Voting and contractualist ethics

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In my last post, I explained why directly consequentialist reasoning can’t explain the moral obligation to vote and vote well, whereas virtue ethics can. Even if my argument was successful, though, it’s worth considering other approaches too; after all, virtue ethics might only characterize a subset of all the relevant moral considerations. So in this post I’ll discuss an alternative approach to the ethics of voting based on contractualism.

As regular readers may recall, contractualism is a kind of social contract theory that identifies certain requirements of morality with the outcome of a hypothetical agreement between free and equal people seeking mutually justifiable principles to regulate their behaviour. Justifiability is important for any first order moral theory, of course—a consequentialist, for example, would agree that if an act is unjustifiable then it shouldn’t be done, but will then claim that the justifiability of the act depends on its consequences. What distinguishes contractualism is that an action’s moral status depends on its justifiability, rather than the other way around; if an action is wrong, its wrongness (in the specifically contractualist sense) is to be identified with that fact that the action is unjustifiable. Just as consequences are morally basic for a consequentialist and virtues are morally basic for a virtue ethicist, justification is morally basic for a contractualist. As T. M. Scanlon puts it:

When I ask myself what reason the fact that an action would be wrong provides me with not to do it, my answer is that such an action would be one that I could not justify to others on grounds I could expect them to accept. This leads me to describe the subject matter of judgments of right and wrong by saying that they are judgments about what would be permitted by principles that could not reasonably be rejected, by people who were moved to find principles for the general regulation of behaviour that others, similarly motivated, could not reasonably reject. In particular, an act is wrong if and only if any principle that permitted it would be one that could reasonably be rejected by people with the motivation just described (or, equivalently, if and only if it would be disallowed by any principle that such people could not reasonably reject). (from What We Owe to Each Other, p. 4)

Scanlon’s contractualism is not a exhaustive account of morality; rather, it is concerned with a specific moral domain—the relationship that exists between all persons irrespective of any particular attachments like friendship, family, or nationality. The contractualism of John Rawls is similarly restricted in scope to the special subject of social justice. Rawls imagines his hypothetical contractors first drawing up a set of principles to guide the basic institutional structure of society,* and then principles to guide individual conduct. Both Scanlonian and Rawlsian contractualism can, I believe, provide satisfactory answers to our questions about the ethics of voting.

First, the Scanlonian approach. On this view, if we have a duty to vote, this duty is a product of moral principles that no one can reasonably reject. To find out whether there is such a duty, we should consider the reasons that individuals occupying various standpoints would have for rejecting different candidate principles. To illustrate, consider Scanlon’s “Transmitter Room” thought experiment (from What We Owe to Each Other, p. 235). Suppose Jones has become trapped under an transmitter and is suffering painful (but not life-threatening) electric shocks. For Jones to be rescued, the transmitter will have to be shut down. This will interrupt the broadcast of a football game that a large number of people are enjoying. Should Jones be rescued?

From the standpoint of a football fan watching the game, there is reason to object to a principle that would require Jones to be rescued—interrupting the broadcast will spoil their experience of the game. From Jones’s standpoint, on the other hand, there’s reason to object to a principle that would permit (or require) him to be left trapped until the conclusion of the broadcast—he is in a great deal of pain. Jones clearly has the stronger objection. Taking all the relevant considerations into account, then, a football fan cannot reasonably reject a principle that would require Jones to be rescued immediately. This is why it would be wrong not to shut down the transmitter and carry out the rescue.

What reasons might people have to reject a requirement to vote? In 2015, non-voters’ single most common reason cited for not voting was “Not interested in politics.” From this standpoint—let’s call it the standpoint of the uninterested non-voter—a requirement to vote would be rejected on the grounds that it would require the uninterested non-voter to do something that they are not interested in doing. The burden this would place on the uninterested non-voter would be a brief period of boredom they must endure once every couple of years or so.

The second most common reason cited was “Too busy”. In most cases, this is a pretty weak excuse considering how easy it is to vote in a Canadian general election. There are probably relatively few busy non-voters for whom finding the time to vote would really have been unreasonably burdensome. The objection that would be raised from the standpoint of the busy non-voter would, I think, be along the lines of “There are things I’d rather do with my time.” This objection is not too different from the objection raised by the uninterested non-voter, though perhaps it is a bit weaker (the busy non-voter isn’t even necessarily bored by having to engage politically once in a while).

