Question 1: Why should I vote?
Question 2: Do I have a duty to vote?
Question 3: Do I have a duty to NOT vote?
One might be tempted to respond to question 1 with something like, “You have a right to vote, so you should vote.” However, the right to do something is not the same as a duty to do something, and there are clear cases when somebody has a legal right to do something while also having a moral duty to not exercise the right. For instance, one can imagine entertaining your grandma over for tea. You own your house. Owning a house gives you the right to exclude others from entering or staying in your house. So, legally speaking, you could order your grandmother out of your house, citing your legal rights. Should you? This is a moral question, and answering it would require an inquiry into your motives, the situation at hand, etc. Given this, saying you have a right to do something does not really answer our question. You might have a right to do something, which means that it would be wrong for another person to obstruct your efforts in exercising the right. However, even if this is the case, it doesn’t explain how you should exercise the right.
Point 1: The State derives its authority from the people, and the character and limitations derive also from the nature of the people.
If it is wrong for a regular person to steal from somebody else, even if on an island without a government, this is why it is permissible for government agents to enforce laws against theft. Likewise, if it is wrong for a person to enslave another person, so also it is wrong for a government agent to enslave another person. That is to say, there are natural laws that pre-exist government, which are the proper standards to judge whether a given law is permissible or not. This is why one is just in opposing pro-slavery laws: it is wrong to enslave people, whether it is a law or not.
If there is no such natural law, then it was most certainly wrong to oppose proslavery laws that are in effect, since there would be no standard over and over the laws of the land. But slavery is wrong, and the laws that permitted chattel slavery are wrong. So, there is something called natural law that pre-exists the laws of the State.
Point 2: Human beings are responsible for what they pursue, choose, support, avoid, and oppose.
Regardless of whether you have a legal right to something, there are duties that you have as a human being. Further, there is a social dimension to this: there are certain things that occur in a society that is morally excellent, as well as morally depraved. Whether you have a legal right to do something does not necessarily change what your responsibilities are, though the legal landscape does affect how you might make your decisions and why. For instance, imagine that you are travelling to a foreign country and that you have no voting rights there, yet you do have a voice. It may be that you oppose some practice because it is worthy to be opposed, not because you have some legal status to do so. Legal doesn’t mean moral, nor does moral mean legal. In a perfect world, perhaps this would be different, such a world is not part of this discussion. If evil is happening, we should oppose it. If you can do this honorably through voting, then this should be done. If one cannot vote, one can still support or oppose something through other means, our voice, our spending of money, time, and energy.
Point 3: Popularity does not make a cause right
Having a lot of people shouting the same maxim means nothing, from a moral standpoint, except that it is loud. It may be just, or it may be unjust. There may be a procedural kind of justice, insofar as the rules are being followed, but this does not mean that justice of another (higher) sort is being enacted. People clamored to crucify Jesus. Despite their unified clamoring, it was a great evil. The loudness of their voice means nothing to the justice of their cause. Whatever unity that they possessed only shows that they share an evil stain upon their souls (and alas, the one that they crucified is the only one that could save them).
Should we support that every person has a voice in society? Perhaps, in some form, but this doesn’t mean that what they do with their voice is good. Even if the act of silencing their voice may be bad, it does not follow that their voice is a voice for justice. So, voting does not make anything necessarily right, even if the suppressing of votes may be wrong. A majority of people may vote for slavery, but this should be opposed because this violates natural rights. Even if people vote for it? Yes. That is why the Bill of Rights is important: it restricts the government from having a justification to oppress the people, as well as outlining ways in which some citizens would try to oppress others. For instance, free speech and the right to bear arms. Some do try to silence other groups, and some do try to infringe on the right to defend themselves effectively.
Point 4: The responsibility to do good, and to pursue good things, has a corresponding duty to avoid reckless behavior.
