It’s morally wrong to vote if you’re ignorant

November 5, 2012 Off By admin

Tomorrow, lots and lots of Americans are going to vote. Many of them (most?) are ignorant voters. Over time, the worse the electorate, the worse the policies, the worse the political outcome. Having some kind of competence test for voting is a complete non-starter. Even if it were possible to construct a sound test of general competence, it would never pass political muster. Disenfranchisement, for whatever reason, is anathema. It is worse than a third rail.

Luckily, many people in the U.S. are aware of their ignorance. Luckily, many people volunteer not to vote. Not because it’s futile, not because they don’t like the options, but precisely because they feel it would be morally wrong for them to try to impose their ill-informed preferences on others.

It would be morally wrong to vote when you are ignorant. That is Jason Brennan’s, a colleague and friend, argument in his second-to-latest book, The Ethics of Voting. Another way of putting his thesis is that if you’re going to vote, you have an obligation to cast an informed ballot. He recently (as in two hours ago) participated in a Huffington Post live segment to provide the view. It was an irritating segment, mostly because Erol, a different participant, made no contact with Jason’s actual views when trying in vain to object to it. I think it is bad form to pretend to know what someone else is arguing, and then objecting to that. It is better form to admit that you need more information, or clarification. A lot of philosophy would be better if people asked more questions before attempting to “debunk” a view that no one has presented. Here’s the video:

Jason’s is a provocative thesis. I think I’m persuaded that it is true. The truth of the thesis can be seen when you reflect on his thesis in the following way:

Suppose you were the only elector. You get to decide who will be the president of the United States, or the prime minister of Canada. Your choice imposes a president or prime minister on all Americans or all Canadians. I think it is fairly obvious that if you had this power, you would have the obligation to become very well-informed before choosing for others. Politics is high stakes, after all. The consequences of your choice are significant, and your decision impacts other people, people who do not consent to having this leader.

Something (sufficiently) similar happens in actual elections, with very many people voting. Each of the people who vote are choosing not just for themselves, but for everyone. Whenever you’re making a choice for other people, you have an obligation to become sufficiently informed. So, if you’re ignorant, you shouldn’t vote.

That’s Brennan’s argument. I think I am now comfortable joining the Brennan camp on this issue. I had two objections to the view, and Jason has good responses to both.

The first is the wash-out argument. I read somewhere that ignorant voters effectively vote randomly. As the numbers increase, the ignorant vote gets washed out (it’s basically like a million people flipping a coin, and the probability is that 50% will get heads, 50% will get tails, and it’s as though they never bothered to vote in the first place), but the informed vote is not random, and so determines the outcome (their choice is not based on arbitrary criteria, like who they’d like to have a beer with, or who looks better holding a baby). It turns out that, empirically, ignorant voters are worse than random. It would be better if ignorant voters flipped coins to determine who they will vote for (if you’d like, I can look up the studies).

The second objection was the drop-in-the-ocean argument. Sure, whenever I’m choosing for other people, I have an obligation to be informed about what I’m choosing for them. But my obligation decreases proportionately with my effectiveness. If I’m one of ten people choosing for others, I have a strong obligation. What does my obligation look like when I’m not one of ten, but one of millions? It would be like adding a thimble-full of water to a mega-flood covering New York City. I may be “contributing” to the flood, in some way, and the flood is bad, but what difference does my thimble-full make? Whether I spill it or not makes no noticeable difference… not even to an ant!

I offered a similar sort of thought to Jason, to which he gave the following reply: We, each of us, have an obligation to avoid participating in a collectively harmful activity, even if no individual one of us can bring about the harmful outcome. By way of example, he asked me to imagine an innocent six-year-old tied to a steak on Healy Lawn. There are 100 Georgetown students with a rifle. Each bullet is sufficient to kill the six-year-old, and each of the 100 students is dedicated to firing a fatal shot (and none of them will miss). I cannot stop them. Now someone hands me a rifle, and says that I can join in the shooting, if I’d like. Suppose further that I always wanted to know what it was like to fire this particular rifle. My joining or not joining this firing squad makes no difference to the outcome. The six-year-old’s days are numbered. Does that mean nothing counts against my participating in the firing squad? Most of us, myself included, are going to think that something does count against my participating, even if my participation or non-participation makes absolutely no difference to the outcome. Being part of a collectively harmful activity is bad, and we all have reason not to participate. Jason calls this the ‘clean hands’ principle. I endorse the clean-hands principle.

With those objections out of the way, we have our conclusion: If you’re going to vote, you have an obligation to vote well. If you’re ignorant, and don’t know enough about economics, political science, or theories of justice, you have a moral obligation to abstain from voting. Voting ignorantly is a shitty thing to do to the rest of us. Those ignorant voters that stay at home on election day should be applauded, Jason argues. They have voluntarily disenfranchised themselves, and thereby eliminated their (most probably) negative externalities.