The Utilitarian Vote Swindle

Now that the primaries are over, there’s a new strategy being pushed by the desperate and shameless.  The “lesser of two evils” fallacy has been around forever as a reason not to vote third party.

Now some are taking this argument even further and saying that not only should you vote for the lesser of two evils, you are morally wrong to do otherwise.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 3

I’m not here to tell you who to vote for, and I’m not even here to suggest you vote third party.  I think “vote your conscience” is good advice.  If your conscience tells you to vote third party, you should do so.  If your conscience tells you to weigh the projected outcomes and “vote the lesser of two evils” then you should do so.

I have my opinions about all the candidates, but I can empathize with a “conscience” vote for all of them as well to a certain degree.

What I do take umbrage with is people using bunk philosophy to try and define their way out of a problem, much like charlatan philosophers of ages past who tried to solve the problem of faith by defining God into existence.  “Your conscience is wrong,” these people say.  “Just do what we tell you.”

Not only are these arguments a naked attempt to shame you out of your voice by defining you as evil instead of appealing to your values or your self-interest, they are bad philosophical arguments as well.

First of all, this argument is based on Utilitarian or Consequentialist ethics.  These schools of ethics argue that when you make a decision, the ethical thing to do is act on the likely outcomes rather than any moral principle; you should take the action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  If you refuse to vote Clintrump on principle, and Trumpton wins, you are morally culpable for any atrocities committed by Trumpton since you voted for a spoiler candidate, the argument goes.  If you vote third party, you’re selfishly putting your protest vote / self expression ahead of actually making a difference.

However, there’s quite a few faulty assumptions baked into the argument.


First, consequentialism isn’t the only school of ethics in existence.  It’s a valid one, but not the only one.  Consequentialism is essentially the “ends justify the means” school of ethics.  Kantian ethics might actually lead you to the opposite conclusion on whether you should vote third party on the grounds that if everyone always votes the “lesser of two evils” rather than voting on values, we’re stuck with nothing but evil.

All this argument really tells you is whether you support consequentialist ethics or not.  It’s not “proof” that it’s immoral to vote for the person you believe in.

However, a moral mandate for “lesser of two evils” voting isn’t even a good argument when you assume consequentialist ethics.

In Halle and Chomsky’s paper, they say :

2) The exclusive consequence of the act of voting in 2016 will be (if in a contested “swing state”) to marginally increase or decrease the chance of one of the major party candidates winning.

With this intellectual sleight of hand the authors make all the valid, consequentialist reasons to vote third party disappear!

Other than the outside possibility of changing American history by winning, or siphoning off enough electoral votes to prevent a majority and force the decision to the House of Representatives:

This statement ignores the 5% threshold after which the minor party is eligible to receive public general election funds for future elections.

There’s other tangible perks for supporting a third party, like getting other voices into debates or even increasing ballot access.

There’s the notion that a third party vote lessens the mandate of whoever wins, by virtue of making the win more precarious, which will affect the agenda of both the executive and congress, since most politicians like getting re-elected.

Some say that our electoral system means that the system of two major parties isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  While this is true, nothing says that they have to be the Republicans and Democrats.  Both major parties seem to be in a race to see who can self-immolate first.  Who will it be?  And who will fill the power vacuum left behind?

Strictly looking at the “progressive” point of view for a second (advocated in the Chomsky paper):

The authors assume dismantling the existing oligarchy isn’t essential to moving a progressive agenda forward.  They assume that it’s not the case that Trump, while a piece of garbage, is an inevitable consequence of decades of unaddressed anxieties and dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Say what you will about Donald Trump, but at the very least he’s the raging dumpster fire consuming the GOP.  Many would see electing Hillary as a mandate to continue the status quo.


The Lesser of Two Evils

There’s also the assumption from the #NeverXers voting for a major party candidate that their person is actually the lesser of two evils, or at least less evil enough to matter, and that no one who aligns with their values  could possibly disagree.

There’s ample evidence that Donald Trump is a thinskinned demagogue with contempt for others, a malignant narcissist, and a walking constitutional nightmare, with a tenuous grasp on reality.  But can you really say with absolute certainty that the Democrats are the lesser evil?  Or vice versa?


