Election Day

My wife and I always argue about elections. I'm ashamed to admit that I often take a very utilitarian approach to them. No election in my lifetime has been decided by a single vote, so my own particular vote has no value, so it doesn't matter if I vote or not. So when it's convenient for me to do so, I vote; when it's not, I don't feel guilty about not voting.

My wife, by contrast, is much more civic-minded. She argues--and rightly so--that it is our civic duty to vote, it is a precious right, won by the blood and toil of the generations that went before us, and we have a moral obligation not to waste this precious liberty.

I don't actually disagree with her, at least in my heart of hearts. But in practical terms I know that it will make no difference at all whether I vote or not. When I've said this to my wife, she points out what is often said in such contexts: "Well if everybody thought the way you did...". The trouble with this sort of objection is that it is a totally non-practical argument offered against a practical one. In real life it simply is not the case that "everybody" thinks this way. A lot of people think that voting is a waste of time, and they don't do it, but plenty of other people do vote--enough of them, in fact, that it would not make any difference if I were to vote. The in-principle argument is good only for showing why democracy requires such things as "civic duties"--it does not provide a compelling reason for any one person to actually head out to the polls.

Some of you may now be starting to understand why my wife hates philosophy. Others may find themselves secretly agreeing that a single vote makes no difference. These latter folks may be surprised to learn that I have only missed one or two elections in thirty years. I've always felt that it was important to vote, even when it makes no difference to the outcome. There are certain times when, in some abstract moral sense, it can be important to register one's preferences in an official way. If you are living in Germany in the 1930s, you want to be voting against Nazi candidates even if you know that the Zeitgeist is against you. You accomplish two things, even if you do not affect the outcome. First, you add your number to those who are dissenting, thus giving folks a better idea of who stands for what. Second, you raise a kind of objection to what is going on. If one is strictly a utilitarian it may not make any difference if objections are raised or not, but if one is not a consequentialist than it can be important to raise a cry even when no one is listening.

The importance of voting was also brought home to me in another way back in the 1990s when the voting structures in South Africa changed. I remember listening to news reports on NPR of the first free elections in South Africa--there were interviews with blacks who spoke very movingly of their experiences at the polls, and I felt ashamed that I had ever even considered not voting.

So today I'm off to the polls myself. There aren't many important issues on the ballot in my area, but just being free to do it is, perhaps, reason enough to go.

Comments

Steven said…
Dear Sir,

The practical argument against your stance is that the Catechism and the teaching of the Church enjoin direct participation in representative government. At the last presidential election, I debated with some as to whether the deliberate withholding of a vote on moral grounds with a clear statement of reason constituted an appropriate interaction with the governmental system. I still don't know. But the practical argument you advance here does not seem to do so.

On the other hand, who am I to object anyway. I disagree with any argument from practicality qua practicality--it smakes of utilitarianism to me and next to the Sartreian brand of existentialism, utilitarianism is one of the more hideous philosophies of the last two hundred years. Most hideous is its manifestation as Deweyism in the Public School systems in which we believe that training someone is equivalent to educating them.

But all I've really done now is expose my ignorance and give you a list of my prejudices. Nevertheless, it let's you know someone is reading and enjoying what you write.

shalom,

Steven
Tom said…
I don't agree that taking into account the achievable ends of the act of voting amounts to utilitarianism, as long as the act of voting isn't reduced to its achievable ends.

But I have the impression that "Well if everybody thought the way you did..." arguments are very Kantian, and I thought you, Scott, were relatively sympathetic to Kant. What am I missing?
Scott Carson said…
Steven

I'm not really sure it follows that by not voting I'm also, ipso facto refusing to engage in direct participation in representative government. There could be all sorts of other things that I do in my community besides casting votes. If casting votes were a necessary condition, then resident aliens would not be able to fulfill the Church's command.

Tom,

I'm not really sure what would be meant by a consequentialist theory if not something like "taking into account the achievable ends of the act", but as you point out, we don't have to reduce the act of voting to its achievable ends, as I think I agreed in my closing paragraphs: there can be other reasons for voting than trying to achieve some straightforward end like swinging the election one way or the other.

Now, regarding your Kantian worry, I would have to say that my wife's question doesn't sound to me like an invocation of the categorical imperative or anything like that, because surely no contradition in conception or will follows from making the maxim of my act "I will refrain from voting whenever there is no difference in outcome between my voting and my not voting." If that were the maxim that everyone operated under, things would work quite well. I think my wife is making the much simpler claim that if everybody stayed home from the polls no votes would ever get taken. That is trivially true, of course, but it never happens. But it often happens that people stay home because they think (rightly) that their vote will make no difference in the outcome of the vote.

So if Steven is correct--and I think he is--that we have a duty to engage in representative government, and if it is further true, as I think it is, that casting a vote in a specific poll cannot be a necessary condition for fulfilling that duty, then our reasons for voting must be something other than thinking that our vote will cause the election to come out one way rather than another. It has to be a reason of the sort I mentioned in the closing paragraphs of my post.
Steven said…
Dear Sir,

On the alien issue--as they do not have the right, they are not obliged to vote. It is only those who do. Now I don't know if having the right constitutes an obligation. That was argued some months back for a goodly time and there was no certain conclusion. I held the position that when the choice was between two perceived evils we were morally obligated NOT to vote for either one. Others suggested that a mutated form of the doctrine of double effect prevailed and one was still obliged.

I am not certain. A resident alien's participation in representative government might consist of supporting a licit candidate.

