Thursday, August 26, 2010

Collective Harms from Bad Voting or Abstaining

Jason Brennan argues that it's impermissible to vote 'badly' (i.e., voting without sufficient reason for harmful or unjust policies -- but misleading evidence may be exculpatory here). As he puts it in the abstract for his 'Polluting the Polls' paper, "This duty to avoid voting badly is grounded in a general duty not to engage in collectively harmful activities when the personal cost of restraint is low." (Basing the duty on the collective harm done is necessary for Jason, as he takes the expected impact of an individual vote to be negligible -- easily outweighed by any warm fuzzies the bad voter might get from voting.) But I wonder whether this principle might "prove too much", by equally establishing a duty to vote well rather than abstain (whereas Jason considers the latter to be perfectly permissible).

Consider an election between two fellows with the apt names 'Good' and 'Bad'. Suppose that voter turnout is low, but Bad is winning by a sizeable margin. One Ms. Voter is walking by the voting booth. Suppose she knows that Good's policies would better promote the common good, but she just doesn't like the guy and so isn't very motivated to vote for him. What are her permissible options? According to Jason, she may not vote for Bad. For though her individual vote is negligible, she would be part of a collective (namely, the Bad-voters) who bring about significant harm that they could have avoided at low personal cost.

Okay, let's consider abstaining then. Can't the same thing be said of this? By this (in)action, Voter would be part of a collective (namely, 'the abstainers' -- or, more broadly, 'those who failed to vote for Good') who collectively bring about significant harm that they could have prevented at low personal cost. The members of this collective could have voted for Good (at minimal personal cost), and thereby collectively prevented Bad's election and subsequent bad policies.

Perhaps one could escape this argument by appealing to the doing/allowing distinction. The initial principle invoked the idea of 'collectively harmful activities', and you might think that abstaining or failing to vote is not a (positive) activity, but rather a failure to engage in an activity. And maybe it's okay (on this view) to be part of a collective failure to act, even if this collective failure is harmful. This all sounds rather dubious to me, but then so did the original principle, so I'd welcome any responses from those more sympathetic to the Collective Harm principle as to whether they would be inclined to interpret it in this more limited way.


  1. There is a gap between the set of policies that G and B are espousing and the benefits and harms that can come from them. We can analyze this gap thusly: there is a gap between what a politician promises to do (even if she really intends to do it), and what a politician actually does (or is allowed to do) when in power. Assume, then, that V justifiably believes that B spouses a set of harmful policies and that G spouses a set of beneficial policies, and let's Consider the following 5 scenarios.

    (B1) V votes for B and B brings about her harmful policies.
    (B2) V votes for B and B is unable to bring about her harmful policies and other harmful policies unrelated to B come about.
    (B3) V votes for B and B is unable to bring about her harmful policies and other beneficial policies unrelated to B come about.
    (G1) V votes for G and G brings about her beneficial policies.
    (G2) V votes for G and G is unable to bring about her beneficial policies and other beneficial policies unrelated to G come about.
    (G3) V votes for G and G is unable to bring about her beneficial policies and other harmful policies unrelated to G come about.

    If Brennan is saying that V has a duty not to engage in a collectively harmful activity, then it is unclear whether we can say that merely voting for B is one such instance. If scenario B3 comes about, for example, V would be collectively responsible for bringing about the greater good, despite voting for B. There's no collective harm here.

    Another reading of Brennan could perhaps yield the claim that V has a duty not to collectively engage in what V justifiably believes to be a collectively harmful activity. Here the situation seems even more complex. For what if V has formed no such beliefs? Or what would constitute justification for such beliefs? Unclear. What if V has sketched out scenarios B1-G3? Should she assign probabilities to each and figure out which one is more likely to be true? How could she do that? Unclear.

    Maybe the probability calculus could go thusly: given B1-B3, there is a likelihood of roughly .3 that voting for B will bring about a beneficial situation; given G1-G3, there is a likelihood of roughly .6 that voting for G will bring about a beneficial situation. So maybe these are good grounds for believing that voting for B is a collectively harmful activity (even though B3 might come about), which could in turn (perhaps) ground a duty for not voting for B.

    What of the non-voter? Well, there's an overall likelihood of .5 that either a harmful or beneficial outcome will come about. Is this good enough ground to justify abstaining?

  2. I'm not sure why you would say that the argument "proves too much" (and go seeking out ways to fix the problem such as the doing/allowing distinction) if it leads to the conclusion that there's a duty to vote for Good. That's not the conclusion Brennan wanted to draw, but a duty to vote for Good strikes me as perfectly plausible. I'd rather think of it as a ranking -- voting for Bad is the worst choice, abstaining is better, but voting for Good is the best.

  3. A more interesting analogy would be if we have bad and a bit less bad but also detestable.

    If one is clearly good and one is clearly bad, and you don't vote for the good just because you don't like him (and not because you don't think he is bad) then simply you are not acting very maturely.

  4. * in the above comment in the parenthesis, I mean to say and not because you think he is bad. The don't is a mistake.

  5. Luis - yes, what matters here is not what policies a politician espouses, but what policies (the evidence suggests) would result from their being elected.

    Stentor - right, the "proves too much" remark is directed particularly at Jason (and those who share his view) -- you need not share it. But note the distinction between the obligatory and the supererogatory. Even accepting your ranking, it's a further question where to draw the line of what's "minimally acceptable" from a moral perspective. One might think that abstaining from voting is permissible, even if it's not best.


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