Professors As Insistent On The Moral Imperative To Vote As To Donate

Eric Schwitzgebel is initially surprised by the data but then does rough calculations about why it is sensible:

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.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Evangelos

    Well a number of other factors come in when you’re voting that would determine how important your vote is: what kind of election it is (my vote for a Republican presidential candidate in New York State is about as worthless as a vote for a Democratic presidential candidate in Texas), what district you live in (ala gerrymandering), and how likely others are to vote in that election. But there are other factors as well: for someone who votes for a third-party candidate, it’s more important that that candidate have enough resources to get the platform heard so that one of the two larger parties might absorb it rather than winning elections, but if said third party candidate had gotten enough votes in a State or county, that might make their platform more likely to be heard or listened to by candidates of the two major parties. I’m not sure where all that leaves you as far as moral imperatives go, but I’m tempted to say it all depends.


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