Saturday, February 27, 2016

Is It Immoral Not To Vote?

In "Don't Vote, It's Your Right", I took issue with the commonly-stated idea that "If you don't vote, you can't complain". I point out that, not only is it your right to abstain, but that your First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, association, and the right to petition for the redress of grievances are not contingent upon your participation in a voting booth. Thus, not only do you always have the right to complain, but it is as unalienable as any other right that is acknowledged (not "granted", mind you) by the Constitution. I take this to be a statement of fact, not opinion.

Concurrent with that, I made an incidental argument that if anyone had no business complaining, it is those who participated in the voting process, as their participation in the process indicates their willingness to be held to the result.

But prior to that, I opened with a description of the "broken" open primary system here in South Carolina and use Donald Trump's open solicitation of Democrats to vote in the Republican primary as an example of its brokenness. I wrap it up with an appeal to Instant Runoff Voting, which I believe would fix the most egregious "brokenness" of our popular elections without necessitating any great changes to our electoral system.

The first of the responses I received, in a political forum, was fairly rude. Even after a lengthy explanation, his rebuttal was that not voting at all makes you a "lazy shit". Quite the intellectual tour de force. My response was via South Park example.


Fortunately my friends are more intellectually interesting than my acquaintances. Here's a more thoughtful response.
I've been thinking about this a lot over the past week. Obviously people have a legal right to not vote. And yet ethics and morals are developed in a social context, not an individual one, and their exercise have community repercussions. To not try and stop Donald Trump's becoming president reminds me of Edmund Burke's observation that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
I wish I were that concise. This has good vs. evil... the good of the many.... it has Edmund Burke, for cryin' out loud. And yet I take exception. Here's why:

Let's start with the "legal right" of the People to abstain. It is not merely a legal right. As I've already pointed out, it is an inalienable Right, making it extralegal. It may therefore be exercised as a moral right, and it will be clear why that's important in a moment.


Next, ethics and morals are lumped together. It's common for philosophers to make no distinction, and often we're told that the difference is subtle, but I don't find that to be the case (and honestly, I don't think they do either, as I'll show). I do draw a distinction, and along the usual lines.

  • Ethics are standards of good and bad, right and wrong, imposed by an outside group; a professional organization, for example. Ethical conduct is that which conforms to those standards adopted by the group, regardless of what that conduct may be. Ethics are legalistic and lack the weight of personal conviction.
  • Morals are also standards of good and bad, but they are guided by conscience, or an internal "sense" of Right and Wrong. Morals are intensely personal. In a religious context, even though it's often claimed that morality is "dictated by the Church", this isn't the case. Any member of the religion will tell you that he or she has accepted the deity "into their heart". Morals are taught and accepted, but cannot be imposed. In fact, when a Church has attempted to impose morals it has inevitably led to the splintering of that church, as in the case of Catholicism vs. innumerable Protestant denominations. Literally, "protesters".

So, while it's right to  say that ethics are developed in a social context, it's not necessarily true of morality. While ethics and morality may coincide, that's not a given. A distinction is necessary because it is obvious that you do not require societal agreement to regard someone's actions as immoral. And conduct may be completely ethical and completely immoral at the same time. ISIS beheads Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and others. They take this to be a moral imperative. And while I must allow that, taken in a social context, it is ethical, I flatly deny its morality.

And here we have a paradox. Those who adhere to morals in a religious sense commonly claim that they do so because they adhere to objective, universal standards laid down by God. But we have free will, and disagree in the most broad sense as to what those standards actually are. And those who prefer ethics point to the good of Society, sometimes to the detriment of the individuals of which that society is comprised. But for all of the philosophers' claim that there is no distinction between the two concepts, they find that distinction in record time when someone speaks of "imposing morality". They note immediately that an imposed morality looks a lot like tyranny, but they rarely if ever say the same of ethics, which is exactly that, by their definition fairly applied. The two are confusing, yes, but they are nevertheless distinct.


The bottom line is, that even in extreme cases of murder, we can't completely agree on what is moral, much less what is ethical. Societies and individuals alike argue incessantly over whether there can be a "just war"; whether it is permissible to use deadly force for self-defense, and whether abortion is moral/ethical. I have certainly heard Democrats and Republicans each vehemently proclaim the character deficiencies of the other side. A moral argument is necessarily a matter of "preaching to the choir". But you have to remember there's more than one choir.

I am neither Republican nor Democrat. There should be little wonder why I find it unconvincing to impose an onus to vote for a limited choice of candidates based on a moral or ethical argument. It's the obvious imposition of a false dichotomy. Who is going to make this argument stick? Who is going to look me in the eye and earnestly convince me that I must choose between Fascism and Socialism; that I should take even one step toward Hitler or Stalin? I say I can oppose both.

This isn't what I call "choice"

With all due respect to Edmund Burke, allowing two enemies to fight each other while you wait it out is not the same as doing nothing. Turning away from that false dichotomy to directly face the People and say that ideas can be considered on their own merit without the baggage of team politics is not doing nothing.

Don't misconstrue this to mean that I think Trump and Sanders are Hitler and Stalin. I personally find it quite easy to disagree with someone without concluding that they are "evil" in a moral sense. In my last post I used Trump merely as an example of someone who was gaming the system. Here, I'm using extreme examples to eliminate ambiguity and make the point clear.


So let's look one last time at your conclusion:
To not try and stop Donald Trump's becoming president reminds me of Edmund Burke's observation that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
You seem to conclude that because you don't like one candidate, then I, who don't agree with either candidate, should vote for your candidate anyway because your candidate opposes one we both don't like. This, though the identical argument is made by the other side.

No sale.

In a free society, it is neither moral nor ethical to force a person to choose between what they see as two evils.

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