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Iñigo González-Ricoy published a short criticism of my theory of voting ethics. Abstract:

Do citizens have a duty to abstain from voting when they cannot vote well? Jason Brennan has recently argued that, since citizens have a duty not to engage in harmful activities and bad voting is a harmful activity, citizens have a duty to abstain from voting badly. In this reply, I argue that Brennan dismisses the moral disagreements that unavoidably pervade the very idea of bad voting in a democratic society and provides a de-politicised and incomplete account of what voting badly means. Without a sound definition of bad voting, Brennan’s argument fails.

Big surprise: I don’t think González-Ricoy’s complaints make sense.

In The Ethics of Voting and “Polluting the Polls: When Citizens Should Not Vote,” I argue that most citizens have a moral duty to abstain from voting. I hold that voters must vote well, or otherwise must abstain. According to my theory of voting ethics, a citizen “votes well” when she votes for what she justifiedly believes will promote the right ends of government.[iii] That is, a voter must be epistemically justified in holding the following de dict0 belief: “I am voting in ways that tend to promote the right ends of government.”[iv]

Iñigo González-Ricoy has recently objected to my theory.[v] He has three main complaints:

  1. I do not take a stance on what the correct theory of epistemic justification is.
  2. Citizens disagree about what the correct theory of epistemic justification is, especially when applied to moral beliefs.
  3. Citizens disagree about what the rights ends of government are, and what count as harmful and unjust.

I do not dispute 1-3; González-Ricoy is correct to assert them. However, he is mistaken to think this creates any problems for my theory of voting ethics. On the contrary, González-Ricoy draws absurd conclusions from 1-3.

Why the Theory is and should be Neutral on Fundamental Theories of Epistemology

González-Ricoy complains I do not take a stance on what the correct theory of epistemological justification is. He worries this makes the theory somewhat empty. This worry is mistaken.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge. One of the basic concepts in epistemology is epistemic justification. (Epistemic justification is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for knowledge.)

Some beliefs are justified; some are not. If a scientist forms a belief on the basis of careful reasoning and the examination of overwhelming evidence for that belief, she is justified in that belief. If a person forms a belief on this basis of wishful thinking, she is unjustified. Epistemologists try to formulate theories that explain and systematize what makes some beliefs justified and what makes other beliefs unjustified.

As of now, there is no one epistemological theory that all experts accept.[vi] However, this is not because there is great controversy over which particular beliefs are justified or not. Epistemologists all accept that beliefs formed on the basis of wishful thinking are unjustified. They all accept that beliefs formed by carefully considering overwhelming evidence are justified.

The main controversies within epistemology arise because it is difficult to come up with a systematic theory that explains what makes some beliefs justified and others not (even though epistemologists generally agree on whether various beliefs are justified or not). All existing theories have known counterexamples.

I argue that voters must be epistemically justified in thinking they vote for in ways that promote the right ends of government. However, I need not hang my theory of voting ethics on any particular epistemological theory (such as probabilism or process reliabilism). The kinds of beliefs I call unjustified are also called unjustified by all of the leading epistemological theories.

What González-Ricoy claims is a flaw in my theory is actually a virtue. When writing a philosophy paper, the author should assume as little as possibleA philosopher should take a stance on a controversial issue only if doing so is necessary for the argument to go through. Regardless of whether process reliabilism, foundationalism, coherentism, or probabilism are true, my argument goes through (or fails to go through). It doesn’t depend upon any of these background epistemological theories. If I had hung my hat on reliabilism, the book’s referees most likely would have advised me not to take a stand on a matter that makes no difference to the argument.

González-Ricoy might complain that I am asking voters to abide by a standard without providing an algorithm of how to abide by that standard. That is less of a problem than it seems. Most of us are able to act competently in a wide range of endeavors even though we cannot—and perhaps no one can—articulate a complete algorithm for how to abide by that standard. For instance, we expect doctors, scientists, and jurors to form their medical, scientific, and judicial beliefs in an epistemically justified way. It is reasonable for us to expect this of them, and most of them manage to do so, even though perhaps none of them know what the correct theory of epistemology is.[vii]


Epistemology: Not Decided by Fiat

González-Ricoy also says citizens dispute just what counts as a justified political belief. He says, “the problem…is that it is an unavoidable feature of democratic societies that citizens do disagree on what the best moral epistemological theories are.”[viii] He argues that this one reason why we need voting—to settle these disputes.

That cannot be right. Democracies have no power to decide what the correct theory of epistemology (including moral epistemology) is. If a democracy unanimously voted that process reliabilism is true, that would not make process reliabilism the true. If they unanimously voted that probabilism is false, that would not make it false. If a democracy unanimously voted that my moral beliefs are justified, this would not make them justified. If a democracy unanimously voting that my moral beliefs are unjustified, this would not make them justified. If a democracy decided that we should all use Alvin Plantinga’s epistemological theory, that would not show that Plantinga’s theory is true.

Epistemological disputes cannot be decided democratic fiat. There are some interesting controversies in the field of epistemology, but it is uncontroversial that these controversies cannot be decided by voting.[ix]  González-Ricoy’s criticism is absurd.


