It often happens that my children will challenge me to clarify my thinking. Although I sometimes respond with undue frustration, if they are patient they can get through to me. Such was the case this evening in our somewhat contentious family discussion of voting and the principle of double effect (PDE).
There is tremendous controversy among Republicans today about the party’s front runner and presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, and whether it is permissible or even obligatory to vote for a man who is so fundamentally lacking in experience, temperament, personal integrity and plain moral decency. Never before have we seen such a radically unqualified candidate for president get so far. Never before have we witnessed a candidate so shamelessly dishonest that he can barely speak for 60 seconds without telling the most outlandish lies. Never before have we a seen a candidate so casual in disseminating the most outrageous personal calumnies. Never have we seen a candidate so appallingly ignorant of the issues and indifferent to the rule of law. Your blog host holds that a vote for Trump would, if advertised or recommended to others, be utterly scandalous and harmful to the body politic – even if it could be demonstrated that Trump is the “lesser of evils” by virtue of not being Hillary Clinton, which is doubtful.
The first point I wanted to make to my children is that choosing “the lesser of evils” is an unfortunate way of putting things. A Catholic cannot choose evil for its own sake, strictly speaking – he must always choose the good. It seems important to think in these terms, because it compels one to identify and evaluate the positive good in the choices one has available. Now, in choosing the greater good there may be an unintended evil effect. Depending on the proportionate magnitude of the good in question with respect to the harm caused by the evil effect, the decision to choose this particular good may be legitimate, despite the evil consequences. That is how I understand the principle of double effect (PDE) in Catholic moral theology. I realize that a more rigorous position is in circulation, but this seems to be the most widely accepted.
A good example of this is the Catholic instruction with respect to vaccines that are derived from aborted fetal tissue. Is it morally permissible to use these vaccines? The principles employed in answering this question can be applied to voting and any other moral calculus. In 2005 the Vatican issued a lengthy statement on the subject with the following conclusion:
Therefore, doctors and fathers of families have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines13 (if they exist), putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available. They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection14 with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human foetal origin. Equally, they should oppose by all means (in writing, through the various associations, mass media, etc.) the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared, which are not connected with the abortion of a human foetus, and requesting rigorous legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers.
As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health. However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis. The moral reason is that the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience. Moreover, we find, in such a case, a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children. This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles15.
In any case, there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically. However, the burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population – especially with regard to pregnant women.
To summarize, it must be confirmed that:
there is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems;
as regards the vaccines without an alternative, the need to contest so that others may be prepared must be reaffirmed, as should be the lawfulness of using the former in the meantime insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole – especially for pregnant women;
the lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing and use, but is to be understood as being a passive material cooperation and, in its mildest and remotest sense, also active, morally justified as an extrema ratio due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children (pregnant women);
such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents, who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.
In other words, such vaccines may be used – it is not obligatory – provided that: 1) no alternatives are available; 2) there is a proportional reason to use them, such as saving lives; 3) scandal is avoided so that using these vaccines is not misunderstood as approval of their production; 4) a conscientious objection must be made known; 5) every lawful means is employed in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically.
How, then, might we apply this analogy to the presidential election? Is it permissible to vote for Donald Trump? Such a vote may be permissible provided that: 1) there is no other candidate for whom one’s vote might result in a better outcome; 2) there is a proportional reason to vote for Trump, some unambiguous good that will result; 3) scandal is avoided in that one’s vote for Trump is not misunderstood as approval of the evil he will bring about, thereby leading others to choose Trump for immoral reasons; 4) one makes known his conscientious objection to the unjust alternatives presented to him; 5) every lawful means is employed to prevent a candidate like Donald Trump from gaining the party’s nomination in the future.
Now, let’s break this down.
1) Is there no other candidate for whom one’s vote might result in a better outcome? Any third party candidate might result in a better outcome, first because that candidate may win the election, but even if he doesn’t, a strong third party candidate may prevent an Electoral College majority, thereby throwing the election to the U.S. Congress, which is unlikely to choose either Trump or Clinton.
2) Is there a proportional reason to vote for Trump, some unambiguous good that outweighs the bad? No. With Donald Trump there is only a remote possibility of good, due to his instability and unpredictability, but there is guarantee of serious harm for all of the reasons stated earlier.
3) Does a vote for Trump avoid scandal? Possibly, but only if no one knows who you’re voting for, and if you don’t try to convince others.
4) Can one vote for Trump while making known his conscientious objections? If there were no third party option, that would be more credible. But there is the option of voting for a third party candidate, and just about any candidate has the potential to deny Trump a majority in the Electoral College. If there were not the option of voting third party, then voting for Trump while loudly objecting to the “necessity” seems self-defeating.
5) Similarly, voting for Donald Trump while working to ensure that candidates like him are prevented from gaining the nomination in the future is possible, but that will entail saying the kinds of things that will inevitably dissuade others from voting for him today.
The way I see it, voting for Donald Trump fails even the least rigorous interpretation of Catholic moral theology employing the principle of double effect.