Why it is Important to Realize that There was Only One Morally Acceptable Option in this Election

In the immediate wake of the election, a lively blame game broke out, most visibly among progressives. Whose fault is Trump? Our next president’s base is white people, so let’s blame the white people. People of color didn’t support Clinton like they did Obama. So let’s blame people of color. There were the third-party voters too. Let’s blame them. In response, members of the blamed groups would recoil and defend their consciences by shifting the blame to another group. There was little acknowledgment of the obvious fact that blame can be shared—and shared in different proportions. Blaming someone else does not mean you are blameless.

What are the rules of the blame game? It may seem like a childish question, but my concerns are deeper. Blame is an important moral concept. It references the obligations we have to each other. In terms of the election and democracy generally, questions about blame are linked to the meaning of a vote. We can look to the blame game and extract genuine moral insight. And when we have it, we can improve with respect to our future votes. I want to look forward, not back. But first we all need to recognize where we have failed in our action and our thinking. It is time for honest introspection.

What does it mean to blame someone? I have a straightforward theory to guide our thinking. (The theory might not be perfect, but it will work as a heuristic for getting to our obligations.) Blame appears to have two necessary components: causal responsibility and moral fault. In other words, if I blame you for something, it means

1) you had a hand in causing it, and
2) what you caused or how you caused it is morally objectionable.

The opposite of blame is praise: you caused something that is good. So praise and blame are both causal and moral concepts. As we saw with blame, causal responsibility and moral condemnation can be shared in varying proportions. If I stole your car, I caused you to be deprived of your property, and I did it contrary to your wishes and in a way that caused you harm. Hence, you (or anyone else) can rightly blame me. If I had an accomplice, you would blame us both. My accomplice and I would share the blame of the single act.

With all of that in mind, let’s split the blame game into two parts.


Who bears responsibility for Trump’s win? In terms of voting, there is not much mystery. Something unites all those who are responsible: they didn’t vote for Clinton. Within that set, there are two subsets: the Trump voter and the everyone else (third party voters and nonvoters—in essence, ‘anti-Trump anti-Clinton’ people). Here, yes, the most responsibility belongs to the Trump voters. But we would be mistaken to think that they are the only ones responsible. Yes, we must all admit it, the anti-Trump anti-Clinton group bears some responsibility for Trump’s victory. So we see that race, gender, or age should not be the first divisions to make in the blame game.

This is not controversial. But keep in mind that I have yet to make any moral claims. I’m only talking about causes and effects. The election was between Clinton and Trump. Trump would not have won had no one voted for him. So if you voted for him, you actively contributed to his win. If you did not vote for his opponent, you passively contributed to his win. There are other causal factors to Trump’s win—Clinton’s flaws, the media’s failures, Russia, Comey, lack of critical thinking, and plenty else—but in terms of the vote, it is a simple story.

Moral Fault

What about the second component—morality? It is first worth saying that the anti-Trump anti-Clinton crowd is quite diverse. It includes Johnson voters, people simply not interested in voting, and a group I’ll call the ‘anti-Clinton progressives’, who are my main concern. (I do not include in my argument people who are victims of voter suppression or voter intimidation. They are not causally responsible for the fact that they didn’t vote, and hence they cannot be to blame.) Anti-Clinton progressives are typically far to the left and see Clinton as nowhere near progressive enough to deserve their support. ‘Bernie bros’ and all Green Party voters are examples of anti-Clinton progressives. Many social justice activists qualify.

This group is quick and content to condemn Trump voters. But if the anti-Clinton progressive voters are right that the Trump voter deserves blame, then, unless they are hypocrites, the moral claim does not depend on the causal component of blame. Why? Because both groups bear some responsibility for Trump’s win. If culpability were dependent on causality, then both groups would be to blame. So it looks like we have a problem.

