The Lesser of Two Evils

In the movie “Master and Commander,” Rear Admiral Sir John Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe) pretends to ask one of his officers a difficult question. He inquires which of two weevils that have appeared on the ship’s table would be the proper weevil to choose. When the befuddled seaman points to the larger of the two, Admiral Aubrey corrects him, asserting confidently that he ought to have chosen “the lesser of two weevils.”

Aubrey’s joke is, of course, a pun off the moral principle which states that, when forced, one is permitted to choose “the lesser of two evils.” The phrase is used most often in electoral politics. For that reason, we are virtually guaranteed to hear much more of it during what is shaping up to be a particularly gory election year.

A False Principle

It is a serious problem that this “principle,” now apparently part of our national lexicon of political ethics, is being mouthed by Catholics. If the relevant Wikipedia article is correct, the origin of the principle is found in U.S. foreign policy statecraft of the Cold-War era. Whatever its source, the dictum is anything but Catholic.

This may come as a revelation to political pragmatists, but Catholics may not choose any evil. None — period. There is a principle in Moral Theology — the principle of double effect — which, under certain clearly defined conditions, permits us to perform an act that has both a good and an evil effect, but there is no allowance whatsoever in the Catholic system for directly choosing an evil.

A True Principle

The principle of double effect can be outlined briefly as follows. Sometimes the same act causes both a good result and an evil result at the same time. Can such an act be performed? The answer is that it can be, provided that all the following four conditions are met : First, the act itself must be good or indifferent. Second, the good effect must not be caused by the evil effect. Third, the good effect and not the evil effect must be directly intended by the agent. Forth, there must be a proportionality between the good and evil result (i.e., the good must outweigh the evil).1

The principle is applied across the whole spectrum of Catholic morals, but notably in the areas of just war doctrine and medical ethics. Ectopic pregnancy , a medical complication which touches upon the abortion debate, is something of a textbook case in double effect. (The pro-aborts simply lie when they say that an ectopic pregnancy is a case where abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. In no case is the murder of her child necessary to save a mother.)

But let’s get back to politics. A fundamental question is this: What constitutes a moral evil in electoral politics? Or, conversely, what is a moral good in exercising our citizen’s right to vote?

To answer these questions, we must back up a bit to see the larger picture.

between-two-evils-i-always-pick-the-one-i-never-tried-before

Politics as “Normal” vs. Politics as Usual

We are speaking of politics. Like economics, politics was classically part of the science of ethics. The Greeks approached it this way, and their tradition was continued by the Scholastic thinkers. Politics is the art and science of governing a society. It is a “normative” science inasmuch as it seeks to govern society well and rightly . Normative sciences, such as logic and aesthetics, seek to establish the right way of doing things.2 We can contrast these with the “descriptive sciences,” which study the way things actually are. An illustration will help: The normative science of ethics tells us how people ought to act, while the descriptive sciences of behavioral psychology or criminology study how people do act — and that is often badly!

Since politics is a subdivision of ethics, its principles must fit coherently with the entirety of right behavior. All this established, we can answer our above questions very simply: It is a moral evil to support a candidate whose platform runs contrary to the natural law. Conversely, it is a moral good to support one who works to uphold the natural law. For Catholics, to do the latter is, in part, to advance the social reign of Our Lord .

Some Practical Considerations

Without saying who my favorite candidate is, I will give some practical pointers on what, from this ethical point of view, constitutes a good candidate in today’s milieu. A good candidate would:

1. Oppose abortion by some practical means, not merely paying the pro-life cause lip service in order to garner the often naive support of well-meaning pro-lifers.

2. Protect the rights of parents in the matter of begetting and educating children. This is to protect the family, which is the building block of the state. The state is a “perfect society” (one having at its disposal all the means to achieve its ends), but the family is a more important and more fundamental society. Attack the family and you attack the state, all social order, and even God Himself, who gave us the family.

3. Protect the patria (the fatherland) by securing its defenses. This is a divine obligation upon rulers of nations.

4. Cease the prosecution of unjust wars. (By this, I do not mean we ought to vote for a pacifist . Pacifism is not Christian.) The just war doctrine is more than an academic “theory.” It is one part of Catholic doctrine that has penetrated into the very consciences of the nations which constitute former Christendom. When those nations act Christian, they do not prosecute unjust wars.

5. Uphold the rule of law. While it is not a “Catholic document” (some of its principles are clearly Lockean), the United States Constitution provides the positive-legal protection for the Church’s freedoms in this country. Note, the Church is free because God made her free , not because the state gives her rights. But a just society will respect this freedom the Church has by her very nature. Pope Leo XIII happily acknowledged that the rule of law protected the Church in this country. In these days of creeping statism, globalism, and governmental usurpation of the prerogatives of the Church, Catholics — who have always upheld the rule of law — should do what we can to uphold the law of the land. (For an illustration of the modern megastate’s anti-Catholic hubris, read this .)

