• Lauren Mooney

Deliberate Abstention is Privilege

Author: Colette Marcellin


In their paper “Is There a Duty to Vote?,” Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky reject the common conception of voting as a requisite duty and assert that voting is not only unnecessary, but “not morally superior to abstention” (471). Brennan and Lomasky develop their argument by defining their scope of voting scenarios, explaining that voting rarely directly advances individual interests, and rejecting generalization arguments and expressive ethics as a rationale for a moral duty to vote. Brennan and Lomasky’s argument presents voting in a narrow light, failing to account for implicit duties, present a comprehensive utility equation, and sufficiently reject generalization and expressive ethics arguments that justify a moral duty to vote. The utility of voting does not only derive from the probability of casting the deciding vote, but from the probability of casting one of the votes that, in the aggregate, decides an election. Furthermore, the slippery slope of low voter turnout presents real detriments to electoral democracy, resulting in greater polarization and a less representative political system. Ultimately, there are inherent benefits to better democratic representation and to voting as an act of self-expression. In failing to prove that voting is not a duty, Brennan and Lomasky’s paper affirms that voting strengthens both moral citizenship and electoral democratic systems of government.


Brennan and Lomasky begin their argument by specifying scenarios in which individuals have a special duty to vote as outside the scope of their argument regarding “modern nation-states” where voting is not compulsory (472). These special duties apply to offices or countries that specifically compel voting, agreements or allegiances through which a person explicitly or implicitly commits to vote, or communities in which all citizens benefit from a common involvement in public affairs. However, the moral duty to vote does not necessarily require rules, promises, or social contracts within politically active communities. It can be argued that citizens of the United States, for example, have an implicit moral duty to vote even though the law does not require them to do so. The right to vote in the United States and in most other modern nation-states did not arise naturally and therefore cannot be separated from the often-violent, morally righteous struggles in which many sacrificed their lives to secure that right for posterity. Similarly, the right to vote remains a privilege possessed by few relative to the rest of the world. Holding the right, ability, and means to vote and deciding to abstain disregards and disrespects the ongoing struggle of many for the right to vote in their own countries and for the opportunity to immigrate to places that offer that right; quite literally, people die for the right to vote. Furthermore, just as Brennan and Lomasky find Abercrombie to be “free-riding on the exertions of others” in abstaining from voting and enjoying “advantages arising from patterns of citizen involvement,” non-voting American citizens today are free-riding on the past and present exertions of those fighting for democracy in the United States and across the world (472). Contrary to Brennan and Lomasky’s position, the moral duty to vote not only follows from explicit or implicit obligations and laws, but also from historical and external conditions that make the right to vote extraordinary.


Brennan and Lomasky continue their line of reasoning by arguing that even if citizens owe a duty of prudence, the act of voting is imprudent because it is unlikely to be effective. Brennan and Lomasky find that “on most electoral occasions” the chance of casting the deciding vote “will be infinitesimal,” rendering voting “one of the least efficacious” ways to maximize utility (472). However, Brennan and Lomasky present a narrow conception of individual utility regarding electoral outcomes in only including the “probability of being decisive” in their utility equation (473). Though Brennan and Lomasky fairly mention the potential opportunity cost of voting, they narrowly define the expected return to a vote to advance their argument. An individual can still derive utility from casting a vote that makes a difference, rather than solely the difference. The utility or direct return from voting is more likely to exceed the cost when defined more broadly and properly as contributing in the aggregate to the outcome of an election. Therefore, casting the deciding vote or appreciating the activity of voting are not the only reasons to vote, allowing greater occasion for individuals to justify the cost of voting. Finally, within Brennan and Lomasky’s flawed utility and probability framework, they measure the benefit or “Return to Voter I of A’s being victorious” in monetary terms in an attempt to prove that, even in an “exceedingly close election” with a small anticipated proportional majority, the voter must value A’s victory exceptionally highly to derive any utility of note in monetary terms. However, as discussed in critiques of cost benefit analysis, not all goods or interests can or should be assigned a monetary value. For example, if Candidate A would grant immediate and permanent amnesty to undocumented immigrants while Candidate B’s first official act would be to deport them, it would be impossible and insensitive to quantify the return of A’s being victorious and the negative cost of B’s being victorious. Brennan and Lomasky’s utility equation disregards the crucial and relatively high probability of being part of the voting block that makes a difference and includes unquantifiable returns to electoral outcomes.


