We often hear that it’s our civic duty to vote, but according to ethicist Jason Brennan, author of the controversial book The Ethics of Voting, most people have no business heading to the polls at all, since they won’t vote in an informed, competent, and morally reasonable way. But no harm done, right? Certainly voting is a high stakes game, with policies that impact our healthcare, our rights, and our economic realities hanging in the balance, but the reality is individual voters—even ignorant, biased, and irrational ones—carry almost no power. Shouldn’t this liberate your average uninformed but patriotic citizen to exercise their democratic right and vote however they please? Not according to Brennan. Read his post on why you (and your logic-challenged uncle and your current events-blind friends) shouldn’t feel guilty for staying home on election day:
When I see people with an “I Voted!” sticker, my first thought is, “Shame on you!”
Imagine 12 people are serving on a jury in a murder case. The prosecution and defense present evidence and call witnesses. The court asks the jury to reach a verdict. They find the defendant guilty.
Suppose four of the jurors paid no attention during the trial. When asked to deliberate, they were ignorant of the details of the case. They decided more or less at random.
Suppose four of the jurors paid some attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty not on the basis of the evidence, but on wishful thinking and on bizarre conspiracy theories they happen to believe.
Suppose four of the jurors paid attention to the evidence. However, they found the defendant guilty because he is an atheist, while they are Christians. Like many Americans, the jurors trust atheists no more than they trust rapists.
In the case above, the jurors acted in a vile and despicable way. The defendant is possibly innocent. He does not consent to the outcome of the decision. The decision will be imposed upon him through violence and threats of violence. The decision could harm him, and deprive him of property, liberty, or even life. Jurors have a moral obligation to decide these kinds of cases in a competent and morally reasonable way.
This line of reasoning applies even more strongly to the electorate as a whole. Political decisions are high stakes. Most citizens are innocent. Almost none of us consent to the outcome of the election or to our government.* The outcomes—including all ensuing laws, regulations, taxes, budget expenditures, wars, and so on—are imposed upon us through violence and threats of violence. These decisions can and so harm us, and can and do deprive many of us of property, liberty, and even life. At first glance, we should think that voters, like jurors, have a moral obligation to vote in a competent and morally reasonable way.
However, as I document in The Ethics of Voting, the best available evidence indicates that most voters mean well, but are politically incompetent. Most are like the first eight jurors in the thought experiment above. (Most non-voting citizens are even worse.) If so, I argue, they owe it to the rest of us to abstain. Citizens have no duty to vote, but if they do vote, they must vote well, for what they justifiedly believe will promote good government.
There’s nothing morally wrong with being ignorant about politics, or with forming your political beliefs though an irrational thought processes—so long as you don’t vote. As soon as you step in the voting booth, you acquire a duty to know what you’re doing. It’s fine to be ignorant, misinformed, or irrational about politics, so long as you don’t impose your political preferences upon others using the coercive power of government.
Of course, there’s a difference between jurors and voters. Individual jurors have a lot of power. Individual voters have almost no power. You are more likely to win Powerball than to decide an election. If so, does that excuse individual voters? My individual vote will not hurt anybody, so doesn’t that mean I can just vote however I’d like?
I don’t think so. I’ll illustrate why not with an analogy. Suppose a 100-member firing squad is about to shoot an innocent child. Suppose they are trained to shoot so that each bullet will hit the child at the same time. Suppose each bullet, on its own, would suffice to kill her. Suppose also that you can’t stop the shooters. The child will die regardless of what you do. Now, suppose the shooters offer to let you join in and fire with them. Is it okay for you to take the 101st shot?
Most people, upon reflection, think not. Even though you don’t make a difference, you have a moral duty to keep your hands clean. You have a duty not to join in with the group when the group harms innocent people. Only a monster would take the 101st shot, even though it makes no difference to the outcome.
So it goes with voting. If you are an ignorant, irrational, biased, capricious, or malevolent voter, your vote makes no difference. However, you’re the 101st shooter. We shouldn’t celebrate you for voting. We should hold you in contempt.
Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.