TPM gets the philosophers’ vote out

The current issue of tpm contains an editorial about voting.  In it, I say:

In an electorate of sufficient size, the argument goes, I might anticipate a close race, but I can’t really think that it’s going to be so close that my vote will actually break a tie.  Perhaps every vote counts in the sometimes optimistic sense that every vote really is counted, but it almost always makes no difference whether or not any particular individual votes.

So why bother voting if it makes no difference whether or not you vote?  I go on to list a few of the usual reasons people give to get around this problem:  the idea that voting is a civic duty, maybe an obligation to those who fought for the vote.  I’ve got my own reasons for voting, which I think fall out of reflection on something like virtue or anyway character.  Bev Rowe got in touch to say that there are other good reasons to vote:

It must almost certain that one party/candidate more nearly represents your views than any other. (We could analyse more deeply here but let’s keep it simple.) It is always logically possible, even if unlikely,  that your best-fit candidate will lose by a single vote. Moreover, that loss could cause your best-fit party to miss a majority by one seat. So as long as such important outcomes are logically possible, even though rare, it is illogical not to vote. Not voting potentially allows the election of someone with whom you may disagree very strongly indeed.

But all this does rest on a very unlikely scenario. What is always true, though, even if not so narrowly logical,  is that the overall outcome of an election has a wider significance. A party’s total vote affects how people may vote next time. For example, if a losing party achieves a vote comparable to the winners’, its hand is strengthened in parliament, the media and the mind of the electorate.   At the other extreme, small parties, like the Greens or the BNP, would attract more votes if they already got more votes. If you want your sort of opinions to be taken into account, helping to create a critical mass of public support is an important step in achieving your goals.

For me there’s something true about ‘casting your lot’ in with a candidate.  I think I vote because of the person I am — voting isn’t a mark on a page, but a consistent part of a whole life as it’s lived.  Anyway that’s what I tell myself, even though it makes no difference whether or not I vote.  Anyone have any other good reasons to vote?

By the way, Brian Leiter conducted a poll to gauge the philosophers’ vote.  The results?

65% support President Obama; 9% support Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate; 7% support Republican challenger Mitt Romney; and 3% support Libertarian Gary Johnson.  1% support some other candidate, while 14% do not plan on voting.

Leave a comment ?


  1. The most convincing argument I come up with for why to disregard this sort of line of reasoning:

    “I can’t really think that it’s going to be so close that my vote will actually break a tie”

    is sort of Kantian in nature. If everyone were of this mind set, then no one would vote and the election results would be even less a representation of the country’s views. Since we can’t justifiably universalize this take on voting, we therefore should not follow it and vote regardless of how insignificant our vote may appear.

    You could use this argument in terms of voting for smaller parties as well. Since is it the common view that a vote for a Jill Stein is a “wasted vote.” Which is utterly horrible to think, but a hard view to shake.

    I’m struggling with it presently actually.

  2. Many of the pro-voting arguments contain the implicit premise that our basic political act is voting and that otherwise, we are not acting politically.

    Actually, most of our actions are political: they either ratify/justify the current social power arrangement, contest it or by-pass it

    Now, it may be that I prefer to by-pass the current social power arrangement in my political life and rather than voting, I opt for spending my time trying to get people in my neighborhood to join together in one or another community project, projects which according to the conventional use of the term “political” are not political at all, but in reality, have to do with the possible construction of mini-centers of alternative power on a small scale.

    For the record, I voted in the last election, not because I feel it’s my duty, but because my woman companion knows one of the candidates.

  3. I mainly vote because it is the defining act that makes a democracy a democracy. It is sort of like taking communion if you’re Catholic or keeping kosher if you’re Jewish. You don’t necessarily believe that the act does anything. The act is what connects you and makes you a part of the community.

  4. For non-voters, if not voting is not specifically a positive political act (as swallerstein) then not voting when you have a vote preference is basically giving all opposition a free vote. If you want such a passive role then you are free to enjoy it. Who needs high brow philosophical reasons.

  5. I do not call myself a philosopher; only hold a BA in the philosophy. I am doctor of medicine. Coming from a state with a small electorate vote (Oregon) – l could say that it does not matter. But the question is much deeper – at least to me. Do I want to be a participant in life or a drone like passenger? I was born in a country without the right to vote.
    Can one individual really make a difference; I sure hope so.

    Call me a liberal, bleeding heart, even a tree hugger (I do have a photo of hugging an enormous red woods tree, ha-ha).
    My lot in life has been one of “fortune,” not without hard work, my hard work just happened to pay off. There are plenty of people in this world who are smarter, work harder and have not landed as part of the “ top 5%” but are one of the 99%.
    I choose to vote not for self interest (smaller taxes, lesser medical reimbursement) but instead for what I see as the future, a future I would like to take part in building. Better education, a more realistic safety net, no exclusion due to pre-existing medical condition. So what if I pay extra taxes, I already live in one of the least taxed well developed countries in the world! For those of you who are familiar with the works of John Rawls in “A Theory of Justice” what type of world would you create if you had not idea or clue of what your lot in life may be? Voting gives you a part in designing this world.

