Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reflections on the Moral Responsibility in Determining the Lesser of Two Evils

How are we to determine the lesser evil when it comes to voting when both candidates fail in some aspects according to the teaching of the Catholic Church?

Preliminary Note: A couple of weeks back, when the Republican Debate was on CNN, I found myself morally troubled by some of the candidate's positions in terms of the Catholic teaching on social justice.  Since then, I was thinking of the whole concept of the lesser of two evils and how we need to view our faith in relation to the political parties.  While we're still over a year away from the elections, it is important for us to remember how we need to unite ourselves with Christ and what we need to consider in discerning what is a lesser evil.


To be honest I found myself with misgivings with some of the Republican candidates .  Their stands on certain issues of social justice seems to fall short of the Catholic teaching on social justice (not merely the liberal buzzword either).

On the other hand, Obama's position on abortion and homosexual "marriage" and religious freedom not only falls short of the Catholic position, but is utterly in opposition to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.  He actively supports things which the Catholic Church must call evil if she is to be faithful to the teachings of Christ.

So what is the candidate to do when, even if we should like some of the views of one candidate, his views are contrary to the teachings of the Church in critical ways?

We CANNOT Just Freely Vote for Whoever We Might Prefer

Ultimately, we must realize that in cases where neither political party is in line with the Catholic teaching, we are NOT free to simply vote for who we might otherwise prefer.  Certain actions are more harmful to individuals and to the state as a whole than others.  In other words, you can't vote for Mussolini just because the other party can't make the trains run on time for example.

If we are to endure the lesser evil, we must discern the greater evil that must be opposed.

It might be good to refer to a fundamental insight from Aristotle's Rhetoric (Book 1 Chapter 7):

A thing which surpasses another may be regarded as being that other thing plus something more, and that other thing which is surpassed as being what is contained in the first thing. Now to call a thing 'greater' or 'more' always implies a comparison of it with one that is 'smaller' or 'less', while 'great' and 'small', 'much' and 'little', are terms used in comparison with normal magnitude. The 'great' is that which surpasses the normal, the 'small' is that which is surpassed by the normal; and so with 'many' and 'few'.

So, when it comes to discerning the greater evil, it means it will do more evil than the lesser evil.

On Greater and Lesser Evil

We need to distinguish something first of all.  To say [A] is worse than [B] does not mean [B] is not evil.  It is simply to say that when being forced to choose between [A] and [B], [A] will do more harm physically or spiritually and therefore needs a more urgent effort than [B] if we cannot choose a selection which gives us neither evil.

In terms of Church teaching and politics, this means we recognize that both [A] and [B] run afoul of Church teaching, but [A] is a greater evil which we must witness against.  We must still oppose [B], but if it is impossible to have neither [A] nor [B] we must stop the greater evil first.

The Culture of Death

We must oppose the mindset that some human life is not worth protecting.

Abortion and Euthanasia are actions which come from the view that some life does not have value and is better off ended.  The unborn or the infirm/elderly are seen as not possessing life which is worth preserving.  Politicians who support these "rights" and enshrine them law are guilty of moving society in a direction which treats certain life as being without value.

So before we could label a candidate who supports abortion as a "lesser evil," there must be a case where candidate treats even more lives as having no value.  For example, a candidate who supports infanticide would be a greater evil than a candidate who only supports abortion.  However I would absolutely reject the idea that wanting to reduce the dollar amount given to social programs is a greater evil than saying the unborn and the elderly possess lives not worth protecting and sanctioning the arbitrary ending of these human lives.

Proportionate Reasons

We need to remember another Catholic teaching.  Even if one does not directly do an evil act (which is always forbidden) we can still have moral responsibility if our act aids an evil act, making it possible.  The more essential our action is to the performing of an evil act, the greater the justification is required to avoid culpability in sin.

For example, the gas station attendant who pumps gas into any vehicle that comes along is less responsible for supplying gasoline to a van which drives women to an abortion clinic than the driver of that van who willingly takes the women to that clinic or the owner of the building who rents space to the abortion clinic.

If we know that our actions will cause evil, we are obligated to oppose this evil and not enable it.  When it comes to voting for a candidate, Catholics must realize that a vote for a person who supports a thing the Church teaches is evil is an action which allows the politician to make this evil legally sanctioned by the government.

So it follows:

  1. The person who votes for a candidate BECAUSE he supports that evil undeniably sins.
  2. The person who votes for a candidate IN SPITE OF his support for that evil is obligated that he must justify his vote before God, and the greater the evil, the greater the justification must be.

Archbishop Chaput, when he was in Denver, wrote in 2008:

9. What is a “proportionate” reason when it comes to the abortion issue? It’s the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life — which we most certainly will. If we’re confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.

That's a strong indictment.  He's saying that abortion is such a great evil, that to vote for a candidate supports abortion  requires such a strong reason that we will not be ashamed to explain it to Christ at the final judgment.

So the person who claims that they are justified to vote for a pro-abortion candidate has to give justification.  It's not enough to say you're voting for pro-abortion candidate [A] because you're opposed to candidate [B] because of his position on Social Security.

It's human life at stake with abortion.


Catholics need to stop thinking in terms of, "Well neither candidate is fully Catholic so I am free to vote for whoever I want."  We have the somber duty to reject (vote against) the greater evil while challenging the lesser evil to change their ways.

It is clear that right now, abortion is the gravest evil facing America because it is an evil which decides some human lives are not worth living.  If you want to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, you MUST be able to justify your position by pointing to the greater evil you think is a greater than the slaughter of over 1 million unborn children EVERY year in America.

Think of it.  Catholics must think of the unborn as human lives – not subhuman lives which mean less than adults.  So we must recognize that abortion is not merely one issue of many.

When Election Day 2012 comes around, we are all obligated to seriously consider these things and remember our vote has moral consequences which we must answer for before God.

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