Jason Brennan’s The Ethics of Voting

I recently had a chance to read an advance copy of Brown philosophy professor Jason Brennan’s The Ethics of Voting. Although I have a few reservations about Brennan’s arguments, I highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in democracy, political theory, or the problem of voter ignorance. It may well be the best book ever on the moral obligations of voters.

Since democracy first began in ancient Greece, scholars have debated the strengths and weaknesses of democratic institutions. But much less attention has been paid to the moral obligations entailed by the act of voting itself. In modern times, the default assumption is that it is perfectly ethical for voters to support any candidate for any reason they want. Voting is implicitly considered an element of individual autonomy, much like choosing what food to eat or what clothes to wear.

Brennan argues that this conventional wisdom is mistaken. He contends that voters have an obligation to become informed about the policy issues at stake in an election and should try hard to evaluate the information they learn in an unbiased way. This is because voting decisions affect not only the individual voter, but all of society. Voting is not just a personal choice. As John Stuart Mill emphasized, it is the “exercise of power over others.” Brennan also argues that voters should focus on policy issues, not just on the candidates’ “character.” A person of good character can still end up adopting terrible policies if elected to office. Think of Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush. Furthermore, Brennan explains why voters should try to choose on the basis of what’s best for society as a whole rather than narrow individual self-interest. His argument on this point is subtle. But the core insight is that it is wrong to exercise coercive authority over other people solely on the basis of what benefits ourselves alone, without consideration for their own welfare.

In the first part of the book, Brennan argues that citizens have no duty to vote, merely a duty to become well-informed if they do choose to vote. Most critics of the idea of a duty to vote have emphasized the argument that such a duty undermines individual autonomy. Brennan advances a different critique. Even if you believe that people have a moral duty to promote the welfare of society as well as their own self-interest, some people can better do this by devoting their energies to tasks other than trying to be a good voter. For example, an outstanding scientist might benefit society best by devoting more time to research rather than learning about politics.

It might be disastrous if everyone chose not to vote or if only a tiny, unrepresentative minority goes to the polls. But society is not necessarily worse off if turnout falls to, say, 40% rather than 50%. If the smaller electorate is better-informed than the larger one, we might even be better off.

As Brennan recognizes, survey data shows that most voters do in fact try to choose the party that they think will best serve society, rather than just their own narrow self-interest. To that extent, voters are more ethical than we sometimes think. On the other hand, the data also shows that few voters make much effort to become informed, and many of those who do tend to evaluate political information in a highly biased way. If Brennan’s argument is correct, most of us often act unethically when we go to the polls. That is an unpleasant thought. But this is one of those cases where the truth hurts.

Other interesting parts of the book address the morality of vote-buying (which Brennan argues could be justified in some limited circumstances), the ethics of voting on the basis of religious principles, and the ethics of voting for the “lesser evil” and for minor party candidates who have no chance of winning. On each of these questions, Brennan has some interesting and original insights.

I do have a few reservations about Brennan’s analysis. As I have argued in my own work on political ignorance, the size, scope, and complexity of modern government is so great that even the best-informed voters are unlikely to know much about more than a fraction of what the state does. In my view, the best solution to this problem is to reduce the size and scope of government. But what of the ethical voter who has to cast a ballot in the existing political system? Does Brennan’s analysis imply that it is simply impossible for him to be adequately informed? If so, then there might not be any duty to acquire political knowledge after all; we don’t have any moral obligation to accomplish the impossible. More likely, Brennan might contend that the ethical voter should prioritize learning about some issues over others, focusing on the most important ones. But how should the voter decide which issues are the most important to learn about? Brennan doesn’t address this crucial question.

I was surprised that Brennan doesn’t consider John Stuart Mill’s classic analysis of the moral duties of voters in Considerations on Representative Government. On several key points, including the importance of political knowledge and the morality of self-interested voting, Mill’s argument anticipates Brennan’s own. It would have been helpful if Brennan had acknowledged Mill’s work and explained how his own view differs, if at all.

Despite these and a few other flaws, this is a great book. It’s original and well-argued, and most of it is easily accessible to nonexperts. Reading it might even lead you to become a better citizen than before.