What’s in a Vote?

May 28, 2008 § 19 Comments

I really don’t know.

Superficially I know, of course. To vote is to choose to add one to some tally, just as to fire a gun is to choose to pull a trigger on a loaded weapon.

But those aren’t morally interesting descriptions. I am much more interested in the answer to questions like “What is a vote for Barack Obama?” and “What is a vote for John McCain?”

I tend to think it is something like “choosing that Obama become President and carry out some omnibus list of things he has promised to carry out, and which I am morally certain he will in fact carry out unless something unexpected thwarts him”.

There of course will be things I am unsure that he will carry out, unexpected things may happen (like a dog knocking the victim down before the bullet hits). That is the nature of every act, really.

I don’t know what the nature of a vote is. But I am concerned that a great many people do not seem to care about the question, or think it irrelevant, or assume that it has a straightforward (and not coincidentally permissive) answer.

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§ 19 Responses to What’s in a Vote?

  • JohnMcG says:

    To echo some of our earlier seemingly unrelated discussions, isn’t that view a bit de-humanizing of the candidates?The analogy is that the office-holder is a tool used by the voting population to enact a series of policies. Analogous to a loaded gun that I pull the trigger on. The gun has no moral agency. It may malfunction and fail to execute the task it was designed for, but by pulling the trigger I am making my intention clear.This also assumes a static landscape that the candidate will work with. Another consideration is how the candidate may respond to events yet to occur. This cuts both ways — it is not a metaphysical certainty that there will be a Supreme Court vacancy in the next four years, but it’s reasonable to assume there will be at least one if not more.

  • zippy says:

    <>To echo some of our earlier seemingly unrelated discussions, isn’t that view a bit de-humanizing of the candidates?<>I’m not sure why expecting someone to follow through on his commitments should be considered dehumanizing.I agree on the SC vacancy issue. That is why I am focusing on immediate unilateral exercise of the executive power in the form of executive orders.

  • discalcedyooper says:

    <>I tend to think it is something like “choosing that Obama become President and carry out some omnibus list of things he has promised to carry out, and which I am morally certain he will in fact carry out unless something unexpected thwarts him”.<>I would agree with this. Concomitantly it is choosing to reject “some omnibus list of things [the opposing candidate] has promised to carry out, and which I am morally certain he will in fact carry out unless something unexpected thwarts him.” I am pretty sure you don’t agree with the dichotomy reduction. None of the above is an option, but it is also a rejection of a precept, the mandate of participation in the public life. While voting is not the totality of fullfilling the precept, it would seem essential in a democracy. I don’t think it should be tossed aside lightly. Additionally I don’t see how voting for a third party candidate is different from writing in “Mickey Mouse”, other than the latter is a pure fiction of participation. Needless to say if I’m going to make this argument, I should probably just do a blog post rather than a comment on your post of more limited scope.Anyway to bring this train back, the presence of the precept necessarily changes the moral calculus. (Whether you agree with the precept’s presence is another issue.) With the presence of the precept, the abscence of the act is not evidence of purity much like the absence of sex in marriage is not evidence of the absence of sin and in fact could be evidence of sin. So to finish the metaphor, is voting for Obama condomistic sex?

  • zippy says:

    <>While voting is not the totality of fullfilling the precept, it would seem essential in a democracy.<>I think it is basically irrelevant. Of all the things a person does in carrying out his duty toward the common good, voting is the most inconsequential in terms of its actual external effect.I’ll try to take the time to carefully read the rest of your interesting comment later, and say more if more occurs. Offhand I think I <>do<> agree that it is also choosing rejection of the omnibus-certainties associated with the other candidates.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Yeah, but he thinks it follows from that that you are morally obligated to vote for one of the “viable” candidates.Nonsense and balderdash, sez I.

  • zippy says:

    Well, I do think it was an interesting comment, though I don’t have anything profound to say about it. On the other hand I think the notion that voting is especially important, let alone essential, is simply assumed, and false. If we set aside our modern democratic prejudices it is <>manifestly<> false. Voting has significance as an act of assent to the democracy exactly as presently constituted, and to the legitimacy of the choice placed before us. Even understood as that its exterior effects are (literally) negligible – to the extent <>any<> of its effects are important it is the effects it has on the one who votes himself which are important. So the most important question in voting is not how one’s vote will affect the polity (because it won’t affect the polity); but rather how one’s vote (or abstinence from voting) will affect one’s own virtue. We have a profound duty to support the common good, but the self-importance involved in thinking that we discharge that duty by voting is pure prejudice. There isn’t even a hint of substance to it.