    A friend of mine once told me a story of a man who came upon a beach covered with star fish, (lying out of the water helplessly). There in the distance he saw an individual working relentlessly throwing the displaced starfish one at a time back into the water (there were millions). The man watching, confused yelled out “what difference can this make, there are millions here!” The other answered “it makes a difference to this one” as he swiftly flung it back into the ocean.
    That is one of the reasons why I believe we can, even as individuals, make a difference. There are three branches of the government, individuals can have a great impact on those, especially on the local government, etc.,. Do not take this right that you were born into or given for granted.

  6. “For non-voters, if not voting is not specifically a positive political act (as swallerstein) then not voting when you have a vote preference is basically giving all opposition a free vote. If you want such a passive role then you are free to enjoy it. Who needs high brow philosophical reasons.”

    And when there is no voting preference, considering that the act of voting is entirely compulsory, voluntarily abstaining begins to appear more closely aligned to my preference.

    It fascinates me that people will vote for “change” when in reality they are voting to continue what happened yesterday. And what’s more, it is somewhat bewildering that so many people periodically become so enamored in defending and following through with their right to an essentially unessential choice.

    That is not to say that choice in its self is unessential, but the choice to pass up any choice seems just as logical as any other fork in the road…not because the consequence is desirable, but rather because it is inevitable given the circumstances.

    All that being said, elections are only technically won at the polls. Months of deliberately bending the truth and general deviance craft us into little voter-bees who act out in the name of “justice,” but in reality we are only confirming what we have seen other people we vaguely trust say about people we vaguely know. Voting in the way we do allows to falsely affirm that life really is so simple as a choice between “red” or “blue.”

  7. MarlowWhere,

    There are a range of choices.

    I’m a little over weight, compared to what I’d prefer. But I like my food, and the effort to become as I’d like is too much. But I could quite easily become grossly obese, but then I put enough effort in to avoid that.

    In politics, if we really want to make a difference we have to put in the effort and get seriously involved. But most of us just want to do enough to get by politically. So we just vote, and maybe respond to polls, and maybe bitch to our friends, or on the internet, about why one candidate or party is worse than another.

    And if we all really did become more active, then we’d be back to square one: my individual effort would pale into insignificance again.

    Whichever way you cut it the individual taken in isolation is insignificant. But all those insignificants add up. I suppose it’s down to personal perspective – glass half empty or half full.

  8. Ron Murphy,

    You raise a point that I don’t think is entirely absent from my original comment, though I did not directly state it…

    Many people do not care about politics until election time. Coincidentally, it is also many of these same people who tell you that you should vote…or else (so to speak)…

    I’ll digress briefly: I choose to see being involved as being intellectually engaged, to a degree, on the matters that relate to you. There is no shame in being ignorant of some of the details and knowledgeable of others as long as one does not chose to select ignorance over glaring truths that contradict other positions they might hold. In other words, in the realm of politics I believe we should be ready to have our minds changed.

    I will continue with my first point…I think many of these people see voting as a way to write of this “intellectual engagement” for a time until they are required to make another “big decision.” Because of this, I think it is somewhat insulting to be told that I do not have a voice or that my opinion doesn’t matter by people who are not regularly involved with these matters. After all, these same people wont care a year from now whether I cast a vote…its only a talking point that surfaces around the immediate time before and after a big election. More to the point, it almost seems fairer for me to tell them THEIR opinions should not be aired because they do not possess a sense of responsibility that carries through after the election.

  9. It brings to mind several questions. Does an essentially two party system serve the populace? All we really have for choices are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

    The early philosophers were of the opinion that democracy was not a good form of government, it is messy and filled with people who should not be leaders. Most people never vote for the correct candidate,, because they are in that large arena of people who focus on creature comforts.

    Our country is too big to govern effectively, and is very open to illegal manipulation. When there are so many voices, almost none have any impact.

    Most people vote wallets, not ethics and morality.

    I also vote, but have been less than impressed for more than 40 years.

  10. There can be reasons to vote that aren’t of great conceptual interest, but do have practical import.

    For example, here in Australia, votes determine party election funding, in two ways. Firstly, there’s a 4% first-preference vote threshold for obtaining any funding at all. Then, secondly, election funds available are proportional to the number of votes received. This makes individual votes really count, especially for minor parties.

    More generally, the conceptually pivotal place of voting in modern democracies makes it a likely candidate for a variety of potential secondary causal effects. Intention to vote, for example, feeds into polls, which have wider effects (for good or ill). Even thinking about how to vote makes it necessary to create a (however minuscule) conative/cognitive commitment that might not be exist in the absence of voting: a requirement to “throw in your lot” is not the same as just vaguely musing on politics. Again, all for better or worse, but the entire process of voting makes civic life different for voters than non-voters.

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