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A Vote Worth Casting: What Makes Voting Valuable?

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There’s more to voting than tallying up the number of yays and nays. Although you’d never guess it by the numbingly perfunctory attitude taken toward voting by most Americans—especially in this late hour—who see it either as the highest duty of a good citizen, or as an inconvenient inevitability.

What makes voting worth it, anyway? Is it the possibility of shaping our nation’s future? The opportunity to express our deepest-held principles? Or is it worth it precisely because not doing it would be a civic or moral failure that we wish to avoid?

A recent conversation at Ethika Politika draws some of these questions together. Responding broadly to my characterization of Alasdair MacIntyre’s now somewhat popular case for non-voting, Acton’s own Dylan Pahman offers a perspective that emphasizes real-life consequences stemming from our attitude toward civic choices. Pahman takes as a philosophical basis for this approach William James’s idea of genuine options, suggesting that voting meets all the criteria, and that to not vote is, strictly speaking, not a real option.

As the defensor MacIntyri, here—at least for the sake of argument—I submit that Pahman’s analysis, while logically consistent, introduces a false assumption about the nature of morals vis-à-vis public life. In other words, I think that favoring a “duty to consider the consequences” need not take precedence over—and certainly needn’t extinguish—one’s “focus upon the personal, moral value of voting.” What are personal morals, after all, if not deeply connected to reality?

In my article, I suggest that the basic qualification for making valuable decisions is that they align with right reason. Voting, if it is to be valuable, must be “a reflection of right reason in action—and because of this, it can only engage positively [. . .] when the intellect is given enough fodder to make an informed judgment.”

Pahman’s introduction of counting costs, seemingly apart from any MacIntyrean or Aristotelian pursuit of excellence, implies that value could arise from a mere calculation of probabilities. To explore Pahman’s own words: “While one may not ultimately have a duty to vote, as Haines argues contra Caro, I argue that one does have a duty to consider the consequences.” Presumably, to fulfill one’s duty is a morally valuable action; therefore, considering consequences is, in itself, morally valuable.

I find this all a tough pill to swallow. Not, of course, because considering probabilities is somehow unrelated to performing valuable actions—I argue that informed judgments are the only sort worth anything to begin with. Rather, it’s because introducing “duty” language into a thoroughly intellectual activity just doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand, I appreciate where Pahman is coming from. (And if my criticism seems like nitpicking, I hope to clarify.) The pursuit of moral excellence implies not just making a decision based on right reason, but also the formation of one’s mind to deal with facts and information in the most reasonable way possible. This isn’t something different from the integral approach to justice that might prompt someone, like MacIntyre, to refrain from casting a ballot, or another, like Pahman, to cast one. However, it is radically different from couching consideration of the consequences as a sort of stand-alone obligation, disconnected from the ‘stuff’ that makes actions moral.

The misstep, I believe, is twofold. The first—what Pahman seems to play into, in particular—assumes that complicated, value-laden actions can be split evenly into simple, equally valuable components. This isn’t always (or perhaps ever) the case, and certainly not with respect to the complicated yet non-complex act of voting. The second misstep occurs when we prioritize, either because of habit or honest conviction, the moral duty to vote. This begs the very question we need to answer.

In a final effort to exploit the common ground between Pahman and myself, I owe it to him to admit that he does leave open the possibility of not casting a ballot, should a person feel that the option (by James’s definition) isn’t a real one. I also appreciate Pahman’s consent that we might not have a duty to vote. However, that’s not what MacIntyre is asking for—nor is it what I wish to advocate, either. Instead, it’s simply that the language of “ought” and “should,” when it comes to voting, might better be advanced with respect to our nature than as regards a “utility-driven approach to social welfare.” Put differently, Pahman is right to assert that there’s more to voting than mere intentions. But the calculus of outcome and consequence can hardly be made intelligible without a strong sense of what is, in fact, actually and truly best.

We live out our convictions of the latter every day, from one November to the next. We either do or don’t habitually form ourselves to make good judgments. And if we’re wise, we take seriously the ramifications—both long- and short-term—that our actions will have on our own well-being and the well-being of our community. Thus, it’s hard to imagine that, when election day rolls around, it would be prudent to do anything other than what we’ve come to believe was the best practice, all along.

Andrew M. Haines Andrew Haines is president and founder of the Center for Morality in Public Life, and a doctoral candidate in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He serves as the editor of Ethika Politika.


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  • Carl

    VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.

  • Lydia

    If you don’t vote you don’t have the right to moan. Also I’m pretty sure if we took away the right to vote people would have a lot to say about it, even if they didn’t bother voting in the first place. You have a vote, use it!