Elections and Torture

Last night my family and I had a discussion about whether or not it makes sense to vote.  I was arguing that since state or national elections are never decided by one vote, it doesn’t make sense for any individual to vote since voting is costly in terms of time.  Although our family friend Craig Ostrand, a Republican, was thrilled that I was thinking of not voting, the rest of my family chimed in with the usual argument: My point is correct for an individual, but if everybody thought that way then no one would vote. Therefore, everyone should vote to prevent the outcome in which no one votes.

The whole discussion reminds me of Derek Parfit‘s Harmless Torturer story.  Even if each torturer adds an unnoticable amount of pain to a victim, since together they cause pain what they are doing is still bad.  I often think of this example when confronting moral problems.  A single person littering, for instance, may not make the streets of a city noticably filthy, but the behavior is still bad.  Similarly, I don’t expect the meat industry to close down since my decision a few months back to become a vegatarian.  But I still think that being a vegetarian is good.

Voting seems like a similar case.  My family was right to point out that if everyone thought that voting was irrational and didn’t vote, then elections would cease to work.   Of course, once few enough people were voting, a rational person would begin voting again since a single vote would be worth more, but that is beside the point.  The most important difference between Parfit’s torturers and voters is that we all agree that torturing is bad, but it is not necessarily true that voting is good.  Without getting into a discussion of the moral status of voting, it is at least plausible that an intelligent person might consider voting amoral.  If voting is not good or bad in a moral sense, than one is free to decide whether the cost of taking time to vote is worth the expected impact of one’s vote on an election without considering the moral implications of everyone else not voting.  On the other hand, if one believes that voting is virtuous and not voting is wrong, than one has a responsibility to vote.

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