This little catalog is by no means exhaustive, but it is a short list of issues that leave absolutely no room for debate among Catholics. It should be noted that number five on this list — something few candidates are at all interested in — includes numerous moral goods and rejects many more evils.

Casting My Vote

Being a citizen of New Hampshire, it was recently my civic duty to vote in the Granite State’s Primary. When I selected a candidate on my ballot (a paper one , by the way) the above Catholic moral-theological principles were my guides. I did not vote for a “lesser evil,” a “lesser weevil ,” or a “lesser weasel ,” for that matter. Whatever in the platform or political thinking of my candidate of choice is evil — and there are a few things I could point to — I voted for him because the principle of double effect clearly allowed for it, and by a wide margin, as the good vastly outweighed the evil.

And what if the principle of double effect would not allow me to vote for someone on the ballot, either in a primary or in the national election in November? I would write in someone who is a good candidate. To some, that may constitute “throwing away” my vote, but such a pragmatic conception of politics as merely “the art of the possible” I reject utterly as being unethical. It represents the kind of moral cowardice that safeguards the status quo: the near complete marginalization of Catholic moral principles in the governing of our nation. In short, it leaves us prey to such intellectual perversity as “it’s OK to choose the lesser of two evils.”

Addendum

For some deeper considerations of electoral politics from a Catholic perspective, see “Diabolical Campaign Speeches ” by Gary Potter.

For some humorous wordplay on the subject — complete with the satirical motto “why vote for a lesser evil?” — see “You think a Mormon Candidate Has Troubles? ” by Tom Bertonneau.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

1 I am unaware of a full explanation of double effect in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, the principle is invoked in a citation from the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas in the CCC’s treatment of self defense:

“2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. ‘The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. the one is intended, the other is not.’65 [65 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 64, 7, corp. art.] (Emphasis mine.)

2 The three basic normative sciences — logic, ethics, and aesthetics — roughly correspond to the transcendental values: the true, the good, and the beautiful.

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  • Don Flynn

    In the above example you indicated that the good supported by your candidate of choice clearly outweighed the evil he supported. The “evil he supported” was not identified and since Evangelium vitae teaches it is never licit to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of abortion, and since voting for a candidate is to take part in that candidate’s campaign even though the voter does not intend that the candidate do the evil, is it correct to assume that your candidate is opposed to all abortion without any exceptions?

    From your other writings, it is clear you would not vote for a candidate who supported even a single abortion; however, to better understand your example, could you indicate what “evils” your candidate supported and what is the “good that vastly outweighed the evil” supported by your candidate?

    One additional point that puzzles me is that since the first requirement necessary to apply the principle of double effect is the act itself must be good or indifferent, and since voting for your candidate, who supports evil, is to take part in that candidate’s campaign supporting evil, even though the voter does not intend that the candidate do the evil, why does this not rule out the application of the principle of double effect?

  • Mr. Flynn,

    My candidate of choice in that election is 100% pro-life. I have problems with his adherence to the Austrian school of economics, which is not at all Christian in its world view. However, the main enemy today is the cumbersome mega-state, and this man’s principles would seek to deflate that. This is why real conservatives (even monarchists) with a Christian world view often find themselves allied with libertarians.

    Whenever one votes for a human, one votes for evil because humans are evil — myself included. The question really becomes this: Is this candidate going to promote or combat violations of the natural law? In considering their records, I saw my favored candidate as a man with the will to combat them, and I did not see the others having that — far from it.

  • Dave

    I have read your article with considerable interest. I had specifically been researching the matter of the “lesser of two evils”.

    As a child I was taught that there was, cause to choose the lesser of two evils. For example, that a man could steal to feed his starving family. I was somewhat taken aback when I read here that there was no such principle.

    A papal encyclical, the Humanae Vitae, (see http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae_en.html), on the section addressing Unlawful Birth Control Methods states “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good,” it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (18)”

    Online searhes with regard to “lesser evil” seem to be more relevant than the term “lesser of two evils” which may be a newer reference to the same concept. I am, as of yet, unclear that there is not precedent, especially in light of the reference provided above by a late Holy Father, for the lesser of two evils.

  • Dear Dave,

    A very quick response: Thank you for your good question. I believe the key word in Paul VI’s passage is “tolerate.” One “tolerates” an evil in another; one does not commit it. So, traditionally, Catholic states “tolerated” the practice of non-Catholic religions, not because the practitioners of false religion had an inherent right to its cult, but because to stop them would (often) cause a greater evil (civil unrest and the like). In my piece, I was considering the act of voting as positively choosing the “good” or “evil” associated with the candidate. I would still argue, in Paul VI’s words, that in this case, “it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it.” So, voting for a “less” pro-abortion candidate (such as the supposed “conservative” candidate often is) is an evil to be avoided, not one to be tolerated. I should also say that I’m not terribly optimistic about electoral politics, given the corruption of human nature.

