Voting One’s Conscience

Paul J. Richards / Getty AFB

What does it mean to vote one’s conscience? For many of us, it means bringing religious or spiritual values into the right and responsibility to vote. 
Can conscience be ignored or compromised as we vote? Our answer is no.
That stated, are the warrants of conscience set in stone or do they evolve with greater understanding? And finally, how do we distinguish the inspired voice of conscience from the prejudicial voice of our cherished but perhaps unsupported opinions?

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Here are our forum guidelines:

  1. Please do not endorse any candidate or party. The conversation is not about your political opinion, but how you reached it and whether you feel personal conscience played a critical role.
  2. Do share your beliefs and how they shape your sense of responsibility to society.
  3. Please share only your own experience and do not respond to what others share except to identify with the comment.

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What does it mean to vote one’s conscience?

In The Culture of Disbelief, author Stephen L. Carter writes, “Religions are moral forces in the lives of their adherents which means inevitably that they are moral forces in the political world.” (81) We accept his idea that there are moral forces in the political world.

But what about the non-religious? There are those of us who simply aspire to be moral to maintain a civil society. So what does it mean for any of us to be moral?

According to philosopher Aaron James, PhD, morality is a philosophy of equality. The interests of others must be as important a consideration as self-interest. Consider the driver who weaves in and out of traffic going 20 mph faster than everyone else even though he’s not in a hurry. Clearly, he feels entitled to operate outside the law. Equally clearly, he presents a danger to other drivers. Based on James’ definition of morality, this is not a moral driver.

If Carter and James are right that morality inevitably influences the political world and that morality is a philosophy of equality, then to vote one’s conscience is to cast a vote for the good of one’s self and everyone else.

It follows that to vote self-interest at the expense of others is not moral and is therefore not conscionable voting. For example, slavery might be described as a once legal but nonetheless horrific consequence of unconscionable voting.

Can conscience be ignored or compromised as we vote?

As we have already said, our answer is “no.” A compromised conscience cannot reasonably be called the same thing as conscience. But what about the moral argument about the “lesser of evils”? What about the argument that to vote for a third party candidate may be the moral choice but that it is likely also an ineffectual choice? What about the idea that it is more moral to abdicate one’s responsibility to vote than to vote for someone who is viewed as reprehensible?

These are questions that can only be answered as we consider our two final questions — whether the warrants of conscience are set in stone or if they evolve with greater understanding. And, how we distinguish the inspired voice of conscience from the prejudicial voice of our cherished but perhaps spectacularly unsupported opinions.

Are the warrants of conscience set in stone or do they evolve with greater understanding?

In our experience, conscience evolves with greater understanding. It makes all the sense in the world because in the world, that which stagnates tends either to die or to poison itself. By greater understanding we do not mean a change in moral position. But we might mean a change in the assumptions that support our moral position. Upon examination, we might find some of our thinking in error, the foundation of our moral position less solid than we thought.

Let’s return to the model of slavery of African-Americans. The foundation that supported slavery was the cherished belief that blacks were not human, and therefore that slavery was not offensive. Whether one took the attitude that slaves therefore needed the care of a benevolent master or the hostile attitude that they deserved even worse treatment than animals, the foundation that supported slavery represented limited understanding and therefore an immature social conscience.

How do we distinguish the inspired voice of conscience from the prejudicial voice of our cherished but perhaps unsupported opinions?

In our experience, an opinion becomes a cherished opinion when it distinguishes us from (and usually elevates us above)others. But if we are distinguished from or elevated above others, is that not an example of immorality as Aaron James defined it? A cherished opinion helps us to believe we are more than what we are. Or, more specifically, more than what somebody else is. It enhances our reputation in society. It bolsters our ego. It gives us the illusion of control and abdicates us of responsibility and accountability.

For example, let’s return to the model of American slavery for a third time. We live in pre Civil War America, and fancy ourselves benevolent masters. Today, “benevolent master” is a contradiction in terms. But in the time of slavery, we are likely considered more humane and enlightened than our fellows. Our reputation is squeaky clean. We might even see ourselves as more humane and enlightened. Our confidence runs high. And of course, to maintain slaves is to maintain control. To hold fast to our cherished opinion that blacks are not human and require protection and that slavery is the means to provide protection, is purely prejudicial but it also allows us to remain unchallenged, comfortable and confident in our own morality.

By contrast, the inspired voice of conscience — throughout history — seems to have invited risk of loss, condemnation by others and an uncertain future. Witness Abraham Lincoln.

The voice of cherished opinion is a smug one. But the voice of conscience is arguably a very uncomfortable one. Conscience at work has an overwhelming tendency, it seems, to undermine certainty and to require courage.

Looking Back

What about the moral argument about the “lesser of evils”? What about the argument that to vote for a third party candidate may be the moral choice but that it is also an ineffectual choice? What about the idea that it is more moral to abdicate one’s right to vote than to vote for someone who is viewed as reprehensible?

Our own argument here, tells us that we need to examine how to apply conscience to voting. We have decided we cannot ignore it. We have decided we cannot compromise it. What is left seems to be a responsibility to educate ourselves. We need to know whether fact supports the existence of the “evils” we feel we are left to choose the lesser of.

We are left to examine the reality of a third party candidate. Where is the moral accomplishment in voting third or independent party? It is perhaps short-sighted to assume a third party vote is a throw-away vote.

A third party vote may well be a vote that counts for the Utah voter, for example, whose moral conclusion is that addressing climate change takes precedence over any other moral obligation. A vote for Bill Barron for the U.S. Senate will not put him in the Senate, but as a single issue candidate, he feels that if 10% of us vote for him, then the Senate will have to acknowledge and discuss the reality of climate change.

That said, will a third party vote designed to encourage only a look at a single issue, split the vote, and in so doing, “elect” a major party candidate we find reprehensible? We think we need to know the odds.

Finally, what are the moral consequences of sitting out the election? We need to know that, too. We need to educate conscience to the very best of our ability.

Is the race close? How close? Who says so? A reliable source? What are we teaching and demonstrating to others if we abdicate our right to vote? Are we conscientious objectors, are we afraid of to stand up and be counted, or are we simply holding to a position that distinguishes us from and elevates us above others — not to mention, absolves us of future responsibility and accountability for the state of societal affairs?

Only we know if we feel smug about our voting choices, or whether we feel challenged by them.

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We look forward to your thoughts. Thank you in advance if you choose to share them.