The Rationalist’s Guide to Moral Voting
Something rather queer happened in the USA a few years ago. A billionaire hotel baron and reality TV performer announced he was running for President of the United States in a crowded field of qualified and well-known candidates, despite having no political experience. Now, a lack of experience was hardly unprecedented in a presidential candidate but, in a quirky twist, this candidate was so keen to claim that he did have experience. “Nobody knows the system better than I do”, he said, definitively. He was better at fighting wars than four-star generals were, he knew how to defeat the Islamic State within a year, he had knowledge which outweighed the experts on Assad and housing inequality and trade tariffs and community policing and so much more.
Strongman politics are hardly unusual either, but after the candidate won the Republican primaries (the American equivalent of what we in my country call “preselection”, only for the Yanks it’s much noisier and much more public) the prevailing narrative continued that he simply could not win. For one thing, his Democratic opponent was a highly qualified former Cabinet member and First Lady with an incredible amount of political cachet and name recognition on par with his. Not to mention, in a world growing tired of historical biases, the idea of electing a woman to the nation’s highest office seemed irresistible in 2016. But there was another hurdle, far more relevant to our dark purposes here today.
His own party could not stand him.
The Republican Party is the base of American conservatives. Despite deep concerns about the sanctity of marriage, the candidate was on to his third wife. Despite panic about the influx of immigrants to the USA (famously, of course, a country of immigrants), two of the candidate’s wives had been same. For years he had bragged publicly about committing adultery and groping women without their permission. Despite nationwide concerns about jobs being lost overseas, much of the work created by his companies and hotel chain went to overseas factories or to immigrant workers, including everyday jobs which his company claimed no native-born Yank was willing to do. Despite the country facing multiple health crises — from opioid addiction to spiraling costs for treatment — the candidate railed against forms of universal healthcare that would make it easier for the poor to obtain treatment. The masses were concerned about power and wealth being consolidated among the elite; he counted sports stars and billionaire CEOs among his closest allies. They felt that the world is often unfair and that big business doesn’t care about the little guy; the candidate was well-known for his cutthroat deals and his refusal to play fair during business dealings — so much so that there are entire documentaries about it. They feared the martial intentions of other countries; he — seemingly cursorily — threatened to go head-to-head with two of the world’s most bonkers and proto-nuclear leaders. And despite his heartland being profoundly religious — to a literally Evangelical level — the candidate couldn’t so much as quote one line from the Bible, a book he admitted was the greatest ever… but running second was his own ghostwritten publication.
And yet he won. Both former Presidents Bush — conservative to the core — were reported to have voted for his opponent, the woman from the other party. But the man won. Notable Republicans came out against his candidacy, from Condoleezza Rice to Colin Powell, former candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney, extreme conservative commentator Glenn Beck (who would later renege), GE executive Jack Welch (who provided such delectable inspiration for Alec Baldwin’s memorable turn as 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy), and famously Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet the man won. Despite what you may think of the country’s electoral college system — designed for an 18th century where votes had to be moved by horse across that endless skyway that is the U S of A — he won, fair and square, give or take some Soviet espionage. (The biggest claimant of election meddling was himself!) On a cold January day, this man who had ridden a tide of public support best described as “crazed” was inaugurated as President in front of a less than overwhelming — but not actually historically telling - crowd.
In March 2018, something else happened in politics that is worth considering. Several Australian members of parliament had been forced to resign over a convoluted crisis. In short, section 44 of the Australian Constitution prevents anyone with dual citizenship from holding office (MPs are expected to divest themselves before becoming a candidate). The section exists because there was a genuine concern in ye olde days that a person with dual allegiance could not be expected to vote impartially, and may even function in thrall to a hostile power — not that all that many Australians in 1901 came from outside of the British Empire. By 2018 the law was being applied in ways Australia’s founding fathers had not anticipated. As it turns out, citizenship is a convoluted beast. MPs were discovering (with the generous help of rival politicians’ investigative techniques) that they held dual citizenship due to a parent’s country of birth, or by virtue of automatic citizenship-by-descent laws in their country of ancestry. Some had tried to rescind their citizenship of the motherland but apparently missed administrative details. Some were simply unable to prove that they weren’t dual citizens when challenged. Critics of the controversy suggested it was the Constitution, not the MPs, that was out of line. With 26% of Australians born overseas and just below half of all Australians having at least one parent born overseas, these critics argued the law was proscriptive, especially when the politician in question had no reason to assume they held dual citizenship. (Others delighted in the absurdity that a member of parliament must be Australian and only Australian, while the country’s head of state — the British monarch — remains famously not.) But the law is the law, and the crisis triggered a wave of resignations and subsequent by-elections.
