"The Only Vote Worth Casting..."

It's been a quiet week here at the blog. I've been occupied with studying for a midterm, researching for three term papers and preparing two presentations for the coming week. All in all, it's been a load of work. I'll soon be finished with my pressing assignments, though, and back to blogging on a more regular basis. For now, here's a curious (and brief) article about Catholic political activity by a philosopher from the University of Notre Dame (which has generated quite a buzz of attention.) Don't let the cliché subject matter dissuade you from giving it a read. It's very interesting. And I'd be curious to hear some comments:

The Only Vote Worth Casting in November
Alasdair MacIntyre

When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives. These are propositions which in the abstract may seem to invite easy agreement. But, when they find application to the coming presidential election, they are likely to be rejected out of hand. For it has become an ingrained piece of received wisdom that voting is one mark of a good citizen, not voting a sign of irresponsibility. But the only vote worth casting in November is a vote that no one will be able to cast, a vote against a system that presents one with a choice between Bush's conservatism and Kerry's liberalism, those two partners in ideological debate, both of whom need the other as a target.

Why should we reject both? Not primarily because they give us wrong answers, but because they answer the wrong questions. What then are the right political questions? One of them is: What do we owe our children? And the answer is that we owe them the best chance that we can give them of protection and fostering from the moment of conception onwards. And we can only achieve that if we give them the best chance that we can both of a flourishing family life, in which the work of their parents is fairly and adequately rewarded, and of an education which will enable them to flourish. These two sentences, if fully spelled out, amount to a politics. It is a politics that requires us to be pro-life, not only in doing whatever is most effective in reducing the number of abortions, but also in providing healthcare for expectant mothers, in facilitating adoptions, in providing aid for single-parent families and for grandparents who have taken parental responsibility for their grandchildren. And it is a politics that requires us to make as a minimal economic demand the provision of meaningful work that provides a fair and adequate wage for every working parent, a wage sufficient to keep a family well above the poverty line.

The basic economic injustice of our society is that the costs of economic growth are generally borne by those least able to afford them and that the majority of the benefits of economic growth go to those who need them least. Compare the rise in wages of ordinary working people over the last thirty years to the rise in the incomes and wealth of the top twenty percent. Compare the value of minimum wage now to its value then and next compare the value of the remuneration of CEOs to its value then. What is needed to secure family life is a sufficient minimum income for every family and that can perhaps best be secured by some version of the negative income tax, proposed long ago by Milton Friedman, a tax that could be used to secure a large and just redistribution of income and so of property.

We note at this point that we have already broken with both parties and both candidates. Try to promote the pro-life case that we have described within the Democratic Party and you will at best go unheard and at worst be shouted down. Try to advance the case for economic justice as we have described it within the Republican Party and you will be laughed out of court. Above all, insist, as we are doing, that these two cases are inseparable, that each requires the other as its complement, and you will be met with blank incomprehension. For the recognition of this is precluded by the ideological assumptions in terms of which the political alternatives are framed. Yet at the same time neither party is wholeheartedly committed to the cause of which it is the ostensible defender. Republicans happily endorse pro-choice candidates, when it is to their advantage to do so. Democrats draw back from the demands of economic justice with alacrity, when it is to their advantage to do so. And in both cases rhetorical exaggeration disguises what is lacking in political commitment.

In this situation a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote case for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives. The way to vote against the system is not to vote.

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    # by Andrew Reinhart - October 13, 2008 at 2:57 PM

    Thanks, it is a very provocative piece from Dr. MacIntyre. I would want to raise one question though. Can we fix the problems in society by fixing the "system"? I should start by stating that I do believe reforms are needed in the government. It will never be perfect, but, for example, I am not sure that taxing the wealthy more heavily will solve any problems. Yes, a more fair distribution of wealth is best, but taxing the wealthy more will really fix nothing. I think spending our time healing problems like greed and exploitation might be the better answer. Taxing the wealthy more heavily, while not being an unjust or unreasonable thing, as a solution to economic woes is something akin to giving someone with cancer Tylenol. It will make things feel a little bit better for a while, but it won't mask all of the pain or prevent the pain from returning as the wages become more unproportional and the tax system will simply need reformed time and time again. I may be an idealist, but as always I think what society really needs is saints. I think Dr. MacIntyre would agree with me judging by the little I have read of his. And, of course, the only way we can improve the society we live in this way is not by pointing fingers at anyone or anything but by honestly peering into our own hearts and asking God's mercy

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    # by Andrew Haines - October 15, 2008 at 9:00 AM

    One interesting thing about this article is that it came out in 2004, not 2008 (or so it seems, since there is no date attached.) Nevertheless, the reader can simply switch out "Bush and Kerry," add "McCain and Obama," and the whole thing still makes perfect sense. I think this longevity of relevance alone is enough to provide some credibility to MacIntyre's case.

