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Uninformed? Don't vote, ethicist suggests

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigns at East Los Angeles College in Los Angeles, Thursday, May 5, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigns at East Los Angeles College in Los Angeles, Thursday, May 5, 2016.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

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As convention season comes to a close, voters across the country are now turning their attention to the general election; it's a time for voters to mull and consider how to cast their vote come November.

Watchers of the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia have likely noticed that there are plenty of Democrats who don't feel that Hillary Clinton is quite the right fit for them; there are plenty of Republicans who feel similarly about Donald Trump.

So what is a voter to do? Suck it up and vote for the candidates officially nominated this month? Vote for the other party's candidate in protest? Go third party? Or perhaps stay home come November 8th?

Take Two put that question to Jason Brennan, author of the book, "The Ethics of Voting." Brennan is also the Flanagan chair of economics, ethics and public policy at Georgetown University.  

Answers have been edited for clarity. 


I'm going to do the ethical thing here and admit I haven't yet read your book, but I did read about it and was rather shocked to hear that you argue that many people owe it to the rest of us not to vote. How so?

When you think about what it takes to be a good doctor or a good parent, what it takes is that you are well informed about what's at stake, and you process the information you have in a rational way. You expect your doctor to pay good attention to your symptoms; you don't expect them to — say — pour out a can of alphabet soup and give you whatever prescription happens to be spelled out by the letters. We call this a duty of care; we expect these people to behave in a rational and informed way. 

When we look at most voters, they don't behave that way. They have very low levels of knowledge. They don't process information in a rational way. Voting for them is like waving a flag or wearing a Metallica t-shirt, or wearing team colors — it's not about taking care. 

What do we do with this information? Because it seems to me that it wouldn't be very just equal or fair to say 'hey, you have to take this test, and if you're up to date on all these issues, then we'll let you vote.'

I think if you have power, but you admit that you don't know what you're doing with your power, the civically virtuous thing that you could do would be to not exercise that power. Or, alternatively, you could become informed, but that takes a major investment. 

Despite taking an elitist view about voter knowledge, I also have a populist view about civic virtue. The average person does a lot for their country, but they don't necessarily do it through voting. They do it through other means. 

Many Americans feel as if the candidates who have been nominated don't truly reflect their ideals. And so they say 'I'm not going to vote at all,' or 'I'll vote for the opposing party's candidate.' What should people be thinking about if they are considering that stance? 

There's this question about — if you are going to vote —  are you supposed to vote in a pure way for your sincere preferences, and I guess I don't really see there being a compelling argument against what economists call strategic voting: you vote  not for what you really want but for the lesser of two evils, or something you think will produce better outcomes even though it's not what you really want. 

A lot of Sanders supporters, they want to show their purity, but really as a block, there's a question about what influence they might have. It's possible that if they collectively abstain from voting then in the future the Democrats might be a little more left-wing than they otherwise would be, but it's also possible the Democrats would just write them off. Trying to produce better outcomes, even if they're not the outcomes that you really want, seems like a good thing. 

As one of my colleagues put, suppose you can't get the best doctor for your kid, you still want to get the best doctor that you can, even if you can't get the best doctor period. It still seems like the responsible thing to do is pick the best doctor that you can get, rather than not give your kid any medical treatment at all or let them get treated by an even worse doctor. 

Press the blue play button above to hear the full conversation. 

(Note: The title of this story has been updated to more accurately reflect the interview.)