Friday, September 2, 2011

Author Interview: GU philosophy professor Jason Brennan on 'The Ethics of Voting'

“Every day you see the same message: ‘get out the vote, get out the vote, get out the vote,’” says philosophy professor Jason Brennan.

Jason Brennan
“What if all the sentiments underlying that were just wrong?” he asks. What if they “could be shown to be wrong pretty easily?”

According to Brennan, his new book, The Ethics of Voting, in fact shows those underlying sentiments to be wrong.

Brennan, an assistant professor of business and philosophy at Georgetown University, recently summarized his book at a Cato Institute forum. After his presentation, he spoke with me about what motivated him to write The Ethics of Voting, how the book has been received by academics, and his new research on private behavior and the common good.

Brennan has long been interested in the topic of the ethics of voting.

“Growing up,” he said, “I kept hearing, over and over again, the American civic religion [says] that voting is special, that political participation is special, that serving in the military makes you an especially good person.”

These claims were not satisfying to Brennan, he explained.

“I never found myself gripped by that,” he said. “I always wondered: What were the grounds underlying that? Why did people believe it?”

He also discovered, he continued, that “at the same time, there’s a kind of interesting philosophical question about what you should do in situations where we as a group are doing something bad but that your individual input doesn’t make a difference. That happens a lot in politics.”

Those two different but related things brought him to this topic.

He had read some of the literature about voter behavior but George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan’s 2008 book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, provided extra stimulus to write his own book.

“After reading that, I asked myself, suppose he’s right that voters are irrational. What does that mean about what they should do?”

The answer is not simple, he said. One cannot simply say, “Well, if they’re rational they shouldn’t vote, because individual votes don’t make a difference.” Instead, “it’s actually a real philosophical puzzle as to why it would even matter at all [with regard to] what an individual does and why they should vote well or not.”

Caplan’s book, Brennan said, was “like the last straw” in how it “pushed me over the edge to have to write something more about the philosophy behind” the ethics of voting.

Brennan has received feedback from other academic philosophers, as well as from political scientists. Most of it has been positive.

The reaction he has had from philosophers, he said, “has been overwhelmingly very positive. Even if they disagree with the conclusions -- and many of them do -- what they’ve tended to like about it is that it takes on common sense. What it does is start with rather simple, plausible premises and leads to counterintuitive results. Philosophers tend to like that.”

Moreover, he added, “what a lot of philosophers have recognized, too, is that there are just a lot of unfounded assumptions about how politics works and what we should do. At the very least, I’m being a devil’s advocate in challenging” those assumptions, and that challenge makes philosophers “recognize that common sense [claims] about voting need to be justified, if they are justified” at all.

The reaction of political scientists, he said, “has largely been the same,” but faculty in political science departments who do political theory, “which is sort of philosophy but done in political science,” have a tendency “to be more skeptical because they tend to have a much more strongly emotional attachment to democracy than philosophers do.”

Brennan is now conducting new research on how private behavior contributes to the public good, something “that ended up being a major premise even in this book.”

He explained that “we can express civic virtue anywhere: by running a good business that helps people [and] makes them richer, by coming up with inventions, by making art, and so on.”

All these things, he said, help “promote the common good. They’re doing as much good as politics is doing, perhaps even more.”

The practical effect of this for individuals is that, “if you’re a person who is publicly spirited and you want to promote the common good, that doesn’t mean you have to get out of the market and go to the forum,” Brennan explained. “It might instead mean you should stay in the market and work there.”

Giving two prominent examples, Professor Brennan pointed out that “Thomas Edison did a lot more for us with his inventions than he ever would have done as a voter. Michelangelo did a lot more with his art than he ever would have done as a voter.”

He concluded by noting that “private civil society is really important for promoting the common good. If civic virtue is about promoting the common good, then private civil society might be the way to do it.”

Brennan wrote The Ethics of Voting while he taught at Brown University; it was published in April by Princeton University Press.

(An earlier version of this interview appeared on on July 31, 2011.)
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