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Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Vote?

November 8, 2010

Unless you’ve been in a coma, if you live in the United States you probably realize we had a major election last week.  I for one am glad it is over – I usually am.  I try to stay somewhat informed about politics (at least on a federal level – I confess that I often have little understanding or knowledge of local or even state politics) , and I make it a priority to vote.  I do not vote straight party ticket (which I would find difficult anyway since I consider myself politically moderate, although I tend to lean a bit left these days), and I do not cast a vote if I don’t know anything about the people or issues involved.

Having said all of that, I find the election season exhausting and incredibly frustrating.  The airwaves are full of negative ads (from both sides of the political divide) filled with half-truths and outright falsehoods.  They are too often intended to play on people’s fears and ignorance (and I say this knowing full-well that sometimes they play on my ignorance), and it is even more difficult than normal to separate truth from campaign rhetoric.  So I rejoice when those ads disappear for a while.

I came across this interesting blog post shortly after the election, and I’m curious what you all think about it.  I’ve grown up hearing – and probably believing – that it was my civic duty to vote.  When i have not voted, I have always felt a little guilty for it.  But the author of the article has a different take on things.  Here’s an excerpt, quoted in the article, from a book by Jason Brennan called The Ethics of Voting:

I argue that while citizens have no duty to vote, if they do vote, they must vote well—on the basis of sound moral and empirical beliefs in order to promote the common good—or otherwise they are morally obligated to abstain. Though individual votes make no significant difference to political outcomes, bad voting violates either a duty not to participate in collectively harmful activities or a duty not to participate in collective activities that impose undue risk upon innocent people.

I find myself persuaded by the argument that there is no moral obligation to vote, but that if we choose to vote, we have a moral obligation to do so in an informed way.  The corollary, of course, is this: if I am not going to take the time to inform myself, I have a moral obligation not to vote.

This idea makes sense to me.  I talk to lots of people who hate politics and don’t want anything to do with it.  I’m uncomfortable with this perspective, because I think American politics affects a large number of people – even on a global scale – for both good and bad, and I think that people (especially followers of Jesus) should be concerned about something that affects so many people in such drastic ways.  But I also understand it.*  I know how frustrating and infuriating it can be to try and find reliable information about politics, because virtually everything you read is rhetoric designed to convince you one way or another.  It is hard to know who to trust.

I think Christians have a moral obligation to help people.  But there are many ways to do so, and many of them are more effective than politics.  So I don’t really believe any longer that Christians – or people in general – have a moral obligation to vote.  But if we do choose to vote, we have a moral obligation to vote well, having done our homework to the best of our ability, attempted to look at both sides of the argument, and come to the best conclusion we are able.

* The other side of this coin is that a Christian’s first allegiance and concern must always be the Kingdom of God, as opposed to the kingdom of the world (and all politics by nature belongs to the kingdom of the world).


From → Culture

  1. Essnyder permalink

    If I would blog on this, I would have written almost 90% of what you had and only adding this point. What I find funny is that the negative politcal ads are doing their job. A guy who’s active in politics that I haven’t talked to in years told me the only reason for the negative ads were to creep people out, to keep the moderates out of the race, and to fire up the base to vote. Which also explains why the middle is red while the coasts are blue.

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