Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club Message Board › The rationality and morality of voting

The rationality and morality of voting

Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 112
Philip Bitar wrote:

Gene, the first reason given above is rational, but you haven’t stated it rationally. The issue is not whether an individual’s vote will decide an outcome. The issue is that humans achieve nearly everything they do by working together in some form, whether in a formal organization or in an informal group activity. Voting is nothing more than the latter. If economic theory fails to include the idea of people working together informally to achieve a goal, that’s a deficiency of economic theory.

Philip, I think you are referring to my writeup, not Gene's.

My questions seek to explore what people's actual motivations are in voting, not what I think they should be. Whether or not all that humans achieve of significance is a group activity is an interesting topic and may be true, but it is not the issue I am directly addressing. The first reason an individual might give for why they vote often is to help bring about an outcome. In a literal sense, that my vote can bring about an outcome is highly unlikely. Its rationality is suspect. (It might be salvageable but only by severely scaling back what I claim to be doing.) I mention it only to set it aside. I think the motives that have a fighting chance of being rational are the second and third motives, but they have different problems that are conceptual or moral.

Perhaps you would sympathize more with some version of the third reason given having to do with participating in something bigger than oneself...
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 245
A Google search of the terms "rationality and voting" shows a large of amount of literature on the rationality of voting (not in philosophy but in political science). For example, one interesting idea is that voting might be rational (in terms of economic rational choice theory) even if the chance of your vote making a differerence is minute, if you consider that a large number of people could be affected. So in this model, it would not be rational for a purely self-interested voter to vote, but may be rational for someone with broader social interests.

In terms of morality, I tend to think of voting as largely morally neutral. There is an argument that self-interested voting could be immoral as you try to impose your interests on others. But this seems fallacious, as all voting involves potential coercion. For example, if one votes on the basis of (what one takes to be) broader social interests this is a matter of one person's judgment, and may either be incorrect factually, or not reflect the considered preferences of others. So it seems less coercive and error-prone to vote in terms of your self-interest, which you likely understand better than the interests of others.

As to whether uninformed voters should vote, it is could be argued that almost all voters lack the expertise to vote, as shouldn't one be a true expert in economics, health care delivery, foreign policy, climate change, and so on to make an informed choice? In any case, the literature suggests that it is not rational for uninformed voters to inform themselves.
Philip B.
PhilipBitar
Everett, WA
Post #: 159
Victor, when people work together to achieve a goal — which is how humans achieve nearly everything they do — each person is, in fact, helping to bring about the goal. Or, at least, each person is trying to help.

You’re using the phrase “helping to bring about an outcome” to mean that a person’s participation is essential for achieving the outcome. But in a major election, no one votes because they think that their vote is essential for electing the person of their choice, so this point is irrelevant to the topic.

To summarize, if “helping to bring about an outcome” is taken literally, it refers to participation in a group activity to achieve a goal. Such a concept is rational as applied to voting, and it goes without saying that this concept plays a role in everyone’s motives for voting. By contrast, if “helping to bring about an outcome” means that a person’s participation is essential for achieving the outcome, then the concept is not rational as applied to voting, and it is irrelevant to the topic because no one votes for this purpose.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 247
There is a substantial literature on why people vote. There are no easy generalizations.

http://www.psychology...­

http://www.people-pre...­

Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 117
Victor, when people work together to achieve a goal — which is how humans achieve nearly everything they do — each person is, in fact, helping to bring about the goal. Or, at least, each person is trying to help.

You’re using the phrase “helping to bring about an outcome” to mean that a person’s participation is essential for achieving the outcome. But in a major election, no one votes because they think that their vote is essential for electing the person of their choice, so this point is irrelevant to the topic.

To summarize, if “helping to bring about an outcome” is taken literally, it refers to participation in a group activity to achieve a goal. Such a concept is rational as applied to voting, and it goes without saying that this concept plays a role in everyone’s motives for voting. By contrast, if “helping to bring about an outcome” means that a person’s participation is essential for achieving the outcome, then the concept is not rational as applied to voting, and it is irrelevant to the topic because no one votes for this purpose.

