Voting Your Conscience?


In my last post, I talked about politics and epistemic confidence. My conclusion was basically that when it comes to political issues, high epistemic confidence is not warranted. That creates a problem. How are we supposed to handle the responsibility of voting if we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) have much confidence in our political opinions? Often we are told to vote our consciences. This seems wrong to me and I want to explain why.

When most people hear the word conscience, they think of morality. Following your conscience is the same as doing what you think is right. If someone walking ahead of you drops some money, you may want to keep it, but your conscience tells you that the right thing to do is to return it to its owner.  When looking at things from this point of view, almost everyone votes their conscience.  People who vote for Clinton think that is the right thing to do, so they will be voting their conscience.  People who vote for Trump think that is the right thing to do, so they will be voting their conscience.  And people who vote for Stein, Johnson or anybody else think that is the right thing to do, so they will also be voting their conscience.  So, telling people to vote their conscience isn’t really telling them much of anything because so few people fail to vote their conscience.

Rather than voting our consciences, we should try to vote conscientiously.  Now, conscience and conscientiousness are obviously related, but they are not the same.  Everyone who votes and is not coerced votes their conscience, because following your conscience is doing what you think is right.  Being conscientious, though, is not doing what you think is right.  It is wanting to do what is right or trying to do something the right way.  That turns out to be a major difference.

It’s normal for people to believe their beliefs.  And that means believing that their beliefs are right.  There are many problems with this trust, though.  First, equally smart people disagree with each other.  Why should we trust our own beliefs rather than those of others?  I know why we do trust our own beliefs rather than those of others, but I can’t see any reason why we should.  Second, as discussed in my last post, most people are not in a position to accurately judge most political issues.  Even minor issues are incredibly complicated.  Of course I want the broken sidewalk in my neighborhood fixed.  And it should be fixed.  But, I don’t know what other construction projects need attention, so I can’t possibly prioritize them.  I don’t know the details of the labor contracts to even begin to guess the cost of repair.  Then, there’s the fact that I don’t know what part of the remaining budget is already earmarked.  I’ll grant, I could do a bunch of research and get answers to those questions, but almost no one does.  Also, the bigger the issue, the harder the research becomes.  Many issues around security cannot be known by people without clearance.

So, it may not be a comfortable feeling, but we are not good judges when it comes to the specific issues.  While it is tempting to say that the conscientious choice is the candidate on the right side of the most issues, we’re not equipped to judge the rightness of most issues.  How are we to judge which candidate is on the right side of those issues?  Perhaps we could gives the issues weights. Then, we could choose the candidate that is on the right side of the most important issues. This is tempting, but, again, since we are lousy judges of the issues, how can we possibly weigh them appropriately? If there are two candidates and one is better on climate change and the other is better on women’s rights, there’s no conscientious way for me to choose.

It seems that most people look for candidates who agree with them on most issues. This is problematic. It shares the pitfalls of trying to vote for the candidate that is on the right side of the issues. Who is to say if my pet issues are more important than yours?  It could be argued that this is OK, it’s just how democracy works.  I grant that it is how it works, but it does not appear to be a conscientious way to vote.   It has more in common with ethical egoism than altruism.  Even though selfishness is a virtue for Objectivists, it is not what we mean when we say we want to act conscientiously.

Getting back to the question, if we are lousy judges of the issues, how do we vote conscientiously?  Instead of worrying about what we cannot judge, we should look at the things we are good at judging.  In general, we are good at judging other people.  It’s not true of all people all of the time, but it is true for most people most of the time.  This needs some unpacking, though.  We judge people all the time about all kinds of things.  We judge them on their beauty, their intelligence, their skills, their humor, their work ethic, their loyalty, their coolness, their geekiness and a million other things.  In order to vote conscientiously, we need to judge the candidates, but not like we judge everyone else.  We need to judge them on the things that it takes to be a good elected official.

So, what does it take to be a good elected official? If you look at history, clearly things like honesty and openness are less important than things like intelligence and moderation (I’m using that in the philosophical sense, like having a consistent, even temperament.).  I’m quite sure that Jimmy Carter is a more open and honest person than FDR was.  But, I’m also quite sure that FDR was a much better president than Jimmy Carter.

The obvious analogy is to hiring.  This can easily be stretched too far, since politics and business are very different activities, but it can be a useful way to think about voting.  If you are looking to hire someone, you need to judge that candidate.  And, in most cases, you are hiring someone to do a job that you don’t know yourself.  If you are hiring a plumber, you are probably not a plumber.  How do you judge a potential plumber?  Definitely not by how friendly or attractive the candidate seems.  You should judge them on things like experience, reliability, success rate, etc.  Since you are not a plumber, you can’t just watch the candidate do some work and judge them.  You need to rely on testimonial evidence, both from the candidate and others who have experience with the candidate.  Then, you need to filter that evidence.  It doesn’t matter if the candidate is someone you’d like to hang out with.  It matters if the candidate will successfully fix your plumbing problem.  “She was fantastic.  I had a chronic drip, I’d tried four other plumbers and it kept coming back.  She fixed it and there hasn’t been a single drip since,” is an example of useful evidence.  “He was such a nice guy, he gave my kid a sticker,” is an example of something that is irrelevant.

Taking this back to voting, there is tons of testimonial evidence to filter in every election, but most of it is irrelevant.  We want the candidate that is smart enough for the job, has the right experience and the right temperament.  We shouldn’t care if the person is likeable or nice looking or kind.  We want the person who has been successful in other relevantly similar positions.  We shouldn’t care about the person’s family life.  We want the candidate that can weigh evidence, listen to advisors and make sound judgments.  We shouldn’t care if the person’s preconceived notions align with our own.  In fact, we’re better off if the person is open minded enough to make decisions that are against their own preconceived notions.  We don’t want to elect someone who already knows how to handle every situation that might come up.  In order to vote conscientiously, we need to forget most of what is given as evidence in an election and focus on finding the person best qualified for the job.

This doesn’t mean that there is no room for values and convictions in an election.  It means that if you want to vote conscientiously, personal opinions cannot be the starting point.  When you have filtered the choices down to the people who are smart enough, have the right temperament, etc., by all means, let your values dictate your choice.  If there are two candidates who are both smart enough and have both been successful in relevantly similar jobs, but one is pro choice and the other is anti choice, use that to break the tie and you will have voted conscientiously.  That’s why 2012 (and to lesser extent 2008) was such an interesting election.  Both Barak Obama and Mitt Romney were extremely well qualified candidates.  They are both smart, had a history of political success, have similar temperaments,  etc.  That election truly came down to values.  Which candidate’s vision best aligns with my own?  That is, sadly, a rare occurrence in American politics.

In 2016, there is only one conscientious choice for president, Hillary Clinton.  Trump, Stein and Johnson all lack the intelligence, experience and temperament (and pretty much every other potential qualification).  We need to stop making values and opinions the starting place for voting.  We’re not looking for a buddy, we are looking for someone to do a very important job.  We need to find someone who will be good at the job.  Of course you will vote your conscience.  I just ask that you choose conscientiously.

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