Ethical behavior given the Paradox of Voting

According to the paradox, voting is costly and a single vote virtually never makes a difference. So a) why bother? and b) how does this affect appropriate or ethical voting behavior?

According to Kant’s categorical imperative, moral behavior follows this axiom: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

So not voting is unethical because if everyone did it democracy would collapse. I would also argue that it implies that electability should be a concern in the primaries. Primary populations tend to average out at a different ideological point than the center. So if folks in those primaries ignore electability in stage 1, then they will tend to get a suboptimal outcome in Stage 2, according to their electoral preferences. I guess a certain amount of game theory applies, since the optimal weight on electability turns on what is happening in the other primary. Which is odd, as the categorical imperative usually cuts through such calculations.

Act Utilitarianism

Don’t vote. It doesn’t make a difference and it isn’t worth your time. But shut up about it. Don’t discourage others from voting. Because if the costs are still low, the objective benefits of flapping your mouth are lower still. (Not clear really: maybe you want to free up your friends’ time. But you need to recalculate that before opening your mouth. Act utilitarianism involves continual moral calculation.)

Along similar lines act utilitarianism tends to be highly tolerant of lying and deception. Which is why it is mostly rejected in favor of rule utilitarianism, except in circumstances involving 1930s time travel and nuclear exchange.

Rule Utilitarianism
I think we’re basically back to Kant now. You should choose a voting strategy that provides the best outcomes given that society accepts such rules. Including members of the other party.

My favored approach: a 1% solution

I try to split the difference. My rule is not, “Vote for your favored candidate.” I attempt to respect the underlying empirical reality as well as the civic obligation implied by the Kantian approach. My proposed rule is, “Vote as if you actually held sway over 1% of the ballot”.

Most of the time your vote won’t make a difference. But not all the time. And the margin of defeat and victory will make a difference: you can be sure that political professionals study such things. Mondale’s blowout in 1984 shaped the Democratic party far more than Carter’s narrower defeat. Make one state or electoral district safer and it will free up resources to fight in swing states. If it’s a six-way ballot, think about which candidate you would like to grant an additional 1% margin. And trace the likely consequences, bearing in mind similar cases in the past.
The wiki article addresses positive issues. This thread is normative: with that in mind here is Wiki on the paradox of voting

Past threads:
Topicality: In some sense this belongs in GD, as it is a matter of political philosophy. But it comes up so much in this forum that I’m leaving it here. Examples:

Over at Wikipedia, Brennan and Lomasky appear to concur suggesting, “that voters derive ‘expressive’ benefits from supporting particular candidates.”

There are other examples. I encourage others to quote them, especially those over the past year or so.

What I see is mostly people voting along some pre-determined path like party or cause. After that I think most people use your 1% solution. I can’t really tell how many people don’t vote in the manner you suggest, but I do think they’re just apathetic, not applying any sense of morality. I don’t know anyone who takes a serious philosophical approach. So in conclusion, I don’t think it matters. Those good old founding fathers argued this extensively, we ended up with what we have, and I think it’s met most of their expectations so far, we make good and bad decisions, the bad ones haven’t managed to destroy democracy yet, but there’s still the potential for that to happen.

A single vote will almost never decide an election - but then again, a single bullet will almost never win a war.

Thanks for your remarks.


The serious philosophical approach is meant to clarify thinking. (And actually I haven’t provided one yet: the OP is pretty superficial. A sophomore philosophy major could do a better job of distinguishing between rule utilitarianism and Kant for example.)

I guess I would say is that a few posters here (including myself) have implied that the Paradox of Voting has certain obvious consequences. I’m not sure it does.

Ok but the Founding Fathers did not give us the primary system. That evolved during the 1970s.

Interesting. That may explain why most soldiers reportedly fight more for their buddies than for the big cause.

By this logic, how do you justify not running for office?

Voting doesn’t just decide which candidate gets elected to office. It’s also serves as a measure of how much support that candidate has among the electorate.

Let’s say Hillary Clinton gets elected President this November. It’ll make a major difference in her relations with Congress whether she gets elected with 51% of 120,000,000 votes or 61% of 170,000,000 votes, even though she’ll have the exact same legal powers either way.

Because I’m qualified to vote, not so much qualified to run for office. Feel free to write me in though!

Edit: By which I mean practically qualified, not technically qualified as in “meets a minimum age and citizenship requirement”

That just pushes the question back a step – how do you justify not preparing yourself to run for office? If everyone did that, society would collapse.

