Should I vote for the lesser of two evils?

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.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I would argue that the two cases aren’t comparable at all. In the euthanization case, the practice will happen regardless, so your actions really don’t matter to anyone other than yourself. In voting, on the other hand, the way you vote does matter — to you and to everyone else in your community. The only way that not voting at all or voting for a third candidate doesn’t matter is if you are 100% certain that there is zero difference between the two candidates, or you are 100% sure that one candidate is so far ahead that your vote has no significance. The first condition is pretty much never the case, and the second isn’t either in local races.

    I live in a state where control of the entire state legislature for a full two-year term was decided by a single voter:
    So yes, every single vote absolutely does count. If you say otherwise, you are kidding yourself.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    In 2016 and more so in 2020, the ‘moral philosophy’ is just wanking. If Clinton had been President, there wouldn’t be 230,000 dead from covid-19 in the US. Experts wouldn’t have been casually dismissed. Any number of environmental regulations wouldn’t have been rolled back. Fascist groups wouldn’t have been emboldened. The Supreme Court wouldn’t be the generational disaster it has become. And so on.

    The ‘moral dilemma’ presented ignores another dimension. The system which gives us two evils needs fixing. Fine. So one day every two years vote the lesser evil. The other 730 or so days work to fix the system. I’m just disgusted with the moral hand-wringers who can’t see past their own selfish ideological purity.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    “just disgusted with the moral hand-wringers who can’t see past their own selfish ideological purity”

    Sooooo much this.

  4. johnson catman says

    re Rob Grigjanis @2: EXACTLY! I was not a Clinton supporter in 2016, but I KNEW that The Orange Toddler-Tyrant was ABSOLUTELY the wrong choice for the country (and the world for that matter). He has done so much harm to EVERYTHING with the aid of Moscow Mitch and the spineless republicans in the Senate that it will take decades to undo if it is even possible to fix.

  5. Bruce says

    Everyone here makes good points. This week, I feel we need to pick from the top two. After that, we need to promote ranked choice voting in local, state, and national elections for future choices when we can.

  6. says

    As long as we continue to fall for the lesser-of-two-evils dodge and do not follow the example of the Abolitionist-Conscience Whig-Free-Soiler coalition that created the Republican Party in March of 1854, the Corporatist Pro-War Pro-Business Party will continue to win every election because choosing either the left or right wing of the PWPB party is no choice at all.

    Until we have a chance to vote for none-of-the-above and do so in massive numbers, we’ll be right back here in four years.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    hyphenman @7:

    Until we have a chance to vote for none-of-the-above and do so in massive numbers, we’ll be right back here in four years.

    Sure, but maybe with fewer corpses? Fewer children separated from their parents?

    Voting for the lesser evil isn’t “falling” for anything unless you’re deluded enough to think that voting is the only thing you can do.

  8. A Lurker from Mexico says

    I suppose you can think of it like this: You have a cancer patient that catches Covid. Since the chemo will weaken their immune system, treating their cancer right now will cause them to die from Covid. You’d need to wait for them to survive the virus before moving forward with the other disease. You’ll still need to treat the cancer, since it’s also deadly and there is not much benefit between dying from one thing or the other.

    Personally, I believe you have a good chance of beating the virus (the virus being Trump) but I’m seeing way too many people fall under the impression that, since the virus will kill them faster, they should wholeheartedly embrace the cancer (Biden).

    Some expectations probably need to be set. A “return to normal” (with normal being an Obama-era type situation) would be unacceptable as well as impossible. Since the democrats refused to really fight Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination, a Biden administration wouldn’t be able to roll back any Trump era fuckery (assuming they tried) unless they expanded the courts (lol).
    The best case scenario is not a return to normalcy, it’s just a brake, freeze the situation as it stands right now and nothing more.

