How good is voting?

It is oft repeated (at least in the literature I’ve read and in the circles I inhabit) that voting is a duty.  The notion, as I would present it, is that someone is being quite derelict in their behaviour if they fail to vote.  This perspective is usually justified on the grounds of the value of democratic participation – one should take an interest and participate in directing one’s country.  The judgement, then, is that it is wrong to fail to exercise one’s democratic rights.  I wonder though, to a certain degree, how much a negative judgement on the non-voter can be justified.  I’m inclined to say that voting is superior to not voting, but I wonder if the importance of the act is possibly being exaggerated out of proper proportions.

What is it that makes voting good?  I would describe it thus: voting is an act upon the world to make it more how you think it should be.  As I’ve explored previously, I think that acting upon the world thus is both how we act autonomously, and the most that we can ask of anyone who wants to be a good person.  Failing to vote is one of many ways that we can fail to exert ourselves on our environment as we think we should.  The question, though, is how we should rank our successes and failures.  What makes different autonomous actions better, and what makes non-autonomous actions worse?

Following from what I’ve explored in my systems previously, it would follow that people can not truly be blameworthy for failing in autonomy (the person who acts autonomously does as they should, the person who fails does not fit the criterion of an agent whom we can judge).  I’m going to set that notion aside for the moment, because it is still under development.  For the rest of the conversation, I shall proceed on the basis that that which differentiates our actions needs to be fairly consequential, and that action or inaction should be judged on our own perspective of the importance of that action.  In other words, my crime for not acting is greater based on the good I perceive myself to not be enacting.  This seems to be a reasonable extension of my moral structure – since the most you can ask of someone is that they do what they think is right, they are more wrong the less that they do what they think is right.  This could also easily be thought of in utilitarian terms, which at least some of you will probably find more palatable.

On this basis, it seems to me that not voting does not sit that high on the totem poll of wrongs.  The impact of any one person not voting, I think its fair to say, is negligible.  Indeed, I can easily imagine acts that at least seem to have greater moral worth that take a comparable amount of time to researching candidates and voting.

Let me know what you think,


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8 thoughts on “How good is voting?

  1. All human activities and interactions can be split into two broad categories (1) those which are involve the initiations of force (murder, assault, rape, kidnapping, theft, coercion, imprisonment) and (2) those which do not.

    ‘Voting’ is a human interaction no different to any other form of human interaction. Therefore before we can judge the act of ‘voting’ we need to know what is being voted for.

    To judge ‘voting’ on its own (in a vacuum) is like judging ‘sexual intercourse’ on its own. Is sexual intercourse good or bad? Well…. it all depends if the people involved are initiating force or not. If they are not initiating force we call it ‘lovemaking’ and judge it positively (or neutrally)… and if they are initiating force we call it ‘rape’ and judge it negatively.

    Voting is the same. The question which needs to be asked whenever an election is held is “Is the outcome which is being voted for moral or immoral?”

    Ten friends out on the town voting on what restaurant to go to is perfectly fine because they have all agreed to participate in the vote – and the outcome does not involved initiating force against anyone else.

    But ten friends in a nightclub voting on which girl to kidnap and gang rape is not acceptable, even though it is just as democratic. In this scenario force will be initiated against the chosen victim ie rape. The fact that they are *voting* to initiate that force does not make the immoral act of rape suddenly become virtuous. And just because five of them suggested the vote in the first place does not mean the other five are duty bound to participate. The moral thing to do in this case is to NOT participate in the vote, to NOT support this particular example of democracy-in-action and to NOT support its outcome.

    In political elections the voters vote for a third party (who will be acting as their representatives if elected) to initiate force against the rest of the population by forcing them to obey certain laws and stealing half their income at gunpoint etc etc etc.

    And so if we define the initiation of force as immoral (and every sane person does) the political voting is clearly immoral.

    Mugging someone in the street is immoral…… and voting for a third party to mug them on your behalf (as your elected representative) is just as immoral – with the added bonus of being cowardly too!

    If you vote in a political election you KNOW full well that the people you vote for will use threats of violence against me to force me to fund stuff which you want but which I may strongly object to. I will be threatened with being put inside a cage. And if I do not surrender to those threats a bunch of burly men in special blue costumes armed with tasers, clubs and guns will be dispatched to kidnap me and force me into that cage. And if I try to defend myself and my property from their aggression I will probably be shot.

    Those burly men in blue costumes are acting on behalf of the voting public. And so to ‘vote’ in a political election is to threaten your neighbours (via a third party) with potentially lethal violence to force them to accept and obey your own political agenda.

    And that is the very definition of terrorism.

    • I would say that you’re claim rests on one fundamental axiom – the initiation of force is always wrong. By force, you mean the use of physical means to cause someone else to act as you think they should.

      I think the main problem that I have with your accounts, Spinning, is that you present them in black and white terms. You say ‘And so if we define the initiation of force as immoral (and every sane person does) the political voting is clearly immoral.’ It is not immediately obvious to me that this is true. It is certainly possible, but I do not think you have the right to say that thinking as you think is the criterion for sanity – that seems like outright dogmatism to me. My ultimate moral principle is uncertainty – I think we should always continue exploring the world, and at any particular moment act as we think right. I do not think that this is an insane proposal.

      I am quite happy to explore with you the notion that it is always wrong to initiate force, but the conversation cannot be productive if you assume your opposition to be insane. To profitably engage in intellectual debate, you cannot assume the truth is obvious.

      • “..To profitably engage in intellectual debate, you cannot assume the truth is obvious..”

