Are Christians morally obligated to vote for one of the top two candidates in an election? Is our choice necessarily binary? Are we required to do this to be responsible citizens and adults?
I’d like to examine those questions through the lens of what I’ll refer to as “Bounded Christian Utilitarianism.” This isn’t really a thing, but it wound up being a good description to how I approach the problem.
This approach will take the consequence of our political choices into account, but won’t make the consequences the end of our ethical responsibility.
First, a story:
I recently had a Twitter conversation with a thoughtful friend who was bothered that I would opt out of voting for reasons of principle:
“Isn’t there a responsibility to choose the best option? Weren’t you, like, 1% happier that [Candidate X] defeated [Candidate Y]? Isn’t the world, like, 1% better with [Candidate X] winning? Choosing the better of two sub-par options, isn’t that what we’re called to do, as adults? As citizens?”
I responded that I don’t believe I have an absolute moral obligation to vote for one of two options, though I do have a responsibility to love my neighbor.
He responded that voting was a tangible way to love your neighbor. I don’t disagree. In fact, I wrote a whole series of blog posts which made that exact argument. But voting is only one – very minor – way of loving my neighbor. It’s a piece, not the whole. And, as I will argue, it’s a piece with boundaries. This is what got me to bounded Christian utilitarianism. I’ll explain that one word at a time.
What is Utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism, put simply, is the premise that we have an ethical duty to increase the total amount of happiness in the world and decrease the amount of suffering. An action is ethical if it increases the total happiness, and unethical if it adds to suffering. Since some actions might do both, you would subtract the suffering produced from the happiness produced to get an overall score. Applied to politics, you’d want to implement policies that increased overall happiness and reduced suffering. It’s a simple and elegant system.
What do I mean by Christian Utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism is a secular system, but it could be expressed in Christian language as well, in terms of loving your neighbor. A Christian might observe that “happiness” is not the greatest of all goods. Loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean making someone happy (at least not in the immediate short-term). Instead, we speak of loving your neighbor as yourself.
If we define expressing love as “doing what is good for another person” then a Christian utilitarian might express it this way: My choice is moral if it maximizes the amount of good I am able to do to my neighbor while causing the minimal amount of harm.
When applied to politics, a Christian utilitarian votes for politicians and policies which do the most good to the greatest number of people, and minimize the amount of harm. Again, it’s a simple and understandable system. Generally, I am a Christian utilitarian in politics. Keeping important principles like freedom and wisdom in mind, I try to vote for politicians and policies which will do good to my neighbor without harming him.
What is Bounded Christian Utilitarianism?
While utilitarianism – whether expressed in its secular or religious forms – are simple and clear, they open the door for oppression and other evils. For instance, you could argue from a utilitarian perspective that it is okay to enslave a small group of people if it means great benefits for the mass of people. The math still works. The overall good outweighs the evil. But slavery is wrong all the time, regardless of whether it helps one or fifty or a thousand people. The math might work, but you still end up with injustice.
Utilitarianism can be used to justify tyranny and remove freedoms. It can justify doing evil for the sake of some greater good. It’s an ends-justify-the-means system. In fact, history is replete with people in power finding certain “sacrifices” acceptable to meet some desired, utopian, end.
So, while we should seek to do good to our neighbors, the utilitarian system must be bounded. A pure calculation like making the world 1% better isn’t the ethical choice if it means doing evil to get there.
What are the boundaries?
In politics, it can be hard to discern what those boundaries should be. Almost every policy potentially does some harm. An open trade policy will probably “lift all boats” but it will also inevitably lead to some level of job loss. A closed policy will help American workers but harm people in poverty overseas and probably also increase the cost of goods which will in turn “harm” consumers. It’s a no win. If we say that a policy or politician must do no harm, we would have to drop out of politics entirely. We would probably have to stop doing a lot of other things, too.
But there’s a difference of kind between the kind of harm done by a trade policy and the oppression or enslavement I referred to above. What’s that line? Maybe each person will draw different ones, but I have drawn two lines.
My first line is this: I will not participate in unjust systems. I’m using “unjust” as it relates to people being made in the image of God. Each person is given is endowed certain rights by God and justice upholds those rights. One of those rights is the right to life. Our abortion laws systematically rob the most vulnerable in our society of this right. It is an unjust system. So, I draw a line here. Another right I would recognize is the right to freedom. Slavery is another unjust system. So were the Jim Crow laws of the South. Thankfully, these have been done away with (though more work needs to be done to reduce racism and systems of racism).
My second line is this: I will not participate with a wicked person. Nobody is perfect. I get that. But there is a difference between an imperfect public servant and a person who is marked by a life of foolishness (in the biblical sense). My first reason for this is utilitarian: I don’t believe that private wickedness stays private. I believe that it will inevitably cause harm to others. My other reason relies on Scripture. Paul commands us not to be “partners” with those under God’s judgment because of wickedness. I interpret my vote as a partnership of sorts, and therefore a violation of God’s command.
