Will the bad voters please step forward? More from Jason Brennan

Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting created quite a stir here yesterday with his post on why most people shouldn’t vote, so I asked him to sound off on some of the comments he received, including the question of how to identify what some called the all-too-subjective “bad voter”. The burning question seems to be, how do you know if you’re a bad voter? Well, as Jason argues, you probably are. But read on for some interesting findings from political psychology that explain his views, as well as some practical advice on improving cognitive biases and becoming a good voter.


How Do I Know if I’m a Bad Voter

Jason Brennan


In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that most people have a moral duty to abstain from voting. See my previous posts, “Bad Government is Our Fault” and “Most People Shouldn’t Vote” for part of my explanation why. (Note that in “Bad Government is Our Fault”, I explain why I focus on bad voting even though bad voting is not the only thing that causes bad government.)

Here’s a problem: the people I describe as bad voters are unlikely recognize that they are bad voters.

To confirm this in at least one instance, as an unscientific experiment, I discussed my thesis with a person whom I believe exemplifies bad voting.  He agreed that other people should not vote.

More scientifically, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have shown that incompetent people systematically overestimate their own knowledge, competence, and mental acuity, while they systematically underestimate others’ competence. The less incompetent people know, the less they know it. In contrast, more competent people tend to be more modest about their abilities. They know much, but they also know how much they don’t know. They overestimate how much others know. (This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)

In chapter seven and in the afterword of The Ethics of Voting, I give an overview of some findings from political psychology, as well as other studies in voter rationality and knowledge. The upshot of those findings is, in my opinion, that any random person should assume she is politically incompetent until she has good reason to think otherwise. The issue is not “How do I know I’m a bad voter?”—you probably are.*

Instead, the issue is “How could I possibly become a good voter?” In the afterword to the paperback edition, I give some practical advice about becoming a good voter. Becoming a good voter takes significant knowledge of the social sciences and of some current events, but that’s not the first step. Getting information is not only useless, but downright harmful, unless you have disciplined your mind to process information in a dispassionate, scientific, unbiased way. So, in the afterword, I outline some of the main cognitive biases we suffer from, and describe practical steps one can take to overcome those biases.

Now, I freely admit that most bad voters do not recognize they are bad voters. If so, one might object, how can they have a duty not to vote? They do not know they are bad voters, so how can they have a duty to abstain?

I don’t find this objection persuasive. Here’s an analogy. Suppose Bob beats his children for any minor infractions. He refuses to educate them, holding that education corrupts the soul. He verbally abuses them because he thinks this builds character. Bob does all of this because he thinks it’s best for his children, even though it’s clearly not. Now, suppose Bob isn’t crazy. Rather, he’s just in the grip of some false, bad beliefs about child rearing. In this case, most of us would hold Bob responsible for his actions. Sure, he thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he should know better. He’s a bad parent and should act better.

I have often compared bad voters to drunk drivers—they are like people steering the state while intoxicated. Suppose I am driving drunk and a child is crossing at a crosswalk.  Because I am so drunk, I am unable to see the child, and so I am unable to recognize that I have a duty to stop.  Still, even though I don’t know that the child is there, I have a duty to stop. Though I am unable to know I have a duty to stop, I am not relieved of that duty, because I had a responsibility to make sure I only drove the car while competent to do so. Similar remarks apply to voters. Many of them are too biased and irrational to make wise choices. But it’s their fault that they’re like that in the first place. So, they aren’t excused when the vote badly.

*However, people reading the Princeton University Press blog are much more likely to be good voters than randomly selected US citizens. I’m not saying that to suck up to readers, but because it’s true. The demographic factors that positively correlate with reading this post are also positively correlated with being a good voter, as I define the term.


  1. We have drunk driving laws to have outside coercion to stop drunk drivers. We similarly have laws to protect Bob’s children. We don’t assume that Bob will realize he’s wrong and work to be a better person.

    What external coercion do you suggest to separate the good voters from the bad?

    And how do you ensure that this is a neutral and impartial system and not a return to Jim Crow?

  2. What a giant load of crap. This is the inherent condition of any system of democracy, but that isn’t what you actually want. You want a system of privilege controlled by “good” voters.

    Why not just come out and say what you really mean: Only people who think the same as me should be allowed a voice in government.

  3. I personally don’t vote at all. would that be considered as a bad vote? Well I mean it’s not a vote, but is it bad to not vote. I was never big on politics or voting.

  4. Your use of the word “duty” is wrong. Claiming that a person has a duty to do the impossible or near impossible gives you bizarre outcomes. In the case of the drunk driver the “duty” is to not drive drunk. Arguing that the “duty” involved is to not hit a child he could not see would be the same as to blame a sober, alert, law abiding driver who hit a child that sprinted into traffic that he couldn’t see.

    To expand this to voting you are essentially saying not that the ignorant and biased have a duty not to vote, that the ignorant and biased have a duty to not be ignorant and biased. In the DD case a person has ample opportunity prior to drinking to learn about the dangers of DD and to put a plan in place. In voting this is impractical (or impossible) as the studies you cite suggest. People are biased in believing how unbiased they are, how can they have a duty to not be biased?

  5. I see a gaping problem with the drunk driving analogy: Driving laws are obviously about safety. We want drivers to be safe so that *everyone* will be safe. You getting behind the wheel drunk could cause *direct* harm to me or someone else on the road (or as a pedestrian). One cannot say the same about voting. We can talk about the harm certainly policies do, and yet we can’t link it directly back to the voting booth.

    Beyond that, I know you said you touch on this in your book and I would love to read it (and probably will), but I have to wonder how you prescribe tackling cognitive biases. Scientists are learning that critical thinking can’t be “taught” in the way have traditionally assumed (even someone like me, who has taken critical thinking classes, is prone to making fallacious arguments and using bad logic). That in mind, it would seem difficult if not completely impossible for anyone to really overcome those biases. And if that’s the case, how can we justify that anyone vote? As a PoliSci major I may have more knowledge of basic political processes, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a “good voter” since my voting has far less to do with that knowledge and far more to do with my ideology/worldview that contains many ideas that simply cannot be verified one way or the other (as all of us have in our ideologies).


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