Friday, October 5, 2012

Fridays on Faith and Politics - Trolley Car Politics

Photo Credit
It’s time for another installment of Friday on Faith and Politics! I know, you’ve been waiting with baited breath, right?  Right??  So let’s get right into it, shall we?  (You can read the other installments here: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5)
This week, I’ve had quite a few conversations about politics, and there seem to be a few themes that run consistently through all of them, namely picking the lesser of evils, single-issue voting, and completely abstaining. Being the insufferable deconstructionist/analyst that I am, I couldn’t help but see a common ethical thread running through all of these. In each case, we’re treating voting for a political candidate as a singular, discrete action, and we’re looking for absolution for whatever decision it is that we make in that moment.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t think we get off that easy. 
And now, a tangent.
If you’ve ever taken a philosophy course in high school or college that touched on moral philosophy, you’re probably familiar with the trolley car ethical dilemma.  For those of you who aren’t, let me briefly lay it out for you:
There is a runaway trolley car barreling down the tracks.
If it continues on its current path, it will kill five people.
You are standing at a switch that can change the path of the trolley car.
If you flip the switch, the trolley car will still kill one person on the track its diverted to.
What do you do?
Now, ethical dilemmas like these, bring starkly into focus the strengths and weaknesses of our ethical theories.  For me though, the most important lesson that I ever learned from stories like these is this:
Inaction carries with it the same moral culpability as action.
So your first instinct might be to use this fact as a bludgeon to beat the abstainers into compliance, but let’s keep the angry mob at bay for just a second and look at how we could apply this to political participation.  The trolley car scenario is great because it gives us a clear, explicit choice between two outcomes, but in political participation, that choice isn’t ever as clear. If we want to stay with the trolley car analogy, we could say that politics is similar to the original scenario, except there are multiple trolley cars, multiple switches, and various groups of varying numbers of people who stand to be harmed or rescued by our switch-flipping.  Voting is just one switch of many.  (Of course, I’m assuming here that if you’re a Christian, then you’re concerned about those who might be harmed by your switch-flipping. If you’re not…well, I guess go re-read your Bible, and then come back and we’ll talk.)
OK, so where does that leave us? It certainly seems to take away any notions of certainty or superiority about a particular vote (or non-vote) in a particular election. After all, if that vote is just one switch-flip of many, then this particular choice doesn’t carry the incredible, future-of-the-world-deciding, salvation-determining, immanentizing-the-eschaton kind of power that our absurd political discourse makes us think it does. Now don’t hear me wrong, I’m not saying that our choices in these scenarios don’t matter, because I think they do.  However, I think they’re just a small part of our political lives, but there is a much larger part – what we choose to do with our time, with our money, with our voices, etc – that has to be factored in as well. If we want to embody the ethics of Christ, which are laid out relatively clearly in His life and teachings, then we have to be able to justify, to ourselves and our communities, how our whole political lives conform to those ethics, not just single votes on single days.
So briefly, what does that mean in the context of those three scenarios I mentioned above? 
Picking the lesser of evils – Each political choice is an amalgam of goods and evils; that much seems certain.  We also know that voting is only one small part of our political lives. So, we can minimize the evil with our vote, and maximize the good with the rest of our political life.
Single-issue voting – This one’s a bit more difficult. I actually think that it’s impossible to hold to any meaningful ethics and predicate all of your votes on a single issue. (For example, would you vote for a murderous despot if he or she supported your issue?)  However, I do think we can place a particular emphasis on a single issue, but I think it requires an earnest examination of the harm that might come from that narrow of a perspective, and I think it’s this kind of earnest examination that is missing in today’s single-issue voters.
Abstaining – Well this one seems easy enough if we acknowledge that voting is only one small part of our political lives.  However, I think that there’s a difference here between principled abstention and apathetic or ignorant abstention. If we’re going to abstain, it seems to me that we should damn sure know the consequences of our abstention (like, do you live in a swing state like yours truly?) and we certainly need to be actively maximizing the good in our own communities the best we can.
OK, so let's talk. What do you think the ethics of Christ are? Do you think your political life conforms to those ethics? Why or why not? Or is it not that simple?  What do you think of the scenarios I've presented here? Do they make sense? Are they over-simplifications? Do you agree or disagree with what I've said here? Let me know what you think!


  1. I am a principled non-voter (with an exception) after my political activities and voting, in some way along with the collective 'people', gave us George W. Bush. So my first vote as an 18 year old then resulted in a moral and ethical crisis a few years later. That was the first and last time I voted for an R or a D in a presidential election.

    I voted in the primary this spring for Ron Paul, it was my anti-war vote. The only way I presently vote is if I can vote for an expressly anti-war candidate or position. This may change over time but it is where I am today. If I thought voting for Obama, in which innocent Muslims are being killed by drones and harm is being done with the risk of blowback, would actually be a bulwark against an even potentially worse Romney, then I would vote and support Obama. If you really want to get right down to it.

    Is there a candidate that I can really support as a Christian in this election? No, not for me. Could I as a Christian vote for any one of the candidates? Yes. Also, I will vote in local elections for certain positions where my vote might actually matter.

    Maybe I confused the issue with this comment but it's been about 6 or 8 years of arriving at a moral and ethical choice where I generally don't desire to cast a vote.

    To your point about a larger political life, that being how we interact in our communities, then yes, we most certainly need to be political. Being involved in/with our 'polis', our civil society, particularly for those who need our voice, and our actions.

  2. You assume that voting is, in fact, a part of a "whole political life". Many people think seriously about our involvement in politics only when an election rolls around and we're supposed to vote. I think seeing voting as a small part of one's larger, holistic engagement with leadership and power structures is healthier than the single-vote-once-every-four-years model... but not how the majority of people I know look at it. Much like Christians tend to abdicate responsibility and initiative to the pastor while in church, we do the same to elected leaders in the secular realm.
    Meanwhile, I grow less and less motivated to vote because I grow more and more doubtful about the ability of government (especially at the federal level) to effect meaningful, helpful change for local communities. I feel less like giving this world's systems any thought and more like looking for and working for the kingdom not of this world.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...