Democracy, Current Events

The Ethics of Voting on New Books in Philosophy

Robert Talisse, a political philosopher at Vanderbilt, recently launched New Books in Philosophy, which interviews philosophers about their recently published books. I was interviewed in the summer about The Ethics of Voting. Listen to the interview here:

  • C Cruz

    Listened to your interview…I agree with you regarding a division of labor when it comes to civic virtue.  But I really struggle with your idea of “bad” voting.  

    Let’s say we’re in a bus with a bunch of random people and we’re trying to decide where to go.  Everybody nominates a place that they would like to go…the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Tijuana, Disneyland,  San Francisco, Washington DC, etc.

    Before we put it to a vote we try and persuade others to vote for our destination…and vote against our least favorite destinations.  Somebody argues against Disneyland because they hate kids…somebody argues against Tijuana because they hate Mexicans… somebody argues against Washington DC because they hate politicians…somebody argues against San Francisco because they hate homosexuals and somebody argues against Las Vegas because they hate sinners.

    Clearly people would vote to try and protect their interests.  There’s no need to vote on objective topics…like whether the bus should drive off a cliff…so we only vote on issues that are subjective.  When it comes to subjectivity…why even bother bringing up concepts like good or bad voting?  

    Voting is tug of war.  It’s an opportunity for everybody to try and protect their interests.  The goal is to decide whose interests will be protected.  We want the side the cares the most to win…because it surely wouldn’t make any sense for the side that cares less to win.

    So is it a bad thing if the person that hates kids offers the people who want to go to Disneyland $200 each if they don’t vote for Disneyland?  Is it a bad thing if the person that hates politicians spends 3 hours trying to convince those that want to go to Washington DC why any other place would be better?  It would be counter-productive to try and limit the effort (money/time) spent on campaigns because the outcome will not accurately reflect which side cared the most.

    Given the subjective nature of voting…kids of any age should be allowed to vote.  The only criteria for voting should be 1. residency and 2. that a voter cannot be accompanied in the voting both.  Why should kids be allowed to vote?  Because everybody should have a right to try and protect their interests completely irrespective of all other factors.  

    What’s fun is to ask adults whether kids should be allowed to vote.  They’ll say that kids are uninformed, immature, unemployed, inexperienced and susceptible to influence.  In other words, adults will unintentionally argue why no adults should be allowed to vote.  

    Voting is only half the battle…the other half is deciding how to fund various public goods…which is where pragmatarianism comes into play…

  • Voting is not just for subjective stuff like flag colors. We’re deciding matters of justice vs. injustice, peace vs. war, prosperity vs. poverty. 

  • C Cruz

    If matters concerning peace, justice and prosperity were objective then there wouldn’t be any need to vote on them.  Voting is not for objective stuff like whether the world is round.  

    • I don’t see how from the fact that we actually do vote on these matters you can conclude that the issues are not objective. That doesn’t even seem like the start of an argument.

      Also, it may well be that there is an objective truth about these matters, but we reasonably dispute what that truth is. One of the objective truths about morality might well be that when we reasonably disagree about justice, justice requires that we look for fair and reliable ways to adjudicate our disputes. And it might turn out that voting is sometimes a fair and reliable way to adjudicate our disputes.

      • C Cruz

        My old Army buddy studies philosophy and one time he cracked me up by asking me…”do you ever feel like you would be doing your friend a favor by seeing if his girlfriend would sleep with you?”  Let’s say that my Army buddy tried to sleep with my girlfriend…how much evidence would he need to provide me with in order for me to conclusively believe that she would sleep with him?  It seems reasonable that the stronger the evidence the less doubt there would be in my mind.  For example, it would be hard to argue with a video of them having sex.  Of course, it’s not like I would award my buddy a medal for jumping on that grenade for me.

        Sure, I suppose we can vote on objective stuff but we would only need to do so when there’s a glaring absence of conclusive evidence either way.  

