Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club Message Board › Voting as a habit - follow-up

Voting as a habit - follow-up

Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 128
Gene,

Either voting is a serious act or it is not.

If not, then it is a waste of resources. Assuming our resources are not unlimited, it is immoral to waste resources---except possibly if the activity is expressly viewed as a form of amoral life-content such as entertainment or expressive activity (e.g., art), not to be judged by its consequences.

If it is a serious act purporting consequences of some kind---affecting the world, oneself or others, then it has moral import.

Either way it has moral import (setting aside the "amoral" escape clause, noted above). In the first case, because it is a waste. In the second, because it makes potentially great demands on the effort we put into it.

....

As it is commonly seen, voting is the most "tangible" aspect of democracy for most people. (The right to run for office might be for a few.) Drawing lots shares with voting the political leveling aspect of democracy if the leveling aspect, putting all eligible voters on the same level, is essential to democracy---as I agree that it is.

But drawing lots, unlike voting, makes no pretense to canvassing the opinions of the people affected. If we elected our law makers and leaders by national lottery, that would solve many moral qualms I have with voting except one: I believe that since the enlightenment the idea that underpins the rightness of democracy over other forms of government is that it somehow honors the moral autonomy of individuals comprising the democracy. That is, democracy is supposed to offer people reason and opportunity to think hard about the their political opinions and act as though their political opinions and actions had effect in the world. The paternalism inherent in autocracy and, to a lesser extent in plutocracy, is not conducive to individuals taking such responsibility.

This suggests that what is good about democracy is ultimately its conduciveness to making individual people more moral---not that it is one way, among others, to efficiently manage crowd behavior. If the latter were the point, autocracy, plutocracy, and in the future if not already, democratically sophisticated or veiled forms of autocracy or plutocracy may do as well or better at crowd management. The fact that crowds may be complicit in their own management does not by itself vindicate democracy, not unless the way they are complicit is scrutinized.

So, on the way toward addressing the deficiencies of democracy as it is currently understood and practiced, which I take to be a proper philosophical subject, showing how inadequate voting is to the task of democracy is a first step.

Precisely because, as you say, most political philosophers today have not questioned either voting or democracy, it may be necessary to approach the question whether democracy, as widely understood, really is the best form of governance we can imagine by focusing on the problems of something as concrete as anything in political philosophy ever gets: voting.

The fact that only a few philosophers have noticed problems with voting is what makes it---at least for me---so intriguing. I and a few others are either completely misguided by our intuitions or we are onto something.

And, yes, the plan is to confront democracy headon as a future topic for a meetup and ask or re-ask the question what is the best form of government we can imagine--and why.








Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 271
Gene,

Either voting is a serious act or it is not.

If not, then it is a waste of resources. Assuming our resources are not unlimited, it is immoral to waste resources---except possibly if the activity is expressly viewed as a form of amoral life-content such as entertainment or expressive activity (e.g., art), not to be judged by its consequences.

If it is a serious act purporting consequences of some kind---affecting the world, oneself or others, then it has moral import.

Either way it has moral import (setting aside the "amoral" escape clause, noted above). In the first case, because it is a waste. In the second, because it makes potentially great demands on the effort we put into it.

This is presented as a dictotomy, but there are other options.

One criticism of act consequentialism is that it is far too demanding. Any act that you do that does not maximize welfare in some way is immoral. Therefore, most of our daily activiities might be immoral. I assume you don't adhere to this form of consequentialism. In that case, I don't see why voting could not simply fall into the amoral category you mention. At best, there could be a very minor moral obligation to vote - based upon not being a free rider. Beyond that, I don't see any other moral issues that confront me. So why not simply say that voting, as an indiviidual issue, is at best a very minor moral issue, if it is one at all, and not to worry about it because there are far bigger fish to fry? Again, I think this comes down to differing intuitions. I do not have an intuition that individual voting is of substantial moral significance. I think that intuition is fairly widely shared among moral philosophers, who don't work on issues related to individual voting. Of course, this does not mean my intuition is more valid, just that others seem to have similar intuitions, perhaps for similar reasons.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 272
Gene,

So, on the way toward addressing the deficiencies of democracy as it is currently understood and practiced, which I take to be a proper philosophical subject, showing how inadequate voting is to the task of democracy is a first step.

Precisely because, as you say, most political philosophers today have not questioned either voting or democracy, it may be necessary to approach the question whether democracy, as widely understood, really is the best form of governance we can imagine by focusing on the problems of something as concrete as anything in political philosophy ever gets: voting.

The fact that only a few philosophers have noticed problems with voting is what makes it---at least for me---so intriguing. I and a few others are either completely misguided by our intuitions or we are onto something.