        I agree, but I would argue that truth is obvious in everyday society. Civilised society is fundamentally based on the notion that the initiation of force (coercion, rape, murder, assault, kidnapping, theft etc) is immoral, and therefore socially unacceptable.

        Every sane person in society classifies the initiation of force as immoral and thus socially unacceptable behaviour.

        When people do initiate force society aways condemns that behaviour. Even a mugger knows he has done wrong.

        The only way to make the initiation of force generally acceptable to the population is to heavily disguise it using endless propaganda, indoctrination, special euphemisms and other psychological techniques. And this is precisely what governments do. The propaganda starts at age four in state controlled schools based on the Prussian Schooling system.

        In the case of political voting, one of the psychological techniques used is to never overtly state what everyone is actually voting FOR (ie the initiation of force against the rest of the population by a third party).

        And this is why people talk about ‘voting’….. or ‘voting for a candidate/ party’…. or ‘voting for certain policies’. At no point are we ever encouraged to actually finish the sentence and acknowledge the coercion and violence which these candidates will employ (on behalf of the voter) in order to impose their policies onto everyone.

        Another psychological technique is the huge pomp and ceremony surrounding political elections.

        But I don’t want to just make claims – if you want to prove me wrong please do. Here are some annoying questions to help prove/ disprove my claim 🙂

        (Apart from voting) can you give me any real life examples where you personally initiated force to get what you wanted… or got someone else to initiate force on your behalf?

        Can you give me any hypothetical examples where you would be willing to initiate force to get what you wanted?

        Do you agree that the morality of any given act is the same whether you perform it yourself or get a third party to perform that act on your behalf?

        If so, are you (morally speaking) prepared to threaten me with violence in order to force me to fund stuff that you want me to fund but which I strongly object to?

        If you’re not prepared to threaten me with violence, how can you justify voting for a third party to threaten me with violence on your behalf?

        Logically that amounts to the same thing – wouldn’t you say?

      • I’m afraid that I cannot talk to you on this topic, at least not in the way that you are approaching it.

        “I agree, but I would argue that truth is obvious in everyday society.” – This basically means that your saying your position is obvious.

        “Every sane person in society classifies the initiation of force as immoral and thus socially unacceptable behaviour.” I do not think that this is self-evident, and I have said that I do not consider this is self evident. Therefore you are calling me insane.

        I do not want to prove you wrong, I want to engage in the conversation in a non confrontational manner, without ad hominem attacks. Please do not respond to this post with a reiteration of your previous points, just let me know if you understand why I am finding it challenging to converse with you.

      • “…I do not want to prove you wrong, I want to engage in the conversation in a non confrontational manner, without ad hominem attacks….”

        I did no mean to be confrontational and I don’t remember making any ad hominem attacks. Philosophy is all about applying reason and evidence to the world of human affairs. Sometimes the result challenges commonly accepted beliefs and world views – but that is not the same as being ‘confrontational’. It’s not my ‘opinion’ (or my fault!) that voting is immoral according to reason and evidence – it’s philosophy’s fault! 😉

        I am basically suggesting the vast majority of people in society are GOOD and VIRTUOUS (yourself included) and this means we must always be tricked into supporting immoral behaviour. And I am suggesting the whole system of political voting (AKA ‘democracy’) is one of those tricks used by the violent and coercive ruling classes to get essentially good people to act against their basic nature and condone, support and vote for the coercion and violence (the initiation of force) against themselves and against everyone else.

        My rational argument is that people who vote for the government to point guns at everyone else would not be prepared to behave that way themselves. In fact most people would regard that kind of behaviour as a grossly immoral act – a type of extortion/ terrorism.

        I’m sure you yourself would never dream of pointing a gun at me and threatening to put me inside a cage unless I fund certain things which you want me to…. and yet you probably have no problem with voting for a third party to threaten me *on your behalf*.

        Therefore we are faced with ***a logical contradiction*** (which is what philosophy is all about). On the one hand most people believe democracy is morally virtuous – and on the other hand most people believe the violence and coercion inherent to democracy is immoral.

        “..Please do not respond to this post with a reiteration of your previous points, just let me know if you understand why I am finding it challenging to converse with you..”

        TBH I am not exactly sure what your objections are. Can you be more specific? Do you actually disagree with anything I’ve actually said?

        If so I’d be happy to engage in a conversation about what you disagree with and why. Philosophy is about establishing the truth using reason and evidence – so we are both on the same side 🙂

      • The reason that you’re not sure what my objections are is because I haven’t presented any of them. However, I do not think there is a point in us carrying this conversation further.

  2. I think voting is often used as a shorthand for political engagement. Democracy seems to work better the more people you have in that discussion, and voting being a very direct and obvious way to measure that participation, it becomes very much a “vote or you’re ruining everything” kind of conversation. I think our representative democracy works best (and, arguably, does the best good) when the people running the country are backed up by a populous that is educated and engaged about issues. I think we’ve seen in recent years how a government can take advantage of a passive electorate to get away thing very, very questionable things.

    • I think that is a fair point Jacob. Then again, I think that my argument can also be applied to political engagement. I think that voting (and political engagement) can profitably be thought of as a tragedy of the commons – if everyone participates everyone benefits, but it is easy for people to ride the system. Unfortunately this makes the situation into a prisoners dilemma kind of situation as well – a prisoners dilemma that you play with your entire country. I think I’m willing to say that non-participation is tragic, but the moral burden on any individual seems to me to be quite small.

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