Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative
ONE of Kant’s great contributions to ethics is his statement of the principle known as the categorical imperative. This asserts that, for an act to be moral, one must be able to wish that its “maxim could be made a universal law of nature,” or, in ordinary terms, one must do only what one believes nature (meaning here the entire universe) would want everyone to do in similar circumstances. The categorical imperative is not without difficulties in practice — there are exceptions and questionable cases — but these notwithstanding it is a remarkably powerful principle.
How might it apply to voting in an American presidential election? Consider two alternative strategies, which we’ll call (1) voting the lesser evil, and (2) voting on principle.
Voting the lesser evil has become virtually the norm today. The Democratic and Republican parties nominate horrible candidates. The task is therefore not to vote for the candidate you like, but against the worse of the two, to prevent that candidate from winning. Since both of these candidates are bad, why don’t people simply vote for a third-party (e.g., Libertarian or Green) candidate? Because the races are so close: each voter figures that his or her vote may be decisive in preventing the more feared candidate from winning, so that opting for a third party might tip the balance unfavorably. If one is terrified of a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton winning, then this strategy has a certain utilitarian logic. But is it moral as judged by the categorical imperative?
Let’s see. If everybody did this, then the two big parties would have a perfect way to keep the public in perpetual slavery: keep nominating wretched candidates, and select issues that split the public down the middle, 50/50. That way in every election 99% of voters will continue to cast their votes for the Democratic (or Republican) candidate, to keep the Republican (or Democrat) from winning. If we suppose, not unrealistically, that both parties front the same Wall Street power elite, then this is a perfect racket by the ruling interests. There is no end in sight, and little hope for improvement in our lives. We’ll remain serfs in a gradually worsening economy, with continually eroding quality of life. Therefore voting the lesser evil cannot be moral according to Kant’s categorical imperative.
What about voting on principle? That would mean voting for the candidate whose platform best conforms to ones authentic beliefs and values, without worrying about who will actually win. If only you vote this way, granted, it may have little practical effect, except, perhaps, to register as dissent to the power elite and your fellow citizens (although these things aren’t trivial). But consider the categorical imperative: what if *everybody* voted this way? Then we would break the Republican-Democrat hegemony. We could end US military imperialism, environmental exploitation, a life of perpetual debt, and so on. In short, we could achieve or collective hopes and aspirations to produce a truly just, wise, and happy society. Without question, voting on principle does satisfy the categorical imperative, and therefore is moral.
The argument seems pretty clear. A further consideration is that voting itself ought to be regarded as a deeply important and inherently moral duty — something sacred. Our democracy is only as good as the moral conscientiousness of voters. Presidents and parties come and go, but a moral action is forever.
- Why Vote Third-Party?
- Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter
- The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable)
- The Prisoner’s Dilemma and Third-Party Voting
- Third-Party Platforms
- Tactical voting (Wikipedia)
- Social dilemma (Wikipedia)
Written by John Uebersax
May 12, 2015 at 12:38 am
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