Book Review: The Ethics of Voting

Book Review: The Ethics of Voting

Book Review: The Ethics of Voting

The Ethics of Voting

By Jason Brennan

Princeton University Press, 2012.

229 pages, $16.44

Voting in local, national, or supranational elections is in general seen as an act of good citizenship. Even though participation rates vary from country to country, a large percentage of the population in advanced democracies go to the polls quasi-religiously in every election. Yet few people reflect upon the ethical implications of voting.

This is exactly what Georgetown University political philosopher Jason Brennan does in his book The Ethics of Voting. In it, Brennan tries to, and succeeds in, debunking what he calls the Folk Theory of Voting Ethics, which can be summarized in three ideas: citizens have the civic duty to vote; voting in good conscience is in general morally acceptable; vote buying and selling is always immoral.

Every time there’s a new election, political commentators repeat ad nauseam that citizens have an almost sacred duty to participate in the political process by casting their votes on election day. The existence of such a duty is justified by appealing to a number of arguments, which Brennan analyzes throughout the book. Let’s look at some of them.

“Your vote counts”, says a common slogan before elections. What you vote can have a decisive impact on the election outcome. Your refusal to vote can result in the election of a candidate that may ruin the country. As a result, you have a civic duty (i.e., a duty towards society) to vote.

The problem with this recurring argument is that it’s not realistic as it overestimates the instrumental value of one vote.  The likelihood that your vote will have a decisive impact on the outcome of an election is nearly zero. Therefore, if there exists a civic duty to vote, this cannot arise from the impact a single vote can have on the election results.  

Another argument in favor of the existence of a civic duty to vote is that failing to do so implies not fulfilling your reciprocal obligations towards your fellow citizens. Living in society requires certain degree of civic virtue, which must be exercised going to the polls on election day. Some even consider good governance a public good: if don’t vote, you’re free riding on the provision of it.

Yet, as pointed out by Jason Brennan, the premise doesn’t support to the conclusion. The fact that we need to be civic virtuous and contribute to society in some way doesn’t imply that we have to do so via voting. In Brennan’s words, “a person of exceptional virtue can exercise civic virtue through stereotypically private activities and need not to participate in politics at all.”

In effect, the common good, understood as policies that benefit all individuals in a society (or at least don’t harm anyone), can be promoted in many ways. For instance, you can show your civic virtue by volunteering in your community or producing goods and services that improve the lives of others. Political participation doesn’t make you more virtuous in this sense.

A second uncritically-accepted idea is that voting is, in general, positive regardless of who you vote for. Voting gives people the opportunity to decide over matters that affect us all, so participation is regarded as a sign of commitment towards society. Brennan disagrees.

As shown above, there is no such a thing as a duty to vote. Yet, if you do vote, it is immoral to do so for a candidate that will implement harmful policies. Or put differently, you must justify with solid arguments that you vote will lead to policies that promote the common good.

Yet this reasoning seems at odds with the above argument that the instrumental value of one vote is zero. Who cares how you vote if your vote won’t have any effect on the election outcome? In order to reconcile both ideas, Brennan introduces the concept of collectively harmful activity as an activity “caused by a group or collective, where individual inputs into the harmful action are negligible.” Voting is one of these activities.

Even though your abstention won’t change the outcome, Brennan argues, you must not vote for a bad candidate. And he puts forward a convincing example to support his case. Imagine you are part of a firing squad that will execute an innocent prisoner tomorrow. If you refrain from participating just before the execution, the outcome will be the same: she will die. Yet everyone would agree that the ethical position would be not to take part in such an injustice. The same happens with voting. Your vote won’t make a difference, but if you intend to vote for a candidate that is likely to implement harmful policies, the ethical position is abstention.

Finally, Brennan examines the belief that vote buying and selling is always immoral. This is probably the most controversial part of the book. According to the author, the purchase and sale of one’s vote is right if and only if it results in the person acquiring the right to vote voting badly (i.e., for a candidate that will undertake objectively-harmful policies for a majority of the population). If it doesn’t, there is nothing wrong about it.

Intuitively, the idea of buying someone’s vote sounds immoral per se. Doesn’t this represent a corruption of the very essence of the concept of democracy? It might if we grant the idea of voting a symbolic, quasi-religious status instead of seeing it as what it really is:  a useful means of making collective decisions. Nothing less, but nothing more.

Nonetheless, as the author warns several times in the book, his is a normative, not positive theory of voting ethics. If vote buying leads to massive political corruption in practice, it might well be justified to outlaw it. But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t ethical under certain circumstances.

Overall, Breann does a good job in debunking some myths related to the ethical aspects of voting, especially when it comes to showing that voting, even if it is in good conscience, is not always better than abstention.

This idea is especially relevant nowadays given the mix of political ignorance and cognitive biases of the average voter regarding economic policy and other issues. If most voters are likely to vote for a candidate that will end up implementing bad policies, wouldn’t it be better if they stayed at home on election day?

Luis Pablo de la Horra

Luis Pablo de la Horra
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