The latest to fall at the sword of section 44 was David Feeney, the MP for the fantastically-named electorate of Batman (we pronounce it with emphasis on the first syllable but, please, go for it.) He was not decisively a dual citizen, having been born and raised in Australia, but because his father had been an immigrant from the UK, Feeney was unable to prove he was not a British citizen by descent. (See why this confused everyone?)
So, Batman was up for a by-election, and Feeney chose not to run again. In his place, the Australian Labor Party (yes, that missing “u” bothers us all), stood Geraldine “Ged” Kearney, a trade unionist and advocate for refugees. Australia’s conservative Liberal party did not contest the battle (the cost of a campaign wasn’t worth it for a by-election in a stereotypical left-wing, inner city area) and instead the ALP found themselves up against the Greens Party candidate, Alexandra “Alex” Bhathal. A perennial candidate across state and federal elections, Bhathal had run in Batman on five previous occasions, taking a whopping 36.2% of the primary vote for the Greens in 2016. The ALP had actually only claimed 35.3% on that occasion, but triumphed once the preferences came through. (If you don’t understand preferential voting, it is an excellent system and I encourage your country to take it onboard.) The area, comprising such Melbourne suburbs as Northcote and Preston, is seen as moving from traditionally working-class to hipster gentrification, shifting from a Labor heartland further to the left. (Australia’s only other Federal Greens MP sits in the seat which borders Batman, and Victoria’s three state Greens MPs all come from similarly inner-city areas.) The electorate had voted 71.16% in favour of gay marriage in the 2017 plebiscite on the issue — well above the national average — which further suggested its leftward trend.
Given the number of resignations from an already tight Australian House of Representatives — and with a federal election due in 2019 — any swing to the Greens would be political and media dynamite for the growing party. But then it happened. Only three weeks before the March 2018 election, members of the local Greens branch who had not supported Bhathal during the preselection appear to have leaked a substantial complaint made against her inside the party walls. The allegations were of bullying, intimidation, and speaking falsely of her colleagues for her own gain. Only one week before the election further details were leaked to the press: that Bhathal, during her time as co-convenor of the Victorian State Council of the Greens, had misused confidential information from private council meetings, which had led to a substantial intra-party dispute back in 2013. In January 2018, 18 members of the branch had demanded Bhathal’s explusion in a 101-page dossier. (By this time, she was already the presumed candidate for the next election, even before Feeney announced he would step down.) Part of the issue seems to have been an internal contretemps. In the green corner, long-term party members who fondly recalled the party’s salad days, when a range of state-based groups developed in the 1970s and ‘80s came together to fight for environmental causes and social justice long before they were fashionable. And in the other green corner, a tide of newcomers (from 238,000 votes at the 1998 election, the party took 1.38 million in 2016) who sought to transition the party’s image from the hemp-and-dreads brigade to a successful political force.
Alex Bhathal lost the Batman by-election. To be fair, she still claimed more votes than she had previously done, but the conclusion made by many was that — with the rapidly gentrifying nature of the electorate — the swing to Bhathal would have been greater had she not been slandered from within in the days leading up to the highly publicised election. Much like the Bernie Sanders supporters who refused to jump onboard the Clinton train even once she had decisively become that party’s 2016 candidate, the anti-Bhathal set refused to “take one for the team”. Despite the candidate having been preselected by a vote of 230–19, they would rather see Bhathal lose, thus retaining their moral standards, than earn another seat in Canberra. This in-fighting was catnip for commentators from both Liberal and Labor, further proof (if it was needed) that the Greens were far from a cohesive political unit in 2018, and that they were not mature enough to be taken seriously as a group. For any party that seeks to convince its compatriots to make drastic changes to their society and culture, that’s an unfortunate image to be stuck with.
