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SMC panel examines election, ethics

| Wednesday, October 26, 2016

With just 12 days until the general election, Saint Mary’s Center for Spirituality hosted a panel discussion about voting, titled “Community, Conscience and Conversation,” on Tuesday evening.

Pat Pierce, professor of political science, said people of varying political affiliations should respect and appreciate, rather than denounce and attack, one another.

“A central part of community is an emotional quality,” Pierce said. “Instead of fear and anger, it’s really caring for other folks and being concerned about other people who are in your community.”

He said the media emphasizes differences between people rather than recognizing their common humanity, which makes understanding new perspectives a difficult task.

“It’s hard to engage in a kind of civic discourse without those ties of community that we need if we’re going to have meaningful democratic rule,” Pierce said. “We have to be able to speak to one another … with some degree of openness and understanding, and you just don’t do that without some kind of community where we trust each other.”

Pierce said he encourages people to recognize one another’s common humanity, rather than dwelling on perceived distinctions.

“What I want to suggest is that if we can grow and develop a sense of community where we really care about one another, the nature of those differences changes,” he said. “It’s no longer ‘I want something, and you want something entirely different, and it’s probably at my expense.’ Instead, it becomes ‘This is what I think would be best for the whole country.’”

Bettina Spencer, associate professor of psychology, said students should understand that everyone processes information differently and respect others viewpoints.

“Sometimes when we have conversations across political orientation, it feels like we’re talking to somebody who’s fundamentally different from ourselves,” she said. “In one sense, we kind of are because if you look at psychological research on political orientation … we tend to see that on a host of psychological measures, people who are more liberal versus more conservative … tend to differ in a few meaningful ways.”

When approaching an election, Spencer said voters often insist their opinion is correct. But she encouraged students to view election season as a time to embrace new modes of thought.

“We project on others what we’re doing ourselves,” she said. “The truth is, it’s psychologically not that difficult to make that leap in conversation. It’s totally possible, and it’s not that difficult.”

Spencer said she suggests people approach discussions with positive expectations to avoid feuds or tense encounters.

“It’s almost like you’re priming yourself to be open, to feel like there is going to be an end goal,” she said. “When we engage in a conversation that we already think is hopeless, there’s not too far you can go with that.”

Strong communities can result from open discussions in which people focus on empathy and understanding, rather than on judgment, Spencer said.

“We tend to see much healthier, more productive conversations ensue,” she said. “This sort of taps into … feeling closer to somebody. If you can do that perspective taking, you get a better sense of where that person is coming from.”

She said people should not hesitate to socialize with those who possess differing views, for these types of interactions often foster deep thought.

“You can disagree with someone on a lot of things, but if you hang out and go to a movie together on Saturday, you know they’re an actual human being you can have an actual good conversation with,” she added.

Megan Zwart, assistant professor of philosophy, said those who do not support the two major presidential candidates may feel as if they would be compromising their morals by voting for either.

“Some would say that by not voting, or by voting for a third party, you’re effectively casting a vote for the other side, the side that would be farther from your own views,” Zwart said. “In this case, not actively doing something is to be morally responsible for passively allowing something worse to happen.”

Those who do not endorse either candidate essentially have two options, Zwart said.

“One view says you should keep your conscience clean and abstain from voting,” she said. “The other view says voting the lesser of two evils is the moral alternative.”

She said some Catholics who reject both candidates may feel inclined to vote third-party or not to refrain from casting a vote, since their economic principles may correlate more with those of the Democratic party, while their pro-life stance matches that of the Republicans.

“You’re not participating in a system that’s essentially broken, and you’re sending a message against that system,” Zwart said. “If you want to keep your conscience clean and send a message, perhaps not voting or casting a protest vote is defensible.”

Objectors to this mindset — like Barack Obama, for example — argue that a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for the least desirable candidate, Zwart said.  From Obama’s perspective, it’s a vote for Trump.

“His view is that by not doing something directly, you are doing something else indirectly,” she said. “If you know there are only two possible outcomes, and you know that your vote is going to, at least slightly, make one of those outcomes more or less likely, then you have a moral obligation to think about the outcome and make the choice which is most likely to get you closer to that outcome that you desire and least likely to lead you farther away, even if it’s not optimal.”

Voting third party, not voting at all and compromising one’s views when voting all possess distinct faults and advantages, she said.

“The clear conscience view sets out some hard moral lines … but the consequences of the clear conscience might sometimes be complicity in a truly disastrous outcome,” Zwart said. “On the lesser of two evils view, you can feel good about taking a pragmatic approach that might stave off a worse outcome, and maybe incrementally move in the right direction, but you run the risk of compromising your values to such a degree that it might be hard to remember exactly what you stand for.”

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About Martha Reilly

Martha is a senior majoring in English literature and political science. She currently serves as Saint Mary's editor but still values the Oxford comma in everyday use.

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