Lesser of Two Evils Fallacy

This morning I came across yet another shining example of the Lesser of Two Evils Fallacy.  This fallacy’s premise is simple:  “When you vote for the Lesser of Two Evils Fallacylesser of two evils, evil always wins.”  On the face of it, that has a ring of truth, doesn’t it?  Yet only very shallow thinkers stop there and run with it, or spend all day coming up with cool-looking graphics like this one from Freedom Info.  Those who bother to think just a bit deeper might say, “Well, no.  If people vote for the lesser of two evils, then the lesser evil wins.”  And now, we’re finally getting somewhere.  But the truth is actually a good deal more profound, as we shall soon see!

I call this a fallacy because it’s based on a faulty premise and employs faulty logic.  According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a fallacy is “a false or mistaken idea.”  More accurately, it’s “an often plausible argument using false or invalid inference.  Furthermore, the term plausible only means that it is “appearing worthy of belief.”  Something that’s plausible may look good on the surface, but such superficial appearance can be deceptive, and conveys absolutely no warranty whatsoever about the actual state of affairs under the hood.  Things might be good, they might be bad, or in the case of the Lesser of Two Evils Fallacy, we find they’re dead wrong.

As Dr. Jeremy E. Sherman notes in Psychology Today, the Lesser of Two Evils fallacy is “actually the lesser of two disappointing choices.”  He notes how we apply the lesser of two evils rule in many areas of our lives, yet reject it completely when we head to the poles.  The problem comes down to consumerism.  When it comes to products and services, we have a cornucopia from which to choose, but in elections, it often comes down to just two people, neither of whom floats out boat.  As a result, we’re so disappointed in the the choices that we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater, meaning we see the entire process as evil because it fails to produce more palatable choices.  I have a sneaking suspicion this phenomenon is great exacerbated by the media constantly poisoning the well against one candidate, the other, or in some cases, both candidates in their money-grubbing clawing for ratings and advertising revenue taking precedence over objective journalism.

In his rather insightful article, “Fallacy Detective: Three Assumptions Made by ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ Voters,” Tobin Duby correctly identifies errant assumptions and the logical fallacies committed by those making the assumptions:

The “Lesser of Two Evils” reasoning fails to differentiate the person from his policies.  Fallacy: Red Herring, Ad Hominem.  Most people vote for politicians based on how they perceive their personal character, and not based on their actual policies or voting record.  As Duby notes, moral character is important, but competence is just as important.  A good man can bankrupt the nation just as fast as a bad man if neither one does the right things.

The “Lesser of Two Evils” reasoning restricts the argument to the current presidential term.  Fallacy: Framing the Debate.  Put simply, this falsely assumes both candidates will be on the ballot four years from now.  As Duby notes, “By framing the debate, [voters] are accepting a lesser good now and rejecting a greater good later.”

The “Lesser of Two Evils” reasoning assumes that there are only two options.  Fallacy: Exigency, Either/Or.  Again, put simply, voting requires both moral and practical decisions, yet the Lesser of Two Evils fallacy only considers the moral aspects.  From a practical standpoint, if there are only two candidates, then there are only two candidates!  Pick one.  You can either pick the candidate you think would do more good for the nation or you can pick the candidate you think would do less harm to the nation.

The problem with most people who buy into the “Evil Always Wins” fallacy is they view both candidates as poor choices, yet refuse to accept responsibility for minimizing damage.  That’s like a homeowner, seeing his house on fire opting to do nothing because the greater evil is that his home burns to the ground but the lesser evil is that his home winds up half-burned and neither option is acceptable to him so he does nothing.  It’s irrational, and to the extreme.

Interestingly enough, I just presented two different arguments.  Did you catch the difference?

The first says “when you vote for the lesser of two evils, evil always wins” is a logical fallacy.

The second says, “voting for the lesser of two evils” is a logical fallacy.

Well…  Which is it?

To answer that question, we really need to examine reality itself, namely, the three situations where we see this meme appear in federal elections.

First, here’s a situation we are very unlikely to see:  When we have multiple candidates favored by many people in both parties.  If Tom, Dick, and Harry ran, and all three were independents of good moral character and promising platforms, and they appealed roughly equally to both conservatives and liberals, we would never see the “…Evil Always Wins” meme.  That meme is only pushed forward by those who see both candidates as evil, and then, only by those who do not understand the nature of their logical fallacy.  Even so, the meme will still surface, as some people will see only two plausible options, both evil, or they may see all three as evil.

Second Situation:  Two candidates, one from each major political party.  The meme will surface.

Third Situation:  Three candidates, one from each major political party, and one who is either independent or running on a third party ticket.  The meme will surface.

So you see, regardless of whether we have just one candidate, two candidates, or even three or more candidates, we will always see this logically fallacious meme, for the simple reason that some people, ignorant of reality and the way things actually work, will see the one, two, or three or more candidates as being evil, and will employ this meme as their way of avoiding responsibility to minimize the damage by actually selecting the best (or least worst) candidate.

If there were more people who thought deeply, instead of people who avoid responsibility, we would undoubtedly have a better selection of candidates!