Cooperating with the Lesser of Two Evils

There are some voters out there who are passionately in favor of Hillary Clinton, and there are some who are passionately in favor of Donald Trump. However, polls seem to show that a higher percentage of voters are displeased with both candidates. The most recent Real Clear Politics average gives Clinton a 55% unfavorable and Trump a 58.8% unfavorable.

This has contributed to the sense that some have that this election comes down to the lesser of two evils. And indeed, many have strong senses of which one of those evils is lesser. My interest in this post is not to give a comparison between the two, but rather to think about one set of questions that Catholics should think through before deciding which candidate (if any) one decides to vote for. In yesterday’s post, Christine McCarthy discussed the importance of conscience. In today’s post, I’d like to talk about “cooperating with evil.”

There are three ways one can cooperate with evil:

(1) Formal cooperation
Formal cooperation means that someone is doing an evil act and you agree with their intention to do it. This kind of cooperation is never justified, precisely because it means one is intending an evil act.

(2) Immediate Material cooperation
Material cooperation generally means that someone provides some assistance towards achieving the evil end; that assistance is the “material” part or the stuff that makes it possible. In this case, the one assisting does not share the evil intention. The immediate part means that this material cooperation is necessary for the evil outcome to happen. This is typically not justified either, unless the person is under duress.

(3) Mediate Material cooperation
What makes this form of material cooperation mediate is that while one’s aid helps the evil intention to occur, it is not necessary or it does not directly contribute. This is morally justified so long as the good that will result is proportionate to the harm that will be cause and the cooperation doesn’t lead to scandal (scandal meaning it’s likely to cause others to sin too).

What do these forms of cooperation mean for voting? At best, voting is a version of the third form of cooperation. Your vote is not in itself an essential part of the person getting elected (i.e. if you didn’t vote, the person you would have voted for almost certainly would still get elected), particularly when you consider how large the US electorate is. You don’t agree with the candidate’s evil positions, but you earnestly believe (after a responsible examination of conscience) that the good of that candidate outweighs his/her bad. The good achieved by voting for that candidate will outweigh the bad.

However, when someone votes for a particular candidate because of their evil intentions, or when the voter shares those evil intentions, this is formal cooperation with evil. Because the voter is now making a decision precisely because of evil intention, this kind of vote is never morally justified.

What does this mean for the current election? To illustrate, I will offer one (and only one) example from each candidate where their campaign statements are contrary to Catholic teaching.

Clinton has stated that she will work to “defend access to…safe and legal abortion.” Abortion in this sense (sometimes called “direct abortion) is the intentional termination of a pregnancy, which is considered evil in Catholic teaching. The basic moral argument is that it constitutes an example of the intentional targeting of an innocent life, and thus it can never be justified.

Trump, in reference to what to do about terrorists, has said that “you have to take out their families.” While he later tried to dial down this claim, as described it also sounds like intentional targeting of innocent lives. “Take out” in this context is a fairly clear reference to killing, he didn’t speak in terms of these persons as “collateral damage,” and there’s no suggestion that the families would need to be directly involved in terror to be targeted.

In both these cases, if one votes for Clinton or for Trumpand agrees with their respective plan, that would be formal cooperation with evil, and thus never acceptable. If one recognizes that the given policy is morally wrong, and yet in good faith believes that, despite this, the good that would come from a Clinton or a Trump presidency is proportionate to the bad, then that voter is cooperating in a mediate material way.

It’s worth noting that this idea of proportion is essential to justifying mediate material cooperation. The good must outweigh the evil. In the context of deciding whom to vote for, we must take account of both the whole of their policies and compare the candidates on a variety of issues. Usually, this means taking a wide variety of issues into account when choosing for whom to vote. If one chooses to vote on a single issue, one must be able to make a strong case for why a particular candidate’s position on that issue is enough to outweigh the importance of other issues collectively.

Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI)

Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI)

As a final word, some will understandably question whether they can vote at all for a figure who supports evil. During the debate in the US in 2004 about whether a pro-choice politician could receive communion, then-Cardinal Ratzinger sent a memo to Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, DC. At the end, he noted the particular situation of the voter, saying this:

A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.