  • discalcedyooper says:

    <>On the other hand I think the notion that voting is especially important, let alone essential, is simply assumed, and false.<>I kind of figured as much. You seem to have been heavily inflenced by the philosophy of maximum utility when it comes to voting or at least you use their arguments. I’ll expand on this shortly.<>Voting has significance as an act of assent to the democracy exactly as presently constituted, and to the legitimacy of the choice placed before us.<>I would say the object is the state itself that one offers assent. Voting is one part. Participating in myriad of programs are other ways. The alternative would seem to be the monastic option, or at least my argument will place that as the option when I get around to writing that post. No one accuses the Amish of disregarding the common good when they refuse to vote for precisely the reason they live in a closed society. I believe that one cannot just reject the political institutions of a society. For instance, not voting in the Hitler election I would argue would also compel the same person to resist conscription into that State’s army. “Placed before us” has more baggage in it than what I’ll get into in this reply.<>Even understood as that its exterior effects are (literally) negligible – to the extent any of its effects are important it is the effects it has on the one who votes himself which are important.<>I don’t believe this to be the case. The head of State or representative changes or is maintained whenever an election occurs. If we had a government with a single offical who controlled everything, the election would be exceptionally consequential. Our design of government limits this. What you will argue is that the vote itself is inconsequential, not necessarily the election. You could say this about any act of solidarity. Any one guy walking past the picket line doesn’t harm a strike, but 80% of them walking across the picket line does. One person putting a brick in their toliet to save water doesn’t save all that much water, but a large mass doing so could obviate the need for a larger sewage plant.This is not to say that there aren’t real personal effects of choosing to engage in larger actions. And there are certainly differences in the nature of temporary alliances (like those often found between parties in parliamentary systems) and party membership.

  • JohnMcG says:

    What I think is somewhat unfortunate about the current political situation is that so many issues are wrapped up in the presidency — abortion policy is determined by what Supreme Court Justices are chosen, military policy is determined by the executive almost exclusively, etc. Now, the definition of marriage is being determined by the courts, appointed by the executives.So it’s tempting to concentrate one’s civic involvement on the presidential election every four years, and conclude that this has discharged our duty. After all, “that’s all we can do.”Subsidiarity I think would lead to greater engagment. Unfortunately, for whatever party is in power, it’s not in their interests.

  • JohnMcG says:

    When zippy refers to the internal effects of voting, what I think he is referring to is the human tendency to instinctively defend a decision we have made.By voting, we are expressing support for a candidate. Should that candidate, once elected, pursue destructive policies, the initial instinct of one who voted for him will be to defend his actions, because the alternative may be that the choice to vote for him was incorrect, which most of us are not inclined to admit. Over the past six years, I think we’ve seen a lot of that with Bush and torture. I don’t think a lot of the Catholics who have been arguing against a condemnation of torture would be doing so if they didn’t identify with Bush because they voted for him and supported him, and saw calls to condemn torture as an unfair attack on “their guy.”This temptation and instinct can be overcome, but I think it does present a near occasion of sin.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    “By voting, we are expressing support for a candidate.”Ah, something John McG and I _agree_ about in the vicinity of this discussion. Yes, exactly. By voting, we are expressing support for a candidate. That is why no pro-lifer should even be thinking in his wildest dreams about voting for Barack Obama.I’m working on a post for W4 arguing for exactly the thesis that by voting, we are expressing support for a candidate, and that therefore we can never justify voting for a moral monster even if in some convoluted way we are convinced that his election will have good (or better than otherwise) consequences. Some people seem to be under the impression that voting is a purely practical act, a sort of pulling of a lever in the political machine, so that only one evaluation of its probable consequences need be considered.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Here’s the link at W4. http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2008/05/what_is_a_vote.htmlBet it will get cut short as links so often do in blogger comboxes. Well, anyway, it’s at the top of the row at W4.

  • Anonymous says:

    So a blogger that merely writes on a blog comments concurring with a court’s decision on the Schiavo case is deemed formal cooperation with evil; however, voting a PRO-DEATH candidate into office who will most certainly promote abortion isn’t?Interesting to say the least…I didn’t expect this least of all from our beloved Zippy.You’re better than that, Zippy.e.

  • JohnMcG says:

    LydiaA solution to that problem — < HREF="http://tinyurl.com/5g6tyb" REL="nofollow">http://tinyurl.com/5g6tyb<>

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    How did you do that, John?

  • JohnMcG says:

    Go to tinyurl.com, enter the long URL, and it will give you a short one that will forward to where the long one was.

