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Consumer Behavior

The “Lesser of Two Evils” Fallacy

It’s actually the lesser of two disappointing choices.

Life is a mixed bag. We are all forced to take the fleas with the dog. Lots. Every day you choose the best you can find among imperfect options — “the lesser of two evils” as the saying goes. And you do it with a mature acceptance that that’s how life is. We don’t get everything we want.

Some people say that in this election we’re forced to vote for the lesser of two evils, which means we’re still choosing evil. They say, therefore, that we’re better off not voting at all, or voting for some other candidate closer to your ideal even though they have no chance of winning and may bring the “greater of two evils” into power.

“Lesser of two evils” is, for the most part, a misnomer. Sure, there are times when we are really choosing between two evils. In Sophie’s Choice, for example, Sophie was forced by Nazis to see one of her two children killed.

But we shouldn't overgeneralize the concept. The lesser of two evils should really be called the lesser of two disappointing options. You hoped for options closer to your ideal but that’s not what you’ve got. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your options are all evil. Perhaps your options are just disappointing. Or perhaps one is evil and the other is just disappointing.

Think of what a mess you’d make of your life if you called all choices between disappointing options “the lesser of evils” and therefore refused to support evil by picking among your options.

Your job isn’t perfect, right? Nor are the alternative jobs that you could opt for instead. So you might call your choice between “lesser amongst evils.” If you refused to support “evil” you could choose to be unemployed as a matter of perfectionist principle. Or you could opt for some dream job you can’t get.

Is your romantic partnership less than perfect? Does that make your partner the lesser of the “evil” options available to you? If so, by the logic some people are applying to the election, you should leave your partner because he or she is still evil. You should go after a partner you can’t get which will leave you either alone or with a greater disappointment.

Some people do apply the “lesser of two evils” logic in their everyday life. They bolt upright and say “I’m not going to take this anymore. No compromise!” It rarely turns out well for them.

So why do we apply that logic to a national democratic election? To live in a democracy means compromise. Why suddenly the proud switch to a no-compromise rule when most of us know better than to apply that rule in everyday life?

The answer I hear most from friends who insist that voting for either of the two possible candidates is evil is because the situation is dire. They’ve taken all they can and to take more would be too much of a compromise. It’s a compromise to support evil. My guess is that that’s not it and even if it were it, it’s not democracy. Democracy is compromise.

I’m guessing that’s it’s actually that politics is abstract consumerism. It’s not practical consumerism like buying a car where you know you’ll be stuck with the choice. It’s making an abstract choice where the consequences will play out ambiguously. Politics is overwhelmingly vague. We pick candidates based on their character because none of us have time for a detailed analysis of their issues and policies. So it’s abstract choosing. It’s easy to be a perfectionist in the abstract.

And it’s consumerism. We have become a nation of proud, happy shoppers accustomed to being told that we can now expect more and pay less.

We often can, but with consumer goods, not with people. If you’ve ever been frustrated with a person for not being more reliable and customizable to your preferences, you may be mistaking them for a consumer product. Consumer products are easy to tailor to reliably fit your needs.

But people are still people. We’re forced to put up with stuff from people that we would never tolerate in a consumer good. We’d demand an upgrade.

Abstract consumerism in presidential elections is, from what I can tell, a big part of the reason some people call the election next week a choice between the lesser of two evils, not noticing that what they really mean is the lesser of two disappointing options.

And growing disappointment is a big part of it too. It’s not easy letting go of high expectations. The world has become disappointingly complicated very quickly. It’s likely that in our lifetimes, we’ll never see the simpler happier options of our youth again. Think of the quantity and diversity of disappointing choices our nation has faced just in the last eight years. We’re not used to that.

A president is a leader but also a lightning rod. We blame everything on them, including lots of things over which they have little or no influence. A president is a scapegoat in chief.

Many of us are disappointed in the amount of pandering politicians do. But that pandering is more a symptom of our high unadjusted expectations and abstract consumerism than it is of flaws of political characters. You can’t compete for the presidency these days without pandering, including meta-pandering — pandering about pandering, saying “You’re good honest folk. You don’t want pandering. You only want straight talk and that’s all you’ll ever get from me.”

That’s disappointing too, but not evil. Just some of the fleas we have to take with the dog of democracy. Disappointed or not, get out and vote — for the least disappointing among the available options.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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