What he argues here is that it is possible to vote for someone who is pro-choice or pro-euthanasia so long as (a) one does not share that sinful intention and (b) there good that comes from that candidate is proportionate to the bad. This logic can, presumably, be applied to other forms of evil that candidates might support.

If you find yourself among the sizable portion of the electorate that sees both these candidates as seriously flawed, it may seem reasonable to decide not to vote for either (or not to vote at all). However, if you can discern that one candidate is better than the other (or simply one is more awful than the other), then there are good, moral grounds to justify voting for one over the other. But this discernment must be done in good faith and in light of one’s conscience.

16 responses to “Cooperating with the Lesser of Two Evils

  1. Both these candidates support intrinsic evil: Trump – racism; Clinton – abortion. Not voting at all in an environment of election fraud seems an excellent choice for 2016.

    • Thanks Ammoncircuit. If your argument is that the evils that would likely result from the two candidates are roughly equal to one another, then yes, that logic would follow. But that case has to actually be made.

    • Trump practices racism, promotes it and benefits from it. I have yet to hear of Clinton as an abortion practitioner, encouraging women to have abortions, or investing in abortion clinics. Perhaps I am ignorant; if so, point me to the facts.

      • I agree with you on Trump and racism. That would have been another fair example for him.
        You are right that no one has accused Clinton of direct participation (and there have been some rumblings about direct participation on Trump’s part).
        Yet her shift in this election from a previous position of “safe, legal, and rare” to “safe and legal” suggests less of a concern with abortion needing to be rare and greater acceptance of it as a perfectly fine practice.

  2. The argument regarding Clinton on abortion seems to be undercut by your own reasoning. To “defend access to…safe and legal abortion” is not to advocate abortion as such: one who believes that abortion is taking an innocent life and is a sin may also believe that safe and legal abortion is the lesser of two evils, the alternative being the situation where the only abortion available is unsafe and illegal or overseas abortion. So far as I know, this is Clinton’s position, and its a very reasonable one especially where the legal abortion process that is advocated would include counselling and offering the alternatives of adoption, a home and security for mother and child, or, in the case of an at-risk fetus, the best medical care available.

    • Thanks Sen, I appreciate the point you are making here. As I take it, you want to say that we should opt for access to safe/legal abortion over access only to unsafe/illegal abortion. I see, however, a few issues with this claim.
      (1) It’s not clear to me how this undercuts my argument. The made above is about formal vs. mediate material cooperation. If one agrees with the intention of supporting access to abortion, this seems to remain formal cooperation. The onus in this case would be on showing that supporting access is not evil (and thus there’s no formal cooperation).
      (2) If one chooses to vote for the candidate despite their support for access because a reasonable analysis has concluded that the candidate will do greater good/minimize more harm than the opponent, then it can be morally justifiable. One might here note the dangers of unsafe/illegal abortion as something that contributes to that judgment, but that doesn’t mean formal cooperation (unless you’ve already solved #1 above).
      (3) If one is focusing on the question of abortion, one must also examine the other candidate. The candidate may have a stated belief that is more consistent with Catholic teaching. And there is a good for society in supporting leaders who hold morally praiseworthy beliefs. But do we believe that the candidate actually holds that stance, or is it a political ploy? Do we think that candidate will have a better chance of effecting change, or will they likely fail to make any substantive changes? What history do we have to suggest the relative success of certain types of policies, holistically, for reducing abortion? These all feed into the analysis of deciding how to vote with respect to abortion.
      (4) Ultimately, if my argument is that you can morally justify supporting the lesser of two evils, and you’ve made a reasoned claim in good conscience that one or the other is the lesser of two evils, haven’t you performed the analysis I’m talking about? What’s the undercut here?

  3. The undercut is not that the “lesser of two evils” argument is a bad one — it’s not — but rather that your example is premised on the assumption that, according to Catholic teachings, support for legislation providing access to safe and legal abortion is an evil.

    The evil, and in some cases the sin, is the act of abortion. Support for legislation that allows and regulates abortion may be mediate cooperation, but it is never immediate and material cooperation with such an evil, unless the legislation were to make abortion compulsory. Your argument seems to slide from the evil and possible sin of each individual abortion, with shaping the environment in which the evil can occur. An environment in which no such evils can occur is not practicable or even desirable, thus by action or inaction all politicians and people of influence must shape the social and legal environment. Those who shape it to limit the possibilities of abortion and increase unprofessional abortions, and those who work the other way (whether by acccepting the status quo or by seeking to change it), are both working on the general environment, they have no immediate culpability for the decisions and actions of individuals in that environment.

