Sunday, August 23, 2020

Why It's OK to Ignore Politics

I've got a new book out titled Why It's OK to Ignore Politics, just in time for election season! I argue that citizens have no moral duty to be politically active and, indeed, have strong moral reasons to forgo politics in favor of more effective forms of altruism. I realize this is a controversial view. In the book's introduction, I write: 


As a philosopher, I earn a living by challenging conventional wisdom. For instance, I routinely present my students with the argument that they should kill one innocent person if they can harvest her organs to save the lives of two others. Although most students don’t buy the argument, they are happy to at least entertain its merits. But when I present an argument for not voting, they’re downright scandalized. Murder? Well, they can see the point of that, but staying home on Election Day?! There are just some ideas that decent folk refuse to consider.


However, I believe that the prevailing defenses of a duty of political participation don't succeed. I'll write a few posts detailing my arguments, but for now I want to draw attention to one part of my case: most of us are probably overconfident that we are casting our vote for the right candidate. Just as a doctor shouldn’t prescribe a medication for her patient if she can’t trust her medical judgment, citizens shouldn’t vote for a candidate if they can’t trust their political judgment. 

So why might we be self-skeptical of our political beliefs? For one, there is the familiar of rational political ignorance. Citizens tend not to know very much about particular policies and politicians or the relevant social science. A popular response to this worry points to various shortcuts or heuristics that citizens might use to vote well. You could consult social scientific experts, the candidates’ parties, endorsements for the candidates, and so on, to inform your vote. But there are a number of problems with the appeal to heuristics. First, we tend to be biased in favor of ideologically-friendly heuristics that confirm the partisan conclusion we started out with. In this case, it's hard to see why using heuristics would be an improvement.


Moreover, the case for heuristics is strongest when voters defer to experts who share their basic values but are more up to speed on the facts about the issues and candidates. But his leaves open the question of what your basic values should be. As I put it in the book:


George Will is a fine stand-in if you’re a staunch conservative. But the most important question remains unanswered: is staunch conservativism true? By analogy, few would advance the following claim: “You don’t need to do all that work figuring out what to think about religion. Don’t bother reading the world’s major religious texts or analyzing the theological claims they make—just use the Pope as a proxy.” No doubt the Pope is a good proxy if you want to know what a Catholic should think about contraception. But the question of whether you should be a Catholic in the first place is still unsettled. 


You might reply that you'll think hard about your basic values and try to ensure that your selection of heuristics is informed and unbiased. However, note that the need for heuristics arises because political ignorance and political irrationality are rational: it's not worth your time to inform and debias your vote because your vote will have no meaningful impact on the outcome of the election. But this consideration suggests that it's not worth your time to inform and debias your selection of heuristics either. As Ilya Somin writes, "Since the whole point of relying on opinion leaders is to economize on information costs, the voter is unlikely to invest heavily in researching the leaders’ qualifications.”