Yesterday, I did something that was at best supererogatory, and certainly far less admirable or good than donating money to an effective charity or even writing this blog post: I voted. I had no duty to do so.
When would there be such a duty? The Ethics of Voting, my book from 2011, starts by listing and debunking all the extant (as of 2010) arguments for a duty to vote. Here's part of the opening of the section on the supposed duty to vote, which is meant to illustrate what the challenge is.
When There Would Be a Duty to Vote
Imagine that all citizens are about to vote. We can choose between Candidates P and Q. The following conditions all hold:
A. There is a group of people to whom we each owe a strong duty of beneficence.
B. We each also happen to owe these same people a debt for all of the resources and effort they have invested in us.
C. For each of us, voting for candidate P or Q will pay our debt, and is the only way we can do so.
D. Voting for P or Q is also the only way we can discharge our duty of beneficence towards them.
E. If we each vote for P or Q, this will immensely benefit everyone to whom we owe duties of beneficence and reciprocity. However, it’s also the case that voting for P is more beneficial than voting for Q.
F. If anyone fails to vote, it will ruin everyone’s lives. Justice and freedom will be lost forever.
G. As it turns out, it’s clear and obvious to everyone that we should vote for P rather than Q. It takes no effort or skill whatsoever to determine who is best, and there’s no chance any of us will make a mistake. Also, everyone knows that failing to vote leads to disaster.
H. Voting has no opportunity cost. It doesn’t keep anyone from doing anything else of significant value for herself or for others.
If all of these conditions actually obtained in real life, we’d each have compelling, overwhelming reasons to vote.
Imagine that some philosopher asserted that these conditions hold. That is, imagine some philosopher made what I’ll call the Straw Man Argument:
1. Conditions A-H obtain.
2. Therefore, each citizen should vote.
This argument is a straw man because no one actually claims that all of these conditions hold. However, A-H are exaggerations of the considerations people do offer in favor of a duty to vote. The fact that A-H are exaggerations of actual conditions is worrisome for anyone arguing for the existence of a duty to vote. After all, the less conditions A-H hold, the harder it is to show there is a duty to vote. When conditions A-H don’t hold, it’s easier to show there are competing considerations that might count against any argument in favor of a duty to vote.
Here’s what’s wrong with the Straw Man Argument:
1. Individual votes do not have as much instrumental value as the argument presupposes.
2. There’s always some opportunity cost in voting. People could always do something else of value for themselves or for others. Sometimes voters should do these other things instead. [This is part of Chris Freiman's argument against voting in his new book. Any time you spent voting could better be spent engaging in far more effective altruism at the same low cost. Voting is almost never a good choice from an effective altruist point of view. Why did I vote, then? Free time and consumption value. If I'd wanted to help people or promote the common good with that time, I'd have done something else.]
3. Rarely are voters presented with candidates as high quality as, and as clearly differentiated as, P and Q. The stakes in getting the right choice among the available choices are not nearly so high. [Update: Indeed, it doesn't seem to matter which party controls your state.]
4. Abstention by one voter doesn’t lead to catastrophic moral horror. In fact, even when most citizens abstain, this doesn’t seem to have bad effects. [Similarly, high participation doesn't seem to have many good effects. See my book on compulsory voting for a review of the empirical literature.]
5. Acquiring the knowledge needed to evaluate candidates and policies is not easy and cost free. It takes time and effort. [No, Tom, heuristics don't save the day.] This time and effort could be spent on other worthwhile activities, including other activities that might benefit the common good.
6. The underlying duties that might ground a duty to vote—such as duties of beneficence or reciprocity—can be discharged in other ways besides voting. It’s easy to show that voting can be one way among others of discharging these duties, but it’s difficult to show voting is a necessary way or even an especially good way.
The point of looking at the Straw Man Argument is this: It turns out the arguments people make one behalf of a duty to vote fail for one or more of the reasons the Straw Man Argument fails.
Point 6 invokes something I call the "particularity problem" for the arguments for the duty to vote. These arguments almost never specifically how why voting in particular is obligatory; they usually at best show that voting is one of many possible ways to discharge a more general duty. Here's a bit on that from my entry in the SEP:
However, there is a general challenge to these arguments in support of a duty to vote. Call this the particularity problem: To show that there is a duty to vote, it is not enough to appeal to some goal G that citizens plausibly have a duty to support, and then to argue that voting is one way they can support or help achieve G. Instead, proponents of a duty to vote need to show specifically that voting is the only way, or the required way, to support G. The worry is that the three arguments above might only show that voting is one way among many to discharge the duty in question. Indeed, it might not be even be an especially good way, let alone the only or obligatory way to discharge the duty.
For instance, suppose one argues that citizens should vote because they ought to exercise civic virtue. One must explain why a duty to exercise civic virtue specifically implies a duty to vote, rather than a duty just to perform one of thousands of possible acts of civic virtue. Or, if a citizen has a duty to to be an agent who helps promote other citizens’ well-being, it seems this duty could be discharged by volunteering, making art, or working at a productive job that adds to the social surplus. If a citizen has a duty to to avoid complicity in injustice, it seems that rather than voting, she could engage in civil disobedience; write letters to newspaper editors, pamphlets, or political theory books, donate money; engage in conscientious abstention; protest; assassinate criminal political leaders; or do any number of other activities. It's unclear why voting is special or required.
I haven't seen anyone overcome the particularity problem yet. Even Julia Maskivker's recent book on the duty to vote fails to do so.