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.