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Saturday, July 13, 2024

McCain, Obama, and the lesser of two evils principle

"The lesser of two evils principle is often used in reference to electoral politics. When popular opinion is confronted with two main candidates that are substantially similar, a voter is often advised to choose the "lesser of two evils" to avoid having the supposedly 'greater evil' get into office and wreak havoc on society." (Wikipedia) In McCain vs. Obama, does this principle apply? Are McCain and Obama "substantially similar"?

“The lesser of two evils principle is often used in reference to electoral politics. When popular opinion is confronted with two main candidates that are substantially similar, a voter is often advised to choose the “lesser of two evils” to avoid having the supposedly ‘greater evil’ get into office and wreak havoc on society.” (Wikipedia)

In McCain vs. Obama, does this principle apply? Are McCain and Obama “substantially similar”?

From the Clintonista PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass) to those wanting Obama to be the perfect progressive reformer, there are those who hold to the belief that McCain and Obama are similar enough to justify not voting for either of them.

This blogger is typical of many in the later group. He begins his post titled “The lesser of two evils” with:

There is, of course, a difference between the Democratic party and the Republican party. There’s a difference, a real difference, between Barack Obama and John McCain. The Republican party is the party of sexism, racism, stupidity and Christian fundamentalism, and it’s retreating from reality faster than the Italian Army. McCain is completely beholden to the party of insanity. The Democratic party is not completely insane, and Obama is not beholden, body and soul, to this sort of insanity. I get it.

He concludes with:

I’ve changed my registration: I’m no longer a member of the Democratic party. I will vote, and I will definitely not vote for McCain, but I will not vote for Obama either. If McCain wins, so be it. I refuse to take responsibility: It’s the fault of an elite that has given me bad choices, and has brainwashed half the country into thinking that John McCain might be anything other than a national disaster and a betrayal of whatever great ideals have been promoted in our society, from the Constitution to the New Deal. Compared to that great betrayal by the people who justify their power by appeal to their supposed intelligence, wisdom, and civic virtue, my refusal to passively accept their bullshit pales to insignificance. Read how the author concludes Obama is really a conservative, and the comments, here.

I believe that those who adhere to the belief that both McCain and Obama are “evil”, or totally unacceptable choices, are engaging in an odd sort of what philosophers call absolutism. I call it lazy reasoning.

McCain is unacceptable because of his right wing beliefs and positions.

Obama is unacceptable for various reasons, among them because hasn’t come out four square against the assault on our civil liberties and constitutional rights represented by the Patriot Act and presidential signing statements.

More or less opposite to absolutism is the philosophy or relativism. Adherence to this would argue to deciding whether or not Obama was significant enough a lessor evil than McCain to justify voting for him.

I suggest another mode of decision making using the schema proposed by the twentieth century philosopher Stephen Toulmin which he called practical or substantial arguments:

Toulmin’s practical argument focuses on the justificatory function of argumentation, as opposed to the inferential function of theoretical arguments. Whereas theoretical arguments make inferences based on a set of principles to arrive at a claim, practical arguments first find a claim of interest, and then provide justification for it. Toulmin believes that reasoning is less an activity of inference involving the discovering of new ideas, but more so a process of testing and sifting already existing ideas—an act achievable through the process of justification. (Wikipedia)

As an exercise I suggest those who are leaning towards a none of the above choice between the two major party candidates use Toulin’s model to decide if this is the best course of action.


I want to support the candidate that best reflects my views. The conclusion whose merit must be established is that I shouldn’t vote for either of them.


The facts we appeal to as a foundation for the claim. Lay out the facts leading you to conclude that McCain and Obama are substantially similar.


the statement authorizing our movement from the data to the claim. In order to move from the data established in the data, i.e., the candidates are similar enough to say you believe they are the same.


Credentials designed to certify the statement expressed in the warrant; backing must be introduced when the warrant itself is not convincing enough to the readers or the listeners. For example, if the listener does not deem the warrant as credible, be able to compare point by point the ways McCain and Obama are very similar or the same.


Statements recognizing the restrictions to which the claim may legitimately be applied. Further analyze whether each point is applicable to your conclusion.