Alex Bhathal lost. Donald Trump won. (Yes, it would have been clever to do a This American Life-style piece and never once mention his name, but I have to think of my search engine optimisation, don’t I?) In several important states, Mr. Trump won by slender margins (11,000 people in Michigan; 44,000 people in Pennsylvania, a little over 100,000 in the key state of Florida). And in many urban areas of Australia, the Greens-Labor battle for the hearts and minds of voters is equally as tight, predicated as they are on the conflicting reputations of “young party that strongly syncs with my morals but doesn’t win very much” and “established party that sometimes strays to the centre but will get most of the job done”. Who voted for these people matters. Why they voted this way matters too.
Of course, there are plenty of Americans who genuinely think that misogyny and racism are awesome. Much ink has been spilled on the notion that middle Americans are willing to give rich people a pass because any law that affects rich people might affect you too one day, once you achieve that American dream. There are people whose moral compass sits neatly within the Donster’s range, and that’s just fine. Similarly, there were Greens-aligned voters who didn’t vote for Alex Bhathal for a range of reasons. But in neither case does that tell the whole story. Mr. Trump received just under 63 million votes, substantially more than either Messrs Romney or McCain were able to muster. (That’s not just due to rising population: Clinton, by contrast, earned fewer votes than Obama in either of his runs.) And even though he lacked the morality and beliefs required for all previous candidates in the Republican field, conservatives could be heard saying “well, we’re not electing a Pope, are we?” or “he gets a mulligan [on that alleged affair with a porn star while his wife was pregnant]”. Meanwhile, Bhathal’s enemies concocted a media storm based on her being a bully behind closed doors. Not a sexual predator. Not corrupt. Not spouting the public’s money up the wall for a fun ride in a chopper. She just hadn’t been very nice to them.
Trump won with the aid of people who didn’t like him voting for him anyway as a means of achieving political goals.
Bhathal lost with the aid of people who didn’t like her and valued their moral righteousness as more important than a political win.
So the question must be asked: is voting morally, even if you know you will lose, the right choice? Is it better to live up to your morals no matter damn well what? Or to accept the path that will give you what you want, regardless of where it leads? Do you want to be the students at the end of Dead Poets Society or Sandy at the end of Grease?
Answer A: Rationally, it is better to win. Winning is the stated goal of any election and defines who will make the laws. We can maintain our morals in everyday life without expecting politicians to do the same, much as we can maintain our morals even if the plumber working on our sewerage system is corrupt — after all, his corruption doesn’t mean the pipes will work any less well. Ergo morals do not matter.
Answer B: Rationally, a society that lets go of its morals may triumph in the short term but will lose its humanity — and perhaps collapse — eventually. The only way we can democratically determine the best way forward for a society is for everyone to vote their conscience, on the merits of evidence and experience, and the way that receives the most votes will be it. If people betray their morals for the sake of a particular candidate, that system will be sullied, and they themselves will be the ultimate loser. Governance is not plumbing. Ergo we should lose with dignity rather than win spitefully.
That’s as may be, but why would anyone choose Answer B at such great cost? Maybe a few bleeding-heart progressives have chosen “Well, I never voted for X” as the virtue-signalling hill they want to die on. Take the gamble that one day you’ll be perfectly positioned for a hearty I-told-you-so. But for most of us, winning is a fairly tempting outcome. Yet we see countless commentators seize upon political “hypocrisy”. A side story for you on the nature of hypocrisy: Barnaby Joyce — yes, that is his real name — is an MP and former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia who also found himself embroiled in the citizenship crisis but managed to retain his seat at the subsequent by-election. Opposed to any moral turpitude, Joyce has campaigned virulently against abortion and same-sex marriage, but he rather came undone in February 2018 when a brewing scandal boiled over. Married with four children, Joyce had commenced an affair with a staffer, and subsequently appears to have had her transferred into other ministerial offices to avoid allegations of impropriety. When she became pregnant to Joyce, the media couldn’t restrain themselves. To some, this was an inappropriate foray into his personal life. For others, this powerful figure who had used his clout to campaign against the rights of gay people to get married, citing “sanctity”, had opened the media floodgates by hypocritically demolishing his own eternal marital vows all for the petty terrestrial pleasures of human emotion. The upshot of the Joyce affair is that many on the left felt his behaviour made him unfit for office. Nevertheless, Joyce remains a figure of the political establishment and will probably win if he runs again in 2019. Hypocrisy, or winning by any means necessary?
