Around elections it is common to hear loud calls for citizens of democracies to make themselves heard and vote when important elections take place. This is so prevalent in liberal societies that it oftentimes seems as if the call is to just vote, regardless of how one does so. Is just voting what really matters?
Does a duty to vote entail the notion that people ought to vote, regardless of how they do so? Or should those who defend the duty to vote argue for a duty to vote well — not just vote? These questions matter, because voting as such may be detrimental if voters vote without a concern for basic elements of justice and without pertinent knowledge. Because of this, supporting a duty to simply votemay not be ethically acceptable. Reaching this conclusion, however, doesn’t mean that citizens are off the moral hook when it comes to democratic elections and that we need not vote.
Many may be inclined to think that voting as such is a duty simply because voting judiciously is something we should do. One thing entails the other. But this cannot be so. A possible duty to vote cannot be logically derived from a putative duty to vote well. A duty not to vote badly (in ignorance or with prejudice) seems to take precedence over a putative duty to just vote, lest we are willing to accept the unpalatable conclusion that voting badly is an acceptable way of voting. A simple example will help illustrate this point (I’m re-adapting the logic of a story provided by political philosopher Ben Saunders here).
Consider Flaky Josephine, a capable and prominent food critic, who receives an invitation to review a new restaurant in town for the upcoming issue of the Michelin guide. She has the time and the expertise for this job. We know, however, that she will not actually do the review in time because she will get distracted by other priorities, which is the worst outcome. Ideally, the best alternative would be that she wrote the review, but given what we know, we have to conclude that the best actual option is that she declines and doesn’t write it. If this is so, then, it makes sense to reject the idea that Josephine ought to accept the invitation to review the new restaurant in the first place.
This simple example suggests that a reason to do something that seems ethically required is not ultimately binding if the person is not in a position to do, or will not do, the action in question. Surely, we can agree that, generally speaking, the worst outcome is the one in which the agent predisposes herself to fulfil a duty that she will end up not fulfilling or fulfilling inaptly.
In real democratic societies, voting judiciously is not a realistically available choice for many citizens because they are misinformed and/or morally prejudiced. In the face of this unfortunate fact of civic life, the alternatives open to those citizens appear to be abstaining or voting badly. Voting badly, however, is the worst possible outcome; and it would be ridiculous to believe that the worst possible outcome is to be preferred to something less bad, which is also available. So if one wants to establish a duty to vote as such, then, one must show that even voting badly satisfies this duty.
Butarguing that casting a ballot incompetently satisfies a duty to vote would be a stretch. It is reasonable to think that if one votes badly — without information or without caring about what’s at stake in the election — one is acting wrongly. If our concern as citizens is with good governance — understood generally as what improves the lives of individuals in society and brings down injustice — the overriding duty when it comes to elections would seem to be the duty to abstain if one is not in a position, or doesn’t care, to vote judiciously. In other words, we don’t have a duty to just vote as a means to, or as part of, a larger putative duty to vote well.
So it makes sense to think that we ought to take the necessary steps to discharge certain duties and do our best to fulfil them correctly, to the best of our capabilities. If this is so, the relevant electoral duty in a democracy is the duty to do our best to vote acceptably well, not just vote. Because of this, it follows that we must reject the argument that because voting well is more difficult than just voting, it is fully permissible to refrain from voting (altogether), lest one votes badly. The argument that we should reject has it that because a lot of people would vote badly if they voted at all, then, voting cannot be a duty — at least, not one that is based on the desirability of substantively good democratic outcomes.
I believe that there is reason to think that citizens have a duty to vote well because voting well is the type of duty that one ought to attempt in good faith to fulfil. I am happy to accept that not all duties are of this sort, perhaps, depending on how “serious” the object of the duty is in terms of the outcomes we have grounds to value. In the case of flaky Josephine, it makes sense to think that she has no duty to review any restaurant — after all, the world does not need more restaurant reviews as a safeguard against injustice or serious harm.
However, when it comes to voting, the situation is different — the world does need better governments as a safeguard against injustice and harm — and the collective activity of voting minimally responsibly in elections is conducive to establishing them — or, at least, to disposing of the ones that do not meet the appropriate bar. Voting as a collective pursuit is the only way to officially relieve the population of evil, morally deficient, and incompetent public officials that, perhaps, once managed to represent the people and properly care for their needs but do not seem to be doing that anymore, or not doing it satisfactorily. Voting well, as a collective act that takes place in elections, is the only way in a democracy to get the bums out and possibly replace them with better alternatives, if those are available.
But, philosophically speaking, why are some duties more stringent than others? That is, why is it more difficult to justify ignoring certain duties? Although my argument here is not that the putative duty to vote judiciously is the most stringent of all duties, I rely on the notion that we have general duties toward other individuals that are normally not voluntary or escapable simply because we don’t feel like discharging them or it would be more convenient for us to dismiss them. This is so because many of these duties are not terribly onerous and because they bear on morally important aims that we cannot afford to ignore. One of those moral aims is justice in the basic arrangements of the society in which we live. As I see it, this moral aim logically entails the desirability of actions conducive to relieving society and our fellow citizens of evil or morally sub-par leaders and government coalitions. That is, the justice of society is not only a positive aim that calls us to work to create and maintain just institutions and governments, but it is also a negative aim in the sense that it requires absence or minimisation of unacceptable harm to citizens. Voting minimally judiciously can contribute to both aims, if the apparatus of elections functions effectively and transparently (which is not the case everywhere, unfortunately).
