Choose the Greatest Good

Michael Barbaro: You used the word “prudential.” And that caught me a little bit. Because you’re not using a word that conveys morality or faith. You’re saying “prudent,” if I’m hearing that word correctly.

Marjorie Dannenfelser: Yeah. I think actually religious people use that term quite a lot. Because it acknowledges a hierarchy of goods and evils involved in any decision. That decisions of great consequence often involved a blend of goods and bads.

And your job is to figure out where the highest good is found. Which choice leads to the highest good. And that’s the choice we had to make in that moment.


I had never heard of Marjorie Dannenfelser before this interview and though, obviously, her views are as opposed to mine as possible, I am very interested in her views and strategies in politics.

Democrats, Liberals, and Leftist have been at each other’s throats on social media these past months, or, really, these past years and elections cycles, over what is the best way forward to both keep our principles intact and win.

I’ve found myself torn between the warring factions of supporting perfect candidates only or choosing the lesser of two evils. I do not think either strategy is morally wrong per se, but I can see the possible harm both paths can lead to.

If you support less than perfect candidates and ideas progress move more slowly and you are complacent in the harms that candidate and their ideas inflict as well as the norms you reinforce by sending the signal that those harms are okay.

On the other hand, if you only support perfect candidates and ideas then change may never happen and, worse still, the other side wins again and again and greater harms can be inflicted in the short term on a greater swath of the population. Just look at how many have suffered and how much we have lost in just the last 4 years because the left could not unite behind Hillary Clinton.

The upside is that you can (in theory) claim immunity against those harms and, when the change does come there is a higher chance it will come faster, be of greater benefit, and benefit a greater swath of the population than you would get through any other imperfect candidate.

In listening to the above interview with Marjorie Dannenfelser I am struck by how simple, how easy, the choice is for her. She looks at the choices she has in front of her of her, not the choices she wishes she had, or the choices she may have four years, eight years, or a generation from now, the choices she has right now, and chooses what, in her mind, will lead to the greatest good.

I think this is the most realistic and the most effective way not just to vote, but to engage in politics on all levels.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, I’m sure, does not like Trump personally. I’m sure his actions disgust and outrage her, just like the rest of us. I’m sure she had to hold her nose when she cast her vote for him, but she is seeing her vision realized through this choice because she knows what she stands for and she saw how to get there. She is willing to make a hard choice for those she believes are vulnerable and need protecting.

Shouldn’t we be doing the same?

And what are we doing on this side of the political spectrum? We are floundering. We are in a constant state of reactionary politics and reshuffling our focus and principles. We blame each other. We ask too much of each other. We do the enemy’s work for them, and all this outrage, worrying, preaching and putting one another down for not engaging the way we want in politics as we wish it was played is not leading to the greatest good. It just feels good.

It’s also a privilege. To have the luxury step out of the ring and refuse to play or support anything that doesn’t perfectly align with your views means you know that in doing so your life will hardly change at all. There are a lot of people for whom the last four years have not been all that different from the four years before that, and for them the next four won’t be all that different either.

The Supreme Court granted me the right to marry. The Obama Administration gave me health care, a diagnosis, and affordable treatment for a condition I might have otherwise died from. My life is vastly different than I ever thought it would be because people voted and my life could vastly change again if people don’t.

I know Biden isn’t perfect and increasingly I doubt any politician ever will be. The thing we have to keep in mind is the wide-ranging changes to all levels of government, everyday life, and the country’s consciousness simply by him being elected, and that is the greatest good I have to focus on right now because who knows what turns the future will take and what we’ll be facing or what choices we’ll have in another four years.

This is what we can control.

This is what we can choose.

Choose.

Baruch Spinoza on Free Will

So experience itself, no less clearly than reason, teaches that men [sic] believe themselves free because they are conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the cause by which they are determined, that the decisions of the mind are nothing but the appetites themselves which therefore vary as the disposition of the body varies.”

Baruch Spinoza, Ethics

And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning: that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea).”

— Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

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Lately, I have been feeling like nothing is within my control. Not the way I spend my time, not my moods, not when I can eat, where I can go, not even my finances. I feel like I’m being blown here and there by everyone around me from happiness to anger to loneliness to frustration to excitement to hopelessness and back to happiness again without warning and without a way out or up for air.

I guess that is why the choices I have been making—when I can make choices—seem to always be wrong or detrimental in some way. I don’t choose to eat when I should. I don’t choose to sleep when I should. I don’t choose to write or read when I can. I don’t choose to express my feeling in constructive ways and I don’t choose to be brave when I have the chance.

Perhaps doing what I’m not supposed to do or what others expect me not to do feels like the only thing I can control but I know the things I am doing aren’t really what I want.

I want to learn how to let go of what I can’t choose and to focus more on choosing the right things. I don’t want this illusion of control that’s really nothing more than weakness and spite. I want to choose to be focused, hardworking, and strong in every instance where the choice is up to me.