Why I Refuse to Refuse to Vote for Obama

My friend and Atlantic colleague Conor Friedersdorf has struck a chord with his piece "Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama," in which he explains why he won't support the candidate he supported in 2008 even though he doesn't want his Republican opponent to win. (If he votes, he says, it will be for Gary Johnson.) At last check Conor's piece had more than 160,000 Facebook recommends -- a number that's up there in Romney 47 percent video territory.

I can see the appeal of Conor's argument. The Obama policies he finds unacceptable -- such as drone strikes that kill innocents, the assassination of American citizens abroad without due process of law, and other assaults on civil liberties -- are policies I've been criticizing for a long time. And Conor's principled stand on these "dealbreakers," as he calls them, is inspiring. To say that you'd rather vote for someone who can't win than for a candidate with odious values is one of those stirring, consequences-be-damned pronouncements that usually win me over when I hear them in movies. But this isn't a movie, so I have a hard time ignoring the consequences of (implicitly) encouraging would-be Obama supporters to nullify their votes and thereby increase the chances that Mitt Romney will be our next president.

"Consequences" is ultimately the word that divides me and Friedersdorf. I'm what philosophers call a "consequentialist," someone who judges the rightness and wrongness of behaviors by their consequences. Roughly speaking, you could say I'm in that subset of consequentialists known as utilitarians -- i.e., people who think that what's good is what maximizes overall human welfare. So if not voting for Obama only increases the chances of victory for the candidate I consider worse for America and the world than Obama, I'm not going to do it. (Unless you can show me that there are counterbalancing long-term consequences of a protest vote -- e.g., that this will strike the fear of God into the 2016 Democratic candidate.)

Friedersdorf says he respects the argument of utilitarians who take the position I've just outlined -- supporting Obama because he's the "lesser of two evils." But, in a follow-up piece, he says he wishes more of these utilitarians would at least confront a thought experiment that might get them to question whether they're really thoroughgoing utilitarians -- whether they don't in fact believe that some values are so important that they should be honored regardless of consequence; or, as Friedersdorf puts it, whether these professed utilitarians don't in fact have "deal breakers." Here's Friedersdorf's thought experiment:

Suppose that President Obama was surreptitiously videotaped in private, and found to be "repeatedly using anti-Hispanic slurs to refer to Mexican Americans, musing that his personal dislike of Mexicans motivated the record number that he deported, and noting that while he'd never transgress against the law by unlawfully targeting Mexican Americans, he sure does hate them." Wouldn't that be a dealbreaker for you, asked Friedersdorf? In other words, wouldn't some of us professed consequentialists, if pressed far enough, admit that we're not really consequentialists but actually hold some values so dear that their violation would trump consequentialist considerations?

I promise to answer Friedersdorf's thought-experiment question in a few paragraphs, but first I'll ask him to answer mine. Here it is:

Suppose that President Obama was what he in fact is: a drone-striking, civil-liberties disregarding president. Suppose you could be pretty sure (as I think you can, though Friedersdorf disagrees) that Mitt Romney's policies on drones and civil liberties wouldn't be any better. And suppose that -- through the magical powers that are permitted in thought experiments -- you knew that if Romney were elected he would start a needless war that would kill 100,000 people, and would also inflame the international arena in ways that led America (through the irrationality that has become its hallmark) to deploy more drone strikes, and disregard civil liberties on an even larger scale.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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