Philip,

It is not necessary to think that by “helping to bring about an outcome” one's contribution is essential. All that has to be assumed is that it has some significance. The point I make in the first part of my write up is that it has not even that. The "help" my vote gives is trivial and even that is being generous. If that is the case, and the math in mass elections suggests it is, then one is in fact not "helping to bring about an outcome." One is not helping anything happen. One is wasting one's time. To validate such behavior is at least irrational (or, perhaps strictly speaking, non-rational), and even immoral under some conceptions of morality, those that hold that what is at stake in such elections has enough moral import that to waste one's efforts by voting is irresponsible.

But it does seem you prefer the third motive for voting I mention in the write up, the one about participating in something larger than oneself. If this is the "real" reason people vote---the reason they intend as their effective reason, then I agree their rationality is not impugned. But now there may be a different problem.

Certainly, we can accomplish great things by participating in things larger than ourselves. The more of us that lend our support, the more effective our collective might becomes. If somehow we could all participate in one big thing, that thing, it seems, would be politically invincible. An autocrat might exhort, "Join me and together as one body, one political force, nothing can stop us! You as one, all by yourself with your petty private opinions, if they do not coincide with the one correct one, are nothing. If you do not play your part in this great organism larger than any one of us... etc." Now for "the one" substitute "the two" (or "the three" if we are very lucky) correct opinions and it gets marginally better---as well as resembling what our "democracy" currently offers us.

I have a choice. It is good that I participate. The choice is usually between two. Each of the two larger entities in which I may participate seem to think I should do that by donating my opinion to them, that is, give them my vote.

It is certainly possible that my natural opinion might coincide with one of the two official ones. If so, all is well. But what if it doesn't? Should I abandon it and pick from the two? That might do violence to my opinion. Admittedly, less violence than if I had one choice. But I fear not by much.

But again whatever gave me the thought that my opinion mattered? Long ago I swear people answered my childish questions about voting by saying that my conscience mattered, that not all people were so lucky as me to have the opportunity to express their opinion and have it taken into account. Taken into account? Well, if it is this one opinion or this other one.

I swear they did not tell me voting was not about my opinion or that it was, instead, an opportunity to participate in something bigger than myself. (That's conceptually a very different kind of activity.) There are lots of things bigger than myself in which I might participate. I thought the charm of voting was that it was a bigger thing in which my opinion---not some opinion from a very short list---counted.

The problem is that many people, perhaps myself included, still think that voting does or at least ought to have something to do with honoring individual expression and only incidentally about participation.

Philip, you don't see any tension here?





Philip B.
PhilipBitar
Everett, WA
Post #: 162
“Philip, you don't see any tension here?”

Who me? Tension? What are you talking about? Tension? Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. :)

Victor, I see tension only if the problem is not analyzed rationally. This is the reason that I responded to the problem statement that you wrote because I think that your analysis creates a problem where none exists.

But please understand that I’m not objecting to the claim that some people may have other motives for voting mixed in with the fundamental rational reason for voting. I’m objecting to the idea that there is a problem in establishing that voting is rational. I think that it’s obvious that voting is rational and that all voters of sound mind vote for the rational reason even if they can’t clearly articulate it, although they may also have other motives mixed in, as well. Since my argument is evidently not yet clear, I wish to continue its exposition here.

The abstract concept that I’m expressing is the following, quoting from my last post:

When people work together to achieve a goal — which is how humans achieve nearly everything they do — each person is, in fact, helping to bring about the goal. Or, at least, each person is trying to help.

Your argument against this concept seems to be as follows:

In a group activity, if a person’s contribution doesn’t improve the outcome, then the person isn’t helping to bring about the goal.

