Friday, October 9, 2020

There is No Expressive Duty to Vote

The odds that your vote will change the result of the upcoming election are small. But maybe you ought to vote to send a certain sort of message rather than to change the result. As the philosopher Stanley Benn puts the point, “Political activity may be a form of moral self-expression, necessary not for achieving any objective beyond itself (for the cause may be lost), nor yet for the satisfaction of knowing that one had let everyone else know that one was on the side of the right, but because one could not seriously claim, even to oneself, to be on that side without expressing the attitude by the actions most appropriate to it in the paradigm case.” Perhaps you should vote to express your commitment to particular moral values. However, in Why It’s OK to Ignore Politics, I explain why arguments for an expressive duty to vote are unsuccessful:  


1) We might have good reason to be skeptical about duties to perform purely expressive actions. For instance, few would argue that you have a moral obligation to publicly wish for world peace when you see a shooting star even though the wish expresses your desire to see the world at peace.  


2) You can express your commitment to the relevant values without voting--for instance, by putting politically-charged bumper stickers on your car. 


3) It doesn't seem as though we have a duty to express our attitudes about moral matters in general--for instance, you're not obligated to "like" a Facebook post about the Against Malaria Foundation--so why would we have an obligation to express our political attitudes in particular?


4) To send the right message, you have to cast the right sort of vote. If you cast a vote without making an attempt to ensure that it is informed and unbiased, then you aren’t showing that you genuinely care about justice and the common good. Of course, you could always put in the work of researching and debiasing your vote to send the right message but I'm not convinced this is a good idea. The reason is because you’d be siphoning time and energy away from projects that actually make the world a better place simply to send the message that you care about making the world a better place. As I write in the book: 


Forgoing the opportunity to help people to send the signal that you care about helping people actually sends the wrong signal. Helping people is the right way to send the signal that you care about helping people [...] Consider a case that makes the choice between consequential action and expressive action particularly vivid. You pass a starving child on the street who asks you for money to buy food. You have some money but you’re reluctant to hand it over. Why? Well, it happens that you were on your way to buy a shirt that reads “Feed the Hungry” and you don’t have enough money for the shirt and the child. Surely letting the child go hungry so that you can afford the t-shirt sends the wrong message (to say nothing of the wrong you would commit by allowing easily preventable harm to come to the child). In the words of philosopher David Schmidtz, “If your main goal is to show that your heart is in the right place, then your heart is not in the right place."


The best way to express your commitment to justice and the common good is not to cast a purely expressive vote but rather to take action that actually promotes justice and the common good.