    This is different to the death penalty situation, because an environment that excludes the death penalty entirely is possible (and in my view desirable). Therefore to advocate the death penalty is to provide immediate material cooperation with evil, as is knowingly providing the execution drugs.

    So for your posting on the lesser of the two evils argument (a good posting) you need to find an example in Clinton’s programme or record of an evil she has chosen, where her choice cannot itself be defended on the lesser of two evils argument. Otherwise you have self-defeating logic. For example, does Clinton defend the death penalty?

    If you are going to use the abortion example, you would also need to show that her position differs from Trump’s, for if their positions are the same, then this issue is irrelevant to determining which is the lesser evil, although still relevant for deciding whether to vote at all. You could also add an initial caveat, that for simplicity’s sake you are discussing a choice between two candidates, but much the same reasoning applies where there are multiple candidates. The complication there is that one has to consider whether a vote for a no-chance candidate is a good choice, when one could use one’s vote to assist the lesser of two evils to actually win. Which depends again on whether one is in a swing state. It get’s messy, so the simplicification to two candidates is justified for the purposes of clarifying the argument.

    As I don’t live in the US, I have not taken an interest in the candidates views on the death penalty and abortion legislation, so I can’t suggest a good example for you to use.

    • Thanks Sen, that clarifies your argument for me. I’ll take a few points in turn:
      “your example is premised on the assumption that, according to Catholic teachings, support for legislation providing access to safe and legal abortion is an evil.”
      My understanding is yes, Catholic teaching says that supporting legislation that supports or provides access to abortion is evil. You are fair to note that it is different from directly participating in a particular abortion, whether as patient, doctor, nurse, etc. This seems evident in John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae 59 and 70-72. I am happy to hear arguments as to why this is the case, but it seems to be my reading.

      “Your argument seems to slide from the evil and possible sin of each individual abortion, with shaping the environment in which the evil can occur.”
      This is a fair critique of what I’ve written above. On the other hand, I refer to my point above, which is that Catholic teaching seems to consider supporting pro-choice legislation as an evil.

      “This is different to the death penalty situation…”
      This is true, but as best I can tell there’s no real difference between Clinton and Trump on the issue of the death penalty.

      “…you need to find an example in Clinton’s programme or record of an evil she has chosen, where her choice cannot itself be defended on the lesser of two evils argument…”
      Again, I refer to the above point.

      “If you are going to use the abortion example, you would also need to show that her position differs from Trump’s, for if their positions are the same, then this issue is irrelevant to determining which is the lesser evil, although still relevant for deciding whether to vote at all.”
      This is an interesting point. In terms of their stated views, there is a difference (Trump seems more pro-life on abortion, wants to appoint justices who are more on the pro-life side). So in that regard, using Clinton is a fair example. But, as I noted above about weighing the proportionality question, we must consider whether we find him believable on that position.

  4. That would be “Humanae vitae” I assume ( But that doesn’t have 59 sections. In any case we are now sliding from an argument in ethics which should be comprehensible and persuasive to anyone, to a question of church doctrine which, since neither candidate is Catholic, is a moot point. Or it is a different point: who is the better Catholic? Even if the question was as wide as “who is a better person” I would not easily conclude that my vote should go to the “better” person, as fitness for the particular demands of the job is also relevant.

    • Sen, no, it’s Evangelium Vitae by John Paul II, which was released in 1995 ( Humanae Vitae is from Paul VI in 1968.

      To your second point, you had raised the question about church doctrine in your response, so it seemed fitting to reference it.

      Further, it’s unclear to me where in my piece I’ve given the impression that the issue is which of the candidates is a “better Catholic.” Rather, above I give my purpose straightforwardly: “My interest in this post is not to give a comparison between the two, but rather to think about one set of questions that Catholics should think through before deciding which candidate (if any) one decides to vote for.”

      It seems reasonable, then, that church teaching might factor into how a Catholic would choose to vote, so I’m unconvinced that it is a “moot point.”

