The 2016 election, more than any before, has eroded the deontological foundation of American government. Never has moral relativism — justifying decisions because other decisions are worse — been so prevalent.
Let me break down the terminology.
- Deontology looks at moral questions and tries to answer “what should I do?” and “what must I do?”
- Consequentialism looks at moral questions and tries to answer “what would have the best impact?” and “how can I maximize benefit and minimize cost from this?”
- A deontologist could say “abortion is wrong because it is wrong”
- A consequentialist could say “abortion is wrong because of all these negative things it causes.”
When you think relatively on morals, you justify one thing because something else is worse. Heaven’s gates are open if you aren’t Hitler. Morality is just a relative issue, it can be compared, and as long as you’re better than a certain percentile of people, or not worse than a certain percentile of people, then congrats, you’ve been good.
Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton could rationally be considered virtuous candidates themselves. Clinton has all her dozens of scandals. Emails. Emails. Emails. Emails. And more telling is what’s found in those emails: widespread corruption, pay-to-play, conflict of interests, and whatever was in the 33k emails. Likewise, Trump has enough scandals to beat Clinton. Various sexual assault charges (which we know to be at least partially grounded in Trump’s psyche, given the Access Hollywood revelations), dozens of business misconduct cases, racial discrimination in renting practices, going far out of his way to alienate large sections of the electorate in order to win the xenophobic vote, etc.
Does anybody, beyond the most extreme partisans on each side, actually support either of these candidates? Without naming why they don’t like the other candidate, can they really provide a convincing, holistic, positive argument for their candidate?
But lets get beyond personalities and histories. Look at policies. Do either advocate virtuous policy? I’m not hearing much of an argument on this.
(I understand that it is notoriously difficult to define “virtuous policy,” in fact that is the whole question of politics. In an increasingly polarized system, beyond the obvious things, we aren’t going to find much agreement here. But whatever their support for virtuous policy, they hold that support inconsistently).
As a result, voters with an eye for deontological consistency were forced to turn to 3rd party candidates Johnson, Stein, Castle, etc., who by definition of first-past-the-post voting, had essentially no chance to win the election or even garner mildly significant support.
Woah, slow down there. Couldn’t Johnson have won if he wasn’t just an idiot?
Enter: Duverger’s Law, Per Wikipedia:
A two-party system often develops in a plurality voting system. In this system, voters have a single vote, which they can cast for a single candidate in their district, in which only one legislative seat is available. In plurality voting (i.e. first past the post), in which the winner of the seat is determined purely by the candidate with the most votes, several characteristics can serve to discourage the development of third parties and reward the two major parties.
Duverger suggests two reasons this voting system favors a two-party system. One is the result of the “fusion” (or an alliance very much like fusion) of the weak parties, and the other is the “elimination” of weak parties by the voters, by which he means that voters gradually desert the weak parties on the grounds that they have no chance of winning. (link)
People are thinking on the margin.
There is a certain marginal analysis (definition) happening whenever someone says “I support Trump because Clinton is…” or “I support Clinton because Trump/Trump Supporters are…” and we ought to reject this style of thinking not just because practically it enables the second worst evil to win election after election, but because it fails to provide a positive, self-enclosed justification for the candidate of choice.
This is mostly what has gotten us into the whole social-political landscape we have today. The product of choosing the lesser of two evils (when both are legitimately evil, like in the past ~50 years) is the system we have today.
American government and law used to be founded on the principle of Natural Law. Ever since and resulting from the gradual destruction of Natural Law in the presence of instrumentalist law in the 1880s-1910s (link), the country’s polity has become completely consequentialist. What is right? That which leads to my desired outcomes.
In backlash to these trends:
Candidates considered “ideologically pure” like Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders were as successful as they were because they cornered the deontological market during their year.
Here is the conclusion I draw: People want to return to Right = Right and Wrong = Wrong morality. This is true regardless of how you define right and wrong; all that matters is having them at all. It doesn’t matter if you use Christian morality or vaguely defined secular morality or some new synthesized xenophobia+classist morality. Just have something, some ideological standard, hold to it consistently, and then win.
The people want intellectually purity and consistency based on first principles, not some shape-shifting, internally contradictory realism that dominates “moderate” choices like Clinton, Romney, Jeb! Bush, and such.
Deontological thinking is dead to Americans. But we can resurrect it. Here’s how.
The problem is that people have to think marginally when they vote. So how can we eliminate or minimize marginal thinking on election day?
Ultimately the goal is IRV or other proportional voting systems, any of which would eliminate First Past The Post. Proportional voting actually allows people to be “consequentially deontological” if that’s not a contradiction in terms, because they can hold to moral imperatives but vote for them selectively. This would be a more ideal system.
How could the country conduct this? Many details remain unclear. This is not because the details are confusing, but because there are so many workable options.
States could still be winner-take-all, and it could still be separated by states and not a popular vote. So, it could still be Constitutional. For example, everyone in Illinois goes to the polls, ranks all options on the ballot, and ultimately through the tricky process of counting IRV votes, someone is declared the winner. That person get the electoral votes.
[THEN in the most interesting twist of all, each elector at the electoral college also gets to do IRV among everyone who had ballot access in enough states to mathematically win 270 electoral votes. This part would certainly require a constitutional amendment given the 12th amendment’s wording of “the person voted for as President”].
It wouldn’t be much of a practical advantage to 3rd parties, since most people actually do prefer the Democratic or Republican Parties to the Libertarian Party, but it would eliminate the vote-splitting effect, which currently holds 3rd party votes to well below their legitimate vote share.