Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Must Good Samaritans Vote?

Jason Brennan and I have a new article out at Politics titled “Must Good Samaritans Vote?” We’ve both argued that there is no duty to vote—it’s perfectly permissible (and perhaps obligatory) to help in other ways. In this article we address the objection that one must help in other ways and vote. From the introduction:


“Julia Maskivker (2018, 2019) has argued that citizens have a Samaritan duty to vote. Samaritan duties obligate us to provide easy aid – that is, to help others when we can do so at a low and non-repeating cost to ourselves. (Think of the proverbial drowning child that you can rescue with a single pull.) Competent governance helps millions of people, and at least for many already well-informed citizens, voting is a low-cost way of contributing to that good. Although Maskivker concedes that an individual vote will never be decisive and will usually have negligible marginal impact, she claims that the duty of Good Samaritanism obliges us to make easy contributions to collective activities that help others […]


Maskivker’s argument purports to rebut what are perhaps the most serious challenges to the claim that there is a duty to vote. For instance, Brennan (2011, 2016) argues against any general obligation to vote. He says that many defences of this purported duty run into a ‘particularity problem’: to show that there is a duty to vote, it is insufficient to appeal to some general duty and then show that voting is one way to discharge that duty, or to some general goal and show that voting could support that goal. One must explain why these goals could not be supported or these duties not discharged through some other means. One must show why voting in particular is obligatory, not merely that it is one way to discharge an obligation. For instance, if someone claims that voting is obligatory because one must avoid complicity with injustice, Brennan would ask why the duty to avoid complicity cannot be discharged through other means, such as by engaging in activism or contributing to charities which promote justice.


Freiman (2020: 131–137) goes further. He claims that if a person intends to help others or avoid complicity with injustice, then voting is not only one of many choices, but generally a bad choice people are obligated to avoid. Freiman argues that obligations to help others, avoid complicity, promote the public good, and pay one’s debts to society cannot be discharged by performing ineffective actions; for instance, if one donates 10% of one’s income to a worthless or harmful charity, one has not discharged the duty to act beneficently. Since individual acts of voting have no positive effect, they cannot qualify as mechanisms of helping others, avoiding complicity, and so on.


Maskivker’s work is perhaps the most explicit and rigorous attempt to date to overcome this particularity problem. She claims that the duty of easy aid obliges us to contribute in the ways we advocate but also obliges us to vote. That you have authorized a monthly donation to the Against Malaria Foundation does not permit you to ignore the unique opportunity to do good presented by an election. The opportunity to vote is unlike other opportunities to do good: elections only arise at certain times, they contribute significantly to social welfare, and you can vote easily. Thus, if we are saying, ‘Why not fundraise instead of voting?’, Maskivker can respond, ‘Why not both?’


We will argue that when Maskivker says, ‘Why not both?’ in response, we can successfully respond, ‘Instead of both voting and doing some other action, one can do two of those other actions’. If Maskivker responds, ‘Why not voting plus those other two actions?’, we can respond, ‘Why not three of the other kind?’, and so on. Thus, we show that Maskivker’s attempt to overcome the particularity problem nevertheless falls back into it.”