Although presidential debates have captured my interest in past election cycles, I did not bother to watch this last one. I did not bother because I do not intend to vote for anyone to take that office on the anarchistic grounds that voting signifies endorsement of the state, something that I would prefer to avoid giving. But, regarding the office of the president in particular, I think I have found a persuasive argument for those who don’t share my libertarian inclinations.
This article about Harold Herring made me aware of the fact that the president of the United States of America has the unchecked authority to deploy nuclear weapons and potentially end civilization, if not our entire species (and many others, no doubt). Conceivably, anyone in the chain of command could disobey an order to launch, but the system is supposed to prevent such dissension. That’s why the Air Force discharged Herring after he asked, “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”. I believe that no individual has the moral right to impose such a consequence on everyone. Therefore, it is immoral to award anyone such authority unless, perhaps, such an award comes with the unanimous consent every member of the human population.
I was going to argue that voting for anyone to become president would unconditionally constitute an immoral act because it is an attempt to award someone that authority. However, a friend reminded me that, at least in the United States of America, voters don’t award the presidency to anyone. That job belongs to the Electoral College (usually). Therefore, voting for any presidential candidate becomes an expression of consent, which I won’t argue is intrinsically immoral. However, giving such consent is misguided because no candidate can meaningfully deserve it more than any other. Given the enormity of the consequences, no candidate is significantly less unfit to hold that authority than his opponents. Going by this train of thought, a vote for a presidential candidate means effectively nothing. Of course, if we ignore the idiosyncratic technicalities of our electoral system and approximate it as a roughly democratic process, the moral argument still holds.
My friend also pointed out that even if no one has the legal authority to launch a nuclear attack or retaliation, a few conspirators could still deploy the arsenal illegally. In other words, the citizenry withholding their consent for anyone to have that authority will not preclude individuals from simply taking it, thereby leading to the same pragmatic outcome. We could go on from here to a discussion on disarmament, but that’s besides the point. If an illegal launch does occur, whether legal means exist or not, the moral responsibility lies exclusively with the individuals who took it upon themselves to conduct the attack. When you vote for someone, though, and thereby consent for him to have the legal authority to use nuclear weapons, you have explicitly accepted moral responsibility for an immoral condition as well as that for an attack that occurs by the authority to which you consented. So, if you intend to vote for president, you’d better be cool with, or at least ignorant of, that responsibility. I suspect that the powers that be rely on the latter.