Tied for third and fourth most common reasons cited were “Out of town” and “Illness or disability”. These standpoints, however, do not seem to generate unique reasons to reject a principle imposing a duty to vote. Out of town non-voters seem to be a subset of busy non-voters, given that it is possible to vote even if one is away for the entire writ period as long as one takes the time to request a mail voting package. People who did not vote for reasons of illness or disability, on the other hand, were either prevented from voting by a failure of the electoral institutions to accommodate their illness or disability, or, if accommodation would not have been possible, they were simply unable to vote. So because a person cannot be faulted for failing to do something they are unable to do or are prevented from doing, people who did not vote for reasons of illness or disability cannot be faulted for not voting even if there were a principle requiring one to vote.

There are, I think, much stronger reasons favouring rejection of a general moral permission not to vote. Consider the standpoint of a young person, for example. Turnout among the young tends to be relatively low. Despite a surge in turnout in the 18-24 and 25-34 age groups in the 2015 election, there was still a gap of around 20 points between them and the 55-64 and 65-74 age groups. A predictable consequence of consistently large gaps in turnout between young and old is that governments will be less responsive to the views and interests of younger voters. From the standpoint of a young person, then, a reason to reject a broad moral permission not to vote is that if this principle were adopted, governments will be less responsive to the views and interests he or she has in common with other young people. Measured against the reasons that can be given from the standpoints of the uninterested and busy non-voters, it seems that the young person’s reason is sufficient to reject a general moral permission not to vote, whereas the reasons of the uninterested and busy non-voters are not sufficient to reject a general requirement to vote. So a principle requiring one to vote cannot reasonably be rejected. By Scanlon’s standard, this means that one ought to vote.

Now consider the Rawlsian approach. Having settled on principles of justice for the design of the basic structure, Rawls imagines his hypothetical contractors then coming to agreement on principles to guide individuals. The most important of these individual principles is what Rawls calls the natural duty of justice. The natural duty of justice requires each person to comply with and do one’s part in maintaining or bringing about a just basic structure, as long as one can do so “without too much cost” to oneself. Obviously maintaining or bringing about a just basic structure requires the people to vote for candidates, parties or policies that will further those aims. Doing one’s part, then, would have to involve personally voting for candidates, parties or policies that will promote justice. As with Scanlon’s contractualism, an individual ought to vote because they are bound by a principle that requires each person to vote, not because their vote would bring about a certain outcome. The principle is binding because it is uniquely justifiable to reasonable people. And the principle is uniquely justifiable because it is required to protect everyone’s paramount political interest — the creation or preservation of a just society. So Rawls’s contractualism both explains why we ought to vote and why, when we vote, we ought to avoid candidates like Donald Trump.

Scanlon’s contractualism does not (yet) include a full theory of justice, and it’s an open question whether Scanlon’s interpretation of the contractualist idea would imply a unique theory of justice, or whether it would imply some pre-existing theory of justice like Rawls’s. Even without a clearly articulated theory of justice, however, Scanlon’s approach can explain why it’s wrong to vote for a Trump-like candidate: a principle that permitted voting for a deranged, incompetent, power-hungry bigot could reasonably be rejected. This line of reasoning is unlikely to convince anyone who has voted for a Trump-like candidate that they were wrong to do so, because they’re unlikely to accept this characterization of their preferred candidate (although it might get more traction with people who voted Trump for lulz). My aim here, however, has not been to convince anyone of the error of their ways; my aim has been to explain the error.

Both virtue ethics and contractualism seem to provide satisfactory explanations of two widely accepted moral facts about voting: one ought to vote, and one ought not to vote for awful candidates. A natural next step is to see how these approaches might deal with issues in the ethics of voting where the moral facts are more in dispute, such as strategic voting and electoral boycotts. I plan to address these topics in a future post.

*For more on how this is supposed to work, and my take on the implications of Rawls’s philosophy for voting systems, see my essay in the Tyee, “Thinking Fairly About BC’s Referendum on Proportional Representation”.

2 thoughts on “Voting and contractualist ethics

  1. In this account I think it would be important to fairly specifically allow for deliberately spoiled ballots or even a “none of the above is acceptable” ballot choice. If “Doing one’s part, then, would have to involve personally voting for candidates, parties or policies that will promote justice,” but a voter’s judgement is that there are none such on the ballot, and yet they are forced to vote, presumably doing their part would have to involve signalling that lack on the ballot. A proper system would need to allow, and indeed record and make public, such acts of conscientious objection.

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    • To be clear, I’m talking about a moral duty to vote, not a legal duty to vote, so no one is going to be forced to do anything. In cases where no option on the ballot would really be preferable from the standpoint of justice, or the act of participating itself would promote injustice (the widely boycotted 2002 referendum in BC is my go-to example), abstaining seems fine to me but I think the principle allows for that as it is (assuming that ought implies can).

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