And, yes, the plan is to confront democracy headon as a future topic for a meetup and ask or re-ask the question what is the best form of government we can imagine--and why.


There are many economists and political scientists who have noticed problems with voting and democracy. For example, Concordet, Arrow, and most prominently, William Riker.

Also there definitely are quite a few philosophers who write on issues of democracy (for example David Estlund's recent book).

The point I've been making is that these issues are systemic issues, and not at all individual ones. For example, the problems noted by Concordet, Arrow, and Riker are systemic ones, and don't relate to the individual voter. The reason I find this whole topic confusing is that it seems that the issues could be addressed on the systemic level, but are presented as questions of individual rationality and morality, with the idea that the individual issues are supposed to cast the system into question. But the systemic issues aren't evident at the individual level.

I'm interested in theoretical issues related to democracy - there is a large literature on this in both philosophy and political science - and I actually listed this as a potential future topic in the prior thread (but it looks like you should do it instead :)). I just don't think that issues related to individual voting bear on these questions.

I recently went to a talk by a visiting professor at UW on ideal vs non-ideal political theory. Should our philosophical theories take into account, and be constrained by, what we think is possible of human nature? Some philosophers (like David Estlund) don't think so. Other philosophers like the visiting professor (David Schmidtz) think our theories should be constrained in this way. This has obvious implications for any theoriziing about the best form of government.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 274
I guess it is a little late for this, but since you are reading Brennan's book I just saw this interview with Brennan. The site has long interviews with the authors of recent philosophical books.

http://newbooksinphil...­

I just listened to the first part of this, and Brennan states that when laypeople hear about his material, they often think that voting is not an ethical issue. So this intution seems to be widely held. Also, Brennan states that philosophers might think that voting is not an ethical issue because (as I previously argued) is that it simply doesn't make a difference. His argument that it is an ethical issue in spite of not making a difference (the firing squad analogy) is very unconvincing to me.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 129
Gene:
This is presented as a dichotomy, but there are other options.

One criticism of act consequentialism is that it is far too demanding. Any act that you do that does not maximize welfare in some way is immoral. Therefore, most of our daily activities might be immoral. I assume you don't adhere to this form of consequentialism. In that case, I don't see why voting could not simply fall into the amoral category you mention.

The amorality of voting

Voting might indeed fall into a category of amoral acts. But under one fairly common understanding of the two main principle-based moral theories, utilitarianism and deontology, neither accepts the amorality of an act without an argument. In other words, I think the default understandings of those theories take pretty much any act but the most trivial (and even some of them) to have moral import unless it can be shown that an exception can be carved out for it. Since voting is not popularly taken to be a trivial act, the presumption is that it has moral import. In fact, it seems almost obvious that, to the extent it is taken seriously, voting is about promoting the better over the worse (consequentialism), or it is about doing honor to some privileged autonomy right we have (deontology).

Voting would have to be regarded as very optional---people would have to shrug off people's political opinions or their indifference to such opinions in a way which isn't true now for the idea that voting is amoral to be plausible. So I think intuitions behind one of those major theories must be at work in the background to explain the urgency with which people recommend voting.

I agree that other moral theories such as virtue theory, care-based, or casuistry might regard the default amorality of voting as more plausible. Voting under them might be seen as a practice that is part of a larger understanding---not necessarily moral---of how power in society should be disposed. That larger understanding (e.g., democracy) might (or might not) be morally judged, but the morality of voting itself would be beside the point.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 130
Gene:
At best, there could be a very minor moral obligation to vote - based upon not being a free rider. Beyond that, I don't see any other moral issues that confront me. So why not simply say that voting, as an individual issue, is at best a very minor moral issue, if it is one at all, and not to worry about it because there are far bigger fish to fry? Again, I think this comes down to differing intuitions. I do not have an intuition that individual voting is of substantial moral significance. I think that intuition is fairly widely shared among moral philosophers, who don't work on issues related to individual voting. Of course, this does not mean my intuition is more valid, just that others seem to have similar intuitions, perhaps for similar reasons.

On the free rider problem and the obligation to vote

Brennan offers some arguments in his book to the effect that there is no free rider problem in not voting. The free rider problem arises in situations that can be described as involving a restricted commons. Voting is not one of those situations. If the imperative to vote were like the imperative in a sign forbidding me to walk on a newly reseeded section of a public park, then the idea of free riding applied to voting would make sense. I might think, “Sure, if everyone ignored the sign we all would be deprived of the future good of a nice green space without a muddy trail, but I know that's not going to happen. Most will obey. That means I can cut across the reseeded section knowing (probably correctly) that my one violation will not harm the grass's growing back in any significant way.” I am in a hurry so I ignore the sign. What characterizes this situation is that there is only one way in which I can serve the public good: obey the sign. (Unless I violate the sign and improbably come back the next day and try to repair any damage I might do, or volunteer to help keep up the park at another time or in another way.)

