Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Professors on the Morality of Voting

Professors appear to think that voting regularly in public elections is about as morally good as donating 10% of one's income to charity. This seems, anyway, to be suggested by the results of a survey Josh Rust and I sent earlier this year to hundreds of U.S. professors, ethicists and non-ethicists, both inside and outside of philosophy. (The survey is also described in a couple of previous posts.)

In one part of the survey, we asked professors to rate various actions on a nine point scale from "very morally bad" through "morally neutral" to "very morally good". Although some actions we expected to be rated negatively (e.g., "not consistently responding to student emails"), there were three we expected to be rated positively by most respondents: "regularly voting in public elections", "regularly donating blood", and "donating 10% of one's income to charity". Later in the survey, we asked related questions about the professors' own behavior, allowing us to compare expressed normative attitudes with self-described behavior. (In some cases we also have direct measures of behavior to compare with the self-reports.)

Looking at the data today, I found it striking how strongly the respondents seemed to feel about voting. Overall, 87.9% of the professors characterized voting in public elections as morally good. Only 12.0% said voting was morally neutral, and a lonely single professor (1 of the 569 respondents or 0.2%) characterized it as morally bad. That's a pretty strong consensus. Political philosophers were no more cynical about voting than the others, with 84.5% responding on the positive side of the scale (a difference well within the range of statistical chance variation). But I was struck, even more than by the percentage who responded on the morally good side of our scale, by the high value they seemed to put on voting. To appreciate this, we need to compare the voting question with the two other questions I mentioned.

On our 1 to 9 scale (with 5 "morally neutral" and 9 "very morally good"), the mean rating of "regularly donating blood" was 6.81, and the mean rating of "donating 10% of one's income to charity" was 7.36. "Regularly voting in public elections" came in just a smidgen above the second of those, at 7.37 (the difference being within statistical chance, of course).

I think we can assume that most people think it's fairly praiseworthy to donate 10% of one's income to charity (for the average professor, this would be about $8,000). Professors seem to be saying that voting is just about equally good. Someone who regularly donates blood can probably count at least one saved life to her credit; voting seems to be rated considerably better than that. (Of course, donating 10% of one's income to charity as a regular matter probably entails saving even more lives, if one gives to life-saving type charities, so it makes a kind of utilitarian sense to rate the money donation as better than the blood donation.)

Another measure of the importance professors seem to invest in voting is the rate at which they report doing it. Among professors who described themselves as U.S. citizens eligible to vote, fully 97.8% said they had voted in the Nov. 2008, U.S. Presidential election. (Whether this claim of near-perfect participation is true remains to be seen. We hope to get some data on this shortly.)

Now is it just crazy to say that voting is as morally good as giving 10% of one's income to charity? That was my first reaction. Giving that much to charity seems uncommon to me and highly admirable, while voting... yeah, it's good to do, of course, but not that good. One thought, however -- adapted from Derek Parfit -- gives me pause about that easy assessment. In the U.S. 2008 Presidential election, I'd have said the world would be in the ballpark of $10 trillion better off with one of the candidates than the other. (Just consider the financial and human costs at stake in the Iraq war and the U.S. bank bailouts, for starters.) Although my vote, being only one of about 100,000,000 cast, probably had only about a 1/100,000,000 chance of tilting the election, multiplying that tiny probability by a round trillion leaves a $10,000 expected public benefit from my voting -- not so far from 10% of my salary.

Of course, that calculation is incredibly problematic in any number of ways. I don't stand behind it, but it helps loosen the grip of my previous intuition that of course it's morally better to donate 10% to charity than to vote.

Update July 29:
As Neil points out in the comments, in this post I seem to have abandoned my usual caution in inferring attitudes from expressions of attitudes. Right: Maybe professors don't think this at all. But I found it a striking result, taken at face value. If it's not to be taken at face value, we might ask: Why would so many professors, who really think donating 10% of income is morally better than voting, mark a bubble more toward the "very morally good" end of the scale in response to the voting question than in response to the donation question? Moral self-defensiveness, perhaps, on the assumption (borne out elsewhere in the data) that few of them themselves donate 10%...?


Neil said...

Do professors think that voting is as good as giving 10% of one's income to charity? I think your doubts about self-report and introspection more generally should lead you to be a little sceptical. How do I know what I think about X? One way is for me to see what I am disposed to say about X, but I should also see how I rank X relative to other goods. That is, how I explicitly rank such goods. All you have is one piece of data, that permits you to infer only that professors have a prima facie commitment to putting about the same value on two activities. To find out what their genuine commitments are, you need to more data. You also need to settle how to weigh prima facie commitments vs reflective commitments.

jeff.maynes said...

