Lesser Evils and Elections

Monday, 10-19-2020


Reader’s Query:

I didn't vote for Trump in 2016 but will probably do so this time.  And in my view, to characterize evangelical Trump voters like me as fear-driven, power-hungry pragmatists is very unfair.  It's not too far removed, I think, from Obama's “bitter clingers” dismissal.  In any event, even though I often talk about this, I’ve realized that I don't have a clear idea in mind about where the line lies between inviolable principle and prudential calculation.  Presumably there are politicians so bad one simply could not vote for them, even though voting for Trump seems to me to be in the lesser of two evils category.  But I'm not sure what defines the line between principled abstention and prudent tactical support.  When is bad character simply disqualifying, no matter the badness of the alternative?  I poked around on your blog to see if you had written a post on this question, but I didn't find anything exactly on target.



Excellent questions.  Thank you for prodding me to respond.

The first consideration concerns intrinsic evils – acts that are evil not just because of their results, but in themselves, so that no result whatsoever could justify them.  These are the ones about which our great thinkers have said, “Let us not do evil so that good will result.”  An intrinsic evil must never be willed, either as a means to an end or as an end in itself.  For example, I must not commit an abortion either because killing the baby would limit the family size, or because I just want the baby dead. 

But you aren’t asking about committing an evil.  You are asking about cooperating with its commission.  Let’s make some distinctions.  A politician who believes in abortion and therefore votes to keep it legal isn’t committing the act, but he is formally cooperating with the act.  One is also formally cooperating in abortion if one believes in it and votes for the politician in order to promote it.  Such cooperation is called “formal” because one is a willing accomplice; will or intention is the crucial element.  Here the principle is that formal cooperation in intrinsic evil is also intrinsically evil.

Suppose that even though the voter says he doesn’t support abortion, there is no way to distinguish the object of his intention from the object of the politician’s intention.  For example, the politician may support abortion, and the voter may say “Though I am personally opposed to abortion, I am pro-choice” -- but in fact they both intend that people have the liberty to kill babies.  This is still formal cooperation, and so it is still intrinsically evil.  However, it is called implicit formal cooperation, because the intention is not admitted but implied.

But suppose that although the voter doesn’t want abortions to be permitted, he votes for the politician in order to achieve some other end -- an end that is distinct from abortion, and to which abortion is not a means.  This is called material cooperation.  The term “material” signifies the fact that permitting the liberty to kill babies is not the intention of the one who is voting for the politician, but only a foreseeable consequence of electing him.  Material cooperation can be more or less remote.  In the case of voting for a politician, it is usually considered remote.

Is remote material cooperation allowable?  Only if two conditions are satisfied:  First, there must be a “proportionate reason.”  In this case that would mean that more evil would result from not electing the politician than from electing him.  Second, it must be possible to avoid “scandal,” which means that I must avoid not only evil but the appearance of evil.  If, by campaigning for the candidate, I give the impression of supporting intrinsic evil, then even if this impression is unintended, I am still committing scandal because of the evil influence on others.

Suppose someone were to decide that he was opposed to a particular candidate because of the candidate’s support of, say, for abortion, but that he would vote for him anyway because of his support for, say, universal single-payer health insurance.  In this case, the condition of “proportionate reason” would not have been satisfied.  After all, the question of whether public health is better supported by private or public insurance is a prudential judgment; it is not intrinsically evil to support either approach, even if one is mistaken, and it is hard to see how defects in the system of insurance can be more important than ending the deliberate killing of innocents.

You mention character, which is more important than most issues, though not so important as to override support for intrinsic evils.  It seems to me that in the present campaign, as in 2016, both presidential candidates are sneerers, mockers, and boasters, though one displays his bad character in ways that the political classes don’t mind, while the other displays his in a way that they do.  I now think that in that previous election year, I did not take this fact seriously enough, and I regret it.

As to what the respective candidates want to do, things seem to me pretty clear.  Mr. Biden enthusiastically supports several intrinsic evils, abortion being but one of them.  His support for this atrocity is even more horrifying because he claims that it is compatible with being a faithful Christian.  Thus, not only is he committing deadly sin, but he is dragging legions of others into it with him.  Despite Mr. Trump’s offensive style, so far as I am aware he has not given political support to anything like the deliberate taking of innocent lives; in fact he has opposed it.  In 2016, I thought there was good reason not to believe him about that, and I abstained.  Since then, though, he has consistently demonstrated that he meant it after all.

