It is, then, perhaps not surprising that several people had initial reactions ranging to skepticism to derision when Vox-Nova writer Henry Carlson posted the following "thought experiment" Saturday:
In 2012, two historical leaders have been brought back to life. Each one has found their political party of choice and has, somehow, become a candidate for President of the United States.The first several responses essentially expressed skepticism about the likelihood or applicability of such a choice being put before people, to which Henry responded repeatedly by saying that this was a thought experiment, and thus people must attempt to engage it despite the surface absurdity of the situation.
The Democrats have Adolf Hitler as their candidate. He wants to help the United States get out of its economic slump. He wants to make sure the poor are able to get better jobs, the health care they need, and a greater sense of personal dignity than they have had in the past. He wants the nation to feel proud of itself through a new cultural renaissance. However, he points out the problem with the US is that the Jews have hindered the nation, and the only way to make sure the nation is able to attain a new era of prosperity is if we get rid of all the Jews. Once and for all. The final solution must be put into effect.
The Republicans have chosen Joseph Stalin as their candidate. Because of his historical ability to oppose Hitler, he is their man. He wants the United States to be a military power with sufficient strength to oppose all threats to the nation, external or internal. He promises to make sure the United States takes indirect control over Mexico and Canada as satellite nations. He also wants the general populace to be more prosperous than they have been in the past. This, he says, will be done in part by reinforcing current laws and helping to re-establish a perfectly ordered state. But he thinks there is a major problem: there are too many enemies of the state within the nation. They are destroying the nation, making sure it cannot be as great as it should be. They are not the Jews. They are not of any one race. They are all over the nation. They must be removed. So he proposes that he will find them and put them in prison camps. He will force them to engage in extreme, even dehumanizing, manual labor which will quickly kill them off. But their labor will help create a better nation and provide material support for those not in the camps.
The Democrats point out that Stalin’s plans would result in far more deaths, over three times as many deaths as Hitler’s plan. And they also say he would bring us into an unprovoked war with Canada. The Republicans point out that the deaths are a sad but necessary evil.... And since it is not genocide, and the people are not being directly executed, it can’t be said that Stalin supports an intrinsic evil. Even if it is clear that he intends the deaths of more people than Hitler, what he is doing cannot be said to be murder because their death would only be indirectly accomplished by the state. Biological failure would be the primary cause of their death. Some people might even be able to survive and thrive in the camps.
Would you accept the Stalinist propaganda in these circumstances? Would you vote for him because his policy is the lesser of the two evils, and one must, after all, make sure Hitler doesn’t get into power?
Now, I'm not necessarily a fan of "thought experiments" which seek to force you to make decisions based on a set of highly improbably circumstances. (Which is, for instance, why I think the Trolley Dilemma, is not worth wasting time on -- it's formulated to make you address a situation based on a flawed understanding of morality, consequences, and reality in general, which doesn't tend towards such binary choices.)
So I responded, "No, it's not a 'thought experiment', because it's not thoughtful."
To which the post author responded, "Darwin, If you can’t offer anything other than insults, please, go away."
Well, I know that I'm at times subject to a tendency to go for the snappy line rather than the conversational route, so I thought perhaps -- having already inserted myself into the conversation -- I owed him a real answer. I responded:
Sigh… If you think this is a question worth answering:Several hours later I came back to find that Henry had responded to my comment by asserting, in part:
The correct answer is of course to support neither candidate and work actively against both.
Given the way you’ve laid it out, that’s not a bit surprising.
The good news is that in this situation a Buchanan/Keyes ticket running as a third party could sweep, because both would look wonderfully mainstream and reasonable.
Now take it to the current election. If both candidates support an intrinsic evil, would you vote third candidate, even if it meant Evil A or Evil B would get in power? Or would you go for “the evil I can accept better” even though it is an intrinsic evil? Or what?At the same time, I noticed that the words of my first "not thoughtful" comment had been deleted and replaced with: "[post deleted because it was only a personal insult, and did not engage the discussion]"
The thing is — if you can see a situation where both candidates would support evil and you can’t vote for them, then the problem is — the situation is here and now.
Somewhat peeved, I responded:
See, this is exactly why my first reaction was to mock the "thought experiment", because I knew that as soon as one provided the answer that was so obviously built into the problem, you would then announce that this as actually exactly the same as the choice we're facing in the election here and now.Fortunately, I copied the text of that comment into my clipboard before posting, because almost immediately it was deleted and replaced with, "[I said, if you want to insult, go away]"
I'll say this much: If you honestly think that the choices before you in the current election are the equivalent of being asked to vote for either Hitler or Stalin, then I think you should either find a third party solution you support or, in all honestly more probably, leave the country. Given the people I've known whose families fled Nazi Germany and the Stalanist USSR, I can assure you that one is better off getting out of that sort of situation than staying in it.
But the mere fact that you think your example is so closely applicable to the current election shows that you may be looking at reality in rather hyperbolic terms.
