Stoic advice: should I vote for the lesser evil?

J. wrote: I am facing a choice between what I consider two very evil options. Many of my friends argue that one choice is the lesser evil, but I disagree. I see one choice as perhaps slightly less evil now and the other choice as much more evil in the long run. The few friends who agree with me just happen to be those whose opinions I have always most valued. My choice at the moment is not to vote for either evil when the time comes. I'm wondering if the Ancient Stoics might provide any guidance in this situation.

You are referring of course to the upcoming US presidential election, and the choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. I think you have a lot of company concerning this dilemma, including yours truly. Though I wouldn't use the word evil for either outcome.

Before we proceed, let me explain why. Stoics think that nobody does evil on purpose, no even far worse individuals than the ones we are talking about. The reason for that is that people always think they have good reasons to do what they do. If those reasons turn out to be incorrect, then they are making a mistake. And nobody wants to make mistakes. Here is how Epictetus explains it:

"This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important matters, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgment that distinguishes good from bad -- should someone like this be put to death?" If you put the question in that way, you'll recognize the inhumanity of the thought that you're expressing, and see that it is equivalent to saying, "Should this blind man, then, or that deaf one, be put to death?" (Discourses I, 18.3)

It's a far more charitable attitude toward other people: if they are mistaken, we try to correct their mistakes, or at the very least to minimize the damage they do to others. But we don't slap the label "evil" on them and start dehumanizing and hating them as a consequence. After all, hate is a pathos, a disruptive emotion that Stoics seek to distance themselves from. (More on the concept on evil from a Stoic perspective here.)

That said, people's lack of wisdom, as we shall call it (the Greek word is amathia), comes in degrees, and some are far more lacking than others. Which brings us to your conundrum. First of all, it was good of you to consult your friends, especially those who you think have good judgment and your interest at heart. Regardless of whether they happen to agree with you in this case or not. Consider Seneca, in this regard:

"Virtue advises us to arrange the present well, to take thought regarding the future, to deliberate and apply our minds; and one who takes a friend into council with him, can more easily apply his mind and think out his problem." (Letters to Lucilius, CIX. On the Fellowship of Wise Men, 15)

The ultimate Stoic test for your decision is the same one that we should apply to all our decisions: use the cardinal virtues as your moral compass. They are, as you know, practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. (More on the virtues here.) Practical wisdom is the knowledge of what is truly good or bad for you, which for the Stoics comes down, respectively, to having a good character or having a bad character. Courage is to be understood in the moral sphere, the courage to do the right thing, regardless of other people's opinions (so long as you have good epistemic warrant for your own opinions). Justice is other-directed: is your decision going to be fair to others? And temperance is the notion that we should do things in right measure, neither too much, nor too little.

Warning: from this point on I will disclose my own political leanings and motivations, and in no way I am attributing them to you. It is just an illustration of the procedure I follow. You may follow the same exact procedure and arrive at a different conclusion, because you may have started from a different set of assumptions compared to my own.

I can tell you how I have arrived at a decision about the same problem by deploying the Stoic framework: I decided not to vote for Biden in the New York primaries (which have been postponed because of the pandemic), and also not to vote for him in the general election unless polls will indicate that the state of New York is a tossup between him and Trump. Why?

Practical wisdom: it would not be good for me to vote for a candidate I did not believe in. And I don't believe in Joe Biden, whom I consider the quintessential rearguard within the Democratic Party. Definitely not sufficiently progressive for me. I don't need to add, given this premise, why I wouldn't even consider voting for Trump.

Courage: most people I know are pressuring me to vote for Biden on the theory that otherwise I would be complicit in four more disastrous years for the American people. It takes a bit of courage to stick to your guns and point out that the Democrats are simply not getting it and that, while certainly better than the alternative, they are still not doing a hell of a lot of good for this country.

Justice: this is the tricky one, because I am keenly aware of what four more years of Trump would do. At the same time, I am equally aware of the fact that the progressive agenda in the US has gotten stuck since, oh, I think Carter. So, on balance, I think I have good reasons not to support Biden, as a matter of fairness toward others.

Temperance: this is about doing things in right measure, neither too much, nor too little. So it is consistent with not voting for Biden in the primaries. He will be the nominee anyway, but the more votes go to someone else the more the Democrats might get the message. As for the general elections, same approach, except in the unlikely case that the outcome will be too close in New York, in which case I would vote for Biden, with my nostrils firmly pinched so not to be overwhelmed by the stench.

So that's where I am. As I said, the above is simply meant as an illustration of method, not as advice to follow a specific path. Your path is up to you, and depends on your own assessment of the variables at play, as well as on your own priorities and ideological positions. But you do need to ask yourself whether your decision is virtuous, meaning that it is both well intentioned and well informed. Remember that for the Stoics, factual knowledge ("physics") and sound reasoning ("logic") are also virtues. I will leave you with an appropriate quote from Marcus:

"Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires." (Meditations, IX.12)

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