The Ethics of Voting

By Jason Brennan

I. Good Intentions Aren’t Enough
Betty Benevolence wants to save the world. Yet she has crazy ideas about how to do it.

When she sees a starving child, she steals his remaining food. When she sees someone in pain, she kicks him in the shins. When she sees a drowning man, she pours water on his face. When she sees a burning house, she douses it with gasoline. Betty always intends to help people, but she always harms them.

Few people act like Betty in their daily lives. Yet, at the polls, most citizens act just like Betty Benevolence. They vote with good intentions, but they don’t know what they’re doing. They do more harm than good.

In The Ethics of Voting, I ask: How dare they do that?

II. Voting is an Ethical Issue
How we vote matters. When we vote, we can make government better or worse, and in turn, make people’s lives go better or worse. Bad choices at the polls can destroy economic opportunities, produce crises that lower everyone’s standards of living, lead to unjust and unnecessary wars (and thus to millions of deaths), lead to sexist, racist, and homophobic legislation, help reinforce poverty, produce overly punitive criminal legislation, and worse.

Voting is not like choosing what to eat off a restaurant’s menu. If a person makes bad choices at a restaurant, at least only she bears the consequences of her actions. Yet when voters make bad choices at the polls, everyone suffers. Irresponsible voting can harm innocent people.

How other people vote is my business. After all, they make it my business. Electoral decisions are imposed upon all through force, that is, through violence and threats of violence. When it comes to politics, we are not free to walk away from bad decisions. Voters impose externalities upon others.

We would never say to everyone, “Who cares if you know anything about surgery or medicine? The important thing is that you make your cut.” Yet for some reason, we do say, “It doesn’t matter if you know much about politics. The important thing is to vote.” In both cases, incompetent decision-making can hurt innocent people.

Commonsense morality tells us to treat the two cases differently. Commonsense morality is wrong.

In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that citizens have no standing moral obligation to vote. Voting is just one of many ways one can pay a debt to society, serve other citizens, promote the common good, exercise civic virtue, and avoid free-riding off the efforts of others. Participating in politics is nothing special, morally speaking.

However, I argue that if citizens do decide to vote, they have very strict moral obligations regarding how they vote. I argue that citizens must vote for what they justifiedly believe will promote the common good, or otherwise they must abstain.

That is, voters should vote on the basis of sound evidence. They must put in heavy work to make sure their reasons for voting as they do are morally and epistemically justified. In general, they must vote for the common good rather than for narrow self-interest. Citizens who are unwilling or unable to put in the hard work of becoming good voters should not vote at all. They should stay home on election day rather than pollute the polls with their bad votes.

III. What Does It Mean to Vote Well?
In my view, a voter votes well when she votes for a person or policy that she justifiedly believes will promote the common good. In this section, I will offer a brief overview of what it means to vote well. In the next few sections, I will explain why voters should vote this way.

I will argue that citizens should justifiedly believe that they are voting for candidates or policies that will promote the common good. It is not sufficient for them to believe they are voting in a public-spirited way. Rather, they should be epistemically justified in believing they are voting for the common good.

A belief is epistemically justified when a person has sufficiently strong evidence to warrant the belief. So, for instance, suppose Bob and Charlie both believe that the president is named Obama. Their beliefs are true. However, imagine they have different grounds for this belief. Bob believes Obama is president because he read it in numerous news reports. In contrast, Charles has been living as an isolated hermit in a mountain retreat for the past five years. He has not read or seen the news, or talked to another person since the last election. Charles believes the president is named Obama because he asked his Ouija board, and coincidentally, it spelled “Obama”. Bob’s belief is justified—he has good grounds for his belief. Charlie’s belief is unjustified—he has bad grounds for belief. Bob rationally believes Obama is president, but Charlie irrationally believes Obama is president.

Voters should have good grounds for thinking that they are voting for policies or candidates that will promote the common good. In general, there are three ways that voters will violate this norm. Bad voters might vote out of 1) ignorance, 2) irrational beliefs, or 3) immoral beliefs. In contrast, good voters not only know what policies candidates will try to implement, but also know whether those policies would tend to promote or harm the common good.

Voters should aim to promote the common good rather than narrow self-interest. Here, I just mean to give an overview of what “the common good” means.

