Friday, October 29, 2010

Utilitarianism and Voting

It’s voting season again, and to celebrate I’m going to pretend I’m a utilitarian and give you a straightforward argument for the conclusion that you shouldn’t bother going to the polls. (Roughly speaking, a utilitarian believes that the right action is the one that produces the most overall happiness. Rightness of action depends purely on the consequences.) Here’s the argument: your vote doesn’t make a difference. It never has, and it never will. You and the world would be better off if you spent your time doing something more productive, so that is exactly what you should do.

“What do you mean?” I hear you asking. “Don’t you remember the 2008 election, where Al Franken won the Minnesota Senate seat over Norm Coleman by a mere 300 votes, out of millions of votes cast? As many people said at the time, this just proves that every vote matters!”

Well, no, it doesn’t. If you voted for Franken, then your vote meant he won by one more vote than he would have otherwise, while if you voted for Coleman, your vote meant he lost by one less than he would have otherwise. If you hadn’t voted, the consequences would have been exactly the same. There probably hasn’t been a large-scale vote in the history of democracy that was decided by one person, and chances are there never will be.

“Yeah, but if everyone listened to that reasoning and didn’t vote, the consequences would be terrible.”

True, but the fact is, not everyone is going to listen to that reasoning. (Although maybe it would be best if I kept my anti-voting arguments to myself, since broadcasting them could have just those bad consequences. It would be bad if the masses believed as I do.) And anyway, if most people were to listen and not vote, then your vote would be more likely to make a difference, so then you probably SHOULD vote. But since you know that is not going to happen, you should stay away from the voting booths and spend your time more productively.

OK, I’ll stop pretending to be a utilitarian. If you reasoned like a utilitarian, you would probably conclude that you shouldn’t vote, or at least that you have no reason to vote. The problem is that morally speaking you really ought to vote. I think that gives us a powerful argument against utilitarianism. But it raises the question: why is it the case that you ought to vote even when your vote won’t make a difference?
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