When there is an alternative, it is gravely difficult to find some “proportionate reason” justifying the remote material cooperation with evil involved in voting for a proponent of the liberty to kill babies.  What is worse than willfully facilitating millions of infant deaths?  The genocidal murder of the entire population of Canada would be, but no one has proposed anything like that.  Yet.

In short, in the classical analysis the question of whether someone is “too bad to vote for” depends --

  • First, on the kind of bad he is (does he merely make bad prudential judgments, or is he committed to intrinsic evil?);
  • Second, on the kind of cooperation with his bad that my act would be (formal, or material?);
  • And third, since such cooperation is material, then on whether there is “proportionate reason” for voting for him anyway.

In the population at large, clear thinking about these profoundly important matters is in short supply.  The distinction between intrinsic evils and merely bad prudential judgments is not often made.  Sheer, dull familiarity with abortion – along with the fact that the child in the womb is invisible – has dulled our awareness of just how heinous it is that we kill off a quarter or a third of our own little ones.  Even people who consider themselves pro-life do not always think through how vile abortion really is, for in-the-womb infanticide is not merely one issue among others.  If we can destroy the weak, the small, and the innocent -- even our own flesh and blood -- we can do anything.

I do mean anything.  For many other dreadful things are going on, and that is no accident.  In discussing abortion, I have only focused on the worst.  The natural order of marriage is under attack.  One who says there are two sexes is treated as a leper.  Race hatred has come to be viewed as a means of advancing racial justice.  Social distancing is demanded, except for rioters.  The big lie is considered politics as usual.  So is the continuous small lie – lying about everything as a matter of policy.  With the willing cooperation of their practitioners, many areas of science have been perverted to political ends.  University colleges of liberal arts are becoming instruments for crushing the study of the liberal arts.  Convinced of their merits, contemptuous of ordinary people, our political classes quite obviously no longer believe in a republic, and are willing to subvert the administration of justice to destroy a president who isn't one of theirs.  An astonishing number of their supporters wish painful death to him, and say so.  Instead of shouting all this from the rooftops, most journalists do their best to push from the rooftops anyone who might be tempted to climb up there and speak.  Cowardice is the order of the day.  Few are willing to be shamed for opposing the shameful.

If we can swallow moral atrocities, I think all these other evils are only to be expected. They are connected; they are parts of the galloping moral senility of the culture.  Having let go our grip on right and wrong, we are suffering the natural consequences of doing so.  It is dreadful and scandalous, though in view of our moral illness not surprising, that the candidate standing in the way of that juggernaut is himself not a man of virtue.  But he is standing in the way.

Not that his doing so could be anything more than a delaying action.  Politics can guard and corrupt culture, but politics cannot restore culture.  What is needed is something more profound:  A change of heart.  Let each of us look to his own.


“The Dogma Lives Loudly Within You”

Monday, 10-12-2020


Especially in matters of conscience, leftists are always trying to disqualify the arguments of the other side by calling them “religious.”  Most people know that Judge Amy Coney Barrett has been nominated for the Supreme Court.  Judge Coney is Catholic.  As Senator Dianne Feinstein complained during previous confirmation hearings in 2017, when she was up for the U.S. Court of Appeals, “The dogma lives loudly within you.”  You might have thought the senator was complimenting Judge Barrett’s courage and faith; no, she was insulting them.  She didn’t mean that Judge Barrett made poor arguments, but that whether the judge made good ones or bad didn’t matter.  Since Judge Barrett had been outed as a person of religious faith, her views on any subject whatsoever were automatically disqualified.

But what is religion?  The theologian Richard Niebuhr (not to be confused with his brother Reinhold) defined it as “unconditional commitment.”  In this sense, Mrs. Feinstein is religious too, but she has a different religion.  Suppose she were told that “The dogma lives loudly within you” whenever she recited her unconditional commitment to abortion on demand, or her view that it is in the unconditional interests of mothers to be able to have their children killed.