But I glossed over a distinction. I said the Trump voter actively contributed to Trump’s win, whereas the anti-Trump anti-Clinton person’s contribution was passive. Perhaps the distinction is morally relevant. That is to say, maybe the moral claim does rest on causal responsibility, but the responsibility must be active. This allows the blame to rest wholly on the Trump voter. As a general principle, however, we are left with plenty of room for objections. There are numerous instances (often caught on tape) of people lying injured on the street while strangers pass by without helping. Are the strangers blameworthy? Although they didn’t cause the person’s injuries, we still give them some blame. Had the stranger done something at little or no cost to themselves, they would have prevented or improved a bad state of affairs. The strangers simply should have called for help. We all agree. Hence, blame does not always require active causal contribution.

I am not claiming that the injured person example is the same as the election. We simply have reason to think that the active/passive distinction does not always give us clean moral judgments. Passive causal responsibility does not always save you from blame.

What reasons do we have to think the distinction saves the anti-Clinton progressives from blame? There is no doubt that active contribution to harm is bad. There is also no doubt that active contribution is worse than passive contribution (the person who caused the injuries is more blameworthy than the stranger who simply walks past the injured). But can we say that passive contribution to harm is not blameworthy at all—at least with respect to voting in the election? It is difficult to see how.  

We are left with only one remaining position: the moral claim does not depend at all on the causal claim. Given my theory of blame, it is a perfectly coherent position:

  1. Yes, the anti-Clinton progressive is partially responsible for Trump’s victory.
  2. But no, they are not morally at fault.
  3. That’s only one of the two necessary conditions for blame. We need both.
  4. Therefore, they are not blameworthy.

It makes sense, but does claim #2 survive criticism?

The first question is “Then on what basis do we blame Trump voters?” By hypothesis, we know it cannot be based on their contribution to Trump’s victory. Perhaps a progressive could judge Trump voters for their positions and ideas instead. No doubt, there are plenty of reprehensible views out there. But now we are dealing with two separate groups: the people with reprehensible ideas who voted for Trump and the people with the same reprehensible ideas who didn’t. Do we judge both groups as equally blameworthy? By hypothesis, we need to. But isn’t the causally efficacious action of the one group a distinct action that warrants its own moral blame? It is perfectly plausible, therefore, that there are two distinct moments of blame: the blameworthy ideology and the blameworthy action taken on the basis of that ideology. Or, to put it another way, we blame the person who acted on the reprehensible ideas more than one who didn’t. The hateful people who stay at home all day are not as bad as the hateful people who enact hateful political change. Seems obvious. Hence, even if you can blame Trump voters for something divorced from their causal responsibility in the election, you are free to blame them (and probably do) for their causal responsibility too. So it looks like causal responsibility is back on the moral table.  

Second, making moral fault fully independent of causal responsibility feels like an uncomfortably strong conclusion given the following facts:

  • With Trump, more than 20,000,000 people are at serious risk of losing health insurance. The programs that have been half-heartedly proposed to replace the ACA would likely be impossibly expensive for sick and poor people. The prospect is rightfully terrifying for millions and millions and millions of people. Many, many, many people will die as a result. (Read about what would happen here and here.)
    If Clinton had won, this would not be a concern.
  • Trump’s supreme court nominees are alarming for progressives. He has suggested that his candidates must be pro-life, which signals his desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. The fight against women’s health care has already begun. After all, the man who is on tape bragging about sexual assault is now President of the United States.
    If Clinton had won, this would not be a concern.
  • Trump said on numerous occasions that he would deport large numbers of illegal immigrants. He knows with certainty that Mexico sends rapists, but he can only assume that some Mexicans are good people. There is nothing resembling consistency in Trump’s immigration policy, but he has been immensely effective in causing fear and uncertainty within immigrant communities.
    If Clinton had won, mass deportation would not be part of the conversation.

(I leave off the list for now nuclear weapons, Trump’s hostility toward the press, the empowerment of anti-vaccine activism, Trump’s inauspicious comments about the UN and NATO, his distressing cabinet (for instance, Steve Bannon), Russian conflicts of interest, Trump’s comments about Muslims, and the symbolic power of his win.)  

It follows from what I have argued that the anti-Clinton progressives are partially responsible for putting into office a man who threatens and plans to cause these harms. The question now becomes whether there is moral fault in passively contributing to his victory. Given the enormity of these harms, do we all have a duty to stand actively against the person proposing the harms? There are some effects that are so abhorrent that anything short of active resistance is blameworthy. The injured person on the street is an example. Other oppressive regimes in history are examples. Is Trump an example?