But actions have opportunity costs and liabilities. Obeying the sign is actually a pretty good deal. It costs me little and I do not harm society in other ways by obeying it. Voting is not the same. The benefit to society of my obeying the sign is small but not infinitesimal. But the good I do the public is, in fact, infinitesimal by voting. Moreover, there are small but far from infinitesimal risks I place on the public good by voting. It turns out the chance I may accidentally kill someone driving to the polls is several orders of magnitude greater than the chance of loss to the public good by my staying home and not voting. (Brennan says he had some experience working for GEICO where such actuarial risks are routinely calculated.) It is true that if no one chose to do farming, that we would collectively suffer grave consequences. Does that mean that we are all obligated to be farmers? No. One does no grave moral wrong in choosing to be a dentist (and not a farmer). Dentists, too, contribute to the public good. In fact, some people with no farming aptitude might do better to be unemployed than farm. Some good things it is not good that everyone do. Some good things it is good that only enough people do them, not everyone. Voting is like that, Brennan argues.

If the contribution of my individual vote to the public good were not so infinitesimally small relative to the admittedly small but not infinitesimally small risks that my voting imposed on the public good, it might not be true that it is in the public interest for me not to vote. It is true that it is wrong to partake of a public good, such as good governance, without contributing to it. Even if voting were the only possible way I might contribute to good governance, I would then be obligated to vote only if the quality of my vote made up for its quantitative insignificance. But, in fact, there are many more ways with greater impact to contribute to good governance than by voting, such as running for office, for instance. And if we are not willing to invest that much in being public spirited, there are still many things vastly more useful to good governance than voting such as educating people on the issues even in small ways. The utility of what one does not have to be very great to beat that of the average vote.

Brennan goes further and says there are many other things we might do that are at least as functionally “public spirited” as voting and that these do not have to include anything we ordinarily think of as political. Merely being good at what one does and doing something that, done well, contributes positively to society---being a good farmer, dentist, caregiver, honest businessperson, etc. is an activity that contributes more to the public good than what many, if not most, voters do in voting. We may indeed have a moral duty to do public spirited things, but among them, voting is scarcely the only way to fulfill that duty. There is reason to think that voting is, in fact, a poor way of fulfilling that duty if some of the considerations above on the utility of individual votes are true.

I think a positive argument could be made that in the context of promoting good governance we would not want free riders voting anyway. The free rider mentality is probably not one we want to encourage politically. Free riders should stay unrepresented!

It is difficult to see on consequential or deontological grounds how there could be even a “minor” obligation to vote.

Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 278
Gene:
This is presented as a dichotomy, but there are other options.

One criticism of act consequentialism is that it is far too demanding. Any act that you do that does not maximize welfare in some way is immoral. Therefore, most of our daily activities might be immoral. I assume you don't adhere to this form of consequentialism. In that case, I don't see why voting could not simply fall into the amoral category you mention.

The amorality of voting

Voting might indeed fall into a category of amoral acts. But under one fairly common understanding of the two main principle-based moral theories, utilitarianism and deontology, neither accepts the amorality of an act without an argument. In other words, I think the default understandings of those theories take pretty much any act but the most trivial (and even some of them) to have moral import unless it can be shown that an exception can be carved out for it. Since voting is not popularly taken to be a trivial act, the presumption is that it has moral import. In fact, it seems almost obvious that, to the extent it is taken seriously, voting is about promoting the better over the worse (consequentialism), or it is about doing honor to some privileged autonomy right we have (deontology).

Voting would have to be regarded as very optional---people would have to shrug off people's political opinions or their indifference to such opinions in a way which isn't true now for the idea that voting is amoral to be plausible. So I think intuitions behind one of those major theories must be at work in the background to explain the urgency with which people recommend voting.

I agree that other moral theories such as virtue theory, care-based, or casuistry might regard the default amorality of voting as more plausible. Voting under them might be seen as a practice that is part of a larger understanding---not necessarily moral---of how power in society should be disposed. That larger understanding (e.g., democracy) might (or might not) be morally judged, but the morality of voting itself would be beside the point.

In the interview I posted, the interviewer states that many people including philosophers, might think that voting has no normative dimensions, that it is like, in the interviewers words, "having dinner". Then Brennan himself states that some laypeople in response to his work have thought it absurd that there could be an ethics of voting. So as it seems as if Brennan is going agaist the common "folk" intuition, the burden of proof is on him. The folk intution could be wrong, but I'm not convinced.