The important question is not whether one has unconditional commitments – whether or not he knows it, every human does – but what makes some commitments more reasonable than others.  We shouldn’t let the other side say “My reasons count, but yours don’t.”  Let them offer their reasons.  Let us offer ours.  May the better reasons win.

You can’t reach fanatics like Mrs. Feinstein this way, because the whole point of disqualifying the other side’s good reasons is to avoid having to discuss one's own bad reasons.  But you may be able to reach confused people sitting on the fence.


What Is Socialism? What Is Communism?

Monday, 10-05-2020



I've read various explanations of socialism and communism, but they aren’t clear.  Such phrases as "owned by the community," for example, sound vague and ominous to me.  Would you consider defining and differentiating these two things at your website?



Since most of the people who sling the terms “socialism” and “communism” are influenced by Karl Marx, let’s begin with how he used these terms.

Marx viewed all government as the rule of some class over the others.  Under the state of affairs he called capitalism, productive resources such as tools and factories are privately owned, and the government, he said, is a committee of the class that owns them – called “capitalists,” because productive resources are called capital.

Opposed to the capitalist class is the proletariat.  The proletariat is the working class, understanding this term to mean those who are employed by the capitalists -- not, for example, independent farmers or small craftsmen.  Marx expected that when the industrial working class realizes the true state of things, it will rise up, the tables will turn, and the government will be used by the working class to suppress the owning class -- and eventually to suppress all the other classes, including those independent farmers and small craftsmen -- and confiscate what they own.  This he called socialism, which he said will be a “dictatorship” of the working class over the surviving remnants of the other classes.  He did not understand socialism as a goal in itself, but as a transitional stage on the way to communism.

In the culmination of socialism – that is, under communism – everyone will be a worker.  All the other classes will have been completely eliminated.  About how this will work, Marx was vague.  When he said that the state will “wither away,” it is highly unlikely that he meant that there would no longer be a ruling apparatus, or that everyone would live in benign anarchy.  What he seems to have meant is that this ruling apparatus will no longer count as a government, because it won’t be the rule of one class over the others.  Rather it will be the rule of the workers over the workers themselves.  We can call this a society of a single class, or we can call it a “classless” society just in the sense that there are no more class divisions.

Since as Marx uses these terms, no country has achieved communism, in the strictest sense there are no communist countries.  He would say that what we call a communist country is a socialist country making the transition to communism, and that what we call a communist party is an organizational tool of the industrial working class, helping to bring this transition about.  Empirically, such countries are totalitarian, meaning that they deny the right of any form of social organization to exist independently of the state.  Churches, families, schools, trade unions, political parties, youth leagues, crafts guilds, neighborhoods and so on – all such forms of association are either absorbed into the state, subjugated to, or turned into its tools.

Sometimes people speak of “democratic” socialism.  In one sense, Marxist socialism can’t be democratic because it is a dictatorship of the industrial working class -- that is, of the rulers who claim to act for that class.  The sorts of rights, liberties, and protections against government that we associate with constitutional democracy would either not exist, or else be in the process of disappearing.

In another sense, though, a Marxist might call socialism democratic because in it the dictatorship is exercised by the class that is in the overwhelming majority – again meaning the rulers who claim to act for that class.  So from a Marxist point of view, if you will pardon the oxymoron, socialism is a majority dictatorship, or a democratic dictatorship.  And you will notice that countries with Marxist governments do typically call themselves “people’s democratic republics.”

In yet a third sense, a Marxist might conceivably call a particular stage of socialism democratic.  He might consider it a good idea to preserve the institutions of constitutional democracy just for the time being – just so long as elections and legislatures and such things can be subverted to advance the socialist program.  So he might say “I am a democratic socialist,” meaning that he wants to run for office under a socialist banner – but with the intention of abolishing the other parties once socialist power is secure.  In the same way, a socialist might allow limited private ownership of capital for the time being, but only under tight government rules and surveillance, and with a view to its eventual abolition.  That is what China does -- limited private ownership of capital was reinstated there because sole state ownership was working out so poorly – though China remains a totalitarian one-party state.

Both before and after Marx, the terms “socialism” and “communism” have sometimes been used in non-Marxist senses too, so let’s glance at these.

