Reflections on responsible participation in political life in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election

Alasdair MacIntyre published a short essay prior to the 2004 presidential election entitled “The Only Vote Worth Casting in November.” In this essay, MacIntyre—the Rev. John A. O’Brien Senior Research Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame—sets forth the principle that, “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.”

MacIntyre argues that when this choice between politically intolerable alternatives is presented as the only choice a voter can make, “it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives.”

This essay was written in the context of an election pitting George W. Bush’s conservatism against John Kerry’s liberalism, but many voters may feel that, while the names change, each successive presidential election is a version of the same contest between the conservatism of contemporary Republicans and the liberalism of modern-day Democrats.

MacIntyre objects to both parties. The Democratic Party, through its approval of abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and related policies, is opposed to life. “Try to promote the pro-life case that we have described within the Democratic Party and you will at best go unheard and at worst be shouted down,” MacIntyre notes.

The Republican Party, in a different and less direct way, is opposed to the flourishing of the people, MacIntyre writes. Republicans generally support an economic system that systematically promotes economic injustice.

He argues, “The basic economic injustice of our society is that the costs of economic growth are generally borne by those least able to afford them and that the majority of benefits of economic growth go to those who need them least.” Those trying to advance the case for economic justice in the Republican Party will not be taken seriously, MacIntyre writes.

MacIntyre concludes that casting a vote for either candidate is also a vote cast for a system “that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives. The way to vote against the system is not to vote.”

Facing the prospect of a presidential election pitting Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump, many voters and especially Catholics may feel sympathetic toward MacIntyre’s argument. Can a responsible voter, or, more specifically, a responsible Catholic voter, cast a vote in good conscience for either candidate?

The more appropriate considerations may be: can a responsible Catholic responsibly cast a vote for neither candidate in revolt against the system? Is MacIntyre correct in arguing that neither party represents a politically tolerable choice worthy of support?

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) regularly releases a guide to political participation for Catholics entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” that sheds light on these questions.

The bishops start from the principle that the Church has an “obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society” that constitutes “a requirement of our faith.” They emphasize that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.”

Catholics should be guided by moral convictions and should not allow moral convictions to be sacrificed by attachment to a particular political party. “When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths or approve intrinsically evil acts,” the bishops write.

The bishops warn that Catholics’ duty to participate in political life is more critical now than ever. Granted, Catholics may feel disenfranchised and worry that too few candidates share fully the Church’s commitment to human life and the dignity of every human person, but the bishops state, “this is not a time for retreat or discouragement; rather, it is a time for renewed engagement.”

Can this call for a renewed engagement, even with a system in which Catholics often feel disenfranchised, be squared with MacIntyre’s call for a vote against the system?

Some things are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor, the bishops write, and are intrinsically evil acts. These “must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned.” Examples of intrinsically evil acts are abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage, and racist behavior.

A well-formed conscience “does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals,” the bishops state. A Catholic, the bishops teach, cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, if the voter’s intent is to support that position of the candidate. Voting for a candidate who supports such policies can only be done for morally grave reasons and given that the voter utterly rejects the candidate’s support of that particular position.

What if all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act? This would suggest a scenario similar to MacIntyre’s politically intolerable alternatives, in response to which MacIntyre says one must vote for neither alternative.

What do the bishops have to say? In this case, “the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate, or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”

Does MacIntyre’s position rest on positing an equivalence between the Democratic Party’s opposition to human life and the Republican Party’s support for an economic system that promotes injustice, such that both parties are promoting intrinsically evil acts in their own way?

Alfred Freddoso, John and Jean Oesterle Professor of Thomistic Studies at Notre Dame, does not think so. “Consider the following position,” he said to the Rover. “I refuse to vote for the Democratic candidate for president because she enthusiastically espouses a right to abortion, which is not only intrinsically evil but a grave moral evil that no decent person should support.

“But I refuse to vote for the Republican candidate for president because (a) I am unalterably opposed to one of his central positions, e.g., on immigration, because (b) the national Republican Party is not committed to religious freedom where there is big-business opposition to it, and also because (c) I believe that the national Republican Party has cynically used the abortion issue to get votes without following up sufficiently with action on pro-life issues.”

Freddoso argues that MacIntyre’s position does not require any claim of moral equivalence between the policies promoted by both parties, and that MacIntyre’s principle is a sound one. “The (national) Democrats are worse than the (national) Republicans, but both are thoroughly corrupt and not to be supported,” he said.

Freddoso illustrated his point with an analogy: “Candidate A vows to use the power of the state to kill Catholics and Candidate B vows to use the power of the state to jail Catholics but not kill them. The two positions are not morally equivalent; unjust killing, after all, is a much worse moral evil than unjust jailing. But I as a Catholic will not support either of them.”

Gerard Bradley, Professor of Law at Notre Dame, disagrees. “I do not agree (then or now) that the alternatives are intolerable, much less that they are such that not voting at all is morally recommended, or required,” he told the Rover.

“The two parties then and now are a mix of good and bad, as all parties are, but there are significant differences between them on core issues such that there is a meaningful choice to be made in voting,” Bradley continued. “When faced with any political choice among imperfect alternatives the critical consideration is not really how bad each of the alternatives is, but rather whether when one applies the Golden Rule, one can identify some people and some people’s needs which on balance can be differentially met in a fruitful way, by and through support of one candidate as opposed to the other.

“Practically speaking, one could ask, not whether both parties are more or less unappealing, but instead whether the unborn children in danger of being killed by their mothers need our help. Since they do the moral question is whether refusing to do what one can do to help them is simply unfair to those tiny innocent people. I think that at least prima facie it is,” Bradley concluded.

Tim Bradley is a senior studying theology and economics who likes to hear himself talk. A lot. Contact him at