Jason Brennan's The Ethics of Voting
By Bryan Caplan
Jason Brennan is my favorite philosopher under the age of 40. Now he’s published a marvelous book, The Ethics of Voting, with Princeton University Press. In 210 short pages, he raises and resolves a series of ethical dilemmas every potential voter faces: Is there a duty to vote? What is the connection between voting and civic virtue? How should you vote if you do vote? When is buying and selling votes wrong? He concludes by doing something very unusual for a philosopher: He combines his moral theory with social science to pass moral judgment on the citizens of the world’s democracies.
I hate to spoil the suspense, but Brennan’s main answers are:
1. There is no duty to vote. In fact, if you’re going to vote the wrong way (see below), you have a duty not to vote. People might have duties of beneficence and reciprocity, but voting is only one way to discharge them.
2. There are many extrapolitical ways to exercise civic virtue and contribute to the common good:
[M]any activities stereotypically considered private, such as being a conscientious employee, making art, running a for-profit business, or pursuing scientific discoveries, can also be exercises of civic virtue. For many people, in fact, these are better ways to exercise civic virtue.
While we’re at it, let’s add “having children” and “being a good parent” to the list.
3. There’s no duty to vote, but if you do vote, you have a duty to vote “only for things [you] justifiably believe would promote the common good.” He later elaborates:
As a citizen, you do not owe it to others to provide them with the best possible governance. But if you take on the office of voter, you acquire additional moral responsibilities, just as you would were you to become the Federal Reserve chairperson, a physician, or a congressperson. The electorate decides who governs. Sometimes they decide policy directly. They owe it to the governed to provide what they justifiably believe or ought to believe is the best governance, just as others with political power owe it to the governed to do the same. [emphasis mine]
4. Paying people to vote for things you justifiably believe promote the common good is morally permissible. So is accepting money to vote for things you justifiably believe promote the common good. His evidence includes multiple examples involving the Godfather trilogy and Tetlock’s work on sacred values. Read it for yourself.
5. After surveying the literature on voter ignorance and voter bias, Brennan concludes that violations of ethical voting are widespread. While voters usually focus on the common good, they are epistemically irresponsible and deeply in error on many questions of great policy relevance.
The book ends on a note both high and depressing:
My goal has been to defend certain normative claims. If this book induces better behavior among voters, great, but I do not expect that. My purpose has been proof, not persuasion or behavior modification. If voters behave badly, we will need more than one philosophy book to fix that.
P.S. My favorite aside in the book:
Philosophers often use state-of-nature thought experiments to help illustrate how politics contributes to the common good… [W]e can also imagine an “inverse state of nature” – a political society that lacks private, nonpolitical activity. In the inverse state of nature, people try to gather together for public deliberation, voting, and law creation, but no one engages in private actions. In the inverse state of nature, life would also be nasty, poor, brutish, and short, because there would be no food, music, science, shelter, or art.