Monday, April 4, 2011

The agency of a soundly struck billiard ball

     Recently, I opined that, though one may well have good reasons to vote (in elections), one reason that one does not have is precisely the reason most commonly given—namely, that “one’s vote counts”—i.e., one’s vote is causally significant. This claim, of course, is manifestly false.
     It is a characteristic of our time that we often believe things—often false things—for manifestly specious reasons. I've grown accustomed to it.
     Recently, I came upon some writers who make similarly obnoxious points. For instance, political philosopher Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting, argues that citizens do not have a duty to vote (indeed, some of them have a duty to not vote). But, if they do vote, they have a duty to vote intelligently, something that most actual voters clearly fail to do:
     Before Canadians head once again to the polls, they should do their homework. This election is an opportunity to make Canada even better, but it’s also a chance to make it worse. Bad decisions at the polls can lead to increased poverty, a stagnant economy, lost opportunities, worse pollution or unjust wars....
     Casting an informed vote is hard. Knowing what the problems are is not enough, because the solutions to Canada’s problems are not obvious. Reading parties’ platforms is not enough. Knowing what policies the different political parties favour is not enough, because a voter needs to know which policies have any real shot of working. The Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and others each want Canada to be healthier, happier and stronger. They’re like doctors each offering different prescriptions to cure Canada’s illnesses. Some of these prescriptions will work, some will have no effect and some will make Canada sicker. Voters need to learn how to evaluate these prescriptions....
     Voting is not like choosing food from a menu. If a citizen makes a bad choice about what to eat in a restaurant, she alone bears the costs of her decision. But if she makes a bad choice at the polls, she imposes the costs on everyone. Voters are not just choosing for themselves, but for all. If a restaurant offers bad food, diners can walk away or get their money back. This is not the case with public policy. Political decisions are imposed on all and enforced by law. Fellow citizens can’t just walk away from a menu full of bad policies.
     Voters face some choices. They can form their beliefs about politics in a self-indulgent way. They can ignore evidence and form policy preferences based on what they find emotionally appealing. They can treat voting as a form of self-expression and ignore what damage they do. Or they can be good citizens. They can form their policy preferences by studying social scientific evidence about how institutions and policies work, and by using reliable methods of reasoning to study the issues. They can work to overcome their personal and ideological biases and choose in a smart, thoughtful way.
     I’m not sure about Canadians, but, near as I can tell, most Americans are utterly incapable of being good citizens, as Brennan understands that.
     Does this mean that we Americans have a duty to stop being a country? Gosh!
     On the other hand, if one’s vote “doesn’t count” (i.e., is inefficacious), in what sense can it be said that unintelligent voting is harmful?
     Plainly, the widespread phenomenon of unintelligent voting is harmful. But that is consistent with the “harmlessness” of any given unintelligent vote.
     On the other hand, there is, I think, a special sense of moral agency that defies ordinary causal agency. My moral agency is not like the agency of a soundly struck billiard ball.
     But that is a topic for another day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the unintelligent tend to favor one party over the other, so making it patriotic to vote is sensible. Turns out patriotism kills in more ways than one.