Luminaries of the left — from Justin Trudeau to Emmanuel Macron — have come under pressure in recent months over moral lapses, or have suffered allegations of being a Trojan horse for privileged white people to make feints at true progressivism while supporting the status quo. Barack Obama — despite proclaiming to be a man for the people — accepted $400,000 to speak at a Wall Street event, sending the left into meltdown. Someone who may help us attain what we want, but is fatally flawed? Exterminate! We can locate some of this angst in a viewpoint that has dominated movements like #MeToo. It’s not just serial predators like Cosby and Spacey who should be reprimanded. It is people who made a tasteless joke in the mid-’90s, or those who make a public show of support for a friend who has faced allegations but no charges. The underlying assumption here is that for too long an immoral range of behaviours has been propped up by not just the culprits but those who have benefited from such behaviour. “Out with the old” is seen as the only way forward, not glacial change. Is it wrong to pay money to see the latest Woody Allen film or to buy the latest Chris Brown album? Or, if you don’t actually pay for them, is it okay to enjoy one from the library? (Rather like a vegan eating a piece of chocolate cake at the office because it was already paid for; “I’m an economic protestor, not an idiot”.) Given the revelations about the Metropolitan Opera’s longstanding conductor, James Levine, are his hundreds of recordings still acceptable to purchase? What about Allen films or Levine recordings I already own? If they gain nothing from my viewing, have I still broken the pact? Or is it not just the financial support of the artist, but the perceived ideological support too? (Covering all the windows before you insert your Roseanne DVDs suggests you know there’s a problem but just won’t admit it). For some, this goes further: even dead artists should be held to these standards. Curb Your Enthusiasm gets a whole episode out of whether it’s reasonable to listen to Richard Wagner’s works.
The moral view, in other words, states that a person cannot be separated from their actions. That the doctor who spends 40 hours a week restoring sight to children from third world countries is a complete scumbag if he also thinks women comedians aren’t funny, or if he opposes gay marriage. The president caught with an assistant on her knees under his desk (or, for that matter, a porn star in the closet) cannot adequately govern a country. This is the view that argues that companies have a moral obligation to fire workers who are caught acting unpleasantly in their personal life, even if no crime was committed. (Just this month, another Australian — Matthew Newton — stepped down from a directing gig not because of any new allegations, but because acts of violence for which he had faced court and which were public at the time still dogged him a decade later. One wonders how Mr. Newton is supposed to make a living at all under the moral view — or whether there is some level of change he has to prove before he can earn a crust.) It’s also a view that challenges our long-held notion that working across divides is ideal. This is why politicians are often forced by today’s social expectation to explicitly condemn the words of another. Pragmatically, they would probably rather look the other way so as to maintain a cordial relationship with that person — who may be useful in future votes, negotiations, or other ways of getting things done — but public opinion demands they burn the topless towers altogether.
The separatist view claims instead that people are more than one thing. That the receptionist at a tobacco company is not causing lung cancer —they just work there. That the director who hires Casey Affleck despite knowing of his harrassment allegations is not endorsing violence against women — she’s just hiring a talented actor. That voting for a candidate who holds some views you consider repulsive is not the same as endorsing or perpetuating those views. “I like some of his policies, but he’s wrong on that part.” The receptionist needs a job; they may even live in an area that has limited options for employment — perhaps that tobacoo company is what restored this one-horse town. That actor is perfect for the role, and most mature people can separate a person from their job; if not, they aren’t being forced to watch the movie. The pro-gay Liberal can still vote for Joyce; the Labor supporter who opposes the white “intervention” in the Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory can still vote for Julia Gillard. (And they did.) Machiavelli went as far as to say that it was actually preferable to leave one’s morals at home if one is to govern effectively, but most of us wouldn’t go that far. Still, as evidenced by the fact that most of us vote for the major parties or shop with major corporations, humans have some willingness to think beyond private scruples when making public decisions. According to the separatist, a person may exist in the sphere of “domestic violence trial”, “scandalous affair” or “Wall Street speaking gig” while also existing as “politician”, “musician” or “ophthalmologist”. The colours of our life do not run together.
