Voting as an Ethical Issue

“…when we vote, we can make government better or worse. In turn, our votes can make people’s lives better or worse.

If we make bad choices at the polls, we get racist, sexist, and homophobic laws. Economic opportunities vanish or fail to materialize. We fight unjust and unnecessary wars. We spend trillions on ill-conceived stimulus plans and entitlement programs that do little to stimulate economies or alleviate poverty. We fail to spend money on programs that would work better. We get overregulation in some places, underregulation in oth- ers, and lots of regulation whose sole effect is to secure unfair economic advantages for special interests. We inflict and perpetuate injustice. We leave the poor behind. We wage drug wars that ghettoize inner cities. We throw too many people in jail. We base our immigration and trade policies on xenophobia and defunct economic theories.

Voting is morally significant. Voting changes the quality, scope, and kind of government. The way we vote can help or harm people. Electoral outcomes can be harmful or beneficial, just or unjust. They can exploit the minority for the benefit of the majority. They can do widespread harm with little benefit for anyone. So, in this book, I argue that we have moral obligations concerning how we should vote. Not just any vote is morally acceptable.

This is a book on voting ethics. In particular, it concerns the ethics of voting in political contexts. (It is not about voting for MLB All-Stars or American Idol contestants.) The purpose of this book is to deter- mine whether a citizen should vote at all and how she should vote if she chooses to do so. The field of voting ethics asks questions such as: Should citizens choose to vote or abstain? If a person is indifferent to the outcome of an election, should she abstain? When citizens do vote, how should they vote? May voters use their religious beliefs in deciding how to vote? Must voters vote sincerely, for the candidate or position they believe best? What counts as voting for the best candidate? In particular, should voters vote solely for their own interest, or should they vote for the common good, whatever that is? Is it ever acceptable to buy, sell, or trade votes?

There are related topics from the standpoint of political philosophy, such as: What should the government do about promoting participation? Which people should have the right to vote? How should elections be structured, and how often should they be held? Should the government attempt to educate voters, and if so, how? May governments compel citizens to vote? Should ballots be secret or public? These are worthy questions, but I am not concerned with them here. This book is about the obligations of citizens, not of governments. To determine what governments should do about voting would require another book’s worth of work.

What Voting Is Not

From a moral point of view, voting is not like ordering food off of a menu. When you order salad at a restaurant, you alone bear the consequences of your decision. No one else gets stuck with a salad. If you make a bad choice, at least you are hurting only yourself. For the most part, you internalize all of the costs and benefits of your decision.

Voting is not like that. If anything, when we vote, we are imposing one meal on everybody. If you were appointed the Dinner Czar—who must decide what everyone will have for dinner each night—your decisions would be of obvious moral consequence. As Dinner Czar, you would externalize most of the costs and benefits of your decisions. It would be a big responsibility. You better not force diabetics to eat too much sugar, make vegans eat meat, or make Muslims eat pork. Or, if you did do these things, you better have good reasons.

Now, in voting, nobody chooses by herself. Each vote counts, but it does not count much. We decide electoral outcomes together. How we vote has consequences; how you vote does not. However, there are moral principles governing how people ought to behave when participating in collective activities. Even though individual votes almost never have a significant impact on election results in any large-scale election, I argue that this does not let individuals off the hook. Individual voters have moral obligations concerning how they vote.

Obviously, the good and bad that governments do are not entirely atributable to how we vote. Our voting behavior is just one of many fac- tors affecting political outcomes. Despite steadfast and sure democratic oversight, a bad policy might be implemented out of bureaucratic caprice or a politician’s corruption. For my purposes, what matters is that votes, on the whole, do make 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.

Other factors besides voting also determine policy outcomes. This means that we cannot solve all political problems just by getting voters to vote better. That said, better voting would tend to lead to better government.”

The Ethics of Voting (2011). Jason Brennan


Voting as an Ethical Issue by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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