I'm not looking at voting using any general moral framework to begin with. My contention is that it is best addressed as a systemic issue, and as such, is in the framework of democratic theory. For example, one form of democratic theory suggests that democracy is just a way to aggregate preferences, and not to promote the common good. So counter Plato, this framework says that democracy has nothing to do - positive or negative - with wisdom. Brennan doesn't accept this framework but the key point is that Brennan's arguments themselves come from a specfiic democratic framework, and don't make much sense under other frameworks. So I think our approaches are fundamentally different. I see all individual issues as completely derivative on the larger framework. I think that you think that there are problems with individual voting which can cast the framework into question but this has the cart before the horse IMO.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 279
Gene:
At best, there could be a very minor moral obligation to vote - based upon not being a free rider. Beyond that, I don't see any other moral issues that confront me. So why not simply say that voting, as an individual issue, is at best a very minor moral issue, if it is one at all, and not to worry about it because there are far bigger fish to fry? Again, I think this comes down to differing intuitions. I do not have an intuition that individual voting is of substantial moral significance. I think that intuition is fairly widely shared among moral philosophers, who don't work on issues related to individual voting. Of course, this does not mean my intuition is more valid, just that others seem to have similar intuitions, perhaps for similar reasons.

On the free rider problem and the obligation to vote

Brennan offers some arguments in his book to the effect that there is no free rider problem in not voting. The free rider problem arises in situations that can be described as involving a restricted commons. Voting is not one of those situations. If the imperative to vote were like the imperative in a sign forbidding me to walk on a newly reseeded section of a public park, then the idea of free riding applied to voting would make sense. I might think, “Sure, if everyone ignored the sign we all would be deprived of the future good of a nice green space without a muddy trail, but I know that's not going to happen. Most will obey. That means I can cut across the reseeded section knowing (probably correctly) that my one violation will not harm the grass's growing back in any significant way.” I am in a hurry so I ignore the sign. What characterizes this situation is that there is only one way in which I can serve the public good: obey the sign. (Unless I violate the sign and improbably come back the next day and try to repair any damage I might do, or volunteer to help keep up the park at another time or in another way.)

But actions have opportunity costs and liabilities. Obeying the sign is actually a pretty good deal. It costs me little and I do not harm society in other ways by obeying it. Voting is not the same. The benefit to society of my obeying the sign is small but not infinitesimal. But the good I do the public is, in fact, infinitesimal by voting. Moreover, there are small but far from infinitesimal risks I place on the public good by voting. It turns out the chance I may accidentally kill someone driving to the polls is several orders of magnitude greater than the chance of loss to the public good by my staying home and not voting. (Brennan says he had some experience working for GEICO where such actuarial risks are routinely calculated.) It is true that if no one chose to do farming, that we would collectively suffer grave consequences. Does that mean that we are all obligated to be farmers? No. One does no grave moral wrong in choosing to be a dentist (and not a farmer). Dentists, too, contribute to the public good. In fact, some people with no farming aptitude might do better to be unemployed than farm. Some good things it is not good that everyone do. Some good things it is good that only enough people do them, not everyone. Voting is like that, Brennan argues.

If the contribution of my individual vote to the public good were not so infinitesimally small relative to the admittedly small but not infinitesimally small risks that my voting imposed on the public good, it might not be true that it is in the public interest for me not to vote. It is true that it is wrong to partake of a public good, such as good governance, without contributing to it. Even if voting were the only possible way I might contribute to good governance, I would then be obligated to vote only if the quality of my vote made up for its quantitative insignificance. But, in fact, there are many more ways with greater impact to contribute to good governance than by voting, such as running for office, for instance. And if we are not willing to invest that much in being public spirited, there are still many things vastly more useful to good governance than voting such as educating people on the issues even in small ways. The utility of what one does not have to be very great to beat that of the average vote.

Brennan goes further and says there are many other things we might do that are at least as functionally “public spirited” as voting and that these do not have to include anything we ordinarily think of as political. Merely being good at what one does and doing something that, done well, contributes positively to society---being a good farmer, dentist, caregiver, honest businessperson, etc. is an activity that contributes more to the public good than what many, if not most, voters do in voting. We may indeed have a moral duty to do public spirited things, but among them, voting is scarcely the only way to fulfill that duty. There is reason to think that voting is, in fact, a poor way of fulfilling that duty if some of the considerations above on the utility of individual votes are true.

I think a positive argument could be made that in the context of promoting good governance we would not want free riders voting anyway. The free rider mentality is probably not one we want to encourage politically. Free riders should stay unrepresented!

It is difficult to see on consequential or deontological grounds how there could be even a “minor” obligation to vote.


I find Brennan's arguments in general to be unconvincing. But I would roughly agree with the above. That is why I used the word "minor". The obligation, which is small to begin with, is counterbalanced by a host of other factors.
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