Missing the mark on rational voters

This article on the rational case for voting was interesting.

Derek Parfit’s “Harmless Torturers” argument
His argument here is that since performing 1/1000th of a torture is clearly bad, we shouldn’t even perform 1/1000th of a torture. Fair enough.

He then extrapolates:

so long as we accept that collectively high participating in voting is good, it follows that each individual decision to vote is good

So a significant part of the problem here is that “collectively high participating in voting is good” does not follow. It’s an assertion, not a fact. I personally suspect that many things that I might vote for might be considered 1/1000th of a torture to some poor soul. Logically then, I should never vote, since I don’t want to be 1/1000th of a torture. And in all honesty, any politician that one might vote for will make policy choices that will negatively impact some members of our society in meaningful ways. Thus, 1/1000th of a torture.

Anthropology and sociology hugely mitigate against the narrow economic view of adjudicating individual actions on a narrow benefit-cost of marginal action

This language is obtuse, and perhaps deliberately so. I believe what he’s trying to say here is that society is so complex that trying to perform cost-benefit analysis of a specific individuals actions is pointless.

… so what?

There’s no reason not to vote

or, he elaborates:

the costs to voting are extremely small,


But in a general equilibrium that is either positive or near a tipping point, especially given the prior point, if the costs of doing the socially beneficial and ethically sound thing are low or negligible, it is absolutely rational to do it.

His argument here is that leading by example is a legitimate use of your time if it helps motivate others to do good things. Actually, I’m inclined to agree that if you feel that you represent the tipping point of a movement, you should act, even if it wastes your time.

Having said that, I am not so narcissistic to believe that I ever represent said tipping point. Also, since the net effect of my voting might cause 1/1000th of a torture, me leading by example will ethically hold me responsible for a lot more than 1/1000th of a torture. Egads.

Voting is fun

I absolutely affirm his right to vote, if he finds it enjoyable and time well spent. That doesn’t make it rational in the general case.

Voting is empowering on an individual and communal level

He’s saying that you can’t legitimately complain if you don’t vote, and by voting, you uphold the legitimacy of voting.

The first part is tripe. The paying of taxes is all the legitimacy I need to have a say in the political process. The second part glosses over the fact that many bad things were legitimized by society’s participation. Just because lots of people do certain things doesn’t make them good, rational or ethically sound.

This argument mitigates against all public and civic participation

Except that you just established that one of the reasons to vote is that (for you) voting is fun. Can’t I donate to a candidate or sign a petition because it gives me enjoyment, even though I know it will have virtually zero impact?

This argument is particular to first-past-the-post elections on a very large scale

I believe there’s a typo in his sentence:

But if you’re going to vote for everything, the marginal cost of voting for everything on the ballot is so vanishingly small that even the narrow, economic argument against voting is thin as straw.

I believe the bold everything was meant to be “something” in his text. (Because otherwise it’s incoherent). And to some degree, he’s right – if you are going to go in and vote for one particular ballot item, voting for everything else on the ballot is virtually free, in terms of the sheer effort involved in pushing the appropriate button.

But, then there’s the fact that the ballot item you might be voting on will cause 1/1000th of a torture to someone. Don’t you have a tremendous ethical responsibility to educate yourself heavily on the pros and cons of every ballot item you vote for or against? Which is a *lot* more effort than just the physical pushing of the button. Mayhaps you don’t have time to do it right, and you ethically decide that since you aren’t informed on that particular ballot item, you shouldn’t participate?

Making this argument is immoral from a consequentialist standpoint

His argument is that if one accepts that high voter turnout is good, any argument that dampens high voter turnout is bad, even if the impact of that anti-voting argument is vanishingly small.

So first off, I am not comfortable claiming that high voter turnout is good.

Secondly, even if I did, what he’s saying is that if some policy or social action is considered a “public good”, any argument against it is damaging and shouldn’t be made. Applying this argument consistently across the past would have unravel all social progress. It used to be considered a “good thing” that the races were kept from interbreeding, that gays should never cohabit, let alone marry, that the state religion was the only religion that should be observed, and that certain people were born to rule.

Making this argument is immoral from an anthropological standpoint

and specifically, this gem:

Promoting cynicism and non-participating is bad

Yes. Let us never distrust government, nor point out that there are significant flaws in the current process. Thank goodness a Democrat is in charge, we don’t have to be cynical about government actions. The moment a Republican is in charge, cynicism and dissent will once again be a high form of patriotism.

Making this argument makes you look like a smug, dislikeable cynic

“Give me liberty or give me death!”

Patrick Henry, smug, dislikeable cynic, at least to the English….

My response

In my opinion, if you’re going to vote for or against a ballot item, you have a lot of responsibility.

First, you need to be very well educated about the ballot item, both pro- and con=. You have to have a good model of the future impacts of that item, societal, economic, political, etc.

Secondly, you have to be smart enough and well-adjusted enough that you can create this model dispassionately, and without your personal cognitive and political biases usurping your rational judgment.

Thirdly, you have to be an extremely advanced utilitarian to tease out whether then 1/1000th of a torture for some set of citizens is cancelled out by the benefits to others, and you have to be able to do that over a very long time horizon.

If you can’t do that – if you aren’t capable or don’t have the time to make these highly nuanced, insightful analyses of the issues at hand, you’re really no more sophisticated than a baby smearing dirt on a wall because it feels good.

But that’s fine – if you want to smear more dirt on the walls, that’s your right. I wish you wouldn’t, but I recognize that most people think it’s perfectly normal. Just don’t tell me that I also have to smear dirt on the wall, because most everyone else is doing it, and society thinks its a good thing.


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