      Lastly, it’s not a question about “who is a better person,” but about maximizing the good or minimizing the harm that would result from one or the other’s election. That may certainly be affected by the moral qualities of the person, but it is also about their policies, plans, and positions.

  5. Thank you Stephen: my reply would certainly have been clearer if I had been able to find the document. It states : “…responsibility likewise falls on the legislators who have promoted and approved abortion laws, and, to the extent that they have a say in the matter, on the administrators of the health-care centres where abortions are performed.”

    Legislators certainly have an ethical responsibilty, and they have it whether their action or inaction supports the status quo or seeks to change it, as I said previously. As your argument shows, this responsibility is not one of formal or material and immediate cooperation with any particular avoidable (and therefore evil) abortion, but rather a mediated responsibility: have they done their best to shape the best environment, including the best alternatives, in which the individual choices are made? Have they discerned and chosen the lesser of two evils? This is an ethical question, posed in universal terms and applicable to Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

    The appeal to Evangelium Vitae is a less clear argument, at least to me. That the Church sets out standards of behaviour for its own members is natural: Evangelium Vitae’s applicability to Catholic doctors and Catholic legislators is clear. But does Evangelium Vitae also imply that Catholic voters should use their votes to hold non-Catholic legislators to act in accordance with Catholic doctrine? Would there be any virtue in such behaviour where it is not motivated by the corresponding Catholic or Christian belief? Or should they rather say, Church teaching is authoritative for those who accept the magisterium of the Church; with respect to the behaviour of the seculum, the Church and the Catholic voter speak in the universal language of ethics.

    I am inclined to think that your argument is sound for Catholic voters, even if the chain of reasoning is long. The responsibility of a Catholic voter is not different to a Catholic legislator, therefore, although the “lesser of two evils” argument would say that legislation for responsible, legal and safe abortion facilities may be the lesser of two evils (compared to unprofessional or overseas abortions), this is overruled for the Catholic voter by the specific language of Evangelium Vitae. Evangelium Vitae establishes a position that voting for Clinton is an evil (assuming one reads her position as not seeking to make abortions “rare”); voting for Trump is also an evil for the reasons you’ve outlined or others, therefore one has to choose the lesser of two evils — unless and until one finds another piece of Church doctrine whose specific doctrinal provision overrides the general ethical argument that one must choose the lesser evil.

    The above is premised on Catholic teachings as I understand them, which do not seem to distinguish between the believer as Catholic and the believer as citizen. In my own tradition, the Bahai Faith, it breaks down quite differently, as the responsibility of the Bahai voter acting as a citizen is distinguished from his or her responsibility as a member of the religious community. There is no idea of superimposing Bahai doctrinal positions onto the sphere of politics. In relation to legislation allowing for same-sex marriages, the Universal House of Justice has written that “the Baha’i community does not seek to impose its values on others, nor does it pass judgment on others on the basis of its own moral standards. It does not see itself as one among competing social groups and organizations, each vying to establish its particular social agenda.” The Bahai voter can therefore apply universal principles of ethics, such as the value of human life, justice and equality, to support legislation that would enable others to do things that a Bahai abstains from — ranging from drinking alcohol to same-sex marriage and (generally speaking) abortion. This is a radic-al (root-level) separation of church and state, carried down to a separation of the two roles of each individual. Ironically, Baha’u’llah has argued this based (among other things) on the “render unto Caesar” verse []. The Catholic Church, as I understand it, does try to establish its particular social agenda in the secular world, and expects its members as voters to support its efforts. That expectation is implicity in your response to me. But doesn’t “render unto Caesar” imply that the citizen has a separate responsibility to the state where he or she is a citizen, which is not overridden or subsumed by faith and doctrine, and such a responsibility can only be properly exercised by discerning one’s path in political matters in the light of political reasoning and discourse. The coin that was to be paid in taxes bore a graven image and would be used largely for religiously objectionable purposes, yet Jesus approves of the believers acting as good citizens despite the religious objections.

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  7. Steve this is a great post and I think really articulates well the exact struggle of conscience I’m having as someone who is pro-life but my conscience on nearly every other issue usually sides with democratic candidates. I think that this post as well as the quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict really helps me in wanting to authentically follow my conscience with the inclusion of the moral concepts of formal and material cooperation. Thank you for this!

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