This is a rational objection, but in voting, every person’s vote does, in fact, matter because it contributes to the popular mandate for their candidate and that candidate’s party. The popular mandate, in turn, affects the ability of the candidate and their party to influence subsequent governance — getting approval of policies that they support and getting disapproval of policies that they oppose.

But to address the narrow topic of merely electing a person, your argument seems to be as follows:

Once the election results are in, we have, say, X votes for candidate A and Y votes for candidate B, with X-Y > 1. This implies that no single vote for A decided the election, so therefore it is irrational for a voter to vote.

The fallacy in this line of logic is that it depends on the outcome of voting, and this isn’t determined until the votes are cast. Furthermore, even if you could know the margin of victory ahead of time, although it is true that no single vote for A would decide the election, it would be irrational for any of A’s supporters to abstain from voting for that reason because other voters may do the same, causing A to lose the election. The only rational way to abstain would be to select the abstainers as a group so that you would be left with a sufficient number of votes to elect A.

Let’s generalize the argument.

Once the election results are in, we have, say, X votes for candidate A and Y votes for candidate B, with X > Y. This implies that X-Y-1 votes were unnecessary for electing A, so X-Y-1 voters didn’t need to vote, so therefore it wasn’t rational for that many voters to vote.

The fallacy is that the margin of victory isn’t determined until the votes are cast. Furthermore, the voters who could abstain — if you knew the margin of victory ahead of time — would have to be selected as a group so that you would be left with a sufficient number of votes to elect A.

To summarize, voting is a group activity in which participants work together to achieve a goal. It is irrational for a voter to say that in a major election their vote won’t matter because it will, in fact, contribute to the popular mandate of their candidate and that candidate’s party. Aside from popular mandate, it is irrational for a voter to say that their vote won’t matter because the margin of victory won’t be determined until the votes are cast.

In my earlier post I said the following:

If “helping to bring about an outcome” means that a person’s participation is essential for achieving the outcome, then the concept is not rational as applied to voting [because a person's vote will not be essential].

This is incorrect because a person’s vote may, in fact, turn out to be essential, though the probability is extremely low that it will. Due to the extremely low probability, it is still true to say that no one votes because they expect that their vote will be essential. To be specific, it is logically possible for a presidential election to be decided by a single vote, though the probability is extremely low. In the 2000 presidential election, the counting of votes in Palm Beach County, Florida, provided an illustration of the possibility that a relatively small number of votes — or even a single vote — could determine who is elected president.

Given the above, we can further refine our analysis by employing probability, as follows.

Although the probability is extremely low that a single vote will decide a major election, the outcome of a major election tends to have substantial consequences, so the latter works to compensate for the former. Furthermore, the cost of voting is so low as to be negligible, at least in Washington, where we vote at home.

In conclusion, it is rational to vote in order to contribute to the popular mandate of a candidate and the candidate’s party, in which case every vote contributes to the outcome. As for voting to elect a candidate, it is irrational for a person to declare with certainty that their vote won’t decide the outcome, and in the absence of such certainty, it is rational to vote. Overall, a person will intuitively evaluate how important they expect the consequences of the election will be, and the person will weigh such evaluation against the cost of voting, along with considering all other motivating factors, and then they will decide to vote or not to vote.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 257
Philip,

Interesting post. The idea of voting being rational to increase a mandate has been recently addressed in a philosophy paper.

http://papers.ssrn.co...­

Also, your idea that voting is rational even if it has a minute chance of being effective - because of the consequences may affect a large number of people - has also been addressed as a possible reason for voting. In this case, it might apply only if one were NOT voting primarily for self-interest. However, Brennan has actually calculated this effect (for example assuming one candidate can have a substantial effect on GDP), and the numbers come out as not favoring voting.

