Bioethics News

Is the ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ an Ethical Choice for Voters?

Travis N. Rieder, Johns Hopkins University


Every election cycle, there are citizens who don’t like either of the candidates nominated by the two major political parties.


And so, a familiar debate begins: Is a vote for a third party a principled stand – or wasteful naiveté?


This year, party discord has swelled the numbers of dissatisfied citizens, and the debate is even louder than usual.


Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are unprecedentedly unpopular. On the left, intense pressure is mounting to vote for Hillary Clinton to avoid what many think will be genuine, large-scale dangers of a Trump presidency. This pressure is most intense in states that rank relatively high on what Nate Silver describes as the “voter power index” like Nevada or Florida. But such arguments are also engendering a defiant backlash as voters declare, “I will not vote out of fear.”


As a moral philosopher, I’m particularly interested in the question of whether we can be obligated to vote for someone we dislike. Let’s look at the arguments.


The third-party dilemma


Pretend for a moment that you are a swing-state voter who agrees with the following four statements.


  1. A Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster.
  2. A Hillary Clinton presidency would be better.
  3. A third-party candidate would be better still.
  4. Neither third-party candidate has a serious chance of becoming president.


My point here is not to defend these claims, since it doesn’t matter whether I believe them. What matters is that there are people who do accept them, and they are trying to decide whether they really ought – whether they are morally required – to vote for Hillary.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.