Voting and the Ethical Implications of Omission, Part 1

[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.]


Dear friends, over the course of this election cycle I’ve largely avoided participating in the political debate online. Frankly, my life has been stressful enough without inviting arguments or unkind comments from my online community. But over the course of recent weeks I’ve concluded that most of us could benefit from engaging in healthy conversations with our friends about the issues facing us in the current elections. I can benefit from your perspective if you are thoughtful about it. (But please know that I’m not interested in hearing hateful, unthoughtful remarks. Keep those to yourself!) And I hope I can offer some thoughtful perspectives, too. We can help each other sort things out.

So I’ve decided that I’ll post a few ideas between now and the elections, and I invite your thoughtful discussion about those ideas. But here’s the catch: I want to talk about ethics. Not so much a conversation about the candidates’ ethics. I can’t control the candidates’ minds or hearts or behavior. Instead, I’m more interested in a thoughtful exchange about OUR ethics as citizens and voters. What are we to do? What is the good thing, the right thing, to do as citizens and voters?

I’m also not planning to tackle the specific policy issues that are the basis of arguments between the parties. At least that won’t be my intended focus. Instead, I want to talk about “Ethics 101” issues in the hope that they’ll help us each examine our personal positions – including perhaps some as-yet unexamined assumptions behind our understandably frustrated responses to the turbulent election.

Are you in? Here goes:

Election Ethics Topic of the Day: Omission vs. Commission.

Many frameworks for ethical deliberation include a distinction between the relative moral importance of omission vs. commission. In other words, some think it is an ethical shortcoming (call it “immoral,” call it “sin,” call it whatever you like) if a person DOES (commits) some act that is considered bad, but they believe it is comparatively less problematic if, by failing (omitting) to act, someone knowingly allows something bad to happen. In short, some think it is ethically problematic to do something bad, but not ethically problematic (or less bad) to let something bad happen if you have opportunity to prevent it.

The classic example of this distinction is the ethical analysis of euthanasia. Imagine that a family member (your spouse, parent, child, sibling) is lying in the hospital on life support. The doctors have informed you that your family member will most certainly die before much longer, and that he/she is only still alive due to the life support systems to which he/she is connected. Your loved one is in great pain. Knowing that he/she will soon die anyway, your motivating concern is to relieve his/her pain and end his/her suffering. The first ethical question: Would it be ok to suffocate your family member, perhaps with a pillow, ending his/her life (and for purposes of this exercise, assume that you could do so without causing more pain)? The COMMISSION of that act (actively suffocating him/her) would be considered by many to be ethically wrong. Some (maybe most) would even call that murder, regardless of your loving motivation. (And for the record, the law WOULD consider that murder.) On the other hand, if you remove life support, knowing that it will result in his/her death, your OMISSION is more likely to be considered ethically acceptable (though some people disagree on this point).

OK, is everyone on the same page about the ethical distinction between omission vs commission? Here’s the election relevance for today: From where I stand, voting is an ethical duty. I “should” vote. You “should” vote. If I actively vote for someone with knowledge that something bad will or might likely result, that commission seems ethically problematic. (Example: If you were to vote for Hitler, that would be ethically bad. Surely we can all agree.) Some folks, so I’m hearing, feel like voting for either major (Republican or Democrat) presidential candidate would fall into the “ethically challenged” category.

But is failing to vote really any different than voting badly? Is it really a more ethically “pure” position if someone refrains from voting (an omission rather than a commission)? If you elect not to vote, your omission DOES have an impact, and we all know that to be true. In fact, your omission may contribute to an election outcome that has negative impact on many, many people. You might feel better about yourself, because you didn’t vote for Candidate X or Candidate Y, but is your non-voting really ethically superior? Is there really a meaningful distinction between voting for a ____ (Fill in your favorite criticism – demagogue, corrupt politician, racist, liar, idiot, bad human being) and sitting home with the knowledge that your lack of participation could lead to that person being elected?

As Al Gore reminded everyone yesterday, every single vote counts. (Even a small number of voters could have changed the outcome of the 2000 election, because <600 more votes for Al Gore in Florida would have tipped the electoral college and the entire election outcome.) Your vote matters.

OK, please discuss. Is the omission vs. commission distinction meaningful in the context of voting? Is sitting out the vote (and thereby potentially permitting an outcome you consider horrible) really ethically better than actively voting unethically?

[One reminder: As is often done in “Ethics 101” classes, I’ve used the euthanasia example to illustrate the issue. Please be sensitive if you discuss the example. Remember, some of your fellow readers have faced that very situation with their family and friends, and it’s not our intent to second-guess the decisions they reached when faced with those terrible circumstances. If you’re one of those folks, you have my support and friendship regardless of the decisions you made in those situations.]

Let’s debate! The only ground rules are 1) be respectful, 2) be thoughtful, and 3) try not to stir up controversy or pick fights, please. Remember, the purpose of this discussion is to help each other work through our thoughts about the election. What are your thoughts?


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