Acton Institute Powerblog

Is There a Moral Duty to Not Vote?

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During the electoral season of 2004, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote a provocative essay titled, “The Only Vote Worth Casting in November.” In the essay he writes,

[T]he only vote worth casting in November is a vote that no one will be able to cast, a vote against a system that presents one with a choice between [X’s] conservatism and [Y’s] liberalism, those two partners in ideological debate, both of whom need the other as a target.

Andrew Haines, founder of the Center for Morality in Public Life, helpfully distills the essence of MacIntyre’s argument:

In a nutshell—if I can be free to ‘summarize’ MacIntyre’s (or perhaps better, what I take to be a “purist” Aristotelian) position on the matter—refusal to vote coincides with our basic human responsibility toward fostering virtue. Voting, or any political or moral action for that matter, isn’t primarily about fulfilling codified duties, but rather about freely seeking out what is highest and most perfect. The act of voting, in this case, isn’t something we can assess under a utility-driven approach to social welfare (e.g., sorting out the lesser of two political evils). Instead, voting is a reflection of right reason in action—and because of this, it can only engage positively (i.e., we can only cast an unspoiled ballot) when the intellect is given enough fodder to make an informed judgment.

I despise “utility-driven approaches” to moral issues so I’m sympathetic to the argument. But my moral intuitions also tell me that voting is a duty for Christians in a democratic republic. Am I wrong? How should we respond to MacIntyre’s case for not voting?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil.

    “I believe that voting is a privilege; certainly the body of Christ should be involved. Here’s the rub, as Christians we have a higher duty and a higher calling which is to our God, this is what the world doesn’t understand and can’t grasp because the world has no spiritual discernment. When we are able to cast our vote for a godly individual then we should do so without hesitation, but when there is no godly choice afforded us, as children of God, we are to stand with a firm conviction and always side with God. We must have faith in God that He is in control, not us.”

  • Peter

    I’m torn between knowing that if I vote for who I really would like to vote for the vote is essentially meaningless. I would much prefer to not have our current president return for a second term, but I am very opposed to the idea that I should vote against someone. I would much rather vote for someone, but if I do that then I have to be prepared for another 4 years of Obama in the White House

  • Barb

    The challenge is that many view voting as a ‘terminal’ activity – an end to our civic duty and engagement in political discourse. I believe we must vote for the candidate who most strongly aligns with our values and then seek, through additional civic engagement, to influence elected officials. As Catholics in society, our role should not end at the poll.

  • Roger McKinney

    Not voting is a vote against the current system. The differences between Obama and Romney are insignificant, as the Brits have noticed but Americans refuse to see.

  • Kathryn Mulderink

    All true, and yet… Based on the probability that if “culture of life” voters do not vote, the most anti-life administration ever will remain in a position to forward its agenda on a largely oblivious nation, I feel it is NOT a compromise of conscience to vote AGAINST it. Christ Himself does not demand all at once, but advances His Kingdom in almost imperceptible increments, one heart at a time. Holding off a tsunami of moral evils is done one vote at a time. To refuse to vote seems to be one of the timings that will aow evil to advance without any “checks.”

    • Roger McKinney

      What persuaded me to not vote is the fact that the Republican party has talked a good game on abortion for over 30 years while failing to do anything at all to stop it. I think the party has duped Christians. They’re all talk and no action.

      • Greg Miller

        While I’ll agree there are RINOs (and too many of them) shamelessly using the abortion issue to cultivate votes rather than out of real conviction, it’s simply ridiculous and untrue to claim that “for over 30 years” they’ve “failed to do anything at all to stop it”.

        Look at the legislative record, for God’s sake. Multiple State legislatures dominated by Republicans have put limits and restrictions on abortions in good efforts to legally counter R v. Wade until it’s overturned. Examples from just the past few years include
        1. Conscience clauses for pharmacists so they don’t have to prescribe morning after pills.
        2. Sonogram requirements before a woman can go through with a decision to abort.
        3. Parental consent requirements and mandatory notification, to eliminate the coercion of older pedophile men on underage girls.
        4. The “fetal pain” laws that ban abortion after the neurology is in place for fetal feeling of pain (12-16 weeks).

        Roger, not saying this is the case with you, but usually when a person uses the “party has duped Christians” argument, it’s my experience that the person is just making an excuse for their pro-Democrat vote. I know many from that allegedly Christian crowd that worship at the altar of “Social Justice” rather than that of God.

        • Roger McKinney

          Well, I’m a libertarian. I was as Republican from 1980 until a few years ago. Yes, a few states have put some very limited restrictions on abortion. But at the national level the Republican party has done nada. You see a few Rinos, I see a party of them.

          True conservatives are rare in the Republican party. But just as the leftists McCain and Romney pretend to be conservative while the campaign is still on, most Republicans will talk a good game.

          On economic issues, at least Democrats are up front that they are socialists. Republicans pretend to be free marketeers while always expanding the scope and power of the state.

        • Roger McKinney

          Why hasn’t the Republican party promoted a Constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion?

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