After my last post on voting, I discovered that our friend Zippy Catholic has recently had an excellent series of very compelling posts on what he sees as the moral duty to refrain from voting. I give a brief overview of his arguments and a number of links below the break.
First, he notes that voting “pragmatically” (e.g., X is less evil than Y) is a prudential error, akin to planning one’s budget around future lottery winnings. It’s not that your vote empirically doesn’t have an effect, per accidens; it’s that it cannot possibly have an effect, per se:
[The electoral] process has a signal to noise ratio, like any real process. People seem to think that 500 votes in this State or that can influence the outcome. I would suggest that that level of “signal” never actually determines the outcome, not even in Florida in 2000, because a signal that small cannot be accurately resolved by the system (“hanging chads”, anyone?). For those of you who have no signal processing background and are interested in following up on the concept, I recommend that you explore the precision/accuracy distinction and ask yourself how meaningful, in terms of accuracy, the down-to-one-voter precision of our real-world electoral process actually is.
Because it is an error in reasoning to vote on pragmatic grounds, a person who so votes is acting irrationally, i.e., offending against the cardinal virtue of prudence. And because the act itself is imprudent, the offense obtains whether or not that person’s candidate actually wins, giving rise to ZC’s very accurate label “outcome-independent harm.”
One can get around this problem by voting not on pragmatic grounds but on principled ones, i.e., voting because you actually support candidate X and all that he stands for. If your candidate is either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, that almost certainly makes you complicit in evil, accruing all the theological consequences implicit in that statement.
But there is good reason, Zippy notes, not to vote even for a sound third-party candidate, which is that elections function primarily to legitimate the leftist consensus by which we are ruled:
So the viability argument consists in convincing people to irrationally deploy their personal infinitesimal influence in support of candidates they find morally abhorrent, but somewhat less morally abhorrent than the “viable” alternative. This builds social consensus around the major party candidates, the liberalism they represent, and the kind of governance that results from advanced liberalism: gay “marriage”, abortion, misandry, divorce and cohabitation becoming the norm rather than the exception, endless war to impose democracy everywhere: the whole package.
In the leftist worldview, voting has a kind of sacramental character, and not for nothing does ZC call it the “lex orandi to liberalism’s credendi.” Even if we vote for traditionalists across the board and vote “No” on every attempt to legitimate abortion, gay “marriage,” and other perversions, we are still implicitly voting “Yes” on the question of whether or not these things are up for discussion. In being told we must vote, then, what we are being told to do is less like merely obeying Caesar and more likely positively worshipping him — as ZC puts it, “burning a pinch of incense” to him. Refusal to do this is not just praiseworthy but obligatory, and one should prefer martyrdom to such hellish compromise — especially when Caesar is a serial-killer of unborn infants.
ZC admirably dispatches a number of possible objections to his view of voting. Against those who would say that non-voters forfeit their right to complain about the political situation, ZC points out that, on the contrary, one’s principled refusal to legitimate evil by endorsing it increases the credibility of one’s complaints. Those who contradict their own principles in order to legitimate a system they abhor on the specious grounds that their vote might have some negligible influence are traitors and not to be trusted. And against those Catholics who would trot out CCC 2240 as implying a universal and nonnegotiable duty to vote, ZC argues that the Catechism’s exhortation must be properly qualified:
Despite the lack of any mention of game theory in this passage, some people seem to want to interpret it to mean that there is always a proportionate reason to vote for a medical cannibal who supports aborting children and using their body parts for research (like, say, John McCain), as long as the other major party candidate is worse. I’ll just point out that this interpretation involves more than a little bit of filling in of the blanks. If anything, a much more plausible interpretation is that exercising the right to vote is, when morally licit, about submission to authority, respect, co responsibility for the common good, living a pure Christian life in a pagan culture, etc — that is, it is about outcome-independent considerations, not about making sure I am on the winning team.
Echoing my argument that the duty to vote must, like almost all moral duties, be subordinated to some higher consideration, ZC cites other magisterial documents:
Quite a few people seem to interpret both the Catechism and Faithful Citizenship as if they constitute a categorical command to vote always and everywhere, no matter what historical cul-de-sac we happen to find ourselves in. Sure Faithful Citizenship is just a USCCB paper of dubious Magisterial status, so we can ignore it; but the Catechism after all is a universal teaching document. It applies to the citizens of Banana Republics, dictatorships with only one name on the ballot, the good old U S of A, and everywhere in between. So golly, isn’t it dissent from the Magisterium to (gasp) exercise prudential judgement in deciding whether or not to vote for Saddam?
No, it is not.
As the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendour puts it:
In the case of the positive moral precepts, prudence always has the task of verifying that they apply in a specific situation, for example, in view of other duties which may be more important or urgent.
No, you cannot invoke Magisterial documents as a way of avoiding the question of whether or not to vote, and whom to vote for. It is always our task to use right reason to verify that a positive precept – including the positive precept to vote as a derivative throwaway example of a civic act, a commonplace example of the general precept to act for the common good which is not limited to the three examples that the Catechism places in the same sentence – applies right here and right now.
He also ably takes on the argument that “if enough people did as I do the bad guys would win” — that society would fall into the Kantian chasm:
In the first place, as I’ve argued before, reality is not linear. The idea that if enough people did as I do, all else equal, things would get worse, contains a bad premise. That “all else equal” works reasonably well in a very narrow range of engineering problems does not imply that it is a useful model of human society. “All else equal” is one of those assumptions that will turn on you and eat you alive once things start to get even marginally complex.
In the second place, reality is not static. In case you haven’t noticed, for anyone defending traditional morality things aren’t getting better, they are getting worse. It makes no sense to defend the hill you are standing on when it is sinking into an ocean of nihilistic hedonism, aided and abetted by the very people whose team you support. The hill we are standing on is one where our society has committed mass murder of the innocent on a literally unprecedented scale. The Nazis and the Communists have nothing on us when it comes to raw body count, and we’ve explored areas of depravity that it never occurred to them to explore. It isn’t the conscientious objector who refuses to endorse the lesser evil and the liberal consensus that forces it upon us who is admitting defeat and surrendering. That modern conservatives have decided to live under their own Treaty of Versailles is an admission of abject surrender, dhimmitude under the nihilist-hedonist caliphate.
In the third place, another aspect of the conservative disposition is realism: to face reality as it is actually given to us, and to defend what is good in it without becoming enslaved to some theoretical ideology. It is this third tendency that makes it worth the bother to even talk to conservatives. But I think the biggest problem is that, ironically, conservatives have failed to face the full extent of our political reality. Adopting a semi-Kantian idea that despite our individual lack of influence we should idealistically act as pragmatists is not rational.
Finally, in the comments section of one of his posts, ZC objects to the argument that not voting essentially amounts to opting-out of civic life:
But I don’t think it follows that one should opt out of the political life of the nation notwithstanding its flaws.
I am sure that upon further reflection you will see that I am not opting out of the political life of the nation. If I were, I wouldn’t be writing posts about politics.
But it is interesting that someone like myself, who frequently proselytizes on matters political and moral and their intersection, is seen as opting out of the political life of the nation specifically because of my choice not to make a particular ritual act. I think this tends to reinforce many of my points about the nature of that ritual act.
Go check out his posts; I’m incredibly grateful to him for the immense intellectual legwork he’s put into articulating and defending this position.