Of course, the separatist view can go too far: in 2016, Bosnian Serbs honoured Radovan Karadžić with the naming of a university student dorm for all the good things he had done for the young republic. The only troubling element was that Karadžić was on trial for genocide and war crimes, for which he was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to 40 years. Still, a man and his actions shouldn’t be lumped together, right?
I’m not sure this has brought me closer to an answer. I deride American evangelicals who decided Donald J. Trump was the moment they would give up on the deeply-held values which have inspired them to assert their superiority over women, queers, and people of colour for decades. Yet I also rubbed my eyes in cartoonish disbelief when Greens turned against Bhathal — the only candidate they had in the election — on the grounds of her less-than-winning personality. So, what’s a rational person to do?
Some readers might be yelling at their screen that the answer is obvious: all moral lapses are not the same. If your political ideals are the repression of women’s freedoms or a substantial attack on common sense and livability (the latest news out of the Trump administration includes plans to reintroduce bee-harming pesticides, found a perilously expensive “Space Force”, and relax freaking car pollution regulations!), maybe you’re already morally weaker than the people around you. Sure, if one’s Prime Minister will bring about the positive change you seek but happens to be a bit of an ignorant rich white dude, that’s not ideal. But if you vote for a President who brings in laws that will only benefit a handful of business owners, at the expense of the majority, you’re an outright dupe. But no! I will have none of it. That’s an ideological argument, and ideology is what got us to this messy existence in the first place.
How do we define morals rationally? Or more importantly, how do we define moral turpitude? It must cause suffering, reduce living standards or freedoms, and create or preserve systems that prioritise some people over others, often based on easily recognisable traits. As we drill down and compare moral philosophies, we must create a sort of hierarchy of freedoms to determine which one is more important. We must rationally prioritise the disadvantaged over the advantaged. We must prioritise the individual over the corporation. To make effective laws, we must prioritise some freedoms over others, although how we make that choice is going to be difficult (my argument — not without its detractors — is that in the battle of gay couple vs. bakery owner, the couple’s individual freedoms must triumph over the baker’s ethical freedoms. Religious freedoms are fantastic, but not if they impinge upon other existing rights.) And perhaps we must prioritise members of our own polity over others, but that’s a debate for another time. So, the moral way to act (with apologies to Aristotle, who got there first) is the one that causes suffering to the least possible but which doesn’t require the “least possible” to experience any undue suffering just because they are the least. I realise that even arguments based on reason come with preconceptions, to paraphrase Francis Bacon, so let’s recognise my core preconception: that in life we cannot just think of ourselves, but of those in our society as well. Followers of Ayn Rand may have little time for the rest of my argument.
Once we have this “least possible” definition, we can examine the outcome of each possible vote. First of all, obviously, the best option in a democratic electoral process is to vote for a candidate who shares your view of how to fix the world, shares your values, and is going to win. (Some might argue that the best option is to be the person who is going to win, but I’ve never fancied the sword of Damocles myself, no matter how much payola you throw at me. I choose not to run.) But what do you do when that isn’t an option?
It seems we have three negative outcomes to use as measurements: causing suffering (whether financial, physical, or emotional) to one’s own group; causing suffering to other groups (within one’s nation, for the sake of this hypothetical); and one’s own moral degradation. Some of these are clearly worse than others by our yardstick: an actual human being facing loss of freedom is a greater victim than the voter who just feels a bit bad about their choice on election day. But for the sake of this theorem, it doesn’t matter what the actual best viewpoint is. What’s important is that — to you — your political viewpoint must be the best one. Otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen it.
The option above — voting for the ideal candidate who shares your morals and your ideals — is clear:
Now, if you are a middle-class citizen casting a vote, for example, because you believe the lies televised by a corrupt despot — the obvious example being Mr. Putin — you are hitting all three targets. Your group will suffer by living under despotism, others will suffer through mafia tactics and oppression, and you will be plunged headlong into the moral morass.
Or maybe you’re luckier. You’re a moderately wealthy citizen in a democracy who can afford to vote for a conservative government without fear of reprisal. Sure, you’re conflicted about the way your tax policies will disproportionately affect the disadvantaged, that your policing tactics will target people of colour, and that the person you elect — while sharing your views — has charmingly quaint old-man ideas about how fast and effective your country’s internet needs to be. By voting with only your own interests in mind, your group won’t suffer (thanks, inherited wealth!), but others will, and — thanks to that tinge of conscience — you’ll still tick the ‘moral degradation’ box.