As individuals, we have our particular interests, and sometimes our interests conflict. (For instance, you and I both might want the job, but at most one of us will get it.) This leads some people to be skeptical about whether we can meaningfully speak of “the common good”. This skepticism is misplaced.

Though we have different particular needs and goals, we also share many interests in common. We all need personal and physical integrity, mental and physical health, some wealth, some degree of education, opportunities for economic and social advancement, some ability to influence others, etc. It would be unusual to find someone who did not need these things at all. So, there are certain kinds of goods that are instrumentally valuable to each of us.

There are certain background conditions and institutions needed for each of us to pursue and achieve our conceptions of the good. Certain background institutions and policies tend to promote the private interests of all or at least most citizens. A well-functioning social order is part of the good for everyone, because without it we cannot pursue and achieve our various ends. Some institutions, such as well-functioning markets, liberal democratic government, the rule of law, and a culture of tolerance and respect, tend to promote greater wealth, longer and healthier lives, and lives with more cultural, social, and economic opportunities. Other institutions tend to demote these things. It is in the common good to promote the first kind of institutions rather than the second. Institutions, policies, and practices that are generally to everyone’s advantage can be said to be in the common good.

IV. Why Should We Vote Well?
Imagine a jury is about to decide a murder case. The jury’s decision will be imposed involuntarily (through violence or threats of violence) upon a potentially innocent person. The decision is high stakes. The jury has a clear obligation to try the case competently. They should not decide the case selfishly, capriciously, irrationally, or from ignorance. They should take proper care, weigh the evidence carefully, overcome their biases, and decide the case from a concern for justice.

What’s true of juries is also true of the electorate. An electorate’s decision is imposed involuntarily upon the innocent. The decision is high stakes. The electorate should also take proper care.

The electorate has an obligation to the governed not to expose them to undue risk in the selection of policy or of rulers who will make policy. The governed have a right not to be exposed to undue risk. When elections are decided on the basis of unreliable epistemic procedures or on the basis of unreasonable moral attitudes, this exposes the governed to undue risk of serious harm. Since the governed are forced to comply with the decisions of the electorate, negligent decision-making is intolerable.

The reasoning above explains why it is morally important that the electorate as a whole makes decisions in a competent and reasonable way. However, there’s a problem. It might be clear why the electorate as a whole should vote well. But it’s not clear why I should vote well. After all, how we vote has serious consequences. But how I vote does not.

In a large-scale election, such as a congressional election in the United States, the probability that an individual vote will decide the outcome of the election is vanishingly small. You are much more likely to win Powerball multiple times in a row than to cast a vote that changes the outcome of a presidential or congressional election.

So, why should we think one person’s vote is morally consequential, if a single vote can never be expected to make a difference? If the majority of other voters are voting badly, why think there is any reason for me not to vote badly as well? In light of how little individual votes matter, one might be tempted to conclude that one may vote however one pleases.

V. Why Should I Vote Well?
This conclusion is not warranted. There are moral norms governing what we may or may not do when participating in collective activities, even when our individual actions make no difference.

Consider an analogy. Suppose a 100-member firing squad is about to shoot an innocent child. They will fire all at once. Each bullet will hit the child at the same time, and each shot would, on its own, be sufficient to kill her. You can’t stop them, so the child will die regardless of what you do. Now, suppose they offer you the opportunity to join in and fire with them. You can make the 101st shot. Again, the child will die regardless of what you do. Is it permissible for you join the firing squad?

Most people have a strong intuition that it is wrong to join the squad and shoot the child. Here’s one plausible explanation of why it’s wrong: there is a general moral prohibition against participating in these kinds of activities, even if one’s individual inputs do not make a decisive difference. In these kinds of cases, you should try to keep your hands clean, at least if there is no significant cost to your doing so. Suppose the firing squad threatens to kill you, too, if you do not shoot the child. In that case, it might be excusable for you to shoot. But if you suffer no significant loss by not participating, then you should not participate. Only a bad person would be willing to do so.

When the firing squad kills the child, this is a collectively harmful activity. A collectively harmful activity is an activity where a group causes harm, but individual inputs into the group’s activity make no difference. In cases where we have the opportunity to engage in such collectively harmful activities, we should abide by what I call the “Clean Hands Principle”:

One should not participate in collectively harmful activities when the cost of refraining from such activities is low.

