Here, I aim to briefly outline the general nature of moral responsibility as well as its implications for how a person ought to approach voting in an election.
Moral Responsibility in General
The source of all morality is the life of the human individual. As I explain in my video series, “Life as the Origin and Basis of Morality” (see Part 1 and Part 2), the life of the individual is the necessary precondition for any moral system, and therefore the preservation of that life is the foremost moral principle. The principle has to be universalizable to all individuals, or else one’s claim to the legitimacy of protection for one’s own life would be arbitrary and simply a matter of “might making right” (that is, if one can protect oneself against stronger individuals who do not recognize this legitimacy). If, however, one recognizes that the moral primacy of life is an abstract principle that can be applied to every person, then one can justly claim the moral high ground in defending one’s own right to life as an implication of this principle.
The existence of moral responsibility arises from two facts: (i) human beings can choose their actions, and (ii) various human actions can have varying degrees of beneficial or harmful consequences to human life. An action is moral if it benefits the life of any human being (including the actor) without harming any other human being. An action is immoral if it directly and unavoidably harms the life and infringes on the legitimate prerogatives of any human being – even if some other party might benefit from the action. Because each individual human being is an end in him- or herself, no action that “benefits” some people by harming others can be considered moral. The deliberate and direct infliction of harm upon any person trumps any possible benefit that can be gained from an action. Furthermore, in reality (contrived hypothetical “train-track” scenarios notwithstanding), it is causally impossible for a harm to result in a benefit and for genuine benefit to be unachievable without harm.
Moral responsibility can be a source of both praise and criticism. A person should be praised if he is morally responsible for a beneficial action. A person should be criticized if he is morally responsible for an accumulation of sufficiently harmful actions. It is possible for a generally good person to be morally responsible for a harmful action. This alone does not make the person evil, and a person may compensate for a harmful action through restitution to its victims. Once appropriate restitution has been made, the harmful action should cease to adversely affect our judgment of the perpetrator. However, restitution to persons other than the victims would not suffice, because the benefit of one person cannot outweigh the harm done to another. If irreversible harm has been done, the moral wrong cannot be fully righted, and therefore the perpetrator must always bear some degree of moral responsibility. However, the adverse judgment of the perpetrator can be mitigated if the victim remains alive and decides that the perpetrator can confer a certain alternative benefit that would compensate for the harm without undoing it.
To clarify, this principle does not prohibit or denounce the use of force in order to defend oneself against harm or to punish a wrongdoer who has inflicted harm, as long as the punishment is proportional to the harm and has the effect of preventing future harm committed by such a wrongdoer. However, the retaliatory use of force is only appropriate if directed against genuine wrongdoers, exercised with extreme care for its proportionality, exercised lawfully, and performed without “collateral damage” to innocents. Infliction of harm upon an innocent person is never morally justified, for any goal.
A person is only morally responsible for actions directly within his or her control. A person does not bear any share of “collective guilt” for the actions of others whom somebody deems to be “similar” to that person in some respect. Neither does a person bear any “blood guilt” for the actions of ancestors or descendants. Sometimes a person’s actions may contribute to a larger harm – as when large numbers of people make poor decisions that result in a combined substantial damage to the lives of some innocents. In that case, each person whose actions directly contribute to the harm bears some degree of moral responsibility, in proportion to his or her contribution to the harm. However, in such cases, it is extremely difficult to isolate the contribution of any particular individual, and so the most practical remedy is not restitution, but rather the persuasion of individuals to desist from continuing to contribute to the harm.
Because moral responsibility relates to actual benefit and harm to human beings, there can be no moral responsibility for “victimless” actions, though one can bear moral responsibility for either benefiting or harming oneself. The moral responsibility for harming oneself can only be compensated for through reparations to oneself – i.e., through performance of actions that benefit oneself and undo the harm. Thus, actions that harm oneself alone cannot be undone by adhering to the dictates of others, and so no prohibition or external punishment can ever be appropriate for such actions. This is why a legitimate legal system would only prohibit and punish harm inflicted by an individual upon others and would allow an individual to harm himself without legal penalty. In this way, a class of immoral actions (harms to oneself) ought to be entirely legal. If an action does not damage the life of either oneself or others, then it can be neither illegal nor immoral.
While morality ultimately focuses on consequences, an individual’s intent in carrying out an action can have long-term effects on that individual’s moral standing. It is possible to have ill intent in carrying out an action but, through good fortune, to end up harming no one. In that case, no moral responsibility can exist because no one has been harmed. However, a person who continues to act upon ill intent is extremely likely to cause actual harm through repeated action. Therefore, acting with ill intent is like a game of Russian roulette as far as moral responsibility is concerned. One might escape moral responsibility any given time, but the probability of incurring it in the future is close to certain. Furthermore, acting with ill intent ultimately damages the individual’s capacity to choose morally, as it results in the reinforcement of habits of thought which oppose the preservation of human life and the cultivation of human civilization. Likewise, good intent can assist an individual in committing moral actions by cultivating habits of thought that render moral choices easier. However, good intent must be reflected in benefits to human life before an action can be considered moral. Good intent cannot absolve a person of moral responsibility for a harmful act, though it should (if aided by an understanding of cause and effect) assist the person in avoiding similar harmful acts in the future.
