For some reason there’s been a lot of talk about voting. My understanding of voting is (predictably) rather instrumentalist and flat-footed: since there is no more rational way of deciding things, we make our preferences known (show of hands, cast ballots, computer clicks, etc), and let the question be decided by whatever side gets more signs of support. (Optional variation: rig up an electoral college so that each individual vote matters less to the result.) One would think that’s all there is to it. Apparently not.
Many people seem to believe that voting is an expression of one’s own moral character – so that voting for an odious candidate pollutes one’s moral character. These people believe it is better to vote for a likable candidate who has no choice of winning than to vote for an odious candidate who is less odious than the other candidate. Voting is a deliberate action, and deliberate action reflects one’s moral character, so one shouldn’t act in such a way as to reflect a bad moral character. That’s the thought, as best as I can tell.
But overall, voting is ridiculous in direct proportion to the number of people voting. When it is on the scale of hundreds of millions, voting is about as effective as wishing. If I stand in my backyard and wish for world peace, I have done as much for politics as I do when I cast a ballot. (Yes, yes, “almost as much” would be a more accurate thing to say, since a vote does contribute a tenth of a grain of sand towards an outcome.) So I guess making a wish for an unelectable candidate is about as meaningful as making a wish for an electable one – or, for that matter, making a wish for a candidate who is dead and gone, or who is captain of the starship Enterprise.
But if – despite this – one takes voting seriously, and views that tenth of a grain of sand as meaningful, then it is hard for me to enter into the “my vote reflects my soul” mindset. Imagine a smaller situation in which an individual vote does matter: there are five of us trying decide on cheese vs. pepperoni, and is is up to you to cast the deciding vote. But you lean toward veganism. Add another supposition to make the example work: suppose that a pizza will be ordered, whether you vote or not; and that ordered pizza will be either cheese or pepperoni. Now you might think that cheese and pepperoni are equally bad, and find yourself simply unable to decide. That makes sense; you shake your head, and say, “Sorry; no can do.” But if you think that making cheese entails less animal suffering than making pepperoni, or that eating cheese is less wrong than eating pepperoni, then – given the admittedly artificial circumstances I’ve described – why on earth would you vote for artichokes? It simply isn’t an option, and you’ve missed out on the chance to make the dinner a little less worse.
“Because I cannot order even cheese without besmirching my moral character.” Really? Well then, in this case, your moral character is stained (possibly) with pepperoni. That’s something you did, by casting your stupid artichoke vote. Or can one enhance one’s moral character merely by intending impossible results? If one can, then why didn’t you vote for a pizza with “no animal suffering ever again” as the topping? What’s that? It isn’t possible? But didn’t you vote for artichokes despite the fact that achieving it was impossible? Why not “go large,” as they say, so long as we’re in never-ever land?
On the other hand, it may be that in order to have a functional democracy, there has to be a widespread belief that voting matters, and that voting one’s conscience is the right thing to do – even if neither of these beliefs really stands up to the light of reason. If individuals take their voting seriously, then there emerges at some level – a level far beyond the one at which individual votes really do matter – something resembling a rational, deliberative voting mass. But perhaps you can’t get that emergent result without some illusion at the level of individuals. If this is so, then if one thinks a functional democracy is a good thing, then one should swallow the blue pill, and vote away. I can understand this, but I always find it hard to swallow blue pills. At least, knowingly.