Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"When choosing between two evils, choose neither" An examination of the cliche

Recently this bit of wisdom has been circulating, especially among many thoughtful and considerate people I count as friends: "When faced with two evils, choose neither."

This cliche is used to demonstrate that the speaker/ writer has determined that both candidates represent "evil" choices, and therefore neither can be an option.

Some choose to support a third party candidate.

Others will not vote.

This is a significant problem as it ensures the person will have no influence on the final election tally, resulting in a de facto vote for whoever eventually wins.

Are we really faced with two "evils?"

Origins of a Cliche

The phrase, "When face with two evils, choose neither" has been attributed to Charles Spurgeon, but the concept (and likely the phrase) long preceded the great 19th century preacher.

"I am upon the horns of a dilemma!"
Homer wrote about Odysseus' choice to pass by Scylla and lose a few sailors, or risk the loss of his ship in the whirlpool. He was "caught between a rock and a hard place," or "on the horns of a dilemma."

The meaning is the same -- there is no "best" choice when both seem to result in harm.

Thus the sentiment" "Choose neither" seems reasonable, thoughtful, and even moral.

However -- as is the case with most cliches -- a second thought will reveal that in politics, in war, in business, and every other human endeavor, it's not how life works.

Cold Reality

General George S. Patton
First, we do not know all the consequences of any action, large or small. We can surmise, guess, intuit, reason, and hope, but as the ever-quotable General George Patton said, "No plan survives first contact."

Second, all choices mingle some degree of "evil" and "good." That's the nature of existence in a fallen world. We may choose to do good and great harm results.

Even the law recognizes this and has  provisions for unintended consequences. The typical philosophy 101 scenario places you by a pond in Linz, Austria in 1895. You see a boy wading, then disappear under the water, clearly in distress. Most moral people would rescue the 5 year old. 50 years later you learn the boy you saved is named Adolph Hitler. The professor asks, "Did you do the right thing?" and Freshman tortured logic ensues.

Both are flawed. Aren't you?
Third, neither candidate can be described as "pure evil." Each has different approaches to life, proscriptions for the future, and expectations about people, and government. I do not doubt the sincerity of either. I question the judgement of both Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton on a number of topics. But each represents the population from which he and she are drawn, and we're not exactly blooming with purity.

Finally, the idea that a vote for a third party will "send a message" or "vote my conscience" sounds fine in theory, but is absolutely pointless in reality.

"Those Samaritans..."
A theoretical approach makes me feel bad about poverty, while not taking the time to actually spend money or time. That's fine for Stoics, but not appropriate for Christians. We are commanded to be salt and light and to participate in the muddy day to day.

No one takes a theoretical approach to work (or will admit it). There are always shady practices, people, methods, and assumptions swirling in any workplace. We Christians do the best we can within the system we have and either improve it by our very presence or leave it (We're very utilitarian when it comes to income because money is where reality trumps  baseless hope).

Part of that day-to-day "mud" is politics. Like it or not we have a representative republic that enables citizens to vote and thereby express our agreement or disagreement with a particular person or platform.

Face the Facts

We live in a two party system. If you think your protest vote will spawn some huge sea change, I suggest you consider the campaigns of Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Eugene Debs, Bob Lafollet, or even Teddy Roosevelt of the famously unknown Bull Moose party.

It's a feel good vote that does nothing except marginalize your participation.

Therefore I conclude the most reasonable approach is to choose one of the two candidates, realize we live in a fallen world, and pray for the day when the Lord Himself will assume the throne and show us how polity should work.
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