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The Ethics of Voting Paperback – April 29, 2012

2.4 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"The ethics of voting is undertheorized, and so any serious academic work on the matter is welcome. Brilliant works such as Brennan's most certainly are."
--Karl Lippert-Rasmussen, Perspectives on Politics.

"[Brennan's] relentless focus on the problem of 'wrongful voting' pays off. . . . [His] argument lodges a serious objection to research in political science and behavioral economics suggesting that even lazy voters can use shortcuts to vote well."--Josh Rothman, Boston Globe

"The real value of books such as this lies in their potential to raise the level of public debate. . . . Brennan's argument is detailed and searching, which means that it presents a challenge to anyone prepared to take it seriously."--Alan Haworth, Philosopher's Magazine

"Brennan advances the extraordinarily provocative argument that the sine qua non of civic virtue is not political participation (especially not voting) but the moral duty to promote the common good. . . . Students will appreciate Brennan's highly instructive exercise in argumentation. He constructs cogent justifications for his conceptual framework, outlines reasons for rejecting contrary views, and meets plausible objections to his own formulation."--Choice

"The Ethics of Voting . . . offers a set of provocative and tightly-argued claims. It also changes the way scholars across the social sciences and humanities might want to ask questions about voting. . . . Jason Brennan has written a short, accessible, and tight book that deserves a place on scholars bookshelves."--Art Carden, Public Choice

From the Back Cover

"Jason Brennan's surprising investigation of the ethics of voting grapples with some of the most entrenched dogmas in our political culture. . . . His conclusions will shake some readers up, and our thinking about democracy will be better for the debates that are sure to ensue."--David Estlund, Brown University

"This is a fascinating book about a very important topic. . . . The Ethics of Voting abounds in interesting claims and good arguments with often surprising conclusions. Beautifully clear and eminently readable, it will be noticed."--Geoffrey Brennan, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"Brennan's book is provocative in the best sense of the word--a fresh and challenging approach to important matters in political theory and political ethics."--Richard Dagger, University of Richmond


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; With a New afterword by the author edition (April 29, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691154449
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691154442
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #87,282 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Vipul on October 14, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I think this book is an excellent survey of the ethical questions surrounding whether people are obliged to vote, and if they do vote, how they should vote. Brennan cleanly separates the ethical question from the empirical question of whether people exercise their voting privileges in an ethical manner. His last chapter goes into the empirical question. Unfortunately, that chapter is too short, but it's probably good to leave that to the end so that disagreements with him on the empirics do not cloud people's evaluation of his normative thesis. For those who want to know more about the empirics of voter behavior, the references in the last chapter are worth reading, particularly The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (New Edition).
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Format: Kindle Edition
Brennan thinks outside of the box and questions something we were taught since grade school: that everyone has a civic duty to vote. (One of my teachers said we should vote even if we didn't have an opinion - it's part of the democratic process.) Brennan shows that how you vote affects other people, and voting in an uninformed fashion has great potential to harm people. Voting only takes a little bit of time, but becoming informed takes hours and hours. Most people don't have the time or motivation to do so. Many of those who take that time screen out beliefs that don't fit their preconceptions. Furthermore, there are other ways to contribute to civic ideals than voting if you are not inclined to be informed. Whether you agree or not, it's worth thinking about whether this firmly ingrained belief is supported by good philosophy, or another tooth fairy myth of childhood to let go of.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Almost all of the book can be boiled down to this: To be ethical, you should inform yourself before voting, and you should vote to promote the common good. If you don't know enough to vote in this way, you should abstain from voting. These simple propositions are examined from this angle and that, re-worded, illustrated by trivial examples, and so on for 160 pages. This is no doubt very interesting for a professional philosopher, but I'm not one, and the subtleties were lost on me.

I found very frustrating the author's underlying assumption that there is one good way of voting and that voters can discover it by informing themselves of their choices and especially the consequences of those choices. However, the world is very complicated, and there are legitimate disagreements as to the impacts of various policies. What does the ethical voter do in these cases? Further, what does the ethical voter do when the choice is between candidates, some of whose policies seem desirable and some undesirable? The author is silent on this.

I said that almost all of the book can be boiled down to this. The last chapter summarizes a number of empirical studies, trying to estimate just how well or ill-informed the typical voter is. I found this chapter to be very interesting. Unfortunately, it amounts to 17 pages out of a 180-page book. The reader looking for a more comprehensive treatment should go to any of a number of other books, e.g. Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter, which I recommend hands down over this book.

I rate it two stars for lay persons like me. If I were a professional philosopher, I would no doubt give it more.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
On page 104, Brennan tries to tease apart the connection between having a PhD and having high quality epistemic credentials of the kind that would make one a good voter. He writes that "Many Ph.D.s are silly ideologues. They accept various political views not because of evidence but because they want to fit in with their peers or maintain their self-image. They are mired in foolish idees fixes. The writings of many Ph.D.s are little more than pretentious, obscurantist twaddle."

He then proceeds: "Academics and other educated people often are caught up in intellectual fads. They accept doctrines because they are popular or seem intriguing, not because there is good evidence in support of them."

After elaborating on this thought, in a brief moment of rare humility, he admits: "Presumably this applies to me too. Perhaps I should not vote."

I bought this book expecting the quality of work Princeton University Press usually produces, and the endorsement on the back by David Estlund about his quality of argumentation was also impressive.

It turns out, though, that Brennan was right in his brief moment of humility. All of these negative qualities do apply to his own book. The more I read it, the more I started to feel like I was talking to a representative from the tobacco industry (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell), who was being faddish, claiming a thesis only because it sounds sexy, and using a style of pretentious writing to obscure a massive lack of substance. What makes it so pretentious is that he routinely cites empirical research to give his work a sense of rigor that it actually massively lacks. A vast amount of the argumentation is the result of silly intuitions.
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