On the morality of not voting

The theologian Alasdair MacIntyre wrote a piece during the last presidential election entitled The Only Vote Worth Casting in November arguing that not voting for either of two candidate can be a positive moral action. The first paragraph:

When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives. These are propositions which in the abstract may seem to invite easy agreement. But, when they find application to the coming presidential election, they are likely to be rejected out of hand. For it has become an ingrained piece of received wisdom that voting is one mark of a good citizen, not voting a sign of irresponsibility. But the only vote worth casting in November is a vote that no one will be able to cast, a vote against a system that presents one with a choice between Bush’s conservatism and Kerry’s liberalism, those two partners in ideological debate, both of whom need the other as a target.

MacIntyre is coming from that “consistent pro-life” position, maintaining that we need to be pro-life (which disqualified Kerry) AND pro-economic justice (which disqualified Bush). But if all such ideological purists refuse to get into the fray, wouldn’t that just mean that they are standing up for neither?

HT: Rod Dreher

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

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  • Susan aka organshoes

    If not voting is a statement, it’s one with no force, and no result. Someone gets elected, period.
    The essayist seems to think there’s a perfect candidate out there, conservative where he thinks conservatism triumphs, liberal (or progressive) where he thinks that works.
    But I don’t gather from his essay that he has a clear idea of what the conservative ethic really is, or of how much of daily living it defines, nor of how committed progressives are to ‘freedom of choice’ issues. He seems to think only interms of conservative=pro-life; progressive=social justice. One of (or two of) those false dichotomies at work (or at play).
    Vote already.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    If not voting is a statement, it’s one with no force, and no result. Someone gets elected, period.
    The essayist seems to think there’s a perfect candidate out there, conservative where he thinks conservatism triumphs, liberal (or progressive) where he thinks that works.
    But I don’t gather from his essay that he has a clear idea of what the conservative ethic really is, or of how much of daily living it defines, nor of how committed progressives are to ‘freedom of choice’ issues. He seems to think only interms of conservative=pro-life; progressive=social justice. One of (or two of) those false dichotomies at work (or at play).
    Vote already.

  • The Jones

    Is a vote a statement of approval and an endorsement of everything that the candidate does? I sure don’t think so. A vote is a tool to get somebody elected, for whatever reason you want them elected. You may be voting for somebody, or you may be voting against somebody. Every vote in the history of the country has been between the lesser of two evils. Nobody’s perfect.

    He seems to be arguing against “the system,” which in my mind is never a good thing. It tends to make people stand for nothing, and therefore do nothing within “the system” that needs to be fixed, according to them.

    I say the only good reason not to vote is if you honestly don’t know which candidate you should vote for. That’s different that the moral objection to lending your support with your vote.

  • The Jones

    Is a vote a statement of approval and an endorsement of everything that the candidate does? I sure don’t think so. A vote is a tool to get somebody elected, for whatever reason you want them elected. You may be voting for somebody, or you may be voting against somebody. Every vote in the history of the country has been between the lesser of two evils. Nobody’s perfect.

    He seems to be arguing against “the system,” which in my mind is never a good thing. It tends to make people stand for nothing, and therefore do nothing within “the system” that needs to be fixed, according to them.

    I say the only good reason not to vote is if you honestly don’t know which candidate you should vote for. That’s different that the moral objection to lending your support with your vote.

  • Matt L

    I’ve never been a fan of this faux-moralism. It is completely inappropriate to bind someone’s conscience on whether they vote or not (at the same time, who you vote for does have ethical ramifications). Maybe I haven’t swallowed the Red White and Blue pill of Patriolatry, but I just don’t see the difference between not voting and voting for a 28th party candidate. We are in a 1 party autocracy and if you don’t vote for the Republicrats, your vote doesn’t count any way.

    So what will I do? I will not vote precisely because people are making a moral issue over whether or not to vote. I will pray for the country the prayer that a good teacher of mine taught me:
    O Almighty God, pour out your righteous wrath upon us, humble us in our pride, raise our gas prices until you strip us naked of the wealth that our greed has accumulated. Take the food from our mouths, inflict terrorism and plague and poverty upon us until we flee crying in fear and terror, in suffering, humiliation, and shame to the foot of the cross of Jesus. And there, bereft of every human comfort and every worldly hope, find our refuge in Him, and in Him alone. Amen.

  • Matt L

    I’ve never been a fan of this faux-moralism. It is completely inappropriate to bind someone’s conscience on whether they vote or not (at the same time, who you vote for does have ethical ramifications). Maybe I haven’t swallowed the Red White and Blue pill of Patriolatry, but I just don’t see the difference between not voting and voting for a 28th party candidate. We are in a 1 party autocracy and if you don’t vote for the Republicrats, your vote doesn’t count any way.

    So what will I do? I will not vote precisely because people are making a moral issue over whether or not to vote. I will pray for the country the prayer that a good teacher of mine taught me:
    O Almighty God, pour out your righteous wrath upon us, humble us in our pride, raise our gas prices until you strip us naked of the wealth that our greed has accumulated. Take the food from our mouths, inflict terrorism and plague and poverty upon us until we flee crying in fear and terror, in suffering, humiliation, and shame to the foot of the cross of Jesus. And there, bereft of every human comfort and every worldly hope, find our refuge in Him, and in Him alone. Amen.

  • Carl Vehse

    Romans 3:9-18, 23 is not meant to be used as a voting guide.

    It would be preferable to cast either a positive or negative vote on a particular candidate for a given office. In this way a voter does not have to vote for one candidate out of a set of choices considered unworthy and unfit for that office. In such an election, the winner out of two dishonorable candidates might have a negative vote total, but less negative than his opponent, removing the “mandate of the people” ploy.

