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.


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.”


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.

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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.