Pervasive Moral Disagreement? Not a Problem

González-Ricoy notes that reasonable people dispute what the right ends of government are. However, my theory of voting ethics does not say that voters must vote for the right ends of government, whatever those are. Rather, it says they must be justified in believing that they are voting for the right ends of government.

To illustrate this difference, imagine for the sake of argument that John Rawls’s theory of justice is the correct theory of justice. My theory of voting ethics would not then imply that everyone must vote in Rawlsian way. Instead, one could vote in a non-Rawlsian way, so long as one is epistemically justified in advocating something other than Rawlsianism. So, suppose Robert Nozick justifiedly but falsely believes that the entitlement theory is the correct theory of justice. My theory would then imply that Nozick may vote in ways that promote the entitlement theory, even though the entitlement theory is by hypothesis false.

So, contrary to González-Ricoy, my theory of voting ethics does not imagine away disagreement. Nor is it threatened by the fact of pervasive disagreement. Rather, it allows for voters to disagree, so long as they form their political opinions in an epistemically justified way.


Of Course There Are Process-Independent Moral Standards

González-Ricoy concludes with a bizarre claim: “In a democratic society no process-independent moral criteria can be referred to in order to settle what counts as a harmful, unjust or morally unjustified exercise of the right to vote, for voting is a device that is only called for precisely when citizens disagree on what counts as harmful, unjust and morally unjustified.”

This cannot be right. Pace González-Ricoy, of course there are process-independent moral criteria that can settle what counts as a harmful, unjust, or morally unjustified exercise of the right to vote.

For instance, suppose we had a dispute about whether citizens should be allowed to rape children. Suppose the majority votes to allow adults to rape any children they please. They also vote to have the police use force to make sure that no one stops adults from raping children. If you have democratic theory that says this is an acceptable political decision, your theory is for that reason false. If you theory says we should defer to democratic decision-making to resolve the child-raping issue, your theory is for that reason absurd.

Or, suppose the United States conducted a referendum on whether it will nuke the tiny island nation of Tuvalu. Suppose all eligible American voters vote. Suppose the majority votes nuke Tuvalu. Suppose they decide to nuke Tuvalu just because they think “Tuvalu” is a silly name. Clearly, nuking Tuvalu is wrong. Voting to nuke Tuvalu is not just wrong, but despicable and evil. No government, democratic or not, has the permission right to nuke another country for no good reason. If you have a theory of legitimacy and authority that implies that the US may legitimately and authoritatively nuke Tuvalu, then your theory is for that very reason false. If you have a democratic theory that implies that what counts as harmful, unjust, or morally unjustified can only be decided by democratic fiat, the Tuvalu example shows your theory is mistaken.

So it goes with a wide range of other moral issues. We might have reason to defer to democratic decision-making on some moral disputes.[x] (That is, on some of our moral disputes, we might have an obligation to use some procedure to decide how to live together rather than to come to blows.) But that does not mean all or even most moral issues are decided democratically. No extent applied ethics textbook starts by saying, “Here are a number of disputed issues. We should just let democracy decide.” Whether my theory of voting ethics is true or false, the fact that it uses process-independent moral standards to evaluate voters is a feature, not a defect, of the theory.


[iii] Brennan 2011, pp. 117-8.

[iv] This is a summary of the theory. As I discuss in Brennan 2011, chapters 3-5, there are some important qualifications. I argue that voters cannot vote in a purely selfish way and must in a way consistent with at least a minimal theory of the common good. I argue that they can vote strategically provided they are justified in believing strategic voting promotes the right ends of government. I also describe at length the ways citizens can fail to vote well.

[v] Iñigo González-Ricoy, “Depoliticising the Polls: Voting Abstention and Moral Disagreement,” Politics 32 (2012): 46-51.

[vi] The PhilPapers survey project shows that the 1000 or so philosophers at leading philosophy departments are split between whether they accept internalist, externalist, or other theories of epistemic justification. See URL =

[vii] For an extended argument about why moral knowledge does not require that one know the correct moral theory, see Jason Brennan, “Beyond the Bottom Line: The Theoretical Goals of Moral Theorizing,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 28 (2008): 277-296.

[viii] González-Ricoy 2012, 47.

[ix] At most, if we found that most smart, reliable, thoughtful, rational experts accepted the same conclusion, this would provide evidence that the conclusion is true.

[x] González-Ricoy states in a rather matter-of-fact way that we have no process-independent moral standards to evaluate democratic decisions. However, this is an extremely controversial claim—it is strange for González-Ricoy to be able to use this a premise in an argument without arguing for it. After all, David Estlund, in his recent Democratic Authority (Princeton University Press, 2008), has amassed considerable objections against this very position. González-Ricoy needs to refute Estlund.

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Many Americans who voted for Barry Goldwater in the last election are justifiably concerned that our traditional liberties have been much eroded by the unwarranted growth of the federal government, and especially of the executive branch at the expense of the other branches. As a democrat I cannot help feeling the same deep concern. These libertarian conservatives see all too clearly an evil which those on the left very often fail to take adequate note of.

Who said it?

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