Furthermore, Brennan and Lomasky assert that voting is imprudent not only from a self-interested perspective, but also from a common good standpoint. The act-consequentialist argument finds that the small probability of casting the deciding vote bears “heavily on the wellbeing of a multitude” and “ought to be incorporated in the deliberations preceding one’s decision on how to act” (Brennan and Lomasky 474). Brennan and Lomasky counter that examples of one-in-a-million chances of a nuclear disaster and an increase in GNP are irrelevant; in competitive elections, a similar level of consensus regarding which candidate or party will best promote the public good is unlikely. However, this lack of consensus does not necessarily mean that one candidate or party will not better promote the common good, or a significant good to a number of people. Though the two parties and many Americans disputed which 1860 presidential candidate would secure the common good, few today would deny that Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party were indispensable to the well-being of the Union and of African-Americans. The existence of bitter debate and “emotional fever” does not invalidate the tangible good that certain candidates and parties provide to the public (Brennan and Lomasky 475). Though some policies, often economic, are sufficiently complex as to make it difficult to discern overall “goodness,” Brennan and Lomasky’s argument fails to apply to all political issues. The epistemic discount rate, which discounts for mistakes in weighting issues, empirical fallibility, party unreliability, and historical unpredictability, becomes irrelevant in matters of liberty and human rights. Brennan and Lomasky’s arguments regarding the impossibility of clearly promoting the common good in a polarized political climate are flawed attempts to disprove the moral duty to vote.


Later in their act-consequentialist section, Brennan and Lomasky raise the argument that strong political evaluators “voting right” and uninformed voters abstaining will improve electoral outcomes, establishing a duty to vote right rather than a moral duty to vote in the act-consequentialist case. The problem with this argument is twofold. First, the likelihood of those above a certain level of voter facility voting in large numbers and of those below abstaining in large numbers is extremely unlikely; therefore, this potentially favorable outcome from an act-consequentialist standpoint only works in theory, not in practice. In reality, many people who, for example, oppose Obamacare but somehow also support the Affordable Care Act will exercise their civic duty to vote. Furthermore, there are positive practical and moral effects of a greater number of people voting, which will be addressed in response to the generalization section. The issues with Brennan and Lomasky’s final consequentialist critique establishes the groundwork for later flaws in their “argument from generalization.” Brennan and Lomasky argue that “parties/candidates will be constrained to offer policy platforms that lie not too far from that which the median voter prefers” and it is therefore “not necessary for citizens actually to exercise the franchise” (478). Outside of a formal model and within the increasingly polarized American political system, this argument fails to attenuate the case for voting. Though in theory competition would constrain parties, in reality fair competition is undermined by gerrymandered districts, nearly-unrestrained campaign finance, and a partisan electorate. Parties and candidates have no need to appeal to “the median voter” to maximize their chances of being elected, as most districts are uncompetitive, most campaign financing comes from PACs and corporations rather than from ordinary citizens, and most voters care more about the letter next to a candidate’s name than the potentially practical policies he or she proposes. Ironically, if more people did vote and the government were more representative of the population it serves, moderate policy platforms actually winning elections would be more feasible. Ultimately, Brennan and Lomasky fail to sufficiently dismantle act-consequentialist justifications of a moral duty to vote.


