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Why there is a moral duty to vote

In recent years, democracies around the world have witnessed the steady rise of anti-liberal, populist movements. In the face of this trend, some may think it apposite to question the power of elections to protect cherished democratic values. Among some (vocal) political scientists and philosophers today, it is common to hear concern about voter incompetence, which allegedly explains why democracy stands on shaky ground in many places.

Do we do well in thinking of voting as a likely threat to fair governance? But voting is a vehicle for justice, not a paradoxical menace to democracy. Two questions: Do people have a duty to vote, and if so, do they have a duty to vote with care?  We can see voting as an act of justice in the light of a Samaritan duty of aid towards society. We have a duty of conscience to vote with care; with information and a sense of the common good, in order to help our fellow-citizens prevent injustice and ensure decently good governance. The latter can be achieved, if voters manage to elect acceptably fair-minded governments and vote out corrupt or inept ones. Voting governments in and out is not all there is to justice, but voting is a basic democratic act because elections install governments. Governments, in turn, enact policies that can have an immense influence on people’s access to primary goods like security, peace, economic stability, education, healthcare, and others. In short, governments can foster or impede justice in ways that very few other entities can.

In particular, three of the most important assumptions that critics of a putative duty to vote make are that: 1) citizens’ political knowledge is almost impossible to improve, 2) voting cannot be a matter of duty because its individual costs are higher than its individual benefits 3) if we care about the common good, we can do other things besides participating in politics, many of which will be more effective than casting a vote in large elections.  To these objections, I offer the following arguments:

First, citizens’ competence is not a fact of nature and it can be modified. Political ignorance and lack of political interest may spring from structural features of the political and economic systems, not from individual cognitive failures. Blaming the individual for her lack of sufficient political knowledge entails neglecting the distorting roles of such elite-level, political party and economic factors that have a non-trivial effect on people’s incentives to know and to care about politics. Thus, focusing only on individual-level deficiencies neglects some promising approaches to improving voter competence and political knowledge.

Second, voting as an individual act is not disqualified from being a duty simply because its impact is negligible, nor is it pointless to the citizen. We may have a duty to vote so as to contribute to a larger collective activity that will be impactful in terms of justice—and valuable precisely because of its justice-promoting nature. In other words, we may have a duty of “common pursuit” to join forces with others, and vote, so that we can all together help society minimize suffering in the way that a good Samaritan would.  This duty of common pursuit binds everyone—regardless of their capacity to make an individual impact—because nobody has a stronger claim to being exempted from it than anyone else (under general circumstances). All are required to not shirk their duty to cooperate with others in the search of good governance.

Lastly, even though voting with sufficient knowledge is not the only way to contribute to the common good, the fact that citizens elect governments by way of elections makes it morally special. Governments have tremendous potential to affect the life of millions in a way that few other entities can; if we ought to act as good Samaritans and help the common good, partaking of the mechanism that elects governments is essential.

Even though voting is surely not the only way to affect government, it seems to be the only way to choose it, which makes it morally distinctive as a way to influence the quality of governance. This last argument does not negate the possibility that governments act wrongly by being agents of injustice and evil. My arguments operate under the assumption that the duty to vote with care is morally stringent only in a context of decent governmental responsiveness, and not in contexts of abuse or steep governmental ineptitude, where voting would be dangerous or elections would be pointless.

Elections give us the opportunity to act as good Samaritans and minimize suffering and injustice affecting our fellow-citizens. Because being a good Samaritan does not require heroism from us, my arguments for the duty to vote do not prescribe a self-sacrificial duty to be politically engaged all the time. This should not be a humanly impossible requirement, even if it is difficult for some at the moment.

Featured image credit: Photo by Parker Johnson via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Kwame

    This piece only gives sufficient reasons to vote in the case one believes there are enough like-minded compatriots with whom a majority can be formed.

    Furthermore, in the absence of adequate reasoning and evidence, political acts are simply amoral (ie. morally meaningless) even if justice happens to be achieved. This is perhaps even more true if “structural features of the political and economic systems” strongly influence the degree and focus of our so-called duties. If there’s any moral obligation to be derived from the above, it is for political elites and opinionators to manufacture consent.

    Nevertheless, I believe we can improve.

  2. Stephen Kamugasa

    To those of us with a special interest in the possible outcome of a general election in the UK, which is scheduled to take place on 12 December 2019; this is a timely piece. I endorse it entirely. And, coincidentally, I too have just published a little blogpost, whose aspects touch on the same theme. In ‘Eaten bread must not be forgotten: remembering Richard Holme,’ I suggest that ownership of key democratic processes is essential to positive democratic outcomes. I write: “By ‘ownership’ I mean the citizen’s ability to see that he or she is included in the script; that is, he or she is part of the process from start to finish.”

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