In this post, I just want to introduce the point that it's puzzling, at first glance, whether there could even be an "ethics of voting".
Political decisions tend to have the following features:
- They are high stakes. They often are literally life and death decisions. They can greatly affect people’s life prospects and deprive them of property, liberty, and life. Bad decisions can make people lives go much worse.
- They are imposed by force upon (generally) innocent people who (generally) do not consent to be governed. (I won't get into it much here, but it's worth pointing out that philosophers generally regard consent theories of government legitimacy as unsuccessful. The people who advocate consent theories are more or less all anarchists!)
Insofar as 1 and 2 are true, it’s clear why political decisions are morally important.
These points also hold true specifically for electoral decisions. How we vote makes a big difference. Obviously, the good and bad governments do are not entirely attributable to how we vote. Our voting behavior is just one of many factors affecting political outcomes. Still, on the whole, how we vote makes a difference. Political parties have policy bents—dispositions to implement certain kinds of policies rather than others. When voters vote for members of a party with a particular policy bent, this greatly increases the probability that those kinds of policies will be implemented.
Despite this, the ethics of voting is puzzling. How we vote has major consequences. How any one of us votes does not. As a collective group, the German citizens who voted for the Nazis or Nationalists in November of 1932 did a lot of harm, but had any one of these voters abstained or voted differently, it would have made no difference. I’ll post more about this over the next few days. But here I’ll just note that (with a few exceptions), most people working on voting agree that the probability that your vote will change the outcome of any election—or have any other significant consequence—is vanishingly small. As Stephen Landsburg says, you're more likely to win Powerball multiple times in a row than change the outcome of an election. Even in extremely high stakes elections, the expected utility or disutility of your vote is vanishingly small.
In any major election, what will happen will happen regardless of what you do. So, why think you have any obligation to vote one way or another? If in the next US presidential election, we had to choose between a resurrected Socrates or a resurrected Stalin, voting for Stalin would have about the same impact as voting against him.
It’s thus tempting to make the following argument:
- The probability a vote will make difference is vanishingly small.
- Thus, the expected disutility of a bad vote is vanishingly small.
- Thus, individual votes are morally trivial. Under normal circumstances (where individual votes are trivial), you have no ethical obligations to vote one way or another.
In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that people have no duty to vote. However, I argue that if they do decide to vote, they have rather stringent duties to vote in particular ways. Not just any vote is acceptable.
If individual votes made a big difference on political outcomes, it would be easier to argue that people have a duty to vote and also a duty to vote well. However, if individual votes make no significant difference on political outcomes, it becomes relatively easier to argue that citizens have no duty to vote, but harder to argue they have duties to vote “well” (according to some standard of good voting).
So, the ethics of voting, on its face, puzzling. Notice that this is just an instance of a broader issue. We human beings are social animals. We often coordinate our actions together and engage in collective activities. In some of these collective activities, what we do as a group has significant consequences, but what you or I do does not.