  • richardson

    Dear Brother,
    I hope you are monitoring this even if I come in so late!
    The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2309 says “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” It seems that this implies doing evil, even if the lesser of two. Help!

  • Dear Richardson,

    This is not a contradiction. The Catechism is teaching here the traditional part of the just war doctrine called “proportionality.” This is NOT the same as saying that we are free to commit one moral evil rather than another, as long as the first is a “lesser” evil. The “evil” in question is physical evil (death, destruction, social chaos, etc.). Inevitably, such things are the consequence of war, even the most just of wars will cause them because of the nature of war itself. Another way of stating this principle of proportionality is to say that “the expected good to be achieved must be greater than the destruction and disorder that will be caused by the use of force.”

    I commend to you this article on the just war doctrine:

    http://catholicism.org/catholic-teaching-just-war.html

    Note that, in the section headed “Limitations on the Conduct of War,” mention is made of the principle of double effect. This is also treated here:

    http://catholicism.org/the-principle-of-double-effect-in-contemporary-medicine.html

  • Brother Andre`, This is an awesome article, thank you so much for writing it. I would like to post a link to it on both my own blog and in the Moral Theology sub forum on CatholicAnswers.com

    I don’t know if you are still monitoring this, but I will assume you are. thank you and God bless, Michelle

  • Michelle: Thank you for the kind comments. I hope that your posting of the article is of some value to others. Note: We have a pretty free policy regarding copyright, which you can see here. I don’t mind if you post the piece on your site(s), as long as we get a linkback. http://catholicism.org/copyright-and-sharing.html

  • Jes C.

    Brother Andre,

    I teach AP English Language at a Catholic high school in Illinois. I am trying to teach my students the logical fallacy of the lesser of two evils; I am having trouble convincing some of my students and plan to use your post to offer further explanation of the topic. Do you have any other ideas about how I could explain this fallacy to my students?

    Thank you,

    Jes C.

  • Jes,

    One of the most powerful arguments would be to establish the pedigree of the argument. Who said it? Has it been accepted by the great theological and philosophical minds that are in line with Catholic tradition — or even the Western philosophical tradition, for that matter.

    Besides that, I think the best argument against “the lesser of two evils” is the inherent implication that evil may be directly willed. Once we concede that, then moral reasoning becomes fatally warped.

    The principle of double effect is so common-sensical and yet so subtle in its factoring in “difficult cases” that we should consider it a real gift of Catholic moral clarity.

  • Cvharlotte Vogel

    Thank heaven I found you this morning. I was looking for some history on the “lesser of two evils theory”. I was shocked that I could find nothing other than political answers. In my heart I knew it is never right to choose the lesser of two evil. As Catholics we may choose NO evil. However, when we find our collection plate money going to support abortion groups etc. we have to question if this theory isn’t sliping back into Catholic teaching. Is there a letter of a Pope condeming it, History?

  •  Brother – I suspect your candidate and my candidate are the same. Thanks for the eloquently written article.

  • You’re welcome, Norman. Thank you for the kind comment.

  • Peter Walsh

    I am hoping that a Catholic rebuttal to Brother Andre’s article will eventually appear.

    I usually find it more useful to refer to the despicable candidates as “villainous”, rather than “evil”. People, and politicians, often do evil things, but if that makes them evil, then 95% of them are evil.

    Most political matters, including voting, are matters of PRUDENCE,which involves the ability to make sound judgment and weigh various factors against each other. But, it is certainly difficult to make prudent decisions over matters which one is not well-informed. At the same time, for most people, it would be foolish to spend unlimited numbers of hours keeping oneself informed about all the candidates.

    Voting could be considered a minor civic matter. Often, it is genuinely trivial. Can one reasonable believe that in a election with 200,000 votes cast, that their one vote has some moral significance? The Christian voter’s duty is to “put on the mind of Christ” and make a”best effort” attempt with his ballot.

    I know of someone who leaves most of his ballot blank because he won’t vote for anyone unless he is almost certain of their worthiness. (So he has become a non-voter.) He seems to think that inadvertently voting for the wrong person is a “sacrilege”. But voting is not a sacrament. Pope JPII used the term “sinful structures” to refer to these organizations that advocate for the radical politics we are seeing. That would be something worth studying, his writing on that topic.

    Again, I do not support or oppose the “lesser of two evils” principal regarding politics because I do not think it applies.

  • It is my thought that I cannot vote for anyone who upholds an intrinsic evil. I hear about the lesser of two evils all the time. But is that truly what is in front of us? A look at records indicate there is not much difference in matters of intrinsic evils. One man today said that fewer people will die if he votes for the lesser of two evils considering that about 4000 unborn children die in the US daily and the US is also funding oversees abortions at the present time. With “free” abortions that number would go up. And so on. But I cannot vote for evil. I see a candidate who hates the US and one who does not but even that is just not enough.