In a previous post (which I meant to follow up on years ago but never got around to), I argued that consequentialism — at least in a crude form — cannot explain why it would be wrong to vote for an extremely bad candidate such as Donald Trump. Consequentialism explains the wrongness of an action in terms of its real or expected consequences, so that an act is wrong just in case the real or expected consequences of that act are suboptimal compared to some other available action. No individual vote determines the winner of an election, so the election of a bad candidate is not a possible consequence of the individual’s act of casting a vote for a bad candidate. If the election of a bad candidate is not a possible consequence of casting a vote for a bad candidate, voting for a bad candidate does not have suboptimal consequences. Therefore, by the consequentialist standard, voting for a bad candidate is not wrong. But voting for a bad candidate is wrong, so the consequentialist standard must be mistaken.
I should emphasize that the kind of consequentialism that faces this objection is only a crude approximation of actual consequentialist theories. However, by making this argument against a crude approximation of consequentialism I do not thereby intend to present a straw man argument; my aim is not to show that consequentialism must be false because the crudest possible form of consequentialism is false. Sophisticated forms of consequentialism (such as those developed by Brad Hooker and Julia Driver) may very well avoid the problem. My aim is only to cast doubt on a particular line of consequentialist reasoning which I believe is prevalent in our political culture, according to which one ought not to vote for a bad candidate because one’s vote for a bad candidate will have bad consequences.
This kind of reasoning is also evident in discussions about whether or why one ought to vote at all. In the face of low and falling turnout, commentators and activists often encourage citizens to vote by appealing to the value of the opportunity to make a difference; in other words, one ought to vote because doing so will have beneficial consequences. But while the consequences of higher turnout (especially among groups with historically low participation rates) would be beneficial, it doesn’t follow that the consequences of any particular person choosing to vote would be morally significant one way or another. And for the reasons given above, it seems that the consequences of any particular person choosing to vote are not morally significant one way or another. Nevertheless, it’s true that, morally speaking, people normally ought to vote. So the reason why people normally ought to vote must have to do with considerations other than the consequences of individual acts of voting.
A satisfactory account of the ethics of voting should be able to explain both how we ought to vote and why we ought to vote at all. In the remainder of this post, I will discuss an alternative approach to the ethics of voting based on virtue ethics; a future post will discuss a contractualist approach to the same issue. Neither of these approaches involves the kind of directly consequentialist reasoning I’ve objected to above. At the same time, it may turn out that either approach can be taken on board by proponents of certain more sophisticated varieties of consequentialism. Virtue ethical and contractualist approaches to these questions about the ethics of voting may be incorporated into more general nonconsequentialist ethical theories, or they may somehow be incorporated into a sophisticated consequentialist account of the ethics of voting. Readers can decide for themselves how these approaches might best be applied.
Ethical theories can be grouped by the kinds of considerations they treat as having primary importance in moral evaluation. For consequentialists, consequences have primary importance; for deontologists, fundamental duties; for virtue ethicists, virtues. As Rosalind Hursthouse puts it:
Imagine a case in which it is obvious that I should, say, help someone in need. A [consequentialist] will emphasize the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist will emphasize the fact that, in doing so, I will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as ‘Do unto others as you would be done by’, and a virtue ethicist will emphasize the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent. (from On Virtue Ethics)
In this context, a virtue is an “excellent trait of character”; examples of such traits include benevolence, compassion, kindness, generosity, courage, honesty, tolerance, conscientiousness, frugality, reasonableness, and moderation. A person’s possession of the virtues is a necessary condition for a complex, distinctively human kind of flourishing we have strong reason to value (sometimes referred to as eudaimonia, a technical term from ancient Greek that I won’t be using in the rest of this post). From a virtue ethical perspective, right action can be defined as the action that would be performed under the circumstances by a person who has the virtues. Applied to the ethics of voting, this means that one ought to vote because a virtuous person would vote, and one ought to vote in a certain way because a virtuous person would vote that way.
Why is it virtuous to vote? One reason is that democratic politics is partly constitutive of human flourishing. Political institutions have a pervasive effect on the conditions in which we live our lives, including our social and physical environment and the rights and opportunities we enjoy. Undemocratic forms of government (even if they miraculously turn out to be perfectly benevolent) alienate us from these institutions; democracy is necessary for us to have real control over the conditions in which we live our lives. Given our capacities for freedom, self-determination, and cooperation, control over these conditions is plausibly part of what human flourishing entails. And because control over these conditions entails democracy, democracy is plausibly part of what human flourishing entails. For democracy to exist, people must vote; the shared activity of voting is partly constitutive of democracy. If the shared activity of voting is partly constitutive of democracy, and democracy is partly constitutive of human flourishing, then the shared activity of voting is partly constitutive of human flourishing. It follows, I think, that a person who possesses the virtues—the traits necessary for human flourishing—would thereby have a disposition to vote even though they know that their own vote will not determine the outcome of an election.
A second reason why one ought to vote is related to the fact that democracy is not only partly constitutive of but also an important contributor to human flourishing. Democratic government is, on the whole, good government. Democracies do a better job of delivering important goods (from health care to the administration of justice) than non-democracies. And again, democracy requires people to vote. People who do so incur some (minor) cost for no real benefit to themselves. Generally speaking, voters seem to be motivated to make this small sacrifice by what the economist Jean Drèze calls* “public-spiritedness”—itself perhaps a kind of virtue. The large numbers of people who do not vote, on the other hand, seem to be motivated by narrow self-interest; even the minor sacrifice that voting normally involves (at least in developed democracies) is seen as a sufficient reason not to vote. In making this determination, non-voting involves the exercise of vice (selfishness, perhaps, or laziness) rather than virtue. A virtuous person, by definition, avoids the vices. So the fact that non-voting would be vicious is another reason why one ought to vote according to the virtue ethical approach.
How might virtue ethics answer the question of how one ought to vote? One approach might be to look at the kinds of considerations a candidate presents as reasons to vote for him or her, instead of his or her rivals, and ask what a virtuous person would make of those considerations. This would go some way toward explaining why one ought not to vote for a candidate who appeals to voters’ selfishness, bigotry, dogmatism, and cruelty (for example); a virtuous person recognizes that these are considerations that count against rather than in favour of a particular candidate. Appeals to tolerance, compassion, generosity, etc., on the other hand, do count in favour of a candidate. A virtuous person would be motivated to vote for a good candidate, and not to vote for a bad candidate—and can arrive at these motivations without imagining that a single vote for either candidate will make a difference to the outcome of the election.
Having ruled out certain options, a virtuous voter also ought to give some thought to whether the kinds of considerations to which he or she genuinely ought to be responsive really do favour one candidate over another. Some candidates just have a silver tongue; they can talk about all the right values, but the platform they’re running on isn’t really connected to those values—or, worse, would tend to undermine them. As Hursthouse points out, being a sucker is a vice too. An honest, conscientious, discerning voter ought to try to see through appealing rhetoric and figure out which candidate or candidates really would be best, given the kinds of considerations a virtuous voter takes to be relevant.
This is all very tentative, of course. But on a first pass, it seems that a virtue ethical approach can explain why we ought to vote, and why it matters morally how we vote. And neither part of the explanation depends on the assumption that one’s vote will make a difference to the outcome of an election.
*In the essay “Development and Public-Spiritedness”.