What’s Wrong with the World of Voting?
May 30, 2008 § 47 Comments
Lydia has posted at What’s Wrong with the World on the question of the moral essence of voting. After reading the interesting post and the discussion which followed, I posted the following comment in the thread:
I think there may be a thought process that goes something like this, at least among Catholic moralists and those who even bother to follow such things. (Which, let us grant, is laudible in itself: most people just vote however they choose without consciously reflecting on what a vote is at all. That is, most people don’t even consider the possibility that they might be doing evil simply by choosing to vote at all, given some particular ballot option permutation space).
The thought process:
Premise 1: Voting as an act is never intrinsically immoral: it is just throwing a lever.
Premise 2: Voting as an act is nothing but remote cooperation (material or formal) with whatever specific things a candidate actually does as an elected official.
It follows that the only thing that voting always is, is remote material cooperation with the things a candidate actually does as an elected official. It would be formal cooperation in those cases where I will some specific thing the candidate does: so if I will that Obama issue an executive order authorizing abortions on military bases I am formally cooperating in that act, and if I will that Obama withdraw the troops then I am formally cooperating in that act; but in general, I don’t will everything that he does or has promised to do. Therefore under its moral aspect – unless I am formally cooperating with one of his specific acts and that act is evil – a vote is simply remote material cooperation, and this exhaustively describes its moral parameters.
It further follows that the moral aspect of voting resides solely in (1) avoiding formal cooperation with specific evil acts on the part of the candidate (everyone will of course claim this as a matter of internal forum: will claim that they don’t want Obama to authorize abortions on military bases, and because they don’t want it they aren’t choosing it and don’t intend it); and (2) a prudential evaluation of the external consequences of the candidate actually being elected.
I think there are a lot of problems with this narrative, though it dominates contemporary Catholic thinking on the subject. Those problems start with the fact that it assumes an antiessentialist theory of what a vote is in the first place, leaving moral evaluation of (say) voting for Obama in the realm of strictly material external consequences; and the narrative goes downhill from there. Another problem is that ‘voting’ may simply be an inadequate moral specifier of a species of act, much as ‘firing a gun’ is an inadequate moral specification of a species of act. “Voting for Obama” may be deontologically more akin to “firing a gun into a living baby’s brain” than to simply “firing a gun”.
As I mentioned on my blog, I don’t feel as though I understand with clarity the deontology of a vote: I don’t really know what a vote is with enough clarity to give an even semi-rigorous definition. But I have intuitions of what a vote is not, and Lydia’s “intuition pumps” in this post are pretty helpful in clarifying my own intuitions on the subject.