Brief Review / Reflection: The Ethics of Voting – Jason Brennan

January 5, 2012 — 3 Comments


A Brief Review of
(And Reflection on)

The Ethics of Voting
Jason Brennan
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2011.
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Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Well, here we are in 2012, another new year and another presidential election year.  The television and internet news media are already buzzing constantly about the run-up to the November elections. But with all this buzz, how often do we think about how or why we vote, or even – GASP! – if we should be voting at all.  Enter Jason Brennan’s recent book The Ethics of Voting.

I don’t agree with everything that Brennan says here, but I applaud him for his boldness in probing the meaning of voting.  “Many people approach democracy,” he says, “and voting especially, with quasi-religious reverence.”  And over the course of the book, Brennan demonstrates his eagerness to make some tasty hamburgers out of our sacred cows.  Particularly in his crosshairs is what he refers to as “the folk theory of voting ethics”:

  1. Each citizen has a civic duty to vote.  In extenuating circumstances, one can be excused from voting, but otherwise one should vote.
  2. While it is true that there can be better or worse candidates, in general any good faith vote is morally acceptable.  At the very least it is better to vote than to abstain.
  3. It is inherently wrong to buy or sell one’s vote.

Brennan argues here that citizens do not have a duty to vote, but instead must choose between abstaining or voting well, which he defines as voting “on the basis for what is likely to promote the common good.” Brennan is on the mark in making the “common good” the target for voting and political engagement.  We have argued the same here numerous times over the last year, in our reviews of books like Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith (LGT video, reviewed in our print edition) and Jay Kirkpatrick’s All That we Share. I’m not sure, however, that he rightly sizes our capacity for self-deception; for instance, as trickle-down theories of economics mask greed and selfishness under the guise of the common good.

Although I appreciate the questions that Brennan is raising here, and although he starts with a very readable and engaging introduction, the book gets pretty dense as it goes along, and may not necessarily be the best resource for exploring the meaning of the practice of voting.  However, our churches can and should follow suit, questioning and reflecting on what voting means, and how we should vote, if we should vote at all.  Churches cannot (and following the gist of the recently reviewed Left, Right and Christ, I would argue should not) endorse particular candidates, but please in this election year, let us talk together about what voting means, and how it fits with our understanding of God’s mission in the world, and how we should vote (or not) in a way that does truly seek to nurture the common good in our places.