Ethics of Voting

The Ethics of Voting


[political philosophy] On what basis can the average voter legitimately vote?
Nothing is more integral to democracy than voting. Most people believe that every citizen has the civic duty or moral obligation to vote, that any sincere vote is morally acceptable, and that buying, selling, or trading votes is inherently wrong. In this provocative book, Jason Brennan challenges our fundamental assumptions about voting, revealing why it is not a duty for most citizens–in fact, he argues, many people owe it to the rest of us not to vote.Bad choices at the polls can result in… more about book…

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[political philosophy] On what basis can the average voter legitimately vote?(r/philosophy)

Let me articulate what I take to be the primary argument for voting being irrational.

First off, this is an argument leveled at an individual actor, not at a voting bloc. It goes as follows:

Your vote affects the election outcome only when it breaks a tie. If you vote and your candidate wins by two or more votes, then your candidate would have won even if you hadn’t voted. If you vote and he loses, he would have lost even if you hadn’t voted. In both cases, the Pareto optimal outcome was to not vote and realize the outcome then to vote and realize the same outcome. Instead of voting you should have stayed home, gone for a walk, washed your dog (if that’s what you’re into), done just about anything with a slight positive utility. Again, a premise in this argument is that your vote ONLY matters when it plays a decisive role in the election outcome.

Another premise in this argument is that your vote has no causal relation to how everyone else votes. You are an independent actor and so is everyone else who votes. Millions of people vote in United States national elections. Over 132 million voted in 2008. The chances that a presidential election is decided by just one vote is so unlikely that even if you thought the value of casting a decisive vote is one hundred trillion dollars, you are imposing more cost on society (and yourself) just by briefly populating the road to get to the polling site than you are promoting welfare with your vote.

In short, when you account for the chance that your vote sways an election, then your the value of your vote diminishes so greatly that you are be better off giving me a dollar and not voting than you are voting.

Here’s an article by Steven Landsburg, one of the experts in the likelihood of voting decisively. In this article and in one of his papers he claims that the chance of any one voter being decisive in the 2004 election was equal to the chance of winning the Powerball lottery 128 times consecutively.

Here’s where the decision theory kicks in. Once the utility calculus includes the cost of voting, the decision to not vote strictly dominates the decision to vote. It is better to stay home and watch the election outcome obtain than it is to go vote and watch the very same election outcome obtain.

Now if everyone bought into the argument and decided not to vote, then the likelihood of decisiveness for your vote would increase and at some point it would become rational to vote. But so long as many people are voting, it remains irrational.

Last edit: I totally recommend The Ethics of Voting.


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Jason Brennan

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Princeton University Press

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The Ethics of Voting

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