Sunday, October 30, 2016

Guest Post: Critiquing the "Non-Negotiable" Distinction

Another U.S. presidential election is upon us. And what a whopper it has become. I have never seen so much nonsense. For me personally, this one is a no-brainer. I'm voting for Trump. And not as a "lesser" evil; I positively like him and have supported him since the primaries. In my opinion he has the best platform of any presidential candidate I've seen in my adult life. I have multiple Trump signs in my yard. So...this one is easy for me.

But it's not as easy for everyone. Many Catholics I know are having sincere scruples about how to vote this time around. Some sincerely believe they cannot cast a vote for Trump in good conscience. I have been party to many discussions - online and in person - where there is a lot of hand-wringing over what to do.

A friend of mine wrote a guest post on the popular approach of evaluating electoral issues in terms of "negotiables" and "non-negotaibles." This approach has been popularized by popular Catholic outlets like Catholic Answers and other conservative bishops, such as Archbishop Chaput.

There are few things so confusing as a situation where someone may come to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. In this guest post, our author says that the division of issues into "negotiables" and "non-negotiables" in fact breaks down and provides little help for a voter to really evaluate the issues. True, a voter may use the negotiable/non-negotiable approach and still end up making a "proper vote", but as a result of faulty reasoning. This article will recap the negotiable/non-negotiable distinction, offer a critique of it, and provide an alternate means of weighing candidate positions.

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Colin Donovan has a column in the most recent edition of the Register that succinctly states an argument I am hearing again and again; namely that there is a distinction between political "negotiables" and "non-negotiables", and that Catholics must vote based on the non-negotiables. In the following essay, I will restate his argument succinctly, critique it, and offer an alternative.

Donovan's Argument

Donovan quotes the famous letter of Joseph Ratzinger which states in a footnote: "When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons." 

Donovan asks the question what those proportionate reasons are, and answers it in reference to the terms "negotiable" and "non-negotiable", which he claims to find in the writings of Benedict XVI. In Donovan's view, the non-negotiable issues are cut and dry issues involving intrinsic evils, whereas those issues that are negotiable "involve multiple moral principles and complex social circumstances" and as such "are not directly comparable" to the non-negotiables.

The proportionate reasons Ratzinger mentioned are - for Donovan - when a candidate is worse in the "non-negotiables" than his opponent.  However, the "negotiables", such as "health care, the economy and foreign policy", since they "can admit of various possible means to achieve the objective policy, and so people of good will can reach differing conclusions" can never be the basis of proportionate reasons to vote for someone. Thus, one must always give primary consideration to the "non-negotiables", vote based on them, and resist the attempt to try to make the negotiables outweigh the non-negotiables by an appeal to proportionality.

Critiquing the "Non-Negotiable" Principle

There are three errors in this line of reasoning that I will bring forward: (I) Connecting proportionality to non-negotiables, (II) Defining non-negotiables as things that admit to reasonable disagreement vis-a-vis the means employed, and (III) Dividing issues into negotionables and non-negotiables.

I. The argument employed in the article - that if something cannot be the subject of reasonable disagreement, it is in a class different from those things that can be the subject of reasonable disagreement - is false. This is because it very often happens that the ends cannot be subject to reasonable disagreement, whereas the means can. For example, in Pope Benedict's address to participants of the Congress promoted by the European People's Party, which Donovan cites as the major source for the distinction between negotiables and non-negotiables, the pope lists as his third non-negotiable "the protection of the rights of parents to educate their children." But it cannot be denied that this protection may take different forms and involve different cultural institutions. Reasonable people may disagree about how this should be done while agreeing that it must be done. It follows, then, that some non-negotiable ends are only reached by negotiable means. 

Furthermore, we might not know what ends a particular candidate wishes, except by examining particular policies that constitute negotiable means. Therefore sometimes an issue that is negotiable can be the basis for proportionality insofar as behind the negotiable means is a non-negotiable principle that is proportionate. Similar things could be said vis-a-vis protecting religious liberty, or even vis-a-vis reducing abortion itself (although in that case it is clear that Catholics must oppose the legalization of abortion regardless of the effectiveness of law to reduce the numbers of abortions). 

Rather than proportionality being based on the non-negotiable character of something, proportionality is based on the proportional importance of the good at which something aims - and negotiable means can aim at even the highest goods. Here I would like to mention that Pope Benedict himself never connects proportionality to the non-negotiable status of something. That is a connection of two different texts which it is not obvious are meant to be connected.

