The Ethics of Voting: A Lecture by Jason Brennan

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

My cynicism toward voting began a few years ago. After standing in line a mere 10 minutes at early voting back in 2012, I impatiently mentioned to my wife that we could leave and the state would still remain Red (as it has since 1980). While this Republican coloring may not always be the case due to the increasing Latino population (though they would have to increase their voter turnout), it was the case that time around. Why the sudden surge in pessimism? Boredom, for one, but also the growing realization that we do not live in a swing state (not that my vote’s instrumental value would increase much even in a swing state). The Romney/Ryan ticket was going to carry Texas despite my vote, not because of it. After teasing my mother via text about this unavoidable fact (she was a bit more zealous about her Republican vote than I was), I finally made it to the voting booth. I sat there for a minute, staring at the names of the presidential candidates. I suddenly felt the urge to vote for the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, former Republican Governor of New Mexico and founder of Big J Enterprises (one of the largest construction companies in New Mexico when he sold it in 1999). This made sense considering I am more libertarian in my views than Romney and that my vote would not really change the outcome of my state (The Onion got it right). Nonetheless, having prepped myself to vote for Romney ever since he gained the Republican nomination, I followed through. However, I remained extremely skeptical of my so-called “duty to vote.”

Philosopher Jason Brennan’s Princeton-published The Ethics of Voting tackles the folk theory that says we have a duty to vote. Not only is the instrumental value of a single vote vanishingly small, but most voters are ignorant when it comes to politics: both of the candidates’ policy positions and the social science behind those policies. And this ignorance means most people should not vote. One may not have a duty to vote, but if one does vote, then that person has a duty to vote well.

You can see some of these ideas discussed in Brennan’s lecture below:


5 thoughts on “The Ethics of Voting: A Lecture by Jason Brennan”

  1. Nice post.

    What I think Brennan gives short shrift to is the idea that voting is a kind of ritual. I think Brennan could make the same instrumental arguments against taking the sacrament, but he would be missing the essence of the ritual if he did so. And I’d argue that the significance of voting is missed if it doesn’t take into account this kind of ritualistic and symbolic significance.

  2. Now you’re just trying to provoke me, Walker. :-)

    I really disagree with Brennan’s position, as Walker well knows. Basic outline:

    1. The logic, if one actually follows it, is insidious. If people only voted when they thought their vote mattered, then so few people would vote that the political system would destabilize.

    2.Americans put way too much emphasis on policy and not nearly enough on character. So yeah, people–by and large–are too ignorant to be good judges of policy, but so what? If elections are about picking the best policy, they are a stupid way to go about it. Much better to just turn over governance to a panel of experts.

    3. Fundamentally, I deeply mistrust the consequence-centered view of duty. The idea that if your action won’t have an impact then you can’t have a duty to do it strikes me as missing the point (for one) and leading to further degradation of concepts that America already sorely lacks (like honor).

    So yeah, I’m not a fan.

    (I thought you made an interesting point too, Robert C.)

  3. 1. Brennan doesn’t focus a ton on whether your vote has instrumental value. It certainly comes up, but it’s often used in constructing other points. By no means is his main thrust, “Your vote means nothing, so you shouldn’t vote.” In fact, I don’t think he ever makes that argument (I’d have to double-check). He discusses how a single vote has very little instrumental value in order to *rebut* instrumental arguments in favor of voting, e.g. one should vote because your single vote could sway the election, prevent democracy from collapsing, improve governmental quality, etc. All of these are empirically false and demonstrably so. For me, however, stressing that your vote basically does zilch is important because that allows us to have more interesting conversations about voting (like the ones proposed by Robert). This is likely why Brennan begins with instrumental arguments and moves on from there. I didn’t explain every single argument in the blip above. I threw out something to wet people’s appetites. And I find the “if everyone thought that way” argument kind of irrelevant. They don’t all think that way. To use my example once again, if everyone decided *not* to be a doctor, that would be really bad. But that doesn’t mean everyone should be a doctor.

    2. Brennan has a section of this too. A sample:

    “To a significant degree, voting for character is voting for the wrong reasons. When we elect someone, we give him power. That power can be used for good or bad. The office of the presidency is not an honorific meant to show we respect that person’s character. Giving someone the presidency is not bestowing a medal or a certificate of commendation but giving him (some) control of the state, an institution that makes rules, and forces innocent people to comply with these rules using violence and threats of violence. We need to be sure he will do a good job controlling it. So character-based voting is acceptable only insofar as it is a proxy to the quality of the governance a candidate is likely to produce…If someone is morally corrupt, there is a pretty good chance he will use the power of the state for personal benefit rather than to promote the common good. Yet, a virtuous politician with a powerful sense of justice might still be deeply misguided and committed to all sorts of counterproductive, harmful policies. Having the right values is not sufficient for making good policy, because it requires social-scientific knowledge to know whether any given policies is likely to achieve those values. Just as an incompetent surgeon can still be a virtuous person, so an incompetent politician can be a virtuous person” (pg. 84).

    3. See #1. Dismantling the claim that your single vote actually does something is necessary to get to other more interesting arguments in favor of a “duty to vote.” Bryan Caplan has a nice brief outline of his basic points:

  4. Walker-

    I have had a copy of his book on my shelf ever since I got one at an IHS seminar back in the day. Brennan was there, and gave one or two talks, so everything I know about the book / argument is from one of the talks (that was a summary of the book). Eventually, I’ll probably have to read it.

    I think the first point is the area of biggest disagreement, but I don’t have a better rebuttal for you now than I’ve had in the past. Just a stubborn insistence that ideals about how everyone should behave do matter. The doctor exmaple isn’t a very good one, because it would be bad if no one was a doctor and it would also be bad if everyone was a doctor. So there can’t be any kind of a universal duty (for or against) being a doctor. That doesn’t apply to things like voting, the harmless torturer thought experiment, eating meat (if you’re a moral vegetarian, yes, that’s a plausible position to take), littering, and so forth. In those cases, there is a position that–in an ideal world–everyone would take. Or, in a weaker formulation, if everyone did the good thing (voting, not littering, etc.) we wouldn’t run into the kind of problems we would if everyone tried to be a doctor.

    But, yeah. I need to work on on it more.

    2. I think it’s worth pointing out that Brennan’s argument here is contradictory to Mormon scripture and General Conference talks and the like. Not that he would care at all, obviously, but we should. Of course that doesn’t say anything about why the technocratic fallacy is bad, but it does strongly indicate that we should be cautious.

    I have an entire post about the technocratic fallacy almost ready to go, so I’ll get to that soon enough. For now, I’ll just say that I think technical prowess is vastly overrated in policy. The greatest threats that we face–internally and externally–arise from failures of character more than they arise from failure of policy sophistication.

    3. If I recall correctly, these arguments basically boiled down into (a) there are other ways to be a good citizen (that aren’t universal duties) and (b) there’s nothing special about voting that should make it a universal duty. I disagree, but basically for the same reasons I’m having a hard time articulating as point #1.

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