November 1, 2008

Informed Voting As An Important Moral Responsibility

Second round of the French presidential electi...Image via WikipediaRoughly two years ago, Atheist Ethicist wrote a somewhat convoluted post I've had bookmarked ever since, The Duty to Vote. With the American election rapidly approaching, it is time to revisit this post. Although he encouraged all American citizens to vote, Alonzo argued that we had no moral obligation to do so. In fact, he said that not voting was "perfectly acceptable."

Before we get to the central point of whether or not voting is a moral responsibility, I'd like to say that I believe the upcoming American presidential election is an important one. This is especially true for those of us who value reason, science, and data-based decision making. John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin worries me for a number of reasons, but the real danger is the anti-intellectualism she brings. After 8 years of degrading science and faith-based policy, we simply cannot afford more of the same. This election is our opportunity to inject some reason into American politics.

When Alonzo says, "...there is nothing particularly wrong with deciding not to vote," I agree with him, but those who take the time to read his entire post will see that this statement is deceptive. For someone who has not taken the time or invested the energy in learning about the candidates and their position on the relevant issues, there seems to be little wrong with not voting. This appears to be Alonzo's point, and it is one with which I agree. I suppose one could go so far as to argue that truly uninformed voters probably should not vote (although I don't think I'd do so).

One of my points of disagreement with Alonzo is:
One of the things working against the value of learning this particular set of facts is that the information is practically worthless. It is extremely unlikely that the voter/student can do anything useful with the knowledge. In any given election, chances are that the outcome would be no different even if the voter did not vote.
I do not regard learning about various political issues to be an exercise in futility. In fact, I regard this as an important part of our duty as citizens. For our democracy to work, we need informed voters. I think this is a small price to pay for a functioning democracy.

I recognize that Alonzo's point is that a single individual is unlikely to influence election results. This may be true, but I do not regard this as the primary value associated with being an informed voter. By learning about the issues, candidates' positions on them, etc., the citizenry becomes better equipped to participate in the process in many ways besides voting.

I agree with Alonzo that "reckless" voting is not something to be encouraged. However, it is becoming easier and easier to obtain information about the candidates, the relevant issues, and how one can participate in the political process. It is becoming harder to excuse the truly uninformed voter for remaining uninformed.

In my humble opinion, American citizens have a duty to vote. Specifically, we have a duty to participate in the democratic process as informed voters. I think Alonzo and I agree on this point.