        When women voted for prohibition it seems unreasonable to say that any of them voted poorly.  When mormons voted for prop 8 it seems unreasonable to say that any of them voted poorly.  Whenever anybody uses the bible as the basis for their voting decisions it seems unreasonable to say that they voted poorly.  From there it’s hard to consider it unreasonable should people choose to use a ouija board or magic 8 ball to decide how to vote.

        While at UCLA I studied international development.  It would be nearly impossible to estimate the total cost of all the failed theories that the most brilliant people came up with based on what they felt to be conclusive evidence.  

        There are brilliant people on both sides of every issue that we vote on because we vote on topics that are either completely subjective or totally open to interpretation.  

        Here’s a paper that a Harvard professor wrote…”If Democracies Need Informed Voters, How Can They Thrive While Expanding Enfranchisement?”

        You’d figure that if somebody is arguing from the basis that it’s a good thing for voters to be informed then they would have plenty of examples of bad outcomes that were a direct result of all the millions of uninformed voters.  The one example that the Harvard professor provided was that people voted for Bush’s “regressive tax policies”.  All that example proved was that the professor leans to the left.

        Churchill said that the best argument against democracy was a 5 minute conversation with the average voter.  If democracy required informed voters to work then it would have broken down long ago.  

        Democracy, in terms of voting, can’t work any better because it is just tug of war.  People take the evidence and beliefs that they have and try and convince others to pull for their side.  There will always be people that are convinced that their side has cornered the market on “conclusive” evidence.  These are generally the people that are the most vocal proponents of the importance of being an informed voter.

        “O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
        For preacher and monk the honored name!
        For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
        Such folk see only one side of a thing.”

  • Really great interview, Jason.  The only thing that didn’t sound quite right to me was the comparison of fringe voting to polluting a big park.  A small amount of pollution still seems to do some damage, whereas a fringe vote seems to do none – at least as long as we restrict our focus to the outcome of the election.  Perhaps if you count the fringe vote as an expression of a noxious view (like voting for the American Nazi Party), then it’s closer to pollution.  But apart from that, it seems like the best we could do to account for the wrongness of bad fringe voting is to ground the wrongness of the act in what it expresses about the person’s character.  That kind of move has problems of its own, I think, but I’m not sure there’s a better alternative beyond simply giving up on the claim that the act is wrong altogether and just saying that the people who vote for fringe Nazis are nasty people.

  • Jess Kautz

    I think you would have really benefited from perhaps being interviewed by someone a bit more opposed to your view point rather than openly praising it repeatedly. Having to defend your ideas against an actual person, rather than your prepared notes tends to lend credibility to a discussion.

  • C Cruz

    Anybody watch the Canada Texas oil pipeline hearings on C-span?  Both sides of the debate offered plenty of objective and subjective arguments.  And both sides of the debate frequently used the term national interest.  

    It would be a very interesting democratic exercise if one of you BHL bloggers created a blog entry summarizing arguments for and against the pipeline and then encouraged your readers to vote for or against the pipeline.  I’m sure the video of the hearings is  on the C-span website…so you could include a link to the video as well.  

    Personally, even though I watched the hearings for about an hour I’m kind of on the fence.  How many jobs does it take to equal one oil spill?  I think my heart bleeds more for the environment so I’d vote against the pipeline.  It doesn’t help that I have a rather deep-seated bias against unions…even though they have unintentionally done more to help people in developing countries than USAID and the IMF combined.  Hmm…I wonder if that “fact” would be possible to prove.

    It’s interesting though that a 100 or more years ago the environmental issue probably wouldn’t even have been a factor that the decisions makers would have seriously considered.  Just like there’s a demographic transition that occurs there’s also a development transition that occurs.  It would be neat to see a graph that charted US industrialization and environmental concern over the past 100 or 200 years.  If the same pipeline was being proposed in China I wonder how much the environmental concerns would factor in their decisions.