Steve Sachs Duke


Wednesday, May 05, 2004


Reflections on the Duty to Vote, Part II: Yesterday's post tried to estimate the chance of a split presidential election in the U.S., and found that under relatively common circumstances, the odds against an election being decided by a single ballot are astronomical. No matter how crucial the election, in a 56-44 race, the zillion-to-one chance against my casting the deciding vote renders any calculation of expected benefit meaningless. Additionally, if we ignore any effect an individual vote might have in changing the perceived strength of the winner's mandate (an effect that would also be vanishingly small), voting must appear to be an almost absurdly irrational means of making the world a better place. How, then, can a supposed duty to vote have any force at all?

A few months after my friend initially raised the question, I responded with the following argument. During the 1993 floods on the Mississippi, the cities on the river's banks would sometimes call for volunteers to help lay sandbags to keep the river from overflowing its banks. Assume that one year there's a particularly terrible flood, one that threatens the entire city with destruction. Moreover, assume -- and I don't know the physics, but I'd think this is justified in the case of floods -- that what matters is ultimately not the sheer number of sandbags laid, but whether the number of sandbags exceeds some threshold that nobody knows in advance. That is, there's some number of sandbags that is sufficient to block the water from spilling over; any fewer than that number results in the whole thing being swept away, and any sandbags above that are just gravy. However, nobody knows how high the threshold is, and so everyone fears that the city will be destroyed.

Now imagine one night when the city makes an emergency call for volunteers, and I choose instead to sit at home and watch television. My reasoning is that there are several tens of thousands of people out there throwing sandbags, and no matter what the magic number is, we'll probably miss it or exceed it by a couple thousand at least. As a result, it seems like there's a very high probability that my own contribution of sandbags won't make the ultimate difference. The same logic holds for everyone else on the line. Their actions are praiseworthy in some sense, since they're taking on a responsibility without personal gain, but also a little bit silly, since the effort they expend has a very minimal probability of making any difference at all. For myself, if the river breaks the banks and we all drown, well, at least I'll have caught another episode of the Simpsons before I go.

My motivations here seem, I think, somewhat contradictory. It isn't that the volunteers are in a particularly dangerous situation (getting crushed by sandbags, threatened by sharks, etc.) or that I have something else worth doing at home, or even that I see the enterprise of protecting the city as unimportant; I want the city saved as much as anyone else. In fact, I think it's really important that other people go out and volunteer, or that people volunteer in general, but I just don't see this importance as a reason to volunteer myself. Something like means-ends rationality is implicated here; it seems impossible to hold a set of two beliefs,

(a) People--thousands of them--ought to go out and lay sandbags.
(b) I am a person.

and fail to conclude that I have a reason to go out and lay sandbags. If I chose to sit at home and do nothing, I would be making an exception of myself; I would have a strong desire that other people act in a certain way, but I wouldn't not willing to entertain doing so on my own. The relevant sin isn't apathy, but hypocrisy. I may not be morally bound to lay sandbags above all else, but I can't rationally view a call to volunteer as entirely without normative power, if I care about the outcome. And the rest of moral theory would tell me that I ought to care about the outcome (in which the city would be destroyed, puppies would drown, etc.).

To my mind, pretty much the same argument can be made in the context of voting. We know that there's some magic number of votes Candidate A will need to defeat Candidate B; it's just that no one has any idea what that number is. We may know that we'll probably miss it by a significant amount, but don't know for certain, even with polling, in which direction the error will be ("Dewey Defeats Truman," etc.). And I don't know if it's rationally possible to have a fervent desire that others -- we're talking millions of people! -- end up voting a certain way, and yet not have a sufficient desire to engage in a near-costless act of voting myself. Of course, this desire hinges on the fact that I'm not indifferent between the candidates. But the rest of moral theory would tell me why indifference is wrong in this case, and why I ought to care about the outcome (in which the budget deficit would increase, puppies would drown, etc.). And the strength of this morally-required desire would then reveal my how strong my duty to vote would be.

(To be continued tomorrow...)

UPDATE: See Part III above.




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