Your “Lesser Evil” Argument Needs Work

Since I made my decision to vote for Joe Biden come November public, I have been accused more times than I can count of “voting for the lesser evil” by people mostly of the libertarian orientation. Rarely have any of these people addressed my actual reasons for coming to the (admittedly difficult) decision to vote for Biden — they almost unanimously lean on that catchphrase like some sort of crutch/broken record combination.

“Why are you voting for a lesser evil?”

“Why are you voting for a lesser evil?”

“Why are you voting for a lesser evil?”

“Why are you voting for a lesser evil?”

And on and on and on.

Most of the time it’s just a vapid, knee-jerk response to decision they do not understand (mostly because they don’t want to even try to understand said decision). I confess, that in previous elections I too used this line: I most commonly used it against voting for either Trump or Clinton in 2016 (I voted for Johnson/Weld) but I used it multiple down-ballot races that year as well as 2018. Most of my uses of that phrase, I know regret: it is almost completely hollow to me now.

In my mind, the question “Why are you voting for a lesser evil?” as a response to my vote for Biden falls apart when looked at closely. To make any sense of that question, one has to make sense of what qualifies as evil. Now, that’s opening a giant can of metaphysical discussion and debate, so this is a gross oversimplification, but generally and broadly speaking, we all accept two main kinds of evil: the evil of intent and the evil of consequence; evil that is the point and evil that is accidental.

Evil Intent

If when people deride me for voting for a “lesser evil” they are speaking of that first kind of evil — the intentional, cruel, understanding of evil — then it is no sweat of my brow to immediately dismiss the charge as hyperbolic and ridiculous at best, or as dishonest at worst. When it comes to Donald Trump and Joe Biden, it seems clear to me that there is only one of those two who is clearly evil in the sense of this first understanding (and it’s not Biden). Of the two, only Trump has shown a consistent ethic of cruelty, spite, and psychopathy. Only Trump has made an intentional effort to signal vice rather than virtue. Only Trump has treated exploitation and the host of evil “isms” (racism, sexism, ableism, nationalism, etc.) as pillars of righteousness.

Donald Trump is fundamentally, deep-down the worst type of bully. As Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic in 2018, with Trump “the cruelty is point”. Every action his administration takes, every policy they advocate for, is predicated on who they can hurt. This has been the case with Trump his entire life. This has been the case with Trump his entire first term. And it will continue to be the case with Trump, to an even greater and more horrifying scale, if he is reelected in November.

You can say what you want about Biden, but if we are defining evil based on this intentional understanding, then calling him evil seems — like I said — extremely hyperbolic, at best. Is Biden incompetent? I don’t personally think so, but for the sake of this thought experiment let’s say he is. Is Biden prone to promoting policies with terrible unintended consequences? Definitely. But if we are to understand evil as an intentional pursuit of harm, vice, and cruelty, then it seems obvious to anyone but the most extreme anti-Biden partisans that mere incompetency and lack of foresight do not qualify as evil.

Now, if we are working under that second understanding of evil — the evil of consequence — then that’s another story.

Evil Consequence

If those who say that I am supporting a “lesser evil” are speaking in the context of “evil” being defined by the consequences — specifically the unintended consequences — of actions and policies, then I suppose that I am. As I’ve already stated, I think it’s clear that Joe Biden has a long history of supporting policies with disastrous unintended consequences, there really is no denying that. He championed the 1994 Crime Bill that has resulted in “the New Jim Crow”. He supported both wars against Iraq and the nation-building fiasco in Afghanistan that have resulted in so much loss of innocent life. He’s supported Wall Street regulations and deregulations that have equally fueled crony capitalism and inequality. He was a part of the Obama administration that waged drone warfare across Africa and the Middle East and further crippled the Health Care system through the ACA.

History is clear: Biden’s actions as a legislator and as a Vice President harmed a great number of people. Ignoring thought would be peak hypocrisy and willful ignorance for any Biden supporter, and if we are to determine the evilness of a person based on the unintended consequences of their actions, then Biden is undeniably, uncontroversially evil. So if this is the standard that those who accuse me of voting for a lesser evil are holding to, then I once again fully admit that yes, I am.

That being said, most of them are too. Like I said at the start of this piece, the overwhelming majority of the “lesser evil” criticism I have received has been from libertarians. And of the libertarians who have accused me of this, the vast majority of them are voting for the Libertarian Party’s nominee, Jo Jorgenson. Personally, I think that most of their indignation is more about them being mad that I’m not falling in line and backing their candidate, rather than genuine moral outrage, as the LP Vice Presidential candidate Spike Cohen so emotionally expressed to me in a stunning display of campaign incompetency. But I digress.

What these Jorgenson-supporting libertarians don’t seem to grasp is that they are themselves voting for a lesser evil. Now, maybe she’s the lesser of three evils rather than two (though I think that idea is up for debate), but she is still a lesser evil. Can any Jorgenson voter honestly tell me that no one will be harmed by the policies she would implement as president? Can any Jorgenson voters honestly tell me that her administration would have zero unintended consequences that would be “evil”? Obviously, none of them can and any who do are making a liar of themselves.

The unfortunate truth of electoral politics is that all candidates are evil — in this evil of consequence sense — to an extent. Any candidate once elected will accidentally cause evil. Any candidate will hurt people. Any candidate will kill and plunder and destroy, and the libertarian-preferred candidates are no exception. This is just fact, and if you can’t accept it then you are denying reality.

So if one accepts the reality that harm (evil) is an inevitable part of our political system, and one still continues to participate in said system (as I believe we should), then one is tacitly admitting that when choosing a candidate to support, they are merely looking for a candidate that is significantly less evil than their opponent, not a candidate that lacks evil altogether (because that’s impossible). You see, everyone who votes is looking for and supporting a lesser evil. Libertarians and partisans might not like to admit it, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And while Jorgenson may be significantly less evil than Biden, I would contend that the difference in this area between Biden and Trump is even greater. Unlike Jorgenson though, Biden is viable and credible.

To attack my decision to vote for Biden, the “you’re voting for a lesser evil” attack is completely impotent if your idea of evil is centered around intent. There’s just no credible evidence out there that Joe Biden is some sort of intentionally evil tyrant out on a quest to cause chaos and harm, whereas there is plentiful evidence that Trump’s entire candidacy and administration are both predicated on a shifty foundation of vice and anti-empathy.

And if your idea of evil is centered on the unintended consequences of one’s actions, then the “lesser evil” accusation entirely implodes if you are voting for anyone at all, because all candidates — yes, even Jo Jorgenson — are “evil” in this sense. It’s a nonsensical, unnuanced, unintrospective line of attack that sounds good but ultimately falters and falls apart. It is only a credible line of attack if it comes from a principled non-voter, but that’s a whole other issue.

Maybe four years of Trump’s depravity has jaded me. Maybe my own moral compass is askew. Either of those could very well be true, but I think the main reason that I can no longer abide by the legitimacy of this simple “lesser evil” phrase is that it implies a sort of moral equivalency that simply does not exist between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, or more broadly, a moral equivalency that does not exist between the modern American Right and coalition of liberals and leftists.

When the left in 1920s/30s Italy, Germany, and Spain allowed fascists to consolidate power and concrete their positions in national politics, largely just to spite their centrist rivals, each of those countries developed into fascist dictatorships. Centrism and neoliberalism and not what America and the world need, but they are obviously far better alternatives to fascism.

Avid reader, compulsive writer | Tolstoy, Hauerwas, & D. B. Hart | “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

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