Voting Greens and the Moral Philosophy of Voting (Why I won’t vote Greens but why I can’t blame you for doing so)

In recent months and years I have heard many good left wing people say they just can’t in good conscience vote for the Labor party anymore (and hence will vote Greens). I don’t personally hold this view, but in this article I want to say that I understand this position. I understand because what’s right for one person is not always right for another and because one’s integrity matters. I will begin by explaining my belief that voting ALP results in better left wing outcomes than voting Greens. However I will then argue that voting is not all about outcomes, that one’s conscience is important when voting; and therefore I will conclude that I can’t blame lefties for voting Greens, even though I won’t be.

The classic ALP response to the ‘I couldn’t vote ALP and sleep at night’ statement is the famous Gough Whitlam line – “the impotent are pure”. Whitlam delivered this line to the Victorian left of his party whom he felt preferred to lose elections and stay true to their ideals than fight to win and make society a better place. Losers can’t change the world. Indeed by allowing the Liberals to win you do much damage to this country. I more or less accept this argument. Thinking about today, I honestly believe that voting Greens leads to worse consequences than voting ALP. Adam Bandt beating Cath Bowtell will not mean better outcomes for refugees. Nor will it bring about marriage equality any faster. The Greens will never be able to form government. Except in highly unusual circumstances (the hung parliament), they will never be able to influence to any great extent policy of this nation. Even in the hung parliament, the Greens inability to compromise prevented them from achieving very much and in the end they pulled out of their coalition with the Gillard government. To be fair, the Greens of course dispute this point – here is a list of things they claim to have successfully negotiated. Yet in any case clearly the Greens would be incapable of preventing Tony Abbott from ripping millions out of education and health; only Labor can do that. A Greens MP will never hand down the federal budget. I am mainly talking about the lower house. The Senate might be a different kettle of fish – yet even there the Greens preferred to remain pure and bring down Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme in 2010 because they saw it as less than perfect; bringing Rudd down with it. In any case I don’t want to get bogged down here, proving that the Greens do not achieve practical outcomes is not the main point of this article, I will explain a little more and then move on.

Not only do I believe that Adam Bandt beating Cath Bowtell – or Hall Greenland beating Anthony Albanese –will  not bring about better outcomes, I honestly believe it will bring about worse ones. If left wing Labor people don’t get elected then the party will be left to be entirely taken over by the right. A Labor party without people like Albanese, Bowtell and Tanya Pliberseck (the main targets of the Greens) is a much less talented and much more right wing party. Try replacing all the left wing Labor MPs with Greens MPs and then try and make marriage equality the platform of the ALP. Good luck. And try passing marriage equality into law without having marriage equality as the platform of the ALP. I’ll tell you right now, if the Greens win Melbourne, Sydney and Grayndler then marriage equality is less likely to become law. Because you’ll be replacing three champions of marriage equality who have real power with three champions of marriage equality who have none. Furthermore, whenever you vote for a party they get $2.50 of public funding (as long as they get over 4 percent of the total vote). If you vote for the Greens as a protest against Labor, then that means Labor has less money to fight election campaigns with. You might think ‘well the amount of money the left is getting as a whole remains the same’, however the Greens spend their money not on fighting the Liberals but on fighting the ALP. Furthermore, the Greens are forcing the ALP to spend some of their money fighting the Greens and so a lot of money that could have gone to fighting Liberals is now being wasted on a left wing civil war that won’t have any real benefits for anyone.

So you might say I think voting Greens is wrong. Not necessarily, and here’s why: what’s right for some people is not always right for others. Here I want to turn to the British philosopher Peter Winch and his article ‘The Universalizability of Moral Judgments’. Traditionally morality is seen as consistent – as universalisable; if I ought to do something, then in a similar situation you ought to do it too. Winch though argues that in some situations of moral conflict this is not the case. A woman who faces a moral dilemma where she feels multiple values at stake, and yet nonetheless makes a moral judgment and decides ‘this is what I ought to do’, is not logically committed to then saying ‘and anyone else in a like situation ought to do the same’. Importantly, Winch is adamant that he is not reducing morality to subjective taste. The moral seriousness of the ‘ought’ remains the same. I think Winch’s example from Melville’s Billy Budd is a bit boring so I will use as an example a personal anecdote. I once had my nose broken in a random attack at night. I did not fight back and a few days later when the attacker handed himself in to police I decided not to press charges. I did this because at the time I was a religious pacifist. I turned the other cheek, so to speak. A lot of debate ensued in my friendship circles; perhaps this was a good move, perhaps by experiencing love and forgiveness the young attacker might turn his life around or perhaps it was a bad move, if he gets away with it and never experiences any discipline in his life he might continue to spiral out of control and do more damage to others. Yet honestly in this instance, I don’t think the outcomes of my actions were the deciding factor. It was because I was a pacifist that it was the right thing for me to do. If I was not a pacifist then a different course of action might have been the right way to go. The crucial point is that it was actually something about me that determined the rightness of my actions. And if an individual’s moral character influences the morality of their actions then of course morality is not universalisable; people after all have different moral characters. Some are pacifists and some are not, for example. If I was faced with the same situation now I might not act in the same way, after all I no longer consider myself a religious pacifist. Yet that doesn’t mean I regret my actions back then. I am proud of my actions because they fit in with my moral character at the time – who I wanted to be. Similarly Bernard Williams argues that integrity is possibly the most important thing in moral philosophy. For someone to be moral, they must be true to themselves.

So even though I honestly believe that voting Greens will result in worse outcomes for left wing causes, that doesn’t mean I blame left wing people for voting Greens. After all it is important to vote according to your conscience. Voting is not entirely about who wins government; it is also about you. Your vote is an expression of who you are. If it is totally and utterly against an individual’s moral character to vote for a party that won’t allow refugees to be settled in Australia then it would be wrong for that individual to vote ALP. It’s not all about outcomes, who you are is also a morally relevant factor. And so even though I personally believe better outcomes to be the overriding factor in my vote, I don’t blame people who wish to remain pure. Unlike many others in Labor circles I have never been a basher of Greens voters. I can try and convince you to vote ALP over Greens but if you end up going with the Greens I cannot think you have done something you ought not to have done. You have done what is right by you, and that is all anyone can ask. In exchange, all I ask is for Greens people to do me the same favour and respect me enough to see that I share your good left wing values – I care about refugees, the LGBTI community and the environment just like you – I see the moral dilemma for voting for a party that you don’t a hundred percent agree with, but I have looked at all the factors and decided to go with them anyway. Don’t be arrogant enough to think I ought to have voted Greens and I won’t be arrogant enough to think you ought to have voted Labor.

Elliot Brice has an Honours degree in philosophy from the University of Melbourne and is currently studying a Masters of Teaching (Secondary) from the same institution.

One comment

  1. Sian Mann · · Reply

    That is exactly how I feel on the matter – one must vote according to their conscience and their values and I will not be compromising mine come September.

    One half of me wishes to boycott or spoil the vote all together, and the other half tells me Labor needs all the help it can get if it wishes to stay in power. Given that, do I ignore my anger towards Labor’s disregard of asylum seekers with the PNG ‘solution’, the lack of care/improvement of indigenous health and education and the fact that Labor has still not passed a legislation that allows same sex marriage, all in order to keep Abbott out of power? I am not so sure I can.

    At the moment I am not confident that any party can provide Australia a better future, and be a good representative of the people.

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