Voting and the Ethical Implications of Omission, Part 2

[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.]


Last week I suggested that we might help each other sort through some of the whirlwind of political issues currently confronting us by having some thoughtful, charitable conversation amongst ourselves here on Facebook. What makes this proposal different is that I’m not asking for more discussion about the candidates or contentious policy issues (though some policy references might be inevitable). I’m interested in a conversation about ethics. In particular OUR ethics, as voters. Whatever you think about the behavior, words, heart, temperament, fitness or other aspects of our presidential candidates, the real question is: What is the right thing for YOU to do?

Quick summary of last week:

Last week I asked, in a nutshell, whether it is ethical to abstain from voting. As I said then, a lot of folks think there is a meaningful difference between DOING a bad thing and NOT DOING something to prevent a bad thing. As an example, I cited the example that a lot of ethics 101 courses use: the difference between killing a near-death hospital patient vs removing life support. Both courses of action/inaction lead to death, but one is a “commission” and the other is an “omission.” Is there a meaningful ethical distinction between commission and omission? (For that example, most folks think there is big difference.)

Why was this relevant? It’s relevant because so many of my friends are telling me that they plan to abstain from voting. They don’t like either candidate (though usually they find one candidate far more objectionable than the other), so they feel that they can’t ethically vote for either. Instead, they feel it’s a more ethical decision to abstain. I think it’s not always that simple. From my perspective, we really have a duty, as citizens, to contribute our vote toward the outcome we view as better for our communities and our world – even if that means voting for a less-then-perfect candidate because we view the alternative candidate as much, much worse. Maybe that’s just my perspective, but it is at least the outcome of a lot of soul-searching about the topic. I hope you are giving these issues lots of thought, too.

We had a lot of healthy conversation last week, and I encourage you to read the comments and conversation responding to last week’s post. Some of the comments reminded me that different states have very different situations. If, for example, you’re in Tennessee, you’ve got a pretty clear idea that Mr. Trump will win the state’s electoral votes. So, in that state, even if you strongly prefer to prevent Mr. Trump’s victory, voting for Candidate X won’t likely change the outcome. Some friends in those states commented that, given those realities, they’d feel comfortable abstaining, without fearing that their abstention would contribute to an outcome they disfavor. By contrast, if you’re in Virginia (like me), where the race is tight, I couldn’t live with myself knowing that my abstention allowed my disfavored candidate to win. Imagine an outcome where my disfavored candidate wins by just a few hundred votes. Those of us who abstained – i.e., those of us who might have changed the outcome – would feel terrible!

Just a reminder: The purpose of these conversations isn’t to make anyone feel bad about the candidate they support, or about their decision to abstain from voting for president (though I sincerely hope you don’t make that decision). But please don’t make such a decision lightly. By encouraging this discussion, my purpose is to think out loud, together with you, about the ethical impact of our decisions and our actions. Our “commissions” and “omissions” can both have consequences, and we should acknowledge our contributions to those outcomes – whether our contribution comes from voting or electing not to vote.

So… shall we talk some more? Please see my next post, where I’ll 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?” Please join the discussion!

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