The lesser of two evils principle, also referred to as the lesser evil principle and lesser-evilism, is the principle that when faced with selecting from two immoral options, the least immoral one should be chosen. The principle is sometimes recalled in reference to binary political choices in democratic voting under a two-party system.

Origin

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The maxim existed already in Platonic philosophy.[1] In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes: "For the lesser evil can be seen in comparison with the greater evil as a good, since this lesser evil is preferable to the greater one, and whatever preferable is good". The modern formulation was popularized by Thomas à Kempis' devotional book The Imitation of Christ written in early 15th century.

In part IV of his Ethics, Spinoza states the following maxim:[2]

Proposition 65: "According to the guidance of reason, of two things which are good, we shall follow the greater good, and of two evils, follow the less."

In modern elections

Further information: Strategic voting § Lesser evil voting

The concept of "lesser evil" voting (LEV) can be seen as a form of the minimax strategy where voters, when faced with two or more candidates, choose the one they perceive as the least harmful or the "lesser evil." To do so, "voting should not be viewed as a form of personal self-expression or moral judgement directed in retaliation towards major party candidates who fail to reflect our values, or of a corrupt system designed to limit choices to those acceptable to corporate elites" rather as an opportunity to reduce harm or loss.[3]

In 2012, Huffington Post columnist Sanford Jay Rosen stated that the idea became common practice for left-leaning voters in the United States due to their overwhelming disapproval of the United States government's support for the Vietnam War.[4] Rosen stated: "Beginning with the 1968 presidential election, I often have heard from liberals that they could not vote for the lesser of two evils. Some said they would not vote; some said they would vote for a third-party candidate. That mantra delivered us to Richard Nixon in 1972 until Watergate did him in. And it delivered us to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2000 until they were termed out in 2009".[4]

In the 2016 United States presidential election, both major candidates of the major parties — Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) — had disapproval ratings close to 60% by August 2016.[5] Green Party candidate Jill Stein invoked this idea in her campaign stating, "Don't vote for the lesser evil, fight for the greater good".[6] Green Party votes hurt Democratic chances in 2000 and 2016.[7][8][9] This sentiment was repeated for the next two election cycles, both of which were between Democratic candidate (and current president) Joe Biden and Republican candidate (and former president) Donald Trump.[10][11] Accordingly, the lesser evil principle should be applied to two front-runners among many choices, after eliminating from consideration "minor party candidates (who) can be spoilers in elections by taking away enough votes from a major party candidate to influence the outcome without winning."[12]

In elections between only two candidates where one is mildly unpopular and the other immensely unpopular, opponents of both candidates frequently advocate a vote for the mildly unpopular candidate. For example, in the second round of the 2002 French presidential election graffiti in Paris told people to "vote for the crook, not the fascist". The "crook" in those scribbled public messages was Jacques Chirac of Rally for the Republic and the "fascist" was Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front. Chirac eventually won the second round having garnered 82% of the vote.[13]

The principle of "the lesser of two evils" is sometimes jokingly (ignoring its strategic importance) changed to "the evil of two lessers", such as in the titles of these articles about the US presidential elections of 1988[14] and 2016.[15]

Mythology

"Between Scylla and Charybdis" is an idiom derived from Homer's Odyssey. In the story, Odysseus chose to go near Scylla as the lesser of two evils. He lost six of his companions, but if he had gone near Charybdis all would be doomed. Because of such stories, having to navigate between the two hazards eventually entered idiomatic use. Another equivalent English seafaring phrase is "Between a rock and a hard place".[16] The Latin line incidit in scyllam cupiens vitare charybdim ("he runs into Scylla, wishing to avoid Charybdis") had earlier become proverbial, with a meaning much the same as jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Erasmus recorded it as an ancient proverb in his Adagia, although the earliest known instance is in the Alexandreis, a 12th-century Latin epic poem by Walter of Châtillon.[17]

References

  1. ^ Dougherty, M. V. (14 April 2011). Moral Dilemmas in Medieval Thought: From Gratian to Aquinas. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139501439.
  2. ^ de Spinoza, Benedict (2017) [1677]. "Of Human Bondage or of the Strength of the Affects". Ethics. Translated by White, W.H. New York: Penguin Classics. p. 424. ASIN B00DO8NRDC.
  3. ^ Noam Chomsky and John Halle, "An Eight Point Brief for LEV (Lesser Evil Voting)," New Politics, June 15, 2016.
  4. ^ a b Stanford Jay Rosen (2012-09-25). "Don't Get Fooled Again: Why Liberals and Progressives Should Vote Enthusiastically for President Obama". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2013-03-23.
  5. ^ Aaron Blake (2016-08-31). "A record number of Americans now dislike Hillary Clinton". Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-08-31.
  6. ^ "Meet Jill Stein, the Other Anti-Establishment Progressive Running for President". 26 May 2016.
  7. ^ "Did Ralph Nader Spoil Al Gore's Presidential Bid? A Ballot-Level Study of Green and Reform Party Voters in the 2000 Presidential Election". Retrieved 30 March 2023.
  8. ^ "Jill Stein cost Hillary dearly in 2016. Democrats are still writing off her successor". Politico.
  9. ^ "Green Party candidate Jill Stein got more votes than Trump's victory margin in 3 key states". December 2016.
  10. ^ "2020 could be another 'lesser of two evils' election". CNN.
  11. ^ "The 'lesser of two evils' voters who could decide 2024". NBC News.
  12. ^ "10.6 Minor Parties," American Government and Politics in the Information Age, University of Minnesota, 2011.
  13. ^ "Chirac's new challenge". The Economist. 2002-05-06. Retrieved 2011-04-15.
  14. ^ Schneider, William (18 September 1988). "THE EVIL OF TWO LESSERS". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  15. ^ Keinon, Herb (6 November 2016). "Clinton vs. Trump: 'The evil of two lessers'". Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  16. ^ Definition from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English available online
  17. ^ Noted by Edward Charles Harington in Notes and Queries 5th Series, 8 (7 July 1877:14).