Are all votes created equal? Not according to Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Brown. In The Ethics of Voting, he asks the obvious-yet-unutterable question at the heart of American politics: what are all those uninformed, indifferent, lazy, and stupid people doing in the voting booth?
Voting, Brennan affirms, is a fundamental American right -- but that doesn't mean that voting is, in itself, a good deed. Like any complicated skill, voting can be done well or badly. To vote well, Brennan argues, you actually need to be thinking at a very high level. It's not enough to know which policies different candidates support. You also need to have "epistemically justified" opinions about those policies -- which, in many cases, means drawing on "social-scientific background knowledge." That knowledge is hard to acquire, which is why reasonable people can disagree about their votes while also voting well; the point is that they've done their due diligence and taken voting seriously.
Many voters, meanwhile, as Brennan sees it, have little interest in doing the hard work of voting. They vote instinctively, irrationally, or for narrowly imagined, purely self-interested reasons. These voters, Brennan says, are actually doing something ethically wrong when they vote this way. It's obvious, of course, that some voters vote badly: in the last Presidential election, eight percent of New Jersey voters claimed that Barack Obama was the anti-Christ. Clearly -- unlike more-informed Republicans who voted against Obama -- they went about voting in the wrong way. It's not just crazy people who vote badly, though. "Many politically active citizens," Brennan points out, "try to make the world better and vote with the best of intentions" -- but, "although they are politically engaged, they are nonetheless often ignorant of or misinformed about the relevant facts, or, worse, are simply irrational." These voters, Brennan writes, also "pollute democracy with their votes." They would be doing more good if they didn't vote at all.
Even informed people, in short, can misunderstand what voting is all about. It's not about fulfilling a duty, but about taking on an extra, entirely optional responsibility. Voting, in this sense, is like many other undertakings. "We are not obligated to become parents," Brennan points out, "but if we are to become parents, we ought to be responsible, good parents." The same goes for being a surgeon: if you're going to be one, you have to be a good one. You're not obligated to vote -- and so, if you do choose to do it, you must meet a very high standard of conduct to avoid an ethical misstep.
In a sense, Brennan is stating the obvious -- and, except for a few asides, he resolutely avoids the kind of practical discussions that would render the obvious unsayable. His relentless focus on the problem of "wrongful voting" pays off. Taken as a whole, Brennan's argument lodges a serious objection to research in political science and behavioral economics suggesting that even lazy voters can use shortcuts to vote well. These voters, Brennan insists, are voting badly. Ultimately his book suggests that we need to be more nuanced in our approach to voting. As a nation, we're always checking in on voter turnout -- but shouldn't we also be monitoring, and taking seriously, the quality of our votes?
Finally, Brennan notes, it's important to remember that voting isn't the only way to make a contribution to civil society. "[M]any activities stereotypically considered private," he writes, "such as being a conscientious employee, making art, running a for-profit business, or pursuing scientific discoveries, can also be exercises of civic virtue. For many people, in fact, these are better ways to exercise civic virtue" than voting. Voting is the last step in a long process of civic engagement - not the first.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.