“What, like with a cloth or something?” – Hillary Clinton, on wiping computer servers


Can you at least empathize how a Sanders supporter concerned with disenfranchisement and corporate influence in politics, who thinks that checks and balances (and the threat of impeachment) will prevent the more outlandish Trump proposals might not be super excited to back Hillary?

The Spoiler Vote

I can’t speak to people who plan to vote Stein or write in Sanders, but Johnson voters can rest assured that on average their vote pulls from both major parties about equally instead of acting as a spoiler vote.  If this statistical trend continues, Johnson voters can have a clear conscience.

However, even if you ignore this phenomena, voting for a spoiler is still a completely valid way to have an impact on the political system.

Once more from the Chomsky paper:

6) However, the left should also recognize that, should Trump win based on its failure to support Clinton, it will repeatedly face the accusation (based in fact), that it lacks concern for those sure to be most victimized by a Trump administration.

7) Often this charge will emanate from establishment operatives who will use it as a bad faith justification for defeating challenges to corporate hegemony either in the Democratic Party or outside of it. They will ensure that it will be widely circulated in mainstream media channels with the result that many of those who would otherwise be sympathetic to a left challenge will find it a convincing reason to maintain their ties with the political establishment rather than breaking with it, as they must.

TL;DR, if the left splits the vote and Trump wins, the establishment will blame the left for anything bad Trump does and be justified in doing so.  This will reduce the power of the left over the long term.

This is also nonsense.  It depends on the principle that political parties like losing elections and will cling to their wounded pride rather than analyze why they lost supporters and adjust their platform accordingly.

It’s been a belief for a long time that third parties affect national politics exactly in this way.  If someone running for one of the major parties loses due to shedding votes to a third party, the party wants those votes back.  Thus, they’ll identify the issues most important to those voters and incorporate those into the platform in an effort to win those votes back.

Successful businesses facing competition try and win their customers’ dollars by providing them value.  They don’t petulantly blame their customers.  The exact same principle applies to votes.  This is a democracy.  They’re the ones that should be afraid of losing our support, not the other way around.

If a major party can’t understand that, maybe they deserve to fail.


I keep hearing “this election is too important” but that’s all I’ve been hearing for a decade.  If not now then when?  Among general voters, we have two of the most hated candidates in history.


Now is the right time to hear alternative voices.  You don’t have to win every battle to make a difference in the war.

We’ve been given some lousy options; I know people who think that it’s an “all hands on deck” year and that fixing our broken system needs to wait, because one candidate is “bad within normal parameters”.  I know people who think the opposite, that always making sure the wrong lizard doesn’t win has led us to this point, and the time to make their voice heard is now.  I see the merits in both sides and I can’t judge anyone for making the best out of the situation.

I think the best thing to do is have an open discussion about the consequences of various strategies.  Then vote your conscience.  Also everyone should educate themselves and become more involved in congressional and local politics and help end the four-year angst cycle.

There is a pronounced distinction, however, between discussing outcomes while appealing to someone’s values, to try and persuade, and trying to condescend to or shame them.  And any moral argument that assigns someone moral culpability for actions they are not party to should be ignored outright.  No one is entitled to your autonomy.

Finally, I’d like to make a real consequentialist argument to the people pushing this narrative : Stop.  Stop condescending to people who don’t support your candidate.  Stop accusing them of being sexists, or calling them “BernieBros”, or coming up with other dismissive epithets.  Stop telling them they’re evil with nonsense philosophy.  Stop being insufferable and condescending and telling them they are just “rage voting.”  You know this is not a valid strategy to win supporters, and yet you persist.  It is in fact you who are putting rage and self expression over the good of the country.  If you keep acting entitled and condescending the person you fear most is going to sail into office with clear skies and your self important bubble will burst.


One thought on “The Utilitarian Vote Swindle

  1. This is a complicated election cycle and you make many valid points, Chris. But when one of the two major parties has a candidate (Donald Trump) who asked three times in a one hour security briefing, “Why can’t we just drop nuclear weapons on them ….” then I’m with her!


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