"The Least Bad Social-Ethical Values Package" Dilemma

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"Dilemma of the undecided voter",
The [Montreal] Gazette, May 15, 2005, IN8
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

There's an important new phenomenon in Canadian politics. Let's call it "the least bad social-ethical values package" dilemma. The dilemma is caused by no one party having a package of social-ethical values with which voters can agree in its entirety or, if voters agree with a given party's package, they don't accept the behaviour of that party as ethical. These voters are deeply uncertain about which party to support. However, the direct link between their social-ethical values and their uncertainty has been largely unidentified.

As one political journalist writes, "people can hold mutually opposing ideas for the longest time before deciding which to jettison. So it is hardly surprising that they have yet to reconcile their anger at Paul Martin with their fear of Stephen Harper". Game theorists use "math probability" to try to predict how people will decide when they are faced with choosing among competing harms and risks. The idea behind game theory is to aim to avoid the worst possible outcome rather than trying to win. Undecided voters are trying to decide whether the Liberals or the Conservatives are the least bad option. Which party has policies that support the least bad package of values from the voter's perspective - when both parties' packages contain social-ethical value positions with which the voter disagrees? On the basis of its past conduct, which party will do the least harm to the values the voter holds most dear?

Many Canadians, no matter what their political viewpoint - and that includes Prime Minister Paul Martin - want to register disgust at the corruption revealed in the Gomery Enquiry. One way to do that is by not voting Liberal. But what if that voter wants same-sex marriage to be legalized? It's very difficult to predict how a disgusted-at-corruption, pro-same-sex marriage Canadian will vote. And there are many other major, contentious, social-ethical values issues presently in the public square on each of which Canadians can have their own personal view. They include whether Medicare should be changed to allow public-private partnerships; how to deal with poverty and homelessness; legalizing euthanasia and physician assisted suicide; prohibiting therapeutic cloning and restricting human embryo stem cell research; legalizing marihuana and the often associated issue of "hard" and "soft" on crime; Canadian forces' engagement in armed conflict; and the long-standing divisive issue of abortion. Taken together, a voter's views on these issues make up that voter's values package. But many voters find their package does not match any one party's package, in other words, they do not agree with any party's values package in its entirety. These voters are very likely to be "undecided".

One option for these voters is to refrain from voting. Just fewer than 40 percent of the Canadian electorate failed to vote in the last federal election.

If they want to vote, however, they must prioritize their values and vote accordingly So, for example, if a voter gives priority to legalizing same-sex marriage, they will vote for the Liberals (assuming they don't want to vote for a party with little chance of forming a government, which limits them to a choice between Liberal and Conservative) despite their being disgusted with the breaches of the values of honesty, integrity and trustworthiness that the "sponsorship scandal" has projected on the big public screen. These voters are in the unenviable situation of having to trade in some of their values in order to realize others and they are unsure which values should be given priority. They are so unpredictable because they are no longer willing to say, "That's my political party, right or wrong" and, in practice, act on that belief in their voting behaviour. Some might see that change as yet one more example of a loss of loyalty on the part of people in post-modern societies. But the cause is more complex and lies mainly elsewhere.

An unprecedented factor feeding voters' uncertainty is a major change in the nature and basis of societal level trust. Trust in government and public institutions is the cornerstone of the conceptual structure on which democratic societies, such as Canada, are built.

Until very recently, most societies operated on the basis of blind trust - "trust me because I know what is best for you (and you don't, because you are not as educated, intelligent, wealthy, informed, well-connected and so on as I am) and I will act in your best interests". Trust was engendered by power, status and authority and its conferral was an event - being elected or appointed to public office or accredited in a public role. A prime minister, elected politician, judge, policeman or physician was trusted because of the position they held. This kind of trust is based on paternalism and we can see it operating most obviously in the traditional physician-patient relationship.

In the last quarter of the 20th century another kind of trust emerged, earned trust - "trust me because I will show that you can trust me and will continue to do so". This trust is based on egalitarianism not status, power or authority and earning it is an on-going process, not an event. Therefore, it can be lost by acting in a way that breaches the trusting person's or the public's trust. Again, the physician-patient relationship, this time its contemporary version with the changes wrought by the ethical and legal doctrine of informed consent, most clearly manifests the operation of this kind of trust.

The hard evidence provided by the Gomery Enquiry has given the Conservatives the opportunity in both Parliament and the public square to deliver to voters the message, "Don't trust the Liberals". Likewise, when the Liberals allege the Conservatives have "a hidden agenda" they are saying, "Don't trust the Conservatives". But, unlike the Conservatives they have no single focus for their claim which is, therefore, more in the nature of a collective ad hominem attack on the Conservative party. The Liberal's goal is almost certainly to elicit a generalized fear of the Conservatives among voters in relation to social-ethical values issues and a belief that the Conservatives cannot be trusted on these issues - a tactic that, according to pollsters, had dramatic impact in causing initially undecided voters in the last federal election, who late in the election campaign had decided to vote Conservative, to switch their vote to Liberal on their way to the ballot box.

In short, each party is using social-ethical values issues to try to ensure that the other party does not earn the trust of undecided voters - whose numbers have probably substantially increased. In the current political circumstances, where we have been so forcefully reminded that we cannot simply assume that we can trust people in public office, trust will play a much more important and decisive role in the outcome of an election, were one to be called, than in the past. But alleging breaches of trust is not an ethically neutral act, not least because such allegations can seriously harm the broad trust basis on which society rests.

So, if they are to act ethically, politicians must not make such accusations cynically, not caring whether or not they are true and just for political gain. In other words, motives matter ethically: to point out serious breaches of trust of which the public has a right to know is not the same, ethically, as alleging breaches of trust simply as a political tactic and a cynical way of trying to earn votes. Second, there are serious dangers for society in general outside the political sphere, in destroying trust within that sphere. That means people who make allegations that risk causing damage to societal trust must be able to justify creating that risk.

So, let's hope that the emphasis on trust that is likely to be a feature of the next federal election whenever that may be, will not amount to just political rhetoric and trying to win votes through fear, but will be an example of and promote - as the Prime Minister claims to be seeking - integrity, honesty and moral authority in the political public square in Canada.