Now is it just crazy to say that voting is as morally good as giving 10% of one’s income to charity? That was my first reaction. Giving that much to charity seems uncommon to me and highly admirable, while voting… yeah, it’s good to do, of course, but not that good. One thought, however — adapted from Derek Parfit — gives me pause about that easy assessment. In the U.S. 2008 Presidential election, I’d have said the world would be in the ballpark of $10 trillion better off with one of the candidates than the other. (Just consider the financial and human costs at stake in the Iraq war and the U.S. bank bailouts, for starters.) Although my vote, being only one of about 100,000,000 cast, probably had only about a 1/100,000,000 chance of tilting the election, multiplying that tiny probability by a round trillion leaves a $10,000 expected public benefit from my voting — not so far from 10% of my salary.
Of course, that calculation is incredibly problematic in any number of ways. I don’t stand behind it, but it helps loosen the grip of my previous intuition that of course it’s morally better to donate 10% to charity than to vote.
While he is right that his “calculation is incredibly problematic in a number of ways” what it provides is a crude example of the kind of math involved in a focus on systemic justice over private justice. If I think something is a social moral imperative, I would far rather it be taken care of through a mechanism which is made permanent and regular than be left to the whims of individual feelings of charity. In my own case, I guess my views on voting and donating dovetail since that’s where I did the majority of my charitable giving last year. I guess personally I would rather chip in money for what I think is more just governance than directly for particular provisions for material needs. I don’t know if that’s the right attitude, but it seems to be what my behavior reveals about my previously unreflective attitudes.