However, as I'm not 100% certain that voting is an obligation and I do think that there may be circumstances under which it may be required not to place a vote, I will herewith cease my small contribution.

shalom,

Steven
Scott Carson said…
Steven

As it happens, I agree with you on the PDE question--see my post here.
Steven said…
Dear Sir,

I only wish you had been blogging during the last election. It would have been a source of some comfort. Thanks for the reference. I really like this blog. You deal with difficult issues very clearly--it is evident you've had some experience teaching. I am not a philosopher (and I don't play one on TV) and I often have difficulty following some of the abstruse lines of reasoning that might go into any particular argument. I truly appreciate the clarity of your expositions.

Thank you.

Your students may not know it, but they are blessed to have such a teacher.

shalom,

Steven
Scott:

I look at voting the same way the church looks at attendance at mass: it is a duty to witness. Does your witness "make a difference" ? Yes. Every voice, every witness and every vote counts. Period. Those who say it doesn't are emphasizing the depersonalization of "the collective". This depersonalization is only accentuated if you 1) don't witness at mass on Sunday and 2) don't vote. Period. I don't have fancy theories or political-philosophies...just a demand that if God put me here, he put me here for a reason. I will do my duty. Sometimes, my guy will even win....only to disappoint me later. Sometimes, the other guy will turn out to be the guy I'm glad won instead. I've been away...but maybe you just haven't had enough sushi lately to keep your thinking clear. VBG!!

Good to check in with you, Scott! Many best...and thanks!
Tom said…
I'm not really sure what would be meant by a consequentialist theory if not something like "taking into account the achievable ends of the act"...

If you don't take into account the achieveable ends of an act, then why -- to what end -- would you act?

Every human act is done for a purpose. If you don't know whether something you do can achieve the purpose for which you do it, then... well, then I think I'd want to drive and navigate if we were to travel in the same car.

...but as you point out, we don't have to reduce the act of voting to its achievable ends....

Right. Consequentialism reduces moral discernment to the evaluation of consequences. Still, proper discernment does take consequences into account.

So the mere fact that, in deciding whether to vote, I take into account the negligible effect of my vote on the outcome of the election does not make me a consequentialist or a utilitarian. Saying that the fact my vote will not affect the outcome is sufficient reason not to vote is utilitarian; how hideously so would depend, I suppose, on how much thought I'd given to the possibility that there might be other reasons to vote than determining the winner.
Scott Carson said…
James

Thanks for checking back in! Fortunately, I've just had my daily sushi infusion, so I'm thinking much more clearly now.

I'm not sure I would agree with you that our duty to attend Sunday Mass is grounded in a duty to bear witness, but I do agree with you that we can have such a role in elections. Even though democratic elections are usually by secret ballot, we go to be counted--a point I raised in my post.

When two candidates are equally noxious, however, it seems to me that we have a duty not to vote for either one. This strikes me as a clear enough case as to make it impossible for actually casting a vote to be any kind of necessary condition on doing our civic duty.
Scott Carson said…
Tom

I think one of the things you could take into account, other than the achievable ends, would be ends that are less tangible: taking a stand for what is right, whether it is achievable or not. There may very well be consequences to doing such a thing. In the worst case, you might go to jail. In the best case, you might be thought a hero. But in any case, if your reason for acting is the possible consequence, then you are a utilitarian.

But I take it that we agree that Catholics, at least, ought not to be acting out of consideration for possible consequences, except in those cases where we must act and all of our choices are bad ones (the sort of case mentioned by the Catechism in the section on the death penalty).
Jeff said…
Remember the drudical Byronic Preface for the "Feast of High Summer"?
Tom said…
Of course we ought "to be acting out of consideration for possible consequences"! The consequences of my turning right out of the parking lot instead of left are that I don't arrive at my home tonight. You don't think I should care about that?

As for less tangible ends, well, they're still ends, right? I mean, "taking a stand for what is right" is an end, perhaps even a virtuous end, good in itself. You wouldn't say, I hope, that taking a stand for what is right is unachievable unless what is right is achievable.
Scott Carson said…
Tom (the not-Kreitzberg one, I think--too many Toms around here!)

If I understand your driving example correctly it's not an example of consequentialist reasoning in the moral sense. (Forgive me if your example was facetious and I'm just too dense to see that; I have to assume you're serious because I don't want you to be all offended if I don't have an answer for your example.)

The morally inappropriate sort of consequentialist reasoning is inextricably bound up with hypothetical reasoning, reasoning that takes the form "If I desire x, and if y is the only (or the best) means of obtaining x, then I ought to do y," where x is a specifically moral end.

But morally acceptable reasoning is never hypothetical in that way--it never proceeds on the assumption that we are at liberty to determine for ourselves what our morally acceptable ends are. Moral ends are supposed to be categorical, that is, morally obligatory for everyone in all circumstances, whether we actually desire them or not. So, for example, we do not> deliberate about, say, lying, by saying to ourselves "If I desire to be truthful, I ought to tell the truth, and I do desire to be truthful, so I will tell the truth." We don't reason that way because that makes it a matter of personal preference whether we be truthful or not. The morally acceptable reasoning puts this in the form of a duty: "I have the duty always to tell the truth, so I must tell the truth." There's no "If I desire..." involved.

So, in your driveway example, you confuse what is really just a practical matter (what is the route that will take me to my house) with a moral obligation. You don't, in fact, have any moral obligation to turn right when you leave the parking lot (unless you promised your wife you would come straight home or something). But if you want to wind up at home rather than someplace else, then you ought to turn right. But that is not a moral problem.
Tom said…
Scott:

It's been me all along. I'll try to add my picture so you can keep my comments straight.
Scott Carson said…
Tom

That's a very good likeness! I was confused because the capax Dei address is the only one I recognize.

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