Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Voting and moral theory

I've said before than in most cases, different moral theories have similar results.  In fact, most of us aren't very conscious about what moral theory we're using to make our decisions -- we just feel our moral choices to be obvious, and will draw from a variety of different arguments if we have to defend them.

The differences in people's moral reasoning are never so obvious as when they vote and when they talk about voting.  Different moral theories result in different frameworks for reasoning about how to vote, and ultimately in different votes. 

Let me describe what I mean by a few examples.

Deontologist voter: There are a few non-negotiables.  Whichever candidate passes a basic threshold of agreement on these gets his vote.  For instance, this was how I voted in 2004.  I didn't research the candidates at all.  I simply knew that one of them said he was pro-life, and the other did not, so I picked the one that did.

Virtue ethics voter: This person says that his vote has little effect on the course of the nation (because it's only one vote) but a huge effect on his own morality.  If he votes for someone who supports torture, for instance, it might make him more prone to excuse torture.  So he will generally vote for a perfectly pure candidate who has no chance at winning.  Mark Shea recommends this approach.  I did it in 2012, voting for Gary Johnson because I found both major candidates morally unacceptable.

Group loyalty voter: This person chooses a person who seems like "one of us" -- someone who signals that they care about the same moral issues and belong to the same tribe as the voter.  Candidates are well aware of this method of voting, so they will gather endorsements from churches, drop dogwhistles to their key constituencies, and signal group membership any way they can.  The reasoning is that it doesn't matter what the candidate's individual positions are, because anyone might be lying -- what they want is a person they can trust to make the right decisions once they get there.  To do that, the candidate should share, as closely as possible, the moral assumptions of the voter.

Nihilist voter: They feel discouraged because their vote doesn't count much, or because they are unimpressed by all available candidates, so they stay home.  I did this in 2008, in part because I had moved and not re-registered in time, but partly just because I felt disillusioned with politics in general and didn't see anyone I could get excited about voting for.

Consequentialist voter: This person does not care about whether the candidate is personally likeable, and doesn't need to agree with the candidate on any one issue.  Instead, they consider, of all the possible consequences of the election, which would be best.  Sometimes they call this the "lesser of two evils" approach, to emphasize that they're not voting for who they are because they actually like them.  But it is possible that consequentialism might lead one to vote for a worse candidate in order to discredit that party or punish the other party.  Or they might vote third party in order to send a message to the two parties that there is a rise in libertarianism or socialism or whatever and the parties should trend that way to win more votes next time.  This was certainly a part of my thinking in 2012 as well.  Consequentialism is the entirety of my rationale this time.

You've probably heard that Cruz is out and therefore it will probably be Trump vs. Clinton (unless Sanders has a massive surge).  So it's a much simpler consideration than it used to be.  I'd have seriously considered voting for Cruz, but I no longer have to weigh potential consequences of that now.

I can't know what all the consequences of either result will be.  But my assessment is that the world will be significantly worse under Trump, while Clinton is more likely to preserve the status quo or make things slightly worse.  Of the two possibilities, a Clinton win is better.

In past years I probably would have voted third party while harboring a secret hope that Trump would lose.  But at this point, being more strongly consequentialist than I used to be, I'll vote for the result I want, regardless of any personal animus or rational disapproval of the candidate.  Because my moral duty is to make things the best I can, rather than to preserve my own sense of moral purity by voting third party.

If your moral theory is different, you'll likely come up with different answers.  Whatever you do, I hope we're all still friends come this December.  This country probably can't be saved, not in the way I might hope, but good friendships can.  And when you realize that those who disagree with you on voting aren't evil, but simply making their moral choices according to a slightly different framework, it may be easier to respect them even when they vote differently from you.


Belfry Bat said...

It would be illegal for me to vote [in the election at issue]!

Belfry Bat said...

A little more seriously... what I usually do is try to identify the best candidate I can vote for: that is, there are some deal-breakers, and after all the deals are broken, if there's anyone left (there may be none; this does not bother me!) the best-looking one gets my vote.
But all this careful analysis highlights, I think, just how bad a voting system is pick-one-candidate, and that the Primaries iteration just makes it worse. Sort me into which box you think fits; I won't mind!

Of course, the purpose of it is to make ties as unlikely as possible, and furthermore to let as many people as possible think, at any time, that the winner actually has a majority of the relevant support. A bracket board showdown is fine drama! In the meantime, the Experts have managed lately to make everything as close to a tie as possible.

(There are about two voting systems that eliminate any use for casuistry or strategizing against one's better instincts: approval voting (say which candidates you like) and rank voting (identify first, second, ... nth choice); and what one does with rankings is add up (n-1)×first votes + (n-2)×second votes + ..., and the biggest sum wins... the large-pool limit of rank voting is, essentially, aproval voting again, so... take from that what you will.)

