A Brief Discussion of Consequentialism, Trump and Clinton
August 10, 2016 by Joseph Phillips 4 comments
I mentioned in a conversation with Tom Cook, my friend and formerly-reluctant Trump supporter, that I wasn’t a political consequentialist and that led him to ask, in effect, “As opposed to what?” Since I think the majority of Christians who are supporting Trump are doing to so because they are defaulting to consequentialism, I think Tom’s question is one worthy of discussing. So I want to briefly explain what I meant by consequentialism and why I find it problematic, especially in the context of politics.
What Is Consequentialism?
There are all kinds of slight variations of consequentialism but the general theory is that ethical decisions should be made on the basis of an expected outcome. Applied to voting, it would mean that a person should vote for the candidate that they estimate will cause the best consequences. If you are an ethical egoist, the ‘best consequences’ are consequences that benefit you. Most Christians would recognize the folly of that system and would fall more into a vaguely utilitarian camp where the ‘best consequences’ are the things that lead to safety, prosperity, and freedom for the most Americans.
Thabiti Anyabwile and Wayne Grudem have both recently posted articles that strike me as advocating a sort-of consequentialist perspective when it comes to politics. Wayne Grudem’s argument is this:
"I do not think that voting for Donald Trump is a morally evil choice because there is nothing morally wrong with voting for a flawed candidate if you think he will do more good for the nation than his opponent. In fact, it is the morally right thing to do."
Substitute the name Donald Trump for Hillary Clinton and switch the gender of the pronouns, and you have Thabiti Anyabwile’s position. Now we can raise our eyebrows about the interesting use of the fairly benign word ‘flawed’ as it relates to either of these candidates (and to his credit, Mr. Anyabwile was significantly less benign when talking about Secretary Clinton), but fundamentally both men would argue that sitting out the election based on an objection to the character of either one or both is an abdication of our responsibility to choose the person we think will lead to the best consequences, even if the best consequences just means ‘slightly less horrific.’ I understand the appeal of this type of thinking. After all, every candidate is ‘flawed.’ If we are waiting for a flawless candidate we’ll never vote and that seems like a combination of self-righteousness, cowardice and naivety. Don’t we just need to do the best with what we’ve got?
(As a quick aside, I am even more sympathetic to this type of thinking as it pertains to African-American and other minority perspectives on Trump. In other words, I understand that it’s a lot easier for me to find moral equivalence between Trump and Clinton than for, say, Mr. Anyabwile, and thus it’s necessarily easier for me to criticize functional consequentialism. I am not the one whose worth is being implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) questioned or devalued. But, having acknowledged that, I stand by my position – it’s exactly because the candidates are so flawed that we must fight against consequentialism. If Trump and his team and supporters weren’t so anti-minority, maybe I could vote for him; if Hillary and her team and supporters weren’t so pro-abortion, maybe I could vote for her. But they aren’t, and we must take reality as it is, rather than as we wish it were; as Marlo from The Wire would say: “You think it’s one way? You think it’s one way. But it’s the other way.”)
The Problems with Consequentialism
I don’t think Wayne Grudem or Thabiti Anyabwile (both of whom I respect immensely and have been influential in shaping my understanding of the Bible) are actually consequentialists, even politically. I think if the two candidates were David Duke (KKK) and Peter Singer (argues infanticide is ok), they would not try to figure out who would be better or worse than the other. They would spend their energy trying to undermine both and writing in such a way to convince those who read them to do the same, because they wouldn’t want to do anything to signal support for what those men stand for. They would hope there would be such a backlash from the electorate that the political parties would realize they should never nominate individuals so morally bankrupt ever again. But let’s leave the good doctors out of it. There are probably true consequentialists out there who would argue that we should vote for Duke or Singer if they were the two choices. So, fundamentally, why do I think this is an incorrect approach?