Words or phrases expressing the speaker’s degree of force or certainty concerning the claim. Such words or phrases include “possible,” “probably,” “impossible,” “certainly,” “presumably,” “as far as the evidence goes,” or “necessarily.” Look at all the qualifiers in your arguments as objectively as possible.

The first three elements “claim,” “data,” and “warrant” are considered as the essential components of practical arguments, while the second triad “qualifier,” “backing,” and “rebuttal” may not be needed in some arguments. When first proposed, this layout of argumentation is based on legal arguments and intended to be used to analyze the rationality of arguments typically found in the courtroom; in fact, Toulmin did not realize that this layout would be applicable to the field of rhetoric and communication until his works were introduced to rhetoricians by Wayne Brockriede and Douglas Ehninger.* Italics mine, the rest from (Wikipedia)

A few years ago a friend had some t-shirts made up and he sent me one. They said “Larry, Curly, Moe and George”. Yesterday he emailed me with the suggestion I cross out George and add McCain. By the reasoning of some I could write in both candidate’s names.

* I encourage readers to let me know if I’ve misapplied any of these principles. It’s been a long time since I took a philosophy course.

46 thoughts on “McCain, Obama, and the lesser of two evils principle”

  1. It all boils down to racism. Whites over 60, the majority, are not going to vote for anyone who has a drop of African American blood in them. Hillary’s supporters who refuse to support Obama and plan to vote for McCain, are white racists. Evidently, we are going to have to wait until these racist old farts die out to have a better America.

  2. In McCain vs. Obama, does this principle apply? Are McCain and Obama “substantially similar”?

    Hal — I don’t believe anyone answered your question. So here is someone who will. It’s quite ironic when you think about it.

    Pastor From Jenna Bush’s Wedding Rails Against McCain

    “Well, I don’t know a lot about John McCain’s family history, I do know, however, that as recently as last week I think it was, the Senator made a comment in South Dakota regarding his wife entering some Buffalo Chips contest which is this topless deal and if she were to enter she would probably win it and my personal opinion and based on my understanding of the Christian faith, that’s not not, N-O-T, not the type of expression that a presidential candidate, or anyone for that matter who is a follower of the Christian faith, ought to make,” said the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell. “I don’t know if that is a perfect case in point, but it surely does help to juxtapose the DNA of Senator Obama, if you would, versus the DNA of Senator McCain.”

    For those who aren’t familar with the word juxtapose it means…..”To place side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.”

    But there is more…(directly related to one of my earlier comments)

    “His marital history has been duly recorded,” said Caldwell, referring to McCain, “and as recently as yesterday I think it is, our pastor from Saddleback, Rick Warren indicated that he would not feel comfortable voting for an adulterer and I don’t know exactly to whom he was referring but I think the data speaks for itself, and again, at the end of the day, and I really appreciate you raising this because, at the end of the day again I think the American public deserves full revelation of the candidate’s character and competency. Character and competency. So, whatever questions that should be asked that would give the voting public an indication as to who they are and what they’ve done should be fair game.”

    Sound to me like some people believe there is a definite difference between McCain and Obama. So perhaps the phrase “lesser of two evils” is not accurate except for those who believe both men are totally unacceptable.

    But that has always been the case in the past and probably always will. After all you can’t please all of the people all of the time, right?

    BTW, Rick Warren is the reverend who is hosting Obama & McCain in a forum tomorrow night. That is what the pastor is referring to. It ought to be good.

    Rick Warren’s Forum To Include Questions About Candidates’ Personal Life

    Watch him above talking about the character issue and how that is something McCain and Obama must address including their personal life. Transcription below:

    I’m going to ask them questions about character, competence, about values, vision, virtue, about their convictions in leadership, about their experience. And I’m going to deal with their personal life – because character matters. Their personal life does matter as a leader. God says so.

  3. We don’t have to wait. There’s already a book out that alleges to do what you say. And it’s being heavily debunked even as we speak.

    And the Clinton’s will behave themselves. Why? Because if they don’t and Obama loses, they won’t stand a chance in 2012 and they know it. You can say what you want about the Clintons, but they are certainly NOT stupid people.

