Steve Sachs Duke


Thursday, May 06, 2004


Reflections on the Duty to Vote, Part III: Part II of this series (see Part I below) argued for a duty to vote based on an intuition against hypocrisy -- that we should not make exceptions of ourselves by expecting others to step forward where we would not. If we care about whether a city is destroyed by flood (as we ought to), and if we want thousands of people to volunteer to lay sandbags to control the river, we cannot fail to see a reason to lay sandbags ourselves. Similarly, if we care about the outcome of an election (as we ought to), and if we want millions of citizens to come forward and elect the right candidate, we must recognize some degree of obligation to join them in voting rather than sit at home.

Unfortunately, I don't think this clinches the case. Deciding that I have a reason to lay sandbags, or even a duty to vote, doesn't mean that these duties are absolute. Most of our moral choices are not between action and a state of vegetative inaction (or watching television, which is close enough), but rather between two different types of duties. The duty to vote proposed here flows from an 'imperfect' duty to assist others (the reason why we ought to care about the election result), which is not as specific in application as, say, the 'perfect' duty not to defraud. And as my friend pointed out, there might be many other imperfect duties which we ought to fulfill. For instance, consider three of her examples:

(a) People--millions of them--ought to become doctors and treat the sick.
(b) I am a person.

(a) Millions of people should work toward alleviating poverty.
(b) I am a person.

(a) Thousands of talented people should run for political office at various levels so local, state, and national governments will function well.
(b) I am a person.

How is it possible for anyone completely to fulfill their imperfect duties? And if doing so would be impossible--or if there is a distinction to be made between the morally necessary and the morally superogatory--how ought we to choose which imperfect duties to satisfy?

If voting were truly costless, then there would be no question here; we would simply vote and then move on to our next project. But voting is rarely costless, at least in terms of time. Should we not dedicate the time we would have spent voting (as well as researching the candidates) to generating income to donate to charity instead--or, if we want to make good on a civic duty to help our country, to performing other public services? When I mailed my ballot for the Missouri primary, I chose to send it via expedited air mail for £4 (~$7), rather than guaranteed delivery for £34 (~$60). As a result, it may not have arrived in time. But would my duty to vote have required me to spend the extra $53 on guaranteed delivery, rather than buying civics texts for needy schoolchildren (or even donating it to my candidate of choice)? And couldn't even that $7 have made a greater difference at Oxfam instead of merely changing the Missouri vote totals by one?

To be honest, I'm not sure there's a way to put the individual duty to vote on a consequentialist foundation. Thus far, I haven't attempted arguments based on a doctrine of political obligation, in which voting might be a perfect duty, one that can't be replaced by performing imperfect duties such as providing civics books to schoolchildren or teaching naturalization classes to immigrants. And one could always decide to vote for one's own enjoyment (a feeling of empowerment, say, or a certain pride in seeing the great experiment of democracy continue). But our political obligations are very tricky to nail down (and open up a whole other range of arguments), and a duty based on personal enjoyment wouldn't apply to anyone who'd rather sit at home.

The problem of imperfect duties is a very difficult one for any moral theory primarily concerned with how we make practical decisions. (It's easier for a moral theory like utilitarianism, which is more concerned with what happens as opposed to how we decide, and tells us to do whatever will be most effective in making the world a better place. It might be impossible to live that theory rigorously, but it's not very hard to describe it.) We can't really compare imperfect duties and to see how strong they are without first knowing how they were derived, and even then the answer isn't clear. Which is more effective, voting or teaching naturalization classes, at respecting others' humanity and treating them as ends in themselves? Of all of the joint projects in which a society might be engaged--protecting the environment, healing the sick, preserving domestic tranquility--where should voting stand in importance?

At the very least, though, I think it's worthwhile to point out what has been achieved. The argument from hypocrisy does provide resources for chastising those who see voting as truly worthless, and who would do nothing better with their time. And the problem of imperfect duties is certainly nothing new; if the duty to vote is no more shaky than many well-recognized duties, then it's pretty well-established. Moreover, I'd claim that the question of voting provides very strong reasons to accept a moral theory that pays attention to our decision-making, and may actually invalidate some common consequentialist alternatives. But to find out what those reasons are, you'll have to tune in tomorrow.

UPDATE: See further post above.




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