II. It follows that the distinction Donovan employs between non-negotiables as things that do not admit to reasonable disagreement and negotiables as things that do is insufficient, because the means to accomplish non-negotiable ends often, or even usually, admit to reasonable disagreement. When we acknowledge that non-negotiable ends might not have a clear and decisive path to be reached, we can begin to see that there are many more "non-negotiables" than there seems to be at first blush. Ratzinger's 2002 document, approved by John Paul II, "On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life", appears to list a few surprising non-negotiables. After the common list of protection of human life and of marriage, it lists the right of parents to educate their children, the protection of minors, freedom from modern day slavery (such as prostitution), religious freedom, and, most surprisingly, "the development of an economy that is at the service of the human person and of the common good, with respect for social justice, the principles of human solidarity and subsidiarity, according to which "the rights of all individuals, families, and organizations and their practical implementation must be acknowledged". Who could fail to recognize that in counting the development of an economy in service to the human person as a "non-negotiable", John Paul II has established as a principle and an end something that is often the subject of bitter disagreement?

III. At this point, it should be obvious that the entire distinction between "negotiable" and "non-negotiable" is breaking down. This break down becomes even more apparent when it is recognized that neither Ratzinger, neither as Cardinal nor Pope, appears to have ever talked about "negotiables". The document Colin Donovan references does not talk speak of it, nor does the 2002 document, nor does Benedict XVI mention it in several other writings where be talks about "non-negotiables". While it may be a fair point to assume that if there are "non-negotiables" there are also "negotiables", Donovan puts words in the pope's mouth when he defines them in terms of the ability of people of good will to disagree. In fact, since the pope does not speak of "negotiables", it goes without saying he doesn't define what they are. But he does define what "non-negotiables" are, saying that these are matters of natural law where the dignity of the human person is at stake. Ironically, the Catechism (CCC 2288) lays out a natural law argument that health care is a right and societies have a duty to ensure its availability. This would elevate health care, too, to the level of non-negotiables, for while we can disagree about how best to provide it, we cannot disagree about its necessity or intrinsic value. 

It is evident from all of this that proportionality cannot be defined in terms of "negotiable" and "non-negotiable", and that the Magisterium has never proposed that framework. Not all non-negotiables are necessarily proportionate to each other, and very many things that appear to be negotiable actually aim at something non-negotiable, and proportionality can be established in these things as well.

An Alternative Criterion

If we are not to determine proportionality in terms of negotiables and non-negotiables, then how are we to determine it? 

I propose that we should determine it in terms of what is most closely connected to or affects the common good. There are goods that belongs more closely to the common good, and goods that are more distantly related to the common good. Among those that belong more closely, first place must be given to the religious freedom of Catholics and the rights of the Church, and after that to the peace and harmony of society, and then to life, to family and marriage, to property and the right to seek happiness, to justice for citizens, (especially the vulnerable and marginalized), to respect for women, for children, for sexuality, and so on and so forth. To use a list from the 2002 document: "the promotion and defense of goods such as public order and peace, freedom and equality, respect for human life and for the environment, justice and solidarity."

In determining proportionality, we must ask the question what parts of the common good does a particular candidate opposes, and how much does it hurt the common good? We must do this not only abstractly, but by attempting in prudence to gauge what the benefits and injuries to the common good will be if a particular candidate is elected. Then we must acknowledge that, while not every evil hurts the common good to the same degree, every evil takes from the common good some incommensurate part of it. Abortion does not hurt the common good is exactly the same way as unjust war, nor as a high percentage of elderly without health care, nor as gender ideology, nor as the loss or impairment of religious liberty, and so on.

Also we have to acknowledge that all these things admit to degrees. Someone may wish to reduce the number of abortions, but their efforts may not be likely to make any impact whatsoever, whereas someone else may wish to increase social acceptance of prostitution and have the means to do so. While abortion is objectively worse than prostitution, the actual circumstances may make prostitution a proportionate issue.

Figuring out the proportionality of these issues is not a scientific process, but an exercise of the virtue of prudence that every Catholic called upon to do. It is not something that can be farmed out to the Bishops or to professional theologians, but it is something that Catholics, listening to pastors and experts, have to reach their own conclusions about, in complete conformity to the teachings of the Catholic Church. This is because - while not all issues are proportionate - there is no such thing as a "super issue" that can bring about a justification for the toleration of every other deviation from the common good. It is not enough to say that X is in favor of legal abortion, and Y is in favor of restricting access to abortion (to one degree or another). Politics is the study of contingent things, and who to vote for requires an evaluation of contingent things, starting from the teaching of the Church. It is possible for multiple people to evaluate contingent affairs differently and even to reach different conclusions about who to vote for.

