How Should I Vote?
Yesterday’s elections in the UK raised again an old question, which receives surprisingly little public discussion. Should I vote on the basis of my own self-interest (or the interest of my family), or should I vote on moral, or ‘other-regarding’, considerations?On some ethical theories, there isn’t really a problem. If we take the ‘should’ here as a moral one, according to ethical egoists I’m morally required anyway to do what is best for myself, so there’s never a conflict between morality and my own good. An Aristotelian virtue ethicist might argue that my own self-interest consists in my being morally virtuous, so again there’s no conflict. And some consequentialists will claim that, though there could in theory be a gap between self-interest and morality here, in practice there isn’t: because each person knows their own interests best, they should vote on the basis of those, and that will – through the invisible hand – produce the morally best outcome.
But many people, including many philosophers, do think there’s a gap. Party A is going to make me worse off financially: it will increase income- and purchase-tax. But it has committed itself to spending a good deal of that money in some of the most deprived communities, as well as making serious improvements to power stations to cut carbon emissions. No other party has such worthwhile aims.
Well, if the ‘should’ is a moral should, the answer is still clear. Morally, I should vote for party A. But of course that doesn’t really answer the question at all, since if we take the ‘should’ to mean ‘should, from the self-interested point of view’, then I should vote for some other party.
One view many people find natural is that the ‘should’ in the original question is, as Bernard Williams put it, ‘unsubscripted’. So it’s neither moral nor self-interested: it’s just ‘should’. Surprisingly few philosophers have developed this natural view, though there are notable exceptions (Bishop Butler, Henry Sidgwick, and more recently Derek Parfit, for example). What one has to do is to weigh moral considerations against self-interested ones (if there is a conflict), and see where the balance comes down. Let’s imagine I’m pretty well off, the communities to be helped by party A are very badly off, and the predicted tax increases aren’t huge. Then I should vote for party A. But if the tax increases are huge, and the plans to benefit the worst off communities seem rather half-baked, then perhaps I have strongest reason to vote for party B.
The main political parties in the UK, and indeed Europe as a whole, for obvious reasons, put far too much weight on how they will advance the self-interest of their voters. But morally speaking they are not equal. Some parties show greater concern than others for the poor, the stateless, non-human animals, future generations, and other morally important groups. And most voters, I suggest, do not have self-interested reasons of sufficient weight not to vote for them. But of course voting is plausibly seen not as purely expressive, but as an attempt to shape the future, and this raises the question whether or not to vote tactically. And here as well moral and self-interested considerations will both have to be placed in the balance.