Voter Ethics and “Secondary Effects”

[Note: To get this blog site up and running, I am reposting a few of my Facebook posts from recent months. This is one of them. It was first posted to Facebook on the date listed, though these first few posts to Neighborfy are being uploaded in June 2017. I’ve made minor edits to some of the Neighborfy versions.  Because these posts were originally posted to Facebook, unfortunately the original comments from readers are not copied here.]


Check out my prior two posts for some discussion about ethics and voting. In particular, a few of us have been pondering whether it is an “ok” or “ethical” course of action if we decide not to vote for president. If you read those posts, you’ll see my conclusion that we should indeed vote, but as a reminder the point of these discussions isn’t to pressure or shame anyone into any particular course of voting. We’re thinking out loud together, helping each other ask “What’s the ‘right’ thing or the ‘better’ thing for me to do?”

Please remember: This is a request for conversation about ethics (ours, as voters, not the candidates’ ethics). We aren’t hurling insults or accusations about candidates or particular policy positions. (And if you do, I’ll block you from seeing these posts next time.) This is a sincere attempt at conversation among friends, and I invite you to join.

Today I ask: Do we bear some ethical responsibility for the secondary effects of our actions (e.g., our votes), even if those outcomes aren’t the primary purpose of voting the way we do?”

In some “Ethics 101” classes, participants explore the concept of “secondary effects” and our ethical responsibility for them. To illustrate the concept, consider the dying hospital patient, suffering in pain in his final hours. Doctors, nurses and caring families are very commonly confronted with the decision whether to treat the pain with medicines that, unfortunately, will hasten death. Morphine, for example, suppresses respiration. Caregivers are sometimes called upon to administer morphine to alleviate the patient’s suffering, even though everyone is aware that the morphine might bring about death sooner than nature otherwise would. In those difficult circumstances, when caregivers embody nothing more or less than a loving desire to stop the suffering of the beloved patient, can anyone really say it is “unethical” to provide the pain medicine? The primary INTENT is alleviation of pain. The SECONDARY EFFECT is the hastened death.

You can see how this would be a wrenching decision, and it certainly is, every single time. But in that example, the ethical considerations seem a little easier to sort out. After all, in the situation described, the patient’s death is only slightly hastened, and he/she is able to endure his/her final hours without unnecessary pain. But “secondary effect” issues get much, much more complicated.

Consider, for example, the example of “collateral damage” from drone strikes. Even if you accept the morality of sending a missile to kill a particular bad guy, is it “ethical” to kill the people who are nearby at the time of the strike? Does the calculus change if the military commanders (the persons ordering the strike) are aware that there are innocent persons in the vicinity of the target? Are they less responsible if they are unaware that innocents will be killed? What if they are careless about determining whether innocent people might be harmed? Can someone claim innocence if they turn a blind eye to possible or likely consequences of their drone strikes, even if the collateral damage was unintended or undesired?

I’m not trying to solve the ethical issues of drone strikes today. (So please don’t turn the comments into that discussion.) This is a discussion about the current election and our ethical commitments in the midst of it. What are the INTENDED EFFECTS of our votes and what might be the SECONDARY EFFECTS of those votes? And do we bear any responsibility for those effects?

Violating my own debate rules, I’ll stray for a moment into actual candidate scenarios. Here goes: Some allege that Hillary Clinton offered the benefits of her position as Secretary of State to persons who made big donations to the Clinton Foundation. (For the record, I’ve seen no credible allegation that any of that money ever did anything but support legitimate charitable activities of the foundation – it didn’t make anyone rich. But “pay to play” is questionable conduct, in any event.) Those folks fear that Clinton, if elected President, might similarly provide favors to donors. Example two: It has been reported that Donald Trump believes it would be ok if a handful of additional nations possess nuclear weapons, including, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and (South) Korea. So the ethical questions look like this: If you vote for Hillary and she trades influence for donations, do you bear some responsibility for contributing to that outcome? OR… If you vote for Donald, and he supports allowing proliferation of nukes to several additional countries (all of which, to be fair, are currently allies), do you bear some responsibility for contributing to that outcome?

When you vote, you might have several legitimate primary purposes with legitimate, even laudable, INTENDED EFFECTS, but might you bear some responsibility for the SECONDARY EFFECTS, too?