    @Rob Grigjanis
    I don’t think the covid death toll in the US would have been much different under Clinton (not that it would be her fault either).
    -The type of morons who are trying to make a political movement out of, say, not wearing a mask, would challenge mask wearing regardless of the recommendation coming from their state government or the federal government.
    -The con-men fighting back against lock-downs to protect their stock prices will do so with a president Trump, Clinton, Sanders, Barney the dinosaur, doesn’t matter.
    -The apolitical morons that just want to party don’t even know who’s president half the time.

    For the past four years, the rights of millions of people have been dependent on the survival of an 80-something year old woman with five previous bouts of cancer. The supreme court has always been a generational disaster waiting to happen.

    The consideration of who’s the lesser evil seems to depend on who’s asking. The state of chaos that’s been making ripples from Trump’s hilariously incompetent cabinet down into every branch of your FBI, CIA and DEA, has resulted in failed coups (where they used to be succesful), left wing victories in latin america, and the general deflation of right wing reactionary groups.
    I suppose that if I were ukranian, I’d be rooting for Biden (under threat of my country being eaten up by Russia). If I were bolivian, I’d be hoping that the more incompetent Trump succeed (a Biden-backed coup might be more difficult to get rid of).
    Being mexican I don’t quite think of either as the lesser evil, I’m just kinda hoping they both die of covid at this moment.

    There is no satisfying answer, but out of all the things he could be doing with his vote, I think Mano might feel better about voting Biden than any of the other choices.

  9. Holms says

    In a system as braindead as America’s -- two candidates, first past the post -- the hand-wringing is ridiculous. There is a simple question: does a voter prefer candidate A, or candidate B? Abstaining means you are fine with either option, either because you have no stake in the outcome, or because you are a fool.

  10. Holms says

    #7 hyphenman
    Political change is almost always incremental. If you wait for an opportunity, some alignment-of-the-planets political opportunity to change everything in one fell swoop, you will be waiting a very long time.

  11. Tadas says

    Reading this blog post reminded me of the following article by Jeremy Scahill from The Intercept. It’s from April, so some parts may read like it’s old history, or at times feel like you opened up a time capsule (which is kinda fun). But you will also notice how accurate many of his statements are 6 months later.

    The 1st third of the article is a BRUTAL critique of Trump and the Republican Party where the writing is chock-full of clever imagery. The 2nd third doesn’t hold back any punches on Biden or the Democratic Party. The final third very nicely lays out the voting moral dilemma. It’s a solid read in my opinion.

  12. says

    @Holmes No. 11

    Political change is almost always incremental. If you wait for an opportunity, some alignment-of-the-planets political opportunity to change everything in one fell swoop, you will be waiting a very long time.

    That’s true, you’re absolutely correct. Waiting for an opportunity and expecting change to occur in one fell swoop is a losing strategy.

    Change occurs when a small number of committed individuals create the opportunity as was the case with England’s Magna Carta in 1215, our Declaration of Independence (1776) and Constitution (1789).

    Constitutional Slavery ended in the United States because the coalition I mentioned in No. 7 above said to hell with incremental change and took action. Change is messy. To turn an Aesopian metaphor on its ear: if you had put the tortoise and the hare in a cardboard box, the hare leaps out while the tortoise just keeps pushing at the four walls.

    Incrementalism was the bull shit that white supremacists tried to sell to Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

  13. Holms says

    Okay, so what do you propose to do that is better than voting, and why is it better than voting?

  14. says

    Who said anything about not voting?

    The coalition that created the Republican Party in 1854 didn’t sit out the the next two elections, did they?

  15. consciousness razor says

    From the article, which apparently some didn’t bother to read:

    But are things really so different for the community organiser? It’s easy to question the psychological self-understanding of someone who thinks her endeavours will be compromised if she wavers on any of the animating principles behind them. ‘Your projects will be fine!’ we want to say. ‘You can keep lobbying, educating, organising, protesting, cultivating solidarity with like-minded people, et cetera, et cetera. All you have to do, privately, is tick a different box. (And maybe go easy on trashing Uncle Joe for a few weeks.)’

