Two questions a lot of people are asking themselves today as they stand in line at the voting booth (aside from, “Is this really better than working?” and “How much longer is this going to take?”) is whether they can morally vote for the lesser of two (or more) evils, or respect their religious convictions and be good citizens at the same time.
Let’s take the second question first.
According to Alexis de Tocqueville (author of Democracy in America), Francesco Cardinal Satolli (first Apostolic Delegate to the United States), and others, it is unnecessary to choose; we can safely render unto Caesar without falling short in what we render to God. Satolli once declared that the U.S. Constitution and the Gospels constitute “the Magna Chartas of humanity.”
The problem is that the founding principles of the United States on which de Tocqueville, Satolli, and others made that assessment were changed when, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the Missouri Compromise of 1820 in Scott v. Sandford (1857) — note that the clerk misspelled the Defendant’s name, making Sandford instead of Sanford the correct spelling by judicial fiat . . . “raw judicial power”? — the concept of inalienable rights inhering in the human person was abolished, and the belief substituted that rights come directly from the State or as a gift from God after creation.
The decision in Scott was not out of thin air, of course, nor did the people or Congress take it lying down. As William Crosskey noted in his analysis of the Dred Scott case in Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States (1953), the South had been demanding that the Missouri Compromise be overturned ever since it was passed.
Many people in both the north and the south were convinced that the economic survival of the United States and the British Empire depended absolutely on the continuance of the slave system in order to grow cotton to feed the mills of Manchester and New England (David Christy, Cotton is King, 1855). Interestingly, the “blacks are inferior to whites” only really gained credence and widespread acceptance when the cotton gin made cotton into the major southern cash crop . . . just as the belief that wage workers can’t handle capital ownership became widespread when ordinary people no longer had easy access to capital in the form of land under the Homestead Act and ownership of the new commercial and industrial enterprises became increasingly concentrated.
So the United States became disunited and fought a civil war. The Union won, abolished slavery, and adopted the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to guarantee absolutely that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor anyone else could ever take away any human being’s natural rights to life, liberty, or property ever again.
So the Supreme Court took the first opportunity to nullify the Fourteenth Amendment with its decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 and shift the source of rights away from the people again and vest it in the State (again), where it remains to this day. That is, until people once again have property, and thus the power to take back again what is theirs by right. Until then, unless you’re voting for someone who is going to work at returning power to the people through an aggressive program of expanded capital ownership (such as Capital Homesteading), maintain the common good within at least marginally acceptable parameters, or working yourself to that end by organizing with others to make yourself (in union with those others) a political force, your vote is pretty much worthless.
This is because, ultimately everything comes from God the Creator, but rights in civil society come from the human person, who got them from the Creator; the human person is the immediate source of rights, while God is the mediate source of rights. In no case does either the State or the collective or any other form of community have rights by nature, only by delegation from the human person. As Pius XI explained, “Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.” (Divini Redemptoris, § 29.) Until this is recognized and protected, you are just wasting your time.
Now that we’ve depressed you by answering the second question, we’ll depress you even more by answering the first.
In a sense, politics, as the art of the possible, is an accommodation to human weakness. If the system and life within organized social bodies (the pólis; hence politics) were only for the perfected instead for the perfectible, we’d all be in pretty bad shape. There must be some accommodation to human weakness in any system devised by man — even if the institution the system supports is divinely instituted — or we fall into the trap that Msgr. Knox termed “enthusiasm,” which he defined as an excess of charity that threatens unity. If only the perfect or the godly have rights, then the rest of humanity isn’t even fully human.
How does this apply to voting for the lesser of two evils?
First, the common good is so great a good that you must put up with a lot if that’s what it takes to keep it functioning, even very badly. This is because the common good is the environment within which people realize their individual goods.
Let’s say that again in a different way, because it’s a critical point. The common good is not the aggregate of all individual goods. Nor is the common good goods owned in common for the sake of expedience — in theory, there is nothing that cannot be privately owned; as the dictum of Roman law has it, “Everything has its proper owner.” (By the way, a human being is not a "thing," so don't get the idea that human chattel slavery is okay, regardless what the extreme libertarians say: an inalienable right is inalienable, you can't even alienate it from yourself by free choice to become a slave.)
No, in social terms the common good is that vast network of institutions (social habits) within which human beings as “political animals” acquire and develop virtue and realize their individual goods. The common good is not itself an individual good of any kind. It is specifically a social good, a tremendous collection of social habits that are essential to the development of each human person.
So, if the lesser evil candidate will do a better job of maintaining the common good than the greater evil candidate, you can vote for the lesser evil in good conscience under the principle of double effect. But, as is often the case with moral philosophy, there’s a catch.
In social justice, you are not permitted to accept evil permanently, even (or especially) if you are individually helpless to effect the changes necessary to remove the evil. Your first recourse when there are no acceptable candidates is to organize with like-minded others to surface an acceptable candidate. Who knows? It might be you.
Better — organize with others to remove the causes of the evil, so you don’t have to accommodate to it. This is what social justice is all about.