Perhaps it relates to the amount of effort required? Given how little sacrifice is involved in voting, one could plausibly suggest a stronger duty to vote than to donate that much to charity. Though this was not the question, ranking actions in terms of their "morally goodness" is fairly wide-open in terms of how to interpret it. Perhaps, then, thoughts on duty (or cost/benefit analysis) drive the results? Were there other questions in the survey which were highly rated (on the goodness scale by respondents) but with a low cost?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Neil, thanks for that comment. I agree with you completely! Perhaps I should have put a different spin on the result; but I did find it striking.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Jeff. I had been thinking that the little cost involved makes it less good to vote than to donate. Are you thinking that I can spin it the other direction: It's easier so there's a greater duty, so it's more "morally good" to do it? Hm.... It's easy to stop at red lights, but does that ease make it morally better to do so than if it were hard? I'm not inclined to think so, but maybe the case isn't analogous.

I agree "morally bad/good" is open to a variety of interpretations. But all other terms were equally problematic, we thought, so we went with what we took to be thinnest.

Unfortunately, feeling that professors likely had minimal patience for long, time consuming surveys, we capped the survey at 25-28 questions, so there are no other normative questions tilted toward the good apart from the ones I mentioned and one other (paying dues to one's main disciplinary academic society) which we thought would be neutral to good.

jeff.maynes said...

I think I have competing thoughts about the case - one regarding the moral praiseworthiness of the action and one regarding the duty to undertake the action. An increased sacrifice to do something good tends to increase the praiseworthiness, while the lower the sacrifice for a good act increases the duty.

I have no real grounds for speculating that respondents took the question in a somewhat ambiguous way, reading it differently for the different cases, it was just my own intuitive reaction. It might instead be that the importance of voting is highly salient in the wake of the Bush elections (the old standby, if one rampant speculation is unfounded, replace it with another!). Your findings raise a very interesting question!

Max Marty said...

Hi Eric, I don't know if you'd find this helpful but here is a calculation I saw on slate as to the probability of a particular individual vote affecting an election.

This is from the article
"Don't vote, play the lottery instead"

"If Kerry (or Bush) has just a slight edge, so that each of your fellow voters has a 51 percent likelihood of voting for him, then your chance of casting the tiebreaker is about one in 10 to the 1,046th power—approximately the same chance you have of winning the Powerball jackpot 128 times in a row.

For those of us who live in New York State, the situation is far worse. Last time around, about 6.5 million votes were cast for major party candidates in New York state and 63 percent of them went to Al Gore. Assuming an electorate of similar size with a similar bias, my chance of casting the deciding vote in New York is about one in 10 to the 200,708th power. I have a better chance of winning the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row than of affecting the election's outcome. Which makes it pretty hard to see why I should vote."
- Steven Lansburg on Slate,

Max Marty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Max! I don't buy it, though. I tell you what. Next election, I'll offer you a bet that pays you one cent if the Democrat wins New York and me $100,000,000 if the Republican wins. Assuming you could pay, would you take it?

Max Marty said...

I love bets! I don't think we'd be betting on whether or not one of the two candidates wins the state though, however I would be happy to make the following bet, consider it a counteroffer:

If I vote in the state on New York, and my vote actually doesn't change the outcome, you owe me a penny.
If my one single vote DOES change the outcome, I'll pay you $10,000,000,000,000,000 (I think thats quadrillion). You can collect it from all my future children too, I give you permission :D

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You're on, Max! ;)

Think of how close Franken was in Minnesota 2008 and Bush in Florida 2000. Not *one* vote exactly, but plenty close enough to think that there's better than a one in a trillon chance that there could be a one vote difference in an election (including even NY), on some official "final recount". And if there is a one vote difference and my candidate wins, then my vote was deciding, right (along with everyone else's)?

Max Marty said...

Florida was certainly darn close, but even in the 2000 race, I think its debatable whether it was "The Florida voters" or "The Florida supreme court" that decided the outcome. Add to that the fact that the guys staring at the "hanging chads" could make a mistake Especially if it came "that" close, they're bound to have made at least one mistake.

Also I'm no statistician, but I think in this example even a few hundred votes difference is very far from a 1 vote difference.

I'm still confident that the chance of all of these statistically, politically, and legally unlikely scenarios coming to pass to create a situation where that 1 vote actually made any sort of difference is a vanishingly small chance.

I want my penny Eric! I'll collect on one of our deathbeds, whichever comes first ;)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Max, I'll pay the penny when you establish a credible readiness to pay the trillion if the chance were to transpire! ;)

All the factors you mention introduce *noise* but they don't change the fact that there must be some official "final count", where the difference may be 1 or 0. If the courts or counters (say) are biased, that only affects the decision about which count to call final and inaccuracies in the count. It only moves the statistical lump under the rug; it doesn't erase it.