My point, of course, is that the categorical imperative is rarely a useful guide for one’s behavior. Mostly, people do what suits them based on other criteria and find a way to describe their conduct so that on some level of generality it appears categorical.

I think there are other factors – my vote by itself probably won’t have any effect, but my influencing others could have some small effect (and, likewise, the influence others could have on others). Since I’m a terrible liar, in order to properly encourage others to vote (and vote for my preferred candidate), I have to actually vote to set this chain of electoral victory in motion.

I think you’re pushing Kant too far in the other direction.

It would be foolish for everyone to build their life around planning to run for President. The categorical imperative would certainly not require that. It would instead say that society would be better if everyone worked to become the best that they are capable of becoming. For some people, that would mean becoming President. But the rest of us would be working towards other goals.

Yes, “Everyone should try to run for President”, or even, “Everyone should try to run for elective office”, would make a poor universal law. I’m not saying that Kant has the final word on morality (I lean more towards consequentialism myself) but this particular line of attack needs heavy qualification and elaboration.

More subtly, if Hillary is winning by a wide margin, she can sacrifice some of it by pushing a particular policy during the campaign, then claiming a mandate later. So the margin of victory matters, as does voting is safe districts.

Unfortunately, one person has virtually zero effect on the margin in basically all non-local elections. Whether or not they are swing districts. I try to partly acknowledge this by having the voter pretend he is swinging 1%, rather than choosing a victor. But that still involves some extra conceptual machinery.

In Utilitarianism, For and Against, JCC Smart draws a distinction between doing an action and praising an action. (The example involved something like praising the bravery of the Red Baron (ethical) or actually being the Red Baron, which involves actions that are probably harmful on the whole.) I honestly can’t tell whether this distinction helps the OP or not.

True, but you are still very far from 1%. Alas. I think at some point an appeal to civic obligation is required.

Why isn’t your act of voting just as likely to influence as many others to vote against your preferred candidate, neutralizing any overall effect? No offense to you personally, but why assume that a particular voter’s effect on other voters will drive them in his or her same direction?

That seems to just restate the question. If the reason one should vote is because it’s a civic obligation, then why is it a civic obligation?

With respect, I intended to present an allusion to an argument, not an actual argument. I was saying that while influence+vote>vote, together they are still de minimus for most people. So we need some sort of other ethical justification for voting.

The underpinnings of the civic argument would probably involve some sort of Kantian approach (patched above) or perhaps a variant of rule utilitarianism. I’ll leave it to someone else to discuss virtue ethics in this context.

OK. I’m sorry for sounding combative. I’m interested, but I guess I’m not sure where you’re looking to go with this thread.

Here is another place where the issues in the OP arose:

As I understand it, Drake wants to sit out the general election if his guy isn’t nominated by the Dems. I’m saying that whether he resides in a swing state or a quasi-safe state like California doesn’t matter on act utilitarian grounds: he shouldn’t vote either way any day. Following Kant (or as I understand it a “Deontological framework”, a term that I frankly don’t understand) he should vote regardless. And by my 1% criteria, the margin of victory matters even in safe districts. Though I suppose it matters more in some times and places than others.
This topic comes up a lot. I’m trying to address it methodically here. It’s not so much that you should choose one framework or another; it’s merely that you should understand the set of coherent perspectives if you wish to act on this sort of argument.
There are also expressive criteria. Is this the way you want to dance? Maybe yes, maybe no. As a caveat, it can be difficult at times to distinguish between principled and petulant behavior, especially when judging oneself.

This is not true. It’s the “straw that broke the camel’s back” fallacy. The final straw cannot be solely blamed, and neither can the “decisive” vote be credited.

If a million people vote, each vote made 1/1,000,000th share of the final decision. This solves the apparent paradox. As fewer people vote, the impact of each vote increases. Each person will have their perceived value and cost. At some point, the value of voting becomes greater than the cost for that person.

IME voting isn’t costly, so there is no paradox. So let’s have a cite for voting being costly, please.

Voting costs include:

The time taken to vote not being used to work
The cost of transport to and from a polling place / a stamp
The portion of taxes used to run the elections

There vary from indirect to intangible, and are mostly negligible, but they are not zero; just close.

However, the value of a given vote (in terms of its effect) also approaches zero, so I can see where the negligible costs might outweigh the negligible benefits, or where they would both just round to zero. Clearly, that’s how the vast majority of potential voters have decided.