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The Lesser of Two Evils: why Noam Chomsky is wrong in advocating this principle in the 2016 US Presidential Election

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1. By suggesting that evil can be right when it is the "lesser evil" it unwittingly endorses the principle of "the end justifies the means". This principle, which has been central to Western ethical thinking for at least 2000 years, is deeply flawed and it has - unsurprisingly - been used by many dictators as a means to justify an act, however bad, provided the ultimate outcome is good. For whom that outcome may be judged to be good, in what circumstances, by what measure and in what timescale are some of the many just criticisms of this notion of "consequentialism". It seems wrong intuitively for finite humans to accept such an indeterminate version of "consequentialism" in ethical decision making. There must be an applicability of timescale for consequences; there needs also to be a measure of the act in its intention as well as its consequence if we are to have a well balanced and sound ethical principle. By placing the matter of the ethical value of an act on the consequences alone, the intentions are effectively removed and an act is judged entirely on its outcome - it is not hard to imagine malign circumstances which have worked out well by chance. For example, if we judged a bank robbery which had gone awry by the inadvertent consequence of uncovering a stash of terrorist weapons in the bank vault, we may be pleased to have discovered the plot, but we would hardly be likely to applaud the robbers. It does seem that the consequence must, at the very least, be intended and it seems reasonable to argue that the end of a moral act cannot be the sole measure of its value - of course there is also a practical difficulty in that by the time the outcome of many acts can be weighed against the acts themselves, it is no longer of much practical use to do so! In such cases we must rely heavily on intention.

2. LEV involves another major problem: if both options consist of evil consequences it could only be justifiable to select one on the basis that there was no other choice. If there were other choices available then it may be argued that the LEAST evil choice was the ethical option, although the introduction of a third element would cause exponential difficulties because it would introduce other considerations such as expediency, practicality and judgements concerning relative likelihood of successful outcome. Where LEV is applied to multiple choice complex situations involving moral decisions, it is therefore a crass and inappropriate response to a situation, since it simplifies and deliberately excludes other possible solutions.

3. LEV also requires heavy qualification because it is frequently used as an excuse to justify doing evil, rather than considering other options - thus in this sense it is an unethical principle when inappropriately applied. LEV must be applied to dire exigencies by its very nature for if the exigency were not urgent then action would hardly be necessary. We should also be careful to ensure that situations are properly identified as LEV situations. If we take the situation where I am in a lifeboat and there is room for only one other passenger apart from myself and there is an old man in the water and a child - which of these should I save? The other must drown. Certainly there are 2 evils present and prima facie we have a LEV situation, but on closer examination we see that there are undoubtedly other options available - I may give up my own place to them both and accept my own drowning, or I may try to accommodate both even though we may all drown and accept the increased risk of this etc. There are a number of judgements here which must be made and which affect the decision - judgements based on assumptions of what will happen; that one is more worthy of saving than the other and so forth: it is thus a complex moral decision which will require a difficult choice but is deserving of a complex consideration for that reason. Given that such decisions would be unusual in the extreme and that we would be required to act quickly rather than to sit in the boat considering the matter while both drowned, it is unlikely that the impact on the world would be great! Certainly it does not assume the great impact that LEV takes on in its application in the Public sphere where large numbers of people are affected.

This brings us to the use of LEV in democratic elections and it proves to be as dubious in its application here as it is in its use in Foreign affairs. Representative democracy is dependent on the notion of freedom of choice so that the best candidate may be elected. Anything which inhibits this undermines that principle. LEV, by its very nature, does so: rather than promoting contest between the best in the freest manner possible, it promotes the least bad option from a narrow choice, constraining and distorting the freedom of choice of the voter. That is a denial of democratic principle; if it is applied when there are other choices available, that distortion becomes even greater so that we may justly inquire whether the limited form of democracy we possess in its representative form is worthy of the name democracy at all. We should also consider that democratic elections require myriad assumptions and judgements to be made and are not therefore susceptible (nor should they be) to evil and "less evil" considerations. Furthermore, b ecause ethical values are by no means clear in themselves or invested simply in one candidate or another, then such judgements made are themselves complex and deserving of such treatment.

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Mark John Maguire Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram Page

I was educated at the University of Manchester, Swansea University and the Polytechnic of Wales, where I studied History, Philosophy and Intellectual and Art History (MA). I have lived and worked in Ireland, Germany and Holland and the UK as a (more...)

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