    Andrew, your analysis of the argument makes sense too. To reply to your question, though, of whether or not we can fix the problems by fixing the system, I would say yes--at least to a certain degree. You know me (and my Marcelian affinities), and so you know that I think problems will always be with us as a fundamental part of human experience. But we are nonetheless called to seek to alleviate them in whatever ways we can. Although the ideal way to do this is by "peering into our own hearts and asking God's mercy," I have to believe that there ought to be some structure in the political realm that seeks to further this very end. And, I think the point of MacIntyre's article is the fact that there is not: that our current governmental and electoral structure does not provide a stop-gap for total system self-perpetuation. There is no way to break the circle without simply not being part of the circle. Or, in his words, casting a vote that "no one will be able to cast."

    MacIntyre's redefinition of 'good citizenship' is also interesting: he does not relegate 'goodness' in this area to 'voting.' Instead, I would argue, he takes a more Apologetic approach (in the Socratic sense) in saying that we must adhere to laws insofar as we are their subjects, but must always be willing to suffer the consequences when we deem to use silence as a weapon against them. Intentional silence is, after all, the only suitable rival to laws of the state in which one lives. Socrates, of course, shows this, but so does St. Thomas More and countless others. Perhaps this last bit needs a little more clarification and direction, but I have to agree that MacIntyre is onto something here, and I'm not convinced he isn't just right.

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    # by Andrew Reinhart - October 15, 2008 at 11:55 AM

    I agree with everything you have said Andy, and my statements were not directed to the position that we should not strive to fix the system. But, I believe that since the more fundamental need in society is for personal reform (sainthood) then the need for governmental reform (or the lack there of in our current situation) does not require someone not to cast a vote. Since the system can be fixed even if the current political ideologies do not lend themselves to it happening. I see and understand MacIntyre's point, and maybe with some coaxing I could be pushed to agree with his practical suggestion here.

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    # by Suzanne - October 15, 2008 at 12:06 PM

    What MacIntyre writes here has been exactly my position (though his is fuller and better argued) for the past several years [http://cl-bloggers.blogspot.com/2008/01/politics-and-scruples.html], but I was chastened by a couple of my Catholic friends who feel that refusing to vote means giving up a fundamental right/freedom (see the Cahiers Peguy discussion from Jan/Feb of this year). I have since diligently applied myself to learn as much as possible about the candidates, though this is far from an enjoyable occupation for me; still, I have to admit that I do not know who I will vote for. It makes me sick to think about either candidate as president (and that I helped him to get there).

    It was great to see you last night!

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    # by Andrew Haines - October 15, 2008 at 1:16 PM


    Do you you think that by prolonging a systematized satisfaction with two parties, both obviously unconcerned with true reforms, there is still a hope for honest reform in the future? I would like to think that fixing the glitches could happen no matter who is in charge (assuming that the glitches were glaring enough). But, it doesn't seem to be the case. At least not until some giant meltdown causes people to say, "something has to be done."

    Suzanne, it was good to see you too! I can relate with the position of voting = necessary for 'good citizens.' It's pretty common sensical. But now we seem to be in a situation where common sense must be forgone, and critical analyses assumed. I had a professor who used to say that "Common sense is the best test for philosophical theory, but common sense theories of philosophy seldom work." I think he was right, and I think this might be one practical application of that point.

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    # by Andrew Reinhart - October 15, 2008 at 8:05 PM

    Based on the sense I am getting from your comments I think that I am not despairing of the system that we currently have to the extent that you may be, but I do not believe that it is appropriate for me to share particulars of my personal political views on this medium. So, I will remain in the realm of theory.

    Let me just play devils advocate for a bit to move the conversation on. One of the realities that must be faced is that the choice not to vote, although it may be correct, it will have little impact. By standing by that ideology then those that could at least choose the lesser of two evils will be weeded out of the voting pool. In other words, the world is an imperfect one, and dealing with gray area is a part of the deal unfortunately. So, maybe what seems correct theoretically may in the end cause a much greater evil. As those who wish to take the country in whatever direction are happy to have your voice removed from the say of who gets power now.

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    # by Suzanne - October 15, 2008 at 9:07 PM

    Now I remember -- what you say, Andrew Reinhart, corresponds to part of the response that I received from a friend -- by deciding to opt out of choosing the lesser of two evils, I may cause a third, worse evil. Yes, what would MacIntyre say to that argument, do you think?

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    # by Andrew Haines - October 15, 2008 at 10:22 PM

    Understandable to stay out of personal views here, Andrew. Theory is definitely the name of the game if we are going to get anywhere realistic. Nevertheless, you hit the nail on the head. It is precisely the trade-off you mentioned, between choosing a lesser evil and choosing to refrain from choosing evil, that is at stake. Suzanne hits on this as well with her comment. What is more evil, choosing less or choosing neither? It's quite a conundrum.