Moral Responsibility and Voting
In any scenario of voting, the individuals who participate are numerous, and the outcome results from an aggregation of individual votes. No given person can be said to specifically be responsible for the outcome of the election being one way or another, even if the outcome results from a difference of one vote (because anyone else’s one vote would have had the identical impact). Nonetheless, if the outcome of an election is the rise to office of politicians who perpetrate harmful actions, then the people who voted for those politicians share some of the moral responsibility in the harms – since, without the vote, those politicians would most likely not have come to power (unless they staged a coup). A clear case of this is the moral responsibility of the Germans in 1933 who gave Hitler’s Nazi Party the plurality of the vote. Were it not for this moral sanction, the harms committed by the Nazi Party would never have come to pass. Of course, the moral responsibility of the typical German voter who supported Hitler was slight compared to the moral responsibility of the actual Nazi leaders and their followers who actually partook in carnage and destruction. Nonetheless, by committing an action that clearly demonstrated support for the Nazi Party, even the otherwise peaceful Germans who voted for it helped to make its atrocities possible.
A person who does not vote for a winning candidate (either by voting for a losing candidate or by not voting at all) cannot have moral responsibility for what transpires when the winning candidate is elected, because he did not grant support to and sometimes explicitly opposed the winning candidate. He can therefore justifiably say, of what transpires afterward, that it did not transpire with his approval or assistance. In electoral situations, it is seldom the case that a single person can make all the difference (unless he is exceptionally good at persuasion of vast numbers of people), but a single person can choose not to be part of the problem. This is why a person should always vote his conscience (if he votes at all) and should never support a candidate who might commit incremental harm relative to the status quo, in that person’s view. However, a person could justifiably support a candidate who might bring about incremental benefit, even if that benefit is not as comprehensive as the voter might desire.
It is important to note that voting for a candidate who would commit incremental harm is not justified by the presence of a candidate whom one expects to commit even greater harm. Because harm can never bring benefit, it should follow that the infliction of lesser harms can never avert greater harms. The person who actively supports a move in the direction of harm (relative to the status quo) simply legitimizes the political system’s infliction of harm upon himself and others. By signaling to the political system that he will tolerate a certain degree of incremental worsening of his situation, he invites politicians to gradually ratchet up the degree of harm they cause, as long as they can claim (justifiably or not) that their opponents would bring about even greater harm.
In this case, what is the nature of the moral responsibility of the person who votes for a “lesser evil” in his mind? If the “lesser evil” loses, then there is clearly no moral responsibility if the person did not otherwise engage in harmful behavior to promote the “lesser evil” or to damage those who criticized the “lesser evil.” However, support for a losing “lesser evil” can lead to unfortunate habits of thought that would leave one vulnerable to the entreaties of politicians who intend to inflict harm. Just like ill intent in committing an action leaves one vulnerable to committing harm in the future, voting for a losing “lesser evil” leaves one vulnerable to voting for a winning “lesser evil” in the future. If one votes for an incrementally harmful candidate who wins, then one does share in the moral responsibility of those actions which a reasonable person could have anticipated on the basis of the candidate’s past record, rhetoric (including any tendencies for duplicity and lies contained therein), and character. This moral responsibility is clearly not of the same caliber as the moral responsibility of the politician who actually inflicts the harms, or the enforcers who act on his behalf. Furthermore, because the moral responsibility of voters is always highly dispersed, it is impractical to design appropriate restitution for it. Rather, the sole practical remedy is for the voters in question to recognize the mistake of their prior actions and, in the future, to work to the extent of their abilities to undo the harms of the winning candidate’s actions in office. For instance, a person who recognizes that he was deceived into supporting a “lesser evil” who won can focus his efforts on defeating this politician or similar politicians as the next election approaches. This person could also work at persuading others not to make similar mistakes.
The most reliable way to avoid adverse moral responsibility in voting is to vote for a candidate whom one considers to be an improvement over the status quo in absolute, not relative, terms – and without regard for how others might vote. Morality is not based on consensus, but on objective truth. One’s own understanding of objective truth, and the continual pursuit of improving that understanding, is the best path to moral action and the habits of thought that facilitate it.
As the ISideWith.com survey of voter preferences shows, if voters truly voted in accordance to their understanding of the most preferable courses of action, the American electoral landscape in 2012 would be quite different. For one, the 2012 Presidential contest would clearly be between Gary Johnson and Barack Obama, rather than between Obama and Mitt Romney.