  4. According to those crazy neo-con Christians that swarm to the polls to enable Bush/McCain, adultery is evil. I was Primarily addressing the hypocrisy of those who would say that Obama is evil for whatever reason which is what they are doing daily while overlooking the sins of their candidate McCain or the sins of their POTUS, GW Bush, etc.

    But perhaps all the grey crap isn’t what is best for our country….like a half truth or a little bit pregnant. In some circumstances, the grey stuff is just an excuse to enable the behavior. There is right and there is wrong and there is no grey area in between. There is no such thing as a little bit right or a little bit wrong and in my opinion, as a long as we continue to make excuses for people’s wrong behavior then I believe our country will continue to decay away into eventual anarchy. Because there cannot be two standards of right and wrong….one for those in power and one for everyone else. It doesn’t work that way.

    Again, it’s just a saying meaning there aren’t any good choices and we pick the one least offensive to each one of us.

  5. Wait until the real campaign starts after the conventions. The Karl Rove types will make sure we know of all the skeletons in Obama’s closets. That is, assuming the Clintons don’t find a way to sabotage their convention and nominate globalist warmonger Hillary Clinton.

    — Kent Shaw

  6. You forgot to mention
    the 100,000+ Iraqis dead in your last paragraph.

    Oh, and adulterers are evil? Or perhaps people with weakness and poor self control? What about the man or woman who gets married to someone who has lots of sex with him/her and puts effort into the relationship to make him/her happy, then when they get married becomes something else? If that person messes around are they “evil”? Sex is a very strong drive programmed into most of us. So although aldultery is dishonest and wrong in a lot of cases, to call them all evil is over the top I think. Things are so black and white for you aren’t they?

    For example, was Martin Luther King “evil”?

  7. Evil is…
    Supporting the Israeli torture and enslavement of the Palestinians, as obama has recently expressed. Evil is granting immunity to the telecoms for their illegal, treasonous activities, especially after promising to stand up to them. Evil is the war on terror which obama has assured he fully supports; evil is more violence. The non-evil approach to terror is to hold the true perpetrators responsible by having a decent investigation that answers all the unanswered questions regarding 911, holding the Israelis accountable for their human-rights violations for the first time, then withdrawal of all troops from the Middle East followed by staying out of their politics–obama doesn’t present these non-violent, effective solutions. Instead, cluster bombs, spent-uranium munitions, the bombing of weddings and collateral damage are all evils which obama appears to support.

    Hence, the discussion about the lesser of two evils. I cannot support the continued death and destruction in the Middle East.

  8. Evil? Give me a break! It’s a saying for crying out loud. A saying perhaps older than most people here!

    You want evil? I will give you evil. Check this out!

    The Exotic Candidate Is The One With Eight Houses

    Evil is someone who lies. Evil is an adulterer. Evil is someone who believes they are above the rules that other people have to live by. Evil is someone who treats other people like they are irrellevant. I have heard a lot of people call Obama a lot of things but he is certainly not evil by these standards. But I can’t say so much for his opponent as characterized by the facts that the Main Stream Media seems to just overlook.

    Senator McCain met and fell in love with his current wife, Cindy Hensley, while on vacation in… exotic and elitist Hawaii. He was 42, she was 24. He was still married to his first wife at the time, who was disabled as the result of a car accident, by the way. The whole scene — Hawaii, cheating on a disabled wife with a super-rich beer heiress — is just about as exotic and elitist as it gets according to the standards of the script.

    To a lot of people who will vote for this hypocrite, that is the very epitomy of evil but they will still vote for him because he SAYS he will get rid of abortion (ain’t happened yet), keep gays out of the military(ain’t happened yet) and win the war on terrorism (ain’t happened yet).

    The modern Republicans have hijacked the label “real American” and stapled it onto the foreheads of a platoon of phonies. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney, John Sidney McCain, Rush Limbaugh.

    There’s the real evil. People who deliberately lie to gain power to start a war based on more lies that kills over 4000 Americans and countless others from other countries and give away our money to their cronies who paid to put them there at the rate of $4566 PER SECOND!

  9. Third party polling including numbers for Barr, Nader and McKinney, can be tracked here.

    In all the comments from those who plan to vote for a third party, unless I missed something, I’ve yet to read who people intend to vote for and why.

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