Sheila said...

That second one sounds like automatic-runoff voting, which sounds very positive. No way would Trump have won the nomination in such a system! (Now, there *is* a sort of automatic runoff at the convention, but it's entirely up to the delegates to pick who they run off to, so no one pays this much mind.)

I think it would probably be a huge improvement if we had all the state primaries on one day. That way candidates wouldn't have to spend so much money trying to stay in, and they wouldn't be forced to drop out before everyone has a chance to vote. When I lived in Washington, it was just assumed that the primary would be decided long before we got to vote in it. Even the presidential election was that way -- in our time zone, the polls closed three hours later, so by the time my dad got off work and went to vote, they'd have already called it. It's depressing to feel you don't count.

Enbrethiliel said...


It's an election year where I live, too! In fact, Election Day is this Monday!!! But as I've mentioned elsewhere, all I get out of it is a higher hourly rate when I go to work, as I refuse to vote.

But I did get asked the "If you were into voting . . . ?" question, and my answer so horrified my mother she gave the "How did this alien come out of my body???" look again. And I want even trying to be provocative! Anyway, what I said was that my VP pick (over here, presidential candidate and running mate aren't a package deal) would be the son of our former dictator. It's not quite like saying you'd vote for Hitler's son, but it's as close as the Philippines can get. And my reason for wanting him to win (which he probably will, even without my help) is that I've never liked the way the US decided the fate of his father's presidency, stealing that decision from the Filipinos. If we put his son back in the presidential palace, we'll get a chance to work out our issues by ourselves at last.

Or will we??? My American aunt was recently here for a visit, and she assured us that a certain hugely popular candidate would never get elected because he's too anti-US and America always rigs Philippine elections. ;-P

Sheila said...

Well, I wouldn't put it past my country to do stuff like that. We're like that obnoxious neighbor always hanging over the fence checking if everyone else's grass is cut short enough.

I am not surprised you don't vote -- since you don't believe in democracy, it's good that you stand by your principles. Too many people want a monarchy but also imagine it would be run their preferred way, and it's like ... do you realize what the word means?

Enbrethiliel said...


You're not going to like this ;-) but my but not voting has less to do with my thoughts on monarchy vs. republic than with my thoughts on women's suffrage.

Sheila said...

You might enjoy this quote from Pius XII I came across the other day:

"It is therefore useless to preach her return to the home so long as conditions continue which in many cases force her to remain absent from it. And here is the first aspect of the mission in social and political life which now presents itself to you. Into this public life you have entered all of a sudden, forced into it by the social changes we have witnessed. No matter-----you are called upon to take part in it. Would you leave to other women, to those who are actively engineering the ruin of the home or at least conniving at it, the monopoly of organizing the social structure, in which the family forms the principal element of its economic, juridical, spiritual, and moral unity? The fortunes of the family, the fortunes of human society, are at stake; and they are in your hands: 'Tua res agitur!'

Therefore every woman without exception is under an obligation-----a strict obligation of conscience, mind you!-----not to remain aloof; every woman must go into action, each in her own way, and join in stemming the tides which threaten to engulf the home, in fighting the doctrines which undermine its foundations, in preparing, organizing, and completing its restoration."

Of course it's a little late for that now, and in any event you should do what you think is right. Do you like the guy that won?

Belfry Bat said...

Hmm. Pius' argument seems to suppose that engaging in public life while retaining one's native inculturation (and note! specifically considered as a departure from older custom) is easy.

I think I should emphasize something about my voting scheme, above: I reject any suggestion that voting for none of the candidates is in itself "not participating": it is voting, and it is for none of them. Voting in the final election is, anyways, the very least kind of participation, as Sheila has riffed on very well in this blog before.


The strangest thing about the bad thing calling itself "feminism" is that by effectively electing extinction, the difficult task of raising enough children to take care of the dying generation is delegated to a very few women, none of whom is encouraged in the undertaking; but, with Uncle Gilbert, I can't see how raising a family is ever a small participation in public life.

Perhaps it was difficult for Pius, while fighting Hitler, to deny the potential for good in liberal democratic society while recognizing the particular danger that even genuine democracies need not be representative (that elected governments like the 3rd R. may have no will to actually serve their people), but I don't think he weighs well the ways that governing (or thinking to govern) itself changes a person.

Enbrethiliel said...


That actually just proves my point. Pope Pius XII admits that the only reason why "good" women should vote is that their ballots are needed to defeat those of the "bad" women. But if women hadn't been granted suffrage in the first place, there wouldn't be a problem!

Or if you want to be general about it, the only reason anyone is obligated to vote is that voting is the system that was "forced" upon us. One is just a lesser evil than the other. Or so the argument goes.