Before Marx, some people used the terms for any of the various ways of life attempted by voluntarily organized agricultural and handicraft communes (something of which Marx himself was contemptuous).  Depending on the type of commune, members sometimes owned their land and tools in common, sometimes lived in shared dwellings, sometimes practiced group marriage, and sometimes raised their children collectively (abolishing the special relationship between parents and children).  Many such experiments have been tried in the last few centuries, some more radical and some less.  Typically they have been small and short-lived.  The most successful (relatively speaking) have achieved their longevity by compromising with their principles. 

After Marx, especially since the mid-twentieth century, some people have come to use the term “socialism” as a synonym for social democracy, also called the welfare state.  In social democracy we find multiple parties, some state ownership of capital, some private ownership of capital (but under tight restrictions and with a high degree of state interference), high government benefits, high taxes to pay for all of that, and a very large bureaucracy to run all of it (making those benefits expensive).  Some Marxists view this sort of “socialism” as a form of their own sort of “socialism” – in other words, as a possible path to communism.  Other Marxists find it unacceptable, because they think it buys off the industrial workers and takes the wind out of the revolutionary sails.

Non-Marxists who favor that system usually like it either because of the government benefits they expect to receive at someone else’s expense, or because they perceive it as more equal.  Depending on how equal people are required to be, the bureaucracy of confiscation under such a system has to grow continually, because people who are unequal in talent, ability to learn, family stability, and willingness to work tend to end up unequal no matter how equally they start out.  Since continually taking away the fruits of labor discourages people from making an effort, over time such systems also have difficulty maintaining economic growth and keeping people employed.  They also undermine the economic incentives for getting and staying married, because easy government benefits give people the option of being married, in effect, to the government itself.

In our own day, saying that one favors “socialism” sometimes has still another meaning.  It can be a way of signaling that one sympathizes with some or all of the various forms of identity politics that resemble Marxism but substitute race, sex, or “gender” for economic class.  Sometimes the label “socialist” is also bandied about just to say I am against everything bad and in favor of everything good, much the same way some people used to use the label “Christian.”

And yes, you’re right.  In our politics – I am not here speaking of agricultural and handicraft communes -- whenever a socialist says things would be “owned by the community,” he means it would be owned by the government claiming to act for the community.  Whenever he says “all resources would be equally shared,” he means there would be no more private property, the government would decide what you need, and what you have worked for would not be yours.

Needless to say, the possible contributions of private property to the common good are ignored or denied in such views, but that is a story for another day!


To Mask or Not to Mask

Monday, 09-28-2020



Since the dawn of Covidtide, I’ve been encountering the argument “You don’t have the right to forgo wearing a mask [or whatever else the health czars want you to do] because you don’t have the right to endanger my life.”  Others say “Nearly every act we do potentially endangers someone’s life, so the argument fails.”  I admit that opening a car door isn’t equivalent to preventing a communicable disease, so I wonder about the appropriate response.  What do you think?



Both views are equally absolutist, but they absolutize in opposite directions.  One imprudently says that no risk to health should be tolerated, no matter how small; the other imprudently says that any risk to health should be permitted, no matter how large.  One of these especially appeals to people who think physical life is all there is, and obsess about prolonging it; the other especially to people who think they have a right to do whatever they please, and obsess about having their “autonomy.”

Wouldn’t you say the right course of action depends on circumstances?  If the chance of infecting others with a dangerous disease is very high if I don’t wear a mask, then of course I should wear one.  If the chance is miniscule, it would seem needless.  But the risk of transmission varies.  For example, it’s pretty high in crowded, enclosed spaces with poor air circulation, but pretty small in large spaces with good air circulation -- and it’s virtually nonexistent outside, unless people are packed together (for example, during rioting).

Against the risk to the health of others, we also have to balance the risk to the health of the persons who are wearing the masks.  For example, face coverings may make it very difficult for persons with asthma or other respiratory conditions to breathe.  Except in the most extreme circumstances, such people should be exempted from wearing them.

Needless to say, considerations other than health have to be taken into account too.  For example, one of the things that can make a law unjust is that it imposes disproportionate burdens, and excessive and arbitrary social distancing rules can certainly do that.  Unjust laws are not true laws at all, so in themselves they generate no duty to obey.  On the other hand, we should be careful not to behave in such ways that we encourage public disturbance, or set a harmful example of disrespect for law in general.  These can be reasons to obey even unjust rules, so long as they don’t require us to commit intrinsically evil acts.