Consider the duty to protect one’s family. It seems fairly uncontroversial to say that you have a right to protect your loved ones, even lethal force. Force is important for the conversation about voting, since voting has to do with the State, and the State rules by force. What you vote on may translate into a policy that affects when a government agent uses force. This doesn’t always mean physical force, but physical force is always connected to the enforcement. You don’t pay your lawful taxes, unless you have some corrupt ‘helper’ in Washington, eventually you’ll be forced out of your home, and possibly, in prison. The laws are backed by force, or nobody would follow them.
Now, though it seems that there are obvious cases of justified force for defending one’s friends, family, and fellows, what about the status of shooting in dark, not know what you are shooting at, nor why you are shooting? This seems quite bad, and obviously dangerous. Is voting without being informed any different? It might work out. You could have a shot a bear, or an intruder, but you could have shot an innocent person too. The evaluation here is not about what the result is (though this is important). The moral issue is whether you should shoot in the dark without a good idea about what you are shooting and why.
Uninformed voting seems reckless, and it is a kind of recklessness that may have horrible consequences. A quick stroll through the 20th century should caution us against supporting many policies and ideologies, supporting the idea that what political groups exert great effects on the world. Of course, it might be the case that your friends and relatives that you emulate are quite right about what they are voting for, and by extension, you’d be voting for good things too. However, this brings us back to responsibility, namely personal responsibility. On what grounds do YOU believe that what you are supporting is good?
If your vote is important, and that it has the potential to facilitate change, then certain conditions should be met before you vote. You should know what you are voting for, beyond mere words. Regarding policies, you should have an (i) idea about what the policies are for, (ii) why it is supposed to be good, and (iii) whether such policies actually have a likelihood of effecting the change that is promised (just because a salesman says that is good, doesn’t mean that it is). Moreover, (iv) you should have the deliberated conviction that the policy is just, that it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights, and is not motivated by any vice.
Point 5: Vote for what is best for the country, yes, but this is very complex.
“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” ― Confucius
Oversimplifying things is a great evil. It would be better to caution ourselves against overestimating our knowledge of the world, then to have ‘zeal without knowledge’ (Proverbs 19:2). It is accurate to say that we should be voting ‘for the good of the country,’ yet understanding what is good for a country is a complex affair, requiring philosophical understanding. Discipling one’s child appropriately, for instance, is what is best for one’s child since a person cannot be happy without discipline. Yet, at the time of the being disciplined, all seems bleak and unfair; to both the child and possibly to the parent that is exasperated. Bribing a child with candy, as a substitute to discipline, may facilitate good behavior in the short-term. Can we tell what is good by the immediate experience of the child? If we could, then clearly the candy bribery is the best course. But this isn’t the best course. Why? The standard that we use is not the ephemeral and obvious, but the enduring and long-term. As parents, our job is to cultivate virtue, not to ensure that the child is permanently in a state of placated bliss (if the parent never did any parenting, children often become tyrants).
How does this relate to voting? The health of a nation is similar to the health of a person, and what we think is a virtuous and healthy person affects how we think of a healthy nation. This means that voting requires careful thought about what human life is ‘all about.’ What is best in life? What is the worst? What is worth working for? What is worth fleeing from? What makes a stable and prosperous nation, and what has led to ruin in other nations?
To recap, I contend that we do indeed have a duty to pursue good things, but we also have a duty to be informed and to avoid being reckless. This means, strange though it may sound, that we may have a duty to NOT vote. Why? Because voting is important, and important things require being informed. If you aren’t willing to study history, think things through, consider how one might be wrong, and consider what the moral quality of your own motives are (and that of your party, if the case may apply), then I’m unwilling to encourage you to vote. I’d be happy to encourage you to think, but not to vote. Mobs are not good at reasoning, and being in a chorus does not make the chorus beautiful: it may very well be a symphony from hell.
I have some other articles that pertain to voting too. See below.
Here are some other articles that challenge my own view:
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