I’m sure there are other ways to draw lines, and I know other people draw different ones than I do, but I am certain that utilitarianism needs lines. A pure consequentialist – someone who measures their actions, political or otherwise, by the outcome more than the act – will always be dangerous to justice, regardless of their good intentions. No matter how much good you want to do, if you’re okay with doing wrong to get there, you’re still doing wrong. The road to hell is well paved by the intentions of consequentialists.
In fact, while most people who object to the fact that I would choose not to vote for one of two major candidates express utilitarian arguments, I doubt most of them would refuse to draw any lines at all. Almost everyone will draw a line somewhere. (If your “choice” was between someone who wanted to bring back slavery and someone who murdered children, are you really morally obligated to vote for one or the other.) Instead, most people object to where I draw the line. Those on the Left either are not disturbed by abortion, or not as disturbed as I am, or they don’t think that a vote for a pro-choice candidate who could make an impact on abortion law is participation in the system. Those on the Right either thought the candidate was merely flawed or, if he was wicked, argued that character wasn’t really a disqualifying factor or that a vote for such a person didn’t constitute a “partnership” as I have described above. But most would have agreed that some line somewhere was necessary.
Here’s where the role of conscience comes into play. The lines I have formed have themselves been formed by my conscience. If I’ve done it right my conscience has been formed by the Word of God. But my conscience could be weak – I could have put the lines up too early. Or my conscience could be seared – I could have put them up too late. But, it is the role of the conscience to help determine where the lines need to be drawn to avoid sin.
The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Dilemma: The action of inaction
Those who choose not to vote, or to vote for a candidate very unlikely to win, face a dilemma. They might say that they are not acting, but in fact they are. Inaction is a form of action. More than one person said to me in 2016: “Not voting for Candidate A is a vote for Candidate B”. Or, “voting for Candidate C is really a vote for Candidate B.” While I wanted to dismiss this as linguistic and logical absurdity, there is a ring of truth to it. If I would have otherwise voted for Candidate A and choose not to, then I make a win for Candidate B a tiny bit more likely. In other words, my action – to vote for Candidate C – does have a consequence, one in which I would need to reckon.
The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 1: Act and Consequence
My first answer to this dilemma is theological. I separate act from consequence. I am responsible for my act. God is responsible for the result. The future is ultimately in God’s hands and He can intervene to bless or override my action as He wills.
There’s a danger in this distinction, of course. God has created an ordered world where act and consequence are linked in cause and effect. I am responsible for knowing the likely consequence of my action and so need to act in such a way to get the result that will do good form my neighbor. This is why I’m a Christian utilitarian. I am responsible for knowing the likely results of my actions, and acting accordingly. But, I’m a bounded Christian utilitarian because there are times when getting the result I want (doing good to my neighbor) would require me to act in a way contrary to God’s Word. In that instance I must act with faith, refusing to break God’s law and trust the future to God.
(As an aside, in big issues like politics people, even experts, can be pretty terrible at predicting the results of their actions. I’m not sure we should have a lot of faith in our ability to see the future even if God weren’t part of the equation!)
This is part of what it means to have faith and to act in faith, to do what you believe is right and trust that God will use that faithful action to do what is ultimately right.
The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 2: Aiming for a consequence
My second response is that in voting for Candidate C, I am also aiming for a consequence, for a result which I believe, in the long run, will bless my neighbor. If I believe that both parties have become corrupt, then I want to either prop up a party/candidate that is not corrupt, or at least send a message to the corrupt parties that I will not be complicit in their corruption. A few votes won’t make a difference, but a lot would. I think we suffer from a failure of the imagination. For the degree to which both major candidates in 2016 were reviled, it would have been an ideal time to send this message. But, people said, it just can’t happen and thus we shouldn’t try. But since we shouldn’t try, that’s exactly why it couldn’t happen. We’re somehow bound to a system that we all think is terrible. But we’re only bound to the system because we believe it’s the only way. We somehow think voting is the only thing that matters, but are unwilling to use our votes in a way that really would.
The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 3: Moving beyond voting
I said near the beginning that voting is one way to love your neighbor. It’s a part, but not the whole. In fact, it’s a very small part. A single individual can have much more impact doing other things. And, if you feel you cannot vote in a specific election don’t despair that you are failing your neighbor, and don’t let others convince you that you. Instead, get to work tangibly loving your neighbor.
This is the perfect time to reiterate something I’ve said before: The church is its own politic. It is a people with a purpose and a mission. It aims to love and glorify God and love and reach the world. The church can influence the nation politic in numerous and profound ways. We can pursue justice, speak up for the oppressed, provide for the poor, and work for justice. We can be a counter-politic within the broader politic, a counter-culture within the broader culture, acting as salt and light in the world. We shouldn’t downplay the potential role of the church within society.
But we can also work outside of the institutional church to love our neighbors, too. Get involved. Do good. Use your imagination. Don’t imagine that voting is more than it is. It’s a way, one way, to love your neighbor. Use it wisely, but remember that it is bound. Don’t let it bind you.
 One of the most important books I’ve read on competing theories of justice is Justice by Michael Sandel. My description of utilitarianism in this post relies on Sandel’s description of it.