The Ethics of Voting

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I've read a few books by Jason Brennan (alumnus of the University Near Here) and enjoyed them: Against Democracy, When All Else Fails, and Cracks in the Ivory Tower (co-written with Phillip Magness). He was also a contributor to the late, great website, Bleeding Heart Libertarians. So when I noticed that this 2011 book was available from the University Near Here library…

It is short but dense. It sets forth (as the title implies) some simple principles you should use in deciding how, or whether, to vote. And fortunately, Brennan lists them:

  1. Citizens do not have a duty to vote. At most, they have duties of beneficence and reciprocity that can be discharged any number of ways besides voting.
  2. In general, voters should vote for things that tend to promote the common good rather than try to promote narrow self-interest at the expense of the common good.
  3. Voters face epistemic requirements. They must be epistemically justified in believing that the candidate or policy they support is likely to promote the common good. Otherwise, they ought to abstain.
  4. Vote buying and selling are sometimes morally permissible, provided these activities do not violate the duties listed here.

Brennan has his philosopher's hat firmly on here. Those are controversial principles, especially the last one, but he makes careful arguments in support, considers objections fairly and (to my mind) completely.

The usual drawback to reading philosophy books applies: you're coming into the middle of a slow-motion, often super-academic, debate. If you're an "let's hear all sides" person… well, you have some more reading to do.

In a final chapter, Brennan examines how voters actually behave compared to the principles he's advocated. Surveys say, unequivocally: not well.


Last Modified 2024-01-11 4:44 AM EST