When is Pragmatism Irresponsible?

Posted on August 10, 2016 by

When is Pragmatism Irresponsible?

Perhaps it has to do with a fractured GOP ostensibly headed by a racist demagogue, or a Democratic party at war with half its base while chanting “unity,” but Olivia Goldhill’s month-old article about the immorality of voting one’s conscience is currently remaking the rounds on social media these days. It shouldn’t be surprising, given the proliferation of not only third party candidates, but people looking to vote for them, that even philosophers have begun to weigh in on the moral debate over lesser-evilism that’s already been clogging up all of our Facebook feeds. 

voting 101But while Goldhill’s reading of Jason Brennan and Ilya Somin have her coming out in support of this time-honored American tradition, none of the arguments she makes are particularly convincing once you consider that ours are not the only lives to suffer the consequences of our choices, or lack thereof.


It’s rather uncontroversial to say we shouldn’t vote for evil. Few, I suspect, would offer up the counterfactual “Choose Evil” as practical life or political advice. How is it, then, that we act wrongly when we refuse to do what we’ve just agreed ought not to be done? For her first answer, Goldhill cites Jason Brennan, a philosopher at Georgetown, and the author of The Ethics of Voting, who claims that the value of voting is not the expression of a preferred worldview, but the outcomes the act produces. Brennan’s reasoning is, essentially, a philosophically dressed up version of Duvurger’s law: the end-result of casting a vote for an allegedly non-viable option is self-defeatingly immoral because it brings about a set of circumstances that are even farther away from one’s ideal (an ideal, we are to assume, that is ostensibly more fair and just than the world we presently inhabit). According to Brennan, tossing away one’s vote for an extreme candidate only means “you’ve brought the world further away from justice rather than closer to it.” Following this logic, it stands to reason that we have a moral responsibility to use our votes to bring about a fairer and more just world for the generations that are to follow. But, if we accept this claim, as I think we should, this version of Lesser-Evilism can be defended only in so far as the election of the less evil option meaningfully addresses the underlying conditions making it possible for the more threatening, Greater Evil to be electorally viable in the first place. Otherwise, the sole accomplishment of Lesser-Evilism is not, in fact, the creation of a fairer or more just world; it is a world in which the evils we sought to avoid for ourselves have been allowed to metastasize and present even greater threats to the generations to follow.


For her second answer, Goldhill turns to Ilya Somin, a philosopher and Professor of Law at George Mason University, who suggests that voters should rely on a sort of algorithm to decide when to vote for a candidate who shares their values and when to compromise their principles for the sake of pragmatism. However, neither Somin nor Goldhill articulate how to determine the threshold at which principles become negotiable. It is a function of total lives saved? Or can more people die if, overall, there is less suffering? Should you, for example, vote for the candidate with an expressed interest to invade more countries because the alternative is a candidate who doesn’t appreciate why there are limits on nuclear weapons if your principle is that war has already claimed too many lives? Is the truly moral thing to do to accept that these choices are the best our system can do? Alternatively, how many lesser principles are worth compromising for the sake of what’s most important to you—or will be to future generations? How many Supreme Court Justices or trade agreements are worth foregoing the possibility of passing on a livable planet? At what point, if any, is the blind faith in pragmatism morally irresponsible? Is there a hard line at which we are ever able to say here is where I draw the line? Or is evil acceptable so long as there is always greater evil in the world?


There are, of course, no easy answers. But whether it’s the problem of terrorism, growing inequality, or the existential threat posed by climate change, the hollow promise of incrementalism currently on offer from Lesser-Evilism is going to leave a great deal of people dead, if not maimed and malnourished before they get there. This reality cannot be ignored when admonishing people against voting their conscience. At some point, politicos and philosophers alike must realize that it isn’t the people who are using their votes to reject the system that has offered them only different variations of evil that’s immoral, it’s telling them they shouldn’t that it is. So when deciding between poisons, just remember that both will kill you.

-Jamie M. Lombardi

You can find Jamie on twitter at @euthyphro

Posted in: Ethics, Philosophy