By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.
-A quote attributed to Albert Camus, but I can’t find the source
Orcs for the Bright Lord
Given the recent controversy over the election of President Trump and the senatorial candidate Roy Moore, a Christian blog post has attempted a “Reductio-ad-Orc” argument against voting for “lesser evil” candidates by pointing out that this would mean voting for Grishnákh, the orc captain from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, if he promises to end all abortion. The main thesis as such is that no amount of utilitarian calculus of future good effects can justify voting for an orc.
However, to continue the analogy, what exactly is wrong with voting for an orc captain if he can serve good ends? The electronic game Shadow of Mordor is set in the Lord of the Rings universe, but before the momentous events of the book. In the game you play an undead ranger, Talion, who serves as a bodily host to an elven wraith Celebrimbor, who was responsible for forging the Rings of Power. As the game progresses the back story of Celebrimbor is revealed along with the power of the elven wraith. One of the abilities Talion gets to unlock as the story progresses is the “branding” power which allows Talion to “brand” or mentally dominate any weak orcs he comes into contact with. Orcs and Uruks so branded will refer to Celebrimbor as the “Bright Lord”, perhaps an ironic parallel to Sauron the “Dark Lord”.
Using the branding power and controlling orc captains and war chiefs, Talion and Celebrimbor gather an army of orcs to launch an assault on Mordor itself against one of the captains of Sauron.
Celebrimbor: We shall not build an army, we shall command one!
Talion: We’ll need to find an Uruk Captain to dominate and make our own.
Celebrimbor: There is a Slaver near here… We will make him serve our cause.
As such, if one could command such an army of orcs and use them against an evil like Sauron, what’s exactly is wrong with that? Why indeed should we not vote for an Uruk captain in the service of the Bright Lord as opposed to an orc in service to the Dark Lord?
Now one might very well reply that this is all fictional and no one has such domination powers to make evil orcs serve the cause of good or whatever. However, that is exactly the problem with the”Reductio-ad-orc” argument. Two dimensional unambiguous “good guys” and “bad guys” rarely corresponds to actual human beings in the real world. If one can fantasise about unambiguously evil orcs which makes voting for them unthinkable, one can, and an entire electronic game series have, also precisely fantasise about mentally dominating evil creatures in service of good causes.
Our little trip through fantasy land already reveals one of the primary problems with the idea of moral character as a factor in deciding votes. If there are no pure evil orcs in real life, there are no pure saints in real life either. Now American conservatives generally argue that one will be hard pressed to find angels to put into power. However if by default we already do not expect to vote angels into power, then there is only a question of quantitative degree of badness one can tolerate, not some sort of qualitative line. Even if this is not a utilitarian calculus of effects or consequences, it is a sort of calculus of personal moral merit which has a common metric for comparison. As such no one has any problems voting for an imperfect or flawed candidate. The only question is how flawed not whether.
The Significance of a Vote: Republican versus Instrumental
My focus in this post however is not to discuss which scales to use to weigh the hearts of man, it is rather to discuss the broader question of the moral significance, if any, of the act of voting itself. The question at hand is whether the morality of voting is to be determined by its consequences or rather the moral character of the person voted for. The “reductio-ad-orc” argument assumes that one can speak of an “inherent wrong” in giving power to “evil” orcs, no matter the foreseen good or consequences. The morality of such a vote, on this conception, is contingent upon the moral character of the person being voted for.
To motivate this discussion, let’s look at a analogous situation, that of trade and business, and ask whether voting is more like a business transaction. Now when you walk into a shop or look at a business, normally you do not interrogate the personal morals of the storekeeper or cashier. Your primary object is to secure some good or service, and you have a number of factors in mind in deciding whether or not you want to patronise the establishment, e.g. cost, reliability, quality of service, etc, etc. In this sense, as long as the business delivers the goods, you really do not care for the moral character of the businessman, except in so far as it is an relevant factor for predicting whether or not he is a reliable service provider. Should we look at government as more of a service provider, under this analogy, where the question of voting can simply be reduced to who is the more reliable and efficient service provider, rather than his intrinsic character?
Before we can discuss this question, let’s discuss more broadly two different conception of representative democracies, drawn from a distinction made by the philosopher Edmund Burke
It has frequently been emphasised that America in fact is not a democracy but it is a republic (small r). By that it is meant, briefly, that the people do not rule, at least not directly, rather the proper governors or rulers of a republic are the trustees, elected or no. In a republic, what the people do directly is to select their representatives who are entrusted with the care of the whole to rule and govern, but it is the trustees themselves, and not the people, who properly determines the principles and the policies of the commonwealth. They have considerable autonomy and independent to govern and rule as they see fit since the commonwealth has been entrusted to them as a whole. The people can only select their trustees, what they cannot do is to select particular policies or principles, that task has been entrusted to their trustees alone are empowered so to do.
Moral character as such plays a larger role in the determination of a public official in a republic compared to the democracy. Since the direct object of election in a republic are the trustees rather than the principles or policies of the commonwealth, a large factor in determining that representative would be whether he or she is a “good guy”. Thus one may not really be familiar with particular policy specifics or principles, but one “trusts” that this or that person is a “sound person” possessed of fine virtues and character.
In a democracy on the other hand the people or commonwealth itself directly determines the broad civic objectives and principles of the commonwealth; governments and the public officials who compose them are elected or placed into power to implement them after the fact. On this conception public officials look more like civil servants rather than rulers or even leaders, mere instruments or functionaries, using their expertise and technical mastery to carry out the will or stated wishes of the people. The technical term for this conception of public officials is delegates. Thus in contrast to the republican model of “trustees” who are entrusted with the care of the commonwealth and has considerable autonomy to govern it as they see fit, in a democracy elected officials are more like delegates who govern according to the wishes or desires of the people.