Maybe you’re one of the 8% of African-American voters who cast their ballot for Mr. Trump in 2016, or for that matter the 8% of Democrats who did so. It sorta seems like your group will suffer, while others will not. The reasons people choose to vote against their own interests are always fascinating (2.7% of Australian homosexuals opposed same-sex marriage), but we can be sure that it leads to your own group suffering. And — as the hypothesis of our argument states that you don’t personally like this candidate, otherwise you wouldn’t be having this debate— your moral value will still slump.
And finally, there’s the leader with whom your only objection is a moral one. The Alex Bhathal situation. You’re a member of the party, you prefer the party to any other, and you know rationally that the only way to achieve your aims is with a seat at the table. If you elect this person, they will — again, under our hypothesis that the party you’ve chosen is the best of all possible parties in your point-of-view — prevent your group from suffering, and ideally prevent as many others from suffering as they can. But you will feel that you have thrown your moral compass to the ground and crushed it most expertly.
(There’s a paradox here: if the person you’re refusing to vote for will eliminate as much suffering as possible, how immoral can they really be? Again, if you’re at the one-tinge-of-moral-depravity-defiles-the-whole-person end of the spectrum, it doesn’t matter. But for most of us, that might be worth considering.)
Therefore it seems that, while, yes, the best way to win an election is to vote for a candidate you like who will also win, the next best way is to accept feelings of personal impurity while improving the lot of all around you — by voting for the candidate who matches your political views in spite of their perceived lack of virtue.
I’m not happy that my process of reasoning has led to the conclusion that Trump voters are not complete Epsilons. I would still argue that the gains for the average voter in that situation are short-term, much as so many celebrated conservative tax overhauls seem to offer average citizens a boon for two or three years before reverting to type… but that’s still a few years away, so who cares, right? New widescreen TV for me this year! Whenever we step away from democracy to solve an immediate problem — whether it’s giving unlimited powers to lock up alleged terrorists or a president claiming that the other branches of his government are getting in the way — we invite repercussions to that very democracy. Sometimes they’re quick on the heels, other times they’re long-term. Every culture that oppresses a branch of its citizens with the tactics of oppression and fear inherently creates the unpleasantness and aggressive pushback that will eventuate. (In 1700, Mary Astell responded to the growing belief in Enlightenment-era freedoms by asking “ If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?” — a question that resounded down the ages. A.D. Hope went so far as to speculate that what led to the downfall of states was not just shackling “the enquiring mind” but trusting “the servile womb to breed free men.”) Whether it’s the USA’s 20th century policies nurturing 21st century anti-Western sentiment, or the hostile attitudes of radical feminism or Black Nationalism towards the system that has spent generations suppressing their basic rights, it’s all the same. Thus, the moral view concludes, only a moral beginning can yield a moral end. The poisoned seed can only grow a poisoned tree, and that tree can only grow poisoned fruit.
But this is where the rubber hits the road for me. I believe everything I wrote in that last paragraph, but — if I can stretch the analogy — was it the seed or the gardener that was tainted? Sure, a corrupt person promoting a virtuous policy isn’t ideal, but it’s very different to a virtuous person promoting a corrupt policy. (Many otherwise moral citizens of previous eras endorsed slavery, after all.) And equating those two is exactly the false conclusion that misleads moralists like the anti-Bhathal set. The poisoned seed may indeed grow a poisoned tree. But if the seed is healthy and it’s the gardener who is unpleasant, will the fruit be any less delicious? We must cultivate our garden, as Candide says. Just because someone else’s fruit turned out hideous, doesn’t mean ours will also. Trump’s supporters gave up their morals to win. Bhathal’s did the same to lose. If the former’s seed turns out to have been poisoned, they will lose anyway. But the latter will never start their garden in the first place.
The grim reality of human existence is that we can all imagine the tree — in a panoply of multicoloured visions each specific to the beholder — but we have to first plant the seed and nurture it before we can see the finished product, even if the gardener smells a bit funky. And we must do so. Because, to misquote Woody Allen (if that doesn’t violate my moral standing), we need the fruit.