From the chess term “zugzwang,” describing a board where the player with the next move worsens his position regardless of which move he chooses. Ethics Zugswang occurs when all the opportunity to choose ethical options has passed. Any course of action will have unethical consequences.
I often talk about ethics zugswang in my ethics seminars as well. It is a situation where no ethical decision is possible, because of poor choices and a failure to play competent ethics chess, not thinking ahead, not anticipating worst case scenarios, and thereby creating a situation where ethical options are unavailable. All that is left are options that do tangible harm. The idea is to avoid such messes by not blundering through life being governed by non-ethical considerations, emotions, rationalizations, recklessness and ignorance. Sometimes, however, despite all of one’s best efforts, ethics zugswang arrives anyway.
Such is the plight of the American citizen on Election Day, 2016. For months, thoughtful voters who care about democracy and want to participate in choosing their President responsibly have been trying to decide which of several unethical decisions is the best—the most ethical, or rather least unethical– of the available options. Being angry or indignant, or holding one’s breath until one turns blue, will not do. A decision has to be made, and refusing to make a decision is still a decision. (In chess, the most common response to ethics zugswang is to resign, to quit. But one cannot quit being a citizen in a democracy.)
In past posts, mostly in the comments, I and others have exchanged proposed analogies to describe the choice between choosing Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to lead the country. Arguing that it was a binary choice that could best be compared to having one’s commercial airline flown by an untrustworthy pilot of questionable skill, motivations and objectives or, in the alternative, a seven-year old, a monkey or a spaniel, my position was that one choice was terrible and the other was infinitely worse, but the terrible one as at least survivable, with luck. Classical literature provides another useful analogy: the myth of Scylla and Charibdis.
Deciding my own vote, as well as trying to be a useful resource as other responsible citizens dealt with the same dilemma, was a professional as well as a personal problem. For months, as least since the identity of the two nominees could no longer be denied, I have taken the firm position that in a binary choice involving two unacceptable alternatives, the most ethical choice was to do everything possible to avoid the worst result. The worst result, I was confident, was to elect Donald Trump as President. I have been fully prepared to vote for Hillary Clinton for all that time.
I believe that the beginning of a tipping point for me, where I began to question whether a vote for Hillary was really to choose Scylla as I had assumed but was instead to choose the existentially more dangerous Charybdis, was this post, discussing Clinton’s campaign manager asserting that the news media should give Clinton an advantage because Trump was “special.” I wrote, “If the choice is between Donald Trump being elected fairly and Hillary Clinton being elected by a rigged process, I will vote for Donald Trump.”
You will note that this was before Trump began complaining that the election was “rigged,” and the news media roundly condemned him for suggesting such a thing.
My resolve continued to weaken as some of my less astute and more ideologically-biased Facebook friends posted an idiotic “OccupyDemocrats” meme that compared defeating Trump to “defeating fascism.” Much to their anger and irritation, I asked which of the two candidates, their parties and their followers displayed more fascist tendencies. Yes, the Trump campaign was certainly more nationalistic, but Democrats have come to regard simple patriotism and national pride as excessively nationalistic. Contrary to one of the prominent Big Lies wielded by Democrats and promoted by the news media with great success, opposing illegal immigration is not xenophobia, bigotry or racism. Big Lie tactics are a hallmark of fascists. So is demanding ideological fealty, and punishing dissenters.
Is the left or the right in the United States employing speech codes, censorship, intimidation and indoctrination on the majority of college campuses? Has the left or the right taken over most of the journalistic establishment, and turned what was supposed to be a vital check on government power into an ally of it? Which party has advocated an amendment to the First Amendment, constraining political speech? Which candidate was arguing that the news media had a duty to tilt its coverage to ensure its candidate’s election? Which candidate has argued that Australian-style gun confiscation is “worth looking at“? Whose followers, Trump’s or Clinton’s, include those who endorse Black Lives Matter, and its rejection of the jury process and the principle of innocent until proven guilty, when police shootings are involved? Which party hired a “dirty tricks” specialist to employ false flag operations and promote violence at Trump rallies?
Which party followed the will of the voters, and which party rigged its nominating process?
Trump, who is a Constitutional dunce, advocated that being placed on a watch list (and not even told about it) was enough to justify taking away a citizen’s right to own a gun, but he’s an idiot. Clinton and Democrats, who should understand due process, the Fifth Amendment and why this proposal advocates totalitarian, police state tactics, also argued for it. Which party has overseen the use of the tax-collecting arm of the government for partisan ends? Which party’s government has politicized the supposedly objective, fair and non-partisan Justice Department to the extent that public trust in law enforcement has declined to the vanishing point?
Democrats fall back on definitions of fascism that restrict the label to conservatives only, but there is also fascism of the left, and the increasing embrace of totalitarian methods and attitudes by the Democrats and Clinton’s followers while demonizing Republicans began to trouble me increasingly with each passing day.
My view of this ethics zugswang began to evolve from an ugly but straightforward choice between two unfit (though unfit in wildly different ways) candidates for President to a choice between one horrible, unstable and unqualified leader and the conflicted and cowardly party backing him, and, in the alternative, an entire party, its submissive ideological mob, and its totalitarianism-inclined leaders who could be counted upon to use a victory in the election to claim that the nation approves of their methods and motives. It became a choice between one terrible leader and the supporters of somewhat less terrible one that seem determined to corrupt the nation and its government, and are infuriatingly smug and self-righteous about it.