    Until such election reforms occur (yeah… like politicians would ever allow such a voting system) one should not put a guilt trip on those who deliberately do not vote where, in that voter’s view, only unfit and unworthy candidates are in the race.

    Alternatively one should be allowed to write in some other choice. Teddy Roosevelt’s been one of my favorites choices, and unlike some of the candidates than seem to end up on ballots, the only trivial deficiency with the leader of the Rough Riders is that he is dead.

  • Carl Vehse

    Romans 3:9-18, 23 is not meant to be used as a voting guide.

    It would be preferable to cast either a positive or negative vote on a particular candidate for a given office. In this way a voter does not have to vote for one candidate out of a set of choices considered unworthy and unfit for that office. In such an election, the winner out of two dishonorable candidates might have a negative vote total, but less negative than his opponent, removing the “mandate of the people” ploy.

    Until such election reforms occur (yeah… like politicians would ever allow such a voting system) one should not put a guilt trip on those who deliberately do not vote where, in that voter’s view, only unfit and unworthy candidates are in the race.

    Alternatively one should be allowed to write in some other choice. Teddy Roosevelt’s been one of my favorites choices, and unlike some of the candidates than seem to end up on ballots, the only trivial deficiency with the leader of the Rough Riders is that he is dead.

  • Don S

    Voting is not compulsory in this country (for which I am grateful), so I don’t think the choice of whether or not to vote is a moral one. It is, rather, a personal one. If you do decide to vote, then I think you have an obligation as a Christian and as a citizen to consider your vote carefully, do your research, and vote for the candidate who both best represents your views and whom you believe will most effectively execute their obligations as an elected official. That is the extent of your obligation morally. There has never been and never will be a perfect candidate in this world. If you are waiting for that candidate, God bless you, but you will never, ever vote.

    Two additional observations about voting:

    1. I hate the idea of easy voter registration and all the drives to make voting as painless as possible. In my view, only those who really desire to vote, and are willing to take the time and effort to educate themselves on the issues and candidates, and take it seriously, should do so.

    2. In the long run, it is your involvement in the process which will improve the quality of the candidates. Vote, work on the campaigns of candidates whom you would be proud to vote for, financially support worthy candidates, involve yourself in advocacy groups that advocate issues important to you. If enough Christians do this, then over the course of years they will find that the quality of the candidates they are asked to vote for periodically will greatly improve. On the other hand, if we petulantly take our ball and go home because we don’t like our present choices, what is going to cause those choices to improve in the future? In this world, you either do something or have it done to you. Your choice.

  • Don S

    Voting is not compulsory in this country (for which I am grateful), so I don’t think the choice of whether or not to vote is a moral one. It is, rather, a personal one. If you do decide to vote, then I think you have an obligation as a Christian and as a citizen to consider your vote carefully, do your research, and vote for the candidate who both best represents your views and whom you believe will most effectively execute their obligations as an elected official. That is the extent of your obligation morally. There has never been and never will be a perfect candidate in this world. If you are waiting for that candidate, God bless you, but you will never, ever vote.

    Two additional observations about voting:

    1. I hate the idea of easy voter registration and all the drives to make voting as painless as possible. In my view, only those who really desire to vote, and are willing to take the time and effort to educate themselves on the issues and candidates, and take it seriously, should do so.

    2. In the long run, it is your involvement in the process which will improve the quality of the candidates. Vote, work on the campaigns of candidates whom you would be proud to vote for, financially support worthy candidates, involve yourself in advocacy groups that advocate issues important to you. If enough Christians do this, then over the course of years they will find that the quality of the candidates they are asked to vote for periodically will greatly improve. On the other hand, if we petulantly take our ball and go home because we don’t like our present choices, what is going to cause those choices to improve in the future? In this world, you either do something or have it done to you. Your choice.

  • Another Kerner

    Our faith informs our choices.

    However when we make choices in the political arena we are sometimes guessing about how Candidates A and B will conduct themselves when they becomes Office Holders A and B.

    Past history and a track record will sometimes inform us.

    Sadly, I have lived to regret some of my choices in the voting booth. When I made those choices I was using the information available to me at the time.

    When I made the decision it was the right decision, based on data I had.

    However, staying informed and knowing the standards against which politicians should be measured is critical.

    One current book which rehearses past political history and traces “progressive” thought and various movements in modern history is Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism”.

    A long book but worth the read.

  • Another Kerner

    Our faith informs our choices.

    However when we make choices in the political arena we are sometimes guessing about how Candidates A and B will conduct themselves when they becomes Office Holders A and B.

    Past history and a track record will sometimes inform us.

    Sadly, I have lived to regret some of my choices in the voting booth. When I made those choices I was using the information available to me at the time.

    When I made the decision it was the right decision, based on data I had.

    However, staying informed and knowing the standards against which politicians should be measured is critical.

    One current book which rehearses past political history and traces “progressive” thought and various movements in modern history is Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism”.

    A long book but worth the read.

  • Kyralessa

    How exactly does one distinguish between not voting on purpose and not voting due to laziness?

    Personally, I cast my vote against the two leading candidates in 2004 by voting for a third-party candidate.

  • Kyralessa

    How exactly does one distinguish between not voting on purpose and not voting due to laziness?

    Personally, I cast my vote against the two leading candidates in 2004 by voting for a third-party candidate.

  • Carl Vehse

    “How exactly does one distinguish between not voting on purpose and not voting due to laziness?”

    If one feels he has a right to know about why some eligible voter did not vote, he may ask.

  • Carl Vehse

    “How exactly does one distinguish between not voting on purpose and not voting due to laziness?”

    If one feels he has a right to know about why some eligible voter did not vote, he may ask.


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