"Georgetown University philosopher Jason Brennan (no relation to Geoffrey Brennan) applied the Lomasky/Brennan method to a hypothetical scenario in which the victory of one candidate would produce additional GDP growth of 0.25 percent in one year. Assuming a very close election where that candidate is leading in the polls only slightly and a random voter has a 50.5 percent chance of casting a ballot for her, the expected value of a vote for that candidate is $4.77 x 10 to the −2,650th power. That’s 2,648 orders of magnitude less than a penny. "
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 124
Philip,

There is more than one sense in which the rationality of voting might be questioned. One sense is that of rational choice theory (as Gene noted about my earlier response to you) or "wanting more rather than less of a good." A choice can be criticized as irrational in this sense if the means taken toward the end of achieving more rather than less of a good are poor means.

If the ultimate end of voting is a better run society and there is a certain amount of effort that will be expended toward that end by an individual, being rational entails expending that effort in the most effective way. The charge against voting is that it isn't that way. Except perhaps in the tiniest electorates, the math has been done many times over and it doesn't pan out. See this article, for example, mentioned by Gene:

http://reason.com/arc...­

If somehow the vastly improbable, though logically possible, event should come to pass in which one vote came close to deciding an election, the human reaction would be to ambush it with incredulity. What happened in Florida in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election gives a taste of what would happen. There would be accusations of fraud, miscounts, bad ballots, rigged machines, and lawsuits would fly. Almost no one would accept the results and there would be reason on all sides. As one commentator put it, one vote may indeed decide the election but it wouldn't be a vote at a ballot box. It would be a vote from the bench of the Supreme Court. Majority decisions in a large democracy work only when the margin of victory is beyond what can be credibly accounted for by failures in the system, failures that are always there but magnified by the phenomena of mass elections. The original inventor of voting in democracy was not thinking of what happens at this scale...

But your substantial point seems to be that voting is primarily a "group activity." Suppose it is, and you are hardly alone in thinking so, my question is how is this group activity related to the vote of an individual. What's so special about voting activity? Special enough that there are serious legal consequences for showing it disrespect such as two years in prison plus a fine for selling a---mathematically utterly worthless---vote?

If it is the group activity that matters, why so much talk about voting one's conscience, why so much effort expended to "educate" votes, why the suggestion that one has at least a moral duty to vote? Can one be blamed for gathering from this that voting is an important matter with grave moral consequences? If so and if the issue comes down to should I support this group's cause or that one's, on what basis am I suppose to make the decision? First of all why am I being asked to make a decision like this at all? Why not just vote like those in my community, my group, the one I happen to be surrounded by? Why doesn't my group just assume what my vote is? Why bother to ask? Why not assume for example if you live in a liberal community, you would vote like most in that community? If I am not voting like other members of my group then I have not been sufficiently acculturated, my group character has not been sufficiently formed. My vote, if it strays too far from support for one of this limited supply of groups, is a waste.

In the group activity what is being asked of me is my support. Not my thoughts, discriminations, scruples, etc. I may have developed on the basis of having deliberated extensively about what is at stake. Are you with us or are you with the others? That's all each group wants to know. All my effort at considering matters must be distilled with a view to answering that question. What's being asked is my allegiance, not my opinion. If I gave my allegiance, who would care about my opinion?

You seem ok with this view of the matter.

But I see a problem because allegiance and opinion are two separate things to me. Because they are different things, if one is strong it may obviate the other. If my opinion is strong enough it may make allegiance to any of the available groups problematic. If allying tendencies are strong, opinion will be suppressed.

If voting were inculcated from the get-go as all about the importance of forming allegiances, and not about exercising individual rational discrimination, there might be less tension in the concept. But as it is, it seems as though we are trying to promote two incompatible things with one concept. This is another way in which a concept may be seen as irrational: the sense in which it is internally incoherent.

Finally the source of the abhorrence with things like vote selling must be the disrespect for belief in the system that underlies voting: democracy.

Why is democracy so highly valued, if not because it, at least in its original context, seems to value individual opinion? Otherwise, autocracy and plutocracy would be more efficient forms.

Perhaps what we have is a corporate plutocracy in the sense that what governs are a small group of groups, not a small group of individuals. This would explain the importance of allegiance over individual opinion.



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