Brief Reviews, VOLUME 5

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

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.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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  1. Interesting book. I can’t wait to check it out.

    Two books I recommend reading alongside the above book are, ‘Electing Not to Vote’ edited by Ted Lewis, and Third Way Allegiance by Tripp York.
    They may help fill in some of the holes you mention.

  2. Jamie, 

    Great suggestions!  Here’s our review of ELECTING NOT TO VOTE from when it came out in 2008:

    — Chris

  3. This work by Jason Brennan looks interesting, particularly because it cites the work of another Brennan, Geoffrey Brennan that is, and his co-author Lomsky, “Democracy and Decision.”  That work looks at the way people vote: expressively, rather than rationally.  
    The point is that one’s vote is so unlikely to affect actual policy, that it is almost a waste of time to vote at all.  But it is also a waste of time to shout at a football game, yet we enjoy doing so, though one individual voice certainly will not affect the outcome of the game.
    As voters, we tend then to vote for the good feeling we get from voting, like the good feeling we get from shouting at the game.  Most of the time this is fine, no harm done.  But sometimes, when we vote expressively, for the fun of voting, we become more likely to vote for policies which are harmful in the long run, no matter how well intentioned they seem.  Christians are especially prone to this flaw, particularly when attempting to legislate morality.  Morality legislated does not actually make anyone more moral.  Instead it tends to open up opportunities for the immoral man.  The phenomenon is referred to as “Baptists and Bootleggers.”  Bootleggers during prohibition would never have had opportunity to create a business around hustling hooch if prohibition had not been legislated in response to Baptist advocacy.
    Modern applications of this principle may include the trafficking of humans for sexual slavery in response to the prohibition on prostitution.
    If the book is too dense, it is probably because the ideas are counterintuitive, and seem hard to explain.  If one were to do a quick internet study on Public Choice Economics, this volume would probably make a lot more sense.
    Nathanael Snow