The moment two particular nominees became presumptive enough to create a dilemma for certain honest voters—“Hillary vs. Trump”—many of those voters pulled the Lesser of Two Evils Principle out of mothballs. With a sigh, they resigned themselves: “I’d rather not have to vote for either; I guess I’ll just end up voting for the lesser of two evils.” The more they think about it, the more philosophical they become: “Since no candidate is perfect, every election is essentially a choice between two evils, right?.” This all sounds reasonable, profound even, but, no, we don’t normally approach elections this way. The Lesser of Two Evils Principle is like a forgotten suit jacket that a man has hung up in the back of his closet. Normally he’ll wear his red jacket or his blue jacket as he embarks on the dignity of civic responsibility. The hue of his jacket may be gaudier or more muted than the reds and blues of his friends, but it is nonetheless the jacket he wears. The Lesser of Two Evils Principle is a somber, grey jacket tucked away because it is a rare occasion when it should be worn. The honest voter figures that he now has five months to examine it, so he pulled it out of the closet in May and laid it out on the bedspread. He sees that he will have to take the lint roller to the shoulders and steam press the lapel. He wonders whether it will even fit.
If you are a Bernie enthusiast contemplating a vote for Hillary, or a lifelong Republican contemplating a vote for Trump, and if you are pulling the Lesser of the Two Evils justification out of the closet, then, yes, you are right to use these months to examine it thoroughly before you put it on. Today The Liberator Today publishes its first article in a series on the subject. By the time we step out of the shower on Election Day morn and have to don the garb that we will wear into the voting booth, I hope we will have discovered that:
· Any legitimacy that the Lesser of Two Evils Principles has is derived from sobriety and grief. The grey-suited voter makes no plans to attend the Election Night party.
· Any legitimacy that the Lesser of Two Evils Principles has is derived from the hard work of Christian discernment. The grey suit is not tailored to be “thrown on” on one’s way out the door.
· The Lesser of Two Evils Principle owes more to Greek philosophy than it does to Christian theology. “Of two evils, choose neither,” says Charles Spurgeon. Thomas Aquinas argues that the Lesser of Two Evils Principle is not a principle at all, at least not one for followers of Jesus Christ.
Part I: The Unlucky Plight of Lucky Jack
There is a scene in the movie Master and Commander where Russell Crowe’s character, Captain Jack Aubrey, sits with his officers over the remains of a meal in his cabin aboard ship. All the officers, including the young midshipmen, are deep in their cups and "Lucky Jack" Aubrey decides it’s time to poke some philosophical fun at his friend, Stephen Maturin. Maturin is ship’s surgeon and is a serious naturalist in the newly minted order of Charles Darwin.
Aubrey (pointing towards a plate): Do you see those two weevils, Doctor?
Maturin: I do. (camera pans to show two whitish larvae wriggling beside a crumbled hardtack biscuit.)
Aubrey: Which would you choose?
Maturin (briefly examining): Neither. There’s not a scrap of difference between them. They are the same species of Curculium.
Aubrey: If you had to choose. . . If you were forced to make a choice. . . If there was no other response but to. . .
Maturin (annoyed, interrupts): If you are going to push me. (He examines the two weevils more closely through his spectacles.) I would choose the right hand weevil. It has significant advantage in both length and breadth.
Aubrey (slams the table with delight): There! I have you! You’re completely dished! Do you not know, that in the Service (pauses for the punchline) one must always choose the “lesser of two weevils.”
The stateroom busts up in laughter, while the good doctor looks around in amusement. Aubrey catches his breath long enough to raise a glass and make a toast: “To the lesser of two weevils!”
Part of the humor in this scene is the result of Maturin’s seriousness. The doctor thought he was being asked to exercise discernment. He leans in closely to the plate, he adjusts his spectacles as he would a microscope, he accesses his knowledge of taxonomy and the principles of natural selection. He takes his science seriously. Additionally, part of the humor of Aubrey’s pun—“the lesser of two weevils”—is in its contrast to how sober and serious the original phrase is. “To choose the lesser of two evils” presupposes . . . well, evil. A doubling of evil in fact. It is a damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t situation which suggests. . . well, damnation. To be forced to choose the lesser of two evils is not a festive occasion. There is no victory in it. If wine is served at such a dilemma, it is to deaden the pain.
