Elected Responsibility

Now that Canada has a new government, I’m going to dedicate this post to exploring the moral responsibilities of elected officials. Elected officials are in a bit of an odd spot, morally speaking, because they must factor into account the moral weight of their responsibilities to the citizens that elected them even when the expectations of those citizens run counter to their own moral precepts. That is to say, I believe that being elected carries a notable moral burden to represent those that elected them, and it seems quite easy for a politicians moral responsibility towards those that elected them to come into conflict with their own moral beliefs. What this entails, however, can be difficult to parse, and this post will examine what exactly this responsibility entails, as well as how far the responsibility extends.

What is the nature of a politician’s moral responsibility towards those that elect them? I think that the key word or concept is that a politician is a representative: they are to represent the interests and beliefs of their constituents. There are two immediate problems with this, those being paternalism and minorities. First, should a politician represent their constituents expressed interests, or can she act as she sees best for the people. If we believe in the acceptability of paternalism then a great deal of the complexity is eliminated from this topic: the responsibility of a politician seems analogous to the responsibilities of a caretaker or parent – by taking up political responsibility the politician takes on duties to look after the well-being of their constituency. However, this paternalistic interpretation should be considered cautiously, since it is rather contrary to the spirit of democracy. For paternalism necessitates the assumption that certain people know what is best for others better, but democracy seems to assume that the electorate should have a say in their governance (at least on its face). There is a great deal more to say on paternalism, but I will not examine it any further here. The issue of minorities is more challenging, because it gets at a problem that democracies regularly struggle with: does a government represent the people, or just the majority? It is often the case that an elected offical has but one vote to represent the nuanced variety of opinions that they represent. On the other hand, it seems that they still bear the responsibility of advocacy for and attentiveness towards their constituents. The resolution of majorities and minorities seems like it must ultimately come down to judgement calls of the elected offical: for example, they may decide that it is important to speak for a cultural minority, but disregard, say, flat-earthers.

This leads into another issue – are the electorate electing someone to enforce certain beliefs, or are they electing a person that they trust to make good decisions? The answer will likely not be uniform. It is tempting to say that the answer depends on what a politician promises, if a constituency elects a clearly proclaimed feminist then they cannot reasonably expect that she will ban birth control. However, the electorate is limited in the choices they can make: they can only vote from a small selection of candidates, which inevitably means that no candidate will fully embody the beliefs of any constituents. This certainly makes it strategic to compromise one’s own beliefs to get votes, but it also raises the question of whether such compromising also has moral elements: should candidates seek to offer platforms in order to provide greater choice to constituents?

One particular feature of the Canadian system that I also wanted to mention is the fact that we do not elect our prime ministers to be prime minister – instead our prime minister is determined by the party with the greatest number of seats. This renders the representative responsibilities of the prime minister and MP’s even more difficult to discern because it makes individual votes play double duty – voters are simultaneously selecting who they want to represent their local area and who they want to represent their country. These desires do not necessarily align.

Those are my thoughts for the moment, let me know what you think,

Thank you,


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