Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On the Civic Duty of Voting

Have you ever been told that to vote is your civic duty? What does that even mean? Here is a loosely Platonian approach to see whether or not voting is a civic duty and why.

What is a duty? We may well consult the dictionary: a good working definition is one of those, indeed the most relevant one to this discussion, given by Merriam-Webstera moral or legal obligation.

What, then, is a civic duty? Clearly, a civic duty is a moral or legal obligation to one's community. However, it is clear from the innate concept that a civic duty is determined on the community level; that is, at the very least, the way it is used commonly. In order to maintain this usage, can we nail down a definition based on the previous discussion? What we seek must be the established duty of a person towards his or her community, based upon either moral grounds or legal grounds. The case of legal grounds is trivial and requires no further discussion, as I'm sure you'll agree; let us consider the more nuanced case of moral grounds.

One might think that communal morals might be the morals held in common by each member of the society. However, it is utterly unreasonable to expect that an entire large population would have enough in common to establish such a common code. We may consider, however, an overarching set of morals for a society that represents not something that each individual holds personally, but rather something that each individual accepts as the communal idea. Indeed, this is the nature of law; not every person wishes to comply with every law, but many comply despite disagreement because the law is what is established. The existence of this "umbrella" moral code is necessary for a "civic duty" to have any meaning if not established by legislation.

Can we therefore find this elusive community moral code and characterize it? It may indeed be very difficult, and we have not even proven its existence. For brevity, let us assume it does exist. Being part of the society in which the community code is accepted, we may at least be able to flush out some of its qualities. As we have observed, it must be the sort of non-obligatory moral analog of law, something with which perhaps we do not agree but nevertheless that we recognize as conduct to be expected. We can identify characteristics of this code: politeness, industry, honesty, and altruism, to name a few. Just as not all observe the law, not all observe these. Thus, a civic duty, when not legally mandated, must be mandated by the common moral code. We have as such completed a satisfactory characterization of civic duty.

Now, in answering the question "Is voting a civic duty?" we may be inclined to respond immediately to the affirmative, as this presumed principle seems to be the predominantly accepted norm as presented in our common education. Does the rhetoric agree with reason? One need not think too hard on this question to come to an answer: by our definition above, voting is a civic duty as long as it fulfills some common social moral expectation. This is a necessary condition to be fulfilled because voting is not legally compulsory.

What social mandate is fulfilled by voting? Let us consider this. The results of a vote are that either one decision is made or another. Any outcome has some inherent value to the benefit or detriment of society. If any outcome has equal value, then a vote for one option delivers no value that would not be delivered by a vote for another, and the vote certainly has no net effect on society and therefore cannot be expected to fulfill any social expectation. We must, then, assume that different options have different net values. One option, in short, is "better" than another.

But how are these values determined? Is there an extrinsic value, or is the value dependent upon the people involved? In other words, is there an absolute right or just the relative right to the desires of individuals? We need not concern ourselves with divining the solution to the philosophical problem or moral relativism. Let us consider both possibilities.

If there is an absolute right choice in a vote, then indeed to vote for that choice would deliver to the rest of society a net increase in value; this would be the social expectation. However, the question then becomes that of determining the absolute right. Experience has shown that decisions are often made by narrow margins in a vote, demonstrating the inability of at least nearly half of society to determine the right. If we cannot reasonably determine the right, can we be expected to deliver the value desired? This we may simply leave as an open conclusion: if there is an absolute right answer, voting is a civic duty only with the assumption that the voter is willing and able to distinguish the right from the wrong and choose correctly.

On the other hand, if there is no absolute right, then values are relative to the observer. I may see one decision as a significant benefit, whereas you may see the same as a detriment. Indeed, superficially this appears to be the current state of affairs. How does one deliver to society the value expected by communal moral code given this observation? Obviously, one must choose the option that delivers the greatest amount of communal value; however, this undermines the establishment of voting as a means of determining the true opinions of the population, for everyone in line with his or her "civic duty" will vote on a certain decision regardless of personal belief or opinion. We arrive, thus, at a paradox: if voting is a civic duty, then it fails to accomplish its own purpose. On these grounds we must conclude that voting is not a civic duty.