I suspect the right answer has something to do with the certainty of the intended effects and the foreseeability of the secondary effects. For example, if you are voting for Trump with the primary purposes of deporting 11 million undocumented aliens, I hate to inform you – that’s unlikely to happen. If you are voting for Clinton with the primary purpose of making all public colleges tuition-free, that’s pretty unlikely, too. Maybe the responsible thing for us to do is to cast votes in favor of outcomes that have a realistic chance of occurring?

[Side note: If your goal is to “overturn Roe v Wade,” I really do hate to muddy the conversation, and that topic certainly deserves longer discussion, but the reality is that the Supreme Court doesn’t overturn itself (it CAN “reverse” lower court decisions, but it doesn’t simply “change its mind” about its own prior rulings). That’s not how it works. In general, all the Court can do is distinguish future cases from circumstances that would fall within the rules established by prior cases. All it can say is something like “That previously established rule doesn’t apply in this case, because the circumstances in this case are different in the following ways…” In short, if you don’t like the law as articulated by Roe v. Wade, it will require a constitutional amendment. You are certainly free to support such an amendment. But if you are voting for Trump with the notion that his presidency would lead to overturning Roe, I encourage you to understand that it’s very, very unlikely. Topic for another day. (And please don’t skewer me in the comments over this issue – I’m just describing the way the Court works, not commenting on the value of your values.)]

As for secondary effects, I think foreseeability probably matters a lot. If I vote for candidate X, and after the election President X does something terrible that we never could have foreseen, surely I can’t bear responsibility for that outcome. But what if the outcome is foreseeable? If you think your preferred candidate might accomplish that one thing you care most about, but he/she might also do some awful thing that is reasonably foreseeable, is it really ok to vote for him/her? If, for example, you vote for Trump because you want him to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices (again, you need to have realistic expectations about that), are you ok achieving that goal at the price of Mr. Trump ALSO doing [_____][fill in the blank with any of the terrible things he suggests from time to time]. Similarly, if you vote for Hillary because you want to achieve some particular policy outcome (e.g., expanding healthcare, immigration reform, tuition-free public college, etc.), are you ok if she ALSO trades favors for donations to her charity? [Though I try not to tip my cards too much, for the record, I don’t actually believe that Hillary is corrupt. Quite the contrary, actually. (I do acknowledge that she’s a politician and acts like one. I just conclude that those political behaviors aren’t criminal, even if they are sometimes undesirable.) But – and here’s the important thing for me – EVEN IF Hillary was a real threat to trade favors for donations, I think I’d rather bear some responsibility for electing that outcome instead of bearing responsibility for electing the president who actively supports nuclear proliferations (or who, like Mr. Trump, unfortunately demonstrates considerable bias against immigrants, etc.) I do, really, respect your votes and all your thoughtful contrary opinions. But please do remember, even if you have rationale goals for a President Trump, like “overturning Roe,” you need to have a realistic sense of the likelihood that he might actually accomplish something like that. (I’m merely suggesting that there’s virtually zero chance he would accomplish that particular policy goal for his supporters.)]

One last idea: In the study of “torts” in law school (e.g., the law of negligence), we learn about something called “ultrahazards.” Ultrahazards are particularly risky circumstances for which someone will almost always be held legally responsible, because the law assumes that any resulting harms are foreseeable. For example, if you have a pet tiger, and if that pet tiger escapes its habitat/cage and eats the neighbor’s dog, you’re responsible. You can argue til you’re blue in the face that you couldn’t possibly have foreseen the dog-eating incident. You can even argue that you were perfectly careful with the habitat/cage, ensuring that it was as safe and secure as any enclosure anywhere. Those things just don’t matter. If you bring an ultrahazard into the neighborhood, the law assumes that you bear responsibility if it escapes and does harm. Period.

Above I suggested that our ethical responsibility for the secondary effects of our votes (E.g., a president who supports nuclear proliferation or a president who trades favors for donations) might depend on the foreseeability of those outcomes. Ultrahazards are different. My question: Are some aspects of the current candidates akin to ultrahazards? Is either of them so unpredictable that supporting him/her is akin to bringing a tiger into the neighborhood? If so, does that change the ethical impact of my vote?

OK, that’s pretty lengthy, I realize. If you made it this far, I am truly grateful. That means you’re interested, so it also means I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please post in the comments. Please feel free to reply to others’ comments, too. Just remember to be thoughtful and respectful. We’re all friends, even when we view political questions from different angles, so let’s help each other think through our obligations as citizens and voters.

What are your thoughts?



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