary Clinton offers little basis for the conjecturalist’s sunnier fancies.

3. The fifth decimal place is all that matters

I associate this argument with the esteemed Noam Chomsky, a man with whom one is rightly and prudently reluctant to disagree. But as the proverb says, fools rush in.

The Fifth Decimal Place argument is that yeah, the Grendelites and the Mrs Grendelites are almost identically bad. But “almost” is the operative word. Out at the fifth decimal place, there’s a residual difference; and since voting costs very little, one is morally obliged to vote for this residual, however exiguous.

There are three things wrong with this argument.

First, it depends on the parallel-world theory discussed above; it relies on a confident belief that one can calculate the results out to the fifth decimal place. This, I argue, is impossible.

Second, it assumes that the badness of the various candidates can be reduced to a scalar quantity – call it the Nosferatu Scale, analogous to the Richter Scale. But of course different people have different priorities; Palestine matters a great deal to some, and marriage equality a great deal to others. That is to say, an individual’s political priorities are a multi-dimensional vector, not a scalar; and how these vector quantities are to be reduced to a common scalar value, agreed upon by all, is a real puzzle. For some people the difference between Ma Grendel and Boy Grendel shows up at the first decimal place; for others, out at the seventeenth, if at all, and the signal is completely lost in the noise.

Third, and perhaps most important, it excludes the time dimension; it ignores the fact that a vote (or even a non-vote) is a kind of intervention in, or contribution to, a developing institutional process.

Surely we have all noticed that over the last half-century or so the greater evil has become steadily more evil, and the lesser evil has also become steadily more evil right alongside it? Might one not argue that a vote for the lesser evil has more than one implication? Is it not also a vote for this process itself? Is it not to say, I don’t care how evil you get: as long as you can persuade me that the other guy is more evil, I’m ya boi, and I mean to follow you right down to the eighth circle of Hell?

2 thoughts on “La philosophie dans l’isoloir

    • That would matter, conceivably, if the only calculation were the ratio between the effort of voting and the net effect of your vote (not just on the election, but on the world). Even on those terms the argument is dubious — it actually *does* take some non-zero time and effort to vote, and the effect of your vote is zero for all practical purposes. But of course a lot more goes into voting than instrumental calculation. My own view of it is that it’s a kind of existential challenge to the voter: it makes him ask who he is, what he values, what he can accept and what he can’t.

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