Then again, in the present circumstances the risk of bad example may go in the other direction.  During the epidemic we have been subjected to a regulatory regime that is more minute, intrusive, inconsistent, and, at times, hysterical, than anything we have ever faced before.  Consider the woman who was tazed recently for resisting wearing a mask at her son’s ball game, even though she was outdoors and very well separated from other people.

But I am not just thinking of rules about face coverings; I am thinking of the whole range of oppressions, such as San Francisco’s rule that only one congregant at a time may worship indoors.  That’s not about “following the science,” but about hatred of religious believers.  In many cases such dictates have been issued by executive fiat, without legislative oversight.  Moreover, in some places citizens have been urged to inform against each other for microscopic infractions.  

The danger is that we are allowing the rulers to be arbitrary and oppressive, while encouraging the citizens to be docile to their rulers, to be suspicious of each other, and to believe whatever they are told.


Oafishness, Social Class, and Presidential Politics

Sunday, 09-20-2020


There is a lot to dislike about the president.  Mr. Trump is a sneerer, mocker, boaster, and person of bad character.  But Mr. Obama (like his vice president) was also a sneerer, mocker, boaster, and person of bad character.

Why is the reaction to them so different?  The political classes adored Obama, and treated him as the Second Coming of Christ.  They despise Trump, and are willing to pull down the republic to get rid of him.  Their entertainers openly make jokes about assassinating him.

Of course part of the difference is ideological.  Obama did things the political classes love, like appointing pro-abortion judges, removing rules that protected the consciences of medical workers, distributing patronage to industries the political classes like, and expanding the regulatory apparatus.  Trump, obviously, does things that they hate.  But that explains only part of it.  The political classes didn’t cast a hold-your-nose vote for Obama; they didn’t put up with him despite his personality and bad manners.  They admired him for these qualities.

It’s a class thing.   A certain kind of oafishness is considered lovable by the political classes, and not even recognized as oafishness because it is their sort of oafishness.  Another kind is considered lovable by those whom they disdain.  Obama was a smooth rich fellow who flattered the elites.  Since he affected a professorial tone when he sneered at the common people, the elites thought he was merely telling it like it is.  Trump is a coarse rich fellow who flatters the common people.  Since he adopts a popular tone when he sneers at the elites, it enrages them.  Though both of these rulers claim to look out for the “little guy,” Obama styled himself their patron, and them his clients.  Trump styles himself their benefactor, and them his constituents.

Some people react viscerally to one kind of oafishness, some to the other.  Very little of the reaction is about their respective vices, though much could be said about them.  Most of it is about the respective styles of their vices.  It is very hard to wipe the smear of class from the window of judgment and see clearly.


If I Marry, What Kind of Love Am I Promising?

Monday, 09-14-2020



Would you please explain the relationship between romantic love and the marriage vow?  I am engaged to a smart, kind, and devout woman whom I dated for a little more than half a year before I proposed to her.  We are good friends, and according to the testimony of both of our friends and family, we make each other better people and better Christians.  The only thing missing in our relationship is romantic love.  The romantic feelings I felt towards her during the first months of our courtship have cooled into the love found between best friends and family.

We have strictly practiced chastity.  I am physically attracted to her, but I do not feel the eros that corresponds to falling in love.  As I was discerning in prayer whether or not to propose, I was torn between the knowledge that she was a good woman whom I cared about deeply and who would make a good wife and mother, and the understanding that I did not feel the type of love which is common between newlyweds.  I decided that the obvious goods of the relationship outweighed other concerns, but in the two months since, the question has stuck with me without resolution.

Therefore, my question: Is romantic love good, or even essential, for the marriage vow?  Some Catholic writers describe marriage as the culmination and sanctification of the romantic love between two people in which it is transformed into lifelong fidelity and fruitfulness in service to God.  On the other, the true purpose of marriage is said to be self-sacrifice and charity to one's spouse and children in service of God, and the desire for romantic love is a potentially serious idol which may oppose that ultimate purpose.  So what should I think?