My own decision, then, came down to these factors:
1. My reverence for the office of the Presidency, the nation, and its history. I have been a student Presidents and American leadership since the fifth grade, and it is one of my four greatest passions.
2. My conviction that the United States, its society, its culture and its values require that citizens refuse to accept lowered standards and corruption among its leaders’ character and conduct.
3. My insistence that the integrity of the democratic process is essential to the survival of the nation.
4. My dedication to ethics, and my belief that society’s ethics must be protected by never accepting that the ends justify the means, and never sending the message to wrong-doers that their conduct or their values are acceptable.
The exercise I engaged in yesterday, meticulously examining all of my posts about Trump and Clinton, and distilling them into a summary that could be used by confused and conflicted voters, was for my benefit as much as that of anyone else. I was struck by just how relentlessly dishonest and ethically corrupt Hillary Clinton has been. You would think, wouldn’t you, that having been assured that she would be the nominee for years, she could have managed to avoid scandals and controversies? She couldn’t. She proved herself greedy, careless, incompetent and arrogant.
Then, as I reviewed the Trump files, I was even more stunned at how different in kind his unethical conduct was. It was the difference between an incorrigible juvenile delinquent and a corrupt investment banker. I was also struck by how many posts I had to write defending Trump from intentional or biased exaggerations or misinterpretations of what he said or meant, because the news media was so clearly determined to defeat him.
For a few long moments, my increasing unease over voting for Clinton to stop Trump was assuaged. (Here is an argument for voting for Clinton that tracks reasonably well with my original one.) Obviously it would be madness to elect Trump, who is a narcissist, a misogynist, an ignoramus, and, for bluntness is sometimes necessary, an asshole, who possesses neither the experience, temperament, trustworthiness nor integrity to be given such power and influence. Then I reminded myself of how I defined this particular instance of ethics zugswang.
Trump must not win, but Clinton’s party, followers and supporters must not believe that the undemocratic, unethical, hypocritical and dishonest methods and values they have displayed are now the nation’s. By every measure, Clinton deserves to lose. By any definition of justice, the Democrats deserve to lose. They want to use their victory to corrupt the nation and democracy.
Still, no decision is still a decision. In 1972, the first election in which I could vote, I was faced with a choice between Richard Nixon and Sen. George McGovern. I had just finished my honors thesis on “The Great Man Theory and the American Presidency,” and could not reconcile what I had learned and written with a vote for either man. Nixon, I knew, was a skilled and intelligent executive who was untrustworthy and infected with ethics rot. McGovern was an honorable and deluded man who had no skills at all to qualify him for the Presidency. Voting for him would have mocked my research and beliefs, voting for Nixon would have been an endorsement of dangerous and unethical leadership. I voted for neither, knowing that McGovern would lose, expressing my disapproval that the Democrats breached their duty to run a competent candidate, and refusing complicity in the inevitable crash of Nixon’s rotten administration that I knew was on the way, and it was.
In 2016, a similar consideration is involved. I resent that both parties abandoned their duty to allow me, and removed from me and everyone else, the opportunity to have a real choice of qualified candidates at a crucial moment in our nation’s life. I resent that I am being given the choice, as a citizen with reverence and respect for the institution of the Presidency, of voting for a man who defiles that office even by seeking it, and putting in power a group of Americans who proudly and brazenly reject the values that it is my profession to study, protect, and teach. I resent that they have removed my autonomy and forced me to be as corrupt and irresponsible as they are in order to reject a candidate like Donald Trump.
Then came this morning and the inspiration for this post, in which I wrote in part,
The Democratic Party hasn’t condemned Brazile’s actions, and won’t condemn her smug words of endorsement of lying and cheating. It hasn’t asked her to step down, as her predecessor was made to step down after she was caught rigging the nomination process for Clinton. Thus it endorses Brazile’s values, and openly so. President Obama also endorsed Brazile’s values, explicitly, by directing his spokesman Josh Earnest to praise her, and only praise her, as “a person of integrity and ..high character” after being asked about the first of Brazile’s cheats on behalf of Clinton (more have since been uncovered.)
Is that clear? The President of the United States publicly stated, through his agent, that an individual who lies and cheats has integrity. This is what integrity has come to mean under this leader, to his party.
That settled it. For me, the least unethical course was not to vote for either candidate. As a citizen, I cannot responsibly vote for an utterly unfit man like Donald Trump. As an ethicist and a patriot, I cannot participate in sending a message to Clinton and all those who have become corrupted under her and Barack Obama that cheating, lying, influence peddling, destroying a free and independent news media, restricting free speech and individual rights, manipulating the process and undermining democracy is now acceptable in the United States of America, because cheating and lying work.
I am confident that I came to this decision as a result of a the best ethical analysis I could muster, taking all factors, including my unique situation as an ethicist, into consideration. The decision can be legitimately criticized; of course it can. It’s unethical. That’s ethics zugswang. I take some solace and pride, however, that I have spent many, many hours over more than a year doing what I could—and admittedly, what I could wasn’t enough or very much— to avoid this point.
Damn those who put us there.