In a much broader sense, of course I agree with Pope Pius's main point that Catholics shouldn't passively let "connivers" take us down! But there are so many ways "to be active" and to keep from being "aloof"--whether you're male or female or of voting age or not--that boiling everything down to a social ritual that happens once every three years is ridiculous and reeking of an agenda. (Having said that, keeping the National Socialists from gaining power in Germany was arguably a better agenda than most.)

You already know I'm not a big believer in counting noses. (As I know you are no fan of the idea that one nose, by birthright, is a better nose than all the others in the land!) But my stance has less to do with my preferring monarchy in principle than with what I have seen of the practice. This numbers game is rigged and has been for a very long time.

The Philippines may not have the problem that Western nations seem to have of political parties importing millions of new voters at a time (because no one ever wants to move here--ROFL!) . . . but the poorest of the poor are easily and often bribed to vote a certain way. And it's kind of amazing how many dead people rise from their graves just for Election Day! It should be the Filipino Halloween! Also, my grandfather chose early retirement from a cushy government position rather than obey the incumbent president's order to make sure the ballot boxes from a certain area went missing. The president "won" that election, anyway, so I guess he got someone else to do that job. I think Pope Pius took for granted that elections would be clean.

Enbrethiliel said...


It's more accurate to say that everyone wants to move away. One reason you might say "my side" hardly ever wins elections is that so many of our class have emigrated over the last fifty years. And forgive my bias, but we're simply the best social class in the country, in terms of education, honed talents, civic involvement, and work ethic. We're the class that doesn't just want things to be better but also knows how to make them better. But thanks to the "Philippine dream," we have lost both thousands of actual voters and exponentially more in the potential voters their children and grandchildren would have been. People work harder to get an opportunity to leave than to give themselves a reason to stay. Which is both another sort of rigging and, ironically, what we call "voting with your feet."

Which leads us, also ironically, to an actual parallel with post-WWI Germany! A former German client of mine (a resident of Dachau, no less!) told me that it was this sort of emigration from his country that guaranteed Nazi victories in politics. Those who would have been most likely to vote against National Socialism had packed up and gone. How much of that is wishful revisionist history and how much is true, I guess I should leave up to the Germans. But the reason it has stayed with me for years is that it is an accurate description of Philippine "democracy" today. Right now, the best thing that could happen to us is for all Western nations to impose a blanket ban on immigration from the Philippines for the next fifty years. I'm happy to hear that we've "enriched" you, but we've also greatly impoverished ourselves. And I say this as someone who, as you well know, wouldn't mind leaving.

Anyway, to answer your last question, I don't at all like the guy who won, but I didn't like any of the candidates anyway. LOL!

Sheila said...

My point was that Pius thought you should go and vote, to counteract all the bad people who were voting. So even though he agreed with your anti-suffrage views, he would have wanted you to hold your nose and vote anyway.

I do agree with Bat, though, *not* voting is a message too, one I sent in 2008. Though around here if you don't like the candidates the usual thing to do is vote anyway, either for some hopeless candidate or for someone you write in (like Mickey Mouse or Jack Daniels) which is simply a message that a number of the voters aren't happy with the options and still shows up in the count.

I have heard of the "brain drain" as the worst thing to happen to a good many countries, and it's too bad. Personally I think countries who accept immigrants make this worse by demanding immigrants who are educated and employable -- I mean, isn't the ideal to accept the "wretched refuse" instead? If you're already a doctor or something, you hardly need to.

Many people love to shout "if you don't like America, move!" or "I hate this president, I'm moving to Canada!" But most of us don't. We'd rather stay and fight over the right way to make this place better. And I appreciate that, despite the deep divisions.

In most of the country, I'm pretty sure the elections aren't directly corrupt. (Though Chicago and Philadelphia are famous for the suffrage of the deceased.) However they are hugely affected by money and by those already in power, for a lot of reasons, and that's a shame. Democracy is very, very hard to preserve; it requires constant effort. (Though so does monarchy; the difference being that the constant effort is required from the monarch instead of from you.)

Enbrethiliel said...


I understood the point you were trying to make. Did you understand mine? I think Pope Pius was being politically naive. Democracy is nice and fair on paper (and most people, including me, don't really mind going with the majority when it's called culture), but it's imprudent to legitimise a nose-counting system without understanding that voter demographics can be manipulated and having checks in place for those. Pope Pius's short-term solution to defeat the system only ended up serving the system.

Sheila said...

But how else *would* you defeat the system? There are lots of ways besides or in addition to voting to affect government, but you don't do those either, right? So what is there?

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, it's a little presumptuous of you to accuse me of not doing anything for the good of my community just because I don't vote.

Sheila said...