Brennan and Lomasky’s subsequent argument against slippery-slope generalizations disregards the inherent detriments of low voter turnout and voter apathy. Brennan and Lomasky first suggest that “the claim that it would be disastrous if no one voted is far from evident,” then grant that “generalized nonvoting would indeed be undesirable” to assert that the duty to vote “does not automatically follow” (479). In regards to the former aspect of their argument, it would likely be disastrous if no one voted, or even if only a few people voted. As in a statistical study with voluntary response bias, voting by a small group of “volunteers” is likely to result in the expression of extreme and unrepresentative opinions. If ordinary people were discouraged from voting, those with strong and polarized opinions would determine the political fate of the entire more moderate citizenry. In the American political system, the few remaining voters would likely support narrow special interest groups, allowing wedge issues to decide elections. Furthermore, the duty to vote does follow from the dangers of generalized nonvoting. Brennan and Lomasky acknowledge the moral implications of generalization when “doing or refraining from some action one thereby perpetrates an unfairness” and when “initial defection by one or a small number of persons tends to promote further defections” (479-480). However, there exist both underlying unfairness and social detriments in abstaining from voting. When citizens abstain from voting, extreme voices become more powerful within a democratic political system; these citizens therefore perpetrate an unfairness towards the remaining voters and overall moderate population. Furthermore, voter apathy is proven to beget voter apathy. There is no “self-stabilizing,” “morally satisfactory” equilibrium that emerges as in the farming and dentistry example; in fact, abstention sets “up a spiral of further departures” and voter apathy (Brennan and Lomasky 480). Therefore, abstaining from voting is morally unsatisfactory from a generalization argument that cannot be countered by a flawed utility equation: nonvoters unfairly free-ride (as discussed earlier), elevate extreme groups, and discourage others from voting.


Finally, Brennan and Lomasky challenge expressive ethics as a justification for a moral

duty to vote. Brennan and Lomasky acknowledge that “one is obliged on suitable occasions to express support for certain practices and institutions if one is to be entitled to play any significant part within them” and provide examples of allegiances to sports teams and friends (482). In regards to voting, they assert that abstention and complaint demonstrate “bad faith” while abstention by itself does not. However, their argument against the expressive case for a duty to vote is that “the mere act of showing up at the polls… is palpably inadequate to qualify as a significant act of political expression” (Brennan and Lomasky 483). This objection proves inadequate; judging voting as an insignificant expression does not invalidate voting as an expression in and of itself or voting as relatively morally superior to not voting. While voting might not be “significant,” it is more significant than and morally superior to abstaining from voting. Furthermore, despite the institution of the secret ballot, voting can still constitute a “genuinely public performance” – voters proudly wear “I Voted” stickers, lead Get Out the Vote efforts, and share their stories of voting through various forms of social media (Brennan and Lomasky 483). Regardless of this relative significance or clear publicity, the expressive weight necessary to establish a moral duty is subjective; the evaluation of voting as more expressive than staying home and of some minimal level of political engagement within an electoral democracy as more moral than disinterest are not. Even if an individual vote were unlikely to be effective and publicized, it would still be more likely to be causally sufficient and noticeable than a lack of a vote. Despite subjective measures of significance and expression, voting is more significant and publicly expressive than refraining from voting.


Brennan and Lomasky’s arguments prove ineffective in disproving voting as a moral duty through addressing specific examples and theoretical arguments. To advance their argument, Brennan and Lomasky narrowly define the qualifications of a moral duty, the utility equation for voting, and the potential for certain candidates to decisively promote the common good. Furthermore, they disregard the importance of “the median voter” actually voting in diminishing political polarization and electing a more representative government, as well as the insidious effects of low voter turnout and the relative significance of the expression of voting. Brennan and Lomasky’s series of arguments attempts to dismantle the consensus that there exists a moral duty to vote and fails to do so; ultimately, voting as a moral duty respects democratic privileges, proves able to be causally sufficient and further the common good, and creates a society that promotes civic participation and representative government.


PPL 2010

13 October 2017


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