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%...?