I didn't say you didn't do anything for the good of your community! Just nothing specifically to affect its government, that you've ever mentioned. I mean, you don't campaign and you're not a member of a political party, right? I think phone-banking, door-knocking, and political donations are very effective, but I got the impression (which may be wrong) that you're not into that sort of thing either. Hope you're not like that acquaintance of mine who is hoping to have an armed revolution to overthrow the democratic government and put in a Catholic theocracy!

Do you have a plan that you're working toward, government-wise, or have you just decided to let the government do what it wants?

Enbrethiliel said...


We just seem to be talking past each other. (So what's new, right?) You're correct that I don't care to affect government at all. Even if I did, knocking on doors and the other things you mention aren't really done here. But if there must be a plan, then okay, my "plan" is to live my life in a way that shows people they don't actually need the government.

And you may never believe this, but that last sentence was not as sarcastic as it may have sounded. I've been taking many steps in the past few years to be more independent and self-sustaining (not necessarily from the government, but in principle); and recently it has occurred to me that what I do for myself may spill over to other people. But also note that this is Plan B. Plan A was to move to a certain First World country and try to obtain residency. It just didn't pan out. =P

Anyway, the government can't really complain about me. They take income tax whether I like it or not and I work in an industry that is doing the lion's share for the economy. (Believe it or not, I'm okay with this. I do use public highways and stuff, so I figure it's fair enough.)

My own Traddy friends are much more interested in who gets elected, judging by how often they talk about national politics. So you could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned, soon after the last election, that none of them are even registered to vote! I'm not registered either, but I don't get opinionated about the candidates, clog my social media feeds with political news, or put someone's campaign sticker on my car! I do know a couple of my friends actively reach out to politicians on every level of government, with the modest objective of having the latter consecrate their area of responsibility to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. (At least they have a plan, right? LOL!) They'd definitely prefer a monarchy over a theocracy, but since we don't have an obvious heir to the Philippine throne (or even, you know, the throne), they have no one to rally around.

Sheila said...

I have to say that, while independence is a great thing, it's possible to be a little too much people-going-their-own way. What will it do to the country when everyone with means leaves it?

On the other hand, it's not like *I* know the solution of how to make your country a better place to live. I do think government is going to have to be part of the solution -- if only in the sense of making it smaller, but beyond that, I don't know any better than you do, so I can hardly blame you for not doing whatever-it-is that would help.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think you've come close to where we just don't meet. If you mean "government" in the abstract sense of people in a community figuring out the best way to live and being good neighbours, then I do a lot more than you're willing to give me credit for. On the other hand, if you mean "government" in the sense of the system that was put in place when I was five years old, well, I guess I know why you think I don't do anything! LOL!

Sheila said...

Of course I *don't* know the different ways in which you serve your neighbors; you're not one to toot your own horn.

It's just, I know your country suffers a lot from corruption. I read Banana Heart Summer and I couldn't help but think, what sort of country allows such terrible poverty to remain -- and then steals the foreign aid? If the reason is, everyone is really trying to fix it but the problem is intractable, I get it. But if the reason is, nobody with any power really cares that much, or they all leave the country .... that seems neglectful of the others in the country. Solidarity and all that -- it's the reason I can't be a full-blown libertarian. We have to look out for each other, and if government is the problem, then it's a problem everyone ought to try to fix.

Then again, if the only thing you could possibly do is vote, and then get your vote suspiciously not counted, I can't blame you a bit because I don't know what I would do either.

And certainly non-government stuff matters too, probably more. It's just that we weren't talking about that, and I don't know what you do anyway.

Enbrethiliel said...


We may not have been talking about non-government stuff, but we were talking about the morality when making political choices. I asserted that abstaining from voting can also be moral (especially for women), at which point your argument seemed to become, "Well, if you're not voting or doing other government stuff, you're not helping." That doesn't hold ANY water--and you shouldn't need to know the particulars of a political situation or a person's life to see that. In fact, it's so ridiculous that it's likely not at all what you were saying and I just derailed us both.

Back to the rail . . . Is the problem with government intractable? How about yes and no? I don't rule out change as impossible, but I also think it will come from outside the system, from people who own their agency instead of constantly expecting the government to do everything for them. For instance, I'm totally on board with another American blog friend who said that the people who really think the minimum wage should be raised can start by paying more, whether they are customers who tip or employers who sign paychecks. Waiting for the government to give you permission to do what you think is right (or worse, to do it for you) is an abdication of agency.

Having said that, I'm also on board with a personal friend who started her own company, employs several people, and believes the current minimum wage is fair to both them and her. She'll comply with the law if it is raised, of course, but it's not as if she is taking advantage of it now rather than paying her staff what they're really worth to her business.

There are, granted, a lot of things we can't do as individuals and as small groups; but if we act equally powerless when it comes to those we can, then what we have is a slave mentality. I can think of few things more politically immoral than supporting structures that encourage people to think of themselves so poorly.

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