Ethics of voting part 1: Why is it wrong to vote for the bad man?


It’s obvious that people who vote for Trump are doing something wrong, and it’s obvious that a Trump presidency would be horrible. But how are those facts connected? The nature of the connection between the wrongness of voting for Trump and the badness of a Trump presidency is important in part because it would also shed light on whether or not it’s wrong to vote for Stein or Johnson, as many of Clinton’s supporters have claimed. Let’s take a very quick look at how the dominant ethical theories might deal with this question.

A strict consequentialist explanation of the wrongness of voting for Trump won’t work, I think, because no one person’s vote determines the outcome of an election. The consequences of one person’s vote are nil. Similarly, inferring “a vote for Stein or Johnson helps Trump” from “a larger share of the vote going to Stein or Johnson helps Trump” seems to involve a fallacy of division. Rule consequentialism doesn’t seem to clear things up too much either. People voting for Stein and Johnson probably think following a rule that dictates voting for Stein or Johnson would bring about the best consequences, and Clinton voters probably feel the same way, whereas the point of “a vote for X is a vote for Y” slogans is to appeal to people to vote for Z even though they think it would be best if X were elected.

A deontological approach seems more promising, as it can accommodate considerations like whether a candidate deserves your vote. Trump voters are doing something wrong because Trump does not deserve their vote. But this doesn’t seem quite right either. First, a desert-based approach appears to treat public office purely as a private good and elections purely as a means of dividing a quantity of private goods between the candidates. Second, the bases of desert for holding public office could never include a purely relational fact about a candidate such as their chances of winning, whereas it seems that there are at least some circumstances where voting for the lesser of two evils is ethically obligatory simply because of relational facts like their chances of winning the election and the badness of their main opponent – a tight two-way race between a Nazi and a Republican, for example. One possible explanation is that an implicit but clear compact exists among the non-Nazi voters in such a case; given the existence and purpose of the compact, this gives rise to a duty to uphold the compact by voting for the lesser of two evils. But because there is normally no such implicit compact, there is normally no such duty, and considerations of individual desert take precedence.

An advantage of a deontological approach is that it can explain why Trump voters are doing something wrong: they’re giving their votes to someone who doesn’t deserve their votes. He doesn’t deserve their votes because he’d be a terrible president. This approach can also make some sense of the “a vote for X is a vote for Y” slogan: it’s an attempt to establish an implicit compact among voters that would give rise to a duty to vote for Z regardless of whether X is the more deserving candidate. But the deontological approach also has serious problems. It may sometimes be useful to analyze elections purely as a contest for private goods, but it doesn’t seem right for the moral perspective on elections to view them purely as a contest for private goods. Furthermore, this approach implies that all the votes ought to go to one candidate. But if one candidate were to get all the votes, I think most people would be deeply concerned with the competitiveness of our political culture, not deeply impressed by the voters’ powers of moral discernment. Even voters with a clear favourite among the candidates are likely to prefer a more competitive election; a voter’s assessment of Clinton, for example, may depend on how the perceived relative strength of the other candidates affects the kind of appeal Clinton will make to the voters.

The most popular theories of ethics struggle to provide a satisfactory explanation of when voting in a particular way is right or wrong. Deontology is somewhat more successful than consequentialism in this respect, but it issues guidance that is incompatible with our understanding of the purpose and functioning of democratic systems. In my next post, I’ll look at whether two alternative currents in ethical theory – contractualism and virtue ethics – might provide us with better answers.

2 thoughts on “Ethics of voting part 1: Why is it wrong to vote for the bad man?

  1. Pingback: Which votes are decisive? | Popcorn Machine

  2. Pingback: Voting and virtue ethics | Popcorn Machine

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