That question is the dilemma that always confronts voters when you have more than two candidates and there is no ranked choice voting system. You have to choose between voting for the candidate you really like but who likely has no chance of winning versus voting against the candidate you really dislike by voting for the person who is most likely to be able to defeat that candidate. This comes up in almost every major election in the US because the two major parties, beholden as they are to the business-war machine, both put up highly compromised candidates that are far from the ones that one can be enthused about.
I had viewed this as a question of whether pragmatism or idealism should prevail but Robert Simpson writes that there is also an ethical dimension to this question because it comes up in many situations, not just when it comes to elections, where the decision you make strikes really close to your sense of identity. He explores how to grapple with what is involved in this essay.
We’re often confronted with a choice between acting in a way that expresses our deep-seated values and ideals, and acting in a way that promotes a better outcome in the here and now. Imagine you’re a veterinarian who volunteers at an animal shelter, and you’ve been informed that the shelter is going to start euthanising pets that aren’t rehomed. The boss wants you to carry out this unenviable task. What should you do? Agreeing will violate the ideals that compelled you to volunteer in the first place. But if you quit, the euthanising will still happen – and might very well be less humane than if you were doing it.
The moral dilemma behind these scenarios is the subject of a well-known argument in moral philosophy. Bernard Williams argued that you should care about maintaining integrity in your personal ideals – not necessarily at all costs, but at least a bit. That’s because you have a special proprietary responsibility for acts you perform. Those choices and acts are, in some special sense, yours, distinct from outcomes that result from combining your choices and acts with everyone else’s.
To the veterinarian and the voter, Williams would say: you shouldn’t feel pressure to act against your ideals in order to promote the lesser of two evils. Don’t euthanise the animals. Don’t vote for the front runner. You are responsible for the acts you do, not for everything that they lead to. If you quit and those animals suffer more, you aren’t responsible for this; your boss is. If a demagogic president remains in power, that’s not your fault.
But perhaps you find this way of thinking a bit spineless, or even a bit lawyerly. ‘The outcome wasn’t fundamentally my fault’ seems like a feeble excuse for something you could have helped to prevent, if you had just suspended your scruples for a moment. It sounds like the special pleading of a moral narcissist – someone who cares more about preserving an unblemished moral record than about making the world a better place.
The article goes on to discuss how one might more finely parse this issue. It is not easy to arrive at a decision that is personally satisfying and every thoughtful person has struggled with this issue many times in their lives.
It is a good essay, worth reading.