  • basket case says:

    Zippy, I think your explanation of what a vote needs quite a bit of work. <> Even understood as that its exterior effects are (literally) negligible <>. This is almost comparable to saying that when I take a dime from a rich man, its effect is inconsequential so it is morally negligible as to whether I take it or not. The fact that my specific vote ends up being 1 out of 55 million votes for the winning candidate does not mean it is negligible – not when every other vote is exactly the same in character as mine. The meaning of the act of voting for THIS candidate does not come from the size of its effect measured as ratio in terms of total votes. The moral meaning of the act is not found in that ratio. Nor is the consequentiality: there are recorded instances where the vote differential was exceedingly narrow, and the net result is the election of a governor or senator (and I have seen an explanation where this difference affected the senatorial approval for Supreme Court justices, which affected the outcome of the 2000 presidential election). A choice in voting cannot be a moral one on the supposition that “well, its ok if I vote this way myself, because it will have virtually no effect on the outcome, but if everyone did the same as I the result would be a bad one”. Any choice of this sort would have to be wrongheaded. <> Voting has significance as an act of assent to the democracy exactly as presently constituted, and to the legitimacy of the choice placed before us. <> No, voting can be called an act of assent to current political authority structure insofar as that current authority is not in contradiction to Divine Law. Nothing in Divine Law contradicts democracy in general, nor contradicts the main features of our democracy (political parties, districts, federalism), nor contradicts anything in the Constitution. So I can assent to the act of voting in principle without assenting to ALL features of our system, because the system itself allows laws and unacceptable features of the system <> to be changed <> if we decide to by vote. Voting does not assent to the “choice placed before us” in the sense of agreeing that at least one of the options is an excellent choice. It merely assents to having one of the candidates take office, since that is the formal object of your vote. I presume it implies assent to a significant portion of that candidates plan of action, but nobody thinks it implies assent to the whole platform of the candidate. It is still an open question as to whether it (voting for) of itself implies assent to all those actions the candidate will presumably take autonomously by virtue of his office, without needing the consent of correlative bodies. Let me reverse the stance. Choosing NOT to vote because one objects that the system as currently practiced often or even usually presents poor candidates is tantamount to saying “the system <> <> cannot <> <> be changed by participation, engagement, involvement, and hard work to get good candidates. Therefore I am justified in what amounts to a one-man revolt against the system, to defy the political order until that order comes to a crashing halt by revolution, and we can put a good system in place.” It is my understanding that revolt is only justified when the system in place is so evil that the vastly grave evils that come from overthrowing the government are the lesser evils. Is that true here and now? I don’t think so. Though we may get there yet.

  • zippy says:

    <>This is almost comparable to saying that when I take a dime from a rich man, its effect is [materially] inconsequential …<>Precisely, up to that point. <>… so it is morally negligible as to whether I take it or not.<> The point is not that voting or stealing a dime is morally insignificant in general, but that its exterior material effect on the world (including the rich man) is negligible: that virtually all of its moral and material significance as an act obtains in what it means for the person doing it. Thus when deciding how to vote or if to vote at all the entire determination ought to rest on that consideration: on how casting <>this<> vote (or abstaining from this vote) will affect me, the person doing it. Everything else is both morally and materially negligible.<>Choosing NOT to vote because one objects that the system as currently practiced often or even usually presents poor candidates is tantamount to saying “the system cannot be changed by participation, engagement, involvement, and hard work to get good candidates.<>Well, no. One could work toward getting better candidates for future elections without voting in the present one, for example. It is a terrific conflation to say that one must vote on the current ballot, whatever it may be, in order for one to be engaged in activities directed toward improving public life and the culture.On the other hand there may well be things wrong with the system as presently constituted which cannot be remedied by picking options on the ballots which it presently serves up to us, nor even by improving those options.<>It is my understanding that revolt is only justified when the system in place is so evil that the vastly grave evils that come from overthrowing the government are the lesser evils.<>It is my understanding though that there are nontrivial moral differences between “not voting” and “armed insurrection”.

  • kentuckyliz says:

    (I live in KY, late closed primary, I am registered for the party that has a lock in this region, so that my primary vote can advance decent candidates. I am no party loyalist.)I voted for Hillary to perpetuate her vain hopes, her campaign, and the distressing fallout to the Democrat presidential candidates as they fight it out. Doing my best to maximize the damage among the desperate.Hopefully you have room for my kind of cynicism in your voting theory.

  • zippy says:

    Whatever else may be said, my sense of humor and delight in irony overwhelm any objectivity I might have in discerning how to fit it into the theory.

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