When we contemplate how dark and destructive Donald Trump plans to be, perhaps the burden is on the anti-Clinton progressive to justify a non-Clinton vote. Whatever the argument turns out to be, it must explain why voting for the sake of the tens of millions of people who need Obamacare or the tens of millions of immigrants is not the responsibility of everyone. The arguments need to show how a vote for Clinton fundamentally undermines the project of fighting for progressive causes. Needless to say, this is a tall task.

But that is not the route anti-Clinton progressives usually take. Instead, the response is to claim that a similar list of harms can be constructed for Clinton. The list would include the risk of conflict with Russia and other foreign interventions. What else, I ask? It is difficult to come up with something that is not also—and to a greater extent—on Trump’s list. Mass incarceration, anti-black statements, Wall Street cronyism, mass surveillance, untrustworthiness? Regardless, I want to set that issue aside for a moment. The more pressing issue is why we are comparing lists at all. The urge to construct a competing list illustrates the underlying assumption that the harm matters morally! It illustrates the assumption that it is blameworthy to be partially responsible for putting someone into office who will cause serious harm. If the anti-Clinton progressives were not at fault, then the list of harms would not matter. But they do matter to our moral judgments.

Invoking a Clinton list is meant to suggest that either the two candidates are equally bad or Clinton is worse. The attempt to justify the idea that Clinton is just as bad is either a breathtaking display of sanctimony and moral self-conceit or an intellectual failure to consider more than a small number of issues or people. It is also a risky rhetorical move because, if it turns out that Trump represents the greater risk (which, as I humbly aver, was abundantly and unequivocally obvious all along), then the people responsible for putting him into office are deserving of blame. And as we have known all along, that includes anti-Clinton progressives.

In sum, the anti-Clinton progressive’s claim that Clinton is just as bad depends on comparing lists of harms. It therefore assumes that if the two were not equally bad, we should opt for the better option. It also entails that the anti-Clinton progressive links blame to causal responsibility. This yields two conclusions:

  1. Since the two candidates were not equally bad, we should have opted for Clinton
  2. Since the anti-Clinton progressive is partially responsible for Trump’s win, they deserve some blame.

We are, in effect, talking about the famed ‘lesser of two evils’ argument. Third party advocates consistently questioned it, but never with anything remotely compelling. A superficially intimidating sense of moral righteousness has replaced reasoning. The strongest support for the argument is the list of harms. There are obviously some instances in which the argument gives solid guidance. Some situations are so horrendous that we should avoid them, even if that means accepting a less than ideal alternative. We all use that reasoning all the time in our personal lives. Simply put, the general structure of the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument is cogent: it gives valid reasoning for a true conclusion.

Many anti-Clinton progressives didn’t support Clinton because “the lesser of two evils is still evil.” That seemed to be the only objection on offer. With the list of harms Trump threatens to unleash, it is worth considering a different perspective. If it is evil to stand for an incompetent and dangerous buffoon, what is it to use our votes to stand on the sidelines, not firmly in front of him, preventing him from moving forward? The answer: it is the lesser of two evils. And it is still evil. Only in this case we aren’t talking about the candidates. We are talking about our own actions.

There are plenty of complications to my argument, mainly concerning the Electoral College. Consider, however, how frequently the popular vote total is used as a source of hope. It is constantly cited as a way of motivating and inspiring people. Everyone, regardless of state, could have contributed to that hope. But my argument is about morality. I have reminded us that blame can be shared. Some states are more important and some votes more significant. But your vote still mattered, not only as a contribution to the outcome of the election, but also as an expression of your moral judgment. Is retaining the image of ourselves as morally pure worth the lives of other people? Maybe we should, at times, be willing to sacrifice the appearance of sanctimony.

We need to direct our thinking to future votes. We can no longer allow confident moral judgments to take the place of quality argument. It is time for us to start thinking better and voting better.logo-yellow


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