The Greek poet Homer seems to be the first to embody the Lesser of Two Evils as a principle in a choice that Odysseus was forced to make. Responsible for the lives of his crew, Odysseus must navigate his ship through narrow straits whose channels will approach closer to one of two sea monsters, Scylla or Charybdis. He cannot go around. He cannot split unscathed through the middle. The captain chooses Scylla and loses six of his sailors on the shoals of Italy, whereas if he had chosen the whirlpool of Charybdis on the Sicilian side of the Straits of Messina, he would likely have lost his entire ship and crew. It would be easy to say that Odysseus chose wisely but here’s the additional point: Odysseus was too busy mourning the loss of his six crewmen to celebrate and make puns. Six men, dead. Six families left destitute.
A former First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, invoked the Principle of the Lesser of Two Evils in 1941 in order to justify his decision to ally Britain with Joseph Stalin during World War II. Churchill told his private secretary, “If Hitler were to invade Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." (What’s with British commanders and their wit?) Stalin or Hitler? It would be easy to say that Churchill chose wisely but here’s the additional point: the conferences of allies at Tehran or Yalta were not frat parties. The vodka may have flown freely when Churchill finally met Stalin but it burned on the way down the prime minister’s gullet.
As an honest voter, you may be contemplating using the Lesser of Two Evils Principle. So be it. You are, after all, the captain of your vote. But a sure sign of the authenticity and integrity of the Principle's use is that it is accompanied by a sobriety which often begins with lament ("O Lord, why have I been placed in this dilemma?) and often ends with a quiet grief ("O Lord, this is a mournful moment.") Are you willing to vote with tears in your eyes? The Lesser of Two Evils Principle is not a trump card for your conscience. (Pun unavoidable.) It is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that one flippantly lays on the table. It is not a shot of whisky before a tooth extraction. And it is certainly not a public relations campaign to cover up what one may secretly have been planning all along: to party with the parties in Cleveland or Philly.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I have watched the film Master and Commander, and I warn you that this next paragraph is self-indulgent, but now, in writing this article, I understand that the “lesser of two weevils” is the thematic center of the movie. Throughout the story, Jack Aubrey is forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Does he run away from his French enemy the Acheron, as he does twice, sacrificing his British honor, or does he gloriously stay and fight, and lose his ship in the process? In the final battle, does he fly his colors boldly and rush in, as his hero Lord Nelson would have done, or does he abandon all vaunted dignity and take up the “lubberly” disguise of a despised whaler? Do they amputate and leave Lord Blakely a one-armed midshipman, or do they allow his wound to rot with gangrene? Does Aubrey rescue the crewman lost in a storm, or does he take up an axe to cut away the wreakage which threatens to swamp the entire vessel? Does he flog the crewman Nagle, a sympathetic character who had just lost his friend in the storm, or does he maintain discipline for the unsympathetic midshipman Hollum whom Nagle had failed to salute? Does the captain chase after the Acheron at word of its position, or does he violate orders and opportunities, break off the chase, and return to the Galapagos Islands so that his friend Maturin can have a steadier surgery? The list goes on and on, and whatever joy emerges at the end of each of these scenes is tempered with regret.
Admittedly the Peter Weir film is not the same as the Patrick O’Brien books on which the movie is based. (Proof of this is that Weir had to take two books—Master and Commander, and Far Side of the World—in order to come up with enough plot points to sustain a modern audience’s attention.) Similarly O’Brien’s twentieth century sensibilities are not truly the same as those of the Age of Nelson. So we dare not build the Lesser of Two Evils Principle on what is really the "Lesser of Two Weevils." Nonetheless, we can walk away with this point: the true final scene of the movie is of sailors sewing up their dead comrades in their own hammocks, reserving the final stitch to pass through the nostril. Aubrey and Maturin may be in their cabin playing Boccherini. Their string duet is pleasant, but I will sit quietly and listen. I don’t feel like dancing.