    Notice that this last sentence, which is typically more of a demand than a request, has nothing to do with how the person will be voting. This is how a group moves into Catholics-protecting-pedophiles territory. If you ever start thinking it’s somehow wrong to be brutally honest about the huge problems we’re all facing, please wake the fuck up before it’s too late.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @16:

    This is how a group moves into Catholics-protecting-pedophiles territory

    Jesus fucking Christ, you are a self-righteous ass.

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    please wake the fuck up before it’s too late.

    Wake up to what? That Biden is the lesser evil? Thanks for the breaking news! And keep up the good work, whatever the fuck you think it is.

  18. mnb0 says

    “Should I vote for the lesser of two evils?”
    Only when there is a positive reason to vote for that lesser evil. Otherwise you end up voting for Hermann Göring to get rid of Adolf Hitler; you support Chroesjtsjov because Stalin was worse. Remember, by voting for JoeB you will maintain and justify a corrupt political system.
    It took a long time, but there is at least one positive reason to vote for JoeB. There will be little doubt that Ulster/Northern Ireland will be better off. WIth a second term of Donald the Clown there is a huge chance that the Troubles will restart.

    Donald the Clown sides with Bojo the Clown regarding the Brexit, who doesn’t really care.

  19. mnb0 says

    @2 RobG: “The other 730 or so days work to fix the system.”
    Good luck with this after just voting someone into the White House who not only is the product of this rotten system but also benefits. It has nothing to do with ideological purity. Four years ago I recommended voting for HillaryC despite contempt.
    Your dogmatic “always vote for the lesser evil” actually is just ideological purity. It makes you incapable of wondering when the price you pay for choosing the lesser evil is worth what you get in return and when it isn’t. It also prevents you from wondering if your choice has any effect bar negative ones.
    Morals are no absolute truth. This means that when the only choice is between evils you have to draw a line somewhere (see my previous comment). You either refuse to consider this problem or you don’t care. In both cases you’re the dogmatic guy.

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @20: You seem like a very confused person.

    Your dogmatic “always vote for the lesser evil” actually is just ideological purity. It makes you incapable of wondering when the price you pay for choosing the lesser evil is worth what you get in return and when it isn’t.

    Please explain how it makes me incapable of wondering anything.

    More importantly, please explan, just once, how not voting for Biden improves anything. Do you think there is some sort of magical aether which transmits messages to candidates along the lines of “there are voters who abstained so we’d better smarten up”?

    You either refuse to consider this problem or you don’t care

    I’ve been quite clear that a Biden presidency is a problem. A lesser evil is, in fact, an evil. It’s amazing that you and your fellow hand-wringers can’t seem to read what other people write.

    Again, just to be sure you read this: How does abstaining (or voting third party in the US) achieve anything positive?

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    By the way, although I’m not an American, I have my own ‘lesser evil’ issues. In Canada, the major federal parties outside of Quebec are Conservative, Liberal and NDP. Of those, the NDP is closest to my worldview. But I live in a riding in which the NDP is very weak. So my major motivation in voting is “not Conservative”, which translates into “Liberal”. Which helps, in a very small way, to prevent the worst Conservative depredations.

    Funnily enough, that doesn’t render me “incapable of wondering when the price you pay for choosing the lesser evil is worth what you get in return and when it isn’t”. That is quite clear, and always has been, thanks very much.

  22. John Morales says


    Your dogmatic “always vote for the lesser evil” actually is just ideological purity.

    Nah. It’s pragmatism.

    I mean, you do get that the idiom applies to dilemmas, right?
    You can choose one, or the other, but you can’t choose neither.

    I’m pretty damn sure that if you were on the second floor of a burning building with a fire raging outside the room, you wouldn’t stay there and roast — you’d jump out of the window.

  23. Deepak Shetty says

    Should I vote for the lesser of two evils?

    Longer answer : Stating this as lesser of the 2 evils is like stating the age of the earth is 6000 years is lesser than the actual value.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *