Obligatory election-day post on the rationality of voting

[Content note: Again, the title pretty much says it all.  Minor discussion of religion-inspired ethics.]

There are a number of rhetorical situations where I see recurring patterns of what feels like obviously fallacious reasoning and have learned that trying to convince someone who doesn’t instinctively sense that same pattern will lead only to frustration on the part of both parties.  But in many cases, I have discovered through the rationalist community a group of people who all seem to acknowledge the same underlying issues, even if there’s plenty of healthy disagreement on exactly where and to what extent those fallacies are being committed and as to what antidote should be applied.  Some of these things I’ve even tried writing about in my own words, such as the mistake of confusing causal agency with moral responsibility in multivariate situations or the subconscious tendency to not acknowledge inconvenient hypotheses.  I can’t exactly take a poll of how everyone reacts to these rationalist topics that I bring up, but it certainly appears that most people who are interested in rationality and have the patience to engage in discussions of them are in rough agreement despite perhaps disagreeing with how I describe or apply things.  It hasn’t proven controversial to claim things like “There’s a fundamental problem with how people assign moral blame in situations where more than one party created a disaster” or “One shouldn’t shun inconvenient thoughts before they have a chance to fully form” or even more philosophically contentious positions like “By debating the degree of ‘free-ness’ of certain actions rather than what our reaction to them should be, we are asking the wrong question.”

I have recently discovered that such is not the case when it comes to my rationality-motivated objections to how many people think of voting.

A few months ago, I brought up my contention that people often seem to abandon consequential utilitarianism when it comes time to vote on a Slate Star Codex open thread.  I posted the following comment:

I’d like to put in a request for a post (preferably sometime between now and the election) on the motives behind abandoning consequentialist utilitarianism when it comes to voting. It seems like most people accept consequentialist utilitarianism as a matter of course for most choices, but then treat voting almost as a mode of self-expression.

In case it’s not clear, I was alluding here to my long-time frustration with those who say they’ll vote only for candidates they positively like, rather than for candidates who are able to win or the lesser of two evils, etc.

At the time, I was assuming that everyone would basically agree with me but point me towards a good explanation or at least a better way of phrasing the problem.  To my surprise, I found that my assumptions were completely mistaken regarding the general rationalist community sentiment when it comes to voting, or even when it comes to consequentialist utilitarianism.  As one commenter said,

If you think that people are “abandoning consequentialist utilitarianism when it comes to voting”, then that doesn’t just mean you’re completely confident you’re right about the consequentialist utilitarian consequences of voting, it also means you think that reasoning is so obvious that you expect everyone else to think the same way. This is absurd. Even in this thread there is a broad range of opinions on this matter.

I learned a lot from the responses I got to the above-linked comment, and other online discussions on optimal voting strategies that I’ve witnessed since have further opened my eyes to the variety of viewpoints rationalists hold on this general topic.

A lot of the crux of our differences can seemingly be traced back to different takes on variants of Newcomb’s problem.  I decided after the aforementioned discussion on Slate Star Codex that I would research Newcomb-like problems and try to further cement some sort of opinion on it along with solid justification, in time to write an incisive, well-argued, polished blog post on the rationality of voting in time for the presidential election.  However, I failed to do my homework here and have not made much progress on understanding the different points of view on these topics.  Therefore, once again I don’t quite have the incisive, well-argued, polished blog post that I wanted and have decided instead to make do with an attempt to succinctly write down my current thoughts maybe from a more personal angle.  Maybe this is for the best, because sometimes I suspect that indefinitely delays in an effort to do the ideal amount of research and thinking will lead to me writing something that still falls short of feeling ideally incisive, well-argued, and polished, while I often wind up happier with my more personal, thoughts-in-progress writing anyway.

So here are the main issues which seem to play into the question of what it means to vote rationally, along with my and other people’s thoughts on them.

I. The assumption of utilitarianism

I’ve embraced utilitarianism as the only reasonable source of ethics since I was old enough to ask myself what my source of ethics was (which I guess was around high school or so).  I realized pretty quickly on discovering the rationalist community that utilitarianism, specifically consequentialist utilitarianism, seems to be the dominant belief within it.  Results from surveys such as this one seem to bolster this impression, but note that this survey shows 60% of the participants as being consequentialists, which leaves a lot of room for other views to be influential.

In the aforementioned comment thread alone, there was plenty of argument against my assumed consequentialism, which if nothing else convinced me that there are many more people with a commitment to rational thinking who don’t find it obvious than I had imagined.  Unfortunately I don’t quite understand most of these people’s points as arguments for a different, coherently-stated system of ethics.  It seems that many want to point out that humans do not in reality make most of their decisions according to consequentialism.  Most decisions, they claim, are impulsive and depend mainly on what “feels better” at the spur of the moment.  Maybe the reason why a lot of people vote is simply that it gives them a vague feeling of power in having a voice in their democracy.  In other words, they believe in the advice of journalist Bob Schieffer’s late mother.


My first reaction to this is that here, by claiming that consequentialism isn’t valid because it’s not how people actually make decisions, these commenters seem to be advocating a purely descriptive definition of morality.  For me, the obvious problem with this is that it ultimately leads to confusion between moral behavior and the way people actually behave on average.  Here I’ll leave it to the reader to insert whichever go-to example they prefer of crimes against humanity committed at a particular place during a particular time period in order to show that this notion is absurd.

But maybe nobody is claiming that common human decision-making behavior actually determines which ethical framework is valid.  Maybe their point is that the tendency of folks to act according to (non-utilitarianism-based) impulse in most aspects of their lives shows that they way they think about voting doesn’t contradict their ethical worldviews in the way I brought up in the open thread comment.  After all, if humans don’t in fact generally rely on consequentialism to make their decisions, then there’s no apparent contradiction when they say they’ll vote in whichever way makes them feel better or for whichever candidate better reflects their values.

To respond to this, I have to go back to the ultimate reason why I identify as a utilitarian, which I’ll do my best to explain briefly even though I can’t give an ironclad argument in its favor.  (Although, one shouldn’t expect a complete “proof” of any ethical system, since concepts of “rightness” and “wrongness” can’t be introduced without some axioms.)

The best personal explanation I can come up with is that utilitarianism seems like the only system for deriving ethical statements that has a completely coherent and self-contained definition, modulo the somewhat open-ended concept of “well-being”, or utility.  Therefore, when we humans consciously justify our decisions, we tend to imply in our explanations that we made the choice which led to a net increase in utility.  When we argue about whether our decisions were right or wrong, it boils down to conflicting opinions about which outcomes actually increase/decrease utility, even as the assumption that we all want to maximize utility is taken for granted.  So even impulsive decisions like choosing to stay in bed an extra twenty minutes after one was supposed to get up are either not justified at all (“I shouldn’t have stayed in bed late, but my tiredness just sort of took over”) or justified as having increased utility (“I stayed in bed late because it felt better for me, and it was worth it because of X, Y, and Z”).  I’m not saying that such decisions are made in the first place according to utilitarianism.  I’m saying that if they are consciously justified afterwards, they will be implicitly justified as actions which were likely to result in the greatest net change in well-being.  In my opinion, this is because such justifications form the only chains of reasoning which remain completely meaningful.

Yes, some people very deliberately take a non-utilitarian stance.  For instance, many believe in a god or gods as the source of all morality, and hold that “God forbids it” is reason enough not to do a particular thing.  But when pressed on exactly why God would forbid that particular thing, either the chain of reasoning must stop at “He/She/They has mysterious ways” or some sort of argument which appeals to something apart from the divine (“God says that stealing is wrong!  Why does He forbid it?  Well, how would you like to be robbed of things which you worked hard to get?  [etc.]”).

So yeah, I do think that most people, when they are calmly thinking over their own choices and not in the midst of acting impulsively, instinctively rationalize what they do in utilitarian terms.  They choose not to steal because it would do harm to the person stolen from, as well as contribute to societal instability where private ownership is concerned.  They choose to recycle because it’s better for the planet which in turn benefits every living thing on it in the long run.  They might even prefer a certain political candidate because their policies would be better for the economy and therefore increase the well-being of people within their constituency.  So my initial concern still stands: why do so many seem to back away from this sort of rationalization when considering their voting behavior?

(I’m happy to admit by the way that I see certain limitations in utilitarian reasoning, especially when it comes to issues involving creation or suppression of life.  Therefore, I don’t believe that this system of ethics provides good answers to questions relating to, for instance, abortion, or population control.  I’m not sure whether that means that I’m not fully a utilitarian, or whether one could derive some enhanced set of utilitarian axioms which would solve these problems.)

II. The assumption of one-boxer-ism

A lot of the rationalists I’ve been hearing from do seem to be on the same page as I am with regard to consequentialist utilitarianism, but still disagree with me on the purpose of voting.  They say that if the only reason for voting were to directly influence a current election, then there wouldn’t be much reason to vote from a utilitarian standpoint, since your one vote has an astronomically low chance of single-handedly swinging an election.  “All right,” one may ask them, “so why do you think so many people do take the trouble to vote, and do you feel that they are being reasonable in doing so?”  One plausible answer to this may be that voting still serves a practical purpose apart from directly determining elections as elections serve the function of polling the desires of the people.  If you vote for the candidate whose values you truly agree with, even if they are not one of the main candidates, that helps to send a message to the community of politicians which will surely do some good in the long run.

While I agree that voting does serve this purpose, and it might even be my main consideration if for instance I lived in a solidly non-swing state of the US, I still hold that a lot of the time it is trumped by the purpose of directly swinging current elections for the reason which I articulated in the afore-linked comment thread:

[P]eople mostly seem to understand the whole Prisoner’s Dilemma idea that if you decide to do something for a reason, then you should assume that many other people are making that same decision for that same reason, and that en masse voting is extremely effective.

In other words, I strongly believe, or at least some instinct inside of me compels me to strongly feel, that I should act in such a way that the best outcome might be brought about if all other like-minded people also act in that way.

It turns out that attempting to justify this strange conviction that one should act as one would like all like-minded people to act is tricky and runs into potential paradoxes.  This conundrum is encapsulated in Newcomb’s Paradox (of which the famed Prisoner’s Dilemma is a variant).  Like I said above, I haven’t gotten around to researching any of the volumes of argument on both sides of this problem.  I have read Eliezer Yudkowsky’s introduction, and someday I hope to take a look at his lengthy paper on it.  I would worry that only having read Yudkowsky’s analysis might have biased me towards his one-boxer position, except that it’s sort of clear that deep down inside I’ve been a one-boxer all along.  This is because the one-boxer position is the one corresponding to the “cooperate” choice in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, or the “vote so that like-minded people also voting that way would achieve the best outcome” choice in our Voter’s Dilemma.  And even though on close inspection it seems very non-trivial to justify, I see now that my whole life I not only felt convinced of it down to my bones but had been assuming that all reasonable people believed felt the same way.  In other words, it never occurred to me that anyone would argue against the notion that voting is good on the individual level because there are positive consequences when large groups of people vote a certain way, just as littering is bad on the individual level because there are negative consequences when large groups of people litter.

Currently the topic of Newcomb-like problems occupies roughly the same position for me personally as the topic of free will did about 8 or 10 years ago: it’s a problem for which I feel some strong intuition but haven’t yet managed to wrap my mind around all the implications or formulate a clear position and which I firmly believe has highly relevant real-life implications.  Applications to how to vote rationally are an obvious example of them.  See, for instance, this article which more or less argues a more sophisticated version of my position.

But yeah, I feel this way on a instinctual level, so deeply that I’ve been willing to put in significant time and effort in figuring out how to vote from abroad and why my faxed-in ballot apparently wasn’t legible on the first take and so on… all out of this weird faith that my willingness will somehow “make” other people currently in my situation find the same willpower.

But intelligent people don’t all think the same way in Newcomb-like situations.  This fact helps to explain a lot of attitudes about voting which appear irrational to me, and thus does give a partial answer to my original query.  Of course it does not help me to truly understand how such attitudes aren’t still, well, irrational.  Understanding that may require me to change my strongly-felt-but-vague positions on things like Newcomb’s paradox.  I don’t know whether this is an impossible feat or whether a clever enough argument (along with my becoming a clever enough person) would be enough to accomplish it.

III. “Immoral” voting

There is another small aspect of the “vote only for candidates you actually like” attitude where I think I can offer a little more insight.  I have noticed that some people go beyond just saying they don’t want to vote for any candidate that doesn’t meet their moral standards; they claim in fact that it’s downright wrong to vote for someone you don’t genuinely like.  I’ve heard language like “going against my morals” used to describe holding one’s nose and casting a ballot for the lesser of two evils, sometimes by those who choose to do it anyway.

I first want to be a little on the pedantic side and fault those who think that lesser-of-two-evils voting is immoral but wind up doing it anyway for being inconsistent.  Technically, I don’t see actions as being absolutely ethical or unethical in and of themselves; it is choices of certain actions over other actions or inaction that can be labeled as “right” or “wrong”.  If something is immoral, then that means that one shouldn’t make the choice to do it, period.  Or, to state the contrapositive: if one chooses to do X, then that means that X is more moral than other available actions or inaction, and therefore one’s choice was moral.  And although this criticism doesn’t directly apply to those who believe that voting for the lesser of two evils is immoral and then don’t do it, I think it still underscores some of the fuzzy thinking behind a lot of the sentiment against lesser-of-two-evils voting.

Secondly, in trying to put myself in the mind of someone who thinks of voting for a detestable candidate in order to oppose someone even worse is “going against their morals”, it occurred to me that there’s some sneaky variant of the “causal agency implies blameworthiness” (related to “is-versus-ought”) fallacy going on here which I made a point of in my post on “multivariate utilitarianism” (you have to scroll all the way down to subsection III(D), sorry).  It’s tempting to feel that if you voted for a bad presidential candidate, then you share some portion (however tiny) of the blame for them winning.  After all, you made a free choice which contributed to an unpleasant result which would not have occurred if you and other like-minded people hadn’t made that choice.  But that’s ignoring the fact that a decision between two undesirable options was foisted on you by circumstances, circumstances which were caused by other parties.  And so the brunt of the blame shouldn’t necessarily fall on you.  In fact — and this is one key difference between this situation and the ones I discussed in the post linked to above — you had no better options, so really none of the blame should fall on you.  Still I suspect that the idea that it’s inherently immoral merely to vote for an unattractive candidate has some of the same misconceptions underpinning it as the whole “causal agency implies blameworthiness” thing has.

IV. My endorsement on how to vote in 2016 (and in general)

It’s finally time to stop beating around the bush.  I chose the words of this section heading carefully: I want to describe how I think one should vote in elections in general (at least in countries like America which have a strong two-party system), not whom to vote for.

Here at Hawks and Handsaws, we are firmly against imposing our own personal political convictions on readers.  Therefore, I will illustrate an example application through a purely hypothetical situation.  Let’s say that we have a presidential election in which one candidate, whom we will denote by H, is a shrewd and very able politician mired in a corrupt political establishment who has a lot of potential skeletons in their closet and who is somewhat hawkish and not especially idealistic, in contrast to another politician we will call B who was their main opposition in their party’s primary election.  Let’s say that the opposing candidate in the general election is someone whom we will call D, who has never been a politician and generally proves themself to be a complete buffoon by repeating mostly-nonsensical platitudes with almost no actual substance behind them which yield not the slightest evidence that they understand anything about the challenges faced by their countrymen, who might be more hawkish than their opponent but you can’t really tell because their platform seems to be all over the place, and who on top of that has risen to popularity within a certain subset of the electorate by repeatedly producing outlandish bluster seemingly calculated to fan the flames of anger and bigotry.  Let’s say that you dislike both candidates H and D, but have to admit that D would be a considerably worse president than H would, although you would have strongly preferred B.  Then I recommend the following:

  1. Rewind back to the primary election that took place in your state between H and B.  You should vote for B in that primary if and only if they seem like the best choice after taking several things into consideration, including B’s likelihood of beating whomever the opposing party nominates, as well as B’s probably effectiveness at president.  You should not base your choice purely on the fact that B seems like a better person with better values.
  2. In the general election, no matter how much you may hate H, as long as you’re convinced that D is substantially worse, you should vote for H unreservedly and with a clear conscience.  No voting for third-party candidates even if their values align with yours much better than H’s do.  And no avoiding the polls altogether.  As a general rule, whenever you perceive a significant difference in attractiveness of candidates in an election, from the one-boxer utilitarian standpoint, voting is always imperative.
    (Note: this general idea is often articulated as “remember, a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for D”, which is incorrect not only literally but also in the sense that really, a vote for third-party is equivalent to half a vote for D or to throwing away one’s vote altogether.  By symmetry, members of the pro-D camps will often claim that “a vote for third-party is a vote for H” when again it makes more sense to consider it as half a vote for H.  The fact that both can’t be true simultaneously is itself proof that neither should be taken quite at face value.  But obviously I agree with the underlying sentiment.  (Further note: of course I’m making the simplifying assumption in all of this that all we care about is directly affecting the current election; as I’ve acknowledged above, there are times when it makes good sense to vote third-party.))

The purpose of voting is not to serve as a form of self-expression, or of cheering for the team that you like.  It is not (in America, at least) even primarily a way to communicate to the political world what your ideal candidate or platform would be, except in certain circumstances where the overall result is a foregone conclusion.  The purpose of voting is to influence which individual out of a very small group of finalists will be elected to a position of significant power.  Yeah, I know that what I’m preaching is based on convictions which I haven’t been able to fully justify.  But even in the absence of solid argumentation, I’m still allowing myself to stand on my soapbox and proclaim how I feel about voting, on the eve of what looks to me like a pretty crucial election for America and for the world.

And with that, I leave you with a variation on the wisdom of Bob Schieffer’s mom: go vote; it’ll make you feel like a good one-boxer consequentialist.

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