The idea behind such republican reasoning is curiously Confucian. The belief is that somehow the entire commonwealth is coordinated and harmonised as long as there exists fine chaps at the helm of government. Thus the idea is that the people just need to evaluate the hearts of the political candidates to ensure that their souls are solid gold and then put them in power. Once you have sound man at the top, somehow the nation would be all right. This is in effect, a rule by republican elites. This parallels Confucianism where the idea is that all we need is virtuous and fine emperors at the top and somehow all of China will be harmonised. Interestingly, as I have noted many times, Confucian societies share with the American an obsession with righteous appearances and moral exhibitionism.
However, as the Chinese Legalists have objected two millennia ago, in a modern, large, and complex commonwealth, virtue affords no special insight or ability to manage and handle a society which has become technically complex. Thus in place of virtue and moral character, the Legalist argues that the commonwealth must necessarily be managed by laws, conventions, technical policies, and bureaucratic techniques. Possessing sound sexual morals will not give you any insights into how one should adjust the interest rate of the federal reserve. In a technically complex society, high morals normally do not provide any special efficiency in managing such a commonwealth. In a democracy as such, the people may state their wishes and objectives, but in order to realise those wishes and objectives in a complex society will require an army of experts or mandarins to make it happen. And that’s what elected official are for.
It is clear how the two different models of governance will yield very different conclusions concerning the moral nature of voting. On the republican ideal, a vote is a mark of approval of the moral character of the candidate. As trustees, the candidate, in some sense, is a moral extension of your own character. A vote under this conception creates some sort of romantic organic unity between your soul and the soul of the candidate. Of course if you vote for a bad candidate then you will likewise be tainted since a vote is precisely an extension of your moral self or character.
On the democratic conception on the other hand, if elected officials are mere functionaries or instruments to enact your objectives, will, or desires, then the elected officials looks a lot more like service providers, as in trade and business, rather than some sort of romantic extension of your moral self. They are mere delegates whom you have delegated power to enact your will. The only question is which candidate has the highest probability for effecting the maximum of your objectives, their moral character is more or less irrelevant. Just as when you enter a bakery the question is which bread tastes the best for the lowest cost, not whether the baker is a serial divorcee. Just as the baker offers technical mastery to fulfil your desire for bread, elected officials offer their own expertise to see that your will be done.
So if the Chinese Legalists and democrats (small d), are correct about the proper and true nature of modern commonwealths, then a vote is more like a “price signal”, a bid for a some goods or service, rather than some sort of marital contract with the political candidate where your moral self merge into one. In which case of course, the predominant concern in such a vote is precisely policy effects and consequences, and not really moral character.
So if you could really “brand” orcs to make them serve your cause, then by all means, support the orcs who serve the Bright Lord in aid of pursuing your objective of defeating the Dark Lord. There is as such no meaning to the idea of the “inherent wrongs” of voting determined by the moral character of the candidate. The only relevant morality for voting is probability and extent the candidate will meet your objectives, that is all.
Conclusion: Learning to Live in a Morally Complex World
The idealism of Americans generally causes them to seek to neatly divide the world into good guys and bad guys, good acts and bad acts, like a Hollywood, or Lord of the Rings, script or narrative. However, as it is clear, good or evil is not always so unambiguously or neatly divided between the good guys and bad guys, or good acts and bad acts. The world is complex, and sometimes in aid of “good” objectives requires not punishing mothers who procure abortions or voting for questionable characters.
Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former permanent secretary for foreign affairs, once gave a talk to a couple of Westerners about the nature of diplomacy. While his point is about foreign affairs, but I think, with a little imagination, it can be seen very easily to apply to democratic discourse as well where you have to deal, interact, and dare I even say, vote with people whom you disagree with. With that, I leave with you an extract from his speech and the youtube video containing it:
But on the specific case of Myanmar, I actually had breakfast 10 days or 12 days ago in Singapore, with Thant Myint-U (the grandson of the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant), who was a former UN official. He said, “The great tragedy of this Western policy of sanctions on Burma and isolating Burma is that you have removed for 20 years all traces of Western influence in Burma. Why? Wouldn’t it have been better to engage Burmese society?”
This is where the West has got to get rid of this notion that the answer to everything is to impose sanctions. All that sanctions do is that they make you feel good—”Ah, I’ve taken a moral stand, I have imposed sanctions”—but they do no good. They don’t transform the society.
And the record shows that it is the societies that you engage that transform themselves. A classic example is China today. China’s engagement with the world has transformed Chinese society completely. It is now a remarkably open society compared to where it was 30 years ago. The societies that you ostracize, whether it is North Korea or Cuba or Myanmar, these societies don’t improve.
So my answer to you is, for all these kinds of examples you cite, don’t be afraid. You’ve got to learn to live in a morally complex world.
There’s nothing wrong in establishing diplomatic relations with a regime that you don’t like, by the way. And, incidentally, diplomacy was invented 2500 years ago not to enable you to talk to your friends. You don’t need diplomatic immunity to talk to your friends. You need diplomatic immunity to talk to your adversaries. This was figured out by our ancestors 2500 years ago.
The United States, the richest and the most powerful society, has somehow or other got this strange idea in its head that if it establishes diplomatic relations with a country, it’s an act of approval. That was not why diplomacy was invented 2500 years ago. So my answer to you is send an ambassador to Myanmar today.