For instance, if one Catholic thinks the result of a particular policy will be promote a very important part of the common good, whereas someone else things the result will be less clearly good, the first will value highly something the second will not. Because it politics is the art of the contingent, two people engaging in politics with the same goals may, as a matter of fact, reach polar opposite positions and vote accordingly. What is important is that something that is directly harmful to the common not be tolerated by one's vote except in the case where there is a proportionate reason for tolerating it, and this proportionate reason has to be a part of the common good that is in some way as important - and which cannot be realized except by voting for that person.

As a practical example: Person A believes that the environment is being hurt by man-made global warming. He is also Pro-Life. In several elections, he has had to chose between an enemy of one good and an enemy of another. He has had to evaluate which is the greater is evil and whether the good of one is proportionate to the evil of the other. He has had to evaluate this not just abstractly, but in terms of the results he thinks the candidates will have on these goods that he cares about. In the end, he has decided in most elections that abortion is most surely the greater evil, and, while not entirely convinced, he nonetheless makes the prudential decision to vote for climate change skeptics. This man is a good voter. He is not a "single issue" voter, but, rather, he is one who has weighed everything with an educated mind and a carefully formed conscience. The fact that some people disagree with him in one way (that abortion poses less of a threat to the common good) or another (that global warming is a threat to the common good) does not change that he has made a good decision in voting, attempting, to the best of his ability, to not tolerate what he perceives to be evil with his vote except for a proportionately good reason.


c matt said...

Bit confused wrt the abortion vs global warming example. It seems to downplay the need to make an objective and correct evaluation of the facts. Is it not objectively true that either abortion is a greater threat to the common good than climate change, or vice versa - both cannot be true. To what extent is one culpable for evaluating incorrectly?

Anonymous said...

I'm the author of this. Thank you for your feedback. In a later revision, i removed that example for precisely the reason that it appeared to raise more questions than it answered. But taking your question seriously, I think one can only be responsible for what one is capable of knowing. I originally found global warming such an interesting example because to reach an accurate conception of anthropogenic forcing is a very difficult thing, especially for a non-scientist. If someone took seriously the IPCC 5 report, he would conclude that anthropogenic forcing (ie man-made climate change) has a high probability of killing many millions of people and changing life as we know it, and he would think it's a big issue. If he listened to the voices that many American Conservatives seem to listen to, he would think the effects will be negligible. But if he has done his due diligence to investigate it, how much fault does bear if wrong? If it is as big an issue as the IPCC thinks it is, but he is in good conscience skeptical of that and believes it isn't, is he morally culpable for any preventable consequences? Or, alternatively, if he is convinced of the IPCC conclusions, is he morally culpable for over-weighing the importance of global warming if human forcing of the environment ends up having minimal impact? To me, this is an especially fascinating issue because people wildly disagree, in absolute confidence that their own conclusions are correct, and the consequences of getting it wrong are potentially so big, either way. I personally am a moderate skeptic, but far from certain about my skepticism, as some are.

If i were convinced of the worst, in good faith, and I was convinced industrial efforts could make a big difference, I would think this was a huge issue.

As far as culpability about being wrong, my inclination is that that would be dependent upon whether one had done his due diligence to reach the level of certainty that he held. If he had done all someone can be reasonably expected to do in the circumstances, i don't think he would be culpable.

But you can see why I removed that example in my most recent iteration of this essay, which, sadly, was not available when this blog post was posted.

Hrodgar said...

Have you read Zippy's take on the subject (of voting, not the current election)? I found it pretty convincing:

Zippy also recently pointed out that Trump's character and platform are both in many ways, including immigration policy, astonishingly similar to Hillary's husband's in 1996:

"We must not tolerate illegal immigration. Since 1992, we have increased our Border Patrol by over 35%; deployed underground sensors, infrared night scopes and encrypted radios; built miles of new fences; and installed massive amounts of new lighting. We have moved forcefully to protect American jobs by calling on Congress to enact increased civil and criminal sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers. Since 1993, we have removed 30,000 illegal workers from jobs across the country." – Between Hope and History, by Bill Clinton, p.134 , Jan 1, 1996

In other words, while I more or less agree with the critique of the whole negotiable/non-negotiable framework, I think voting (certainly in presidential elections, and probably most others) under the current circumstances is a mistake and has been for at least many decades, probably longer. Furthermore, while I do mildly prefer Trump to Hillary, the claim "best platform of any candidate in my lifetime" is one I must view skeptically.

Boniface said...

I am referring specifically to his proposals in his document "Contract with the American Voter"

Not That Guy said...

I think abortion is a super-issue, specifically in light of the common good reasoning. If someone is denied the very right to live, that compromises the very "common-ness" of the common good.

Anonymous said...

I'm sedevacantist and voted Trump.
Hillary is demonic and possibly suffers from perfect possession.