Since people use the word “romantic” in several different senses, and I’m not certain in which sense you intend it, any short answer I give you might be misleading.  In a chapter on the meaning of sexual love in my book On the Meaning of Sex, I spent some time disentangling four things that I call enchantment, charity, erotic charity, and romantic love, and I recommend the chapter to you.  But it would be pretty shabby to tell you “just go read it,” wouldn’t it?  So within that frame of reference, here is what I think.

The love promised in the marriage vows is what I call erotic charity.  This is what is essential.  The reason it can be promised is that it is a matter of the will, a commitment to the true good of the other person in the context of their procreative partnership.  By contrast, romantic love is a matter of the feelings, and cannot be promised.  Though romantic love is not necessary for a good and valid Christian marriage, it is certainly delightful to those who experience it.

Since erotic charity is a matter of the will and is assisted by grace, it abides.  Since romantic love is a matter of the feelings, it can come and go, even more than once between the same persons.  Although some husbands and wives worry that if romantic love fades, they no longer love each other, that is not true; so long as they have erotic charity, it is only the mode of their love that has changed.  So although romantic love is wonderful, yes, the insistence on it can be a destructive idol, as you say.

But some people desire romantic love very much.  If they don’t experience it, they come to feel that they are missing something, and this feeling of missing something can hinder their marriages.  This is a matter of individual temperament, and a person may not be able to help feeling that way.  For that reason, I wouldn’t say that a person who does feel that way is necessarily making an idol of romantic love.  So it is important for you to try to understand if you are that kind of person.

On the other hand, not everyone is susceptible to romantic love, and even among those who are, not everyone feels that he is missing something if he doesn’t experience it.  Knowing whether you are this kind of person requires careful self-examination.  But if you are like this, then you have nothing to worry about.

Let me know if this helps.


On the Meaning of Sex at Amazon

On the Meaning of Sex at ISI Books


What Is This Nominalism Whereof I Am Warned?

Monday, 09-07-2020



I listened to a podcast yesterday that mentioned the rise of nominalism and the bad consequences of its influence.  My fiancée admitted to me that she was having some trouble understanding forms and universals, and when I tried to explain it to her, I had some trouble articulating the concepts myself, even though I have some intuitive grasp of them.  Are there any books on metaphysics for beginners?



I don’t know of any easy books on the subject, but maybe I can give you a little start on the problem with nominalism.

Forms or essences.  Suppose Felix’s hair turns gray.  Would you say that because of the change, the man has been destroyed and no longer exists?  Of course not.  In fact, if he wasn’t still there, you couldn’t even say that he had changed.  Change in a thing presupposes some enduring thing that the change happens to; the enduring thing is still there, but something about it has changed.  We call that enduring thing the form or essence, in this case the form of a man.  We call that “something about it” an accident, in this case the accident of hair color.

The term “accident” here doesn’t have the same meaning as in the phrase “traffic accident.”  It just means something incidental to the essence rather than part of it.  The man can have a different hair color and still be a man.

Universals.  We just called Felix a man.  But why do we call him that?  Because he has the form or essence of a man, yes – by nature he is a rational animal, that is, an embodied being of the species that possesses the potentiality to function rationally.  But lots of other beings have the same form – Mary, Thomas, Sue -- so “man” isn’t a form of just one being, but of a whole set of beings with the same essence.  We call that a universal.

Nominalism.  Some people, called nominalists, say there aren’t any universals, only singulars.  They say that “man” is just a name, and we can give things any names that we want to.  If I want to call Felix, say, a dog, then I can.  Now it’s true that nothing stops me from calling Felix a dog, but the nominalist overlooks the fact that he isn’t the same kind of thing as those other things we call dogs, and we can’t change what he is by changing what we call him.  Names aren’t arbitrary; they ought to correspond to real kinds of things.  We use different names for different natural kinds so that we don’t get confused.  If you don’t believe in natural kinds – well, you’ve got a problem.

Nominalism is one of the early forms of the idea that reality doesn’t have any structure except what we impose on it.  You can see how crazy this kind of thinking has made us – some men imagine that so long as they call themselves women they are women, some people who support abortions imagine that so long as they call unborn persons non-persons they aren’t persons, and some twosomes, threesomes, and whateversomes imagine that so long as they call themselves married they are married.

God bless you and your fiancée.