Do you and I have a moral obligation to vote this November? Is it unpatriotic or wrong to decline to choose the lesser of two evils?
In times like these, we seek wisdom from the works of great men. But sometimes, maxims are contradictory. The wildly popular “Hamilton” musical, for example, suggests we are compelled to choose. (Facing a difficult choice in 1800, in the musical, Hamilton concludes, “when all is said and done, Jefferson has beliefs; Burr has none.”) On the other hand, a popular meme quoting C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity suggests the exact opposite.
I’m not the only person struggling to answer this question and confront this conundrum. Arguing that “The election is a train wreck,” the Washington Post’s Mark Thiessen equates the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to the “Trolley problem.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the social science thought experiment, it forces you to confront a terrible choice.
As Thiessen explains,
Imagine you are walking along the train tracks when you spot a runaway train hurtling toward five unsuspecting track workers. Fortunately, there is a signal lever in front of you. If you pull it, you can divert the train to another track and save five people. Seems like an easy decision. Except for one problem: There is one unsuspecting worker on the other track. If you divert the train, you will be responsible for killing someone who would otherwise not be in danger.
Thiessen goes to great lengths to document why our options this November are both utterly unacceptable. But while the “Trolley problem” and the “Election problem” both require pulling an awful lever, his analogy doesn’t really capture the way I feel about this ethical conundrum.
For one thing, even when he ups the ante and suggests the lone person on the track might be a close relative, the utilitarian choice (saving the greatest number of lives) is very clear. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is the case with this election. It is impossible to know which candidate would make the worse president.
To me, at least, a similar experiment comes closer to expressing how I feel about this election:
You are on a footbridge overlooking the track, where five people are tied down and the trolley is rushing toward them. There is no spur this time, but near you on the bridge is a chubby man. If you heave him over the side, he will fall on the track and his bulk will stop the trolley. He will die in the process. What do you do? (We presume your own body is too svelte to stop the trolley, should you be considering noble self-sacrifice.)
Logically, there should be no difference between pulling the lever to kill one innocent person (while saving more lives) and hurling one fat man to his death. But, as author Sarah Bakewell notes, “Surveys suggest that up to 90 percent of us would throw the lever…while a similar percentage think the Fat Man should not be thrown off the bridge.”
The reason for this disparity, explains Bakewell, is that the “thought of seizing a random bystander, ignoring his screams, wrestling him to the railing and tumbling him over is too much.”
That’s how I feel about this election. Some have suggested that not voting for Trump is tantamount to voting for Clinton. This strikes me as a bogus argument. By passively not voting, you simply wash your hands of it. For good or bad, it turns out the way it would have turned out, had you not intervened. It is by taking overt action — grabbing that ballot and wrestling it to the railing — that we become truly complicit.
This is not to say that silence equals consent. I have criticized both candidates for their sins. But I can’t, in good conscience, vote for either of them.
Jesus, take the wheel, err, the lever.
* Note: I reserve the right to change my mind, if situations change. There are still 84 days until the election. It’s impossible to predict what world events might intervene. In the unlikely event that I do decide to cast a vote (which could even be for a third-party candidate), I will explain my decision to you here.