    (Incidentally, I think MacIntyre would--in fact I know he would--say that choosing neither is the optimal choice. He states that in the first line of his article. Nonetheless, he is not speaking of evil per se, but of "politically intolerable candidates" which, you might presume, means something quite similar. I suppose the real point of contention, if I get all this right, is not whether its somehow objectively wrong to refrain from voting [as it would be to vote for a candidate openly endorsing to abortion for the sake of voting-in abortion rights], but rather if it is circumstantially wrong to refrain from voting if the end of doing so would be a totally non-consequential silence, fixing nothing.


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    # by Andrew Reinhart - October 16, 2008 at 11:23 AM

    I do not see a clear answer either, but maybe facing the choice between three intolerable evils we need to try to look at the hierarchy of good to which they correspond. One possible way of doing this (and I realize this is an oversimplification and that responsible voting includes more than single issue motivation) in our current political situation: a vote for a liberal candidate = a possible harm to the good of life, a conservative vote = a possible harm to the good of economy/material well being, and an intentional abstention from voting = a possible harm to the good of the governmental system/social order. I am not sure if I am moving in the right direction, but I thought approaching the situation from a different angle may help clarify the matter.

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    # by Suzanne - October 16, 2008 at 11:51 AM

    If either candidate is chosen, there will indeed by harm to both the good of life and the good of material well-being.

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    # by annina - October 17, 2008 at 7:34 PM

    hi Andrew! no, I'm staying only in New York for 3 weeks...thanks for the invitation!

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    # by Andrew Haines - October 18, 2008 at 8:53 AM

    Taking up Andrew R.'s simplified and well-though analysis of the problem (which I think is what we've been saying all along, but this is a good and brief statement of it)...

    The thing I'm not willing to concede, of the three premises, is that "intentional abstention from voting = a possible harm to the good of the governmental system/social order." Sure, it is 'possible.' Many things are possible. But is it 'probable'? I hold that the first two 'possibilities' (i.e. regarding liberal and conservative votes) do, in fact, contain probabilities; each would probably end up harming that which is stated. But the abstention from voting does not, I would think, necessitate the probability of harm to the 'good of the governmental system' or 'social order.'

    If one abstains from voting for either a possible and probable harm to life or property (even with the realization that the right to life is more fundamental than the right to material well-being), does that person really and probably engender a source of harm to the government as a whole? While I would agree that such abstainers, if great enough in number, could inflict serious injury to the morale of those steeped in the current governmental structures, I still argue that not voting--if done consciously and intentionally--is not a true source of harm for any governmental system. It is an expression of disapproval by law-abiding citizens who protest a failing guarantee of 'rights' by foregoing one of their own to make their voice truly heard.

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    # by Andrew Reinhart - October 18, 2008 at 11:28 AM

    2 last points on my part:
    1: The reality is that even if a vote is abstained one of the two candidates will take office. This is simply a reality, so the "probable" harm will be done to society in any case. (I am intentionally playing devils advocate here)
    2: The un-cast vote is a very soft voice, but I do not believe that there is a small number of these soft voices in this election. If you want your intentional abstention from voting to truly be "cast" then maybe looking into some way to organize those who are abstaining or joining a group like this would be a good option. Then a block (which I think does exist today) of those choosing to abstain a vote could have a distinguishable voice.

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    # by Suzanne - October 18, 2008 at 11:46 AM

    What about voting for a third-party candidate? My friend Sharon, over at Clairty Daily -- whom both of you might be interested to meet -- wrote this as a comment to one of her recent posts: "I have every intention of voting. I don't find the choices acceptable, and the behavior of a potential president is a factor, not just his/her positions. I'm going to vote third-party in order to make a civic communication. It's my right and duty to do so."

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    # by Andrew Haines - October 18, 2008 at 12:00 PM

    Voting third-party seems to be a fitting alternative. However, I also argue that it would be fitting to vote for a candidate like McCain in the face of greater moral evils proffered by the other candidate. In short, fittingness does not equal most-fittingness. It still seems clearer to me that intentional abstention is at least more fitting than voting third-party. The question I'm still wondering: is it most fitting, given the circumstances?

    Andrew, it seems that if the probability for harm is allowed to persist by means of conscious abstention (which I grant you would be the case), it still does not mean that abstaining from voting caused that harm. What not voting does cause, though, is a strengthening of the 'voice of uncast votes' as a whole. And on that note, I do agree that some kind of 'anti-political' consolidation of non-voters would be much more effective in actually bringing about some reform or change than would be a whole bunch of isolated instances. Unfortunately, I'm not even 100% sold on any idea, yet, and this is something that would require forethought. Maybe next time around!