Not to mention that the fact that you deleted my comment simply because it said your thought experiment was "not thoughtful" -- claiming in your deletion explanation that it was a personal insult -- shows that you're not exactly into discourse...
All further comments of mine (both a two sentence, summary of the substantive points of the above and a request that if all my other comments be deleted, my one remaining comment be removed as well rather than used to further Henry's argument) were deleted without leaving a trace. (You can view all surviving comments on the thread here.)
At this point, I was rather annoyed. While one hardly expects comments on a blog to be recorded on stone tablets for all ages, seeing them deleted entirely or replaced with public accusations of making personal insults tends to rile the pride of any blogsphere citizen. However, the desire to bring a cool head to the situation (and a prior commitment to spend the weekend putting in two apple trees and a vegetable garden in the back yard) led me to pledge not to do anything about it until Monday.
Having done that (and if any readers have actually made it through this much verbage to care at all) I think the situation merits addressing in two fairly brief sections:
The Poorly-Thought Experiment
From what I can make out from the author's comments, the purpose of the thought experiment is to bring the reader to the realization that either:
a) He should break from the two party mold and not support either major party, or
b) Holding that there are certain "non-negotiable" moral evils which make it impossible to support a candidate is an untenable position.
I suspect that it's a), but his comments leave room to suggest he may mean b) instead or as well.
The difficulty in trying to make this point with such a far-fetched example is that few readers will find much in this hypothetical which correlates to reality. The author himself does not clarify if he imagines that his hypothetical bears some particular relationship to real issues (perhaps the Jews are intended to represent unborn while Stalin's selected enemies are supposed to be Iraqis or the poor or immigrants?) or if he simply means it to be an example of two highly undesirable candidates.
Why does this make the dilemma essentially not worth answering? It seems to me that any sensible moral understanding of voting in a republic takes the act of voting to be choosing which, of the available candidates, it would be most to the common good to have in a particular office. This is, by its nature, a highly contextual decision. One takes into account how likely the candidate is to be able to execute those parts of his agenda that one disagrees with, and also what sort of deeper understanding of the world (and thus likely reactions to as yet unforeseen events) are suggested by the candidate's positions. There may also be situations in which one finds oneself so repulsed by all available candidates that one simply does not vote.
However, the suggested scenario and the author's explication, "if you can see a situation where both candidates would support evil and you can’t vote for them, then the problem is — the situation is here and now" seem to suggest a check-box worldview: Candidate A supports something wrong. Candidate B supports something wrong. Okay, now it's morally impossible to vote for either one.
This line of thinking seems to take all evils as equal, which is not the case in Dante or in practical politics. Thus, it immediately jumps from disapproving of certain positions of each party to suggesting that we are currently in a situation where they've selected Hitler and Stalin as their nominees. While I'm hardly one to suggest that we invariably view our current situation in the US through rosy lenses (we have, without question, some vast and tragic moral and cultural problems which afflict us), it seems to me that this kind of if-it-ain't-good-it's-pure-evil thinking suggests more comfort with the world of fiction than with real life. While not seeking to exaggerate the virtues or vices of our own times, or of some of the most hideous regimes in the last 100 years, all real countries and situations come with a complex human face. (Which is why, fascinating though I find reading about real WW2 history, I think that images of the great evil empires of the last century are getting massively over-used as symbols.)
A Place For Everything, and Everything In It's Place
While I think an unbiased reader will agree that Henry was incorrectly stifling discussion on the post in question, the incident also caused me to re-assess my own behavior a bit.
For those who are not familiar with it, Vox Nova is a large group blog whose stated purpose is to provide commentary on Catholic Social Teaching from a variety of viewpoints. Some of their writers are very good; some I agree with very much -- your mileage may very as to how closely those sets overlap.
Their "About" page says in part:
Vox Nova is a response to the ecclesial mandate to promote the common good in every sphere of human existence. We come from varying backgrounds and carry diverse social outlooks, traversing a wide range of demographics and political sympathies. Vox Nova is free, to the furthest extent possible, from partisanship, nationalism and demagoguery, all of which banish intellectual honesty from rational discourse.At it's best, Vox Nova achieves something along these lines, but at other (all too frequent) points it tends to be more of a Catholic political fight club. (I hope I would not be thought gravely uncharitable in putting the partisanship/demagoguery to rational discourse ration at roughly 3:1) And since it has a decent size readership and authorship, and comment threads not infrequently run to 50 or more, it has something of the addictive nature of a forum.
Nonetheless, it is at the end of the day a blog belonging to its authors, and thus it is (in part) Henry's living room, and not mine. Moreover, I have my own much smaller soap box to which I feel committed to providing interesting content on a fairly regular basis. So I think perhaps it would be best for the blood pressure of all if (while still keeping up with the Vox Nova postings of some of my favorite authors there) I swear off combox battles there and perhaps write some more posts on the intersection of politics, economics and morality here on my own turf.