The Bible indicates that consequences matter a lot when it comes to our decisions. Proverbs in particular offers wisdom in the form of warning about the consequences of sin. Ignoring the consequences of our actions is a sign of foolishness. So no one would argue consequences are an irrelevant part of the equation when it comes to ethics. But putting consequences first, ahead of what is good, is to reverse the biblical order, at least from my understanding of Scripture.
Proverbs 5 gives all sorts of consequential reasons why committing adultery is a terrible idea. But the consequences are not what makes the act of committing adultery wrong. The lack of honor, the selfishness, and the lack of discipline are both what is wicked and what leads to the consequences. We need to be told of the terrible consequences of sin, not because the consequences are what makes the thing wrong, but because they help expose the lies of adultery.
Christians throughout history have maintained that the Law of God is a reflection of the character of God, and therefore our obedience to God’s commands is a way that we demonstrate the character of God. Sin isn’t wrong because an action is committed that will lead to bad consequences; sin is wrong because it lies about who God is.
If Not Consequentialism, Then What?
Even if you agree with my critique of consequentialism as an ethical theory, you may wonder how this applies to politics. Let’s take a look a more biblical ethic, and then see if it has anything to say about how we should vote.
The most common ways of describing the class of ethical theories that are in opposition to consequentialism would be deontological ethics, which focuses on actions being good or bad based on how they adhere to a law or code. (This is a vast oversimplification, because this is a blog, not a term paper. All ethical theories do not fall neatly into consequentialist or deontological categories.) Consequences are incidental, in that an action that is morally good can still lead to undesired or ‘bad’ consequences. I think even that (overly) brief definition is clearly headed in the right biblical direction.
So how do I apply this to voting?
I start from the premise that voting in America is not a zero sum game that I am biblically required to play. If it was, then I would be required to be a consequentialist. Because it is not, and I don’t see any biblical support for that position, I am already prepared to walk away from the booth if I need to. Because of the great country I live in, voting can be a way for me, as a Christian, to participate in my community in a positive way by supporting people and policies I think will benefit me and my neighbors and fellow countrymen. It also provides a way for me to participate in my community in a positive way by dissenting against people and policies I think will hurt me and my neighbors and my fellow countrymen. Unfortunately, the only way to voice dissent against two people I think will hurt me and my neighbors and my fellow countrymen is to not vote for either of the two choices.
The reply that one will hurt more than the other is compelling, but not sufficient. God doesn’t tell me to make my decisions based on what the consequences will be; rather, he tells me to make decisions based on obedience to his commands, the greatest of which is "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind," and the second, which is like it, is "love your neighbor as yourself. " This doesn’t mean I can’t vote for a candidate just because some of my neighbors think that by doing so, I am not demonstrating love. But it does mean if I genuinely believe that voting for either candidate is actually an unloving act on my part, I must abstain. In a national election, every American becomes my neighbor.
I believe it would be unloving toward my neighbors who are part of ethnic minorities to vote for a man who habitually uses racist rhetoric and promotes racists online, for instance. I also believe it would be unloving to any unborn neighbors to vote for a woman who wants abortion not only to be legal, but to be legal for an entire pregnancy. This will be the first election where I am geniunely convinced that by voting for either candidate, I wouldn't just vehemently disagree with some of my neighbors, but would be actively unloving towards them.
This post is already too long, but I want to clarify one more thing. If you think differently than me on this issue, I don’t believe you are necessarily being unloving to your neighbors. Your actions in voting might absolutely be rooted in love. I don’t agree with you primarily because I don’t think voting for a fool promoting racism and a strongman/savior-type platform is loving to my neighbors and I don’t think voting for an someone who wants to expand abortion rather than ending it and who doesn’t seem to think religious liberty is very important is loving to my neighbors either. It is a personal conviction and I will try to convince others, but I am not arrogant enough to proclaim Mr. Grudem or Mr. Anyabwile or anyone else to be in sin and unloving for holding a different position.
I wish there were ways to dissent against both choices by doing something other than shouting into the abyss of social media, convincing my friends not to vote, writing blogs, and not voting. But that’s the only way I know how. Be that as it may, I dissent.
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