The ethics of voting

In the field of theology, one sometimes finds a job listing that requires the successful applicant to sign a statement of faith. I am most likely past the point of applying for such jobs, so it is safe for me to reveal that I have always maintained that, if confronted with such a statement of faith, I would sign it, literally no matter what it says.

There are several reasons for this. One is that if I were in that situation, it would not be a question of choosing between a job demanding a statement of faith and one without — I would only consider the former if it were my only option for continuing my academic career. Signing would increase my personal survivability and enable me to reach students who might desperately need an alternative perspective. As for the dishonesty involved, I regard the entire system of demanding a statement of faith from faculty members as deeply fraudulent. Signing it dishonestly shows the appropriate level of respect for their ham-handed attempt at uniformity of thought. Refusing to do so out of protest would actually grant the whole thing too much legitimacy.

It occurs to me that we could view voting under a bourgeois democracy similarly. We all know that the system is fraudulent at many levels. The most important and destructive policies are a bipartisan consensus, meaning there is no way to vote against them. All candidates are fake in the sense of being media phenomena, and they all represent a front for the power of moneyed interests. Yet there is a difference between the candidates, and in a big powerful system, a small difference can make a big difference. One choice really is more survivable than the other.

Refusing to vote out of principle or voting for a third-party candidate who supposedly reflects your “real” views grants the system too much legitimacy. It gives the impression that the system could and should give us a positively good option, when we know that it cannot and never wanted to. Holding your nose to vote for the less destructive class enemy is in a way as dishonest as signing the statement of faith, but as a gesture, voting cynically shows the appropriate level of respect for a corrupt system.

5 Responses to “The ethics of voting”

  1. Antiall Says:

    Refusing to vote out of principle gives the system legitimacy? Sophistry. If that were true the lower the turnout the greater the system’s legitimacy. The political system could be perfectly legitimated by all refusing to vote out of principle.

    Voting for a third-party candidate “gives the impression that the system could and should give us a positively good option” to whom? Those who vote for the third party? They don’t realize that as the system currently functions their votes are effectively equivalent to refusing to vote?

    Since this is yet another indirect argument to vote for the leader of the new United Corporatist War Party let me end by saying on behalf of this millennial and his friends, we would not vote for the vile Hillary Clinton under any circumstance. We would not ignore the predictive actual evil she has done to avoid the putative evil Trump might do. Call us cynical if you like for refusing to submit to blackmail. (That would be consistent with your rhetorical doublespeak.) We’ll hang out together with our political purity in Hell with the Devil while you do realpolitik with the angels. And the evil they do when you empower them — refusing to give the system legitimacy … by voting for one of them! — you own it.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Your denunciation is duly noted. Thank you for your input.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I guess what’s frustrating about your response is that you are making voting into a much bigger deal than it really is. It’s not about your personal ethics, nor is it about expressing your political beliefs, nor indeed is it about taking responsibility for the actions of the person you vote for. You don’t have to positively desire one to have a preference.

    So no, I don’t think I will be responsible for Clinton’s crimes just because I argued people should vote for her as a way of voting against Trump. Nor do I think you will be responsible for Trump’s crimes because you’re arguing that people should sit this election out. Clinton and Trump are responsible for their own crimes, and there are plenty of people who are providing much more material support than my dumb little vote (or your dumb little non-vote). You are ascribing way too much power and importance to voting, and yes, I think you’re being kind of stupid and self-righteous. But it probably doesn’t matter.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And a final note: I was born in 1980, so by some reckonings, I too am a millennial.

  5. Hugh Thomas Says:

    I think there’s a key difference between statements of faith and voting. Statements of faith are, in principle, about something other than game theory. By subordinating them to the game-theoretic consideration that if you sign it, you get a job, and if you don’t sign it, you don’t get a job, you are, indeed, disrespecting it (for reasons that I do appreciate). But voting was always already game theoretic. From a game-theoretic standpoint, you might decide that voting Clinton is the better strategy — fine. But other strategies aren’t necessarily motivated by a desire to get something out of voting that was never available in the first place (a chance to fully express your political convictions, etc…).

    Personal disclosure: I am not American and do not live in the US. My views may be coloured by my (perhaps fallacious) impression that Canadian politics is a bit less of a disaster.

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