Sometimes, neglecting to take the steps necessary to fulfil a duty satisfactorily is wrong even if it is true that fulfilling the duty incorrectly, or half-way, is also wrong. It may be the case that Flaky Josephine does not have a duty to accept to review a restaurant given her characteristic disorganisation– but not all conceivable duties to do things for others are of this sort. Surely, we don’t think that it is acceptable to conceive of all and any moral duties toward others as overridable if we don’t feel inclined to fulfil them.
Some duties are different than the type of duty exemplified by the unreliable food critic story. They are more akin to being understood as duties of rescue when someone is in trouble and could be relieved via our actions (alone or in conjunction with the actions of others).
Imagine that you are attending a high school graduation ceremony, which, for many people as young as high school age, may be one of the most meaningful events lived in their lifetimes. Before the ceremony starts, you realise by looking at the podium that the valedictorian speaker, whom you don’t know personally, is set up for a bad crank. Somebody has placed a bucket full of garbage right over the podium, and a mechanism is in place so that by pulling a string, the bucket will tilt over dumping the contents right over the speaker’s head, presumably, when she is giving her speech. There is still a little less than an hour for the ceremony to begin. Assuming that we agree that this type of crank is morally bad and unjust, your options are as follows. The best possible alternative would be the one in which you run across campus to notify school authorities so that the bucket can be promptly removed. The worst possible alternative would be the one in which you do nothing, and the crank takes effect — this option shares its place with other possible, yet more far-fetched alternatives such as praying that the bucket won’t pivot while you remain seated during the ceremony.
You are not adding more harm to the speaker’s life if you stay put (even if you pray), but you are not morally free not to act just because you’d prefer to avoid getting sweaty on the run across campus to the security office. Neither are you morally free to just pray and stay put –since it is reasonable to believe that you should know that doing this would not suffice to avert the emergency in question. If you are indeed inclined to run across campus but you are afraid you will be tempted to stop half-way to socialise with friends in the outside cafeteria – being the social butterfly that you are — and, so, you decide you won’t commit to the run, this attitude would be as morally reproachable as the straightforward unwillingness to run because you don’t want to get sweaty. Getting tired or sweaty, under normal circumstances, does not seem to be a grave enough cost for you in the face of the harm to another person that could be prevented by you doing something.
I don’t think it is unreasonable to argue that you are, all else equal, bound to help the speaker on the basis of a basic duty of easy aid. Of course, this duty is even clearer in circumstances in which physical imperilment of a more serious kind is at play. Thus, it would be contrary to duty to fail to help someone in trouble when doing so wouldn’t be difficult for you. For example, if you see someone having a heart attack by the side of the road, it would be morally impermissible not to stop to call an ambulance if doing so would not cost you much. Of course, it would also be impermissible to stop and just pray that the ailing pedestrian makes it on her own. Just praying, in both the prank and the heart attack examples, demonstrates how we can discharge the duty to aid badly. Not attempting to help at all is an example of ignoring the duty altogether. Both ways of proceeding are morally unacceptable even though it is possible that someone is well intentioned — but deeply mistaken or ignorant — when resorting to the just-pray-line of action. Regardless, we wouldn’t let this individual off the moral hook. He should know better than just praying.
Voting well, as understood here, presents us with an apt analogy to the two examples above. Voting judiciously can conceivably be understood as an act aimed at rescuing society from injustice by relieving it from corrupt and incompetent rulers and replacing them with better alternatives. Voting does not have to be seen as a panacea for long-standing comprehensive change. However, it is necessary for the removal of injustice and the prevention of harm. Furthermore, it can be a good contributor to structural justice because it can install governments in power that are keen on initiating processes of structural transformation, however slowly.
It is the case, however, that for duties that we ought to try to fulfil in good faith, we may think that the individual can be morally excused for not performing them if we don’t have relevant reasons to blame him for his inability or unwillingness to act according to duty. For example, the individual may be morally excused from a duty of easy rescue if she is unable to move because someone else is impeding her physical movement, or because she’s having an emergency herself. But these aren’t cases akin to political incompetence, if the political incompetence is, in some relevant respect, the fault of the voter. We don’t morally excuse someone for being (avoidably) negligent.
For instance, we wouldn’t say that a driver that chooses to drive inebriated from a party and decides not to stop to aid a pedestrian having a heart attack by the side of the road is under no duty to help (by stopping and calling and ambulance). Rather, we would say that the inebriated driver is not in a condition to fulfil the duty of rescue due to a morally reprehensible choice he made, which impeded the satisfactory fulfilment of the duty to assist others in distress. We would not applaud the “responsible” drunk driver for being “duty conscious” because he opts not to stop the car — fearing he might run over the imperilled pedestrian since his command of the car is poor. Rather, we would frown upon him for putting himself in a position that rendered him unable to perform a valuable duty in the first place — besides endangering others.
The same reasoning may well apply to many bad voters, who, one could say, might have been able to avoid being unacceptably misinformed or prejudiced. Of course, in practice, it may not be always easy to draw a sharp line between morally culpable negligence and morally blameless negligence. In reality, many voters may be ignorant or wrong in their beliefs about what is at stake in elections due to obstacles that thwart the free and impartial flow of information in society (media manipulation, no civic education in schools, poverty, etc). Notwithstanding these potential difficulties, the concept of culpable negligence is intelligible, I think. It surely cannot be the case that for every person who decides not to vote because he is not politically knowledgeable, we should expect to find that the situation that led to that civic incompetence was completely and indisputably beyond his control.
Voting as such does not follow from a putative duty to vote carefully. It matters how we vote, not just that we vote. We may have reason to see voting carefully as independently justified because we have a duty to support justice and avoid being indifferent to injustice. Voting well is a stringent duty, even if it is not absolute. This idea goes hand in hand with the sensible assumption that governments that we elect –or throw out — are uniquely positioned to impair or deliver justice in ways that seriously matter, morally speaking.