We have covered much ground and leaped over more chasms than perhaps we ought to have done, but the reasoning is rather clear: it appears that voting is very likely not a civic duty in that a single voter may very well do nothing to fulfill overall social expectations in voting. On the other hand, if voting is a civic duty, then so too is a diligent effort to find the "right" decision for the community, and only with this diligent effort is the duty properly done.

Either way, this does not mean that one must not vote. Rather, it means that one's decision to vote more likely ought to be determined personally, according to personal moral code and desires, and not by others who would argue that it is the "right thing to do" for the community.


  1. Hi, great blog post

    I have a question though, why have you tied the value that we (as the community) give to voting to the outcome of the vote (which, as you rightly point out, is always relative)?

    Voting does not necessarily shape the community's moral code, which may be a product of history, culture, tradition and many other factors. Thus, personally I would not base a critique of voting as a civic duty on the choices we make at the ballot box. Those choices may not change the moral code and may not determine the "common good" or the "right" of the community as a whole.

    From a liberal perspective (as in liberalism not progressive), I would argue that voting is not a civic duty based on the premise that the community has no right to coerce naturally free individuals into the duty of voting. I would argue against civic duty per se.

    Contrarily, from a civic republican stand point, I would argue that no matter what decisions we take at the ballot box (concerning the right of the community) we have a duty to each other to vote because the community's very legitimacy depends on a democratic procedure.

    Its a fascinating argument which every democratic community must face.
    Great post though! Very clear and well-presented.


    1. Thanks for reading! To address your question, I'll begin by stating that I am an amateur to the world of political philosophy. As such, if my previous discussion of the issues or my response now is missing some sort of expected philosophical rigor, that is why.

      To respond to your question, you'll recall that I have stated that a civic duty is something done not to shape a moral code but in expectation established by a moral code. I may have done too much hand-waving at the point where I discussed the value of voting, but I see no reason why the moral code would expect us to act if that action did not deliver a positive result on some level.

      My analysis will certainly change in some way if it is possible to show a way that voting benefits the community regardless of the vote's outcome. You have cited the preservation of the democratic procedure, and at that point we find ourselves at a grey area. My going to vote does not in itself preserve the democratic procedure, but that is more because I know there are plenty of others voting as well. Truly, if we all stopped voting that would upset the system and cause problems to the community as a whole. I think, therefore, that my original conclusion can be maintained with the added assumption that some subset of our community will vote simply by desire and not based upon feelings of civic duty. As long as enough other people vote, I don't have to; that is my conclusion stated crudely.

      To address your liberal standpoint, on the other hand, to say that voting is a civic duty does not imply coercion. The fact that it is a duty from a common moral standpoint inherently implies that the choice to abstain from voting is fully viable, just as is the choice to lie or be impolite; it is more a matter of meeting community expectations than of coercion. It may seem pointless to talk about it if the obligation is entirely optional, but the optional obligation is still connected to each individual's personal moral code. If voting is a civic duty, an individual must decide whether or not to vote in the same way he or she must decide whether or not to donate money or to be honest. It is because of this observation that I have considered whether it is even possible to consider voting as a civic duty by considering the results of voting.

      Feel free to post if you have any additional comments or rebuttal.

    2. For some reason it won't let me reply through my wordpress account, anyways:

      I fully agree with your point that "as long as other people vote, I don't have to". However, it also implies that in a situation where not enough people vote I might have a civic duty to go to the ballot box because our democratic order may be jeopardised by a possible lack of popular consent. For democracy's sake. As you point out, its a grey area.

      Regarding your comment on my liberal standpoint, I should have given more context. What I was trying to highlight was the tension between the will of the community (in the form of the community's moral values) and individual rights (the freedom to choose one's own morals). In a hypothetical communitarian society (think of Rousseau's Geneva for example) -where community values override individual choices- there would indeed be space for coercion. If individual morals do not conform to the community's will (what Rousseau called the general will)that individual must be forced to comply.

      But we don't live in such a society, so your argument stating that taking a moral standpoint is entirely optional and tied to individual moral codes is absolutely right. In modern liberal democracies the community's moral code may not override individual morals.

      I presented the liberal and civic republican approaches to civic duty just as food for thought.

      Nice having this conversation with you, keep up the good work :)


    3. Great points. I'm glad you approached this from a more abstract angle. Many of my assertions are dependent upon specific attributes of American government, so you are right to demonstrate that some are not applicable to the general case. Thanks for the comments!

      Fraterni Saluti