The Clean Hands Principle is a moral principle governing whether participating in certain collective activities is permissible. It turns out that this principle can be derived from a number of plausible background moral theories, such as Kantianism, rule consequentialism, and eudaimonism, though I will not discuss the details here. The principle is plausible enough on its own.

This firing squad example is analogous to voting in an election. Adding or subtracting a shooter to the firing squad makes no difference—the girl will die anyways. Similarly, with elections, individual votes do not make a difference. In both cases, the outcome is causally overdetermined. The irresponsible voter is much like a person who volunteers to shoot in the firing squad. Her individual bad vote is of no consequence—just as an individual shot is of no consequence—but she is participating in a collectively harmful activity when she could easily keep her hands clean.

VI. There Is No Invisible Hand of Politics
Government ought to promote the common good rather than exploit some citizens for the sake of others. Everyone subject to coercive rules and who is expected to conform with and maintain social institutions should have a stake in those rules and institutions. It is unjust to expect people to comply with social rules unless those rules are sufficiently to their benefit. To the extent that the rules tend to benefit some groups at the expense of others, these others groups lack reasons to comply. To force them to comply with such rules, when they lack sufficient reasons to do so, is to subjugate them. Subjugating reasonable, responsible people is unjust. To vote for self-interest at the expense of the common good is to vote in favor of subjugating others. It’s that simple.

One might object that one is under no obligation to vote for the common good. After all, other people vote selfishly. They attempt to exploit me through government for their own benefit. If so, then it is unfair for me to have to vote for the common good when they do not.

This objection fails for a number of reasons. First, it rests on a false empirical claim—that voters tend to vote selfishly. The consensus among political scientists who study voter behavior is that voters do not vote selfishly, but instead vote for what they perceive to be the common good. (This does not imply that they are responsible voters, though, since many of them are not justified in these beliefs.)

Second, even if many other people do vote selfishly, that does not automatically make it permissible for me to do so as well. When I vote for narrow self-interest at the expense of the common good, it is not as if I am only trying to exploit other people who are trying to exploit me in turn. Rather, I am voting to exploit innocent third parties, including people who cannot vote, those who abstain from voting, and those who voted responsibly. It is one thing to try to have government rob Peter for my benefit, when Peter is trying to have the government rob me. But it is another to try to have the government rob everyone for my benefit just because Peter tries to rob me.

The best way to defend selfish voting would be to show, if possible, that democratic procedures somehow transforms self-interested votes into publicly beneficial outcomes. Some people think that democracies can take self-interested votes as inputs and yield, as outputs, policies that benefit the common good.

Something like this occurs in markets. Markets can lead self-interested behavior to promote the common good as if “by an invisible hand”. The market makes it so that people’s best shot at promoting their own interests is to make products that other people want at prices they can afford to pay. To get bread from the baker, I must provide him with something he wants. So long as negative externalities are adequately eliminated, and so long as people are free to walk away from bad deals, the individual pursuit of profit tends to help others rather than harm them. Self-interested behavior leads to publicly beneficial outcomes. Might something like this be true of democracy as well?

Alas, self-interested behavior in politics is less likely to promote the common good than self-interested behavior in markets. There is no invisible hand of politics. To see why, we need to note some disanalogies between markets and politics.

First, in markets, deals are voluntary. Both parties expect to benefit from a deal, or otherwise a deal will not be made. While individual parties might sometimes be mistaken, in general both parties will profit from a transaction. In contrast, in politics, deals are not voluntary. If the majority decides that no one may smoke marijuana, then this affects everyone. People are not free to walk away from bad bargains in politics like they are free to walk away from bad bargains in the market.

A second disanalogy between markets and politics concerns externalities. In markets, people generally choose for themselves. If you choose to eat peanut butter for lunch, this has no effect on me. In contrast, in politics, whatever the majority decides, everyone must abide by. Governments are monopolies and only offer one set of rules for everyone.

While markets will allow you to have peanut butter and me to have spinach, politics gives everyone the same meal.

Jason Brennan is Assistant Professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton 2011) and co-author of A Brief History of Liberty (Wiley-Blackwell 2010) with David Schmidtz.

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